Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Cultural capital: science vs. art

I know that quite a few readers of this blog are interested in the concept of cultural capital – the idea developed by Pierre Bourdieu that non-financial, cultural assets facilitate social mobility and open up opportunities and privileges that might not otherwise be accessible. Dressing a certain way, adopting a certain accent when you speak, driving a particular brand of car – these sorts of things can facilitate your social connections and status. Cultural capital clearly plays a big role in consumption, from conspicuous consumption (i.e. buying identifiable luxury goods in order to broadcast messages to others about your taste, class or economic position) to Veblen goods (i.e. items that are perceived to be desirable because of their high cost and potential exclusivity, and the higher the price of the item, the greater the demand). Making particular consumption choices can enable people to increase their cultural capital, which they can then leverage for potentially significant social effects.

To some extent, cultural capital is often thought of in terms of more arts-based values. The way you decorate your home, the books you read and discuss, the brands and designs you choose to buy, the clothes and accessories you have in your wardrobe – these are all ways of accumulating and conveying cultural capital in what Bourdieu called the “objectified” component of cultural capital, or the objects you own that somehow signify your cultural capital. Sometimes this conceptualisation does seem to skew discussions about cultural capital towards more arts-based things, so what I hadn’t really considered before is how science might be seen as cultural capital. (I’m assuming you guys are interested in science if you’re reading this blog in which I describe, you know, scientific studies and research.)

Conveniently enough, there’s a seminar coming up on just that topic: Moving beyond an arts-based conceptualisation of cultural capital? Debating the concept of ‘science capital’ at the Science Museum in London. I will probably be there and I can certainly report back, if people are interested! But in the meantime, it’s interesting to try to think more broadly about how science (including maths and technology) could be considered to be, or could be used as, cultural capital.

I guess it’s obvious for Bourdieu’s “institutionalised” category of cultural capital, i.e. academic qualifications. For that variety of cultural capital, I think sometimes science could be more powerful than arts, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of anyone being laughed at for having, say, a science PhD, whereas I’ve encountered plenty of derogatory attitudes towards art PhDs (e.g. I know of someone who has a PhD in fiction writing, for which she wrote a short sci-fi novel and then wrote a thesis on the themes of her novel – and I know multiple people who find this various combinations of hilarious, ridiculous and offensive).

For the “objectified” category of cultural capital, i.e. objects that people acquire, I guess cultural capital would be in the form of things like having a microscope or telescope at home, having subscriptions to science magazines and journals, having relevant textbooks on the bookshelf. Perhaps even owning and embracing particular bits of technology, e.g. being an early adopter of new technology, or having particular apps on your smartphone (but maybe not having a Google Glass since everyone seems to hate people who wear Google Glass). It’s a bit difficult to convey any sort of scientific sensibility through dress, though… unless you wear a lab coat, but that’s not really feasible or appropriate the majority of the time – although we do know from the classic (and horrifying) Milgram experiments that a lab coat seems to imbue the wearer with an aura of authority. But lab coats aren’t really, say, dinner party attire (or maybe I just need to go to better dinner parties).

As for the “embodied” category of cultural capital, i.e. aspects of your ways of thinking and your character – what would examples of that be? I guess the ability to critically evaluate information in a systematic and logical way would be valuable in terms of contributing to cultural capital. Maybe a skeptical, evidence-based approach to forming judgements and making decisions? Using technical language in the relevant context?

Any thoughts on things that might be considered science-based cultural capital? And are they more or less powerful than the more arts-based ideas of cultural capital? Do pitch in – I know some of you readers out there are very knowledgeable about these sorts of social theories!

