In criticism of meritocratic ideology, common discourse attributes inequity in educational outcomes to the broad notion of “cultural capital.” Coined by Pierre Bourdieu as the ‘collection of skills, tastes and mannerisms’acquired through belonging to a specific social class, “cultural capital,” is not easily taught, but rather inherited from our parents, carers or peers and accumulated over time. (Bourdieu)
From a working class background himself, Bourdieu claims that ‘certain forms of “cultural capital” are valued over others, and can therefore help or hinder’ one’s mobility within society.’ An example of this being the fact that people may assume favoured credibility in certain social situations because of their accent or the way they speak. He suggests that those who embody these certain forms of “cultural capital” have privileged access to capital gains in society. In essence, success in mainstream education is contingent upon our predisposition to dominant forms of “cultural capital,” since the educational system is framed around the cultures of particular social classes; those of the dominant groups. It is hence our degree of familiarity with the specific ways of doing, being and speaking of the dominant groups, which essentially determines our success within mainstream institutions, rather than our individual efforts, talents or abilities, regardless of our social class. Bourdieu argued that inequitable outcomes for working class children was the fault of educational systems for failing to address this.
While Bourdieu provides a useful theoretical base, it lacks contextual depth, and so do the universally used iterations of “cultural capital” in discourse over educational inequality. Prudence Carter has expanded upon Bourdieu’ original concept in her study of the deployment of cultural capital by minority low-income groups in America. She refers to non-dominant “cultural capital,” as the cultural ‘resources used by individuals from minority groups to gain authentic cultural status positions within their respective communities;’this may include ‘linguistic, musical or interactional styles.’(Carter, p. 138) Whilst dominant “cultural capital” may articulate the structural inequalities that pervade society in terms of access to power and economic gain, Carter states that ‘most of the literature tends to ignore the non-dominant form of “cultural capital”.’(Carter, p. 138) Carter further critiques:
‘the ethnocentric bias in the conventional use of cultural capital. Cultural capital’s significance is often predicated on the experiences of the dominant social class; the multiple cultural resources of other groups also convert into capital are ignored.’(Carter p. 138)
Although aspects of Bourdieu’s concept are broadly applicable, Carter suggests that theorists must be more specific about the use of the term and ‘more carefully acknowledge its multidimensionality,’(Carter, p. 139) first and foremost by acknowledging the co-existence of both dominant and non-dominant forms of cultural capital on an equal level of importance. In contrast to Bourdieu, Carter puts distinct emphasis on the inherent value of non-dominant “cultural capital” for minority groups in a field of literature where it is persistently overlooked. The fact that educational systems often fail to view these cultural repertoires as a form of capital is a misconception. Students frequently convert these cultural resources into capital as
they move between their respective social contexts. On a wider level, Carter suggests that we need to re-think the way conventional literature addresses the theory of “cultural capital,” and consequently interrogate the language we use when we talk about these issues.(Carter) A failure to acknowledge non-dominant forms of “cultural capital” as capital cements the idea that this is of little value to individuals within society; the value of which is systemically overlooked by those who are not privy to it.
Carter therefore shifts the emphasis away from economic gain and onto social authenticity when she explores the concept of “cultural capital.” We must resist defining students by what they lack against the culture of the dominant groups. Only then is there a potential for a re-distribution of “cultural capital,” and therefore an inversion of power.