Cultural Capital; Or, Why Do We Even Like Things, Anyway?

Much has been said and written about the increasing concentration of economic capital in American society and throughout the world. Disruption, financialization, globalization, automation—these are the reasons most often advanced for the growth of socioeconomic inequality. Less often remarked upon, at least in left-leaning academic analyses, is a corresponding concentration of cultural capital, Bourdieu’s most famous concept, in social and geographical space.

The term has two meanings in Bourdieu’s work: educational credentials and “legitimate” tastes. In meritocratic social orders such as ours, credentials are like capital. Obtaining them requires a material “investment” of time and money, as well as a psychic investment in the “game” of education. Possessing credentials typically yields “returns” over time: material returns in earnings and wealth, but also psychic returns of honor and recognition. Similarly, in postaristocratic social orders such as our own, where birth no longer determines class, having the “right” tastes is both an indicator and a generator of social status and mobility (though taste itself is usually inherited, as part of one’s childhood socialization).

The newest issue of The Hedgehog Review is titled “Distinctions that Define and Divide.” Featuring prominently throughout all of the issue’s main essays is Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. Gorski gave the best summary of its primary features, but what intrigued me most about this issue was the tension between two other articles: “Capital Inequalities” by Shamus Khan and “Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics” by Mark Dunbar.

One conclusion that can be derived from Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, is the idea that there is a culturally shared concept of “high cultural value,” and each individual attempts to maximize their cultural capital by aligning their desires to it. One might point to the vastly different sub-cultures within any modern society and argue that such diversity poses a problem for the theory. On the contrary, Bourdieu went on to describe “the social field,” which can be thought of as a kind of arena of culture. Various players (each representing not people, but different conceptions of cultural capital value) are constantly vying for power, but all players must follow implicit rules of engagement. The thesis of the article from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay is that the “rules of engagement” of the culture “game” in the United States appear to be breaking down, and the 1980’s “culture war” has morphed into a kind of “cultural guerilla combat.”

Regardless, the presence of competing cultural forces does not invalidate the theory cultural capital. Rather, the theory provides a metaphor for the fact that all of our actions do affect our social standing with others. Savvy socialites have always seen this game as an opportunity to “win” by hording the most value.

But Shamus Khan, in “Capital Inequalities,” seems to take this a step farther: “This constant dance of distinction is one in which every group has its own style but is effectively moving to the same tune: defining itself in response to others, constituting its actions and tastes in light of those within its field of vision.” To me, Khan seems to imply that all of an individual’s likes and dislikes, whether conscious or unconscious, are implicitly bound up in the cultural capital game. In other words, I might say I like Aristotle’s Politics because it taught me that all of our modern political arguments have already been fought about amongst a collection of walled city states on the Mediterranean coast of Europe nearly three millennia ago, a situation I find deeply intellectually fascinating. In reality, Khan implies, I only like Aristotle’s Politics because of what other people will think of the fact that I have read it.

I don’t believe that that is the real reason why I like Aristotle’s Politics, but Khan’s article did make me stop and think about some of my other likes and dislikes, or, more specifically, what features of, let’s say, writing, cause me immediate repulsion? And the corollary: which features will captivate my attention without a second thought? Therein lies the element of truth within the theory. Even if not every like and dislike is a matter of maximizing one’s culture capital, human beings definitely possess biases, and some of those biases are almost certainly rooted in a desire to be perceived as belonging to one social group rather than another.

The main reason that this assertion ticked me off can be summarized well by a particular abstract from Mark Dunbar’s article about identity tethering: “My favorite restaurant is Chili’s. I like to lift weights and train in mixed martial arts. My favorite baseball cap is camouflage patterned, I would drive a truck if I could afford one, and one of the photos on my Tinder profile showed me shooting a gun. (My wife, whom I met on Tinder, said that one of her rules was ‘no guys with gun pictures,’ but she gave me a pass because I quoted Gertrude Stein in my profile.)”

That resonated with me enormously. I have long sought to manage social expectations around my multiplexed web of interests, and have mostly failed. Perhaps I am just a unique human being (Dunbar also muses as much), but if I have been trying to maximize my cultural capital, I’ve done a poor job of it my whole life. I have been, in various times and places: Too interested in computers and video games, “to be any good at sports.” Too good at sports, “to be gay.” Too gay, “to be interested in ‘masculine’ things like computers, video games, and sports.” Too bookish, “to have any technical aptitude.” Too analytical, “to be any good at aesthetic sophistication.”

Our culture’s expectations, quite frankly, are maddening for individuals who make a point of choosing our interests irrespective of their role in the cultural game. To extend Bourdieu’s metaphor, Dunbar and I are chameleon players. We’ve figured out a way to play the game such that we change sides from moment to moment, all completely within the rules. If we think it’s annoying to deal with the game, the game is probably downright infuriated with us.

What makes a person want to do this is hard to say, but one of its upsides is that it makes us more resistant to falling into a state that is the title of Dunbar’s essay: “identity tethering.” The term describes a person who not only chooses their likes and dislikes based on cultural expectations, they have worked up (or “tethered”) their entire identity to a particular cultural configuration (a “team” in the game).

Such things are dangerous for any society attempting to maintain pluralism. Identity tethering tends over time to produce the attitude that all other teams on the playing field need to be subsumed into the “correct” one.

Perhaps, the way one avoids such a thing is to actively choose one’s likes and dislikes without regard to their cultural capital value, and even be open to choosing one if it might threaten one’s current place in the cultural capital game. The most recent example from my own life springs readily to mind: Powerlifting tends to be culturally associated with the political right. This did not stop me from pursuing the sport. Will someone eventually discover my powerlifting and assume that I am a Trump supporter? Probably. I’ll just introduce them to three or four other aspects of my life (ex. I write blog essays about sociological theories based on my reading of academic journals) and watch them squirm.

I can’t recommend that everyone else go and choose a wild panoply of interests designed to confuse others. That kind of thing happens organically, anyway, and likely because there’s something about people like Dunbar and myself that makes us constantly reach out into a wide field. What I can recommend that everyone do is what I suggested earlier: The next time you are repulsed by something, whether it be a work of fiction, a television show, an advertisement, another person’s behavior, anything—immediately ask yourself why. Interrogate your own motivation for that repulsion and find out if you like your reasons for dislike or not. And do the same for any new thing that appears and you instantly decide you are interested in it. Set aside whatever association it has for you, just for a minute, and really interrogate the thing. Is it really that good?

We cannot stop the game of cultural capital. It will always exist, and their will always be sides in competition for social power. Our sociopolitical goal should be to create a society where the competition is as socially healthy as possible. I won’t pretend to know the optimal sociopolitical configuration in that regard. Suffice it to say, it’s not what we’re doing now.