Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital and its implications for the science curriculum


Correspondence to: Stephanie Claussen; e-mail:


This paper argues that Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital has significant value for identifying the “worth” of a science education. His notion of “embodied,” “objectified,” and “institutionalized” cultural capital is used as a theoretical lens to identify both the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge and its extrinsic value for future employment. This analysis suggests that science education misses three opportunities to establish its value to its students and the wider public. First, science education commonly has a poor understanding of the nature of embodied capital that it offers, failing to communicate the cultural achievement that science represents. Second, it fails to see itself as a means of developing the critical dispositions of mind, which are the hallmark of a scientist but also useful to all citizens. Third, given the policy emphasis on educating the next generation of scientists, it fails to exploit the one major element of cultural capital that science education is currently seen to offer by scientists, the public, and its students—that is the value that science qualifications have for future employment. Bourdieu's concept that the primary function of education is to sustain the culture and privilege of the dominant groups in society offers a lens that helps to identify how and why these apparent contradictions exist. Drawing on Bourdieu's ideas, we develop a perspective to critique current practice and identify the possible contributions science education might make to remediating social injustice.


During his lifetime, the Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu tackled a number of seemingly eclectic issues, which, when combined, paint a picture of how individuals conduct their lives in the social and cultural context in which they exist (Webb, Schirato, & Danaher, 2002). Two of the concepts he proposed—“habitus” and “cultural capital”—provide a unique perspective from which to analyze the function of education. Bourdieu conceives of “habitus” as a set of social and cultural practices, values, and dispositions that are characterized by the ways social groups interact with their members; whereas “cultural capital” is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are transmitted to an individual within their sociocultural context through pedagogic action1 (Bourdieu, 1986), in particular by the family. Formal education is important because it can be viewed as an academic market for the distribution of cultural capital: Those who enter the classroom with sufficient cultural capital of the appropriate, dominant type—capital that fits well with the discourse and values of schools—are well positioned to increase their cultural capital further. In addition, research shows that the habitus of such students enables them to acquire substantial additional capital in informal contexts (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007; Tavernise, 2012). In contrast, students who possess cultural capital of a form that is incongruent with the culture of the school, or who lack it altogether, are at a distinct disadvantage. One of the challenges of education in general, and science education in particular, is how to increase a student's stock of the dominant cultural capital, regardless of the nature of any prior capital they may, or may not, already have acquired.

In this paper, we seek to explore what Bourdieu's ideas imply about both the implicit and explicit values that are used to justify the value of a science education. In doing so, we draw on his notion of cultural capital, in particular, to argue how school science could better contribute to the remediation of social inequalities.

For Bourdieu, cultural capital “represents the immanent structure of the social world,” determining at any given moment what it is possible for any individual to achieve. The varied forms of capital are similar in that each “takes time to accumulate and which, as a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form, contains a tendency to persist in its being” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 46). The consequence is that certain forms of cultural capital become entrenched, as those who possess such capital either implicitly or explicitly defend its value. Indeed, Bourdieu argued that ultimately certain groups within society legitimize the meanings that they seek to impose on others through the structure and agencies of the formal education system. In education, what is imposed on students then “contributes towards reproducing the power relations” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977, p. 31) that, in turn, are the basis of the power to impose them in the first place. These values and meanings Bourdieu saw as essentially arbitrary and used the term “a cultural arbitrary” as a label to show that they had no absolute justification, and rather, that the dominant group in any society conceals the arbitrary aspects of their power. And, as a belief in their intrinsic merit is the basis of their force, a corollary is that it is difficult to challenge the view that these values have essential intrinsic merit. For instance, few would question that an education in science is a good thing, a fact which makes it difficult to critique the current form and content of what is commonly offered. The dominance of any forms of cultural capital is then institutionalized in the form of examinations, qualifications, and certification by professional bodies. Significantly, for our argument, it is access to these varied forms of institutionalized capital that determines the social status of individuals, as their acquisition enables entry to privileged social classes (Jenkins, 2002).

Exactly what constitutes cultural capital is a product of the values and decisions of any group. For instance, expertise in the game of cricket has little value in the context of American society and, conversely, expertise in baseball has little value in European society. However, all societies are marked by one form that dominates and, in education, it is the dominant “cultural arbitrary” that “stalks” the hallways of American schools (Apple, 1979). Whether the dominant cultural capital has an intrinsic justification (Hirst & Peters, 1970), or whether it is simply a product of a sociohistorical context (Young, 1971) is a long-standing matter of debate. Bourdieu is situated very much in the former camp seeing it as “the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977, p. 5), which he argues is a form of “symbolic violence” as it enables the reproduction of the existing structure of power relations in society “without resorting to external repression or … physical coercion” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977, p. 36). In so doing, such pedagogic acts deny the validity or value of other possible cultures. In the case of science, the cultural arbitrary is exerted in two ways. First, the dominant scientific elite has ensured that the form of science taught in most schools in most countries is one which is best suited to educating the future scientist (a small minority) rather than the needs of the future citizen (the overwhelming majority). This is achieved by the choices that are made about what science has to offer: academic science versus science for citizenship (S. A. Brown, 1977; Young, 1971), the exclusion of any history of science (Haywood, 1927; Matthews, 1994), the underemphasis on applications and implications of science (Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994; Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005), and the omission of any treatment about how science works (Millar & Osborne, 1998)—all choices which do not harm the education of the future scientist. The cumulative effect is to deny the validity of any other cultural perspective on science—in particular one which might have more relevance to women and students from other cultures. Granted such forms of science also alienate those within the dominant elite who have little interest in becoming scientists, but such students have a body of cultural capital that ensures access to alternative forms of institutionalized capital.

The second manner in which symbolic violence is achieved is through the language that science is communicated. As a form of discourse, science is highly reliant on forms of language that are both functionally efficient (Fang, 2006) and utilize “academic language” (Snow, 2010). Contrary to common belief, it is the academic language which is the dominant barrier to comprehension of science and not its technical vocabulary—a finding which is illustrated by the high correlation (.86) between reading and science scores in the Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) assessment (Kirsch et al., 2002). As the habitus of students from the dominant cultural elite is one in which such language is a common feature, these students have a privileged access to the institutionalized capital that school science offers.

