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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday 13 December 2013

On metaphors - cultural and social capital again

Recently, as you no doubt know,  I've been beating up on the use of the term "capital" in phrases like "cultural capital" and to a lesser extent "social capital". One desperate last move that their defenders try to deploy is the old, "its only a metaphor" ploy, as though that was some kind of answer. Rather than say, "well that's all right then" I want to take this manoeuver seriously and ask: "so what do you expect your metaphor to accomplish?".

It turns out that there is an old discussion in the philosophy of science that is relevant. I can do little better than quote from Stephen Toulmin's The Philosophy of Science pp35-36:

"When for instance, we say that someone's eyes swept the horizon, the ancient model of vision as the action of antennae from the eye is preserved in our speech as a metaphor; but when we talk of light travelling our figure of speech is more than a metaphor. Consequently, when people say that to talk of light travelling in some sense reflects the nature of the world in a way in which to talk of eyes sweeping the horizon does not, they have some justification. For to say the 'Light travels' reflects the nature of reality, in a way in which 'His eyes swept the horizon' does not, is to point to the fact that the latter remains at best a metaphor. The optical theory from which it came is dead. Questions like 'What sort of broom do eyes sweep with?' and 'What are the antennae made of?' can be asked only frivolously. The former does more: it can both take its place at the heart of a fruitful theory and suggest to us further questions, many of which can be given a sense in a way in which the question suggested by 'His eyes swept the horizon' never could."

"How did he use his cultural capital as collateral for a bank loan?" has roughly the same status as: "What sort of broom do eyes sweep with?" It's obvious that you can't use intangible cultural resources as security against a loan because they aren't capital in a sense that any financial institution would understand. Valuable as they are to you, your cultural resources (unless they are physical objects like paintings, sculptures, opera houses) are not in themselves transferable to others. "Cultural capital" is a metaphor with nowhere to go because it doesn't, as Toulmin puts it, "take its place at the heart of a fruitful theory".


Marion said...

I am not so sure. I think you can use capital to refer to intangible things, or should I say palpable rather than intangible. Because increased confidence for example is tangible, it can be seen and expressed and results in actions that would not have taken place otherwise. Eventually it can result in palpable things too as people start to make and produce things. So what is capital? - is maybe more of a significant question that what use is a metaphor. To me capital is something that you have and can invest in to make something greater. Well, I thought I had better look it up, and Wikipedia says this '...capital assets are already-produced durable goods or any non-financial asset that is used in production of goods or services'. Sounds fine to me - we invest in a non-financial asset and make a change which is a return on investment, just not counted in money. Cultural capital can grow and multiply what's more, and be made public, shared and passed down through generations. It's ok with me

Colin said...

Marion, I think I probably haven't done a good enough job of explaining myself as you appear to misunderstand me. Let me have another go and I'll see if I can do better.

The first thing to understand is that I'm not making an argument about the right and wrong use of words. If you want to call a 15 hands high quadruped that eats oats and makes a sound like "naaaaay" a "mouse" then you're quite free to do so. We call such an animal a "horse" only by convention. If you insist on calling it a mouse one of two things will probably happen: 1) You won't be understood or 2) people will assume that you are playing some sort of game (and that you don't really believe that the animal in front of you is a mouse).

What matters in science is that we all understand each other ie we try not to play language games. In economics the word "capital" has a quite definite meaning given to it by the place it holds in a web of theories and models. If you like it gets its meaning from a particular way of looking at the world.

Broadly speaking, if something is to be properly regarded as "capital" in an economic sense then it can be exchanged, sold, passed on to another party and the person who once owned it, relinquishes ownership.It is not just a matter of having possession of a particular resource or of tangibility.Capital can be intangible, at least in some sense. Consider a promise (what could be more intangible than that?) in the form of an IOU to pay me £100,000 in 3 months time. If the IOU is signed by Joe Sixpack it probably isn't capital because nobody will exchange it with me for ready cash now. If, on the other hand it is signed by the Duke of Westminster then there is probably a market for the IOU and I can exchange it now for a suitably discounted sum of cash. The point is, that I don't have the promise any more.

Paintings, stately homes, houses, book collections are all exchangeable and can be regarded as capital. My love of fine wines, appreciation of Russian literature and enjoyment of opera cannot. I can't sell or even give them to somebody else and thus deprive myself of them. I can't use them as collateral for a loan. The fact that I can share my appreciation with my children, teach them Russian and socialize them into liking opera is neither here nor there. These things are cultural resources that exist (hypothetically) in my family home (because I live there) which my family members may (or may not) benefit from. Calling them "capital" obscures an important distinction and conveys no more information than calling them "resources".

