Cultural Capital/Reflexivity Lecture


Cultural Capital: 

[glossary id=’3543′ slug=’cultural-capital-2′ /] and reflexivity are two terms referenced by the well-known sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, put forth as theories to explain ways of gaining social power and prestige.  Used this way, they might be termed negative – but we are dwelling on the positive.

At Its All About Culture, we are not treading the deep waters of theories, but sticking to practicality and cultural concepts that will help us to see ourselves more transparently.  In this way students can be more informed about others as well, which will enable them to live more effectively in their everyday lives.


[glossary id=’895′ slug=’enculturation’ /], is how we acquire so much of our cultural capital, beginning at birth. The term, cultural capital is useful when we begin to think of our own accumulated cultural knowledge, which is what cultural capital is – our accumulated cultural knowledge.

Cultural Knowledge

Cultural capital can come in many forms, from understanding the meanings of simple phrases like, “putting all your eggs in one basket,” to “give me a break,” to “get real.”  What do these things mean?  “What makes your boat float?”  How did we acquire these sayings?  Without realizing consciously why we use such phrases, we know in reality they are meaningless.  Nevertheless, they are part of our cultural knowledge that helps us understand the world around us. Such one-liners are cultural code phrases that only we Americans are familiar with.  Well, in this globalized world there are most likely others that are also familiar with them, even if they don’t regularly use them in their own speech codes.

Cultural capital can be shared in many positive ways.  One example that brought this fact home to me occurred when I was in Guatemala teaching children’s health seminars.  My associate, Leslie Baer, in this effort, was fluent in Spanish, and I am not.  She had this abundance of cultural capital to share with the children, which I did not have.  We worked together in this seminar teaching the children about “microbios” and how these germs can spread and make others sick.

I attempted to share visually the ideas that I spoke about in my very limited Spanish, while Leslie translated better for the children that spoke Spanish.  However, many of the children, as well as the mothers attending this seminar, spoke Mam, a dialect of  the Mayan language.  We also had a local woman who was bi-lingual in Spanish and Mam.  Having a three-way language barrier could have been a deterrent to learning, but it wasn’t because the three of us were able to share the cultural capital that we all possessed.  In this way the children learned the lessons of hygiene and dental health in ways that won’t be forgotten very soon.

After we finished the lessons, Leslie played the guitar, while we taught the children the song, It’s a Small World, in Spanish.  In this setting, with children of all ages surrounding us, within a small concrete building with a dirt floor, we all began sharing our cultural capital with one another.

As the children learned, “it’s a world of hope, and a world of fears, – “its a world that we share, and its time we’re aware,” – it’s a small world after all.” – It’s a small world, after all . . .” chorus  –  It wouldn’t have mattered what language the song was in, the positive message through music and shared cultural capital among all of us – the children with their beautiful faces, and enthusiastic voices shared with us much more than we shared with them.  This is just a small example of how cultural capital may be shared, positively, in a non-threatening way.

We were in the small village of San Martin Chiquito, in the Guatemala highlands, where several times a year Xela-Aid, a NGO (non-governmental organization) takes volunteers to share cultural capital, helping those in need of medical, dental, and optometry services.  They also build structures, with the help of the villagers, which contribute to recreational and educational needs of the village.

Another summer when I accompanied Leslie and her crew, back to San Martin Chiquito, we were privileged to have the children share the same cultural capital with us as we arrived in the village.  Upon getting out of our vans, the children began to sing It’s a Small World to welcome us back.  Even those who did not understand the words were able to grasp the magic of the moment.  Music is cultural capital very easily shared.

There is always a fiesta with much celebration as we prepare to leave the village after working for a couple of weeks.  This time, many of the girls, dressed in traditional woven blouses and skirts, demonstrated how the ceremonial corn ritual begins each year.  They shared their own cultural capital as they sang and danced, allowing us to enjoy with them a tradition that has been passed down to them through many generations.  These are small, but important examples of sharing cultural capital in positive ways.


Reflexivity is a term that has finally come into its own in our globalized world.  Just like in It’s a Small World, “its time we’re aware,” this is a term that needs to be explored and realized for its capability of rendering to education a great deal of reality.  Reality is needed, especially, in the realm of teaching, and learning about culture.

The word reflexivity is used by anthropologists and sociologists, to explain a variety of social and cultural complexities.   However, for this course, we will simplify the definition.  Reflexivity in its simplest form is about being able to recognize one’s own cultural biases and prejudices, which have been acquired through enculturation and socialization over a lifetime.  Such biases and prejudices, like the “N” word, for blacks and the “B” word for women, sometimes show up in our communication behaviors. Often times such descriptive words are in jokes that are meant to be funny, but in reality are offensive, discriminatory and/or prejudicial.  When we are able to recognize our own cultural attitudes, we become accountable to ourselves; and we will refrain from derogatory words before they are spoken aloud.

Reflexive ideas may also show up in our writing.  Being objective is a difficult task in writing because our whole set of ideas, beliefs, and customs are embedded in the thought processes that enable us to write down the words on paper.  Some scholars believe there is no such thing as being purely objective, because our own enculturation and socialization is behind every behavior, attitude, and thought, whether verbal, written, or even in gestures.

An example of not being aware (reflexive) of one’s own biases and prejudices (enculturation, socialization, bigotry or hate) happened during the last political campaign for the presidency of the United States.  Actually, many examples, but I’m just picking out one.  Ann Romney, the wife of presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has been a stay at home mom raising five boys for many years.  A female newscaster portrayed her as, “never worked a day in her life.”  Her biased attitude that only a career outside the home, was of any value came charging out in that statement!  On the other hand, Mrs. Romney described raising her five boys as a lot of work, but not the only work that is valuable.

To give another example in another venue several years ago, Reggie White, a Green Bay Packers’ star football player, and an ordained minister, made some bold remarks to a panel he was asked to speak before.   White said later that his speech was meant to bring society together and not to stereotype races, but here are some of his quoted remarks:


            “Homosexuality is a decision, it’s not a race,”  “People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle.  But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and back-stabbing.”  (White 1998) The fact that Mr. White was an ordained minister shows up in this highly contested statement!


“Whites are good at organization,” he said, “you guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature, and you know how to tap into money.”  (White 1998) This is an attitude towards white people that was socialized and incorporated into his thinking.  Even though this comment seems to be positive, it still exhibits a non-reflexive attitude in categorizing all white people.


“When you look at the Asian, the Asian is very gifted in creativity and invention.  If you go to Japan or to any Asian country, they can turn a television into a watch.  They are very creative.” (White 1998)  Again, this seems like a positive comment, but exhibits stereotypical thinking, which hurts all people.


We can’t always control our emotions, when we are asked questions about things that we feel passionate about.  However, as we learn more of how our own culture has a hold on us, we can gradually learn to present attitudes that are less stereotypical, biased or prejudiced.

The goal of teaching about cultural capital and reflexivity and how each influences our attitudes and behaviors is to bring awareness to the forefront of conversations, debates, and reality in education – because whether it is formal or informal, we are continually educated over our entire lifetime.

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