Applying Bourdieu to Analyzing Legitimacy and Capital Forms and Conversion in the U.S.

Airline Industry
Bourdieu on Capital and Symbolic Violence Pierre Bourdieu’s work on symbolic violence and the different types of capital – economic, social, and cultural – was originally developed, and has until now been nearly exclusively used in understanding relationships among individual actors. However, I propose that the value of Bourdieu’s conceptualization and theory is greater, and that it can be applied to organizational level actors as well; that is, we can utilize Bourdieu’s concepts in understanding organizational environments and the interactions among firms within an organizational sector. The value of applying Bourdieu’s framework to organizational studies is especially useful in analyzing legitimacy and reputation within an organizational field. Before this, we must first understand and clarify exactly what Bourdieu has outlined, as well as clearly articulate what is to be understood by legitimacy in the context of contemporary institutional theory. In what many consider his most contributions to modern social thought, Bourdieu discusses three types of capital: economic, social, and cultural. Economic capital is the collection of material possessions and resources that we accumulate. Social capital is illustrated in the networks of contacts and connections that individuals establish and maintain. And, cultural capital is the social prestige that people acquire depending on how they act or what tastes and preferences they have (Calhoun 262) Bourdieu then discusses the social field – a part of social life that has its own formal or informal rules – and how the different types of capital interact to delineate an individual’s status within the social field. In order to adjust their status within the field, it is necessary for actors to transfer and exchange between the different types of capital. Capital conversion can

interact in one of two ways: intergenerational reproduction or immediate exchange. Intergenerational conversion of capital occurs over a longer period of time, and as the name suggests, involves multiple generations. Calhoun presents a clear example of this in regards to the education system:

“Wealthy people try to make sure that their children go to good colleges. In America at least, this involves the use of significant economic capital, since good colleges are often the most expensive colleges. But it also involves cultural capital, for example in knowing which expensive schools are “good” – that is prestigious – and which are not.” (263)

The second method of capital exchange involves a more immediate conversion; in this process, one or two types of the capital (i.e. social and economic) are converted into the other (i.e. cultural). This can be seen in how someone who has just won the lottery (thus giving them economic capital) purchases etiquette lessons and takes classes about art appreciation to increase their ability to discern what is considered good art and what is not (thus illustrating their cultural capital). As to how capital goes to determine social status and position, Bourdieu again discusses two methods. The first process is determined solely by gross capital volume. In other words, those who have a high volume of all types of capital would have high status and position while those less capital would be progressively lower on the scale. In his own words, Bourdieu states, “agents are distributed in the first dimension according to the overall volume of the different kinds of capital they possess.” (Calhoun 271)

Because in a pure capital volume-based positioning system such as that described in the first method the difference between those who have much capital and those who do not is quiet salient, there is little need to expend effort on maintaining the social distance between those that have a lot and those that don’t. However, in the second method of

how capital accounts for social ordering, much more effort is necessary in maintaining social distances between actors. This distribution scheme focuses on a differentiation between having volume in the different types of capital. More clearly, position and status are based not on having the greatest total amount of capital, but about having a great deal of capital of one type. In turn, it is more difficult to determine social ordering because of it is only about having the most, and conflicts may arise about which type of capital is the most important to have. Thus, there is a greater struggle in maintaining social distance and the contestation occurs among the elites (those who have different types of capital) as opposed to between the elites and the masses (who have little capital at all). The focus of the struggle between classes or groups shifts from simply controlling the most possible capital to controlling specific forms of capital. And thus, each type of capital is not necessarily weight equally. A good example of this can be seen in analyzing occupations and careers. For example, even if a construction worker makes the same amount of money as a teacher (and thus has the same amount of economic capital), the teacher would have a more prestigious position (and thus have greater cultural capital). In turn the teacher would try and create some type of social distance between him or herself and the construction worker. (Calhoun 263; 270-271) The final portion of Bourdieu’s theory that is of interest in this project is his discussion on symbolic violence. Bourdieu posits that when domination is achieved by

drawing social distinctions (such as through cultural tastes or preferences as seen in the teacher/construction worker example) it is an act of symbolic violence. (Calhoun 264) More clearly, symbolic violence occurs when an individual attempts to legitimate cultural capital, and it is successfully accepted by the individuals being dominated. An example is that working class and lower class students accept that middle class students do better in school and justify it based on the fact that they are objectively more gifted, when in reality (in the view of Bourdieu), middle class students do better because middle class cultural norms, values, and preference are the dominant system of valued cultural capital in the educational system; more simply, the educational system of the United States is dominated by middle class ideology, and thus middle class students will do well in it, while students who have not had access to that type of cultural capital (lower and working class students) will not.

