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You Said “Capital”? Extending the Notion of Capital, Interrogating Inequalities and Dominant Powers

  • Laurent Thévenot (a1)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on the author’s choices concerning the definition of capital, the inequalities of its distribution, and the social state policies he recommends to address them. In line with Thomas Piketty’s proposal to encourage a dialogue between economics and the other social sciences, this article sheds light on the implications of those choices. It traces the political genealogy of “human” and “intellectual” capital, and the subsequent development of other capital-variables used to measure different types of inequality and to evaluate the policies designed to cope with them. Differentiating the modes—which are not exclusively market-orientated—of investing in and valorizing these various types of capital, it clarifies the kind of power associated with each, its claim to legitimacy despite the inequalities it causes, and the domination it exercises. This calls into question the delimitation that Piketty has chosen for a basic set of capital-goods that are used in very different ways, along with his understanding and evaluation of them according to market valuation alone.

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1. Robert E. Lucas, “The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future (2003 Annual Report Essay),” The Region, May 2004,

2. Geoffrey M. Hodgson, “Piketty Has Redefined Capital, after 200 Years of Confusion,” The Conversation, April 22, 2014,

3. Hodgson, , “What Is Capital? Economists and Sociologists Have Changed its Meaning: Should it Be Changed Back?,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 38, no. 5 (2014): 1063–86 .

4. These critiques range from the virulent to the more moderate. For the former kind, see: Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, “Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty,” Libération, October 17, 2013; and Eribon, Didier, “La gauche contre elle-même,” Le Monde, May 10, 2014 . For the latter, see Spire, Alexis, “Capital, Social Reproduction, and the Rise of Inequality,” Annales HSS (English Version) 70, no. 1 (2015): 57–64 .

5. Fisher, Irving, The Nature of Capital and Income (New York: Macmillan, 1906). See Cot, Annie, “Le gène et l’intérêt, l’anamorphose d’Irving Fisher,” Histoire de la pensée économique. Économies et sociétés 11, no. 4 (1989): 89–107 .

6. Girard, Alain, La réussite sociale en France, ses caractères, ses lois, ses effets (Paris: PUF, 1961), 21 .

7. Ibid., 350; Thévenot, Laurent, “La politique des statistiques: les origines sociales des enquêtes de mobilité sociale,” Annales ESC 45, no. 6 (1990): 1275–300 .

8. Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean-Claude, The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture, trans. Nice, Richard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

9. Bourdieu, Darras [Pierre et al.], ed., Le partage des bénéfices. Expansion et inégalités en France (Paris: Éd. de Minuit), 1966 .

10. Pierre Bourdieu, “La transmission de l’héritage culturel,” in Darras, Le partage, 397.

11. Desrosières, Alain, The Politics of Large Numbers. A History of Statistical Reasoning, trans. Naish, Camille (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

12. Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 2014), 477 and 629, n. 9. Piketty rightly prefers the term “social state” to “welfare state.”

13. Without common measure with the work accomplished by Piketty, this historical and empirical work is also on another level as regards the use of statistical data: it collects and analyzes data on the collection and analysis of statistical data, based on the questionnaires, processing tools, theories mobilized, and commentaries that feed into the articles that use the primary data. This orientation cannot be reduced to social constructivism. See: Monso, Olivier and Thévenot, Laurent, “Les questionnements sur la société française pendant quarante ans d’enquêtes Formation et Qualification Professionnelle ,” Économie et statistique 431/432 (2010): 13–36 ; Thévenot, , “Conventions for Measuring and Questioning Policies: The Case of 50 Years of Policy Evaluations through a Statistical Survey,” Historical Social Research 36, no. 4 (2011): 192–217 .

14. The civic order of value, like the industrial order or the order of opinion mentioned below, belongs to the grammar of plural worths: see Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, On Justification: Economies of Worth, trans. Porter, Catherine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). On the liberal grammar, see the following articles by Thévenot, Laurent: “Autorités à l’épreuve de la critique. Jusqu’aux oppressions du gouvernement par l’objectif,” in Le tournant de la théorie critique, ed. Frère, Bruno (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2015): 216–35 ; Powers and Oppressions from the Perspective of the Sociology of Engagements: A Comparison with Bourdieu’s and Dewey’s Critical Approaches to Practical Activities,” Irish Journal of Sociology 19, no. 1 (2011): 35–67 .

15. Becker, Gary, Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1964); Mincer, Jacob, “Investment in Human Capital and Personal Income Distribution,” Journal of Political Economy 66, no. 4 (1958): 281–302 .

16. The measurement of human capital raises difficulties that reveal the effort needed to make investments commensurable. It implies integrating occupational training and initial education, and even treating it as a time-equivalent in order to make it a scalar variable relatable to income, which is seen as the return on the investment. See Monso and Thévenot, “Les questionnements.”

