Symbolic Capital

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The term symbolic capital is first introduced by the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, in his book La Distinction (1979). It is an elaboration on the analysis of status, conducted by Max Weber.


Symbolic capital is a term widely used within sociology, anthropology and other social sciences. Symbolic capital appears when Economic Capital and Cultural Capital are known and recognized. It exists of Power relations which determine the structure of social space (and the hierarchy of it). Agents use their symbolic capital that they have already acquired in the past to reproduce their power relations. Symbolic power is the power to make different entities exist by categorising them. This power is used to impose a vision upon others of the division of social, cultural and economic resources. According to Bourdieu (in Siisiänen, 2000) we have to make a distinction between symbolic capital and legitimate capital, because symbolic capital defines what forms of capital will be recognized as legitimate social positions in our society. The effectiveness of symbolic capital is dependent on the real practices of communication. As we look at economic and cultural capital, we recognise that they have their own way of existence. They become visible as, for instance, money or diplomas. Symbolic capital, on the other hand, exists only in the eyes of others. It has an ideological function, because it legitimises distinctions or classifications we make in society. These distinctions get a taken for granted character: they become universally recognized. Distinctions are made as a result of the availability of resources for individuals. Resources are: recognition, honor, prestige etc. These resources function as an cultural value with an authoritative aspect.

An example of symbolic capital The state is in western democracies the place where is fought for the monopoly of legitimate symbolic power. This fight shows itself for example in our politics and elections. In 1952, General Eisenhower had a good run for the presidential election of the U.S. due to his position as supreme commander of the Allied Forces during World War II. Another example is the embodiment of symbolic capital within landmarks, such as statues commemorating the memory of national heroes.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1979). La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement. Les Editions de Minuit
  • Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social space and symbolic power [Electronic version]. Sociological Theory, 7, p. 14-25. Accessed on 12 october 2012.
  • Calhoun, C. ed (2002). "Symbolic Capital". Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford University Press
  • Siisiänen, M. (2000). Two concepts of social capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam [Electronic version]. University of Jyväskylä: department of social sciences and philosophy. Accessed on 14 october 2012.
  • Weber, M. (1946). “Class, Status, Party.” p. 180-195 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. H. Girth and C. Wright Mills (eds.). New York: Oxford University.


  • page published by Sander Linssen (4115597)
  • page improved by Rosalie Koen on 14 october 2012
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