InQuery: Why isn’t cultural capital valued as highly as economic capital?

Within a capitalist system, the most commonly thought of form of capital is economic – essentially the net worth of an individual or entity, consisting of money, property, stocks, etc. There are, however, many forms of capital beyond this. I use the term cultural capital here to refer to things like skills, knowledge of all sorts, networks and affiliations, experience, etc. that can also be referred to as capital. The supremacy of economic capital can be seen in the way in which various forms of cultural capital are defined by how they affect and are affected by economic capital. Some take economic capital to develop (as in the skills at ITP, “bought” with tuition $$$), most enhance the ability of an individual or entity to generate economic capital, and for many both are true.

There are other ways in which we can see economic capital being prized over cultural capital. One is the discrepancy of salaries between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors; staff at organizations that work to build cultural capital on both a micro and macro scale are expected to work just as hard for less pay than those performing similar roles at organizations looking to sell products and provide a payday for investors. Embedded in this is the notion that economic capital increased in value via a transformation to cultural capital is an inferior investment when compared to economic capital used to generate additional economic capital. It is valued so highly that we generally don’t bat an eyelash at economic capital used to fund ventures that have a decent chance of losing money, but a nonprofit must have a nearly risk-free program idea with solid outcomes and returns in order to even think about finding funding.

In many ways, we are all affected. Innovation is just as important to organizations involved in the development of cultural capital as it is to those devoted to the generation of economic capital. When an organization is forced to take the less risky path in order to secure funding, we all lose out on whatever may have come from a more adventurous solution. Consider Majora Carter’s conversation about coding workshops vs. her work with StartupBox, and how much easier it would have been to find support for the less effective but safer solution.

Why is it important to you? What inspired you to take interest?

Prior to ITP, I worked in community development in San Diego and LA. Community development is a field with an imperfect past (and in many ways, a very problematic present). It all too frequently becomes an exercise in developing economic capital for entities outside the neighborhood as programs become marketing opportunities for corporate funders. Lost is the voice of the community, the experts in what innovation and real development looks like in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, these visions don’t make a profit, and as a result they are pushed aside.

What other work or research is being done to solve it?

There is a growing understanding of the need to invest in and emphasize forms of capital beyond economic. Within community development, there is a growing emphasis on comprehensiveness. Where in the past affordable housing development has been king, comprehensive development asks organizations to consider the safety, health, education, and economic well-being of a neighborhood’s residents. This has required the development of completely new programs and approaches. The Institute of Comprehensive Community Development is a good reference in this regard. I’m not too familiar with them, but the Forum for the Future seems to have good resources on the forms of capital and how they work together in a more general setting.

What are some ideas for answering/solving the problem?

At this point, the best workarounds are the ones that reframe cultural capital development in terms of the effect on economic capital. For instance, one organization I worked with had a program that bundled many services and developed many dimensions of well-being among individual clients. In order to generate interest, the program was framed in terms of the cost vs benefit financially. Yes, the program cost money, but if a client went from financial dependence on government programs to independence as a result of it, the taxpayer money saved was enormous.

In the future, I’d like programs like this to be framed in terms of how they help individuals grow and develop, and have them still be “fundable”. Key to this will be the development of powerful new storytelling tools that force those who remain unaware of the suffering of others to develop empathy and understanding. In order for cultural capital to be valued on the same level as economic capital, people will need to care about the world around them as much as they care about themselves, and that can only come when the experiences of others are readily available and conveyed in very powerful ways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.