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!

15 Thoughts on “Cultural capital: science vs. art

  1. I think Silicon Valley and the rise of the disruptive technology everywhere has definitely changed how society views and uses science capital. Nerds and geeks are in, jocks and cheerleaders are out. I’m sure Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Neil Degrasse Tyson are more widely worshipped than Gagosian or Glenn Lowry of MoMA. You see this science capital cross-pollinate with cultural capital too, like HBO’s new show, Silicon Valley. STEM is definitely “in”, humanities (particularly theatre or women’s studies) are “out”. Yet, so far the pattern seems to be science capital –> capital cultural capital social capital. At least for now, cultural capital seems to still have more cache and prestige than science capital. I think this is entirely due to the fact that cultural capital in its many forms, mostly high Culture, is that much older and deeply embedded in the way people think about status. It is most easily translatable than science. Scientific research seems to be always at the mercy of benefactors for funding (sad to say at least in the US). And who know if the latest gold rush into apps and other software of the “sharing economy” (Uber, AirBnB) will be this decade’s dot com bubble.

    To be perfectly honest I am quite tired of the whole STEM vs the arts debate. I don’t think society can better off without one or the other. Personally, I am of two disciplines: economics (which is basically applied mathematics nowadays) and history of art. The greatest achievement would be to a polymath, a modern day renaissance man/woman with fluency in both.

    I would be very interested in what you have to say about the seminar in London. No pressure though :P

    • Clarification: The formatting seems to have omitted the arrows I put in between the different forms of capital. There is straightforward one between science cap and cap, whereas there are double ended ones for cultural and social.

      • Jess on July 4, 2014 at 5:19 pm said:

        That’s really interesting – in what sort of contexts have you seen the arts vs. STEM/science debate? Is it in terms of the opinion that we should be encouraging more people into STEM because of the STEM jobs that will be available in the future, and doing so at the expense of the arts? I think I’ve only seen that debate in a purely economic context, in terms of what will provide employment in expanding sectors and industries, and it seems to have been more about actively encouraging people to pursue STEM careers rather than explicitly discouraging them from pursuing arts careers. But I realise I must be quite sheltered from the more arts-based discussions and arguments, given how embedded I am in science and I don’t really get the chance for much truly cross-disciplinary discussion.

        I would really like to know more about the viewpoint from the perspective of the arts – I’ve never personally felt that arts weren’t a necessity to human culture, but I guess I’ve not paid close attention to how there might be some sort of values-based cultural push against arts at a more general level. Maybe that comes from the fact that the public interest in science can sometimes seem quite superficial – like people absolutely love watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox documentaries about the universe, and they like attending science festivals and listening to RadioLab podcasts and whatever, and that’s all fantastic, but I still feel that at a basic level, the general public doesn’t really get the fundamental structure and methodology of science yet, like the actual application of the scientific method or of mathematics to real world scenarios and information. The number of schoolkids who think there is no day-to-day application for the algebra or the calculus or the statistics they learn – that sort of shows that even though people like STEM subjects, they don’t really appreciate that they can apply them at a practical level in their daily lives and not just as a career (like having a knowledge of statistics/probability so that they can understand the difference between relative and absolute risk of, say, particular health problems and disorders). So I see a lot of people who do things like join that Facebook group “I fucking love science” (even though so many of the posts aren’t actually teaching any useful information about science or providing any true insight into it) but there’s not usually the same deep level of passion and enjoyment as there is when people share a Spotify playlist of their favourite music or post images of artworks they love. I think there has certainly been an increased general interest in science over the past few years, and that the stigma of being a nerd/geek has been stripped away to some extent, but for a lot of people, that interest in science is not a fundamental part of their lives or identities in the way that more arts-based factors are.

        But then again, I guess cultural capital has never been about really appreciating the fundamental purpose of your choices and preferences – people don’t buy Hermès bags necessarily just because of a deep appreciation for the design and the aesthetics and the workmanship; they might not actually like the look of the thing that much at all but they’ll still buy one because of the message it sends. I guess in terms of science then, science capital has now gained enough cachet to be broadcast more freely than before, but people can still achieve increased social mobility through only a superficial understanding of science, just as they can pretend to like Dostoyevsky or Yves Klein or Sartre or whoever, or they can affect an accent of a region they have never even visited, and still achieve the same ends regarding social mobility.

