Flow of Ideas
Forms of Capital: Critique of Bourdieu on Cultural Capital

Glenn Rikowski, London, 6th January 2008


In a previous article (Rikowski, 2007), I critiqued Bourdieu’s messy concept of capital. It was argued that Bourdieu’s concept of capital was ‘at best naïve and simplistic and at worst positively misleading and reactionary’ (p.1). The article concluded by noting that it was amazing:

“…how so many could be fooled into thinking that Bourdieu’s ideas on education can be used as the basis for substantial critique of capitalist education when he is so muddled on what ‘capital’ is” (p.3).

When his concept of cultural capital is examined, Bourdieu’s obfuscation deepens further. That he has gained so much credibility amongst the educational Left in the UK makes him into a kind of Pied Piper figure, leading chirpy careerists of the educational Left into a conceptual bog.

Cultural Capital

Those hoping that Bourdieu would give a straightforward definition of ‘cultural capital’ hope in vain. The slippery and high-falutin’ way in which Bourdieu goes about ‘informing’ his readers about this concept might appeal to some amongst the UK educational Left bored with papers at BERA annual conferences, but for stouter souls it disappoints. In The Forms of Capital (Bourdieu, 1997), there is no direct definition of ‘cultural capital’. In a section entitled ‘Cultural Capital’, Bourdieu indicates its three forms:

“Cultural capital can exist in three forms: in the embodied state, i.e. in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), which are the trace or realization of theories or critiques of these theories, problematics, etc; and in the institutionalized state, a form of objectification which must be set apart because, as will be seen in the case of educational qualifications, it confers entirely original properties on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee” (p.47).

However, he does not tell us what it is per se. A little later on (Ibid.), he notes where the concept came from: “The notion of cultural capital initially presented itself to me, in the course of research, as a theoretical hypothesis which made it possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes by relating academic success, i.e., the specific profits which children from the different classes and class fractions can obtain in the academic market, to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fractions” (Ibid.).

Thus, Bourdieu does still not tell us what cultural capital is! His inflated concept of ‘profits’ should also be noted here. Bourdieu is no Marxist, of course, but his use of economic concepts has the effect of submerging Marxism through bamboozling readers in ways that postmodernists could only marvel at. Bourdieu is the master of the ethereal conceptual trail, and therefore, in his ‘complexity’ and waffling glory, a potential darling of the educational Left seeking to marry careerism with ‘radicality’ in their work.

Perhaps if we look at the three forms designated by Bourdieu as modes of existence of cultural capital then we might glimpse what the master concept is in itself.

The Embodied State

According to Bourdieu:

“Most of the properties of cultural capital can be deduced from the fact that, in its fundamental state, it is linked to the body and presupposes embodiment. The accumulation of cultural capital in the embodied state … presupposes a process of embodiment, incorporation, which insofar as it implies a labor of inculcation and assimilation, costs time, time which must be invested personally by the investor” (1997, p.48).

For me, Bourdieu is here cashing in on the concept of labour power: the capacity to labour. He gives the game away when he talks about how it can be that ‘this capital, so closely linked to the person, be bought without buying the person’ (Ibid.) – a problem solved by Karl Marx a century earlier. Capitalists buy labour power, which is incorporated in the person of the labourer (Rikowski, 2004), for a duration. This precludes workers being slaves, though it is accurate to speak of ‘wage slaves’ within the capitalist labour process. Of course:

“Today … national states are involved in the social production of labour-power for competitive advantage. This takes place through schooling and training, attempting to enhance the labour-power attributes of potential workers (school and college students) and those already in the labour market …” (Rikowski, 2004, p.573).

However, I would argue that Bourdieu confuses cultural capital in the embodied state with labour power. He also mashes it together with the second phase of the social reproduction of labour power. Finally he also underplays the significance of the social production of labour power as described above (see Rikowski, 2006). The first phase of the social reproduction of labour power refers to the reproduction of labour power relating to the wage form. This is manifested in consumption in households and family life. The second phase of the social reproduction of labour power points towards domestic labour in its broadest sense – including the upbringing of children: the labourers of the future. Precursor labour attributes are developed in households. These have significance not only for potential labourers eventually labouring in the capitalist labour process, but also in terms of developing their own labour powers in institutions involved in the social production of labour power. Thus ‘cultural capital’ (i.e. labour power) is developed in schools and colleges, in a systematic way today.

Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in the embodied state obscures more that it clarifies. It places barriers in the way of critique of capitalist education.

The Objectified State

At least Bourdieu is clearer on this:

“Cultural capital, in the objectified state, has a number of properties, which are defined only in the relationship with cultural capital in its embodied form. The cultural capital objectified in material objects and media, such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments, etc., is transmissible in its materiality” (1997, p.50).

But all this says is that we are now in the realm of the first phase of the social reproduction of labour power: in the realm of consumption of all the items (and more) listed above. Bourdieu’s pretentious way of writing, with its desolate ‘profundity’, no doubt hides the platitudinous implications of what he saying for his followers in the educational Left.

The Instiutionalised State

In the section on ‘The Institutionalized State’ (1997, pp.50-51), Bourdieu ignites his old habits. He is reluctant to pin down the third state of cultural capital. Instead he meanders on irritatingly about the significance of academic qualifications. For Bourdieu, they confer on their holder a ‘conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture’ (p.50). They are indicators of their possessor’s degree of cultural capital ownership. Yet when he talks about how qualifications are converted into ‘economic capital’ (which as we saw in the previous article is an enigma), he starts to prevaricate (see 1997, p.51). Of course, as I have indicated through research of my own (Rikowski, 1990), qualifications are merely one indicator of labour power quality considered by labour recruiters. Bourdieu gives too much importance to qualifications, and in doing so once more misleads and creates ethereal trails.


In going deeper into Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital I have found his capacity to confuse and oversimplify increases. He tends to hide this through verbose and intense ‘academic’ writing that tries to cover over the inadequacies and platitudes that he generates. There is no future for the education Left if its members wish to develop critiques of capitalist education using this kind of work.


Bourdieu, P. (1997) The Forms of Capital, in: A. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown & A Stuart Wells (Eds.) Education: Culture, Economy and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rikowski, G. (1990) The Recruitment Process and Labour, unpublished paper, Epping Forest College, Essex, July, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Recruitment%20and%20Labour%20Power

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577, online at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web&id=

Rikowski, G. (2006) Ten Points on Marx, Class and Education, a paper presented at the ‘Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues’ Seminar IX, University of London, Institute of Education, 25th October: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Ten%20Points%20on%20Marx,%20Class%20and%20Education

Rikowski, G. (2007) Forms of Capital: Critique of Bourdieu on Capital, 18th December, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Bourdieu%20on%20Capital

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