Summary of Bourdieu Study Group event: Capital: in all its forms

On Tuesday 30th June 2015, the BSA Bourdieu Study Group held a workshop exploring Pierre Bourdieu’s extension of the traditional sociological concept of capital. The event opened for discussion and debate on Bourdieu’s advancement of the concept of capital to not only include its monetary exchange assets, but to also incorporate a broader understanding of the ways different forms of culture and networks – as exchange resources – could be enacted upon and transformed within and across different fields. In addition, the event examined the relevance of Bourdieu’s concept of capital in contemporary society as well as considered the consequences for the expansion of the Bourdieusian tradition in which new forms of capital are being constructed.


The event was structured around seven presentations. Professor Derek Robbins (University of East London) opened the event with his keynote: ‘For a sociogenetic understanding of Bourdieu’s concepts.’ Professor Robbins started off by speaking about the international circulation of ideas, together with all the structural misunderstandings resulting from it. Bourdieu’s large body of work, and in particular his forms of capital, have been open to multiple interpretations. Robbins quoted the concluding remarks from Calhoun et al.’s (1993) book: Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives:

‘Texts, as we know, circulate without their contexts, that is, without the benefit of being accompanied by everything they owe to the social space within which they have been produced or, more precisely, to the space of possibilities (in this case, scientific) in relation to which they constructed themselves. It follows that the categories of perception and interpretation that readers apply to them, being themselves linked to a field of production subject to different traditions, have every chance of being more or less inadequate.’ (p.263)

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Professor Robbins argued that we must see capital as a relational concept. While it is important to remember that economic capital is a source for all the other types of capital, these other types of capital must never simply be reduced to economic capital as they are transformed and disguised forms of economic capital. Their real specific effects can only be understood in their concealment. To quote Bourdieu:

‘…the holders of capital have an ever greater interest in resorting to reproduction strategies capable of ensuring better-disguised transmission, but at the cost of greater loss of capital, by exploiting the convertibility of the types of capital. Thus the more the official transmission of capital is prevented or hindered, the more the effects of the clandestine circulation of capital in the form of cultural capital become determinant in the reproduction of the social structure.’ (Bourdieu, 1986, p.254).

Le sociologue français Pierre Bourdieu. 1993. Paris. photo: Leonardo Antoniadis

Upon opening questions to the floor after Robbins talk, the most eagerly awaited question arose: ‘What would Bourdieu think of the new forms of capital that have gained notoriety, such as erotic capital?’ To which Robbins responded ‘that he [Bourdieu] wouldn’t have much liked it!’ Robbins spoke of how social capital in some respects had been a compromise for Bourdieu and that James Coleman’s and Robert Putnam’s conception of social capital was an example of how removing the concept from the original context of its production led to multiple interpretations.

Our next keynote was Professor Mike Savage (London School of Economics) with his presentation: ‘Operationalising Bourdieu’s approach to capitals in class analysis’. Professor Savage discussed how todays sociologists can re-appraise Bourdieu’s classic study of the relationships between capitals to explore social divisions of class in contemporary Britain. Professor Savage considered aspects of Bourdieu’s methodological approaches in examining how capitals interacted in different fields. Savage spoke of how Bourdieu saw multiple correspondence analysis as ‘not “hypothesis driven” but a way of arraying complex datasets to reveal patterns’. Savage argued that multiple correspondence analysis visualised the relational tensions within the field of which different capitals are operating.   However, when it comes to analysing economic capital, multiple correspondence analysis becomes less useful as economic capital is not embodied. Therefore, more examination of the ‘relationship between current earned income and stored wealth is crucial’ Elites, he argued are extremely important for class analysis, particularly wealth accumulation. Savage then told how Thomas Piketty’s book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century has ‘massively enhanced the concept of economic capital in understanding this relationship’.


Professor Savage spoke to delegates about the various ways in which different capitals could be measured. In terms of social capital, the Position Generator (Lin & Dumin, 1986; Lin, Fu, and Hsung, 2001) is the most used survey instrument for measuring individuals’ social capital. Savage drew on the recent example of Dr Daniel Laurison and Dr Sam Friedman of multiple correspondence analysis to measure individuals’ network occupations and prestige. Coined the ‘class ceiling’, Laurison and Friedman have documented the hidden barriers for the upwardly mobile within Britain’s elite occupations.

Professor Savage concluded that Bourdieu analyses of social class was ‘non-reductionist, multi-dimensional and historical’. Therefore, a Bourdieusian analysis needs to place capitals into ‘a wider context of fields and habitus to be adequately understood’.

