The importance of cultural capital

27 July 2018

Development Manager, Lawrence Walker, on how cultural capital could change the world

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Cultural capital could change the world, and we’ve been looking at how to do that for young people in London - helping them to break out of what have become increasingly managed, restricted and unhealthy lives.

At university, I discovered a French sociologist called Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu was an observer of the everyday. He was interested in social change and the struggles and solidarities of daily life. He believed that in addition to economic and social capital, a person has ‘cultural capital’ – education, knowledge, language, habits – that develop first in childhood and through time influences the ability to get ahead in life. His hypothesis was essentially that cultural capital confers status and sustains social hierarchies across society. His ideas were formative, let’s say.

Arts and culture help young people know who they are, engage, navigate choices

At a New Direction, we think a lot about culture’s role in society and the lives of children and young people, particularly in London where we do most of our work. We are interested in understanding the notion that engagement in arts and culture through childhood helps young people to know who they are, engage with the world around them and navigate choices, as they get older.

Because the thing is, London’s children and young people are not very happy, nor are they doing as well as they could be: 37% of children live in poverty after housing costs are taken into account; more than 110,000 children, or around one in ten, suffer from significant mental ill-health; obesity levels are rising, there are high levels of youth unemployment, especially for less advantaged groups, and there is increasing polarisation between young and old.

For the past ten years, A New Direction has been working to open up the city’s cultural resources for all young Londoners to experience and enjoy. We encounter the same systemic issues confronting communities up and down the land – issues relating to inequality, power, relationships, identity, ownership, representation etc. Our work is most effective when the systems and infrastructure supporting children and young people – schools, nurseries, arts organisations, health providers, statutory services – take account of their need to play, be creative and experience culture. Through research and innovative partnerships, we are able to have a different conversation that positions culture as a positive, freeing force in the lives of children and young people. These days we are having to work smarter than ever before, when the role of arts and culture in supporting social and economic development is given less attention, and at a time when the education system favours academic subjects over more creative pursuits.

Frustration with supply-side deficit models, i.e. this is culture; you should consume it, has compelled us to explore new ways of interpreting how cultural opportunities operate for young people within ecosystems – complex, fluid networks operating within and across a range of contexts, from home, school and locality, to national, global society and the virtual world.

Last year we published a research report with Kings College London called Caring for Cultural Freedom that promotes a model of ‘supported autonomy’, where it's the job of the cultural learning system (teachers, artists, parents, peers) to enable each individual to explore creativity in their own way, not just provide ‘access’ to a pre-determined cultural offer. Principles of caring, autonomy, and democracy are informing our work going forward and helping us to think through how we develop the practice of supporting ecosystems and approaches to collaborative projects that are attentive and responsive to the views and needs of young people.

There is an opportunity to apply some of this thinking through Challenge London, a place-based partnership programme that A New Direction manages on behalf of Arts Council England. Over the next four years, we will co-invest around £2 million in collaborative projects that seek to develop sustainable models of cultural learning. We are hoping to build on twelve existing initiatives in places, which include:

  • Hackney – where we are working with architects and planners to investigate what child-friendliness might mean on one estate
  • Kensington and Chelsea – where young people devised and led an inquiry about future progression pathways and leading independent lives
  • Croydon – where a youth collective is running a campaign to make young people’s voices central to decision-making processes in local developments
  • Barking and Dagenham – where a partnership has conceived a cultural citizenship programme rooted in the concept of a cultural entitlement for all school pupils

Lessons from our work are that many children’s lives have an increasingly managed quality, dominated by homework and school. Young people lack freedom and space for self-organised activity, and anxiety about crime can lead parents to restrict their behaviour. Young people need to be able to play and explore – this is how resilience, curiosity and creativity are nurtured, and ultimately how new forms of cultural capital will change the world.


This blog was first published in Insights for A Better Way: improving services and building strong communities. The Better Way Network is a network of social activists who want to improve services and build strong communities.

Image credit: Francis Augusto