Comparing twins – cultural capital matters, but how it works could surprise you

Comparing twins – cultural capital matters, but how it works could surprise you

Stine Møllegaard

Is there anything to win from going to the library, museum, opera – and reading and playing musical instruments – other than for pleasure? We compared the cultural activities and educational success of twins and found that the culturally active children are more likely to do well in the education system, and that culturally active children from advantaged families reap more benefits from their cultural capital than their peers from disadvantaged families. This finding contributes directly to explaining the persisting inequalities found within education, even in social welfare states like Denmark.

Denmark’s welfare state secures its citizens the right to free welfare services such as tuition-free education (from primary school through to the end of Masters-level university education), and even financially supports students via generous student grants while they are studying. However, despite economic redistribution (through high taxation) and tuition-free education, there is still a remarkable intergenerational transmission of education outcomes: Children of working class parents are much less likely to attain a tertiary degree compared to their peers with well-educated middle class parents.

If it is not financial resources, then what is the key to educational success? Theories about the role of cultural capital – that is, familiarity with the dominant cultural codes in a society – has pointed to other less tangible resources that might also be important. Pierre Bourdieu first proposed the theory of cultural capital playing a role in generating and maintaining social stratification. Bourdieu argued that cultural capital is a key determinant of educational success because it is misperceived by teachers as academic brilliance and rewarded as such. Because children from high socioeconomic status (SES) background on average possess more cultural capital than their peers from low SES backgrounds, they have a comparative advantage in the education system, which helps them reproduce their privileged social position (Bourdieu 1977, 1984; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990). This theory has since received a lot of attention as a potential explanation of the persisting inequality.

The problem is that it is tricky to test the theory – that is, to study if and how cultural capital affects educational success – and some challenges persist in researching this topic. The first challenge is to separate cultural capital from other types of resources, such as economic resources or cognitive skills, which also affect educational success and cultural consumption. For example, individuals with more economic resources are also often richer in cultural resources. If we do not separate cultural capital from other sources that might affect educational success, we risk overestimating the importance of cultural resources. Another challenge is to investigate whether cultural resources are actually misconceived as academic brilliance by the teachers and rewarded accordingly, which is how the theory proposes cultural capital works. We wanted to specifically study whether cultural resources give a false impression of academic brilliance and whether this is reflected in the achievements of the students.

To deal with the challenges of studying the influence of cultural capital, we collected data on a large sample of Danish twins and compared their cultural activities and their educational success. We asked about the twins’ cultural activities at age 12 (how often do they read books, go to the museum, play musical instruments, and other cultural activities). We combined this information with information from the Danish administrative registries. In Denmark, Danish citizens are allocated a Central-Person Registry (CPR) number much like the National Insurance Number in the UK, which is used as a personal ID number for most of the institutions in Denmark, including accessing education, health care system, and paying tax. This information is stored in central administrative registries, which researchers can apply to access for research purposes. The Danish registries cover the entire Danish population (approximately 5,6 million individuals) and include individual-level information on, among other things, education, income, and health care usage. A key advantage of the register data is that they are very detailed and of very high quality. From the registry data, we were able to obtain information about the twins’ Grade Point Average [GPA] at the end of compulsory school, and the likelihood of completing upper secondary education – which is a prerequisite for enrolling into university. This data has enabled us to compare the twins’ cultural activities with their actual educational success.

Comparing twins has several advantages. Firstly, they are born into the same family at the same time. This means that they are raised in the same family and thus experience the same level of family resources, type of parenting, etc. Secondly, monozygotic twins are genetically identical. This means that they have the same genetic predispositions to do well in school. Comparing monozygotic twins is similar to comparing two individuals, who by chance experienced the exact same childhood, upbringing, and share the same genetic makeup – we can thus assume that factors related to genetics and family background are not going to “pollute” our study of the association between cultural capital and educational success. Comparing the twins’ cultural activities and their educational success in this way revealed that cultural capital has a positive direct effect on the likelihood of completing upper secondary education. The effect is substantively large even though there are only small differences in the cultural activities engaged in between twins. Our results thus indicate that cultural capital has an independent influence on educational success, even when taking differences in genetics and upbringing into account.

