Imagine you are interviewing two candidates for a job.
They are equally qualified for the job, have the same work experience, and were both compelling in their interviews.
But one went to Harvard, is proficient in three languages, and was dressed in the finest clothes.
The other went to a state school, had no language proficiency, and was dressed well enough but his clothing was not quality.
Even though neither language proficiency nor wardrobe matters for this job, who would you be more likely to choose for the role?
Last week, we talked about social capital – i.e. networking amongst similar groups of people, either of the same social status, across socioeconomic groups, or through shared characteristics.
Similarly, cultural capital can either help an individual succeed in society…or if you have none, it can sometimes stand in the way of success.
Let’s take a closer look at what cultural capital is and how it works.
Cultural capital is often defined as “the social assets of a person.”
It refers to the cultural knowledge, skills, and experiences that a person possesses, which can be exploited to gain social status and power.
Think one’s education, language proficiency or speech patterns, artistic or musical abilities, dress, mannerisms, knowledge of literature, history, and social norms.
All of these characteristics are part of a person’s cultural capital, and they can provide opportunities for some that wouldn’t be open to others.
History of the Concept
The concept of cultural capital was developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that cultural capital can be used to reproduce social inequality.
In his view, those who possess cultural capital are more likely to succeed in society because they are better equipped to navigate social situations and gain access to valuable resources such as education, jobs, and social connections.
In fact, Bordieu believed:
“cultural inheritance and personal biography attribute to individual success more than intelligence or talent.”
Cultural capital can be acquired through formal education or through exposure to various cultural experiences throughout one’s life…or it can be convincingly faked, as con artists like Anna “Delvey” Sorokin have demonstrated.
Sorokin famously conned her way into high society New York, stealing upwards of $200,000 from the friends she made and from banks.
She knew the value of cultural capital, and she played the part well by convincing her social circle of her style, tastes, and intellect.
Next week, we’ll talk more about how cultural and social capital work together in different cultures around the world.