November 14, 2014

Social and Cultural Capital at School

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you ever thought about how your social relationships at school (and elsewhere) might help you in the future?

Social capital, conceptualized by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, includes economic resources that one gains from being part of a network of social relationships, including group membership.

Cultural capital, also from Bourdieu, includes non-economic resources that enable social mobility. Examples of cultural capital would include knowledge, skills, and education. Both concepts remind us that social networks and culture have value. Bourdieu discussed other forms of capital, including economic and symbolic.  Economic capital refers to monetary resources or those with exchange value, i.e., money.

Going to school, whether it is kindergarten through high school or college, generates a potential to build both social capital and cultural capital. How do we build social capital? We belong to groups and networks, some of which we may not even be aware.

What groups or networks might you be part of? Each class you enroll and participate in has both the teaching professional(s) and other students. Each student club that you may join consists of a faculty sponsor and other students. Your major and minor academic emphasis may have its own network or group. The college as a whole offers multiple points of access to social capital. If you use campus resources such as learning or tutoring centers, programs for students with disabilities, or those that serve under-represented students, such as the writing center, or financial aid office.

So,  how does being part of all these groups translate into building social capital?

The more immersed you are in that group, the more social capital you can potentially build. If one only goes into an office once, that is not really group membership. But note how classes sometimes take on a personality or group identity. Just being a member of a certain college confers group membership. This is readily apparent at sports competitions with other colleges. After you graduate, the alumni office will be calling with offers for social engagement and requests for donations.

When you are part of these groups, you meet the people who are also members. Each office and person you come into contact with could be a part of your current or future job hunt process. I have had students who became student workers on campus because they were part of a group on campus,  even if it was just visiting our Writing Center regularly to get help with their written assignments or the Tutoring Center to get help with class materials.

Being alumna of the University of Southern California, I was a part of quite a few groups when I was there for graduate school. I was part of the Sociology department, taking classes and working as a Teaching Assistant. I also worked for the Joint Educational Project, a service-learning program that had its own house on campus and identity. I made my faculty committee to oversee my research and that also became a group. All of these entities built social capital for me as most alerted me to jobs or research grants both during my time at USC and later.

How do we build cultural capital? We engage in activities that generate our knowledge, skills, and education.

When you are a college student, what you learn in class, in your major and minor academic degree program, and overall, are all building cultural capital.  How much you engage with the class materials might determine how much cultural capital you generate.

What if you’re not just taking the class for a grade but want to learn what it offers? You would then be building cultural capital since you would immerse yourself in the class materials, do the work with deep thought and preparation, interact with the faculty to understand how you can do better, seek out additional resources to deepen your understanding of the topic (like the Everyday Sociology Blog!), and you could access that information for years after, even perhaps for the rest of your lifetime.  Gaining knowledge, building skills, and getting a true education will change the way you think, the choices you might make, and what you have learned will become part of you.

My own example would show how my cultural capital came from accumulating knowledge and skills through the many classes I took in my college career, how my major and degrees (BA, MA, PhD), and my education overall, helped me move into positions that had higher and higher social rank. Due to the experience I gained in the military, I was working as a computer consultant a small non-profit organization when I graduated with my BA in sociology and social work. I continued on to work on an MA in sociology and worked as a research consultant in marketing research and other projects. When I moved to graduate school, I became a teaching assistant – a status that is temporary and not necessarily higher than that of my previous jobs – but then into teaching my own classes. I moved into the status of professor through building my knowledge and gaining more skill in doing and teaching sociology.

Of course, cultural capital can be built outside formal education. When you read or learn new information that can also be considered building cultural capital.

Using your experience or that of your colleagues, what other campus groups and networks can you identify? Using your experience or that of your colleagues, how else might cultural capital be generated?


well articulated and addressed

I've been trying to understand the differences between these two for my MCAT exam, and your explanations with examples have helped me solidify the information! Thank you!

I really like your post.

Great Job!

Thank you very much for the clear explanations, it really helped me to complete my assignments.

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