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!