Legitimacy among the Institutionalists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan discuss the role of legitimacy in modern society as understood in terms of the institutionalization of organizational fields in contemporary society:

“This process [of institutionalization] permits many new organizations to spring up and forces existing ones to incorporate new practices and procedures, That is, organizations are driven to incorporate the practices and procedures defined by prevailing rationalized concepts of organizational work and institutionalized in society. Organizations that do so increase their legitimacy and their survival

prospects, independent of the immediate efficacy of the acquired practices and procedures.” (Powell 41)

From this we can understand how rational economic motives do not always prevail, and in contemporary society, the legitimization of an organization does not always derive from a profit or financial base, but in many cases equally, if not more so, it originates from adopting the practices and going through the motions that other similar organizations do. Meyer and Rowan go onto assert that, “many organizations in postindustrial society dramatically reflect the myths of their institutional environments instead of the demands of their work activities.” (Powell 41). Thus it is quite clear that under the view of institutional theory, the goals of organizations do not always align with their structures, practices, or processes of operation, and other factors come into play – namely those that have to do with making the organization appear legitimate within the context of the organizational field. Further discussion on legitimization shows how dominant firms affect their environment and determine what may later be seen as legitimate: “First, powerful organizations force their immediate relational networks to adapt their structures and relations…second, powerful organizations attempt to build their goals and procedures directly into society as institutional rules.” (Powell 49) Both of these methods are of interest as they focus on how powerful organizations affect their environment, and subsequently the actions of other organizations within it. In a later chapter, Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell discuss the different dimensions on which institutional isomorphism – or the growing homogeneity of organizations within an organizational field – can occur: mimetic, coercive, and

normative. Mimetic isomorphism relates to organizations copying other organizations they view as successful and legitimate within their field; coercive isomorphism focuses on organizations having to alter their structure to fit legal or political demands with little or no organizational-level agency; and, normative isomorphism can be understood in terms of the diffusion of similar practices via professional associations or training programs. First however, they outline their premise that, “Organizations compete not just of resources and customers, but for political power and institutional legitimacy, for social as well as economic fitness.” (Powell 66) This is of special interest to us, for the social fitness of organizations (which closely relates to their status and position in the social hierarchy of their organizational sector) is what connects this part of institutional theory to the previously-applied individualistic capital theory of Bourdieu.

Synthesizing Bourdieu and the Institutional Theorists To connect Bourdieu and the legitimacy work done by the institutional theorists, it is necessary to discuss and examine how firms act towards each other within an organizational field. Essentially, I argue that Bourdieu’s framework of capital and symbolic violence can be applied not only to the individual actors he discussed, but in the context of organizational actors as well. Fundamentally, organizations seek social acceptance, high status or social position, and legitimacy within their environment, just as individuals do. And, just as manipulation of the parameters of the system by those who have significant amounts of economic, social, and/or cultural capital occurs on the individual level, it occurs on the organizational level as well. Organizations that are seen as high-status and having significant volume of capital (again economic, social and/or

cultural) are able to define and adjust what it means to be high stratus and legitimate within the context of the organizational field. Furthermore, organizations are also able to convert and exchange between the different types of capital they have in order to maintain or increase their status within the field in the same way that individual actors are also able to. Finally, just as individuals engage in symbolic violence by exercising their dominance by using cultural capital, symbolic violence can also occur within the organizational realm. First, let us deal apply Bourdieu’s conceptions of using the three types of capital within a system. The first type – economic capital – is quite clearly transferred into the organizational realm. Organizations that have greater volumes of money can be understood to have greater amounts of economic capital. Secondly, social capital can be understood as the scope and depth of the network an organization is integrated in. This network will be made up of other organizations (though not necessarily organizations within the same field). Networks are to be understood in terms of the potential for resources they can provide, and thus in most cases, the larger the network the more valuable it is to an organization. And, though there will be cases in which an organization has a small network of extremely resource-potential heavy members, in most cases network size is positively related to social capital volume. In the organizational context, social capital revolves around the potential for other organizations with which the target firm has connections or links with, to be able to provide resources for the organization, should the need arise. The third type – and arguably the most important and difficult to apply in an organizational context – is cultural capital. For Bourdieu, cultural capital is the collective summation of skills, education, cultural habits

