The Work of Cultural Capital

This entry about the Ramey study on family time at 11d got me thinking. Laura, citing David Brooks and Tara Parker-Pope, observes that a shift towards parents spending much more time with their children doesn’t seem to have any downside.

I think so too. I’ve pointed out before that this is one positive way to think about the end of a world where children roamed freely on their own adventures through suburban wildernesses, that maybe we’re transitioning to a desirable middle-class world where families adventure together, where the world of children and adults is less culturally and socially separate than it once was.

On the other hand, I keep thinking that there’s more to it than the emotional satisfaction that some parents of my generation have found in the company of their children, and not just the conventional issue of whether we’re smothering our kids with too much control or attention.

I wonder if part of what’s happening with middle-class to upper middle-class families and time is also conditioned by the rising difficulty of reproducing social class in the United States.

I’m going to be somewhat simplistic here just to try and get the point across. Crudely speaking, you could argue that in the 1950s that the middle distribution of income was not just far larger and the ends of the spectrum drawn in closer towards that middle, but that the American middle-class imagined that it had hit upon a fairly stable formula for its own reproduction. Namely, a relatively minimalist range of signpost practices defining middle-class respectability that could be passed on to the next generation along with expanded access to a high-quality education system that included professional training at its culmination. Put the two together and you had a system for social mobility that could be imagined both as egalitarian and meritocratic, accessible to many, securely reproducible, but not a guaranteed and accumulating legacy.

The cultural signposts were defined and then demolished within the span of a single generation: Jell-O, Levittown, Leave It to Beaver, the Brady Bunch went from being idealizations to hateful conformities to ironic ridiculousness fairly quickly from 1965 to 1985. Income equity went roughly the same way, at the same pace, and higher education, while still a passport, controlled entry to an increasingly murky and complex world of economic and social advancement.

That 1950s middle-class could split the world of children and adults as radically as it did for two reasons. First, because a working patriarch could actually hope to accumulate enough in his own life to leave an inheritance for children that would help insure the reproduction of the status that he’d achieved, both indirectly through education and directly through property and money passed to the next generation. Second, because women in the home and social institutions like school could do the work of middle-class cultural reproduction in a relatively minimalist fashion, on a kind of assembly-line. You didn’t have to worry too much about a child’s interior experience of schooling and childhood if the outer signs of respectability were successfully monitored and secured.

So what I wonder a bit is if the insecurity of middle-class life and the uncertainties of reproducing it in the next generation is producing a much more intense focus on generating a flexible, responsive kind of cultural capital in the children of professionals. Jell-O, church attendance, and the pinewood derby for Cub Scouts doesn’t secure anything any longer. Nor in any simple sense does education by and of itself. So families draw together in part to cultivate the self, to create exposure to a wide range of stimulating experiences which are nevertheless selected for their potential for cultural capital creation. Music lessons, language lessons, access to computer and digital tools, constructivist toys and games, travel selected for enrichment potential rather than ’empty’ leisure, parentally-accompanied museum visits and so on. Schools do many of these activities as well, but many professional parents increasingly distrust the capacity of schools to properly enrich their children unless the school is somehow distinctively individualized in its approach to enrichment. Because, in part, the cultural capital that creates some sense of distinction in a new entrant to middle-class life is that which is intensely individualized.

This is an issue that Michele Lamont touches on in How Professors Think, but it’s a point that extends across most of the professions. The job candidate or aspiring professional or competitor for funding who stands out is often the person who appears the most individually distinctive while also locking down all the visible or apparent baseline benchmarks of credentialing and competency. That’s the person who gets tagged as having “quality of mind”. That’s what applicants to selective colleges try to accomplish as well, to assure admissions officers that they have excelled at all the standard expectations and that they are unique and special individuals. The unique and special part often comes straight from the kinds of cultural capital that a particular household has worked to cultivate in all members of the family, and that work involves drawing closer together, sharing experiences while also controlling or directing them with some vaguely productivist, self-improving ethos in mind.

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6 Responses to The Work of Cultural Capital

  1. Sdorn says:

    “That 1950s middle-class could split the world of children and adults as radically as it…” You’ve compressed the timespan too much, at least in U.S. history. Howard Chudacoff’s “How Old Are You?” documents the growth of what he calls ‘age-consciousness’ over a few centuries.

    Then again, historians of childhood and education in the U.S. are well-trained to see “1950s” as the starting point for any claimed trend and think, “Uh, probably not.”