        • In the US, a lot of unis are cutting down small humanities depts in favour of opening pretty new labs to attract students. You also see it often on Reddit, where lots of comp sci/engineers lord over anyone just because their industry happens to be the hot shit right now. Generally the attitude tends to be hard science ppl > everyone else. It’s pretty clique-y. I got lucky in attending a liberal arts school, where we were encouraged to pick courses across disciplines and enjoy different schools of thought. Few are as fortunate as I was.

          Also maybe it’s just the people I know, but a disturbing amount of science people are TERRIBLE writers (not you of course). I’ve edited quite a few theses and research papers for friends and my god, it doesn’t seem they can handle anything longer than lab reports (and these are all high achieving, going on to grad school types).

          The superficiality aspect is not surprising since such types of capital are used for signaling more than anything.

        • liesbeth on July 24, 2014 at 11:10 am said:

          I am one of those weird folks that is good at logics and math, loves the scientific method, but still prefers all ‘soft’ sciences (I’m a master in literature but would have gladly followed another study like history, philosophy, sociology, women’s studies etc.). Which is why I’m here although I don’t really understand everything you say perfectly. I can attest to the fact that people who are good at math are (in my country, Belgium) consistently pushed to pursue further education in STEM. I really had to hold my ground when I was 18 to convince my parents and my guidance counselor that literature was a good option for me.
          Anyhow, I wanted to react to the fact that you feel that WHEN the general public shows appreciation for science, it’s only in a superficial way. I know from general experience (college friends, starting my career in a bookstore …) that this is the same for art. Unless you are in a group of hipsters or elitists (which I do enjoy by the way), it’s always the same names that conjure enthusiasm, be it for music (Glastonbury main stage), literature (just check the bestseller list), film (imdb top 100 should get you far), even art (only a handful of names per country are known to most; and it’s always the same wall posters you see). Even on the internet I’m always amazed that from the huge amount of video’s and ‘funny’ pics it’s always the same ones that everyone seems to know (concept of going viral). If you want to talk in depth about something you’ve heard/read/seen that isn’t so widely known: good luck with that. Which is why I married a like-minded culture lover and set up a reading group – so I still get the intellectual stimulation I crave :).

          • I wonder if it might simply be the case then that everyone only has a passing or dilettane interest in anything (across the breadth of arts and sciences) except the subset of things they choose to focus on and pour their attention and efforts into. I definitely take your point about people only have a cursory interest in aspects of arts (literature, film, music, whatever) to the extent perhaps where they feel like they have fulfilled society’s expectations of what they “should” know and enjoy. I guess it’s about resource allocation – perhaps some people are only willing to scratch the surface of many fields of interest, whereas others are willing to delve deeply into a limited number of fields, whereas others opt for some combination thereof. And you and I get frustrated when we meet the people who have chosen not to invest their time and interest in depth in art and science.

            Also, sorry for taking so long to approve your comments, Liesbeth! They got lost in a deluge of spam and I didn’t see them until just now.

  2. Interesting idea. I think what really makes the difference here is money. As with your example of science vs. arts degrees, when one hears of someone having a PhD in, say, molecular biology, they’re going to think “well, that person must have a very good job.”, whereas with a PhD in classics, the thought that comes to mind is more a long the lines of paying off your mountain of student debt via Starbucks. I imagine if the woman with the PhD in fiction writing went on to describe a large amount of money she’d made from her book, the derision she received would be considerably less. I guess because the effort put into the arts isn’t often useful for making capital, it’s seen as a waste of time.

    In that case, I don’t think that the sciences themselves will be involved in the “objectified” part of cultural capital. That will probably stay the same, since what we buy to show we’re wealthy/fashionable hasn’t ever changed all that much from nice homes, vehicles, clothing, or cool new gadgets (though, of course, the specifics of what they are have all changed tremendously over time).