and beliefs, and forms of knowledge that an individual has accumulated (usually from one’s parents). (Calhoun 262) It is synonymous with prestige for the way in which things are done; in this way it’s not about doing the job, but it’s about how the job is completed. For organizations, cultural capital can be see in the way that firms sell their product (i.e. targeting middle class consumers) and meet their objectives, or the manner in which they deal with competitors (i.e. hostile take over) and employees (i.e. continually cut benefits instead of cutting jobs themselves). Most basically, cultural capital is focused on how the organization meets its targets, goals, and objectives on every front; it is not about getting the job done, but about the way in which the task is completed. The key point about cultural capital is that this is something that changes and is not as distinctly discernable as in the case of economic or social capital. By that, I mean that organizations that are considered to have a lot of cultural capital in one field or at one point in time, may not in other realities. An example clearly illustrates this: In modern life, there is a high value on providing many benefits for employees and working to make them better. Especially at technology firms in the late 1990s (during the dotcom boom), organizations provided employees with opulent performance-based vacations, company picnics, and even scholarships for their children. Thus, a firm that put a great deal of effort into making its employees happy and integrating their families into the company life, would have a high degree of cultural capital in that specific organizational field. But if you were to contrast that with an assembly line-based company in an industry like auto-production 50 years ago, the same types of programs and values would not be held in as high regard and instead, a company that had high cultural capital may be one that was very efficient and didn’t make their workers do any more then they had to. The point I am trying to

illustrate with this example is that what is defined as “high” in cultural capital, is malleable and can change; alternatively, there is no set or absolute schema for determining objectively whether a firm will have a high volume of culture capital. It is entirely based on the contextual setting (industry type, time, and place) of the organization. Now that the different types of capital are clear in an organizational sense, it is necessary to connect the possession of capital with status within the organizational environment. Both methods of determining organizational prestige and status from capital – a pure capital volume based approach and a differentiated capital volume based approach – are used when dealing with organizations. A pure capital volume approach – in which the organization with the largest amount of capital of all types has a high status – is obviously evident. A firm with a great deal of money and profitability, a large and resource-deep network, and processes and programs which are considered to be valuable and appropriate, would have a high-level position in the hierarchy. Slightly more complicated is the use of the segregated, capital-specific type of system. In this method, there is conflict and contestation over which type capital determines high status, and accordingly some types of capital “more valuable” than others. In some fields, economic capital may be a more important status indicator, where as in another, highly developed networks (social capital) are more indicative of high status. Both of the methods for determining status and position from capital volume possession can be utilized at the same time, though the extent to which each is used is again dependent on the specific organizational field being discussed.

Another point to be discussed on the relation of Bourdieu’s work on capital is about the process and manners of conversion. For Bourdieu, individual actors are able (and in fact must) exchange and transform one type of capital into another, in order to improve their status and position in the hierarchy. The reasoning behind this is that in some cases, even though an actor has a great deal of social capital, in the environment he is in, it is economic capital that is more highly valued for determining position. Thus, the individual would want to change their social capital into economic capital to improve their status. An example of how this would be done is that the individual may use his or her network to secure a job that makes a lot of money, thus using her social capital to increase her economic capital. This type of capital transformation can also occur for organizations. For example, a pharmaceutical company which has a lot of revenue (economic capital) may want to use money to develop generous employee reward programs that improve the quality of life for its employees as it is something that is seen as valued (cultural capital). All it is that capital in one form is exchanged for capital of another type, presumably one that is a more salient determiner of status within that field. The final point of Bourdieu that needs to be adjusted for organizations is that of symbolic violence. As previously discussed, symbolic violence occurs when cultural capital is legitimated and the individuals come to view cultural systems as legitimate. For organizations we must relate this back to understand how what is considered to be legitimated is defined. More clearly, symbolic violence between organizations occurs when organizations set and outline what it means to be considered a legitimate organization within that field – and other organizations accept it as valid. Organizations engage in symbolic violence by attempting to define what is seen as valued and

legitimate within their field, whether in regards to organizational structure, human relations policies, having a mission statement, or focusing on appealing to high end consumers. An example of this can be seen in an industry that has not previously had philanthropy programs as part of their companies and then one firm adds such a program. This firm engages in symbolic violence when they attempt to incorporate such a program into the definition of what it means to be considered a legitimate firm in the industry. These firms are attempting to normalize their own program as something that every firm in their sector should have, and thus they are attempting to assert their own high status (and dominate) the other firms in the environment. In order to be actual symbolic violence however, the other firms in the industry must accept philanthropy departments or programs as legitimate and necessary components and actually incorporate them. In other words, as previously mentioned, they must accept and adopt the changes as part of the new “culture” of the organizational field.

