Thursday, March 22, 2018

Spoon Theory: A Form Of Capital

As social stratification is something that sociologists study, it's also something that we sociologists have spent a fair bit of time thinking and theorizing about. One of our modern understandings of class & social stratification comes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu argued that there are multiple forms of capital which together determine class.

In this essay I argue that spoon theory, a common metaphor for units of physical/emotional energy used in disability circles, are a Bourdieusian form of capital. I'll explain Bourdieu's forms of capital, spoon theory, and why "spoons" as a unit of energy are a form a capital. Thinking of spoons in this framework is something that would be useful in social theory, as well as disability studies.

Forms of Capital

Bourdieu listed three forms of capital in his work:
  1. Economic capital: how much money you have, assets, etc
  2. Social capital: who you know
  3. Cultural capital: your knowledge, intellectual skills, and ability to navigate particular social situations. A subtype of cultural capital that is often discussed is linguistic capital --- the language you have at your disposal.
Thinking of multiple forms of capital allows us to have a more nuanced notion of class. For example, a graduate student with very little economic capital often will have a great deal of cultural capital.

Capital Begets Capital

Each form of capital can be used to get more of itself (a positive feedback loop):
  1. If you have more economic capital, you can invest the money to get more money. If you have more money, you can buy things in bulk, or buy higher quality items that do not need to be replaced/maintained as often.
  2. If you have more social capital, you can similarly use it to get more social capital. If I know many people, I can ask my many connections to get me in touch with more people.
  3. If you have more cultural capital, you can use it to get more cultural capital. If I have a university degree I am more familiar with how universities function and am better able to navigate the process to get additional degrees or apply to academic jobs.
And with all of these forms of capital there is the possibility of a poverty trap. For example: if you don't know anybody, it's harder to meet more people. Capital also has inter-generational effects. A parent with more capital can pass their capital onto their children.

Those who have a given form of capital often take their capital for granted. A rich person does not worry or think very much about spending money. A highly educated person can take it for granted how difficulty it is to get into (and stay in) university, since they likely did not struggle with a lack of cultural capital during their education.

Capital is Convertible

These different forms of capital are not separate. For example:
  • If you have more economic capital, you can attend events where you meet people and increase your social capital. You can also attend more "elite" universities wherein you can increase your cultural capital.
  • If you have more social capital, you can find more business partners and talk to people with sound financial advice. Similarly, you can find people to help you get into university, or into a prestigious job.
  • If you have more cultural capital, you will have an easier time getting a bank loan. Also, you can leverage your alma mater's alumni association to meet people and get social capital.
Thinking about capital beyond economic capital is often a useful lens for sociologists when it comes to understanding social stratification. Some of what Bourdieu is known for is his analyses of who in society gets a higher education, which depends on all three of his forms of capital.

What are Spoons / Spoon Theory?

In 2003, Christine Miserandino found herself trying to explain to a friend what was like to live with lupus. They were at a diner. Looking for a prop to demonstrate her limited energy, she grabbed spoons from nearby tables:
"Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. [...]
Miserandino then proceeded to illustrate to her friend how daily tasks such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, showering, washing her hair, each cost spoons. If she ran out of spoons, she had to stop and rest to recover spoons. For a video description using the Sims, check out Jessica Kellgren-Forzad's description of spoon theory.

The metaphor caught on in the disability community as an emic descriptor, particularly online. The term "spoonie" refers to people who live with limited spoons, such as due to autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, connective tissue disorders, sleep disorders, chronic pain, chronic illness, and other disabilities where energy is scarce. These types of conditions are often co-morbid with each other, and it gives an unifying label for people who have multiple energy-limiting conditions.

It's common for spoonies to describe their activities and lived experiences in terms of spoons. The term spoon has a well established meaning in the disability community as a unit of exertion. I'll be using the term "spoon" in this way throughout the rest of this article, to reflect that I am using a concept that has been both labelled and accepted by the disability community.

Let's Get Autoethnographic

To get personal: I identify as a spoonie, and the day I learnt about spoon theory was an emotional day for me. It gave me a label to describe my experience, and terminology to explain my life. An incomplete list of my medical history includes myofascial pain, fibromyalgia, IBS, depression, migraines, anaemia, night eating syndrome, and a yet-unspecified hypermobility spectrum disorder.

Each one of these conditions can severely limit the amount of spoons I have in a given day. I wake up each day not knowing how much energy I'll have or how much pain I'll be in today. I have to carefully ration my spoons and spend a great deal of mental energy budgeting my spoons.

My medical history contains many co-morbid diagnoses of exclusion, and a list that keeps evolving since many of these conditions are only recently being researched by modern medicine. Having the term "spoonie" available to me gives me not only a consistent label, but one that acts as shorthand instead of having to list all my syndromes/conditions.

It feels very personal for me to share my medical history. Using the term spoonie allows me to communicate my personal situation without having to disclose my medical history. It connects me to a community of other people who have to think about every spoon they spend every day --- a currency not worried about by most people.

Using the Term "Spoons" 

When I showed friends and colleagues earlier drafts of this article, a common response was that my use of "spoons" felt unusual to them. I spent some time wondering if I should use a more academic-sounding term, such as energy, or exertion. But I see two main reasons why I should keep using the term spoons here:
  1. So the article is accessible to people in the disability community. A common problem with academic articles is we use use different terminology, and so the people who would benefit from reading the article often do not have the linguistic capital to find it.
  2. This is the language that is used in the disability community. It may sound strange if it's new to you. That's normal when you see a new term, particularly one outside your habitus. Consider the rest of this article a chance to get familiar with this new term.
This isn't the first academic text out there to use the spoon metaphor: for example there is this clinical study of patients with MS, and this paper about pain communication on Tumblr.

