Cultural Capital in the eyes of Lamont and Lareau

In their essay on Cultural Capital, Lamont and Lareau begin by explaining the many different concepts associated by the term “cultural capital.” They propose a new definition, defining it as institutionalized, as in “widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preference, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and culture exclusion” (156). This definition becomes problematic when discussing American society where there is no single cultural center. One modification they set out to make is in response to the micro-political dimension that they believe should be preserved in the American study of cultural capital. They say that “the relative absence of interest in the micro-political facet of cultural capital in the U.S. literature parallels the traditional resistance of American sociologists to deal with exclusion as a form of power relations; they tend to conceive it as an unintended consequence of action, and to understand power as involving coercion” (161). In this sense, Lamont and Lareau seem to be saying that American literature reinforces the negligence that Americans give to exclusion as a form of power relation. It seems that literature has helped maintain this idea – that power relations is simply not a thing in America.

Prompt (group A)

Read Lamont and Lareau’s review essay on “Cultural Capital.” They devise a way to translate what they think are the French-specific features of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital into a definition and research agenda that make sense in the U.S. context. Choose one or two of the ways they seek to modify his concept for the U.S. present and then consider how it might apply to specifically literary production, reception, or circulation. What part does literature play in cultural capital in the U.S.—at least as Lamont and Lareau define it? Write a paragraph.

(Note: the representation of the U.S. reflects L&L’s view in their particular time (1986–88) and place. Do you recognize the country they describe? —No need to blog about this, just reflect.)

Possible nugget?

To avoid reiteration, I’ll simply add the disclaimer that I also think the point of this article is not to choose sides, but rather to tear several arguments apart from their inherent paradoxes. I’d like to add to the discussion a moment where I think I found the sort of answer Guillory is searching for throughout his meticulous working-out of the canonical problem of representation:

“Acknowledging the conditional force of literacy in the history of canon formation would thus disallow us from ever assuming that the field of writing is a kind of plenum, a textual repetition of social diversity, where everyone has access to the means of literary production and works ask only to be judged fairly” (18).

Since most of his ideas as so compounded, it took some extra time to wheedle out the meaning from this moment, but what what struck me the most was the idealistic scenario that emerges in the last part of his sentence. Much of the paradoxes surrounding canonical and noncanonical literature maintain this vision of an ideal space impossible because of the problems surrounding inclusion/exclusion. However, the ideal canon would reflect the ideal social empowerment of all minorities, thus becoming a shared reflection of “social diversity,” and where the canon is not the only type of “literary production” that everyone would share equally. And, finally, it would result in the judgment of subjects/pieces/academic objects “fairly,” as in, not simply as a stand-in for the aspired-but-perpetually-unachieved-political/social-representation-of-minorities.

Guillory has no side

I found it almost impossible to determine which side of the culture war of the canon Guillory is positioned dominantly on. He seems to instead review the contentions of both sides of this debate and, in a nutshell, demonstrate the short-sightedness of both.  A main kernel of Guillory’s argument is that syllabi in schools should not be selected based on the author’s social identification (obviously interesting in conversation with Barthes and Foucault) but based on what are “important and significant cultural works” (52). In the nearly impossible task of determining which side Guillory determines as less short-sighted (and maybe then providing a black and white answer for a really grey argument), this contention might lead us to a conclusion that Guillory is primarily arguing against those who place works in a canon based on author identification – those who have expanded the canon beyond its historical boundaries of white male authorship.

A conclusion that places Guillory on the conservative side of this debate, however, ignores the dual nature of his apprehensions regarding the culture war in curricula. So while it may be possible to argue that Guillory argues more strongly against the expansion of the canon based on author identification, it’s problematic to place him on one side of a line. If anything, he is more strongly objecting to one side of the line than the other, but he isn’t aligning with either.


Although at first I thought that Guillory was against the expansion of the canon , because he stated that works that are not included in a syllabus, are left out not as a method to exclude works that are written by minorities but because they don’t meet the criteria of the course (33). However as I kept reading I realized that he isn’t really taking a particular side, he was simply poking holes in the arguments of both sides. He argues that inclusion into the literary canon is not meant to be focused about the inclusion of works to represent specific culture communities, because he believes that the works shouldn’t and don’t speak for those communities.

He does however recognize that certain groups have been excluded in the past from the literary canon, but the exclusion of these minority groups such as women is based upon the fact that not many women had the tools to become writers, for very few of them were educated. However he also acknowledges that today women writers should be studied.

Guillory Needs To Decide

I found it difficult to asses Guillory’s personal side as he argues both for and against, claiming discrepancies and overlaps, generalizations and specifics, as well as pros and cons of each side. But I have come to consensus that he doesn’t believe either side is correct as there are fundamental problems with both that must addressed before he can truly pick a winner.

As an example, Guillory states problems in regards to syllabi as they are not about inclusion or exclusion, but about our projection of Western culture . “What is excluded from the syllabus is not excluded in the same way that an individual is excluded or marginalized as the member of a social minority” (33). That being said, he also believes syllabi to be the product of anxiety and a fragmented culture which is why they try so hard to unify different works (34). Which brings a bit of confusion on my part as a syllabus that aims to unify works will then be about inclusion or exclusion of certain works -but perhaps then I am misreading.



Prompt (group B)

Read the chapter from Guillory’s Cultural Capital. Guillory worked on this book in the 1980s and published it in the early 1990s, when one phase of the “culture wars” was at its height. This was (overtly) a struggle about the political significance of the contents of university curricula in the U.S., ignited by changes in “gen ed” courses at many schools over the previous decade or two, and a series of best-sellers by conservative cultural critics denouncing some of those changes. Since 1993 we have been through many more phases of this struggle but it has not really stopped, though its forms have continually been changing.

Here is the question for your blogging: which side is Guillory on? It is a trick question, but fortunately the blog is credit/no-credit, so do your best: find a moment in which Guillory seems to assess the “sides” in the culture war, and then write a few notes on how he positions himself theoretically in relation to those sides. The first question I will ask in class on Monday will be, “Which side is he on?”

women are good at teaching!

I really wanted to compare the entire course offering between the women’s college and Rutgers to see how ridiculous math and science was represented in the Women’s college. The English courses provide a telling comparison. There is a singular focus in the English curriculum for women that points to: Become a teacher! (secondary education of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves)

The descriptions of the speech classes and the other classes that focus on “pronunciation” are really limiting. The descriptions seem very simplistic. I also noticed the “national Independence of American literature”. I thought that was an interesting phrase because it marked a transition from a focus on classical studies and European works…Was this a common phrase of the time?

The theme writing courses…One was exposition/composition? One creative writing?
The home economic/phys ed. classes were predictable…

Rutgers and Douglass:
Douglass seems to be slightly ahead of the game as far as providing more in depth class offerings that are comparable to the men’s college. (I saw the word politics…that seems to be a first)
I also noticed an abundance of economics courses in the 1930 catalogue. This definitely seems like a catalogue reflecting the post WWI economic climate and more recently the 1929 stock market crash…hence the word “Problems” recurring in course titles.