In addition to a “cleaner” picture of the influence of cultural capital, we are also interested in how and why cultural capital matters for educational success. According to the Bourdieu’s theory, cultural capital biases the teacher’s perception of the child’s abilities. We take advantage of the Danish registries that contain several measures of academic achievement to examine this. We have compared two measures of achievement: (1) the grade point average awarded in teacher assessments during the final year of compulsory schooling (around age 15-16), and (2) the final exam grade point average where grades are awarded by anonymous reviewers and teachers at the end of compulsory school. The teacher assessments are given by the teacher who has day-to-day interactions with the child throughout the school year, and is thus ‘exposed’ to the child’s cultural capital on a daily basis. According to Bourdieu, this should affect the teacher’s perceptions of the child’s academic ability and thus influence grading practices.

By contrast, grades in the final exams are awarded jointly by an anonymous reviewer (who has never met the child or, in the case of oral exams, only meets the child briefly) and by the child’s teacher (who knows the child), which leaves much less room for cultural capital to operate and affect perceptions. If cultural capital influences teachers’ perceptions of student academic ability, we would expect cultural capital to influence the teacher assessments more than the final exam assessments. Contrary to our expectations, we found that individual cultural capital has a positive effect on GPA in the final exams at the end of compulsory schooling but has no effect on GPA awarded during the school year. This result suggests that cultural capital might bias teacher perceptions of children’s academic ability, but only when their exposure to children’s cultural capital is brief, as is the case in a written or oral exam – during longer exposure, our findings suggest that teachers ‘see through’ the child’s ‘veil’ of cultural capital.

So cultural capital seemingly has an influence on children’s educational success, but not in the way we would expect based on the theory of cultural capital: we found little support for the theory that cultural capital influences teacher perceptions of student academic ability other than in situations of brief exposure. In addition to this, the theory also suggests that cultural capital helps children reproduce their privileged social position, because children from high SES backgrounds more often end up in social contexts that are particularly susceptible to recognising and rewarding cultural capital, for example more prestigious schools. By comparing the influence of cultural capital on educational success between twins from high- and low-SES backgrounds, we found that the influence of cultural capital on educational success exists only among the children of the highly educated; children whose parents have low education gain nothing, in terms of better educational outcomes, from their cultural capital.

In Denmark, a welfare state with comprehensive economic redistribution and tuition-free education, we still face a substantial intergenerational transmission of educational advantages: the educational success of a child is still very much dependent on the educational level of his or her parents. It has been proposed that cultural capital – familiarity with the dominant cultural codes in a society – may play a role in the persisting intergenerational transmission of education: by displaying their cultural know-how, they give the impression of academic ability and this is rewarded by the teachers in their assessments.

We tested the theory by comparing how the cultural activities of identical twins are associated with their later educational success. We found that cultural capital affects your educational success – it has a strong influence on the likelihood of completing upper secondary school, even taking differences in family background and genetics into account. However, we found little evidence that it has a substantial effect on the teacher perceptions of the child’s academic ability – and it primarily works for children from advantaged families, who most likely attend schools that are particularly susceptible to recognising and rewarding cultural capital. While we do find some support that cultural capital matters – it apparently does not work as suggested by theory. Maybe rather than affecting teacher perceptions, cultural capital might just nudge children in the direction of a classic academic educational trajectory? More research is needed to answer these questions.

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society, Culture. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.
Bourdieu, Pierre, 1984. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Bourdieu, Pierre, Passeron, Jean-Claude, 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage, London.
Jæger, Mads Meier and Stine Møllegaard. 2017.  ”Cultural capital, teacher bias, and educational success: New evidence from monozygotic twins”. Social Science Research. 65:130-144.


Stine Møllegaard is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark. Her eclectic research interests has currently lead her to investigate the nature and nurture of cultural consumption and social inequality, a project funded by the Danish Velux Foundation. Her research interests include educational inequality, cultural consumption, and integrating genetics and social science. Follow @stinemollegaard on twitter.

Image: Purchased from Colourbox