Cultural Capital

Submitted by Marsha J. McCartney, M.Ed.
From Chapter 1: Ways of Thinking about Children


Cultural capital is defined by the textbook as the knowledge and relationships an individual has that can help them to navigate different types of environments and social interactions (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  Cultural capital is a resource that students have that can help—or hinder—them in school settings.  There are many unspoken “rules” in an academic classroom that can be explained by cultural capital.  Examples of these rules are raising your  hand to ask a question or make a comment, how to take notes, or having background information (perhaps because they’ve visited museums or been on educational vacations).  Understanding cultural capital is important because it can lead to differences in academic achievement (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

A recent study looked at two subdivisions of cultural capital, static and relational.  Static cultural capital refers to the activities and practices of the parents, and relational cultural capital refers to the cultural interactions and communication between children and parents (Tramonte & Willms, 2010).  The results showed that relational cultural capital had more of an effect on student’s achievement when compared to the modest effects of static cultural capital (Tramonte & Willms, 2010).

Another study looked at adolescents from 22 Western industrialized countries, and looked at cultural capital through cultural activities and cultural possessions.  They found that multiple forms of cultural capital can mediate parental socioeconomic status as well as the student’s educational performance (Xu & Hampden-Thompson, 2012). Higher status families showed greater benefits from cultural capital than families of lower status (Xu & Hampden-Thompson, 2012).

The benefits of cultural capital can continue well into college.  Many of the problems experienced by first-generation college students (students whose parents do not have 4-year degrees) can be partially explained by their lack of cultural capital.  This study found that continuing generation college students (students who have one or more parents graduating with a 4-year degree) are primed for college preparation by listening to family members’ academic histories and parental coaching (Collier & Morgan, 2008).  This leads to first-generation college students perceiving their higher education experience differently than their continuing-generation college student counterparts (Collier & Morgan, 2008).

From a slightly different perspective, a study considered the attitudes of educators when working with families of varying cultural capital.  Results showed that increasing educators’ understanding of cultural capital helped them have more positive attitudes toward parents and increased their ability to engage parents in more home-school collaboration (Trainor, 2010).  Clearly, educating instructors about the important role of cultural capital can benefit everyone involved in the education system.


  • Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012). Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
  • Collier, P. J., & Morgan, D. L. (2008). “Is that paper really due today?”: Differences in first-generation and traditional college students’ understandings of faculty expectations. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 55(4), 425-446.
  • Trainor, A. A. (2010). Educators’ expectations of parent participation: The role of cultural and social capital. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 12(2), 33-50.
  • Tramonte, L., & Willms, D. J. (2010). Cultural capital and its effects on education outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 200-213.
  • Xu, J., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). Cultural reproduction, cultural mobility, cultural resources, or trivial effect? A comparative approach to cultural capital and educational performance. Comparative Education Review, 56(1), 98-124.

Discussion questions:

  • Look at your own experiences.  What cultural capital do you have that others may lack?
  • What cultural capital do others have that you have been aware of?
  • Comment or question on the results of any of the studies mentioned above.
  • In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?
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22 Responses to Cultural Capital

  1. Brooke says:

    I am not sure if I necessarily have more cultural capital than the rest of people my age, but I can tell you that after reflecting, I have found that I am rich in cultural capital! I have a large family that is diverse in educational background. I have aunts and uncles who have are college graduates, while my parents are merely high school graduates. I am the daughter of a Veteran and I think that gives me a certain perspective and appreciation for the service. I have two jobs and both provide me with many different types of relationships and experiences that equip me to deal with certain situations. My school teaching job provides me with a traditional and professional relationships with other teachers, administrators and students. I also manage a dance studio where I have a more casual working relationship with my instructors and families. All of these relationships have helped me form my own ideas and values as a person. I am able to follow protocol, be a professional, and conduct myself in a mature manner because of the cultural capital I have experienced in my life. I think most people are rich in cultural capital, but might need time and maturity to realize truly understand what it is and how it impacts them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?
    Working in a prison, I read each client’s mental health assessment (including academic records/IQ/life history). Most are from the lowest socioeconomic classes and have past drug/alcohol problems no matter what the crime. I never hold myself out as “better” than them and treat each with total respect, while being very firm and matter of fact. That said, I have to relate on their level while providing motivation to complete their assigned programs (GED, life skills, etc.). Most have a defeatist attitude and few have ever completed anything. Part of my job is to listen while helping them change their thinking from what their culture of origin provided them. They only perpetrate what has been reinforced in their formative years.

