In continuing our analysis of what goes into economic mobility, we run into cultural capital: the capital often left out of the economics because it’s assumed to be out of our control.

But, even though we all come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we can take comfort knowing there are a couple cultural attributes we can all adopt to make our climb up the economic ladder a bit easier.

So what is “cultural capital”?

Cultural capital can surely be linked to a swath of different characteristics, but for the sake of simplicity let’s define it like Pierre Bourdieu (the French guy that formalized the term) would: The collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through social classes, communities, and societies, in general.

As you can probably guess, cultural capital does not work in a vacuum. It has a strong influence on all the other types of capital.


For example, Ivy League graduates not only have high levels of social (and, for the sake of illustration, human) capital conducive to economic mobility, that can lead to higher paying jobs, but they also exhibit particular cultural features emphasizing the differences between “us” from “them.” The cars they drive, the clothes they wear, they things they talk about, their views of the world—you know what we’re talking about.

Structuring structure AND structured structure

Aside from the clever alliteration, these terms explain the essence of cultural capital succinctly. In one sense, the culture underlying our environments, whether it be our home, school, or workplace, help shape our individual cultural capital. In the workplace, there may be a particular way of doing things. Successful companies usually have some kind of mission along with core values that they try to impress upon their newly hired employees.

For instance, the cast (aka employees) at Disney World are required to memorize four words that encompass how you do things: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. Not only are these words taken seriously on their own, but their order matters as well. Doing things efficiently is important, but not as important as keeping the “show” or the Disney magic. They also have their own Disney “service basics” which are also required to be recited in your early days as a cast member:

  1. cast_member_2I project a positive image and energy.
  2. I am courteous and respectful to all Guests, including Children.
  3. I stay in character and play the part.
  4. I go above and beyond.

Disney’s cultural capital is undeniably their secret to success. It is the engine behind their creativity, business plans, and marketing. However, these core values not only bring in more cheddar for the company, but they also influence the cultural capital of its workers.

People that move on to other jobs after working at Disney bring along the cultural capital that was instilled in them throughout their time working there. If they become an entrepreneur, they will take some, if not all, the workplace values and bring them into their start-up. Or, if they go to another company, bringing these core values and adding them to the new culture ups the ante of the company and the individual’s cultural capital.

“In the other sense, individuals adapting to these cultures help shape the cultural capital on a larger scale.”

In the other sense, individuals adapting to these cultures help shape the cultural capital on a larger scale. It takes a particular type of person, with their own cultural capital, to be able to adapt and further the cultural framework of the company.

The cultural capital behind Disney’s successes is created by individuals. These individuals, in turn, have gone and helped create similar frameworks in businesses all around Central Florida, and perhaps, the world.

Cultural capital and economic mobility

Mariano Grondona took Bourdieu’s research in cultural capital and made a table that identifies cultural factors as “high” or “low” cultural capital, which either help or hinder a society’s prosperity, respectively.

The goal of Grondona’s work is to connect how a society’s prosperity is influenced by how people perceive factors like destiny, religion, wealth, time orientation, and education, to name a few.

Places where people think they can influence their own destiny for the better as opposed to giving credence to fate, generally, have wealthier people. Or, if people think wealth is created versus wealth being a fixed pie. Across the globe, countries as a whole think about these things differently and it shapes their economic status and their citizen’s per-capita incomes.

Of course, these aggregated cultural factors are reducible to the individual level. Being tolerant of other religions, giving credence to education, being punctual, adhering to facts, and trusting others are all ingredients conducive to economic prosperity, and more importantly, mobility. The cool thing is that although the environment, like the Disney workplace, impacts how we perceive these factors, we can learn these on our own as well.

Let’s hammer down on diversity

Everything in moderation is a good place to start. As mentioned with social capital, too much emphasis on the individual can sometimes be counterproductive. We need each other. We need groups, communities, mentors, or simply, help outside of our own individual selves. But, being too dependent on the collective is also hurtful. It seems like there needs to be a balance.

The best way to acquire “high” cultural capital is similar to how we build our other capitals, by first having an open-mind. Meeting people with different backgrounds, mannerisms, ethical codes, etc., can help us become more adaptive to different environments. Additionally, this goes hand-in-hand with building human capital and learning throughout our entire lifetimes.

Some differences between cultures are obvious, like their style of government, fashion, and food. Others are more nuanced, like how they perceive punctuality or their gift-giving etiquette. In fact, punctuality can sometimes seem rude! Having high cultural capital can not only help empathize with these cultural subtleties but help you climb the economic ladder in an increasingly globalized economy.

The takeaway

Although this topic can go on and on, it’s important that we recognize its inherent value, which is that cultural capital affects our economic success (or failure). By appreciating and learning the core cultural values that cater to our individual and collective growth(s) we can make a positive impact in raising the quality of life not only ourselves, but the communities, jobs, and societies as a whole.

Learning the culture of groups that we may think we are not a part of can help us become more rounded, thus expanding our networks and human capital. Aside from all that, be sure to time your dinner parties accordingly and to have a gift handy.  You’ll thank us later.

Previously posted on GenFKD.

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