Revealing the Secrets of Symbolic Capital

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

How technology is catching up with social science theory. 

Our reality or experience is shaped (and continuously reshaped) by our interactions with others over time. The same goes for our shared assumptions about those realities. For example, in heterosexual, normative culture (i.e. dominant culture), a straight man would mostly refer to his partner as his “wife” in conversation. This is simply driven by the fact that in all his interactions with others around him, the use of the word “wife” symbolizes the right (socially acceptable) manner in which to discuss one’s significant other. The same may not be true in contexts that are less mainstream. Many socially progressive straight men for example will deliberately refer to their wife as their “partner” as a means of normalizing a word or form of language that is traditionally associated (by the mainstream) with gay couples. In fact, the use of a word that specifically does not indicate one’s sexual orientation is seen by such groups of men as an important step in normalizing different forms of relationships and gender norms. 

These different forms of language use are nothing but symbolic meanings that revolve around the word “partner” that differ from one context to another. 

This is symbolic interactionism. The shaping of our realities and shared assumptions about those realities as a result of our day-to-day interactions with others.

And it is a key sociological underpinning that helped us build the microcultures framework to more powerfully explain human behavior in the marketplace. Because microcultures capture the symbolic meanings that individuals create around words, trends, phrases, and ideas.

Let’s look at another example. Imagine you are at a dinner party with a female friend, who is excited to share how she has lost 20 lbs. But when describing the journey she went on to lose weight, she strategically talks about “doing a cleanse” instead of “going on a diet”. In today’s cultural context, the word “cleanse” implies awareness of the dangers that exposure to toxins pose to physical health and the need to care for oneself as a result (e.g., by engaging in a cleanse to rid the body of those toxins). “Diet,” on the other hand, has come to signify something else entirely: concern with conventional norms around how our body should look and thus submission to patriarchal expectations about what a woman should look like and how she should run her life. The protagonist in our story had a number of symbols to use to describe her weight loss journey, and what she chose tells us a lot about her and other consumers like her. 

These two seemingly simple words—”diet” and “cleanse”—actually carry a tremendous amount of symbolic meaning and explanatory power. And by decoding this meaning, innovation, insight, and research & development teams can uncover hidden opportunities to drive growth in their organizations. 

In our book, Microcultures: Understanding the consumer forces that will shape the future of your business we explore the impact of symbolic interactionism and how we need to rethink how context shapes the choices our consumers make. But we also look to the past, where the works of legendary social scientists laid the foundation for us to better understand and anticipate shifts in culture. And, how technology has given us access to data and information that allows us to perform cultural analysis with accuracy and precision that has never been seen before.  

Perhaps the most important mind was that of french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu was among a group of (predominantly) French theorists in the 1960s who established the concept of symbolic capital. We define symbolic capital as a resource that is acquired by exhibiting or drawing on particular forms of knowledge, competencies, or skills and interpersonal relationships that, like money, provide access to things. These intangible forms of capital can be converted into other intangible but valuable assets, such as prestige, honor, privilege, and acceptance into a particular community and beyond (which, in turn, can also translate into actual capital, that is, money).

Of course, these forms of symbolic capital aren’t consistent or constant over time. In fact, Bourdieu argues that there is a “tempo” to all of this, in that the symbolic forms of capital keep changing and evolving. Going back to our “cleanse” example stated above, the meanings around what a “cleanse” symbolizes will not remain constant. It will change and evolve as people assign new meaning to that topic over time. The framework of microcultures allows us to capture and study this evolution so as to get at a pure consumer-led perspective. 

What a difference a few decades make

There is no denying the impact the Internet has had on culture. But specifically in the context of how it has transformed the way we study social structures (and the way people attach meanings to the things in their life), the Internet has provided us with access to billions and billions of data points that were previously inaccessible. Every word we write online is charged with symbolic capital. The ability to follow the contextual chain of events in and around conversation allows us to go beyond what a person has said, to deconstruct and decode the meaning behind why it was shared. When done across millions and millions of people we are now able to identify patterns in the way meanings are created, assigned, and evolved around topics and trends in culture. Put another way, we are able to observe and analyze the manner in which passionate groups of consumers (microcultures) fight to make their meanings dominate in the macroculture of a trend or idea. This is exactly what microcultures (and our insight platform Lux MotivBase) allow us to capture month over month: the nuances of and the changes taking place in the meanings people assign to the world around them and the ideas, trends, or topics that inhabit that world.


Thanks to the masters who established the theory, we can leverage technology to better understand the forces that shape consumer culture. In many ways, technology is now just beginning to allow us to identify the myriad nuances and complexities of consumer behavior. 

The concept of microcultures is designed to make the most of this moment, so we can look beyond people’s backgrounds and the structural forces that dictate their actions. Instead, it allows us to look at every situation and every human response to that situation as one that is context-dependent.

By understanding these fundamental elements of microcultures, we can begin to engage in a more rigorous process of consumer-led research that yields necessary information about the numerous and interrelated opportunity spaces for innovation that are available in the marketplace.

What do you want to research today?