    • Mary Decker says:

      I found your comments to be very interesting! I think that you probably have quite a unique perspective to bring to the table. Within the GED and life skills programs in which the inmates participate, are there specific skills taught to increase cultural capital? For example, are they taught how to study effectively, how to write a paper, how to interact with instructors, etc.? It sounds like these individuals have many negative risk factors stacked against them, and they could definitely use some practical skills.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, the government has a multitude of programs that exist to change their thinking, etc. while teaching them how to cut hair, fix a mower or write a paper. What ever the subject, there is a component to try and reverse whatever is lacking in their upbringing that contributed to their incarceration.

  3. Michelle Peterson says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    IN my own practices, I believe that two things are key for me to help instill cultural capital experiences… 1. Modeling and 2. proving explicit and natural opportunities within my classroom and the school setting, for this to take place. Cultural capital can be many things. Exposing children to appropriate body language, manners and interactions are some ways I think I can model cultural capital. I believe I can foster opportunities for practicing cultural capital by integrating it into my lessons. For example, before a student shares his/her writing about the previous weekend, we role play what good listeners look/sound like.

    Academically speaking, in my career, I must have minimum of a four year degree, which many of my students have asked me about. I believe that being honest about what opportunities the future will hold if/an education is pursued or not is helpful as well. When I think of cultural capital, I do not see it as something to force at students, rather, it is an experience that you can help provide. My job is to be honest and guide my students to the best of my abilities and I think that is what cultural capital is all about… providing appropriate learning opportunities and exposure for anything and everything!

  4. Melinda says:

    Given that I am not currently working, I am reflecting on the last question in reference to my former job.

    I worked at an academically rigourous, K-8 Core Knowledge public school in a scholastically competitive school district in Colorado. As our reputation for excellence grew and we consistently registered successes, we drew many families to our middle school, sometimes as late as 8th grade, who were hoping we’d “save” their students before entering high school. These latecomers often struggled, occassionally socially, but almost always academically, feeling overwhelmed by the expectations and usually receiving lower grades in classes than they were accustomed to. It wasn’t a matter of intelligence or even learning style, as the frustrations applied to the full spectrum of students, from G/T to SpecEd. Though we didn’t (regrettably) have the terminology, my colleagues and I did identify what I now know is a lack of cultural capital. These late arriving middle schoolers hadn’t developed the study habits that our “home grown” students used automatically, having honed them since the primary grades. The newcomers often lacked the background knowledge of their new peers, as well. Our solution was to have mandatory informational meetings for parents before and after enrollment, to offer ‘electives’ for new students in study skills or to assign them to subject specific study halls, to assign each newbie a buddy to help him or her adapt socially and academically, and to offer extra help during lunch and before and after school for both students and for parents, if they wanted to attend, as well. I see now that what we did was to make a concecerted, purposeful effort to build the cultural capital of these new students. And, although we received some push-back from some parents (and even some staff) initially about the mandatory nature of their participation, increasing their ‘cultural capital’ as well was probably a more essential component than we realized at the time.

  5. Janet says:

    What cultural capital do you have that others may lack?

    As a special education teacher, I have often had this discussion with other fellow special education teachers. We are aware that we come to the table not only with various college degrees, but with a vocabulary rich with terminolgy that can be confusing and easily misunderstood. (If you have ever sat through an IEP meeting, you will know exactly what I am talking about.) We also have relationships with fellow teachers, administration, outside specialists, and communtiy agencies. When parents, who possibly did not finish high school, walk into a meeting with a table full of professionals it can be intimidating to say the least. In fact, it can be intimidating to parents who also have an educational background and are professionals in fields outside of education. It is always my goal to make the families feel comfortable in the fact that their input is valued, as they know their child better than anyone else in the room. I feel it is also important to remember that our “language” may be confusing and we need to make sure that we explain the information in a way that is meaningful to all those involved. It is our job to make sure the families are aware of the resources available within the school and community that can help ensure the academic success of their child. I believe it is my responsibility to take an active role in educating, not only the student, but also the parents/guardians in regards to the choices, networking systems, and educational process available to their child.

