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In sociology and anthropology, symbolic capital can be referred to as the resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition, and serves as value that one holds within a culture. A war hero, for example, may have symbolic capital in the context of running for political office.
Theorists have argued that symbolic capital accumulates primarily from the fulfillment of social obligations that are themselves embedded with potential for prestige. Much as with the accumulation of financial capital, symbolic capital is 'rational' in that it can be freely converted into leveraging advantage within social and political spheres. Yet unlike financial capital, symbolic capital is not boundless, and its value may be limited or magnified by the historical context in which it was accumulated. Symbolic capital must be identified within the cultural and historical frame through which it originated in order to fully explain its influence across cultures.
Objects, as abstract representations of their environments, may also possess symbolic capital. This capital may be embedded in the built environment, or urban form of a city, as a symbolic representation of that land's cultural value. For example, landmarks usually have symbolic value and utility. They become landmarks precisely because they have symbolic value. This reciprocal relationship provides the landmark with cultural or environmental meaning, while at the same time lending its environment a layer of prestige.
The concept of symbolic capital is grounded in the theory of conspicuous consumption, first introduced and expounded in late-19th century works by Thorstein Veblen and Marcel Mauss. Veblen argued that the nouveau riche utilized lavish displays of wealth to symbolize their entrance into a previously-insulated upper class, embodying objects with meaning that existed only to magnify and confirm their newfound class and status. Mauss subsequently expanded on this argument, suggesting that social competitions for prestige favored those who spent recklessly and forced others into "the shadow of his name". Mauss' theory marked a departure from Veblen's in that he did not seek to frame the individual actor's actions within a cultural context; instead, his theory focused on the overarching structural implementation of status boundaries. Both of these conceptualizations, in turn, provided groundwork for Pierre Bourdieu's unifying theory of symbolic capital.
The explicit concept of symbolic capital was coined by Bourdieu, and is expanded upon in his books Distinction and, later, in Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Along with theories forwarded by Veblen and Mauss, symbolic capital is an extension of Max Weber's analysis of status. Bourdieu argues that symbolic capital gains value at the cross-section of class and status, where one must not only possess but be able to appropriate objects with a perceived or concrete sense of value.
What follows is a non-exhaustive list of what may constitute symbolic capital.