Academic capital

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In sociology, academic capital is the potential of an individual’s education and other academic experience to be used to gain a place in society. Much like other forms of capital (social, economic, cultural), academic capital doesn't depend on one sole factor—the measured duration of schooling—but instead is made up of many different factors, including the individual's academic transmission from his/her family, status of the academic institutions attended, and publications produced by the individual.

Sociology Scientific study of human society and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions

Sociology is the study of society, patterns of social relationships, social interaction and culture of everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order, acceptance, and change or social evolution. Sociology is also defined as the general science of society. While some sociologists conduct research that may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro-sociology level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.

In economics, capital consists of assets that can enhance one's power to perform economically useful work. For example, in a fundamental sense a stone or an arrow is capital for a hunter-gatherer who can use it as a hunting instrument, while roads are capital for inhabitants of a city.



Academic capital originated in 1979 when Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), a prominent French sociologist, used the term in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (translated to English in 1984). [1] The book attempts to show how individuals are not defined by social class, but instead by their "social space," which is dependent on each type of capital the individual has. He explained:

Pierre Bourdieu French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and public intellectual.

Social class Hierarchical social stratification

A social class is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes.

“Academic capital is in fact the guaranteed product of the combined effects of cultural transmission by the family and cultural transmission by the school (the efficiency of which depends on the amount of cultural capital directly inherited from the family)” (23). [1]

While Bourdieu discussed social capital, economic capital, and cultural capital at length, he did not explore academic capital in equal detail. His 1986 essay, “The Forms of Capital” does not refer to academic capital as one of the main types of capital that affects the success of individuals; therefore he does not see academic capital as being as important as other kinds. [2]

Social capital Concept

Social capital broadly refers to those factors of effectively functioning social groups that include such things as interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. However, the many views of this complex subject make a single definition difficult.

In finance, mainly for financial services firms, economic capital is the amount of risk capital, assessed on a realistic basis, which a firm requires to cover the risks that it is running or collecting as a going concern, such as market risk, credit risk, legal risk, and operational risk. It is the amount of money which is needed to secure survival in a worst-case scenario. Firms and financial services regulators should then aim to hold risk capital of an amount equal at least to economic capital.

In the field of sociology, cultural capital comprises the social assets of a person that promote social mobility in a stratified society. Cultural capital functions as a social-relation within an economy of practices, and comprises all of the material and symbolic goods, without distinction, that society considers rare and worth seeking. As a social relation within a system of exchange, cultural capital includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers social status and power.

Since Bourdieu first coined the term, it has been used widely—from France, the United States, Australia and Sweden—to discuss many of the implications involved with schooling and the rise of individuals in academia. Numerous studies have been done involving the idea of academic capital, and scholars have disagreed on what counts as academic capital.

France Republic in Europe with several non-European regions

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.02 million. France is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America, commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.

Australia Country in Oceania

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a sovereign country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in Oceania and the world's sixth-largest country by total area. The neighbouring countries are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and East Timor to the north; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east. The population of 26 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. Australia's capital is Canberra, and its largest city is Sydney. The country's other major metropolitan areas are Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

Bourdieu’s definition of the term is applicable to any individual: even an individual interviewing for a secretarial position would benefit from having more schooling than another candidate. However, it seems that most references to academic capital refer solely to professional teachers and researchers within higher education. For example, in 2009, Michael Burawoy defined academic capital as being estimated from an individual’s curriculum vitae , [3] but admitted that it was subjective because some fields of study seem to value certain academic qualities more than others—research, in psychology or study abroad, for scholars in linguistics.

Curriculum vitae summary of career

A curriculum vitae, Latin for "course of life", often shortened as CV or vita, is a written overview of someone's life's work. Vitae often aim to be a complete record of someone's career, and can be extensive. They are different from a résumé, which is typically a brief 1–2 page summary of qualifications and work experience for the purposes of employment, and often only presents recent highlights. In many countries, a résumé is typically the first item that a potential employer encounters regarding the job seeker and is typically used to screen applicants, often followed by an interview. Vitae may also be requested for applicants to postsecondary programs, scholarships, grants and bursaries. In the 2010s, some applicants provide an electronic text of their CV to employers using email, an online employment website or using a job-oriented social-networking-service website, such as LinkedIn.