Applications within the U.S. Airline Industry The U.S. airline industry offers a nice example for examining and applying Bourdieu’s principles to organizations. In this section of the paper, I will present a few examples of Bourdieu’s capital conceptualizations at work between organizations. Being on time is a good measure of cultural capital among airlines. Being on time is clearly something that is valued by consumers as nobody wants to be continuously late when they get on a plane. Thus, airlines must ensure they will be on time in order to keep their customers happy. However, it is also something that the airlines have begun to take note of for its own sake. Various magazines and industry publications, as well as the U.S.

Department of Transportation rank the airlines each month, quarter, or year on their ontime ratio for flights. Accordingly, this is something that has become valued within the industry and as a status marker for airlines. In the annual reports of numerous firms, being on time is one of the top accolades mentioned as an accomplishment. For example, in Continental Airlines’ 2004 Annual Report, under the section “Making Reliability a Reality,” the first two things mentioned are: “Achieved a record 108 days of zero flight cancellations” and “Achieved 78.9 percent DOT on-time performance average for 2004, finishing No. 1 in August, October and December,” respectively. In addition, airlines routinely use the phrase “on time departure” on their websites, documents, and when directing customers for boarding procedures. This phrase clearly indicates the importance of being on time for airlines and how great of a priority it is. Another example of cultural capital in the airline industry is in regards to community oriented philanthropy programs. Airlines, like companies in many other industries, are continually highlighting what they are doing to give back to the community and presumably, firms that are seen as contributing more will be seen as having greater cultural capital. Under the section of “A Spirit of Community” in the Delta Airlines 2004 Annual Report, it says: “Delta will continue to take a leadership role in cultivating solutions that benefit the community and establish an environment where our employees can make a difference in the lives of others.” And, on America West Airlines’ home page of its website there is a large font link highlighting a new program that provides “Airfare rebates to benefit Las Vegas-area public schools.” These are a few of the many programs that airlines have developed to benefit the community. Such programs illustrate yet another dimension on which airlines compete for cultural capital, and yet another measure that assesses the

status of the airline in the organizational field. An interesting component of the airline industry discussion and a good illustration of symbolic violence being exercised among airlines, is the distinction that is currently being made within the industry between two types of carriers: the so-called “budget” or “low-fare” airlines which provide inexpensive, no-frills service and the “legacy” or “trunk” carriers which offer more traditional, full-service amenities and generally larger route networks. In announcing the recent proposed merger between US Airways and America West Airlines, the press release began with the following:

“America West Holdings Corporation [NYSE: AWA] and US Airways Group, Inc. [UAIRQ.OB] today announced an agreement to merge and create the first fullservice nationwide airline, with the consumer-friendly pricing structure of a lowfare carrier. Operating as the first national low-cost (LCC) hub-and-spoke network carrier, customers can look forward to simplified pricing, international scope, access to low-fare service to over 200 cities across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe, and amenities that include a robust frequent flyer program, airport clubs, assigned seating and First Class cabin service.”

In addition, looking at the website of Jet Blue Airways we find the following:

“Critics scoffed at our dream of creating a successful low-fare airline based in New York City. They said we'd never find quality employees, that no one would want to fly domestically from JFK, and that we'd never be able to offer both low

fares and a product that includes new planes, leather seats and live satellite TV with DIRECTV® programming.”

Furthermore, from Frontier Airlines website comes:

“Frontier is an affordable fare airline that provides service to 45 destinations in 25 states spanning the nation from coast-to-coast and to five cities in Mexico, from its Denver hub.”

Each of these three includes a concept similar to “low-fare airline” when describing their firm. Contrast this with this excerpt taken from United Airlines Corporate Website, describing the company and service:

“UAL Corporation is the holding company for United Airlines, the second largest air carrier in the world. With hubs in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and key international gateways in Tokyo, London, Frankfurt, Miami and Toronto, United flies to 109 destinations in 23 countries. United's 65,000-plus employees worldwide bring people together safely, conveniently and efficiently more than 1,800 times a day. United's customers also enjoy access to more than 700 destinations around the world through Star Alliance, the leading global airline network.”