Despite the imposition of this form of science on so many and the alienation it has produced, over the past 350 years scientists and science educators have been successful with the argument that the knowledge that science offers is such an important element of cultural capital that it should be an essential component of all students’ education (Dainton, 1968; Fensham, 1985; Millar & Osborne, 1998; National Academy of Sciences, 2010; National Academy of Sciences: Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy, 2005; Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1989). Indeed, so well have science educators succeeded with this argument that, along with mathematics and language arts, science forms one of the triumvirate of subjects used in national or state tests of student performance. Science's place at the curriculum high table has essentially become reified, to the extent that some have even proposed that science education should be considered a civil right (Tate, 2001).

Bourdieu and Passeron would argue, however, that science educators have managed to transform a cultivated need into a cultural need through “a prolonged process of inculcation” (1977, p. 36), severing the need from any of the social conditions in which it was produced and the arguments that led to its incorporation. Willard (1985) has similarly argued that “values emanate from practice and become sanctified with time. The more they recede into the background, the more taken for granted they become” (p. 444). In this case, the cultural need that has been assiduously cultivated is the importance of science and technology to society. Science education then becomes important as it is the means of ensuring the cultural reproduction of science and, more importantly, as a means of signifying the value of science within any society. Thus the elevated status of science education helps to sustain science as part of the dominant “cultural arbitrary” such that it receives a significant element of society's resources.

And, as the school science curriculum is a means of culturally reproducing scientists, the determination of the curriculum has been very much dominated by the needs of the professional scientist who are seen as the arbiters of what is worth knowing.2 From this perspective, science education forms the foundation of a preprofessional training and is conceptualized as a “pipeline” supplying the next generation of scientists who will be producers of scientific knowledge. As a school subject, the value of science is explicitly identified by the policy community in terms of its contribution to national growth and any failure to recruit students is seen as a threat to the scientific and technological base of society. Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) argue that this is essentially a “technocratic” conception of education designed to produce “made to measure specialists according to schedule” (p. 181) whose goals are dominated by the needs of the economic system, and the contribution education makes to national growth rather than an education in and about a cultural practice that has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the material world.

Adopting the framework offered by Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, as we shall show, enables us to look with a different lens and ask different questions about what the content and form of any formal education in science. To do so, we seek to examine here the specific contributions that science education makes to a student's cultural capital: in particular, how that capital is acquired in the science classroom (or not), and how that cultural capital will be relevant to their future cultural, academic, and professional lives. We use this analysis to argue that the current form of science education fails to provide scientific cultural capital to its students in three ways. These are (a) a failure to develop an overview of the major achievements of Western science and its cultural value, (b) a failure to contribute to developing the critical habits of mind that are valued highly both professionally and culturally, and (c) a failure to communicate the extrinsic worth of a science education for future employment both within and without science and to use this as a means of student engagement and motivation. In making this argument, we do not wish to argue that science education is a major vehicle for remediating social injustice, taking the view that that is too much to ask of science education. Rather, we will argue science education currently fails to recognize even the limited opportunities it does have for remediating social injustice.


Bourdieu was interested in explaining from a social perspective, rather than a cognitive or linguistic perspective, how two individuals of differing backgrounds, performing exactly the same task, can achieve wildly differing results. His analysis focused on the resources—or “capital”—that they brought to the task, arguing that it is such capital that determines at any given moment what is or is not possible for individuals to achieve. Rather than the outcome being solely one of luck or fortunate choice, capital is “what makes the games of society … something other than a game of chance” (Bourdieu, 1986).

Bourdieu divided cultural capital into three distinct forms (Bourdieu, 1986; Jenkins, 2002; Webb et al., 2002). The embodied state of cultural capital, which includes “long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 47), takes time to acquire and is transmitted from one person to another, most commonly from parent to child. In the objectified state, it takes the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments) and can easily be transmitted in its materiality. However, this form requires embodied capital to fully appreciate and use it beneficially—for example, a first edition of Darwin's Origin of the Species has less value to someone who lacks an understanding of why this is a seminal volume. Finally, cultural capital can exist in the institutionalized state, in the form of academic or other formal qualifications, which are “a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 50).

Bourdieu originally conceived of cultural capital as a way to explain the unequal academic achievement of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds (Bourdieu, 1986). As academic distinction is defined in terms of a set of cultural and arbitrary norms, it is not surprising that students who possess the “right kind” of cultural capital (i.e., the forms valued by schools), and a lot of it, achieve more in the education system (Apple, 1979; Jenkins, 2002). From this perspective, schools are not passive in their role but rather actively legitimize certain forms of knowledge and the distribution of this form of cultural capital. “The very fact that certain traditions and normative “content” are construed as school knowledge is prima facie evidence of their perceived legitimacy” (Apple, 1979)—and, we would add—their privilege. In the science classroom, the dominant cultural arbitrary is the requirement for all students to acquire a body of detailed knowledge of the concepts of science whose salience is often not clear; to adopt unfamiliar genres of expression such as the use of the passive voice; and to represent the world using imagined models, which often appear to bear no necessary relation to everyday experience. “Violence,” in Bourdieu and Passeron's sense, is also done by ensuring that students who survive this experience have neither a strong sense of what are the major explanatory ideas of the domain nor the standard methods by which such ideas have been obtained and justified. For instance, there is no discussion of peer review or double blind trials in nearly all school science curricula and there is little sense conveyed that one of the major achievements of science is its explanatory theories (Harré, 1984).

Not all cultural capital is acquired in schools, however. Bourdieu and Passeron divide the ways of transferring cultural capital into three modes of “pedagogic action.” Informally, it is transmitted through diffuse education, which occurs through social interactions. However, it is family education that is viewed as the greatest source of any individual's embodied cultural capital—so much so that parents’ level of education is sometimes employed in research as a convenient indicator of cultural capital (see, e.g., Adamuti-Trache & Andres, 2008). The final means of transmission is through institutionalized education—school (Bourdieu, 1986). Individuals acquire certain forms of cultural capital then as a consequence of the schemata, sensibilities, dispositions, and tastes of the sociohistorical cultural contexts that they inhabit. For Bourdieu and Passeron (1977), these elements were features of the distinctive “habitus” that are the values and ideology acquired within the family and depend on the social grouping or class of which the child is a member. Because the habitus in which some students reside is that of the dominant groups in society, such contexts “predispose children unequally towards symbolic mastery of the operations implied as much in mathematical demonstration as in decoding a work of art” (p. 43). As a consequence, the “habitus acquired within the family forms the basis of the reception and assimilation of the classroom message, and the habitus acquired at school conditions the level of reception and degree of assimilation of the messages produced and diffused by the culture industry” (p. 43).

