Monday, April 04, 2005

Bourdieu's "Forms of Capital"

Though his prose (in translation anyway) is turgid, jargon-laden and very nearly unreadable, Bourdieu is worth reading for his analysis of the different forms capital takes in a capitalist society beyond cold hard cash -- namely, social capital, the network of connections a person has, and cultural capital, the various status goods one either possesses or knows how to use and the number of academic degrees one has. Bourdieu's goal is not to economize everything, but to emphasize how different forms of social leverage are convertible into each other -- into money if the final analysis demands it, but into status or power or automony or class or whatever particular form of distinction you're interested in. His analysis reminds us the various subtle ways discrimination is reproduced without recourse to explicit economic injustices, which are very obvious and can be eaily documented. Systemic inequality is more insidious than that largely because it plays out in these non-monetary forms of capital, forms that are difficult to translate into money without the background to know how the translation works (having the old-boy's network and knowing how to conduct yourself within it, having the ability to appreciate contemporary art to even feel comfortable enough to buy it, and thereby impress people with it; knowing who to contact to get your articles published with a complete sense of entitlement -- with social and cultural capital it would never occur to you that your every thought wasn't publishable). These are the cues that preserve the perogatives of the already powerful while barring opportunity to the lower classes. These non-monetary forms of capital keep society's invisible walls up while shielding them from undue attention.

This relates to Bourdieu's concept of the habitus, the virtually unconscious ways we betray our class, the way we carry ourselves that ultimately circumscribes our social experience unless we work hard to change it. Of course, most people don't find it in their best interests to change it -- the habitus is what allows one to see one's own prejudicial view of the world as perfectly natural and superior, what allows the Gammas to enjoy being Gammas as much as Alphas enjoy being Alphas, to put it in Brave New World terms, and preserve social harmony. The habitus is what allows some people to recognize cultural capital as a kind of social leverage, and others to simply be in awe of it. It is what allows artists and intellectuals to have no real income to speak of yet have an enormous sense of self-confidence and social power. The habitus is what allows some people to use their education to get good meaningful jobs, while others never really figure out what college was for.

One of Bourdieu's more devestating points seems to me his view of educational systems in general, which exist not to level the playing field and promote meritocracy, but to provide a phoney meritocratic veneer to a patently unfair society that continues to reproduce itself through its old-boy networks and inarticulable cultural know-how. Skeptical about this? Just check the resume of the current American president.

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