Cultural health capital: A theoretical approach to understanding health care interactions and the dynamics of unequal treatment

J Health Soc Behav. 2010 Mar;51(1):1-15. doi: 10.1177/0022146509361185.


In this article, I propose and define the new concept of cultural health capital, based on cultural capital theories,to help account for how patient-provider interactions unfold in ways that may generate disparities in health care. I define cultural health capital as the repertoire of cultural skills, verbal and nonverbal competencies, attitudes and behaviors, and interactional styles, cultivated by patients and clinicians alike, that, when deployed, may result in more optimal health care relationships. I consider cultural health capital alongside existing frameworks for understanding clinical interactions, and I argue that the concept of cultural health capital offers theoretical traction to help account for several dynamics of unequal treatment. These dynamics include the often nonpurposeful, habitual nature of culturally-mediated interactional styles; their growing importance amidst sociocultural changes in U.S. health care; their direct and indirect effects as instrumental as well as symbolic forms of capital; and their ability to account for the systematic yet variable relationship between social status and health care interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cultural Competency*
  • Culture*
  • Healthcare Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Professional-Patient Relations*