Bourdieu’s Social Reproduction Thesis and The Role of Cultural Capital in Educational Attainment: A Critical Review of Key Empirical Studies

Michael Tzanakis


This critical review examines key quantitative evidence in studies regarding the role of cultural capital in the links between family social class, teachers, schools and students’ educational outcomes as specified in Bourdieu’s social reproduction thesis. Cultural capital is assumed to be one of the central family-based endowments whose social class value impacts offspring intergenerational educational probabilities unequally. Inequalities in educational stratification and occupational achievement are reproduced via schools. As an analytic concept, cultural capital has generated considerable interest. But as a mechanism of class analysis the social reproduction thesis, and the role of cultural capital in it, cannot be confirmed empirically in large-scale representative, longitudinal data (or across various national settings). The role of teachers and schools, argued in Bourdieu’s theory to be central agents of exclusion and reproduction of class inequality connecting families to stratification outcomes cannot be confirmed in quantitative research. Cultural capital seen strictly as a mechanism of class reproduction as specified in Bourdieu’s framework, has limited analytic potential that restricts its application in multicultural societies. Some alternative applications are discussed.


Bourdieu, cultural capital, social reproduction, education, ethnicity

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