    • Amanda says:

      I remember as a first year teacher sitting through my first IEP meeting feeling lost and quite frankly, dumb. The teacher leading the meeting hadn’t developed a respect for me as she had seen many new teachers come and go from the district. She didn’t seem to have the time to explain anything to me, and was short with the parents when they had questions. This was the first time I was let down and heartbroken in the teaching field. I felt helpless in my position! I left the meeting with the determination to better understand the system and process and not let any of my parents’ ever feel the way I did in that meeting. This “negative” experience really shed a huge light for me and has helped me to have wonderful relationships with my SPED parents. Now I’m working as a para in a SPED room and I am so thankful to be with teachers like yourself. I can’t even imagine being a parent of a SPED student and trying to understand the process without any sort of background/knowledge! It is so important for the students and parents to know their rights and options.

  6. Jimmie Jo says:

    What cultural capital do others have that you have been aware of?
    One group of students that have cultural capital that others do not are teacher’s children. As a teacher, I have given my children an advantage over other students. My girls are familiar with most of the teachers at our school. They call them by their first names before and after school. They have been invited to play in their homes. Teachers know my girls’ names before the first day of school. Some would feel that the high expectations that are expected of teacher’s children would be a disadvantage. I feel that it is an advantage to my children that their teachers know that I expect them to behave and achieve academically. My children have the advantage of having teachers that feel comfortable talking to me about problems, test scores, and assignments. The simple fact that I am trained in teaching a child how to read is cultural capital for my children. This same cultural capital can also hinder. Teachers sometimes assume that my children know things that they don’t. Their teachers often use my children as ‘helpers”, and they feel compelled to complete tasks before and after school that they don’t really want to do. They may often get the label “teacher’s pet.” Other children may assume that my child does well only because they are a “teacher’s kid” and not because they work hard for their grades. It is often a difficult situation if there is a problem with a teacher because I do not want to offend a fellow teacher.

    How can I provide cultural capital experiences for my students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?
    As a first grade teacher, I can provide cultural capital experiences for my students by teaching them the expectations of our school. We have begun to explicitly teach the expectations for different areas of the school. This would include the restroom, playground, cafeteria, bus, and hallways as well as the classroom. This has helped to make sure that all students are on the same page. We realize that not every child is learning the manners to use in a public restroom or eat at the table with their parents. We have to teach children what to do if we expect them to do it.

  7. Nicole Gaffney says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    As a kindergarten teacher, I have many students who ARE still learning school, personal and social expectations. In my classroom, I act as though my students need exposure to everything. I teach them how to blow their nose, wash their hands, greet me in the morning, raise their hand, hold a pencil and so on. I use modeling, explicit and repetitive language and praise. I start teaching these things from the very beginning and use reminders all year. I believe that if I set these expectations now, they will continue long after they leave me. In my communication with parents, I am sure to mention many of the skills I teach to allow opportunity for parents to talk about it at home. I believe it helps remind parents of their actions and how they might influence their child’s behavior.

  8. Drew Ibendahl says:

    What cultural capital do you have that others may lack?

    Growing up in a small town with both parents in education, both with advanced degrees, and both teaching in the school district where I attended K-12, I am well aware that my cup definitely overflowed with cultural capital. I had the opportunity to know my teachers, administrators, and all school personnel on a much different level than that of most of my peers. Being a “teacher’s kid,” I was at school well before the first bell rang, and stayed well after the last bell sounded. I knew those “unwritten rules” of each school, each classroom, and each teacher before the school year began, because those teachers were my parents’ peers. I like to think that I was rarely, if ever, in trouble at school because of my character and personality, but I am not so naive to think my cultural capital had nothing to do with that. As I progressed into high school, my coaches and teachers may not have been peers of my parents, but several were actually students of my parents. Even into college, I had the opportunity to get to know the chair of the education department on a more personal level, as she was my mom’s graduate school advisor, and had become good friends with, both, my mom and dad. Finally, as my wife and I moved to Northern Illinois, and I was searching for a job, I came across a school district with a principal who had actually been a student in my dad’s fifth grade class. I was fortunate to get an interview and eventually a job, which I enjoyed more than any other in my short teaching career.

