Jung-Sook Lee is certain that an individual’s level of cultural capital is a crucial factor in their ability to become economically and socially successful. On that, the senior lecturer in the school of social sciences at the University of New South Wales is in agreement with many of the UK education profession; cultural capital is increasingly the driving force behind everything from government policy to individual teacher-student interactions. But where her views may differ from those of some teachers and government ministers is how we use this idea in schools. Lee’s opinion is that things are more complicated than some commentators would lead us to believe.
According to the theory, from the second we’re born, we start to acquire “cultural capital”. The term, which was coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1973 essay “Cultural reproduction and social reproduction”, describes the knowledge, behaviours and skills that individuals accumulate that can be converted to other forms of capital, such as economic or social. Essentially, the more cultural capital you have, the greater the advantage you have over your peers with things such as attending the best schools or landing the top jobs.
That’s why cultural capital is so important, says Lee: individuals who come from certain strata of society find it easier to accumulate cultural capital, whereas those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to struggle. Schools can be instrumental in correcting this, she argues, but to fully understand their potential impact, she believes that it is important to understand how cultural capital can become the possession of dominant groups.
“Based on experiences and upbringing, each individual brings different ‘habitus’ – understood as a system of dispositions including know-hows, tastes, tendencies to act in a certain way, etc – to the fields of competition over resources and status,” she explains. “Bourdieu argued that habitus of dominant groups is more highly valued in these fields, as these groups have greater power to determine the rules of the game. Correspondingly, their habitus itself becomes cultural capital, which then leads to the accumulation of other capital, such as economic or social capital.”
Capital is not fixed
As such, she says that cultural capital is not a fixed collection of knowledge or facts, as some assume. “For Bourdieu, an education system is one of the fields of competition. This suggests that cultural capital itself can become contested in the relevant fields, rather than remaining fixed in its importance or value. In other words, cultural capital can be specific to context and time,” she says.
Lee, who has conducted research into the contributions of social and cultural capital in children’s development, adds that another common misconception about cultural capital is that it is all about highbrow culture.
“Cultural capital in the current British society could include, for example, knowledge of technologies or financial aptitude – things that are not usually included in ‘high culture’ or ‘highbrow culture’,” she says.
So if cultural capital is fluid, creating a fixed core knowledge to be taught to all children – in an effort to ensure every child leaves school with the same cultural capital – is problematic. Instead, she argues that “the education system can function as a mechanism of social mobility rather than a mechanism of social reproduction” if we gain an understanding of the “dynamic and context-specific nature of cultural capital”.
To use that understanding, schools have to continually look at how and what they are teaching, she adds.
“Schools can re-evaluate and, if necessary, change the way they educate children and value certain cultural codes and practices over others,” explains Lee. “It is important to take a critical stand toward the role of education in social reproduction. Do cultural codes and practices of schools reflect the culture of dominant groups? Do schools operate with the expectation that all children bring equal familiarities with the language used or day-to-day practices in schools? Do schools provide an inclusive environment that accommodates, properly recognises, and adequately supports children and families from disadvantaged backgrounds?”
Adapting to the child
Simply imposing the dominant culture in an effort to embed the cultural capital necessary for success would not be effective, she argues. Instead, the school needs to attune itself to the cultural norms with which students arrive – or those children may struggle to reach the academic performance necessary to succeed, regardless of the cultural capital gains pursued.
“Children from dominant groups are likely to find that the way teachers talk and the way things are done in school are similar to what they experience at home, whereas children from non-dominant groups are likely to find these are different from what they experience at home,” explains Lee. “Consequently, children from non-dominant groups are more likely to have a harder time in adjusting and academically excelling at school. Various studies provide empirical evidence about the effects of cultural capital on education.
“Teachers can help children acquire cultural codes and practices valued at school, [but] at the same time, teachers can make efforts to accommodate the differences children bring. If teachers understand differences in tendencies to act, think or feel, they may be able to utilise this understanding to engage students better and help them learn.”
Similarly, an understanding of the nature of cultural capital can also greatly help teachers to develop partnerships with parents. In a study that Lee undertook with Natasha Bowen, she says that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds exhibit different patterns of parental involvement. Rather than trying to force parents into one way of working in an effort to boost the cultural capital of the child, adaptation is again needed.
“While [these parents] were less likely to display parental involvement at school, they did actively participate in their children’s education at home,” says Lee. “Because these parents are not showing up at school, teachers may think that these parents are not interested in their children’s education.
“However, if teachers understand differences in their circumstances, lifestyles, preferences, tendencies, worries, etc, this may help teachers to develop better partnerships with parents, to better communicate with them and to work together to help their children to learn better. So, teachers may make efforts not only to enhance parental involvement at school, but also to support parental involvement at home.”
Lee’s approach may seem to run counter to the move in some schools towards a fixed-core knowledge reflective of the dominant culture and those schools trying to enforce a single cultural norm. Hers is something of a middle way: cultural capital bestowed in a responsive way that works to add to the cultural norms of the student in a sympathetic fashion, not to replace those norms with something else. But she is not advocating that schools abandon attempts to offer those cultural lessons, rather that they do so with an understanding that some adaptation to a student’s own culture is necessary if the child is to succeed.
As Lee concludes, a “proper understanding of the dynamic and context-specific nature of cultural capital can help the education system and teachers to promote social mobility among children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and thereby make an important contribution to social justice”.
Simon Creasey is a freelance writer based in Kent