  2. mgm says:

    I’ve been enjoying your writing for sometime, but this post resonated so deeply with me as a father and a historian of 20th century America I felt compelled to congratulate you on articulating such an important point so clearly and concisely. You analysis really builds off the questions that David Riesman posed in the Lonely Crowd. He was ultimately interested in understanding how the formation of selfhood changes under conditions of economic abundance. We now live in a society with no less abundance and yet most of us experience it as scarcity, a change that effects the way we think about are relationships with our children, and their relationship to their futures. Like you, I resist casting these changes in a declension narrative, but doubts do surface now and again about how this approach to raising kids (our over investment in their achievement of authentic individuality as a means of conventional success) helps to reproduce our collective failure to deal with the problem of distribution of income. Like you, I find a roughly Marxist account of cultural change indispensable for thinking about these questions so long as it is combined with other analytic lenses, but I sometimes fear that by ignoring Marx’s radical politics I am committing some kind of intellectual sin that will be revisited on my children. Much more to say on all this, but I must to work. Thanks for the great post.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Good points, Sherman. It’s why I said crudely speaking–having taught Chudacoff’s book, I know the real picture doesn’t fit this sketch that well. Plus I have the same general allergy to stories that take the 1950s as a golden anchoring point. But broadly speaking, it does seem to me that they represent a moment in the history of American middle-class life that is remembered as nostalgically as it is because there was something to it that we’d like to recapture. On the other other hand, like Laura, I also really like the “cocooning” of my own family, and the much less hierarchical relation between the world of children and the world of parents. And not just for the sake of the kids–it makes it much easier to keep “childlike” culture in one’s adult world, which is certainly a big part of my pop culture life.

  4. lemmy caution says:

    Here is the study:

    They claim that the increase is mainly due to time coordinating and taking older kids to organized activities and that this increase is not found in Canada. Their theory is that the relative increase is a result in increased pressure to get in US elite colleges and the relative flat status structure of Canadian colleges means that Canadians don’t bother.

    This book is an awesome sociological investigation into the difference between middle class and lower class child raising practices:

    Basically lower class parents let the kids run around unsupervised and do what they want to do. Like everybody’s parents used to when I was a kid in the seventies.

    I honestly think all of the organized activities of the current middle class childhood are a waste of time. They certainly don’t scale well. I have four kids and it drives me crazy.

    This is an issue that Michele Lamont touches on in How Professors Think, but it?? a point that extends across most of the professions. The job candidate or aspiring professional or competitor for funding who stands out is often the person who appears the most individually distinctive while also locking down all the visible or apparent baseline benchmarks of credentialing and competency.

    This isn’t such a big deal in other professions besides actual professors. There is some of this but not a whole lot.

    This seems to be the insane timeline:

    – In the 1920s, elite colleges increase emphasis on extracurricular activities for admission in order to limit Jewish college admissions

    – by the 1960s-1970s, the value of extracurricular/enrichment activities becomes fetishized by baby boom meritocratic graduates of these elite colleges

    -by the 1990s, these the importance of extracurricular/enrichment activities become an important child raising principle for middle class parents as a whole

  5. agl1 says:

    I think it is also a new generation of (nerdy?) parents whose interests do not divide along gender lines so much – these Dads are not itching to get to the bar or racetrack nor the Moms to do coffee mornings with the other mothers. The effect on the kids (they can now be included in these joint leisure activities) is more a by-product of this than the underlying aim. Lareau’s idea of “concerted cultivation” can be regarded as productivism, but it’s also part of the general approach of the professional/ managerial class to most things they do.

  6. Bob McGrew says:

    I think that there’s an interesting tension here. Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma in the 1990s, I ended up with a lot of free time that was very unscheduled. I used it to read a lot of books and work on a lot of individual projects – specifically, I picked up a lot of computer programming. Although my parents were very supportive, none of this was particularly driven by them spending time with me (except taking me to the public library and buying me books about writing flight simulators).

    But these were precisely the individualized skills that have served me well in life later. When my start-up hires software engineers, one of the key distinguishing factors is whether the person works on projects in their “leisure time” (a concept that I don’t think makes sense in a world where knowledge work can be indistinguishable from play.)

    In other words, if parents focus on enriching the lives of their children too much through these structured activities, it’s not just removing chances for kids to explore the “suburban wilderness” – it’s also cutting against their chances to have truly self-directed projects and skills.

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