However, because of the “clandestine circulation” of cultural capital (in the sense that its value is rarely explicitly acknowledged) (Bourdieu, 1986), it is difficult to observe and regulate and its role in reproducing the existing social structure often goes undetected or ignored (Apple, 1979; Jenkins, 2002). One consequence is that a student's display of the dominant form of cultural capital is often mistaken in an educational setting for natural aptitude (Eisner, 1992). The logical corollary is that a lack of cultural capital is often inappropriately identified as a lack of natural ability. Indeed, Apple (1979) suggests that cultural capital is such a powerful factor in the classroom partially because schools commonly attempt to treat all students as equal when they are patently not. Rather, many students are handicapped from the beginning.

Student resistance to the imposition of this cultural arbitrary can be seen in the comments that students make about their experience of school science education:

The blast furnace, so when are you going to use a blast furnace? I mean, why do you need to know about it? You're not going to come across it ever. I mean look at the technology today, we've gone onto cloning, I mean it's a bit away off from the blast furnace now, so why do you need to know it? (Osborne & Collins, 2001, p. 449)

How many carbon atoms are in something doesn't bother you. You don't walk down the street and think, “I wonder how many carbon atoms are in that car,” or whatever, it just doesn't happen. (Osborne & Collins, 2000, p. 55).

Further evidence can be found in the negative correlation between attainment and interest in both the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Ogura, 2006; Avvisati & Vincent-Lancrin, in press) and PISA studies and in the high level of leakage from the pipeline (Jacobs & Simpkins, 2006). For Bourdieu and Passeron, the low level of technical efficiency of the system and alienation of many students is a price that science is willing to pay. As for scientists, such failings are of little concern as long as the system is functionally effective in providing a sufficient supply to reproduce a body of professional scientists and sustain their position of privilege in society.

Bourdieu and Passeron's notion of cultural capital provides an analytical lens, which shows how this form of “symbolic violence” might be challenged or at the very least alleviated. Second, as we will argue, an authoritative and unquestioning science education serves those in power who see a knowledgeable, critical, and scientifically literate populace as a threat to the existing social order. Naturally, our focus is on the institutionalized form of transmission of cultural capital as this offers the greatest opportunities for the systematic provision of additional cultural capital to students as, for those individuals whose habitus does not readily provide access to the dominant forms of cultural capital, school can, and should be a vital means of access. From this perspective, any formal education that fails to remediate for a lack of the dominant cultural capital in underprivileged students simply serves to perpetuate the status quo. As B. A. Brown (2006) points out, social mobility without any exposure to the dominant forms of capital “would be nearly impossible.” Remediating any imbalances, however, requires us to ask what kinds of cultural capital does a science education offer and which are of critical value? This question is also important as identifying what forms of cultural capital science education affords is a means to establishing the more general worth of an education in science as well as specific elements that might compensate for students’ lack of embodied capital. In short, how can the science classroom increase its students’ stock of this valuable commodity?


In seeking to answer this question, we examine three elements of cultural capital that school science could offer—the nature of the knowledge communicated within school science, the critical habits of mind it fosters, and the information it provides about the value of institutionalized capital for future employment.

The Nature of the Knowledge Communicated by School Science

From Bourdieu's perspective, knowledge is a form of embodied capital. It enables the individual to understand and engage in the discourse of the dominant groups within society. What picture then does school science present of the knowledge that constitutes science and how does it seek to convince its students of its value? Answering this question helps to reveal the values implicit in the “cultural arbitrary” of what matters.

To date one of the most systematic and rigorous studies of what students experience in school science has been conducted by Weiss, Pasley, Sean Smith, Banilower, and Heck (2003). Using a stratified sample of 31 schools that were representative of the United States as a whole, these researchers observed a total of 180 science lessons. Of these lessons, only 11% had an explicit focus on science as inquiry varying from 2% in high school to 15% in elementary schools. A mere 20% were rated strong on the criterion of “students are intellectually engaged with important ideas relevant to the focus of the lesson,” and in only 16% were teachers’ questioning techniques to enhance the development of student thinking considered strong. The picture that emerges from this report is one of a disjuncture between the rhetoric of policy documents, which emphasize the teaching of science through inquiry, and the reality of classroom practice. For instance, many lessons did not include any element of motivation; only 16% included the use of questioning, which was likely to advance student thinking; and only 16% had a strong commitment to “sense making.”

Interviews with the teachers explored their beliefs about effective instruction. For most teachers, the major influence on their selection of content was the state- and district-level policies. An analysis of such standards conducted by Schmidt, Wang, and McKnight (2005) suggests that they are dominated by content knowledge and, in the case of the United States, reflects an ad hoc model of topic organization rather than any discipline-based structure.

Further support for this picture comes from research exploring the nature and role of textbooks in school science. As Valverde, Bianchi, Wolfe, Schmidt, and Houang (2002) argue “textbooks help define school subjects as students experience them. They represent school disciplines to students.” Self-reports from biology teachers, for instance, indicate that about 50% of what is taught and over 70% of how it is taught is based on the textbook (Weiss et al., 2003). Commonly, school science textbooks present science as consisting of a large body of content with more new terms presented than a student might meet in a foreign language course (Merzyn, 1987). Textbooks are dominated by exposition with an absence of any justification for the claims that are made (Penney, Norris, Phillips, & Clark, 2003). Any notion of how such knowledge has been obtained is normally covered in an introductory chapter on “the scientific method”—a concept which has long been discredited (Bauer, 1992; Chiappetta & Fillman, 2007). Nor do the chapters state explicitly what questions they answer or why they matter, leaving students to construct their own senses of the significance and value of the knowledge (Kesidou & Roseman, 2002). Moreover, as Kesidou and Roseman's extensive analysis of nine widely used U.S. programs for teaching middle school science showed, these text-based schemes “were particularly deficient in providing coherent explanations of real-world phenomena using key science ideas” (p. 538).