Following on from the methodological approach of how to work with Bourdieu was Dr Emma Jackson (Goldsmiths College) in her paper on; ‘The uses and the limits of ’embodied capital’ in ethnographic research.’ Dr Jackson drew on her book on Young Homeless People and Urban Space  and her chapter on Cosmopolitan Belonging recently published in Bacqué et al. (2015) The Middle Classes and the City: A Study of Paris and London. Using reflexivity, Dr Jackson exemplified the inner turmoil experienced as a young Northern women ethnographer researching both homelessness and Southern middle-classiness in London. For Jackson, reflexivity was a methodological tool in aiding her understanding of how her interviewees responded to her. She spoke about how a researcher’s self-conception of their embodied self comes into question through interaction with respondents from different backgrounds. That being an ethnographer can result in being questioned and tested by interviewees in order for them to vindicate to themselves what they will share with you. Therefore, the concept of reflexivity is essential as a methodological principle in acknowledging the social construction of the knowledge a social researcher collects.


Dr Lisa Mckenzie (London School of Economics) continued on from the theme of ethnography and reflexivity in her talk which was entitled: ‘Is Bourdieu too Fashionable? The use-value of the academic language’ (not ‘Tackling ethnography and the bulls**t way Bourdieu is used’ which was previously advertised due to a communication error). Dr Mckenzie started off by expressing the near impossibility to read and make sense of original Bourdieu texts particularly when people first engage with them. For this reason, Dr Mckenzie fears that this may deter students and academics in tackling these texts whilst at the same time claiming to have read them and asserting that Bourdieu is ‘central to their understanding of the world’. As such, Mckenzie asks ‘why would people assert this? What is in it for them?’ For her the answer may be to question whether ‘the work of Bourdieu is too fashionable?’ And ‘would Bourdieu be a Bourdieusian?’ Mckenzie argued that we are seeing a commodification of Bourdieu perhaps due to the marketisation of academia. ‘Once you’ve got a book published on Bourdieu – you’ve made it!’ Mckenzie declared. This then has resulted in a number of recent publications claiming to have conceived a new form of capital which Bourdieu himself missed.

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As one could imagine, delegates were excited to ask questions not just to Mckenzie, but also to the Bourdieu Study Group itself on why they had chosen to invite previous speakers which were seen as “provocative”. Co-convenor of the Bourdieu Study Group, Jenny Thatcher, asserted that the study group established a forum to facilitate discussion and debate in order to understand not just Bourdieu’s own work, but the relevance of his concepts in relation to ongoing and current research in affinity with Bourdieu’s integration of theory and practice. This means that despite convenors’ own social positions and socio-political convictions, the Bourdieu Study Group still aims to examine research which we are sometimes uncomfortable with. It is only through this assessment and scrutiny that Bourdieusians can dispel or support the relevance of different Bourdieu-related research. This does not always mean that we need to take an orthodox approach and that researchers cannot use Bourdieu in innovative ways. But it necessitates that as a study group we are not going to ‘no platform’ research which we consider not to be “academic”, especially when this research has Bourdieu’s name associated with it whilst receiving main-stream public attention.

In regards to the question of ‘whether Bourdieu is too fashionable?’, co-convenor Thatcher stressed that it is not the widespread use of Bourdieu which is the problem, but rather those using Bourdieu who do not and have not tried to understand the context in which Bourdieu’s theoretical framework was produced, as outlined by Professor Robbins in the opening presentation. ‘As a study group, we frequently have students attend our events who have been told by their PhD supervisors that they are not allowed to use Bourdieu because “everyone” is’ Therefore, the important question to ask is why are so many people now wanting to use Bourdieu, rather then is he too “popular”? One answer may be that the relational aspect of Bourdieu’s forms of capital are particularly useful in analysing contemporary society. Of course, there is no doubt that there is a small minority who seek to exploit Bourdieu in order to gain academic advancement, however, the majority of Bourdieu Study Group members are drawn to Bourdieu through a sense of affinity, usually very early on in their sociological education at undergraduate level and before they would even really know whether they were going to progress into academia or not. Coincidentally, it is Bourdieu’s work on the brutality of symbolic violence in the education system, particularly for students from a working class background, which tends to inspire Bourdieusian students to continue into academia. Essentially, the Bourdieu Study Group would argue that a new generation of sociologists are attracted to Bourdieu because they want to think sociologically about the world they live in, but are not committed to managing a sociological career within the circumscribed field of professional sociology as currently practised in the UK.

