Symbolic Capital, Consumption, and Health Inequality

Symbolic capital, the material display of wealth, may not just reflect economic standing; it may be an independent factor in social standing and, as such, play an active role in health inequality, according to this analysis of existing research.

Economic disparities in health in the U.S. and other developed countries are dramatic. Researchers have thought relative economic position impacts health by both limiting access to institutional, physical and social health benefits and through negative psychological consequences, such as stress. But relative economic position is difficult to study. This author suggests that symbols of wealth, rather than wealth itself, may be a better way to understand how relative economic position influences health.

Historical analysis demonstrates that symbolic capital is significant to a person’s place in a capitalist, consumer society. A research review reveals relationships between symbolic wealth, particularly consumer goods, and health. In one study, participants who owned basic material goods were less likely to have hypertension and to smoke. Another study determined that teens who owned high-status consumer goods were likely to have lower blood pressure only if their parents’ socioeconomic status was high, suggesting that trying to convey economic status without actually having wealth to maintain that status may be detrimental. Other studies demonstrated that owning items considered more socially-oriented or luxurious, such as a nice house, were negative predictors of mortality.

The author suggests symbolic capital can impact health through stress related to the struggle to meet cultural norms, and through material consequences of the status symbols themselves, such as being able to project professionalism through better clothing. The author concludes symbolic wealth could be a powerful factor to analyze health disparity because it reflects political-economic conditions and cultural norms associated with everyday life.