Alternatively, the following quote is taken from Northwest Airlines website:

“Northwest Airlines is the world's fourth largest airline and is engaged principally in the commercial transportation of passengers and cargo. Northwest Airlines began operations in 1926 and is America's oldest carrier with continuous name identification. Northwest Airlines operates substantial domestic and international route networks and directly serves almost 750 cities in nearly 120 countries on the continents of North America, Asia and Europe. In 2000, Northwest had more than 60 million passengers and flew over 79 billion passenger miles.”

Finally, this is taken from American Airlines website:

“American Airlines and American Eagle are in business to provide safe, dependable, and friendly air transportation to our customers, along with numerous related services. We are dedicated to making every flight you take with us something special. Your safety, comfort, and convenience are our most important concerns.”

In comparing the first three and the last three there is one clear distinction between the groups. The first three airlines use words related to providing affordable and low-cost air service that are consumer friendly. It is clear from these excerpts that cost and price are major foci for these firms. These statements represent the budget carriers that were mentioned earlier, and America West/US Air, Frontier Airlines, and Jet Blue Airways are all generally considered to be low-cost carriers. They offer no dedicated meal service in

the main cabin, and with the exception of America West/US Air, they have no first class. Oppositely, the latter three companies: American Airlines, United Airlines, and Northwest Airlines make no mention of affordability, budget, or low-cost anywhere. Instead they focus on such concepts of comfort, safety, reliability, and opportunities for world-wide travel. The differences are significant because they represent a major division which has begun to split the airline industry over the past few years: budget versus full-service. This distinction and the accompanied language as discussed above can be analyzed as an act of symbolic violence by which the entire structure of the organizational sector is changing. Less than 10 years ago, budget airlines were not seen as feasible and being a full-service airline was seen as the only true legitimate form for a firm in the industry; essentially, in order to be considered a true market player (with the exception of Southwest Airlines) and in order to be taken seriously, it was necessary to operate in the same way as the major carriers – that is a large, full-service structure. However, following fuel crises in the late 1990s and the terror attacks of 9/11, there has been a drastic shift. Specifically, budget carriers became the only profitable airlines while the legacy carriers suffered major financial losses and drifted towards bankruptcy. Now, budget carriers are continuing to grow with new ones being created more and more often. And, as can be seen from the statements above, the financial successes of the budget carriers (economic capital) have been turned into an avenue that has allowed a legitimization of their business model – the low-fare approach – by the rest of the industry. In this way, because of their financial success while the rest of the industry was changing, the budget carriers were able to convert it into cultural capital which through the process of symbolic violence they were able to alter the culture of the industry and

incorporate the budget carrier model as a legitimate firm structure. No longer are budget carriers seen as strange or risky, but instead they are seen by many as the next generation of the airline industry. They are viewed as legitimate firms that generally seem to be successful, which may be one reason why full-service airlines such as United (with TED) and Delta (with Song) have adopted their own budget airlines.

Conclusions Bourdieu’s work on capital and symbolic violence are easily transferred from the realm of individual humans as actors to organizations as actors by incorporating portions of institutional theory. It is clearly valuable to examine how Bourdieu’s conceptualizations of the different types of capital, how they can be exchanged and transferred, their effect on determining status, and symbolic violence, can be applied to better understanding legitimacy and isomorphism within organizational sectors and fields. The most valuable insight may be that cultural capital is an extremely important factor in understanding what defines and creates legitimacy within an organizational field as well as how certain organizations affect others in addition to the environment as a whole. Because there is little disagreement that profitability and resource-rich networks are valuable tools for organizations, it is through cultural capital that we see the greatest amount of isomorphism take place. Cultural capital is the primary arena in which organizations mimic and copy each other, because it is the arena which has the most malleability and flexibility. Accordingly, further research in understanding and analyzing how organizations use cultural capital within their field would be extremely valuable to better understand isomorphic processes.

Works Cited Calhoun, Craig, ed., et al. Contemporary Sociological Theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Powell, Walter W. and DiMaggio, Paul J., eds. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Airline Websites America West Airlines (http://www.americawest.com) American Airlines (http://www.aa.com) Delta Airlines (http://www.delta.com) Frontier Airlines (http://www.frontierairlines.com) Jetblue Airways (http://www.jetblue.com) Northwest Airlines (http://www.nwa.com) United Airlines (http://www.united.com)