What constitutes valued cultural capital in science is also communicated through the form and nature of students’ assessments (Au, 2007; Weiss et al., 2003; Wilson & Bertenthal, 2005), particularly those that are high stakes (Lane, Parke, & Stone, 1998). Commonly such tests emphasize recall at the expense of higher order thinking or extended projects and other activities not emphasized by the test (Lane et al., 1998; Romberg, Zarinnia, & Williams, 1989; Smith, Edelsky, Draper, Rottenberg, & Cherland, 1991). For example, over two thirds of the questions on the California eighth-grade test make only the cognitive demand of recall (MacPherson & Osborne, 2012). The consequence as Au has shown is a curriculum, which is more teacher centered, less coherent, and more fragmented—a feature which is confirmed by research exploring the student experience of science (Au, 2007; Lyons & Quinn, 2009; Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003). Absent are any attempts to assess whether students have knowledge of the major explanatory ideas of science, can construct basic explanatory accounts of phenomena, or engage in identifying flawed reasoning.

The picture of Bourdieu's “cultural arbitrary” that emerges from this body of research is one of a curriculum full of details that lacks coherence—a knowledge not of its broad overarching themes but of a large body of detailed facts. It is precisely this form of knowledge that serves as an essential foundation for the professional scientist just as the lawyer is required to have a detailed knowledge of case history or the doctor a detailed knowledge of physiology. At its core, such an education is a reflection of a belief that the function of science education is first and foremost a form of preprofessional training—a model which has formed the foundation of science education for the past hundred years (DeBoer, 1991) and, notwithstanding the rhetoric, a model which still endures. Despite a litany of attempts to portray the achievements of science (Millar, 2006; Millar & Hunt, 2002; Rutherford, Holton, & Watson, 1970; Schwab, 1962), none of these innovations has managed to take root as a mainstream form of science education. Thus, the conception of presenting science as a process of inquiry with the goal of developing a scientifically literate populace that would have a broad knowledge of the major explanatory themes of science and knowledge of how science functions remains largely an aspiration rather than a reality. In Bourdieu's terms “symbolic violence” is enacted on the majority of the student population to preserve the power and cultural dominance of a scientific elite. The “cultural arbitrary” is a deliberate choice to offer a curriculum overladen with information—an experience captured by the following student reflection:

It's all crammed in, and you either take it all in or it goes in one ear and out the other. You catch bits of it, then it gets confusing, then you put the wrong bits together and, if you don't understand it, the teachers can't really understand why you haven't grasped it. (Osborne & Collins, 2001, p. 450)

What then might be a more valued form of embodied cultural capital? The most cogent articulation of the contribution by science to an individual's cultural capital has possibly been made by Hirsch, who has attempted to define the basic elements of what every American should know to be “culturally literate” (Hirsch, 1987). Hirsch contends that “all human communities are founded upon specific shared information” (p. xv) and proposes the concept of cultural literacy as a level of general knowledge that “lies above the everyday levels of knowledge that everyone possesses and below the expert level known only to specialists.” Hirsch attempted to convey his meaning by creating a list of terms that the culturally literate individual should be familiar with. Some have seen this as an attempt to reify a dominant form of cultural capital—Bourdieu and Passeron's “cultural arbitrary”—others as an attempt to trivialize cultural knowledge by reducing it to a miscellany of facts. Both, we would contend, are an incorrect reading of Hirsch who argued (a) that each of these elements was not simply a definition but a focus for a whole network of interrelated concepts (extensive knowledge) and (b) that rapid change in what aspects or features of culture predominate is “no more possible in the sphere of national culture than in the sphere of national language” (p. 91). In short, culture evolves only slowly and cannot readily be remade by some act of common will of any minority cultural group. Rather it is essential for schools to compensate for the “cultural deprivations” of students and ensure that students are provided the basic knowledge and skills of the culturally literate individual. Delpit (2006), for instance, makes a powerful argument that it is the responsibility of education to develop “useful and usable knowledge which contributes to a students’ ability to communicate effectively” (p. 18) within the context of the existing cultural arbitrary.

Hirsch asserts that “literate culture is the most democratic culture in our land: it excludes nobody; it cuts across generations and social groups and classes; it is not usually one's first culture, but it should be everyone's second, existing as it does beyond the narrow spheres of family, neighborhood, and region” (1987, p. 21). Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, however, provides a framework with which to challenge this claim. This literate culture—the knowledge, facts, concepts, and ideas that Hirsch expects all to have—is the cultural capital of some students’ habitus. These children grow up being read Dickens by their parents, hearing about Adam and Eve in Sunday school, learning about plate tectonics at the science center, and knowing not only that their aunt works with semiconductors but what they are (all of which are on Hirsch's list of concepts that literate Americans should know). Thus, such capital is not evenly distributed. A healthy democracy, however, is dependent on the capability of its institutional structures to identify both the valued forms of cultural capital that exist and to ensure that all students are provided the opportunity to acquire as much as possible. A culture is only democratic then to the extent that it provides the social structures that support the acquisition of the most valued forms of cultural capital by all its students regardless of ethnicity or social background.

Hirsch is important because his is one of the few systematic attempts that exists to identify what it is that makes science an essential element of cultural capital. As Hirsch argues, Modern Western science is “one of the noblest achievements of mankind” (Hirsch, 1987)—a consequence of the creativity and ingenuity that scientists have poured into their work over the centuries. And, if this knowledge is part of the embodied cultural capital that professional scientists and dominant elites hold, then ensuring that students develop some understanding of the nature of this collective achievement should be a primary goal of science education. Yet, the epideictic celebration of the achievements of scientific endeavor is virtually nonexistent within formal science education. From Bourdieu and Passeron's perspective, however, this is an explicit choice. Failure to communicate the worth and value of the major explanatory ideas of science ensures that large numbers of young people are never provided with the overarching framework, which might (a) help them make sense of what they have experienced and (b) obtain a schematic overview, which would help them to locate and evaluate the significance and value of advances in science and technology.