    Incidentally, I wanted to say I was a reader of Empty Emptor, which was wonderful, but I love the direction you’re taking this blog, as well. :)

    • Jess on July 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm said:

      Good point – I think the credibility assigned to things like advanced degrees/qualifications can be changed drastically by that general heuristic that people tend to follow that money/income is positively correlated with importance or achievement, despite so much evidence to the contrary, e.g. I was reading an article a while back about how, in the US university research system at the moment, there are plenty of adjunct professors across all the disciplines who are living close to the poverty line and have zero job security. Advanced qualifications can actually be made to mean so little under certain circumstances. But that’s the thing about the heuristics that people use to form judgements – they can result in judgements that are so incredibly far from reality.

      (And I am very glad you are enjoying Cognitive Buyers, Caer – thanks!)

  3. Oh, there are all sorts of things I’d like to discuss around this topic, I find it fascinating, how our life choices, from career to the brand of our items, can be linked to this cultural capital, or rather the image of a high cultural capital we want to send out.

    On the topic of science vs art, there has been debate in France these past years regarding children education. I don’t know about your respective countries, but in France, it’s all about the scientific branch – the “S” baccalauréat (that’s the high school exam that grants you access to university/higher education), which is the scientific one, based on math, biology and physics, is considered the “best”, and its students are considered the smartest. Any family with a “smart” child would push them to do S. I know I did, because my father told me to. “It opens more doors”, he said. And he is right, with a “bac S”, you can go both to med school and art school without a problem. But with a “bac L” (literature), you can never enter med school in a million years. I’ve always found it interesting because, why would a student with math training be OK to enter art or literature school, but a student with literary training couldn’t enter med school? We have two very different skillsets, but one is considered “better” than the other. I’m guessing Caer is right in the sense that “scientific” jobs (France is all about engineers) tend to generate more money than being an artist, or library owner. But there is also this notion that science is harder than art, that you have to be smarter to be good at science, whereas anybody could do art, or read books (literature). Finally, this education thing is also a reflection of the image of scientists vs artists in our society – scientists are not only smart, but methodic, responsible, serious… Artists are, you know, hippies. Of course I’m talking sterotypes here, I don’t actually agree with these images.

    That being said, back to the concept of cultural capital, there are social circles where it is very important to know about famous artists, go to gallery openings, go see theater plays, be aware of the latest obscure artist that is going up, and having pieces of arts bought in a small gallery in your living room. Namely, Parisian upper class open space executives are like that. You are supposed to know about these things – you are supposed to have seen all the classic movies, to buy vinyls because that makes you more of a connoisseur… I remember my first boss, years ago, sent me a list of films I should see, music I should listen to, books I should read in order to be “properly educated”. None of them are asking ou to know the periodic table of elements by heart though.

    And final point I wanted to touch in this comment, do you remember this article you wrote about overconsumption of upper middle class women, and how there were 2 consumption behaviours in these women – the ones that are “cold headed”, and buy smartly, wait for the sales etc., and the ones who go shopping over lunch break and generally overspend. I remember that the study you pointed out said that the second type of women, the ones who overspend, tend to be compensating with these goods of well-known brands, because they felt they didn’t belong to this upper middle social class, that they felt thay had a lack of cultural capital and were compensating it with high end brands. I think your post was linked to middle class people complaining about the price of Chloe or whatever brand of bag. Do I make any sense here?
    Anyway if I understand this study well, it means that in certain social circles, some people, who feel they lack the cultural capital for some reason (usually a lower social class of origin) try to compensate by buying high end brands – as if they were buying their social status in a way. Did you read anything else on the subject? Or did I understand the study wrong?

    • Jess on July 9, 2014 at 6:49 pm said:

      Wow, that’s a really interesting binary that the French school system sets up in terms of the baccalauréats. How long has that system been in place – is it a historical binary or is it a more recent system for education? And yes, I certainly feel like there’s more of a push to get people into STEM, here in the UK and in Australia, and I think the school systems are being reformulated to reflect that. In the UK, a school student can choose to stop studying any maths subjects a few years prior to the end of their schooling, which I think lots of people are keen to change so that maths becomes a subject that everyone does until at least university. In Australia, it differs from state to state (the education system is the jurisdiction of each state government rather than the federal government) but in the state I’m from, your final exit score (your Overall Position, which determines which university and courses you can get into across the country) is based on your performance in your 5 best subjects out of the 6 you did – so you could get the best possible OP with a combination of only arts subjects, or a combination of science and maths subjects, or a total mix (e.g. I did English, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Art and Geography) so no one would be able to judge you just by your OP alone. But yeah, once you’re at university and you’ve chosen your course, there was much more of a dynamic of “arts is easy, STEM is hard”. Arts students were certainly seen as lazy, especially since they seemed to have so few contact hours (I knew Arts students who only came into uni for classes once or twice a week, whereas in my first semester at uni, I was doing 45-hour weeks) – so to some extent, even regardless of employability and economic outcomes, I guess people wanted to see a just world, i.e. “if an arts student is going to do what seems like so little work to get their degree, and I feel like I’m doing so much more work by comparison to get my STEM degree, I want to make sure that I disparage their degree and extol mine, and that that gets perpetuated beyond our university years”.