Psychology is the science of behavior and mind. Psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. It is an academic discipline of immense scope. Psychologists seek an understanding of the emergent properties of brains, and all the variety of phenomena linked to those emergent properties, joining this way the broader neuroscientific group of researchers. As a social science it aims to understand individuals and groups by establishing general principles and researching specific cases.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It involves analysing language form, language meaning, and language in context. The earliest activities in the documentation and description of language have been attributed to the 6th-century-BC Indian grammarian Pāṇini who wrote a formal description of the Sanskrit language in his Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Academic capital is not to be confused with other terms that sound familiar—academic capitalism, intellectual capital. Intellectual capital is a business term for the collective knowledge in an organization, considered a capital cost. Academic capitalism is when universities act like profit-seeking organizations that market the knowledge that they can give to students, or clients.


While there is not one specific way to measure academic capital, researchers throughout the world have enacted studies that quantify an individual's academic capital. Some of the ways researchers have attempted to measure academic capital are through:


On an individual level, academic capital influences and informs several important aspects of life. In the most basic sense, academic capital is strongly tied to earning potential. Individuals with only a high school diploma, on average, make over $20,000 less annually than individuals with an undergraduate degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For individuals who do not have a high school degree, opportunities for monetary earning fall below $30,000 less than those with a degree. [6]

Whereas the biggest stepping stone to attain a higher paying career used to be an undergraduate degree, the common discussion in today’s market is the devalued status of a Bachelor’s degree. A Bachelor’s degree no longer holds the same academic capital it used to, and holding such a degree no longer entitles one to the same job opportunities and income possibilities it used to. Government statistics reveal that over the past 8 years, the average weekly earnings of individuals with bachelor's degrees have actually decreased, in relation to inflation, by nearly 2%. [7] Therefore, many individuals are studying beyond four-year institutions in order to increase their capital and ultimately their income. When compared to an individual with a bachelor's degree, an individual with a graduate degree makes, on average, nearly $75,000 more annually. [6]

In broader terms, a person’s academic capital affects his or her career opportunities and ultimately his or her career decisions. Again, with the diminished status of an undergraduate degree, individuals need to attend further schooling in order to increase their academic capital and their opportunities in the job market. Academic capital doesn't influence only one's final career choice, but also influences a person’s social standing and clout. Holding a doctoral degree or graduate degree earns a person a certain social esteem that those with only a high school diploma often do not receive. It also affects a person’s social networking, as those with higher education have had access and exposure to others following similar paths. It will affect where a person lives (due both to financial opportunities and social networking) and, ultimately, where his or her children go to school, creating a cyclical, interwoven relationship between schooling and social status.

An individual's academic capital does not affect only their own personal life, but also the lives of those around them, like their children or, in the case of teachers, their students. Several studies suggest that a teacher’s qualifications and academic capital have a direct relationship with their students’ success. What makes this issue of great concern is that teachers with high levels of academic capital are not distributed evenly throughout the population. According to the Illinois Education Research Council, as levels of poverty and minority populations increase within a school, the number of teachers with high academic capital strongly decrease. Just the reverse was true in school systems with low levels of poverty and minority students—at such schools, the number of teachers with high academic capital strongly outnumbered the teachers with a low academic capital as much as 40 to 1. [8] Since there is a direct correlation between a teacher’s academic capital and his or her students’ success, it is concerning to consider that students who find themselves in low income, high minority schools will not have the same opportunity to grow and expand their own academic capital as would similar students at an institute with lower poverty and minority rates.

