Capital, in the broadest sense, is anything that confers benefit or value on its owner, though we normally associate it with financial assets: the wealth that is used to buy something in order to sell it for profit.
But the capital of the economists is not the only capital that “makes the world go ’round.” In the world that modern commerce helped transform, the gradual dissolution of the traditional hierarchies allowed—indeed encouraged—greater movement up (and down) the social ladder. And the group identified most closely with such mobility was the bourgeoisie, or what came to be known as the middle classes. Members of this broad and elastic social formation made their way in the world through enterprising efforts, acquiring not only wealth but also other forms of capital, including education, affiliations, social networks, special forms of knowledge, manners, tastes, and styles of consumption. Now often called cultural, social, symbolic, or intellectual capitals, these forms of distinguishing capital not only signaled and reinforced one’s wealth (while aiding in the accumulation of more), they also conferred respectability and even moral worth on those who possessed or displayed them.