Gender Capital ? - Bourdieu and Gender Inequality

Authors Avatar

Candidate 24430


Introduction                     p. 1

Economic Capital                     p. 2

Cultural Capital                     p. 4

    Embodied Capital

    Objectified Capital        

    Institutionalised Capital

Social Capital                             p. 6

But Where is the Gender?         p. 8

An Argument for Gender Capital                     p. 10

    Gendered Embodied Capital

    Gendered Institutional

    Gendered Objectified Capital

Gendered Social Capital                     p. 13

Gendered Economic Capital                     p. 14

Conclusion                   p. 14

Bibliography                     p. 15

Tables                                                         p.18

Gender Capital ?

Bourdieu and Gender Inequality

When Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) first published her ‘A Vindication of the rights of Woman’, in 1792, in answer to her friend Tom Paines’ ‘The Rights of Man’, she lay the foundations of an awareness that gathered force to become the modern feminist movement. The campaign appeared to reach a public peak in the late 1970’s, yet although there was a flurry of equal rights legislation, and women now no longer seem to feel it necessary to ‘burn their bras’, it is easy to see that ‘true’ equal rights and opportunities are far from realisation. In the 1990’s British women still only earn between seventy-two and ninety percent of the average male wage (see table 1, Social Trends, 1998:96/7), are concentrated in the ‘caring’ industries that serve as an extension of their traditional role as wife and mother, and only three percent of public limited company directors are women (Watkins, Rueda & Rodriguez, 1992:168). Although the difference is declining, women are still less likely to pursue a university education than men (see table 2, Blackburn & Jarman, 1993:200), and once they have graduated the situation is still not rosy; newspapers abound not only with stories of the glass ceiling but also the glass floor (for example Carvel, 1998), so how is it that the subordinate position of women  persists so long after legislation designed to ‘liberate’ women was implemented ? Why is it that today so many women still apparently choose to follow traditional paths ?  

It is my intention to investigate whether Bourdieus’ theory of cultural capital, which he developed to account for the persistence of class hierarchies of modern western societies, can also be said to account for the subordinate position of women. It is my contention that although cultural capital, as outlined by Bourdieu, does not explicitly address the inferior status of women, in common with much Marxist inspired thought, with a little modification it might function as a useful tool when analysing the unequal power relations between the sexes. Further, I will show that a modified version of Bourdieus’ theory of cultural capital may explain why women so often appear to collude in their own subordination; why girls still appear to favour the more ‘traditionally feminine’ subjects at school, and later university, leading them to eventually enter ‘traditional’ jobs, which are invariably of lower status. (see table 3, Social trends, 1998:62). Firstly I will briefly outline Bourdieus’ theory, contextualising it in the Marxist school of thought with which it is aligned. Next I will discuss its usefulness regarding key feminist concerns. Finally I will outline what modifications would ensure integration of gender into Bourdieus’ theory, thus enabling it to better explain the persistence of the gender hierarchy so common to modern western states.

Economic Capital 


Pierre Bourdieu, born in France in 1930, may be regarded as one of the most influential sociologists in recent years. His texts have been widely discussed, dismissed, deconstructed and critiqued. Influenced by the works of Marx, and frustrated by the oversimplification of the structuralists, Bourdieu extended economic theory into the cultural sphere. Marx had taken a broadly evolutionist stance; history was characterised by epochs in which the social forces and relations of production functioned as the engine social of change. The modern capitalist era had its’ background in the ancient world which was illustrated by the master/slave relation, this evolved into the lord/serf relation of feudal society. The capitalist era was characterised by a capitalist/wage-labourer relation, with its’ inherent system of exploitation. For Marx the relationship to the ‘means of production’ was the key to all social relations, informing all other areas of life; the political, social, cultural and intellectual spheres. Marx also believed that the past has a direct affect on how the present is experienced;


‘men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ (Marx, 1852, quoted in Coates, 1990:265).


Marx paid little attention to the cultural sphere, believing it to be little more than a false veneer, a by-product of the capitalist organisation of the relations of production which served to mask the reality of social exploitation. Though it is Comte that is often accredited as the founding father of classic sociology, it the class analysis as inspired by Marx that informs much of modern sociology. Yet such a form of analysis is not without problems, for the prioritising of class as the central feature of society invariably leads to an ignoring of other key factors, such as Gender and Ethnicity. Marx himself made little reference to the subordination of women, leaving further analysis to his accomplice Engels, noting that;

‘The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited [and] can come to no other conclusion that the lot being common to all will likewise fall to the woman’ (Marx, 1848, quoted in Rius, 1994:119).    


For those of the Marxist school of thought, it is economic relations that inform all other social relations; who has control over the ‘means of production’ invariably has the power in any given society. Many Marxists have developed Marx’s theory to explain how the capitalist system reproduces itself over generations. Gramsci, for example, discussed ‘hegemony’, the term by which he sought to explain how the ruling classes attain ideological domination, thereby achieving power not by economic factors alone, but by utilising political force. Bourdieus’ theory of cultural capital, however, represents an extension of existing Marxist economic theory into the cultural sphere; his theory has six main features, the different forms of capital; Cultural, Economic and Social, and the concepts of the ‘field’, ‘symbolic violence’ and ‘habitus’. For Bourdieu, and many other writers influenced by the writing of Marx, capital is accumulated labour and this process of accumulation takes time and further has ‘...a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form...’(Bourdieu, 1986:241). It is this ability of capital to reproduce itself that leads Bourdieu to conclude that it is therefore part of the structure of society that both enables and constrains individuals lives.

Join now!

 Cultural Capital


Bourdieu outlined his theory of cultural capital in an attempt to explain the persistence of class inequality, as exemplified by the unequal levels of scholastic achievement by the different social classes, even though education had become available to all. His study of the education system in France led him to propose that it was the education system itself that was enabling the maintenance of traditional hierarchies, as the criteria by which students are judged tended to favour those from middle class backgrounds. He criticised the assumption that unequal achievement was the result of difference in ‘natural’ ...

This is a preview of the whole essay