Cultural capital was first fully defined by Pierre Bourdieu in his 1986 article “The Forms of Capital,” contrasting this form of capital with economic and social capital. Bourdieu defines capital as “accumulated labor,” and acknowledges that economic theorists often are disinterested in it, but argues that it has extreme value from an anthropological point of view. “Cultural capital,” Bourdieu claims, “is the most material forms of capital – those which are economic in the restricted sense … transubstant[iated into an] … immaterial form” (Bourdieu). Cultural capital, then, is a valuable asset that can be used for both financial and social gain when the transubstantiation process works in reverse. Cultural capital allows its possessors to function within a particular society, but a lack of cultural capital can prohibit social mobility by restricting the type and accessibility of jobs available to members.
To understand the importance of cultural capital, it is necessary to fully comprehend culture itself. In Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity, Conrad Kottak says that “cultures are traditions and customs … that form and guide the beliefs and behavior of the people exposed to them” (Kottak 5). This definition can be readily applied to Philippe Bourgois’ ethnology In Search of Respect, which documents the underground crack culture in the El Barrio neighborhood of Harlem. For example, in the street culture of El Barrio, it is customary for males to assert dominance within the culture by performing acts of gang rape. This is barely understandable for someone not encultured into El Barrio’s street society; in fact, even after two years in El Barrio, hearing stories of rapes “spun [Bourgois] into a personal depression and research crisis” (Bourgois 205). However, many of Bourgois’ contacts and friends – including Primo, Caesar, and Ray – committed multiple rapes. Bourgois eventually was forced to “face the prevalence and normalcy of rape in street culture and adolescent socialization” (Bourgois 207). He learned that Primo and other members of the El Barrio community justified their actions through explanations such as peer bonding or that the women being raped enjoyed it (Bourgois 208-209). Because Bourgois had not grown up in El Barrio and was not fully enculturated into the society, he did not fully understand the custom of gang rape that guided the behavior of Primo, Caesar, and other El Barrio youths. Kottak explains this as well, claiming that “the most critical element of cultural traditions is their transmission through learning rather than through biological inheritance” (Kottak 5). In essence, Kottak argues that if Bourgois had grown up on the street, he may very well have accepted gang rape because he would have learned its particular cultural connotations within the context of El Barrio’s culture instead of the more mainstream culture in which Bourgois grew up.
The reader can see this within the ethnography by comparing some of Bourgois’ initial responses to incidents or customs to his responses at the end of the work. For example, Bourgois begins the work with a “startle reflex” (Bourgois 344) to violence that reemerges in the epilogue when he visits El Barrio after an extended absence. This is an example of “culture shock – a creepy and profound feeling of alienation” (Kottak 283) that occurs when people enter an unfamiliar place or culture. This same startle reflex also shows how cultural capital varies widely in value. Within El Barrio’s culture, repressing this startle reflex to “neighborhood violence … [helps one portray] a macho manner” (Bourgois 357) which is respected by other members of the street culture. Thus, within El Barrio, repressing the startle reflex is a form of cultural capital because it is a “cultural tool necessary to succeed in certain situations” (Heinemann 1). Thus, when Bourgois immersed himself in the culture of El Barrio, he became accustomed to gunshots and violence because this skill was valuable to him as well; he needed to adapt to street culture enough to gain the respect of the people he worked with while not compromising his ideals or doing anything illegal. Bourgois says in his notes that “the transcriptions of my tape recording are frequently punctuated by gunshots. In my original round of editing, I was so close to the material that I did not transcribe the sound of gunshots, treating them instead like static interference or traffic noises” (Bourgois 357). This was an ideal form of cultural capital for Bourgois to obtain because it allowed him to gain some street credibility within the culture while maintaining his professional stance as an anthropologist. Bourgois refused to participate in illegal activities throughout the book, including using crack, to retain professionalism and academic credibility.
There are also points throughout the book where Bourgois displays a complete lack of cultural capital. For example, once Primo and Benzie know Bourgois well, they reveal that they first thought he was bisexual because of his skin color, accent, and body movements. (Bourgois 43). Primo had tried to tell Benzie that Bourgois’ speech inflection came from being an “anfropologist [speaking] intelligent talk” (Bourgois 44) but even Primo’s mother, talking to Bourgois over the phone, thought that he was gay (Bourgois 44). Bourgois admits that “during the first few years of my fieldwork [he] thoroughly misread street cues” (Bourgois 44) because he did not have the cultural capital necessary to fully understand the underlying complexities of El Barrio interactions. Other examples of Bourgois lacking cultural capital include episodes where he insults Ray accidentally exposing that Ray is illiterate (Bourgois 21-27) or buys an “unstreetwise brand” of beer for Primo (Bourgois 40).
