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

Glenn Rikowski, London, 15th April 2008


This is the third in a series of articles critiquing Pierre Bourdieu’s uses of the concept of capital. The first article (Rikowski, 2007) focused on problems in Bourdieu’s conception of capital. The second one explored his notion of ‘cultural capital’ (Rikowski, 2008). This third article examines Bourdieu (1997) on ‘social capital’.

Bourdieu on Social Capital

Compared with his outlines of capital and cultural capital, Bourdieu’s definition of social capital is straightforward:

“Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership of a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu, 1997, p.51).

Social capital appears to be about the resources inhering in social networks that individuals are engaged with, and which can be mobilized by them for their own ends. Hence:

“The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent … depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital (economic, cultural or symbolic) possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected” (Ibid.).

Bourdieu explains (in 1997) that an individual’s ability to cash in on the social networks s/he is involved with is a function of their own economic capital, their place in the social hierarchy and the power this bestows on them, and their social status. Yet individuals must strive hard to maintain their influence in the social networks they can draw on to realize their goals. They have to work at it notes Bourdieu, as:

“The reproduction of social capital presupposes an unceasing effort of sociability, continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed” (1997, p.52).

It is a lifetime’s job, this sociability; individuals need to ensure that the reciprocity in their interactions with others within their social networks is continually nurtured to maintain their social capital, and to extend these efforts in order to increase it.

A World of Capital

Given Bourdieu’s notion of social capital, we inhabit a “world of capital”. All our social relationships, including our virtual e-relationships through having MySpace etc. ‘friends’, are manifestations of social capital. Contemporary social institutions, organizations and groups are repositories of and resources for social capital. There is no escape from ‘capital’ in Bourdieu’s social universe.

I agree with him, we cannot ‘escape’ capital; though I have a very different conception of the social universe of capital (in Rikowski, 2002 and 2005) to Bourdieu’s. For me, the social universe of capital incorporates, and is constituted by, opposition between labour and capital. Through labour workers create capital, and mediate and facilitate all of its transformations from surplus-value (its first form) into money, state etc., just as capital then oppresses and dominates labour and labourers. Bourdieu’s concept of capital appears to lack this dynamic; the labour-capital relation. The consequence of this is that capital dominates social life completely. There is no openness in the global social system as all is capital, and labour can only ever maintain and expand capital.

In terms of his practical politics and the books he wrote towards the end of his life, especially Acts of Resistance (Bourdieu, 1998), Bourdieu celebrated examples of labour resisting capital and the practical consequences of governments acting on its ideology of neoliberalism. Bourdieu’s late political writings appear to contradict his Borg-like conception of capital as ‘all that there is’ in contemporary social life, where all struggles are reduced to that between individuals and groups as forms of capital.

Furthermore, as Blunden (2004) notes, what is required in order to ground social capital, cultural capital and other forms non-economic capital as forms of capital, is that it must be indicated how:

“…they can be converted into “economic capital”, and thus that everything deemed to be a form of capital can be arranged, under some condition, along a single axis, i.e. quantified” (Part II, p.21 – my emphasis).

How ‘much’ social capital is needed to produce X economic capital? Bourdieu (1997) has a section on ‘Conversions’ where he addresses the issue of converting one form of capital into another. When examining the conversion of economic capital into other forms he notes that:

“The different types of capital can be derived from economic capital, but only at a cost of a more or less great effort of transformation, which is needed to produce the type of power effective in the field in question” (pp.53-43).

Hence, the conversion (of economic capital into other forms) appears to be determined by effort and application (labour) on the part of individuals. Bourdieu argues that ‘economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital’, even as the other forms of capital, including social capital ‘conceal … the fact that economic capital is at their root’ (1997, p.54). Blunden (2004, Part II, pp.21-22) argues that Bourdieu does not provide the principle through which one form of capital is converted into another in his book Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984). From what Blunden says about Bourdieu’s concept of capital in Distinction, convertibility is a question of struggle and power. It is these that determine the degree of capital X required to attain a particular amount of capital Y.

This seems unfair on Bourdieu. In his The Forms of Capital paper, Bourdieu does provide a convertibility principle (p.54): labour-time. For:

“The universal equivalent, the measure of all equivalences, is nothing other than labor-time (in the widest sense); and the conservation of social energy through all its conversions is verified if, in each case, when one takes into account both the labor-time accumulated in the form of capital and the labor-time needed to transform it from one type into another” (1997, p.54).

At this point, Bourdieu reaches for another concept foundational to Karl Marx’s critique of political economy: labour-time. For Marx, the socially necessary labour-time that went into the production of a commodity determines its value. For Bourdieu, however, it is actual labour-time that is the measure of equivalence of forms of capital. Thus, Bourdieu not only rips the concept of labour-time out of the production of commodities in the labour process, but extends it; just as he extended the concept of capital itself (to social capital and other forms).

Generalised and extended in this form, and allied to a concept of social capital that includes all social relations and relationships, Bourdieu’s principle of labour-time being the basis of convertibility of forms of capital appears to make it impossible to distinguish between types of society, as Blunden (2004) argues. His concept of capital, together with its forms, and his principle of convert ability, could as well be applied to Feudalism as capitalism. This consideration makes Bourdieu’s concepts of capital (including social capital) incoherent: social capital is possible in non-capitalist societies!


Blunden, A. (2004) Social solidarity versus “Social Capital”, a paper in three parts, at the Ethical Politics Home Page: http://ethicalpolitics.org/reviews/social-solidarity.htm

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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.

Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rikowski, G. (2002) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx’s Social Universe, a paper presented at the Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation

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

Rikowski, G. (2008) Forms of Capital: Critique of Bourdieu on Cultural Capital, 6th January, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Bourdieu%20on%20Cultural%20Capital

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