Capital as metaphor: a few notes on usage and history

There’s a new piece on Colin Mills’s Oxford Sociology blog on the terms ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’ (Mills, 2013a). These terms and others like them – such as ‘linguistic capital’ – were influentially used by Pierre Bourdieu (1984 [1979]) to describe intangible resources conferring social and often economic advantage upon those who possess them in greater measure. It seems that Prof. Mills has been attacking these terms, apparently with such devastating ferocity that those who still cling to their use have been reduced to a state of desperation. ‘One desperate last move that their defenders try to deploy,’ he writes, ‘is the old “its only a metaphor” ploy, as though that was some kind of answer.’ (Mills 2013a, parag. 1) Mills is very good at picking questionable interpretations of data apart – his open letter (Mills, 2012) to the authors of The spirit level was a thing of beauty, for example – so perhaps those of us who persist in muttering the term ‘cultural capital’ from time to time ought to be scared. But I’m not sure he’s on such strong ground here – and by an interesting coincidence, the ‘ploy’ he decries bears a distant resemblance to something I said a couple of weeks ago, in a discussion occasioned by an essay I had written on the topic of ‘cultural value’ (Allington, 2013):

On reflection, I should admit that it’s perhaps not really such an interesting coincidence after all, since the opinion I voice in the above is so commonplace among sociologists influenced by Bourdieu that the same observation might have been made by any of quite a large number of people at any point in the last two decades or so. But I think it’s worth going into the issue in a little depth – if only because it gives me the opportunity to talk like a linguist about sociology (as opposed to talking like a sociologist about linguistics, which often seems to happen after stylistics conferences). Had I had at my disposal more than the 140 characters that Twitter permits, what I would have said in the above tweet was that, when used by Bourdieu, the word ‘capital’ is a metaphorical vehicle the tenor of which is ‘intangible resources,’ and that tenors and vehicles are by definition non-identical. These are, by the way, I.A. Richards’s (1936) terms; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) might prefer to say that CAPITAL is the source domain and INTANGIBLE RESOURCES are the target domain (Lakoff and Johnson use upper-case letters for domains to emphasise that they analyse them as concepts rather than words). Any given metaphor is likely to have a range of implications, some more and some less appropriate to the nature of the tenor. Mills objects to this particular metaphor on the following grounds:

‘How did he use his cultural capital as collateral for a bank loan?’ has roughly the same status as: ‘What sort of broom do eyes sweep [the horizon] with?’ It’s obvious that you can’t use intangible cultural resources as security against a loan because they aren’t capital in a sense that any financial institution would understand. Valuable as they are to you, your cultural resources (unless they are physical objects like paintings, sculptures, opera houses) are not in themselves transferable to others. ‘Cultural capital’ is a metaphor with nowhere to go because it doesn’t, as Toulmin puts it, ‘take its place at the heart of a fruitful theory’.

2013a, parag. 4

Mills is right that it’s ‘obvious’ that cultural resources aren’t ‘capital in a sense that any financial institution would understand.’ If they were, ‘cultural capital’ wouldn’t be much of a metaphor. It’s no less ‘obvious’ that Microsoft Windows contains no windows of the kind that a glazier would repair – but that’s not the reason I prefer Unix. Perhaps you can think of a case where every characteristic of a metaphorical vehicle can straightforwardly be ascribed to the tenor (or, to translate these Richardsonian terms into the more fashionable idiom of metaphor studies post-Lakoff-and-Johnson, where the source perfectly maps onto the target), but it’s no reproach to the remaining metaphors of human language that they are more interesting than that. Pointing out that social and cultural resources do not behave exactly like economic capital does not, therefore, invalidate the ‘cultural capital’ metaphor, much less refute the theory of cultural capital.

Whether or not one finds ‘cultural capital’ to be a fruitful metaphor, the concept it denotes plays a part within what is undoubtedly a fruitful theory of how culture works: witness thirty years and more of empirical research (most famously Bourdieu, 1984 [1979], but also much excellent work such as Prieur et al, 2008). Sociologists know what they are referring to when they use the term ‘cultural capital,’ and they know perfectly well that they are not referring to something that could be ‘use[d]… as collateral for a bank loan’. And there’s nothing unusual about such a state of affairs. There are many scientific terms that were originally metaphorical, and some whose literal meanings are objectively wrong, but that says nothing about the underlying science. A black hole is not like any hole I’ve ever seen, for example (for one thing, a black hole cannot be seen). We speak of splitting atoms, even though ‘atom’ essentially means that which cannot be split.