Conceiving of science education as a contribution to “cultural literacy” and the development of individual capital, however, would mean seeing the goal of science education first and foremost as an education—a contribution to an individual's embodied capital (Hirsch, 1987; Osborne & Collins, 2000). As such, its goal would be to provide students with scientific knowledge, not primarily because they will be future scientists, nor because such knowledge is useful in daily life, nor because it might enable them to contribute to socioscientific decisions (though these may be valuable outcomes), but simply because scientific knowledge is an essential means of access to the dominant groups within society.

General Scientific Skills As Cultural Capital

Cultural capital of an embodied nature takes the form not just of knowledge of a certain kind but also as a set of valued skills and behaviors. Swidler explains this sense of cultural capital as “more like a style or a set of skills or habits” (Swidler, 1986, p. 275). These skills and habits can be both the traditional academic skills of literacy and numeracy as well as “noncognitive” habits that are not usually assessed such as completing homework and participating constructively in class. Such skills and habits have been shown to determine school success and levels of educational and occupational attainment (Bowles & Gintis, 2002; Farkas, 2003). What contribution does school science make to the development of such valued capabilities?

Potentially the science classroom offers an arena to develop certain such culturally valued skills in students—in particular, the commitment to evidence as the basis of belief and an analytical frame of mind, which seeks to identify patterns and causal interrelationships (Kirschner, 1992; Osborne, 2010). In addition, it provides an environment in which to enhance students’ capability to read and produce expository or technical text (Wellington & Osborne, 2001)—the latter being a highly valued workplace skill that is a commonplace feature in many contemporary professions. Yet over 30 years of research (Davies & Greene, 1984; Pearson, Moje, & Greenleaf, 2010; Wellington & Osborne, 2001) on the centrality of reading and writing in science has failed to persuade the science education community that teaching students how to read informational texts should be a core activity of science despite the fact that the ability to construct meaning from text is the fundamental ability of the scientifically literate individual (Norris & Phillips, 2003).

In Bourdieu's terms, this lack of attention to reasoning and thinking skills is not surprising as “the more completely [pedagogic work] succeeds in imposing misrecognition of the dominant arbitrary” (1977, p. 40), the more effective it is at ensuring it reproduces “the structure of power relations between the groups and classes.” If students do not acquire the intellectual capabilities required to access, comprehend, and question the ideology of the dominant classes, which are largely conveyed in such texts, then there is little chance that they will engage critically with science.

Evidence that the cultural habitus occupied by teachers of science does not value such skills comes from an interview study with 39 teachers from five high school science and history departments conducted by Donnelly (1999). Donnelly found that a majority of the science teachers agreed that teaching content was a major goal of their teaching (indeed, this was the only aim that the majority of the science teachers agreed upon), whereas only approximately 20% of the history teachers felt this was an important goal. In contrast, more than 80% of the history teachers interviewed talked about teaching intellectual skills as an important goal in their instruction. Donnelly concluded that science teachers tend “to link relevance with ‘content’,” whereas history teachers, in contrast, link relevance with skills, such as the ability to analyze historical data in critical fashion—a skill that enables students to understand the modern world and deal appropriately with uncertainty. History teachers, he argued, viewed content as “a vehicle for their work with children, rather than an end in itself” (Donnelly, 1999). Further evidence of the lack of emphasis on critical inquiry within school science comes from research which shows how teachers of physics run tightly scripted lessons whose primary goal is to convey the truth about nature (Tesch & Duit, 2004; Willems, 2007). Confirmation of this state of affairs can be seen in student perceptions where, as described by one student, the distinction between history and science is seen as in the following:

In history, I mean, certain events, you ask why they happen; sometimes they actually backtrack to why it happened. I mean with science it's just, “It happened, accept it, you don't need to know this until A3 level” (Osborne & Collins, 2001, p. 454).

The consequence is that science classrooms are often dominated by authoritative dialogue (Mortimer & Scott, 2003). Studies suggest that opportunities for deliberative discourse are minimal, occupying less than 2% of classroom time (Newton, Driver, & Osborne, 1999) and that teachers of science rarely press for causal understanding using questions as a means of transmitting information and making knowledge public (Newton & Newton, 2000). As Ford (2008) points out, constructing scientific knowledge is a dialectic between construction and critique. However, one of the features of school science is the absence of critique (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000; Ford, 2008; Kuhn, 2010). Attempts to change teachers’ practice to one which places more emphasis on argumentation or inquiry have only met with limited success (Luft, 2001; Martin & Hand, 2009; Simon, Erduran, & Osborne, 2006). The consequence is that the student is never encouraged to scrutinize the logical relations that exist between theory and evidence.

The ultimate irony is that what the scientist is valued for outside of science, like the historian, is the disciplinary habits of mind which the practice of science develops—that is, the analytic ability to make logically deductive arguments from simple premises, to identify salient variables, patterns in data, numerical fluency, and the critical disposition of mind that is the hallmark of the scientist (Ford, 2008; National Research Council, 2008; Rogers, 1948). Yet, internally, within science education, opportunities to develop such skills are few and far between.

How then can the student develop the critical habits of mind for which science is valued if there is no opportunity for its practice? From Bourdieu and Passeron's (1977) perspective, an education that did develop such skills would undermine “the conditions for its own establishment and perpetuation” (p. 20) as it would provide the embodied capital necessary to resist and critique the dominant cultural arbitrary including the traditional form of science education. The lack of emphasis within contemporary science education on the development of domain-general reasoning skills can best be seen as a squandered opportunity to endow students with embodied cultural capital—that is, ways of weighing evidence, the ability to ask good questions, to model unfamiliar situations, communicate technical ideas, and argue from premises to a conclusion. An alternative interpretation is that the absence of critique is simply a means of ensuring the unquestioned imposition of the “cultural arbitrary … the reproduction of which contributes to the reproduction of the relations between groups or classes” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977, p. 54).