However, the people of El Barrio are also drastically affected by their lack of cultural capital needed to successfully assimilate into the corporate community and “finance … insurance … and real estate (FIRE)” (Bourgois 115) sector of the economy, where the majority of high paying jobs are. The street smarts and cultural capital of El Barrio residents could be applied to factory jobs, where their often violent attitudes garner respect:
On the shop floor … surrounded by older union workers, high school dropouts who are well versed in the latest and toughest street culture styles function effectively. In the factory, being tough and violently macho has high cultural value; a certain degree of opposition to the foreman and the ‘bossman’ is expected and considered masculine (Bourgois 142).
The “Department of [New York] City Planning calculates that over 800,000 industrial jobs were lost from the 1960s through the early 1990s, [when Bourgois wrote the ethnography] while the total number of jobs of all categories remained more or less constant at 3.5 million” (Bourgois 114). The industrial jobs that could potentially provide a stable, legal income for El Barrio residents slowly dried up and were outsourced, forcing them to “rotate from one poorly paid job to the next, with little education or social skills to allow them mobility outside of the marginal factory enclaves that trapped their entire social network” (Bourgois 137). The FIRE jobs that replaced industrial work were often unsuited to the cultural capital of El Barrio. Bourgois details multiple incidents within In Search of Respect where El Barrio residents were rejected from the legal economy because of not having enough corporate or mainstream cultural capital, instead using the street smarts they were enculturated with. Examples include when Primo searched for legal work and was unable to find any (Bourgois 120-125), Ray’s failure to successfully establish a bodega grocery store (Bourgois 133-135), Primo’s failed “Mr. Fix-It Services” startup (Bourgois 135-136), Primo’s failure at a desktop publishing job (Bourgois 145-156), and the collapse of a union construction job of Primo’s (Bourgois 166-167). In essence, Primo and other members of the El Barrio society “lacked the cultural capacity to be able to compete effectively according to professional workplace rules” (Bourgois 148).
Within El Barrio, acting quickly and aggressively is necessary to survive. On the street, this form of cultural capital has extreme value. Caesar says that “you’ve got to be a little wild for this neighborhood … so that nobody bothers you” (Bourgois 25). Ray raped a male transient to establish his street cred (Bourgois 23); Primo and Caesar’s knowledge of police operations allowed them to escape arrests multiple times (Bourgois 110); and Caesar’s ability to act crazy on demand allowed him to receive SSI monthly checks (Bourgois 190-191). Obviously, within the crack scene, acting in a fashion that is detrimental in a corporate environment is necessary and helpful.
The current system of inherent racism, drug use, and violence that dominates El Barrio is a remnant of “institutional racism” (Heinemann 1) that existed in the United States until the late 1960s. The film Race, The Power of an Illusion: The House We Live In explains this occurrence in detail. After World War II, cheap loans allowed white GIs to quickly buy homes at low rates, but black veterans were excluded from taking out similar loans. Artificially created white neighborhoods such as Levittown sprung up throughout the US, uniting whites previously divided by nationality against blacks. The Fair Housing Act under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawed discriminating by race for property sales. Today, a system of de facto segregation exists because geography segregates people legally (Race: The Power of an Illusion). After the Fair Housing Act was passed, whites tried to move out of neighborhoods with black populations, driving the value of houses down as they left; the fall in housing values led to less accumulated wealth for black residents over the past thirty or forty years as the “average black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family” (Race: The Power of an Illusion). The tenements and cheap project apartments, described as “vertical ghettos” (Race: The Power of an Illusion), were the only type of housing available to inner-city residents; because people don’t gain wealth through equity by paying rent, their total worth stayed stagnant while that of whites outside the city continued to grow. This is the same situation that El Barrio residents faced during the writing of Bourgois’ ethnography and continue to face today. They cannot earn enough money to escape the city through legal employment because their lack of cultural capital forces them into low paying jobs, and they cannot earn money through equity because the only housing available is apartments.
The government effectively marginalizes people caught in the crack culture because the cultural capital of El Barrio is nearly worthless to mainstream America. Only those who abandon their heritage are able to escape the poverty of El Barrio. An older cousin of Caesar’s demonstrates this; he escaped a heroin addiction and El Barrio by finding a “white collar job in an insurance agency” (Bourgois 172) and moving “his family to the suburbs” (Bourgois 172). Caesar’s cousin still visits El Barrio, but “hides the extent of his economic success” (Bourgois 173) to not make others uncomfortable. Sadly, “the solution in his case has been to internalize the legitimacy of apartheid in the United States” (Bourgois 173). It appears that there is no legal escape from poverty available to El Barrio’s residents of they choose to maintain street culture.