It’s not so much, then, that ‘cultural capital’ is ‘only a metaphor’, as that it’s only a name (which happens to be a metaphor). As names go, though, it’s not a bad one – partly because people have so little trouble in figuring out what the metaphor implies (which includes recognising, for example, that it does not imply an assumption that intangible cultural resources can be used as collateral on bank loans). The reason for this is that, as Mills writes in his reply to the comment on his post, the meaning of words like ‘mouse’ and ‘horse’ and ‘capital’ is purely conventional (Mills 2013b, parag. 2) – but that using ‘capital’ to mean ‘resources’ is more conventional than Mills appears to realise, and certainly far more so than using ‘mouse’ to mean ‘horse’ (which he seems to suggest should be considered an equivalent absurdity). That is, when Bourdieu minted the phrase ‘cultural capital,’ he was using the word ‘capital’ in a way that was already quite well established. I can’t speak for its use in French, but as the good people of Oxford University Press make clear, in English such metaphorical uses of ‘capital’ date back at least to the early 19th century:

Any source of profit, advantage, power, etc.; a store of some positive or advantageous quality. Freq. with descriptive adjective.…
human, intellectual, political capital, etc.: see the first element.

1818 New Monthly Mag. Sept. 139/2 An exuberance of fancy,..and a rich harmony of language, sufficient to form the entire intellectual capital of other less favoured nations.
1847 A. Helps Friends in Council I. ii. 26 To reject the accumulated mental capital of ages.
1876 ‘G. Eliot’ Daniel Deronda II. iii. xxii. 74 A political platitudinarian as insensible as an ox to everything he can’t turn into political capital.

Oxford English Dictionary 2012, ‘capital adj. and n.2’, sense B.3.b.

As Mills says (and Humpty Dumpty would agree), ‘If you want to call a 15 hands high quadruped that eats oats and makes a sound like “naaaaay” a “mouse” then you’re quite free to do so.’ (Mills 2013b, parag. 2) So let me make a suggestion: if you wish, you may refer to the theory of cultural capital as the theory of cultural resources. However, I feel I ought to warn you that, no less than with Mills’s horse/mouse example, ‘one of two things will probably happen: 1) You won’t be understood, or 2) people will assume that you are playing some sort of game’ (ibid.).


Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’. Posted at, cross-posted at, re-posted at

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984 [1979]). Distinction. London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1986 [1983]) ‘The forms of capital’. In: Richardson, J. G. (ed.). Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York, Greenwood Press.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mills, Colin (2012). ‘Open letter to Prof. Richard Wilkinson & Prof. Kate Pickett’. Accessed on 20 Dec 2013 from

Mills, Colin (2013a). ‘On metaphors – cultural and social capital again’. Accessed on 20 Dec 2013 from

Mills, Colin (2013b). Comment on ‘On metaphors – cultural and social capital again’. Accessed on 20 Dec 2013 from

Oxford English Dictionary (2012). ‘Capital, adj. and n.2’. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed online, 20 Dec 2013.

Prieur, Annick, Rosenlund, Lennart and Skjott-Larsen, Jakob (2008). ‘Cultural capital today: a case study from Denmark’. Poetics 36(1): 45–71.

Richards, I.A. (1936). The philosophy of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2 thoughts on “Capital as metaphor: a few notes on usage and history”

  1. You can’t directly use your cultural capital as collateral on a bank loan, because banks only accept another form of capital, which Bourdieu calls “economic capital”, i.e. money. However, you can certainly convert your cultural capital into economic capital, and there is an exchange rate for that. It involves getting your cultural capital certified by a degree-granting institution, and using that degree to get a job and thus economic capital, which your bank will happily accept.

    Bourdieu explains the relationships between different forms of capital in “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. G. Richardson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 241–258.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, Benjamin. You’re absolutely right that it’s possible to use the resources metaphorically termed forms of capital to gain literal economic capital, although I think it’s important to acknowledge that when we characterise this as ‘conversion’ (as you do, and Bourdieu did, and I also have) we are still speaking metaphorically – with a metaphor that you are nicely extending with your reference to an ‘exchange rate’.

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