    I realize I have been very blessed, very fortunate, and am very thankful for the cultural capital I have had throughout my life. Now, as I raise my daughter, who will eventually become a “teacher’s kid,” I hope that my wife and I are able to help provide that same cultural capital throughout her life, which I am confident we have the background, ability and resources to do so. However, it really magnifies the cultural capital many of my students lack, and the cultural capital their parents may lack, and it is not difficult to predict the trend that is developing if these students are not provided cultural capital in other ways.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      How interesting! I did not take (or rather have) the time to read through the other entries before posting. I wrote about the cultural capital that my daughters have because they are “teacher’s kids.” It was interesting to see the perspective of an adult who was the child of a teacher. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Amanda says:

    I am a first generation college graduate, and I don’t really think those words had a lot of meaning to me until recently. Growing up, academics were “easy” for me. My fifth grade teacher confessed I taught her the importance of differentiated instruction when I came into her class. When I got to college, everything changed. Suddenly I had to study, but I lacked study skills, habits, and even stamina to complete work. My cultural capital was not that of my roommate’s who breezed through essays with ease. It took me until my junior year of college to get enough self-motivation and knowledge to be a successful college student. Graduate school has been slightly difficult for me, but my (newly found) love for learning has helped me in my determination to be successful and grow. I believe my cultural capital has grown immensely throughout college and my first two years teaching. I know how to conduct myself professionally with peers, coworkers, administration, and students. I am successful in my time management, planning, and completion of assignments. I read an article on supporting first generation college graduates and it stated the importance of students’ knowing their options and resources and working with their family. I was lucky to have a supportive family, but collectively we didn’t utilize a lot of resources that were available. I take it upon myself to make others aware of their resources, and open my eyes further to take advantage of those involving myself. I look forward to continuing to grow in my cultural capital experiences.

  10. Mary Decker says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    I had an amazing opportunity to do exactly this during my last few years of teaching. My school began a garden which students could use to plant, grow, harvest, and eat fruits and vegetables. As we began this project, it was amazing to me how many children had such little cultural capital in the areas of food and gardening. Many of them had no idea that a carrot was actually pulled from the ground! It was a great learning experience. By teaching them how to garden, they also learned the cultural capital of how to have stamina (when waiting for plants to grow or dealing with them when they won’t) and how to take pride in your work (when they actually got to taste the fruits of their labor)! Students, especially younger ones, also need direct, explicit instruction on all of these things which we tend to take for granted. I would teach my second graders how to shake hands, how to enter a room appropriately, even how to maintain eye contact! It’s so important to never assume that students already possess those skills!

    • Sinclair says:

      I agree on the “never assume that students already possess those skills” statement completely. I have learned to gage everyone in class about where they are and not assume anything. It took me several classes of DUI students before I realized some failed the tests because they could not read well enough to pass it. After this I started reading all the questions and answers out loud and giving the tests in a group setting. They knew the answers from my films and lectures, but could not read well enough to pass the tests.

  11. Anonymous says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    Teaching 1st grade in a high poverty school this year has opened my eyes to the cultural capital needed in the elementary school environment to be successful. Modeling appropriate school behavior and procedures to begin the school year is critical to ensure student success. Students at this age need direct instruction and scaffolding in order to function well in this setting. By providing the cultural capital experiences, these students will learn the structure and values needed to be college and career ready.

  12. Andrea says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    Many students are coming into the classroom with social deficits. Over the years, the breakdown of the family unit has taken a toll on appropriate social interactions between students and adults. There seems to be a need for continual reteaching of appropriate responses and actions in a classroom setting. The number of students who are in crisis seems to be increasing and it is so important for educators and building staff to form positive relationships with students. Many times teachers can increase relational cultural capital through positive interactions with students.

