Cultural capital

A term introduced by Pierre Bourdieu to refer to the symbols, ideas, tastes, and preferences that can be strategically used as resources in social action. He sees this cultural capital as a ‘habitus’, an embodied socialized tendency or disposition to act, think, or feel in a particular way. By analogy with economic capital, such resources can be invested and accumulated and can be converted into other forms. Thus, middle-class parents are able to endow their children with the linguistic and cultural competences that will give them a greater likelihood of success at school and at university. Working-class children, without access to such cultural resources, are less likely to be successful in the educational system. Thus, education reproduces class inequalities. Bourdieu sees the distribution of economic and cultural capital as reinforcing each other. Educational success—reflecting initial cultural capital—is the means through which superior, higher-paying occupations can be attained, and the income earned through these jobs may allow the successful to purchase a private education for their children and so enhance their chances of educational success. This ‘conversion’ of one form of capital into another is central to the intragenerational or intergenerational reproduction of class differences.

From A Dictionary of Sociology by John Scott and Gordon Marshall. Oxford University Press 2009.

Junk food does bad things to your body and junk media does bad things to your mind. A burger’s fine once in a while, but if that’s all you eat you’ll damage your health and get fat. People who only watch the kind of television which features so-called celebrities force-feeding each other kangaroo genitalia, or the ridiculing of deluded contestants on ‘talent’ shows, are like people who exist entirely on a diet of cheap processed food. If you only watch programmes pandering to the warped egos of monomaniac businessmen, mentalist chefs, and patronising ‘experts’ in such relatively straightforward activities as buying a house, dressing and not being grossly overweight, you will enfeeble your mind. ‘Documentaries’ about physically deformed people which purport to be sympathetic but actually have the same moral intent as a chamber of horrors, or callously exploitative chat shows in which damaged and vulnerable people are paraded in front of a baying audience of complacent fools, will sicken your heart. The obsessions and fears of the popular print media project an equally depressing and limited image of humanity: celebrity, crime, foreigners, terrorists, football, diets, property prices, tax, teenagers, ASBOs, dangerous dogs, ‘political correctness gone mad’. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell imagined a mass media used by an all-powerful state as a control mechanism: a machine to distort, lie and re-write history in the interests of the ruling party. One important element of state control was the production of ‘Prolefeed’, populist entertainment designed to placate and stupefy the ‘Proletariat’ (ordinary folk). Prolefeed consisted of “rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.” Although the novel was published in 1949, Orwell’s description of Prolefeed seems to resonate in our times. Think about the hysterical idiocy of much of the British tabloid press; think about the manufactured inanities of the popular music industry. Many of us have become passive consumers of Prolefeed, prey to the desires of advertisers, immune to complexity and nuance.

But no one has to limit themselves to this impoverished mental diet. There is a different world of media out there. Radio, television and newspapers at their best can be an extraordinary source of enlightenment and inspiration. But without the necessary ‘cultural capital’ it can be difficult to access, even though it’s all freely available to anyone with a TV, radio or internet connection. This webpage has a simple task: to provide links to some of the best outputs of the contemporary British mass media.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Acquiring cultural capital

BBC Radio has three channels which are good sources of cultural capital: Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service.

Radio 4 is a 'talk' station. Its main news and current affairs programmes, Today, The World at One and PM, punctuate the day, along with news headlines on the hour. Today (broadcast 6.00 am to 9.00 am) is particularly influential, and often includes interviews with leading political figures from the UK and overseas. As well as news, Radio 4 broadcasts a huge range of 'factual' programmes on a variety of topics, including history, science and politics, as well as general documentaries. This factual strand is supplemented by a number of discussion programmes which deal with important issues of the day, as well as broader cultural issues. Radio 4 also serves up a rich diet of arts programmes, together with drama and readings. There's also a lively comedy strand (many top comedians had their first big break on Radio 4). Some popular programmes which will provide a 'taster' of Radio 4 include 'Start the Week', 'The Film Programme', 'Poetry Please', 'A Good Read', 'Americana', 'Analysis', 'Bookclub', 'From Our Own Correspondent', 'Material World', 'Open Book', 'Front Row', 'In Our Time', 'The Living World', 'The Media Show', 'Word of Mouth'. The Radio 4 newsletter, giving an overview of the week's broadcasts, is here.

Radio 3 is best known as a music station, in particular classical music, but also jazz and world music. And there's also an important speech and drama strand - try programmes such as 'Between the Ears' (thought-provoking features on a variety of subjects), 'Night Waves' (leading academics and artists discuss, debate and review books, films and plays) and 'The Verb' (new writing, literature and performance). You can subscribe to Radio 3's newsletters here.

The World Service is the BBC's international radio station. Its news and current affairs are tremendously varied with, as you might expect, a focus on world news (often reporting on events which are overlooked elsewhere in the media). There are also documentaries, and programmes on arts and culture, religion and ethics and science and health.

Because commercial television relies for its income on advertisers, and advertisers like to ensure their efforts are viewed by as many people as possible, channels such as ITV, Channel Four, Five, Sky and so on are mainly filled with programmes designed for mass consumption. BBC One, despite being funded from the licence fee, is also largely an interest-free zone these days, and BBC Two is, to my mind, losing its appeal and sense of identity (although it does occasionally show something worth watching). The best source of cultural capital on BBC television is BBC Four (which is available on Freeview). The main genres BBC Four specializes in are: factual, drama, and music. In the words of Richard Klein, the channel's controller:
BBC Four aspires to be the most culturally enriching channel in UK broadcasting. It aims to ... become the channel of distinction for people who love to think.
BBC Four will continue to ... approach subject matter at a level of depth, detail and authority second to none ... The channel is curious about the role of arts and culture in our modern society. That includes tackling some of the big arts subjects like ballet and sculpture, as well as examining how science has shaped our culture.
The aim is to offer discourse and insight through factual, drama and entertainment programming. BBC Four will continue to employ style and wit, to entertain as it informs and to be as enjoyable as it is knowledgeable and insightful.
You can get some idea of the range and quality of its output by clicking on the following links to recent 'seasons' of programmes: Books on the BBC, Focus on Sculpture, Reggae Britannia, Justice - A Citizen's Guide. If you go here you can get a taste of what BBC Four currently has in its documentary category on iPlayer. 

There are four 'serious' newspapers in the UK (all are published on weekdays and Saturdays, and some have a Sunday version). These are The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent. It would, of course, be expensive to buy these every day, but luckily you don't have to because you can access them for free on the internet (all except The Times, which you have to pay for). Politically speaking, The Telegraph and Times are on the right (i.e. they are somewhat 'conservative' in their outlook) while The Independent and Guardian are on the left. The Guardian has by far the best website and you should certainly try to visit it at least once a day. There are also a number of weekly and monthly publications which are also accessible online. For news and current affairs try The Economist, The New Statesman, or Newsweek. A good way to stay informed about the world of books, as well as broader cultural issues is to read The Times Literary Supplement (TLS).