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Been thinking about capital lately. The typical definition is …

  • assets available for use in the production of further assets, or …
  • wealth in the form of money or property owned by a person or business and human resources of economic value

There are various other types of capital, however, not just that which involves material wealth. There’s social capital and human capital, for example, but the one that I’m most intrigued with is cultural capital.

I stumbled upon the idea of cultural capital quite by accident. My husband and I were discussing why things in our town never change. People in the upper classes stay in the upper classes, always running everything, while people in the lower classes stay in the lower classes, unable to get ahead. Anyone who is creative enough to dare to change this status quo is either ignored or tamped down by those in power. One of the ways the upper class keeps the lower class down is to constantly tell the poor how stupid and lazy they are. (A public school teacher in our district once used the term “infested” in reference to poor people when a low-income housing project was being planned for her neighborhood. Others in the school district have said things like, “We have low test scores because so many of our students are on free and reduced lunch.”)

We, of course, vehemently disagree with this assessment for the simple fact that our family income has been at poverty level for many, many years, yet somehow our children have managed to maintain better than average grades and test scores. That, and we like to think we know intelligence when we see it. Poverty does not equate with stupidity, plain and simple.

Of course, wealth does buy people opportunities, but when I consider the cultural opportunities (museum visits, arts events, concerts, walks in the woods, ethnic restaurants, etc.) we and our extended family members have provided for our children, I’d say they’re pretty well off. And because we don’t have a lot of money to spend on these activities, we find inexpensive alternatives, or our extended family members provide them as birthday gifts. We also choose our activities carefully and do without a lot of material stuff.

When I discussed my thoughts on how cultural activities have affected our kids with my husband, who is studying sociology, he said, “There’s a term for that. It’s cultural capital.” Through our own experience with our children, we’ve discovered that you don’t have to have financial capital in order to have cultural capital.

It is my observation that filling people with cultural capital can be just as important, if not more so, than making a lot of financial capital available to them. In fact, it seems that people of other classes can’t guess that we are financially in poverty because we have enough cultural capital built up in order to offset our lack of material capital.** Funny how that works, huh?

If we as a society focused more on cultural capital than on financial capital, might we be better able to overcome our class differences or, perhaps, our long-term class positions?

**(Note: While our income is below the poverty level for a family our size, we’re not so far below that we are in basic survival mode. If we were in that mode, any thought of gaining cultural capital would be moot. We’d just be trying to figure out how to feed ourselves, which takes precedence over everything.)