The Illinois Education Research Council acknowledges that academic capital is only one of the many things that constitute a teacher's success in the classroom; however, its report refers to a study that used student value-added data to determine a direct link between a student’s progress and his or her teacher’s academic capital. A similar study done in the state of Texas came to comparable conclusions that the skill level of a teacher informs the students’ success. [9] While much of the discussion focuses on the general lack of qualifications held by some current educators in the system, the overarching theme is that the higher the qualifications and skill set, the better the outcome for the student.

As much as a teacher has a role in a child's development and ability to acquire the academic capital that will prepare him or her for further education, the role of the parent cannot be overlooked. The parents, to begin with, set the child up for the type of education he/she will receive early in life. The family’s economic background and locale will determine the type of school the child attends, therefore influencing the teachers the child will have, and ultimately informing the opportunity for academic capital. Aside from that, the culture of the family, what the family values and respects, will inform a child’s decision to attend higher education as opposed to joining the work force or pursuing alternate paths. Even if children do manage to step outside their family name and expectations, their family can still influence their academic capital. A child whose father attended an Ivy league school, for example, may still have more social clout than he would ordinarily have even if he himself did not attend college. Similarly, an individual from a working-class family, a first generation college student, may not attain full academic capital due to his familial association.

Relation with cultural capital

Bourdieu argues that academic capital is affected by cultural capital, and vice versa. [1] If one has a high degree of schooling, then it is likely that he or she will have more cultural capital—perhaps skills in painting or music—because he or she has been in the education system longer. Similarly, those individuals who do not value education would not likely value the cultural practices that education enforces, like visiting museums or attending drama performances. In a study done by Javier Rojas regarding cultural capital and academic achievement in Mexico, by looking at the academic level and the participation in cultural activities (art gallery, opera, museum, symphony, etc.) of fifteen-year-olds in Mexico, the amount of cultural intake was directly proportional to the level of academic achievement in the students. [10]

However, it has been argued (Sullivan, A. 2007, Crook, C. 1997) that Bourdieu’s research on the different types of capital does not actually explain a relationship; rather that it simply demonstrates a cycle. [11] [12]

Further opinions

The definition and effects of academic capital have been widely contested for a variety of reasons. While Bourdieu initially claims that academic capital is simply measured by the duration of schooling, [1] other studies have posited that factors such as family and social capital, as well as culture, affect academic capital.

Keith Roe argues that academic capital is more than the duration of schooling. He states that “students from privileged backgrounds may squander their cultural inheritance and some students from less privileged backgrounds are able to overcome their cultural disadvantages as a result of exceptional ability and certain features of their family background.” [13] This idea contrasts the notion that duration is the only measure of academic capital, since a student may go to four-year university while another goes to two-year junior college, but if the four-year student isn't invested in academics he doesn't utilize the capital.

Roe believes that academic capital is the “guaranteed product of the interaction of cultural transmission by the family and by the school.” He explains that factors like economic and cultural capital affect the accumulation and retention of academic capital. Roe finds that social class influences the acquisition of academic capital:

“A general opposition is found within each social class between the fractions richest in cultural capital and poorest in economic capital and those richest in economic capital and poorest in cultural capital. Those who have acquired the bulk of their cultural capital in and for school are found to have more 'classical', safer, cultural investments than those who have received a large cultural inheritance.” [13]

Therefore, economic capital and cultural capital have the ability to influence the type of academic capital that one accrues both within schools and at home. The fact that people who gain most of their cultural capital in schools are considered to have more legitimate tastes and preferences makes it seem like they have more academic capital in some cases.

In her dissertation "The Effects of Secondary School Climate on Students' Academic Success," Margaret Johansson explores the idea that “connectedness to the school community of teachers and peers … allows the student to use the social capital of the school to maximize education gains.” [14] It also addresses the “moderating effect of the parent-adolescent relationship on the link between school climate and academic outcomes,” which relates to the idea that academic capital isn't just measured by the duration of schooling, but also the quality. Johansson addresses the idea that “family social capital and school social capital [are] determinants of secondary school success.” Two students who attend similar four-year colleges should have the same amount of social capital if duration of schooling is the only determinant, but it has been noted that students from certain social and cultural groups gain more academic capital than their peers.

