In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Capital and Health

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Cultural Capital and Food-Related Practices
  • Cultural Capital and Health Status
  • Cultural Capital and Engagement with Health-Care Systems

Public Health Cultural Capital and Health
Thomas Abel, Gerry Veenstra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0217


Cultural capital has received an increasing amount of attention from public health researchers and practitioners in recent years. Adoption of cultural capital, a concept developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, represents a way of bringing social theory to bear on associations between indicators of socioeconomic status and health-related factors. Cultural capital is a personal resource that is cultural in nature and linked to indicators of socioeconomic status or position. In this article a range of essential readings on cultural capital and its application in public health research are given. Key texts are presented that discuss the notion of cultural capital itself and how cultural capital can be an important factor for health. Examples are then provided from the empirical research literature that shed light on the promise of cultural capital for explicating health-related inequalities in contemporary societies. These examples are drawn from three domains of public health research: (1) food-related practices, (2) health status, and (3) engagement with health-care systems. The sources presented in this bibliography point to some of the major contributions of applications of cultural capital to public health research by drawing attention to interplays between material and non-material resources, incorporating both distal and proximal determinants of health, and illuminating how social structures affect health-related agency and the distribution of health-related risks.

Theoretical Foundations

Pierre Bourdieu provides the theoretical foundation for the concept of cultural capital, describing cultural resources that are especially valued by the dominant class as key components in the structuring of societies via hierarchical social positions, playing a major role in how societies assign prestige and power to members of different groups (Bourdieu 1986). Lamont and Lareau 1988 notes that cultural capital is geographically and temporally specific and that researchers need to ensure that their measures of cultural capital are reflective of these specificities. Williams 1995 uses Bourdieu’s concept of capital (including cultural capital) alongside the latter’s concepts of field, habitus, and practice to theorize the relationship among social class, health, and lifestyles, situating cultural capital within the discourse on structure and agency in health research. Abel 2008 provides a definition of health-relevant cultural capital. A key feature of capital approaches to social inequality more generally is that of the mutual dependencies among different forms of capitals. In this regard, Veenstra and Abel 2019 describes how cultural capital can affect health and health inequities through different forms of interplays between capitals, including those of intergenerational transmission and capital conversion.

  • Abel, T. 2008. Cultural capital and social inequality in health. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 62.e13: 1–5.

    This article defines health-relevant cultural capital, identifying health-related values and norms, knowledge and skills as its key elements. Cultural capital is described as a key source of health advantages, social privilege, (health-related) agency, and power. The article identifies embodied cultural capital as most central for advancing understanding of the behavioral factors that link social class to health. It also advocates for researchers to justify, theoretically and empirically, the contextually specific measures of cultural capital used in a given empirical investigation.

  • Bourdieu, P. 1986. The forms of capital. In Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Edited by J. Richardson, 241–258. New York: Greenwood.

    Here, Bourdieu introduces his conception of capital with its material and non-material manifestations. Cultural capital, alongside economic and social capitals, is a key factor in the social reproduction of social inequalities. A definition of cultural capital is provided as well as an explanation of its three distinct forms: objectified (e.g., highbrow books, works of art, and machines), institutionalized (e.g., educational credentials) and embodied (e.g., cultural tastes). Bourdieu also introduces capital interplays that are crucial to the re-production of (health) inequalities.

  • Lamont, A., and A. Laueau. 1988. Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory 6.2: 153–168.

    DOI: 10.2307/202113

    Several theoretical issues pertaining to cultural capital are addressed in this article, including the argument that researchers need to develop measures of cultural capital that are contextually specific. Also, researchers need to decide whether cultural capital is most usefully conceptualized as inherently vertical in nature (e.g., highbrow culture is applied exclusively by the upper class and lowbrow culture belongs exclusively to the lower class) or whether it can operate horizontally within a particular class segment.

  • Veenstra, G., and T. Abel. 2019. Capital interplays and social inequalities in health. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 47:631–634.

    DOI: 10.1177/1403494818824436

    This article describes how different forms of capital are potentially entwined with one another in the production of good health: capital acquisition (application of one form of capital facilitates successful acquisition of another form of health-relevant capital); multiplier interplay (application of one form of capital strengthens the health effect of another capital); compensatory interplay (lack of one form of capital is compensated for by another form of capital); and transmission interplays (e.g., parents transmit their health-relevant capitals to their children).

  • Williams, S. 1995. Theorising class, health and lifestyles: Can Bourdieu help us? Sociology of Health & Illness 17.5: 577–604.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.ep10932093

    This article provides a nuanced description of cultural capital and how it can affect health by way of health-related practices, whether the latter are engaged in purposely or in an unthinking, practical kind of way. It also clarifies how Bourdieu’s theoretical framework attempts to dissolve the dichotomy between structure and agency, avoiding both structuralism (all practices are straightforwardly determined by social structure) and overemphasis on agency (all practices simply reflect choices made by rational, autonomous individuals).

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