‘Cultural capital’: Its influence in education & the workplace
Cracking the code on cultural knowledge and what defines status and belonging has been Lauren Rivera’s lifelong mission and passion. Rivera reflects on both her life experience and academic research that has shaped her understanding, with the goal of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations and society.
By Lauren Rivera, Ph.D.
Professor of Management & Organizations
Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
My interest in studying social inequalities and social exclusion stems from my unique upbringing. I grew up straddling ethnic and class lines. My father is Puerto Rican, and my mother was a stateless immigrant whose family escaped religious persecution in Eastern Europe and bounced around the world seeking citizenship before settling in Los Angeles. When I was a child my father was incarcerated, leaving my mother to support my brother and me. When my father first went to prison, we moved to a small, ethnically homogenous town in Oregon to keep us safe (my brother’s first memory was my dad coming home, yelling at my mom to shut the blinds and hide under the bed because there was someone outside trying to kill him) and to give my mom a fresh start.
As a multi-ethnic, single-parent family, we stood out. Even though I am a light-skinned Latina, I remember a friend turning to me one day and asking, “Why are you and your brother so dark?” It wasn’t just us. I can count on one hand the number of families who were not white and U.S. born. During our time there, a Black family moved into our neighborhood; the surrounding homes on their cul-de-sac went up for sale within 48 hours. Back then, I didn’t grasp that these interactions were discrimination. I just viewed it through a lens of what I now know is racial defaults thinking that whiteness was the norm.
When I was in 6th grade, my mother moved us back to Los Angeles to try to find more stable work and escape the homogeneity of small-town life. While she did not always understand the ins and outs of American institutions, she did believe deeply in the value of schooling and often told us that getting a good education was our ticket out of financial insecurity. She applied for and landed a staff role at an elite private prep school, which enabled my brother and me to attend tuition free.
The school provided an amazing education and indeed was my ticket to upward mobility, but it threw me into a completely unfamiliar world where I struggled to understand the social dynamics of my wealthy peers. While my brother and I were each allowed two new outfits from the Santee Alley (long before hipsters discovered it) at the start of each school year, a friend of mine was bullied for wearing “last week’s shoes.” My peers were so confident in the classroom, treating teachers like equals and asking questions freely, while I had been raised to speak to adults only when spoken to. To cope, I studied my peers like an anthropologist, and by the time senior year rolled around, I had a good grasp on how affluent white people dressed, carried themselves, spoke, and interacted and could fake it pretty well. In sociological terms, I learned to pass.
When I enrolled in Yale as an undergrad, the rules of the game changed once again for me. What had worked for me in high school was not going to have the same results. The styles and mannerisms that conveyed elite status in Los Angeles such as knowledge of blockbuster movies and smiling at everyone as if they were your best friend were dramatically different from what was valued in the Ivy League. This centered on talking about sports and boarding schools I had never heard of, reading The New Yorker and keeping your cool.
Being a financial aid student created additional material and social boundaries. Like many students from low-income backgrounds, I could not afford to participate in the types of social outings to dinner or the movies that were a mainstay of residential campus life. At the time, financial status was also inscribed in physical space with financial aid students taking on highly visible jobs to meet our contractual work obligations to remain enrolled and waiting in long lines that snaked out of Ivy-clad buildings to receive disbursement checks. In these spaces, I met other socioeconomically and racially diverse students which was a source of friendship and bonding.
In my junior year at Yale, I was introduced to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of cultural capital, which changed my life and the course of my career. Prior to that year, I had wanted to be an environmental lawyer and had even enrolled in a class at Yale Law School to try things out. But sociology opened up a new way of understanding and making sense of the inequalities I had observed throughout my life.
Social groups, Bourdieu writes, are stratified by economic capital, in terms of the money, wealth, or other material resources they hold. They are also stratified by their degree of cultural capital: widely shared, high-status cultural signals used for exclusion. These include things like the prestige of someone’s educational credentials, the knowledge they possess, and their mannerisms, dress and speech. The specific signals valued can vary between organizations, industries or contexts. Viewing my own experiences through this lens, I realized that the feelings of difference and marginalization I had felt growing up were due to a lack of both economic and cultural capital. And while I had, through exposure, learned to fake the cultural capital of LA elites, I had a long way to go when it came to mastering the code of the Ivy League.
I became fascinated by the idea of cultural capital as a factor that can produce and reproduce social inequalities. Given my passion for this topic—along with my mom’s now humorously and wildly inaccurate assertion that professors get their summers off—I decided to pursue my PhD. A lack of economic capital prevented me from enrolling immediately. I had college loans to pay off and also had been sending money home since my freshman year. Like many Ivy League graduates, I took a job in management consulting to gain some valuable work experience and pay our bills.
While I loved my time in consulting, I wanted to get back to studying my passion: how gatekeepers evaluate worth and social status, so I enrolled in a doctoral program in sociology at Harvard. Graduate school was another crash course in elite cultural signals that were unfamiliar to me, where hallway and party talk now centered on knowledge of avant-garde film directors and the intricacies of Russian novels. I was lucky to be mentored by my advisor Michèle Lamont, who taught me the rules of the game of elite intellectual worlds, and by the late J. Richard Hackman, who believed in my ability as a scholar even when I did not.
Socially, I took refuge in my position as a resident tutor in one of Harvard’s undergraduate colleges which provided comfort in conversation topics and social dynamics that were more familiar to me. While observing my students over the years, I watched them as they navigated the transition from Harvard to the workforce. Their experiences with on-campus recruitment and the job search process seemed to be patterned by their parents’ social class. These experiences led to my first book: Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, and it exposed how the highest-paying jobs at top-tier investment banks, consulting firms and law firms often go to graduates from privileged backgrounds further reinforcing the important role cultural capital plays in social inequality and mobility.
This is the goal of my research and my teaching: to expose the rules of the game so we can change them. By exposing the processes underlying workplace inequalities such as those in hiring and promotion, I hope to help change the dynamic and encourage gatekeepers including managers to develop evaluative criteria that are more equitable. I hope to help shape the next generation of leaders who will emerge from Kellogg to reach across racial, class and gender lines in their personal and professional lives and be agents of change and inclusion for members of all under-represented groups.