Symbolic capital

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In sociology and anthropology, symbolic capital can be referred to as the resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition, and serves as value that one holds within a culture. A war hero, for example, may have symbolic capital in the context of running for political office.

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

Sociology is the scientific 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. 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.

Anthropology is the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.


Theorists have argued that symbolic capital accumulates primarily from the fulfillment of social obligations that are themselves embedded with potential for prestige. Much as with the accumulation of financial capital, symbolic capital is 'rational' in that it can be freely converted into leveraging advantage within social and political spheres. Yet unlike financial capital, symbolic capital is not boundless, and its value may be limited or magnified by the historical context in which it was accumulated. Symbolic capital must be identified within the cultural and historical frame through which it originated in order to fully explain its influence across cultures. [1]

Objects, as abstract representations of their environments, may also possess symbolic capital. This capital may be embedded in the built environment, or urban form of a city, as a symbolic representation of that land's cultural value. For example, landmarks usually have symbolic value and utility. They become landmarks precisely because they have symbolic value. This reciprocal relationship provides the landmark with cultural or environmental meaning, while at the same time lending its environment a layer of prestige.


The concept of symbolic capital is grounded in the theory of conspicuous consumption, first introduced and expounded in late-19th century works by Thorstein Veblen and Marcel Mauss. Veblen argued that the nouveau riche utilized lavish displays of wealth to symbolize their entrance into a previously-insulated upper class, embodying objects with meaning that existed only to magnify and confirm their newfound class and status. [2] Mauss subsequently expanded on this argument, suggesting that social competitions for prestige favored those who spent recklessly and forced others into "the shadow of his name". Mauss' theory marked a departure from Veblen's in that he did not seek to frame the individual actor's actions within a cultural context; instead, his theory focused on the overarching structural implementation of status boundaries. [3] Both of these conceptualizations, in turn, provided groundwork for Bourdieu's unifying theory of symbolic capital.

Conspicuous consumption Concept in sociology and economy

Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power—of the income or of the accumulated wealth of the buyer. To the conspicuous consumer, such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means of either attaining or maintaining a given social status.

Thorstein Veblen American academic

Thorstein Bunde Veblen was an American economist and sociologist who became famous as a witty critic of capitalism.

Marcel Mauss was a French sociologist. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, Mauss' academic work traversed the boundaries between sociology and anthropology. Today, he is perhaps better recognised for his influence on the latter discipline, particularly with respect to his analyses of topics such as magic, sacrifice, and gift exchange in different cultures around the world. Mauss had a significant influence upon Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology. His most famous book is The Gift (1925).

The explicit concept of symbolic capital was coined by Pierre Bourdieu, and is expanded upon in his books Distinction and, later, in Practical Reason: on the Theory of Action. Along with theories forwarded by Veblen and Mauss, symbolic capital is an extension of Max Weber's analysis of status. Bourdieu argues that symbolic capital gains value at the cross-section of class and status, where one must not only possess but be able to appropriate objects with a perceived or concrete sense of value.

Pierre Bourdieu French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher

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

Distinction from social capital

The concept of social capital was originally articulated by L. J. Hanifan in a 1916 journal article, The Rural School Community Center, in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He included a chapter on the subject in his 1920 book, The Community Center. The term social capital was later used by Jane Jacobs in her influential writing on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities . Social capital was defined to explain the inherent value formed in neighborhood relationships which allowed members to cooperate and establish a communal sense of trust. Bourdieu, similarly, explains social capital as the degree to which actors are capable of subsisting together in social structures that are often heterogeneous in nature. Where symbolic capital is earned on an individual basis and may fluctuate widely between members in a community, social capital is the overarching sense of trust and cooperation that actors in an environment possess in between one another. An actor may possess a great degree of symbolic capital while isolating themselves from the community, resulting in a low level of social capital, or vice versa.

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.

L. J. Hanifan American economist

Lyda Judson Hanifan, better known as L. J. Hanifan, is credited with introducing the concept of social capital. Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone (2000) credits a 1916 paper by Hanifan as the first recorded instance of the term. Hanifan also authored a book published in 1920 that contains a chapter entitled "Social Capital".

Jane Jacobs American–Canadian journalist, author on urbanism and activist (1916-2006)

Jane Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist who influenced urban studies, sociology, and economics. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of city-dwellers. It also introduced the sociological concepts "eyes on the street" and "social capital".


What follows is a non-exhaustive list of what may constitute symbolic capital. A county commission may recruit local neighborhood leaders to help with zoning laws based on those individuals' prior accomplishments in improving infrastructure or bridging ties at the community level. Activists may hold more leverage in social or political arenas based on their prior experiences (see: combat veterans protesting war, former police chiefs protesting brutality, and so on). Financing or supporting a nation's war efforts may award an individual with social capital should that effort also be accepted by the citizens within the culture. Olympic medalists often serve as embodiments of a nation's prestige.

See also

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  1. Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Veblen, T. 2006. The Theory of the Leisure Class, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Mauss, M. 2006. Techniques Technology and Civilization, New York: Berghahn Books.