    At the junior high where I teach, there are 40 minutes two days a week allocated to working with students. This time can be for academic purposes, as well as helping students find connections by offering activities/clubs for students to participate in during the school day. Many students have after school commitments or obligations and by providing a some time during the school day a couple of times a week allows more students to participate and become a more active member of the school. Several years ago the school district I was teaching in brought in Larry Bell to speak to the staff on how to improve relationships with students. He talked about how building relationships with students is pivotal in improving academic performances, as well as behavioral choices. I have seen from personal experience how building positive relationships with students has increased student performance and promoted a positive school climate.

  13. khshwb says:

    Having students come from a variety of different backgrounds, many lacking in cultural capital, we very much focus on it. The 6th grade teachers in my school are amazing when it comes to teaching our students how to be students. One teacher in particular takes the first couple of weeks to explain, discuss, and role model what it means to be a student in our school and in her classroom. She goes over everything from entering the classroom, to asking to go to the bathroom, to having a respectful classroom discussion. She is the teacher I aspire to be. We also offer some of our students who have social deficits the opportunity to be a part of the social skills groups that our social worker runs. Teaching and role modeling the skills that are expected helps children to build the cultural capital that they will need to be successful in school. At the same time we are very aware and respectful of the cultural capital that they have built at home. We may use situations they are used to to help us better model or explain social or academic situations in school. Other times we have to be aware of them because they are oppositely mismatched and dramatically interfere with the school culture. Being aware of home cultural capital helps us to strengthen their cultural capital in school.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Comment or question on the results of any of the studies mentioned above.

    It was interesting, albeit unsurprising, to learn of the immense returns afforded to those in possession of cultural capital at the university level. It summoned to mind Robert Granfield’s famous work, Making It by Faking It, a study which explored the rewards of cultivating these socially valued elements, while simultaneously considering the ineluctable corollary of alienation and identity ambivalence. Although I had initially found his explanations for success to be quite reductive and patronizing (as though affectations were in fact the key to upward mobility rather than hard work and perseverance) it was soon uncomfortably clear to me that the sophisticated interplay of culture and connection were markedly more important in ensuring desired social outcomes than ability alone.

    I found the Collier & Morgan study (cited above), which underscored the benefits of cultural capital to be noteworthy as well. Obviously, programs designed to combat drop-out rates and foster academic achievement at the collegiate level (i.e. McNair Program) are heavily predicated upon this notion. It would be interesting to locate studies measuring their accomplishment with respect to this objective.

    I still cannot help but feel a bit disconcerted by what appears to me as disturbing social commentary on diversity. In prizing certain attributes over others (all other qualities being equal), are we valuing cultural sameness to an unnatural degree? Treating humans as fungible commodities instead of acknowledging/celebrating our differences within any context that matters?


    • Melinda says:

      Your questions sound like the queries I used to put to my 8th grade students during our exploration of dystopian literature. While they were appalled by the concept of humans as “fungible commodities” in works such as “Harrison Bergeron”, “Animal Farm”, or “Fahrenheit 451”, they unfortunately remained too often oblivious to the reality of their endorsement of that ‘sameness’ within the context of their own social sphere. Age-appropriate, perhaps, but disconcerting, indeed.

  15. Leslie says:

    In your own practice, what are some ways you could provide cultural capital experiences to those students who aren’t getting it elsewhere?

    At my school, over 50% of the students are on free or reduced lunch. We have a very low SES which results in many students having low cultural capital in both knowledge and relationships. Since my school is so low, we cater to those students. We have an organization that actually comes in and works with students that lack in those areas. They provide them with resources that will help them learn to study, use a computer, learn about how to be successful in school and get in contact with mentors. We are very lucky to have this organization because they fill a lot of the gaps for us. Personally as a teacher, I can provide cultural capital experiences by first recognizing who needs support and what kind of support. For example, I have a student who says them for they and him instead of he. I went to our speech pathalogist and she gave me resources to use with her to help her understand how to properly use those pronouns. Also, like the book said, I can focus on the strengths of each child instead of just looking for what they lack.

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