In fact it is worse than that. Whereas "capital" in its economic sense plays a part in a fruitful theory (of how markets work) "capital" in its "cultural capital" usage is not a fruitful metaphor. To see that take a sentence from any Bourdieusian that uses the term and for the word "capital" substitute "resource". Now ask yourself, has anything of substance been lost? Concepts have to pay their way if they are to be useful and if all they do is kick up a lot of dust then you should beware the charlatans thus concealed.

Chris J. said...

Dr. Mills,

Pardon me in advance for my apparent density; am I correct in saying that you disagree with the term capital mainly because it obscures an important distinction, that of true exchangeability vs. impotency? And furthermore, we may as well exchange the word "capital" with "resources"?

I think I would simply say that Bourdieu would agree with you; in the Forms of Capital, he writes, "So it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects." Forgive the lengthy quote, but in summary, Bourdieu would agree with you that if a specific artifact of cultural capital, such as your ability to speak russian, is relatively impotent in your specific social space, it is not effective cultural capital; to label it a successful or potent piece of capital would be wrong. I do not think that Bourdieu would claim that everything must necessarily be capital, nor that everything is effective capital to the same degree that everything else is effective capital. Simply because your ability to speak russian is fairly irrelevant in your context is no reason to cast aside Bourdieu's theory of capital.

Apart from these initial thoughts, I also do not see why you think substituting the word "resource" for "capital" is a serious blow to Bourdieusian thought; he himself, in several places in his well-known aforementioned article, defines capital in its various forms as resources. Elaboration on this point may help me to grasp your meaning.

I also need to find your previous discussions on cultural and social capital; I've only just discovered this blog today, and I must admit I'm unfamiliar with your thoughts and critiques of Bourdieu; I look forward to reading them.

Chris J.

Colin said...

Thanks for your comments Chris. Obviously I've not made myself clear enough, so I'll try again.

Let's leave "impotency" aside, as I don't know precisely what you mean by it, it's not a term I use in my post, and, as far as I can see, is quite irrelevant to the point I was making (though not necessarily to the points you wish to make - which is quite another thing).

My point was and is very, very simple. I have a strong preference for clarity. An important aspect of clarity is making distinctions. Using a word like "capital" in something other than its conventional sense creates obscurity. We are not able to ask Bourdieu if he would be happy to substitute "resources" for "capital" and I don't myself see the quotation you cite as particularly enlightening on this point.

The question has been put to various living and breathing Bourdieusians and fellow-travelers and they don't appear to want to accept the "cultural capital" = "cultural resources" equation, though they seem unable even to hint at what the extra je ne sais crois is that "cultural capital" brings to the table.

My own theory is that they are just taking a leaf out of the book of the master. After all Bourdieu himself freely admitted (according to John Searle at least)that in the French cultural field a proportion of what intellectuals write has to be obscure bullshit in order for it (or rather them) to be taken seriously.

I don't myself have a general "critique" of Bourdieu to offer. In fact I wonder how one could be constructed. The man wrote so much, at such great length and with such obscurity that it would be possible to find snippets supporting more or less anything.

If one focuses on the more empirical parts of his work - say in the sociology of education - then what you see is, more often than not, either just banal or wrong.

For a certain type of British sociologist Bourdieu is essentially a cult figure and as with many cult figures there are rewards to be reaped from the obscurity of the works of the master. Secondary and tertiary interpretations of what he "really meant" are, after all, a nice little earner, if you can get them on enough reading lists.

His cult status did not, by the way go unnoticed in France. In his memoirs Raymond Aron writes:

"When Pierre Bourdieu returned from his military service he had already worked in the field. At the time, he promised all that he has since realized, one of the "greats" of his generation; he did not suggest what he has become, the leader of a sect, sure of himself and overbearing, an expert in faculty politics, merciless towards those who might challenge him." pp 239.

It would appear that many of the latter day Bourdieusians are a "chip off the old bloc".

matthew bond said...

The promiscuous use of capital is also unfortunate because it reduces everything to a single, economic dimension. Weberian distinction of class, status and party is analytically useful. Can't even test whether economic dimension determines social, cultural or political behaviour if you lump them all together the way so many Bourdieusians do.