MOOC on neuroeconomics

Slightly short notice, but for any of you who might be interested in learning more about how the brain makes decisions, there’s a massive online open course starting tomorrow (June 23) on the topic of neuroeconomics. I have no idea if the course is any good, but it would probably be at least a decent primer on the neuroscience and psychology of how the brain evaluates and processes evidence in order to make a decision – from the level of neurons (e.g. “Neural representation of the subjective value, basal ganglia and choice value” which would cover how information about your ongoing behaviour and its consequences feeds into the basal ganglia, which then assess whether the outcomes of your behaviour are better or worse than expected, and then provide that evaluation back to the more frontal brain regions to come up with a plan for subsequent action – like should you change your behaviour because the outcome was poorer than you expected?) to the interpersonal level and group interactions (social psychology and group dynamics/behaviour are always fascinating to study – they were certainly some of my favourite undergraduate courses when I was at university).

If you end up doing the course, let me know how it goes!

Costs & coats: product pricing relative to salary

I went to the British Museum last year to see a particular exhibition that had captured my fancy – “The Cost of Living in Roman and Modern Britain” (it’s on until April, go see it if you can). It was just a small exhibition, but full of plenty of incredibly fascinating information. One thing in particular that stuck with me was the relative cost of items in terms of how much a soldier in the army could afford, then compared to now. It turns out that the salary of a new-recruit soldier in the Roman army, if you take into account currency values, inflation, etc., was pretty much the same as a new-recruit soldier in the modern British army could expect (somewhere in the region of £16,000 per annum if I remember correctly).

The exhibit included items that both the Roman and the modern soldier might buy and how much it would cost them respectively – what fraction of a day’s salary for a dozen eggs or some dice or whatever. What struck me in particular was that if the modern soldier wanted to buy a winter jacket from the high street, what would it cost him or her? Maybe a couple of days’ worth of salary. By comparison, if a Roman soldier wanted to buy a coat to keep him warm in the winter months, it would set him back a month’s worth of salary. That’s equivalent to about £1200, which most people would consider a pretty large amount of money to be spending on a coat. Incidentally, clothing was also not particularly affordable all the way up until the 19th century, with a man’s suit in the 18th century costing £8 when the cost of providing for a family for an entire year was £40.

Now obviously it’s very much an understatement to say that things have changed a bit since Roman times and since the 18th century. We now have different ways of producing fibres for fabrics, we can do it on a larger scale, we have all sorts of ways of reducing the time taken and the cost of the materials required for manufacturing a garment. But still, I have this misgiving that what we expect to pay for a garment is actually wildly out of step with what it would cost to manufacture a high quality garment from high quality materials using adequately paid skilled labour.

I don’t have much to go on in terms of what such a garment would cost to produce, since the price-tag of a garment (as I’ve mentioned time and time again) is no guarantee of quality. All I have, really, is the price break-downs provided for each garment in the Honest by Bruno Pieters collection, which I discussed here. Those detailed break-downs would suggest that a well-designed, well-made, ethically and sustainably produced garment costs well above what people expect to pay these days – €300-400 is the actual cost for a men’s shirt, €900-1000 for a coat (that coat works out at about £800, so still much less than our Roman soldier was paying back in the day). Maybe the prices would be a bit less if the production scale was larger (since runs are limited to about 10-20 garments per style at the moment), but even an expanded scale wouldn’t reduce the current prices by an enormous amount.

I certainly appreciate the value of low-price clothing for people who are economically disadvantaged and keenly aware of their budgets. There’s no doubt that there are people who really do benefit from that sort of affordability and whose lives are made more comfortable as a result. But for those of us who do have a bit of spare disposable income and whose economic situation isn’t so precarious, is it a valid assumption that we only think that €900 for a coat seems expensive because the profusion of cheaper alternatives has skewed our perception? Is it because we aren’t forced to immediately notice all the compromises – poorer quality materials, underpaid workers, overall diminished longevity – that a more cheaply produced coat entails? I’m reasonably sure that’s the case. It also doesn’t help that genuinely good quality, well produced items are relatively difficult to come by (and designer brand labels are no indicator of it), so we don’t necessarily notice something good when we do see it. That’s if we get past being overwhelmed by the seemingly ridiculous (but actually maybe kind of justified) price-tag.

Does it ultimately come down to the fact that, for whatever reason, we think we’re entitled to not have to spend time saving up for something that’s worth it?