Cultural Capital and Careers in and From Science

As we have argued earlier, deeply embedded in the rhetoric of science education, ever since its inception, is Bourdieu and Passeron's technocratic function that formal science education serves as a pipeline to supply the next generation of science and engineering professionals required to sustain an advanced technological society. Students, likewise, value the institutional capital offered by science, in particular. In a survey of 15- and 16-year-old students in Australia, Lyons (2006) identified that students held four main conceptions about school science: (1) Science is teacher centered and content focused, (2) the curriculum content is personally irrelevant and boring, (3) science is difficult, and (4) physical science courses are primarily of strategic value in that they enhance the students’ university and career options. The first three conceptions support our argument that the form of pedagogic action used within the science classroom is highly unappealing and generates significant resistance. The last of these, however, is strongly suggestive that students do value the institutionalized cultural capital that science offers rather than the embodied form which teachers promote. Stokking (2000) too has found that the dominant factor predicting the choice of physics as a subject of study was the perceived relevance for future employment.

And indeed, when making decisions about future educational pathways and possible careers, it is a knowledge of the forms of institutionalized cultural capital that count that play a key role (Adamuti-Trache & Andres, 2008). However, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have access to “unequal knowledge about courses and the careers they lead to [and] the cultural models which associate certain occupations and certain educational options” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1979, p. 13). Such knowledge is then a valuable form of cultural capital, for “knowing the current and future worth of various types of academic credentials is key in the transmission of cultural capital from parents to their children” (Adamuti-Trache & Andres, 2008, p. 1576).

Some indication of the institutionalized value of science education comes from the fact that many U.S. postsecondary institutions have basic science requirements for admission, a fact that is rarely mentioned in science classrooms yet is highly relevant, particularly to those students who lack the cultural capital needed to navigate the college entrance process. Even when such requirements do not exist, as in the UK, science qualifications are seen to have higher exchange value for college admission as the minimum grades required for admission are lower for the sciences.

Yet, despite the evidence of the value placed by students on the institutional capital that science offers and despite the fact that the dominant cultural arbitrary is one which sees the major function of science education as ensuring the supply of individuals necessary to sustain the scientific and technological base, little is done within school science to explain the many career pathways that the study of science affords. For example, a search for the word “career” in science curriculum documents from English-speaking nations or states found only the minimal references found in Table 1.

Table 1. The Number of Times the Word “Career” Is Mentioned in the State or National Science Curriculum Documents in English-Speaking Countries
Nation/StateMentions of “Career” in Science Curriculum Standard Documents
New York0
Australian Science Curriculum“Recognising aspects of science, engineering and technology within careers such as medicine, medical technology, telecommunications, biomechanical engineering, pharmacy and physiology.”
English National Curriculum“Career opportunities: The knowledge, skills and understanding developed through the study of science are highly regarded by employers. Many career pathways require qualifications in science, but science qualifications do not necessarily lead to laboratory-based occupations.”
New Zealand National Curriculum0

Given the motivational problems with engaging students (Lyons & Quinn, 2009; Osborne et al., 2003; Schreiner & Sjøberg, 2007), it is puzzling that science curricula do not promote the institutional capital that science offers (Foskett & Hemsley-Brown, 1997; Jacobs & Simpkins, 2006; Munro & Elsom, 2000; Stagg, 2007). Moreover, as the outcome of formal education becomes increasingly high stakes, acquiring institutionalized cultural capital becomes of ever-increasing importance for future employment (National Research Council, 2008).

Part of the explanation for this lacuna may lie in the fact that only a minority of teachers of science have ever been practicing engineers or scientists themselves: hence, they lack the experiential knowledge necessary to illustrate the nature of work and careers in science and technology. For instance, Munro and Elsom (2000) conducted a study using focus group interviews with career advisors, a questionnaire survey of 155 career advisors and six interviews with heads of science departments, science teachers, and group interviews with students from widely varying schools. Their major findings, among others, were that teachers of science did not perceive themselves as a source of career information; rather, this was seen as the responsibility of career advisors. However, research with career advisors would suggest that very few have a scientific background making them potentially even less suited to offering advice about the nature of the working life of a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professional (Stagg, 2007).

Moreover, as the school system is fundamentally pedagogically conservative, the lack of emphasis on careers only needs to be addressed in times of crisis. While there are certain professions, predominantly in the physical sciences and engineering, that are experiencing shortage of supply, there is no overall crisis. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate about whether any shortage of supply of scientists and engineers exists (Cyranoski, 2011; Lowell, Salzman, Bernstein, & Henderson, 2009). Indeed, there is evidence that there is an oversupply of life science graduates (Teitelbaum, 2007).

For students whose family habitus lacks the cultural capital to understand the value of science qualifications for future career pathways, providing such knowledge would go some way to redressing the “symbolic violence” that they experience through much of their science education. As Adumiti-Tranche and Andres (2008) point out,

The lack of requisite credentials is simultaneously a direct and indirect form of exclusion. Students who do not possess the prerequisites for entry into specific postsecondary programmes are simply denied entry. However, unequal knowledge about the current and future worth of academic credentials, which according to Bourdieu is one of the most valuable types of information transmitted through inherited cultural capital, may well be the result of indirect forms of exclusion… . That is, students eliminate themselves from the full range of educational opportunities or are relegated to less desirable academic programmes. (p. 1562)

Emphasizing such knowledge in the science curriculum—information about the people, professions, and positions that use the science the students are learning and how they can enter into a wide variety of science-related careers—could also potentially improve students’ motivation to learn science by enhancing students’ understanding of the institutional cultural capital that science offers (Archer et al., 2010). Indeed, Lyons and Quinn's findings that Year-10 Australian students believe teachers to be the most influential figure on their decision to pursue the study of science (Lyons & Quinn, 2009), more than their parents or a career advisor, shows that teachers are a key conduit for providing information about the range of possibilities that science offers. By devoting what needs to be only a very small fraction of a high school science class to the discussion of future careers, science educators could provide their students with a significant element of cultural capital that many parents, if not most, cannot provide. Moreover, it is this particular element of cultural capital—the extrinsic value of science qualifications—which seems to be a major motivational influence in sustaining student engagement. Students whose home and family backgrounds provide such knowledge are thus doubly advantaged. Not only do they have a stronger understanding of the true value of the institutional capital, but they cultural capital acquired outside of school gives them better access to what is commonly perceived to be a difficult and complex subject.

