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.

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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):
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Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective

Cross-posted from the #culturalvalue Initiative. [EDIT 13 Dec 2013:] Reposted by request on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog on 13 December under the heading, ‘”Intrinsic value” understood as a dynamic social process offers a productive alternative to defensive instrumentalism’.

[EDIT 13 Dec 2013:] [Introduction to the Impact of Social Sciences re-posting]: Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s work on symbolic capital, wider network analysis frameworks and his own research into the production of cultural value, Daniel Allington outlines how the value of a cultural form is ultimately and fundamentally a social process. While this piece was originally written to engage with cultural policy research and practice communities, a sociological perspective on the production, transmission and propagation of ‘intrinsic value’ demonstrates the complexity of impact and the interdisciplinary potential of understanding these social relationships.

This originally appeared on The #culturalvalue Initiative under the title of ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’ and is reposted with permission.

[Introduction by Eleonora Belfiore to the original #culturalvalue version]: The #culturalvalue initiative has been exploring the form of the mini-essay for those contributors who want to contribute a longer, more complex or elaborate set of reflections to the debate around cultural value. The mini-essay has proved a popular format and it especially lends itself – I would argue – to guest posts such as this one, kindly contributed by Daniel Allington of the Open University, which aim to bring new methodological perspectives to the debate. Daniel’s piece combines a set of premises derived from Bourdieu on what symbolic capital is and how it works to then merge it with insights from network analysis. These are two set of sociological approaches that do not always mix, and therefore there is a very exciting, experimental flavour to Daniel’s argument. Part of the excitement is also that these sociological insights are still relatively unexplored by my own ‘cultural value research community’, which is that broad and variegated area of research that goes under the label ‘cultural policy studies’. And yet, there is much in this post that is of relevance to the cultural policy research and practice communities, and this is why it’s very exciting to be able to encourage a wider disciplinary exchange on a topic of shared interest.

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