17. It should be noted that in the United States, under the influence of a “liberal” political construction, proposals to add a new type of capital may make reference to Bourdieu while being based more in a perspective of “empowerment” than the critique of powers of domination. For example, Catherine Hakim sets out to identify “erotic capital” as a mode of empowerment that might counterbalance the lack of other types (economic, cultural, and social) available to the most disadvantaged. This capital has, in her view, been overlooked by the elites because they cannot monopolize it: Hakim, Catherine, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 17 .

18. Stavo-Debauge, Joan, “Mobilising Statistical Powers for Action against Discrimination: The Case of the United Kingdom,” International Social Science Journal 57, no. 183 (2005): 43–55 .

19. Bourdieu, Pierre, “The Forms of Capital,” trans. Richard Nice, in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. Richardson, John G. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 241–58 . The italics are Bourdieu’s.

20. On the domestic order of valorization, and also the market, industrial, and civic orders of worth mentioned below, see Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification.

21. Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” 243–44.

22. Does the concept of the field enable this link to be taken into account in Bourdieu’s sociology of types of capital? The hierarchy of the types of capital does indeed vary according to the fields in which they are embedded, fields that have their own logics and some autonomy, and in which the actors get caught up in the game (illusio ) with unequal assets. But the reference to a very extensive conception of the market makes it impossible to distinguish the capacity conditions for valorization of the various types of capital.

23. Piketty, Capital, 631, n. 21.

24. Ibid., 486.

25. Porter, Theodore M., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Espeland, Wendy Nelson and Stevens, Mitchell L., “Commensuration as a Social Process,” Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 313–43 ; Desrosières, Alain, “How Real are Statistics? Four Possible Attitudes,” Social Research 68, no. 2 (2001): 339–55 ; Fourcade, Marion, “Cents and Sensibility: Economic Valuation and the Nature of ‘Nature,’American Journal of Sociology 116, no. 6 (2011): 1721–77 ; Centemeri, Laura, “The Contribution of the Sociology of Quantification to a Discussion of Objectivity in Economics,” in Facts, Values and Objectivity in Economics, ed. Caldas, José Castro and Neves, Vítor (London: Routledge, 2012), 110–25 ; Centemeri, , “Reframing Problems of Incommensurability in Environmental Conflicts through Pragmatic Sociology: From Value Pluralism to the Plurality of Modes of Engagement with the Environment,” Environmental Values 24 (2015): 299–320 .

26. In the same sense, Edward Fullbrook criticizes Piketty for maintaining the confusion, in various passages in his work, between capital as an object with intrinsic properties—amenabletocertain uses—and capital measuredbyits price, which depends on interaction with other actors in a market. Fullbrook, , “Capital and Capital: The Second Most Fundamental Confusion,” Real-World Economics Review 69 (2014): 149–60 .

27. Piketty, Capital, 47.

28. Centemeri, Laura, “Retour à Seveso. La complexité morale et politique du dommage à l’environnement,” Annales HSS 66, no. 1 (2011): 213–40 .

29. Piketty, Capital, 567.

30. The Social Inequalities Committee of the Seventh French National Plan recommended subordinating economic objectives to objectives relating to the reduction of inequality”: Méraud, Jacques, Rapport de la Commission Inégalités sociales (Paris: La Documentation française, 1975). In contrast, the Committee for the Liberation of French Growth considered that the scandal lies in poverty more than in wealth, in injustices more than in inequality”: Attali, Jacques, Rapport de la Commission pour la libération de la croissance française: 300 décisions pour changer la France (Paris: La Documentation française, 2008).

31. Thévenot, Laurent, “Conventions of Co-ordination and the Framing of Uncertainty,” in Intersubjectivity in Economics: Agents and Structures, ed. Fullbrook, Edward (London/New York: Routledge, 2002), 181–97 ; Thévenot, , “Powers and Oppressions”; Thévenot, “Autorités à l’épreuve,216–35 ; Thévenot, , “Certifying the World: Power Infrastructures and Practices in Economies of Conventional Forms,” in Re-Imagining Economic Sociology, ed. Aspers, Patrik and Dodd, Nigel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 195–223 .

32. Boltanski, Luc and Thévenot, Laurent, Les économies de la grandeur (Paris: PUF, 1987) This work gives an account of the relationship between investment in a particular “worth” (grandeur ) and the mode of coordination that ensures its valorization. Outlining a generalized economy of capacities termed “worths,” the analysis does not claim to cover all forms of capacity, still less of capital. It is only concerned with those that stake a claim to legitimacy.

33. Ibid.; Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification.

34. In France in the 1990s, these discourses invoked John Rawls’s theory of justice and sometimes Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification .

35. Piketty, Capital, 265.

36. See in particular de Lagasnerie, “Le manifeste”; Eribon, “La gauche.”

37. Thévenot, “Autorités à l’épreuve.”

38. In this way, the movement of orders of worth, their critique, and their creation, is part of the “spirit of capitalism”: see Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Ève, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Elliott, Gregory (London: Verso, 2005).

39. Among institutionalist currents, and especially in France, the school of regulation and the economics of conventions have been working since the 1970s and 80s to develop and implement the project of linking economics more closely to the other social sciences. The conventions approach considers shared, cross-disciplinary questions such as value and modes of coordination.

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