Remaining Critical about Cultural Capital

Cultural capital has been subject of increased interest over the past few months, following Ofsted’s decision to include the term within their revised inspection framework. I have seen articles written for and against the term across social media in recent weeks, each offering different perspectives on the value of using Bourdieu’s concept in the educational context.  In this short blog I discuss the ways cultural capital should not, and can not, be separated from economic capital. I hope to encourage the use of cultural capital as a critique against producing normative expectations for children.

What do Ofsted say?

The revised inspection says… well very little, to be honest. My first response on reading the framework was surprise at the lack of definition of the term, given the attention it has received. Cultural capital is given two fairly bland and uninspiring paragraphs. They state:

Inspectors will evaluate how well leaders ensure that the curriculum they use or create enhances the experiences and opportunities available to children, particularly the most disadvantaged

That is fine, but it does not tell us much about cultural capital. The rest is so generic it could truly apply to anything: “To reach a judgement about the quality of education, inspectors must use their professional judgement to consider the ages and stages of children in the setting.” – was this supposed to be part of the introduction? It reads more like a job description than an inspection framework.

Where they do define the term is in the footnotes, writing:

Ofsted’s definition of knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum. Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens.”

And what are the aims of the national curriculum you ask?

 “The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

Will the real Bourdieu please stand up?

The French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu is widely recognized as a leading intellectual of the late twentieth-century, and whose ideas are seen as very much relevant for the twenty-first. His theories were vast and have been applied to many research fields, one article tells me Bourdieu is the second most frequently quoted author in the world.

Bourdieu created the concept of cultural capital to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes. He argues that the dominant culture reproduces its dominance by rewarding children in the education system who speak its language, and share its assumptions and aspirations. The greater one’s cultural capital, the more one is conversant with ruling-class culture’s norms.

Despite Bourdieu introducing cultural capital for the purposes of understanding class structures, the term is used rather simplistically by Ofsted as something we should aspire to; give children enough of it and they will succeed the same as everyone else (remember, they write: “Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens”). Bourdieu, however, was keen to maintain that we cannot separate cultural capital from economic capital.

The truth is that efforts from Ofsted to give children forms of cultural knowledge deemed valuable by the dominant society ignore that fact that we live in a deeply unequal society, that does not grant everyone a level playing field. We live in a society where social mobility is stagnating at the same time as being world’s fifth largest economy. As the latest State of the Nation report says:

Being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap.

Given this, we cannot talk about cultural capital without talking about where that culture comes from, particularly in the British context. Here, I turn to Peggy McIntosh’s ‘Invisible Knapsack’ to highlight to highlight the invisible entitlements some have, and others do not.

White privilege is, in many ways, a form of cultural capital. So when we say we want to give children more cultural capital, we need to question exactly what that means for children who do not have the same opportunities as others.

Closing thoughts

We should not be promoting cultural capital when that capital creates normative aspirations and classist expectations of our children, I argue that to do so inevitably risks reinforcing them.

More importantly, why can’t we value children for who they are and what they bring to the table, instead of a deficit approach that positions them from the start as somehow lacking (in this case, through cultural capital)? I think we can do much, much better than this. 

Further Reading:

I have linked most of my references, however Annie Richardson has recently written a fantastic blog from a more personal position. I have also removed a chunk of text on meritocracy to keep this blog shortish, I found Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility to be useful.

Shaddai Tembo

One thought on “Remaining Critical about Cultural Capital

  1. Thank you for such a thought – provoking piece. I share your concerns and am worried that the message is “be like me” (that is, white, middle class). That is most definitely NOT the message I want to be giving to young children and their families!


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