Using Cultural Capital

It’s not always about the money.  Yes, the economy has driven people to be more thoughtful about how they spend their money, but it has equally driven people to think about how their purchases reflect on themselves, how they interact with the world and how positive experiences during the shopping act help them preference one location over another.  This isn’t always conscious – indeed, it rarely is.  People seek cultural and social capital when shopping and returning to our old friend Bourdieu can provides an interesting framework for our design decisions.

So what did Bourdieu have to say about these two concepts?  At the risk of being labeled a reductionist, the overarching themes are these: Cultural capital makes up the forms of knowledge, skills, jobs, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. It can also be argued that the things we possess and the places we buy those things provide a form of material cultural capital.

Social capital are the non-tangible resources we possess based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu described social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”

In a nutshell, then, not all capital stems from economics and systems of direct exchange.  The car we drive, the stores we shop at, etc. provide a means by which we project and exchange social and cultural influence. In one context, Levis are a sign of middle class stability, in another they become a sign of blue collar chic for the wealthy.  So while economics, traditional economics, plays a part in the overall pattern of shopping, it is not as simple as unit price.

Cultural capital has three subtypes: embodied, objectified and institutionalized.

  • Embodied cultural capital consists of both the consciously acquired and the passively “inherited” properties of one’s self (with “inherit[ance]” here used not in the genetic sense but in the sense of receipt over time). Cultural capital is not transmissible instantaneously like a gift or bequest; rather, it is acquired over time as it impresses itself upon one’s character and way of thinking.
  • Objectified cultural capital consists of physical objects that are owned, such as our cars, works of art, or even our groceries. These cultural goods can be transmitted both for economic profit (as by buying and selling them with regard only to others’ willingness to pay) and for the purpose of “symbolically” conveying the cultural capital whose acquisition they facilitate. However, while one can possess objectified cultural capital by owning an object; one can “consume” the car, the painting and the groceries (understand its cultural meaning) only if one has the proper foundation of conceptually and/or historically prior cultural capital, whose transmission does not accompany the sale of the object.
  • Institutionalized cultural capital consists of institutional recognition, most often in the form of academic credentials or qualifications, of the cultural capital held by an individual. The institutional recognition process eases the conversion of cultural capital to economic capital by serving as a experience-based model that sellers can use to describe their capital and buyers can use to describe their needs.

It is typically the objectified cultural capital that is the focus of many retailers, and it is perhaps the easiest for them to identify. However, embodied and institutionalized cultural capital are equally important because they reach the intangible.  They reach those depths of the human experience that are the most enduring.

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