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Bourdieu on social capital – theory of capital

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’s social capital

Bourdieu saw social capital as a property of the individual, rather than the collective, derived primarily from one’s social position and status. 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 & Wacquant, 1992: 119). Therefore, social capital resides in the individual and is linked to social connections that a person can utilise for advancement[1].

For Bourdieu, social capital is manifested through benefits derived from social networks, however, the source of social capital stems from social, economic, and cultural structures that create differential power and status for specific individuals and not others. Power and status create taken-for-granted assumptions such as social norms that produce advantage. Social capital is therefore not so much about having a large social network but having social position that creates the potential for advantage from one’s social network.

Differences between Bourdieu’s social capital and other scholars

Bourdieu’s approach is starkly different to most current conceptualisations of social capital. However, this has not stopped scholars from appropriating Bourdieu’s definition for their work. A recent review of literature from 2019 found that Bourdieu was frequently cited for the definition of social capital, second only to Robert Putnam[2].

The key difference between Bourdieu’s conception of social capital and virtually all other approaches the is the treatment of power. For Bourdieu, social capital is linked to the reproduction of class, status, and power relations, so it is based on the notion of power over as opposed to power to[3]. In this respect Bourdieu’s social capital is more like a zero-sum than a positive-sum game; where some individuals enjoy access to social capital by virtue of social stratification and others do not[4]. This is fundamentally different to most current conceptualisations of social capital that either treat it as a universal resource or consider it available to anyone who invests in its creation.

Until recently Bourdieu was rarely cited for his work on social capital relative to James Coleman and Robert Putnam. The change seems to be driven by scholars who identified with the network basis of Bourdieu’s conception and who were prepared, wittingly or unwittingly, to discard most of Bourdieu’s rich sociology. It is now common to find scholars who adopt the network approach to social capital to cite Bourdieu on definitional or conceptual issues related to social capital. However, the approaches are not equivalent.

The network approach[5] positions social capital with the individual, as Bourdieu did, but for Bourdieu social capital is inseparably linked to context since it is part of a system of social, economic and cultural structures[6]. These factors are typically beyond the purview of the network approach to social capital which tends to focus exclusively on social networks and therefore the role of social, economic, and cultural structures are not considered. Yet for Bourdieu, these structures are fundamentally related to the production and reproduction of social capital. Social capital is attributed to social position and power by social norms and taken-for-granted assumptions that create and reinforce advantage. Therefore, the macro-sociological processes related to norms and culture cannot be separated from social capital[7]. For Bourdieu, social capital resides in the individual by virtue of macro social, economic, and cultural structures that creates advantage through their social network. Scholars who look only at the network fail to appreciate Bourdieu’s concept of social capital.

This is not to say that scholars using dissimilar approaches to social capital should ignore Bourdieu’s work on social capital, but care must be taken to understand the conceptual differences that may exist. Should scholars cite Bourdieu’s definition of social capital but then proceed with an entirely different conceptualisation of social capital? I would hope that Bourdieu’s work on social capital can be used by scholars to focus attention on the importance of social setting and the differential access to various forms of capital that create and reinforce inequality.

Bourdieu’s concept of social capital remains under-utilised

This may be because his full conception 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[8] and fields[9] of practice (Bourdieu, 1984). He emphasised 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)[10] 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.

Photo credit: Pierre Olivier Deschamps/Agence VU/Redux


  1. Kyle Rudick, C., Quiñones Valdivia, F. I., Hudachek, L., Specker, J., & Goodboy, A. K. (2019). A communication and instruction approach to embodied cultural and social capital at a public, 4-year university. Communication Education, 68(4), 438–459. ^
  2. Claridge, T. (2020). Current definitions of social capital: Academic definitions in 2019. Social Capital Research ^
  3. Smith, S. S., & Kulynych, J. (2002). It may be social, but why is it capital? The social construction of social capital and the politics of language. In Politics and Society (Vol. 30, Issue 1, pp. 149–186). ^
  4. Dika, S. L., & Singh, K. (2002). Applications of Social Capital in Education Literature: A Critical Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 72(1), 31–60 ^
  5. The network approach is used here to describe the approach to social capital that focuses on social networks and does not consider the role of wider sociological factors such as social norms and social trust. The network approach covers a wide range of different approaches from those that narrowly only consider the existence of network ties to approaches that also consider the nature of those social relationships. ^
  6. Foley, M., & Edwards, B. (1999). Is it time to disinvest in social capital? Journal of Public Policy, 19(2), 141–173 ^
  7. Bebbington, A. (2007). Social capital and development studies II. Progress in Development Studies, 7(2), 155–162. ^
  8. Habitus is the assumptions, habits, taken-for-granted ideas and ways of being (Bourdieu, 1977) ^
  9. Field is a sociological concept for a social arena in which agents and their social positions are located (Bourdieu, 1977) ^
  10. Fine, B. (2002). It Ain’t Social, It Ain’t Capital and It Ain’t Africa. Studia Africana, 13, 18–33 ^

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