Bourdieu’s way of understanding class introduced several other concepts that went beyond economic capital (e.g., he coined the now widely used term cultural capital) or any monolithic, rigid understanding of class, but doesn’t ignore that economic capital is still very important for determining social position and status.
He has an excellent schematic in the back of his book, The Logic of Practice, that articulates the complexity of his position. Incidentally, Bourdieu was schooled in the political philosophy of his day (and he appropriated Aristotle and many others in the history of philosophy as well). He would also be an excellent writer to read if one wants to come to some understanding of the transformations that occurred in our culture in the 1960s, an intellectual generation to which he crucially belonged. Bourdieu would not be a difficult writer for the level of reader on this blog, and he has been enormously influential if controversial, so I would heartily recommend the following works that explore these questions extensively: The Logic of Practice for a summary of his thought, and if you like that, his magnum opus Distinction. There is also a great film about Bourdieu called La sociologie est un sport de combat.
Bourdieu enjoys the great talent of being an exquisite systematizer. He does not construct concepts out of thin air (or out of the literature, which done inappropriately, is the same thing). Bourdieu’s linking his concepts with human psychology and objective social structures in a system gives the concepts a more comprehensive sense. Still, Bourdieu is not the kind of philosopher or sociologist who emphasizes epistemological questions by any means; that is to say, while exhorting the ideal of self-reflexivity, he has the overwhelming tendency to apply it to others, rather than to himself. Inasmuch as he is an epistemologist, he is an epistemologist of others–in a way, showing how the partial lifeworlds of others lead them to a stilted and stunted understanding of class, or of knowledge in general.
Bourdieu’s theoretical foundation can be approached in the following way. When one reaches a certain accumulation of economic capital, economic decisions are not made with regard to functional ends, but appearances. A wonderfully witty and incisive book that discusses this is Veblen’s book Theory of the Leisure Class, where he introduces two concepts that he claims to undergird all modern symbolic action that seeks to display the power of economic capital: conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. With conspicuous consumption, one displays one’s economic power by the consumption of commodities–the rarer and more expensive, the more economic power one demonstrates. Likewise, with conspicuous leisure, the more esoteric and the more carefully constructed one’s knowledge and external refinements, the more economic power one demonstrates (two examples in Veblen: esoteric knowledge gained through books, and the mysterious, immaculate, and austere practices of the clergy demonstrated through their ceremonies; not to cite Veblen, but the Japanese tea ceremony also perfectly encapsulates this notion). Economic power is manifested, for Veblen, in terms of what Bourdieu would call symbolic power. It is Bourdieu’s basic contention (and Veblen’s), that economic power really only serves the purpose of bringing forth symbolic power; economic capital is the principle, but symbolic power is the end and manifestation; economic capital is “transcribed,” to use Bourdieu’s phraseology, into symbolic capital. According to Bourdieu, the awe that we have for the man of conspicuous consumption or leisure (we think they are, in some way, excellent, either very shrewd and organized, or a learned genius, or a great holy man, and so on) is a mystification of an arbitrary power relation–arbitrary in the sense that economic capital and thereby symbolic capital depends only upon fortune, i.e. being born into the right family, going to the right school because of the right family, etc., and not on independent excellence or virtue. Excellence or virtue is a completely arbitrary quality to Bourdieu–the result of an exposure to chance social conditions–yet, to Bourdieu, it is taken by mystified actors immanent to the social context to be in some way chosen or earned (as Aristotle had thought). Since symbolic capital is completely arbitrary yet taken as not arbitrary (chosen/earned), its existence does violence to reason by mystifying reality, and it promotes the arbitrary domination of some classes over others by making the dominating classes think they should have power and making the dominated classes think they deserve to be subordinate; it in short, far from manifesting true excellence and placing the master over the slave (to put it into Aristotle’s language), impinges upon human freedom, both the master and the slave, who both misrecognize the arbitrary power relation they have both agreed upon. Real reason, according to Bourdieu, does not subsist in either class (as it would in the ruling or master class), but in the possibility of abolishing class altogether.
This idea, not an entirely new one but in a different form, in turn would have the practical consequence–not unlike in the Roman Christianity which was its wellspring–of a kind of ideological reconciliation between the classes within an otherwise violent and patronizing separation. Bourdieu reworked Marx’s ideas in a historical context within which Marx’s ideas could only seem to be viable within another sphere (the symbolic/cultural), but one which allows one to focus on the “wrongness” of the manifestation of power (symbolic), while recognizing its source (in political economy), nonetheless disavowing this root as a target of analysis, and presumably, practice itself.