      I think I do remember that post I wrote, from way back. I think it was about Céline bags and some people expressing absolute outrage every time there was a price increase, which for some of these people reminded them how precarious their economic position is – like it’s difficult for them to afford a Céline bag, so a price increase makes it even more difficult, which pushes them up against this boundary of realising that they have these financial limits that they really wish they didn’t have. And I think these were the people who wanted the super well-known Céline bags, because they wanted to broadcast the exact message of “Look, I know Céline is a cool brand and I have a bag to prove that I’m knowledgeable about trends, as well as the fact that I have the necessary money”. And yeah, I’ve seen a few studies to back that up. I saw one recently from the US where experimenters got white, comfortably middle-class people to watch a short film about life in a disadvantaged, predominantly black neighbourhood. Just viewing that film made the participants feel socially inadequate enough that their preferences for branded designer goods increased after viewing the film, relative to their preferences before the film. So if you’re of a poor socioeconomic status, then absolutely, your aim is often to buy things that you think broadcast a different message than that.

      • I think the French system has been that way for a while – as even before they introdcued the baccalauréat as I knew it, it was still divided in the same categories. It is not binary though, as I didn’t mention the third type of Bac, which is economic sciences. I might be wrong, but I believe the 3 bacs, Literature, Sciences and Economic Sciences have been like that since the big school reform at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s true that it’s very interesting compared to other countries, that we’d divide these areas so clearly right from high school.

        • liesbeth on July 24, 2014 at 10:14 am said:

          In Belgium, the system is much more complicated but for the majority of students, who choose a ‘general’ education in highschool (as opposed to a professional one), the choice they have to make throughout highschool is one for arts & languages or for math & sciences. Both of these can then be combined with either Latin or economics. So we are still encouraged to get a broad education, as it is still possible by the time you’re 16 to choose a combination of a classical language and a strong math-based curriculum.
          Unfortunately, the prestige of the ‘humanities’ (especially the combination arts & languages with Latin) is declining in favour of math & sciences (but not technology due to something historic). I really wish people would just respect both. Actually, a big reform of our secondary education system has been planned but due to political squabbeling it might just never happen. Too bad, because I feel this would have made for a more balanced system. It’s too complicated to explain the entire reform here, but you would be able to gradually steer your education towards one of FIVE possible domains: ‘science & technology’, ‘culture & languages’, ‘society & well-being’, ‘arts’ and ‘economics’ (with options for specialization in each domain). Each domain would have options that lead to an academic follow-up and options that lead straight to the workplace – or further professional training. The reform was actually designed to provide an answer to the differences in status of the different areas of expertise.

  4. Hah – I read this and thought, “science capital, pfft, that doesn’t apply to me”, being a graphic designer with a bachelor’s in art history – until you got to the part about technology. Then I remembered how highly I like to wave my nerd flag. I make a huge point of being up to date on the latest gadgets (semi job relevant since I work in telecom) and relevant software. I LOVE turning up to a release event for a phone and whip it out of my bag, knowing that I’ve already been allowed to test it for weeks, and I can out-nerd most people at my workplace. It is definitely a form of capital, doubly so for a female, seeing as the bearer of this knowledge usually comes in the form of a bearded guy wearing a “have you tried turning it on and off again” t-shirt.

    Also, definitely feeling the bias against people with arts degrees. Not that I use mine a whole lot, and I’m sure I WOULD work at Starbucks without design school, but hey, I’m sure I could curate something if push came to shove ;)

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