08 Mar A Look at Pierre Bourdieu Taste and Distinction with an assist from The Beverly Hillbillies
Use the attached document( document contains links) to answer the questions below.
What are your thoughts on the readings? There is much here to reflect upon. Is our taste in fashion, food, music, etc. personal — or is it a reflection of our position in social space? And what is your take on the habitus?
A Look at Pierre Bourdieu’s Taste and Distinction with an assist from The Beverly Hillbillies
Let’s begin our exploration with a short 9-minute video that is not about Bourdieu and focuses on the United Sates instead of France, but still sets the stage for the heart of the things we will cover in this presentation. Produced by the Center for New American Media and WETA, the video is entitled “A Nation of Tribes – How Social Class Divides Us.” It is part of a larger project on social class in America. Here is the link:
A Nation of Tribes: How Social Class Divides Us – People Like Us episode #1
Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002) developed a tightly interwoven explanation of the social world and its impact upon us. Personally, I think his work can be seen as an attempt to demonstrate how the objective or external world influences our subjective or internal one – which may sound ho-hum, but is really radical.
Basically, Bourdieu turned the old either/or arguments about what drove human behavior on their head. It was not a matter of objective or subjective, environment or free will, etc. Looking at the world in this either/or way, he argued, obscured reality and led to pointless debates. In the real world human behavior is shaped by both objective and subjective factors.
Bourdieu was very much concerned about how people lived in the real world. His ideas are grounded in field and survey research about the tastes and preferences of the French. This was a guy who grew up poor in a small French town. He was singled out for his brilliance as a student and sent to study in the leading schools of Paris where he stood out as a country kid in the midst of his big city classmates many of whom came from the elite families of France. It was, I am sure, an early lesson in social class; but it was one he turned to his advantage. He would rise to become a nationally known figure, the dominant public intellectual in France.
Types of Capital
Bourdieu argued there were four types of capital. The first was what we normally think of when we think of capital – money. The second type, social capital, derives from connections in our social network. For example, being a golfing buddy with the local banker might just give you an edge when applying for a loan. The third type is cultural capital which includes education and intelligence as well as speaking in the manner favored by the cultivated classes, knowing about art, how to dress for success, which wines to order at a restaurant, etc. The final capital is symbolic capital and accrues to someone on the basis of his/her accomplishments. Think about a celebrity athlete or movie star, a war hero, or a member of the clergy; each is accorded a certain degree of respect by others because of their position (clergy) or accomplishments.
These four types of capital are somewhat interchangeable. Money will buy you into society – at least partially – even if you don’t have as much cultural or social capital as someone else. Likewise, being born into a family with great social and cultural capital can provide connections that help you make a lot of money. In fact, these four types of capital can be thought of almost like a stock portfolio.
The allocation and total value of this capital portfolio determines your position in society, or to be more accurate, in social space. Take a look at Figure 1 (below). The Xs represent the Jed Clampetts of the world – multimillionaires with little social or cultural capital (at least in Beverly Hills). The Os represent the Russian nobility after the communist revolution, lots of cultural and social capital but no cash. But, I bet if they could make their way to California, the Xs and Os would all meet up in the home of Mr. Drysdale, the banker who is seeking both money and social/cultural capital. ( Check this link if the Beverly Hillbillies references don’t make sense. Or, you can watch this:
Figure 1: Groups Arrayed in Social Space
Life, according to Bourdieu, is largely a struggle to maximize our capital portfolios. Each of us in our own field is trying to get ahead by balancing and growing our capital portfolio. Cue the famous scene from Casablanca;
“It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory . . .”
A funny thing happens to us in our positions in social space, according to Bourdieu. We develop a taste for the things that are close at hand – and those tastes tend to stick with us. Thus, the Clampett’s idea of a good meal is sitting down to some vittles that seem very strange to the folks in Beverly Hills.
According to Bordieu, not only do we develop a taste for the things around us, we actually come to embody those things. Dropping the Beverly Hillbillies example and turning to something real: Think about our taste in the Deep South for fried delicacies. From fried chicken and fried green tomatoes to fried fish and hushpuppies, these are foods that were readily available in the American South. And here in the buckle of the stroke belt, the high incidence of hypertension and coronary artery disease is proof that our taste can quite literally become embodied.
Bourdieu believed people sharing the same social space not only develop similar tastes in food, but in music, clothing, art, etc. He came to this conclusion by looking at data from surveys of people in France. Those with higher education and income favored different foods and music than those with less of these forms of capital. In other words, people in similar stations of life not only develop similar lifestyles but also similar ways of seeing the world.
In his research, Bourdieu also noticed poorer people would make comments such as “That’s not for the likes of us” when talking about more luxurious items. The objective elements of their world – poverty, lack of opportunity, and want – combined to influence their subjective take on the world and what was possible in it. Their sense of the possible, of the way the world was, disposed them to interpret the world in a certain way. In effect, for rich and poor, the objective and subjective elements of our world jointly shape our dispositions. Together they forge a system of thoughts, perceptions and action Bourdieu called the habitus.
Looking at the data, Bourdieu came to believe that our tastes not only reveal what we like but signal our social class as well. As I mentioned on the page introducing this section, a fondness for classical music says something about the position we inhabit in social space. It speaks to our accumulated cultural capital – and distinguishes those who appreciate it from those of us more inclined to prefer another sound. Walk into a party with a chamber orchestra playing in the background and you know it is a different sort of affair than one where the sound system is blasting
Hank Williams III – Pills I Took
Bourdieu is not saying one type of music is inherently better than another, but that our choice of music, clothes, food, etc. reflects our taste. And taste, he argues, is shaped by our experiences in the social space we inhabit. Furthermore, he would argue taste is the marker for social class in contemporary society. As such it becomes a dividing line that perpetuates the advantages of those classes with richer portfolios, especially those portfolios rich in cultural capital. After all, the person who pays the piper gets to call the tune and in so doing they decide how everyone else will dance.
Finally, it is important to note Bourdieu believes most people in a given social station have similar tastes and dispositions. He is not saying everyone in a slice of social space is exactly alike. Nor is he saying our tastes and dispositions can’t change. His point is that early in life most people occupying the same social space develop a similar set of tastes and dispositions which remain fairly constant. The habitus, he says, is stable but not immutable.
For more information:
A short video that illustrates how cultural capital creates boundaries between those rich in this capital and those who are not . . . Elements of Bourdieu: Distinctions Create Boundaries
And if you want a longer lecture . . . Key Thinkers: Ghassan Hage on Pierre Bourdieu
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