Moreover, given that a large body of research shows that, for the majority of students, interest in pursuing a scientific careers is largely formed by age 14 (Ormerod & Duckworth, 1975; Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006), exploring the possible careers that science offers solely in the high school curriculum might be too late. Developing an early understanding of the benefits of science careers and the educational requirements that lead to them in the middle school might help students to make more informed choices about the value of the institutional capital that is attached to specific programs of study and, in particular, the value that science offers.


The notion that science education is a source of cultural capital has only occasionally been utilized in research. One of the most notable examples is Aikenhead, who presents a view that students have to cross cultural borders in science class “from the subcultures of their peers and family into the subcultures of science and school science” (Aikenhead, 1995). What he offers then is a view of science education as a cultural practice, which enables the acquisition of a distinct culture—the culture of science. And, if learning science is a process of cultural acquisition, then the science classroom has its own valued cultural capital of “science's norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions (the subculture of science),” which the student must attempt to make “a part of his or her personal world to varying degrees” (p. 10). From Bourdieu's perspective, what Aikenhead is portraying is the acquisition of an embodied state of cultural capital. As Aikenhead points out, if students enter the classroom acting and thinking in ways that fits with the subculture of science—for example, readily accepting facts from an authority figure, are intrinsically motivated, possess sufficient self-efficacy to attempt challenges, and are able to delay present gratification for future rewards—they will naturally be enculturated and perform well. However, students for whom the subculture of science is generally at odds with their preexisting cultural capital will have to assimilate the subculture of science in its embodied form, sometimes with much difficulty, if they are to acquire the institutionalized cultural capital it offers (Brown, Revelles, & Kelly, 2005; Roseberry, Warren, & Conant, 1992). Brown, Revelles, and Kelly (2005), for instance, point out that language and discourse are a display of identity. Yet, acquiring new forms of language is not just a process of learning a new language but also requires a willingness to develop a new, or alternate identity—a process which involves a level of risk as the new form is both trialed and negotiated within different social contexts (Archer et al., 2010). Hence for those whose “habitus” has not already provided such capital, its acquisition is a considerable challenge.

The importance of external sources of cultural capital has most commonly been discussed when evaluating student persistence through the science pipeline (Adamuti-Trache & Andres, 2008; Lyons, 2006), where it is seen to play two distinct roles. The first is as a recognition of parents’ attitudes and valuing of formal education. As Bourdieu and Passeron assert, an educated parent has “the eye for a good investment which enables one to get the best return on inherited cultural capital in the scholastic market or on scholastic capital in the labour market” (1979). Second and more specifically, parents can provide their children with science-related cultural capital in how they respond to science and bring it into the home. For instance, Lyons (2006) offers the following example:

The provision of science related materials and knowledge by parents can also be seen as an endowment of cultural capital, in the sense that parents consider that these assets will enhance their child's education and, hopefully, their schooling outcomes. Likewise, parents’ use of scientific discourse at home is another form of cultural capital, which, if congruent with the language and attitudes of teachers, can benefit students in their education. (p. 301)

These ways of talking about and interacting with science are forms of embodied cultural capital that children acquire over time, through interacting with their parents and through informal science education, such as the use of science kits and museum visits. Using an analysis of a 10-year, longitudinal data set of 1055 respondents, Adamuti-Trache and Andres found that those students whose parents had obtained college degrees were more likely to enter STEM-related careers. Science classes in secondary school were seen as “reliable strategies” or necessary requirements to enter the postsecondary system and were thus often encouraged by parents as a form of institutionalized cultural capital (Adamuti-Trache & Andres, 2008). This is particularly true of immigrant communities who recognize certain scientific careers as a means of establishing credibility and status within their new community (Archer et al., 2010).

Figure 1 shows a model proposed by Lyons that shows how the cultural capital that some families hold explicitly supports students in the acquisition of scientific cultural capital and indicates the likelihood of students choosing to persist in physical science subjects.

Figure 1.

A model proposed by Lyons illustrating how congruence between the cultures of school science and family can lead to persistence in the physical sciences (2006).

Although family education undoubtedly is a powerful mode of providing students with the cultural capital that enables students to succeed in science, by attending to the possible careers the study of science offers, both formal and informal science education could enhance the opportunity to acquire this vital element of cultural capital—an element which the cultural habitus of many students’ lives does not provide. On the basis of such an argument, some study and exploration of the range of careers that the study of science offers should be an essential feature of the science curriculum. As the head of careers of one of the UK's foremost science and technology universities has stated, all students need to know at the very minimum that the three high school qualifications that make you most employable are math, physics, and chemistry (Simpson, 2004).

Brown, Brown, and Jayakumar (2009) offer a powerful insight into how schools both can provide and fail to provide significant cultural capital. In their study of the college-going culture in a large urban area in California, they identified how “the students’ home culture served as a driving force in shaping the culture of the institution” (p. 281). They showed that the school and its counselors only provided limited information on careers and then, predominantly to AP or honors students. Students found themselves reliant on their peers for such information and the need to be proactive in seeking it out. The researchers concluded that the school, its teachers, and its counselors served as “gatekeepers for determining who ultimately [would] have access to valuable resources” (p. 296). Yet, the study also showed how much students benefited from and appreciated the small amount of information about careers that they obtained from teachers, reporting that students learn a lot from what teachers’ “little life stories” and “what they say and what they have experienced.” The latter finding is commensurate with the finding of Lyons and Quinn (2009) that identified teachers as a significant source of career information. Given that relying on one's parents to acquire salient cultural capital for students from low-income families is, as Paredes (2011) argues, “a hit and miss proposition” and then “mostly miss,” the role of the school as a source of cultural capital becomes ever more important for underrepresented and underprivileged students.


Our analysis brings us to a position where we identify what we see as a twofold irony. On the one hand, those working as teachers of science value science as a domain of knowledge for its intrinsic merits—the explanatory value that it has to offer of the material world and the creative achievement that those explanatory accounts represent. Science, from this perspective, is perceived as a body of knowledge that has freed society from the shackles of received wisdom, answering questions not only about what we know but also about how we know, and why scientific knowledge matters (Collins, 2000). In this guise, it is, therefore, a central component of any liberal education that seeks to develop a knowledge of the “best that is worth knowing” (Spencer, 1884). Furthermore, the science classroom is uniquely situated to teach students an array of skills that constitute cultural capital and that can be deployed beyond science.

