American Sociological Association

The Rules of the Game and the Uncertain Transmission of Advantage: Middle-class Parents Search for an Urban Kindergarten

Empirical research on cultural and social capital has generally ignored the key role of institutions in setting standards that determine the contingent value of this capital. Furthermore, many studies presume that the yielding of profit from cultural, social, and economic capital is automatic. Bourdieu’s concept of field highlights the ‘‘rules of the game’’ and shows that parents’ displays of capital only are valuable when they help parents comply with institutional standards. In this article, we examine how the field shapes parents’ efforts to transmit advantages to their children through accessing high-status elementary schools. Drawing on interviews with 45 black and white middle-class families, as well as observation of school admission events and interviews with 20 school administrators, we illuminate the rules of the kindergarten admission game and describe how parents attempted to use capital to compete in the field in one large, urban district. We show the rules to be complex, hard to learn about, and implemented inconsistently. In this context, cultural, social, and economic capital that helped parents navigate the field had the potential to be profitable. But even parents with deep reservoirs of capital did not realize their first choice when they misunderstood the rules of the game or faced an imbalance of supply and demand for slots in highly desired schools. Thus, we argue that models need to take into account both the situational meaning of capital and the uncertainty in parents’ efforts to use their capital to transmit advantages to their children.


Lareau, A., Adia Evans, S., Yee, A.





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