Cultural capital, social capital, symbolic capital: what do we gain from an economic metaphor?

In an essay written in response to Colin Mills’s (2013) critique of Bourdieu’s use of the terms ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’, I discussed the use of the word ‘capital’ as a metaphor for forms of resource other than capital in its literal sense (Allington, 2013a). As I argue in that piece, such usage is by no means as unorthodox as some of Bourdieu’s critics have implied, since it dates back to the early 19th century and has entered common parlance. But it should be admitted that there is a difference between loosely figurative senses of ‘capital’, such as are to be found within the 19th century examples I drew from the Oxford English Dictionary, and the more tightly defined (but still metaphorical) sense of the word as used by some social scientists in recent decades.

In an article that I hadn’t read at the time when I wrote that piece, Mike Savage, Alan Warde, and Fiona Devine trace the social scientific use of this sense of the word ‘capital’ back not to Bourdieu’s work on social and cultural capital, but to economist Gary S. Becker’s (1964) earlier work on human capital. Savage et al draw parallels between the term ‘capital’, when used in this way, and both ‘assets’ – a term they associate with the work of Erik Wright (1985) – and ‘resources’ – a term they associate with the work of John Goldthorpe (1996) – referring to these concepts collectively as ‘capitals, assets, and resources’ or CARs. As they show, work drawing upon these concepts can be argued to share common assumptions:

In recent years, the concept of capital has been extended from economic capital alone to cover human capital… social capital… cultural capital… and symbolic capital… The study of social capital, in particular, has become a major concern for academics (see the review in Field 2003). Some commentators see this interest in social capital as marking the unwelcome incursion of neo-classical economics into social analysis… [as, in such work,] class is considered to arise from exchange relations (conceived as exchanges between individuals in a game-theoretical sense). Within such a perspective, CARs are processes… which lead to structural inequality as rational actors pursue their interests drawing on such CARs.

(Savage, Warde, and Devine 2005, 32)

However, they also argue that there are important distinctions to be made between the approaches that utilise these terms:

It is certainly true that [Bourdieu] considers economic capital the most important resource in contemporary capitalist societies, and that he sees cultural processes as being intricately bound up with the reproduction of social elites. However, Bourdieu’s approach needs to be understood within his field theory… Bourdieu argues for the differentiation of social relations into a series of discrete ‘fields’, each with their own ‘stakes’ around which contestants struggle and jostle for position (Bourdieu 1993). This allows a different way of addressing relationships than is found with Marxist and RAT [rational action theory] perspectives where actor A exploits, or maintains relative advantage over, actor B. For Bourdieu, agents are conditioned in their strategic behaviour by their location in the competitive, game-playing character of the field. Agents in such fields compete, collude, negotiate, and contest for position. Their stock of capital is a crucial resource in allowing them to gain advantages within fields, though capital is field specific and does not necessarily allow advantage to be translated into other fields (see generally Bourdieu [1986a]).

(Savage, Warde, and Devine 2005, 39)

The point about field is key. It was to hold onto the importance of this concept that I defined capitals, in a comment on Mills’s (2014) response to my piece, as ‘intangible, unequally-distributed resources whose possession confers advantage because they are prized within particular contexts.’ (Allington, 2014, parag. 2, emphasis in original) To me at least, this seems to capture some of the major points of comparison between the kinds of resource that I have got into the habit of calling ‘capitals’ and capital, literally understood – because that too is intangible, unequally distributed, and conferring of advantage not for any intrinsic reason but because people collectively accord it value. Although I didn’t much use the term ‘field theory’ until quite recently, focus on such resources has been crucially important, for instance, to my work on evaluation and esteem (or, as field theorists would be more likely to call it, ‘symbolic capital’) among cultural producers (e.g. producers of interactive fiction). I recently had a shot at explaining it to an audience in the cultural policy community (Allington 2013a), and received a surprising amount of positive feedback – perhaps because the theory simply hadn’t had much of an airing there beforehand, perhaps because it is something that anyone who’s experienced the politics of cultural production first-hand is likely already to have an understanding of on at least an intuitive level.

Bourdieu’s concept of field has received less popular attention than his concept of cultural capital, yet the latter loses much of its critical edge when divorced from the former. I must admit that when I first encountered his most famous work, Distinction (Bourdieu 1986b), I simply didn’t ‘get it’. It was while reading his historical and anthropological work on artists and authors that I had my lightbulb moment, largely because his findings chimed so well with my ongoing research (and past personal experience) in the worlds of art and publishing, as well (I feel that I must note) as with what I had tacitly learnt from a few years in the intensely competitive, game-playing world of academia. His emphasis on competition for arbitrarily valued intangibles – intangibles which are valued because people compete for them and for which people compete because they are valued – has been the inspiration for much of my recent work. It’s a perspective from which so many peculiar things start to make sense. I’m reminded, for example, of James F. English’s analysis of awards in the adult entertainment industry: after observing that all of these are ‘to some extent ironic’, he notes that this ‘is not to say that… if you worked in this particular cultural field, you wouldn’t want to win one, that it wouldn’t improve your standing among your peers’ (2005, p. 97). Much the same could be said for the objects for which academics compete. We fight tooth and nail, even over apparent trifles, because to have something that another person might want is always worth something, even if the thing is worth nothing in itself.

Enough, now; it’s Friday. Tonight, I remain an academic who has never been in receipt of external research funding; on Monday, I leave that status behind to run a project on status and value among musicians. And if that’s not an example of competitive game-playing, what is? [1]


1. I leave it up to the reader to decide which of the previous sentence’s topics this question refers to – or whether, indeed, it might refer to the sentence itself.


Allington, Daniel (2013a). ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’. 5 December. Posted at, cross-posted at, re-posted at

Allington, Daniel (2013b). ‘Capital as metaphor: a few notes on usage and history’. 20 December. Posted at

Allington, Daniel (2014). Comment on Mills, 2014. 20 January. Posted at

Becker, Gary S. (1964). Human capital. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Bourdieu, Pierre (1986b). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. London / Melbourne / Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1993). ‘Some properties of fields’. In: Sociology in question. London: SAGE Publications.

English, James F. (2005). The economy of prestige: prizes, awards, and the circulation of cultural value. Cambridge (Mass.) / London: Harvard University Press.

Field, John (2003). Social capital. London: Routledge.

Goldthorpe, John H. (1996). ‘Class analysis and the reorientation of class theory: the case of persisting differentials in educational attainment’. British Journal of Sociology 47 (3): 481–505.

Mills, Colin (2013). ‘On metaphors – cultural and social capital again’. 13 December. Posted at

Mills, Colin (2014). ‘Allington on Mills on cultural capital’. 9 January. Posted at

Savage, Mike, Alan Warde, and Fiona Devine (2005). ‘Capitals, assets, and resources: some critical issues’. British Journal of Sociology 56 (1): 31–47.

Wright, Erik Olin (1985). Classes. London: Verso.