However, that is not the “value” of science education as perceived either by policy makers or its students. For policy makers the value of school science lies in its ability to produce the next generation of scientists, and for its students, value comes in the institutional capital it offers (Millar, 2007; Millar & Osborne, 1998). The fact that the science curriculum pays scant attention to communicating the role, significance, and value of scientific careers to both the individual and society is, therefore, deeply ironic. Our point here is not to suggest that either of these goals is wrong, or that one of them is better than another, but rather that the omission of any treatment of the future career potential that the study of science affords is at best puzzling, and at worst simply confusing to the student. For, if the perceived cultural capital value of a subject resides in the potential use and application of such knowledge, then the nature of that use—and the potential rewards it might offer—need to be clearly communicated. If, on the other hand, the cultural capital acquired by a study of science resides solely in its intrinsic merit, why does school science persist in offering a curriculum dominated by the needs of the future scientist? One interpretation might be that within the cultural habitus in which science education exists, it has lost sight of why it matters. Or to put it another way, in the gap that exists between the rhetoric of the policy makers and the reality of the classroom, the value of a science education has been misplaced. Put simply, while science education is valued for its institutionalized cultural capital and its exchange value, it is marketed on the basis of its embodied capital and intrinsic interest (and even then, this marketing is not well done) suggesting that it does not understand its own value and is, ultimately, mis-sold.

A more unforgiving explanation for this state of affairs lies in Bourdieu and Passeron's (1977) argument that the pedagogic work of schools is to socialize their students in the values, expectations, and attitudes that enable them to put up with inequality—essentially to accept their lot in life rather than providing their students with the skills and knowledge either to challenge the dominant cultural arbitrary or to gain entry to privileged elites. Such actions attempt to impose a body of knowledge on students that is alien to their cultural habitus. Given that the history of science education has, like many other school subjects been one of incessant attempts at reform (Cuban, 1990; Tyack & Cuban, 1995), most of which have resulted in no substantive changes, the evidence would lend more credence to this harsher interpretation. In short, that school science education simply sustains and preserves such inequality, acting solely as a sieve to select those who are prepared to suffer this confused and confusing experience.

It could be argued that such a state of affairs is functionally ineffective; rather that social differentiation would be sustained more effectively if science education was more coherent and comprehensible for all students whose cultural habitus had provided them with the cultural capital to access science. But this would be to fail to understand that such symbolic violence is necessary to establish the cultural capital of a form of discourse, which “exalts and reassures all subjects inside, and rejects and offends those outside4” helping to establish “a vast and monolithic castle of impenetrable speech” (Montgomery, 1996, p. 7). Such discourse establishes a privileged position for the domain it occupies and the lower social status of its competitors—and a state of affairs which science education helps to sustain.

What then, can science education reasonably hope to influence? And furthermore, what can the science classroom uniquely contribute to ameliorate such effects? Here, we would suggest that Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital is both empowering and humbling: It is humbling because in the face of all the other influences on students both within and outside of school, any meaningful contribution that science education can make to the cultural capital of students will only be small; but it is also empowering because Bourdieu's notions offer a means of identifying those elements which are essential if science education is to make a specific and well-targeted contribution to students’ cultural capital. Our argument here has been that three emphases are necessary to breathe life into a subject which is commonly perceived by students as a “miscellany of facts” (Cohen, 1952) consisting of unequivocal and uncontested knowledge (Claxton, 1991). First, there needs to be more emphasis on what the overarching big ideas of science are—Hirsch's extensive knowledge. Second, science education needs to recognize its role in developing the critical spirit of the independent thinker—as a force for challenging orthodoxies not only within science but without. By explicitly teaching these skills, and pointing out to students that they are transferable to other domains, school science offers a means for students to see both the intrinsic value of their science classes for their own thinking and the extrinsic value for future employment. Third, it needs to sell to its perceived strengths, laying out to its students the value of the institutionalized capital that it has to offer.

Moreover, our contention has been that school science fails to recognize the extrinsic worth of a science education by omitting to tell students of the full panoply of careers that the study of science offers both within science and external to science. This failure contributes to perpetuating the extant social order and its attendant economic inequality: if only students of a certain background are aware of the forms of institutionalized cultural capital they can acquire (a degree or a job in a given field), then only those students will embark on those career paths. Surely, one goal of science education, then, should be to ensure that all students are enabled to see such possibilities?

Bourdieu thus helps us to reconceive of the worth of a science education and identify important features of a curriculum that contributes to social equality. His concept of cultural capital has allowed us to determine what a science education is capable of providing to its students that is of intrinsic and extrinsic worth, both today and in their future regardless of whether such knowledge will be used inside or outside of science. Thus, the theoretical lens offered by Bourdieu and his collaborators helps to establish what the real value of a science education is for students, teachers, and policy makers. More importantly, it helps to identify why the failure to ask what is the cultural capital that science education offers its students has led to a set of emphases which have no apparent value for many of today's young people. In short, Bourdieu's ideas explain why formal science education has sold itself short, overvaluing what does not count while undervaluing, neglecting, or omitting what does count—and ultimately misrepresenting the value of an education in science.


We are grateful to anonymous reviewers whose comments have helped to refine and improve the arguments in this paper. In addition, work conducted for this paper was partially funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant No. RES-179-25-0008.


  1. 1

    Bourdieu and Passeron's conception of pedagogic action or work is a term that is applicable to any attempt to educate another in any context, e.g., home, work, and not just schools.

  2. 2

    For instance, the chair of the National Academy panel responsible for the production of the framework for the next generation science standards was a leading theoretical physicist from Stanford University. The current California State Standards were heavily influenced by a campaign led by the Nobel Prize winner Glen Seaborg. And, it was the critical opinion of a leading scientist, Sir Richard Sykes, about the new National Curriculum for England and Wales in 2006, which attracted major press attention.

  3. 3

    A-level is the post-16 examination. Students in England, UK, study a minimum of three, and it is broadly equivalent to the American Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

  4. 4

    Author's original emphasis.