Pierre Bourdieu — Distinction

Pierre Bourdieu — Distinction

A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

In this book Bourdieu argues that cultural choice, or taste, is closely related to social position. The thesis is built on a series of surveys and interviews conducted in France in 1963 and 1967-68, but as I read it, everything still feels relevant to the 2012 Anglosphere.

Firstly, a definition of terms. Bourdieu puts all domains of culture on a spectrum, from the “legitimate” to the “personal”. The legitimate domains relate to art and what we usually call “high culture”. The personal domains involve decisions which have a functional element, and are usually more closely related to domestic life, such as food, furnishings, and clothing. I’ve plotted these domains on a rainbow graph, to demonstrate that there is some element of progression between them, but there are qualitative and structural differences between the different domains. On the y-axis I’ve included a simple lower-to-higher continuum relating to status and class, although this should be taken as an initial postulation. As we see later the reality is far more nuanced (specifically, the tastes of the avant-garde top rung on the cultural ladder tend to correlate with the disenfranchised bottom rung).

[Graphics include icons from IconShock, found via IconFinder.com]
To examine how we make cultural choices, Bourdieu gathered metrics on two core causative factors:

  • Educational capital (qualifications).
  • Social origin (father’s occupation).

Unsurprisingly, he found both factors have an impact on taste. A typical subject will make choices that correlate with peers of the same educational standing, and peers of the same social origins. The two peer sets are of course slightly different, educational class and economic class are linked but they are not identical, and Bourdieu found that some decisions are more closely linked with education, while others are more closely linked with social status.

In short:

  • Choices in “legitimate” domains of culture are linked with education.
  • More “personal” choices are linked with social origin.

Here is a graphic to reflect this. Yes, I have used a magnet to illustrate correlation. Education has more of an impact on choices on the left-side of the spectrum, family background has more of an impact on the right-side of the spectrum.

Education & Taste

Let’s examine education and cultural choice. The impact of school extends far beyond the curriculum. The expectations of teachers and peers foster a recognition and appreciation of high culture, and indeed gratuitous knowledge. As an introductory example, Bourdieu points out that knowing the names of film directors is more closely linked with educational capital than with cinema going.

Bourdieu asked his subjects to rank a list of items based on how nice an image they would make. The responses correlated with education. Those with less education chose images anchored in well established aesthetics: the sunset, the folk dance, and accessible scenes of cultural significance, such as first communion. They shunned the banal (tree bark) and the grotesque (butcher’s stall).

Moving into the responses from subjects with more education, many of those choices are reversed. In some cases the educational extremes, the highest and lowest, converge in their responses.

Bourdieu remarks that many responses have a sense of being “the right thing to say” according to class norms. The rejection of the tree bark image reveals a hostility on the part of manual workers towards formalistic art (eg photography for photography’s sake) as being useless, perverse, bourgeois, ostentatious…and a waste of time (and back in 1962, also a waste of camera film!)

Education, which offers a bridge to higher social status, also offers a shortcut for those who are not exposed to enough culture to develop an aesthetic through experience.

Social Origin & Taste

Bourdieu found that social origin was the dominant influence in personal choices relating to food, furniture, clothing. This does not always mean that richer classes have more expensive tastes, often the opposite.

Controlling for education, subjects from working class backgrounds expressed a relative preference for buying furniture from department stores, decorating their homes in a “clean, tidy” and “easy to maintain” manner, choosing clothes based on “value for money”, and cooking meals that are “simple and well presented”.

Middle classes expressed a relative preference for buying furniture in specialized shops, decorating their homes in a “cosy” and “warm” manner, choosing clothes that “suit [their] personality”, and having “simple and well presented” or “original, exotic, delicate” meals.

The upper classes expressed a relative preference for buying clothes from auctions and flea markets, decorating their homes in a “harmonious” or “sober, discreet” manner, choosing clothes that are “chic and stylish”, and preparing meals that are “original, exotic, delicate”.

The graph is essentially the reverse of what we saw with education. Choices within the “personal” domain are dominated by social origin.  In this domain we also find an array of subtle cultural skills learned in the home, such as table manners, art of conversation, musical culture, sense of propriety, pronunciation etc. This status-derived capital allows the subject, in its most extreme manifestation, to remain “effortlessly elegant”, regardless of their level familiarity with more legitimate cultural domains.

Thus, the accomplished socialite does not let ignorance prevent him from satisfying the cultural demands of social situations. Instead he turns questions of knowledge into questions of preference, shows disdain for everything scholastic, and hides/decorates ignorance with bearing, posture, presence, diction, pronunciation, and manners.

The Divide Between Economic Necessity and Artistic Freedom

There are a number of possible reasons behind the differing influences of educational and social capital. The School and The Family are two very different marketplaces for cultural goods, where kids learn a sense of sound cultural investment. Choices of every kind are rewarded or punished depending on the norms of the environment.  Bourdieu does not focus on the schoolyard search for peer acceptance, instead emphasises our desire for class distinction, using various techniques to demonstrate economic power (as Weber defined it: the power to keep economic necessity at arm’s length).

“Taste” is a means of naturalizing class differentiation, making it “of one’s nature”, and thus demonstrating and justifying class distinction. At the higher end, it is an affirmation of economic power, distance from necessity. In this sense, working class tastes serve as a foil (a negative reference point), anchored in well established aesthetics (calendars, postcards etc) and deprived of cultural capital to expand that frame of reference. The taste (sensibility) of economic freedom defines and asserts itself against the taste of necessity, and thus holds an implicit legitimacy/superiority.

The Different Approaches to Art

Bourdieu defines art as anything which has a form more important than its function. Furthermore, the art piece must be intended as an art piece, by both producer and viewer, who in turn are shaped by social norms.

When that status is institutionalised (ie in a museum) all ambiguity of form/function is lost, and artistic questions now have a “right” answer. This forms the basis of the “popular aesthetic”, which involves a hostility to all forms of experimentation, caused by lack of familiarity and the need for participation. The popular aesthetic also precludes art forms seen as purposely inaccessible.

The bourgeoisie tolerate experimentation per se, but can still be shocked by the transgression of ethical norms (eg regarding sex), or by the conferring of status on objects that are excluded by the dominant aesthetic. For examples of such subversion see: Antonioni, Chaplin, cinematheque, Eisenstein, pornography, Fellini, Godard, Klein, Monroe, underground, Warhol.

Every art struggle is a struggle for legitimacy and distinction, and a class will most enthusiastically reject the taste of the class immediately beneath it.

The Two Cultural Divides

Bourdieu discusses two interesting dichotomies that play out in our cultural choices.

The first is essentially a class divide, between economic necessity and artistic freedom.

Economic Necessity vs Artistic Freedom
Work Home & Holiday
Industry Art
Business Sentiment
Paid Free
Interested Disinterested
Male Female

The second dichotomy has strong parallels, and is based on the two different modes of cultural acquisition: education and social origin. Bourdieu claims that in every age, debates over taste and culture reveal the following divide:

“Docte” vs “Mondain”
seeks rules & understanding the effortlessly elegant
active acquisition of cultural capital birthright, inherent cultural capital
scholastic learning domestic learning

By first examining these two causative factors, education and father’s occupation, we essentially smuggle in a constellation of other major causative factors (income, gender, geography etc).  Each of these factors has its own impact on cultural choice and taste, and each offers its own modes of distinction, but the two core axes of education and social origin will remain pertinent throughout.

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