The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Symbolic Capital As a Tool for Social Change: Social Work and Bourdieu

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:15 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon B, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Guy Feldman, MSW, PhD candidate, Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, PA
Roni Strier, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Hillel Schmid, PhD, Professor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
Background and Purpose: Research has shown that social workers play a significant role in processes of social change. Yet, there is a paucity of studies published which look at how social workers manipulate signs and symbols to provide legitimacy and importance to their social claims and actions. Ignoring this symbolic approach has produced a distorted image of social workers' efforts to push for change in policies that affect marginalized populations. Thus, this paper explores how social workers rely on what Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic capital” to address neglected social issues and obtain social change. The paper examines a case study in which social workers brought public attention and legitimacy to the hidden issue of poverty among Holocaust survivors in Israel.

Method: The study employs a case study methodology. Case studies are a valuable and accepted research method that can help social workers think about how to improve their practice. The data were collected through multiple methods. First, the study is based on the extensive analysis of documentary materials. In addition, the data were discussed with social workers and other key leaders through extensive face to face, in-depth interviews. We analyzed the interviews independently through open coding, and systematically scanned and classified the documentary materials. Finally, we discussed the categories that emerged from the data and redefined them when necessary.

Results: Our findings indicate that social workers were able to obtain and manage the symbolic capital of the Holocaust on behalf of the survivors. Social workers undertook a variety of actions to accumulate such capital. First, they destabilized the distribution of the symbolic capital by framing the issue of the survivors as a political problem. Second, the workers realized that accumulating and managing this form of capital would also require a struggle and, therefore, they formed a coalition based on the cooperation of social workers from several organizations. Third, the workers used the mass media to publicize their activities and used such publicity as leverage to increase the effects of the symbolic capital they had accumulated. Last, they strategically negotiated the distribution of the symbolic capital with the Israeli government.

Conclusions and Implications: The study's findings illustrate how the successful generation and management of symbolic capital promoted the denied social rights of impoverished Holocaust survivors. The findings, in this sense, highlight symbolic capital as a tool that social workers can use to foster social change. The study also allows us to advance the development of the concept of symbolic capital, by suggesting a theoretical model for obtaining such capital on behalf of marginalized populations and neglected social issues. This model includes four aspects: (1) destabilizing symbolic capital, (2) a struggle over symbolic capital, (3) the cultural reproduction of symbolic capital, and (4) the negotiation of symbolic capital.