Next was Dr Derron Wallace’s (Brandeis University) keynote entitled: ‘Reading ‘Race’ in Bourdieu: Examining ‘Black’ Cultural Capital Among Black Caribbean Youth in South London,’ which explored the concept of ‘Black’ cultural capital. Dr Wallace outlined two distinct perspectives of ‘Black’ cultural capital: Rollock et al.’s reference in The Colour of Class (2015) and Prudence Carter’s elaboration in Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White (2005). Wallace draws on Thornton (1995) who used Bourdieu to explore self–conscious ′subcultures′. Young people sought distinction and alternative cultural worth by rejecting the ‘mainstream’ and accumulating ′subcultural capital.′ Wallace argues that young Black Caribbean men in his research in South London and across different social fields (in which dominant and non-dominant cultural capital co-existed) would embody ‘Black’ cultural capital as a means to position themselves amongst non-dominant peer groups. Through his empirical research, Wallace explained to delegates what he means by ‘Black’ cultural capital:

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‘Being Black is about having power, respect, you get me?…yeah, it means having power, maybe not with the teachers, but definitely with friends. So many people want to be Black or be like us, especially on the social sense. With my mates in school or on the streets, it’s the best thing to be, unless the FEDs (police) are around.’ (Year 10 working-class boy from Wallace’s research).

Again, drawing on his participants, Wallace illustrated what his interviewees show as the benefits of ‘Black’ cultural capital as well as the boundaries. Wallace’s use of participants’ perspectives of ethnic social division show how young people can sometimes make the best critical sociologists.

Next was one of the co-convenors of the Bourdieu Study Group, Dr Ciaran Burke (Ulster University), with his paper entitled: ‘Capital and graduate trajectories: What happens when the capital runs out?’ Dr Burke demonstrated how he uses Bourdieu’s concepts as thinking tools by applying them to different and new empirical settings. Burke’s research on the employments paths of people who had recently graduated from universities in Northern Ireland showed how different forms of capital were not fixed nor determined, but in fact relational – particularly when it came to analysing the role of class on graduate employment trajectories. As such, argued Burke, different capitals are “invested” in with the consequence of “devaluation” of some forms of capital. Methodologically, using Bourdieu’s capitals, allowed Burke to chart an individual’s employment trajectory and offered him both a more thorough and a dynamic understanding of their life history.

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Last, but definitely not least, was Annabel Wilson, a research student from Cardiff University with her presentation on: ‘The Role of Localised Capital in Social Mobility’. In this closing talk, Wilson astounded both senior academics and early career researchers with her research from her undergraduate dissertation. The paper drew upon the narratives of a group of young people with varying educational backgrounds and trajectories from Bristol. Her sample ranged from those who had left school at 16 with no GCSE’s to those who had graduated from Russel group universities. Wilson spoke about how these young people shared a common identification with one of two rival area-based gangs. The gangs imitated the well-known Los Angeles ‘Bloods and Crips’ who are recognisable through their choice of clothing colour (either red or blue). She argued that their motivations for identifying with these gangs serve to protect their sense of self and belonging during a process of social mobility. Wilson argued ‘that whilst identification with these gangs often results in young people being denigrated and labelled as anti-social members of the ‘underclass’ on one hand, their identifications were in fact attempts to generate symbolic value and worth on the other hand.’ Using a Bourdieusian framework, Wilson illustrated how the young people’s stories were located contextually within their dominated position in social space and identification with this group generated a form of localised capital. ‘This localized capital, whilst not exchangeable within the wider field of power served to protect their habitus as they embarked on a journey of social mobility’. Wilson concluded that the young people’s identity and stylistic displays were symbolically legitimated in at least one field that provided them with a buffer if things went wrong during their transition from the local field of the “ghetto” to the wider social space where they faced symbolic violence.

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The event achieved its aim of bringing together many of the Bourdieu Study Group’s past speakers and those that have been present at former events to discuss and review Bourdieu’s concepts of capital: what they are, why and how to extend and apply them to contemporary society and, most importantly, how not to misinterpret Bourdieu’s capital! The day was ended with a wine reception which allowed delegates to discuss the topics and issues that had been raised throughout the day.

Co-convenor Jenny Thatcher and keynote Dr Derron Wallace are currently planning to publish a special journal issue featuring the papers that were presented on the day. More details will be released soon.


Bourdieu. P: “The Forms of Capital” in J.G. Richardson, ed., 1986, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, New York/Westport/London, Greenwood Press.

Calhoun, C et al (1993) for a Socio-Genetic Understanding of Intellectual Works” in C.Calhoun, E. Lipuma, & M. Postone, eds., 1993, Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, Oxford, Polity Press.


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