Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Capital Inequalities

Veblen, Bourdieu, and the Weight of a Word.

Shamus Khan

Illustration by Ilinca Barsan, courtesy of the artist.

Most parents are keen to confer advantages on their children. Yet wealthy parents are particularly committed to doing so. It is not that they are a different breed. They just happen to live on a cliff, and the steps leading to and from their socioeconomic perch are precariously steep. Today, while the children of the upper and upper-middle classes are likely to end up better off than most other children, they are also likely to make less than their parents did. And given the steepness of the steps, any descent can feel like a free fall. This is not to suggest that we should have undue pity for the meritocratic elite or their offspring. But understanding reveals something that mere judging cannot.

“Concerted cultivation” is the phrase the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau minted to describe the child-rearing work of upper-middle-class parents. Such parents use their wealth, their economic capital, to pay for any number of enrichment activities for their offspring, thereby endowing them with a range of noneconomic forms of capital—social, symbolic, and cultural. Social connections, we have long known, are essential to acquiring and maintaining our positions. Being part of the “right” organizations and attending the right schools—having a symbolic affiliation with valuable institutions—can pay dividends. And of course, there’s culture. From recognizing art to knowing how to use the silverware at a formal dinner, having cultural tastes and dispositions that match those of the people who make decisions about your fate are essential.

In our hypercompetitive “winner-take-all society”—where the rewards pile up at the top and are scarce for just about everyone else—the multiple games well-off families play involving those various types of capital have been implicated in the trend toward widening inequality. Indeed, the idea that such forms of capital constitute inequality has so strongly permeated our thinking that we rarely step back and ask, “What do they really explain?” and “Do we properly understand how they work?”

Far from being merely academic, our misunderstandings and mystifications of the idea of cultural, social, and symbolic capital have consequences for how we live our lives, set our priorities, view our fellow citizens, arrive at our political convictions, and imagine our collective future. Rather than help us disenchant the often mysteriously entrenched inequities, injustices, and destructive perversities of our collective lives, the concept of cultural capital—and the related social and symbolic capitals—has become a kind of mystifying idol. My hope in the present essay is in some small way to help demystify this concept and bring us slightly closer to clarity.

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