Why social capital and belonging are interlinked – the importance of cultural capital

By Vanessa Todman, Head of What Works |

Vanessa Todman argues that in understanding sense of belonging and social capital of university students we need to build an understanding of students’ cultural capital.

As outlined in our recent report, a key focus of our team is monitoring, and testing interventions to influence, the reported sense of belonging of our students. A good example of this is our recent blog on the reported sense of belonging of students who identify as Asian, which also makes the case for why sense of belonging is important in educational institutions. In that blog, we explore building sense of belonging through building a sense of connection, of being part of something bigger than ourselves and having regular, good quality and supportive contact with others[i] . These are important elements of feeling a sense of belonging, and one reason why our work often focuses on increasing social capital . However, there is another element of feeling like you ‘fit in’ which is also important, but much harder to measure, and this is best described through Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’[ii].

The importance of cultural capital

Through education we not only learn important competencies (educational capital), but also learn about ‘legitimate’ culture, knowledge of which allows us to succeed in a symbolic system where distinctions of taste can become markers of our social judgement (e.g. knowing when to wear or buy the “right” thing). The idea of ‘cultural capital’ is that certain objects, or artefacts, and ways of speaking and dressing are more highly valued by society than others. With this idea, Bourdieu is arguing that children of advantaged backgrounds succeed in life (and in the education system) because the culture of institutions (including in schools and universities) resembles the culture that they grew up with, reducing the frictions we can experience when people or institutions don’t act as expected, or require knowledge we don’t know.

This is a truth well recognised in popular culture and famously explored in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, as well Fitzgerald’s ‘the Great Gatsby’, Christie’s ‘Endless Night’ and, more recently, the film ‘Good Will Hunting’. Cultural capital is context dependent. In What Works, when we illustrate this in training exercises we often use a clip of ‘Legally Blonde’ (alongside theory, research etc.) to demonstrate the shock that students can feel if they move into a new context where the things that gave them currency at school are of less value in their new setting.

Handing students the cultural codebook may help them succeed

In effect, society has made up rules and has only told a small proportion of the population what they are.  Central to Bourdieu’s theory is that from going through the educational system you don’t just get a qualification, but also learn the language, tastes and practices which are most valued by the majority culture, and so most valued by universities, and then employers. In other words, educational institutions award you qualifications, but also a status which suggests that through getting a degree, you will know what these ‘rules of the game’ are.

‘[…] the educational institution succeeds in imposing cultural practices that it does not teach and does not even explicitly demand […]’(Bourdieu, 1984[iii] pg18)

It’s reasonable that a working-class parent wants their child to have access to these rules too. However,  the move to measure the extent that children are taught about the things most prized by the dominant culture  in schools has also understandably sparked debate, as it’s a problem when this becomes a focus. It’s alienating not to be taught about your own culture at school.

How important is it to prepare prospective students for university culture?

Behind the thinking about cultural capital in widening participation is often the idea that the move from school to university will be less jarring from those who studied at predominantly middle-class schools than those who went to predominantly working-class schools because not only do they need to learn all they need to pass their degree but they also need to learn a new social grammar[iv].

The question then becomes, if we only have a limited number of things we can do in our widening participation projects, to what extent is it useful for those students from other cultures to be given the cliff notes for western white middle-class culture to help them get on, as oppose to our projects being more widely inclusive? This is something we’re currently grappling with in K+[v], our flagship widening participation programme. We currently organise ‘culture days’ with events such as museum visits. However, they are often less well attended than other events and are not often referred to by participating students in their personal statements. Previous initial exploratory research by King’s as part of the ‘Enterprising Science Project’[vi] on trips by families has also suggested though they can be fun, they may offer little intrinsic value[vii]. We are giving thought to how we might modify these culture days to make them as useful as possible for our students and celebrate a diverse range of cultures in an inclusive way.

The difficult balance of respecting all cultures whilst ensuring everyone feels they fit in.

Teaching students the ‘rules of the game,’ doesn’t have to be at the expense of also celebrating and respecting other cultures. Firstly, because it’s the right thing to do, and also, not doing so could have a negative effect on their feeling of belonging.

Universities need to be a place where prospective students can see that the things that they value are valued by others too. In What Works, it is one reason why we value and promote student societies. This is also why social capital for working-class students is so important, if you have a vast network of people with different skills and experiences you can draw from then you don’t have to choose.

Now that our report on our last two years is out, and looking forward to what we might do in the future, one question I ask myself, and I don’t have the answer to this, is how do we help working-class students find each-other? How do we give them the opportunity to meet and interact with the vast array of personalities and cultures that university has to offer, but also give them an opportunity to feel that feeling at fit, and find others with the same cultural short-hand as them? Whether you’re a student, academic, or practitioner, if you have any ideas we’d love to hear them, just pop them in the comments below, or email WhatWorks@kcl.ac.uk.


Read our reports

Click here to join our mailing list.

Follow us on Twitter: @KCLWhatWorks

[i] Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: relationships to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescence, 13, 21-43

[ii] Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a theory of Practice  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[iii] Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction Oxon: Routledge

[iv] Nash, R (1990) Bourdieu on Education and Social Reproduction British Journal of Sociology of Education (11) 4 431-447

[v] https://www.kcl.ac.uk/study/widening-participation/our-activities/k-plus

[vi] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/education-practice-and-society/science-capital-research/enterprising-science/publications-enterprising-science-project

[vii] Archer, L., Dawson, E., Seakins, A. and Wong, B. (2016) Disorientating, fun or meaningful? Disadvantaged families’ experiences of a science museum visit. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 11 (4). pp. 917-939. ISSN 1871-1510 doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-015-9667-7

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.