22 Apr 2015

Bourdieu on social capital – theory of capital

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Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002) was a French sociologist and public intellectual who was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society. His work on the sociology of culture continues to be highly influential, including his theories of social stratification that deals with status and power. Bourdieu was concerned with the nature of culture, how it is reproduced and transformed, how it connects to social stratification and the reproduction and exercise of power. One of his key contributions was the relationship between different types of such capital, including economic, cultural, social, and symbolic.

Bourdieu’s (1986) conceptualization of social capital is based on the recognition that capital is not only economic and that social exchanges are not purely self-interested and need to encompass ‘capital and profit in all their forms’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 241). Bourdieu’s conceptualization is grounded in theories of social reproduction and symbolic power. Bourdieu’s work emphasizes structural constraints and unequal access to institutional resources based on class, gender, and race.

Bourdieu saw social capital as a property of the individual rather than the collective. Social capital enables a person to exert power on the group or individual who mobilises the resources. For Bourdieu social capital is not uniformly available to members of a group or collective but available to those who provide efforts to acquire it by achieving positions of power and status and by developing goodwill (Bourdieu 1986). For Bourdieu social capital is irreducibly attached to class and other forms of stratification which in turn are associated with various forms of benefit or advancement. Bourdieu framed social capital as accrued actual or virtual resources acquired by individuals or groups through the possession of “more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 119). Therefore, social capital resides in the individual as the result of his or her investment. Bourdieu’s social capital does not include collective property attributes, which Bourdieu instead calls cultural capital. Therefore, Bourdieu’s social capital does not confuse the level of observation which is a common problem with other approaches.

Bourdieu’s approach is starkly different to most current conceptualisations of social capital. Bourdieu is rarely cited for his work on social capital relative to James Coleman and Robert Putnam. This may be because his approach is too intellectually demanding. There are many concepts underlying the terms he uses that has specific and significant meaning. His approach is based on his wider sociological theories of habitus and fields of practice (Bourdieu 1984). He emphasises the fluidity and specificity of his objects of study, which means that social capital is deeply reliant on the context of a particular social space. Bourdieu’s theory of social capital is substantiated by a rich set of sociological theories that embrace the complexity of the social environment rather than seeking simplification and reductionism. Fine (2002) suggested that this is incompatible with the wide-ranging and superficial postures currently attached to social capital. My conclusion is that Bourdieu’s theory of social capital may be beyond the reach of most people outside of sociology who may fail to fully understand and appreciate the meaning of his terminology.

Bourdieu’s approach has influenced a range of research on the links between micro-level networks and positive individual outcomes, particularly in the context of professional advancement and labour market status.

Bourdieu’s key publications on social capital

Bourdieu, P. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241–58 in Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press.

Bourdieu, P. and L. P. D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard: Routledge and Kagan Paul Ltd.

Tristan Claridge has a passion for technology, innovation and teaching. He is an academic and entrepreneur, and he uses his cross-discipline knowledge and experience to solve problems and identify opportunities. He has bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Queensland in Australia. He has qualifications in environmental science, social theory, teaching and research, and business management.

Tristan is dedicated to the application of social capital theory to organisations. His diverse experience in teaching, research, and business has given him a unique perspective on organisational social capital and the potential improvements that can be achieved in any organisation.

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