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 Bourdieu’s unifying theory of symbolic capital.
The explicit concept of symbolic capital was coined by Pierre Bourdieu, and is expanded upon in his books Distinction and, later, in Practical Reason: on the Theory of Action. Along with theories forwarded by Velben 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. For instance, a work of art hanging in a manor possesses symbolic capital because of the prestige of its environment, which in turn distinguishes the actor who inhabits it.