Kevin Marjoribanks, a preeminent scholar in the international education community over several decades, argues that “family background, childhood social and academic capital, and adolescents' social capital combine to have medium to large associations with adolescents' aspirations.” [15] He also indicates that “within encompassing family backgrounds, differences in educational outcomes should be examined in relation to children's and parents' perceptions of social and cultural capital and to variations in children's academic capital.” His analysis strengthens the argument that the duration of schooling (coupled with its quality) and family and social environments affect aspirations and success.

Some have even argued that society's strong emphasis on gaining academic capital may be a cause of the high rates of cheating and plagiarism in schools. Since gaining academic capital may be the one way for those in academia to move up in their field, greater stress is placed on this form of capital, and therefore pressure can arise to do better than a scholar thinks he or she is capable of, leading them to cheat or plagiarize. [16]

See also

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Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to one's current social location within a given society.

James Samuel Coleman American sociologist

James Samuel Coleman was an American sociologist, theorist, and empirical researcher, based chiefly at the University of Chicago. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association. He studied the sociology of education and public policy, and was one of the earliest users of the term "social capital." His Foundations of Social Theory influenced sociological theory. His "The Adolescent Society" (1961) and "Coleman Report" were two of the most cited books in educational sociology. The landmark Coleman Report helped transform educational theory, reshape national education policies, and it influenced public and scholarly opinion regarding the role of schooling in determining equality and productivity in the United States.

A hidden curriculum is a side effect of schooling, "[lessons] which are learned but not openly intended" such as the transmission of norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment. It should be mentioned that the breaktime is an important part of the hidden curriculum.

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Sociology of education


Cultural reproduction is the transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation. Cultural reproduction refers to the mechanisms by which continuity of cultural experience is sustained across time. Cultural reproduction often results in social reproduction, or the process of transferring aspects of society from generation to generation.

  1. Groups of people, notably social classes, act to reproduce the existing social structure to preserve their advantage
  2. The processes of schooling in modern societies are among the main mechanisms of cultural reproduction, and do not operate solely through what is taught in courses of formal instruction.

Oppositional culture, also known as the ‘’blocked opportunities framework’’ or the “caste theory of education”, is a term most commonly used in studying the sociology of education to explain racial disparities in educational achievement, particularly between white and black Americans. However, the term refers to any subculture's rejection of conformity to prevailing norms and values, not just nonconformity within the educational system. Thus many criminal gangs and religious cults could also be considered oppositional cultures.

Socioeconomic status Economic and social measure of a persons affluence and/or influence

Socioeconomic status (SES) is an economic and sociological combined total measure of a person's work experience and of an individual's or family's economic and social position in relation to others, based on household income, earners' education, and occupation are examined, as well as combined income, whereas for an individual's SES only their own attributes are assessed. However, SES is more commonly used to depict an economic difference in society as a whole.

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Educational inequality is the unequal distribution of academic resources, including but not limited to; school funding, qualified and experienced teachers, books, and technologies to socially excluded communities. These communities tend to be historically disadvantaged and oppressed. More times than not, individuals belonging to these marginalized groups are also denied access to the schools with abundant resources. Inequality leads to major differences in the educational success or efficiency of these individuals and ultimately suppresses social and economic mobility. See Statistic sections for more information.

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Science capital is a conceptual tool for measuring an individual's exposure and knowledge of science. It can be used to help understanding how social class affects people's aspirations and involvement in science. The concept comes from research in education but is also used more broadly in practice and policy, for instance in the work of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons in the UK.


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  3. Burawoy, Michael. “The Public Sociology Wars.” Ed. Jeffries, Vincent. Handbook of Public Sociology. UK: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2009. 449-470.
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