Spoons are a Resource

Spoons are a representation of units of physical, emotional, or cognitive energy. Another metaphor often used for this is a battery: energy is spent and can be recharged.

Spending a spoon refers to an activity which requires significant exertion. Spoons can be recovered through resting.

What costs spoons does vary from person to person. It costs me a spoon to get out of bed in the morning due to the physical exertion. But if getting out of the bed in the morning is something you can do without thinking about, likely it isn't costing you a spoon.

Similarly, while it costs me numerous spoons to get to work, once at work I generally expend few spoons. It doesn't cost me a spoon to sit and participate in a discussion on advanced statistics, or to read a paper on social theory, or to meet with a colleague. But for somebody with a learning disability all of these things likely would cost them spoons.

Whether an activity expends spoons is not the same as difficulty. It may be difficult for me to wrap my head around a particularly esoteric scholarly work, but the process does not feel like it drains my energy. Spoons are also not the same as disability. Being deaf or blind does not mean you have a stock of sight or hearing to spend each day. Furthemore, abled people expend spoons; the issue is that they do generally not worry about them.

If you look at Jessica Kellgren-Forzad's Sims example, she compares a day in the life of "Alice" who has a chronic illness, to "Mary" who does not. Alice begins her day with 10 spoons and keeps having to stop throughout her day to rest as she is frequently on the brink. Mary, in contrast, begins her day with 30 spoons, and ends it with 20, not having to worry about her energy as she goes through her day.

Spoons are a Form of Capital

People who have abundant spoon capital available to them do not worry, or often think, about how  much they have. It is not a limited resource to them. Indeed, it probably wasn't a limited resource for Bourdieu --- and so not something he would have thought of in making his social theories.

Like other forms of capital, spoon capital begets more spoon capital:
  • Let's say I start my day with five spoons. It takes me one spoon to get out of bed. One spoon to get dressed. One spoon to brush my hair. One spoon to brush my teeth. I'm now down to one spoon and need to spend my last spoon getting back into bed to rest. Resting gives me back three spoons. It took five spoons for me to get ready for work.
  • The next day I wake up with six spoons. It then takes me four spoons to get ready for work because I don't have to spend spoons to rest in the process of getting ready. Having more spoons to begin with means the chance to more efficiently expend spoons.
I mentioned I spend time budgeting my spoon capital. When I was an undergraduate I spent time budgeting and fretting over literally every cent I had. Budgeting my spoons feels the same way to me. Like those who need to track every cent they have in order to keep afloat, I have to pay attention to each one of my precious spoons just to function in our society.

Spoons are a discrete resource. They can be quantified. They can be tracked. Indeed, I track mine: I keep a spreadsheet diary of my daily spoons and use it to plan and keep track of what I do. (Yes, I am a nerd and I love spreadsheets.) I have a pretty consistent idea of what one activity costs in terms of spoons, and so can reliably measure them.

Spoon capital is not the same as health. Unlike in an RPG where somebody has health or hit points, it's quite difficult to come up with a quantifiable, measurable way of saying how much health somebody has. Health is a categorical form of data, not a numerical one. Health is also not spent or recharged in the same way that spoons are.

Depending on who you are, activities could cost different amounts of spoons for you. This is true of other forms of capital. For example, I don't have to spend economic capital to read a paywalled scholarly article because I have the cultural capital of institutional access. Likewise, somebody who has the economic capital to get a fancy credit card that gives them free lounge access at an airport does not have to pay the fee to enter the lounge.

Spoon Capital is Convertible to Other Forms of Capital

Like how Bourdieu's three forms of capital are affected by each other, spoon capital is related to the other forms of capital. For example:
  1. When I have more spoon capital at my disposal, I can do more to price shop. I can go to more stores, and compare more prices, or go to a store farther away to get a better deal. It also costs me spoons to buy in bulk. It takes me more spoons to carry a larger/heavier load home from shopping. 
  2. More spoon capital also means more social capital. With more spoons I can do go to more parties and events, or last longer at the same events --- meaning I can interact with a larger group of people.
  3. And spoon capital can unlock cultural capital. You need energy to be a student and to finish a university degree. Students with disabilities often spend many of their precious spoons on getting documentation for their disability, navigating university bureaucracy to get accommodations.
And these can all go the other way:
  1. With more economic capital, you can buy more mobility aids which will help you preserve your spoons and spend them more efficiently. I bought a recumbent bike ($$) since I can't ride an upright bike, and riding it costs me fewer spoons than having to deal with public transit. (Driving is an issue for me.)
  2. More social capital means you're more likely to know people with similar conditions who have helpful management strategies, helpful doctors, good physiotherapists, etc.
  3. And cultural capital means a that you can stay on top of new clinical research, have more productive discussions with health professionals, and unlock medications/treatments that could give you more (or fewer!) spoons.
Spoon capital does not neatly fall into Bourdieu's framework of three fundamental forms of capital. Spoon capital may be converted into or from other forms of capital but is still a distinct stock of capital. It is embodied, and often quite fixed --- I can use my economic, social and cultural capital to find ways to spend my spoons more efficiently, but it is rare to find a way to actually increase the total number of spoons I have at hand.


Spoon capital is a distinct form of capital that is missing from Bourdieu's 1985 framework of forms of capital. Like other forms of capital, it can be overlooked and taken for granted by those who have the given form of capital. And like other forms of capital, those without can find themselves in a poverty trap, particularly if they do not have other forms of capital to leverage. Using a disability lens gives sociologists a way to identify aspects of social life which would otherwise be missed by traditional sociology.

For those who have little spoon capital, thinking about spoons as capital not only unlocks useful language to communicate about our spoon-poverty, but also surrounding the relationships between being a spoon capital and economic, social and cultural capital. This lens can be used to give insight surrounding disability and social stratification.

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