Symbolic capital in practice

Posted on July 13, 2009


Much of the discussion about symbolic capital focuses on the cultural and social capital that individuals or groups don’t have, and how this can explain behaviour, attitudes and achievement.  Because of this we often fall into the trap of defining symbolic capital in negative terms, or explaining it by setting out the consequences of it’s absence.  I was fortunate yesterday to stumble across an example of how cultural and symbolic capital functions within an elite group in a positive sense, to support the values of the group as a whole and give advantage to it’s members individually.  The quotation below is from Nigel Nicolson, former MP and son of Vita Sackville-West.  The quotation comes from Geert Mak’s excellent In Europe.

“My inheritance was not extensive in the financial sense, but rich in contacts and influence.  And it lent me a natural self-confidence, a background against which I could place myself.  My father put it this way: ‘I detested the rich, but I was wild about learning, science, intellect, the mind.  I have always taken the side of the underdog, but I have also adhered to the principle of the aristocracy.”

In this quotation we see the interplay of social and cultural capital, the links to education and the development of a faux-essentialist conception of the self and the worth of certain conceptions of intellectual endeavour.  Finally, the values of the elite are held up as a moral principle.

Posted in: bourdieu, Theory