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Pierre Bourdieu (1930 - 2002)

Related: critical theory - working class culture - French philosophy - sociology of art - social constructionism - taste

Essays: Pierre Bourdieu's sociological theory of culture - Bourdieu and the sociology of aesthetics - P. Bourdieu's Sociology of Taste -- making sense of strange movies

When Pierre Bourdieu contends that taste always trickles downwards from the ruling classes to the masses, he forgets about street fashion, which has trickled upwards in the case of mod fashion, punk and hip hop, first attested in the streets of large European cities and which have since influenced haute couture. [Oct 2005]

Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979) - Pierre Bourdieu [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Pierre Bourdieu in the philosopher (probably more than the sociologue) of determinism. According to him all our acts are led by social pressures. And this is why this book is so interesting. Even if he sometimes go too far, he shows in a brilliant way, that what we consider today natural is definitely cultural. Our tastes in food drink, music, cinema... do not depend on us but on our social background. Perfect counterpoint of today simplification and illusion of freedom, this book reminds us that "what is true is probably too complicated" (P.Valery). Mathieu Collenot for amazon.com


Pierre-Félix Bourdieu (August 1, 1930-January 23, 2002) was a French sociologist. In his obituary, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom said he "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan". His book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. Although he has a formidable reputation amongst sociologists in the English-speaking world, he is much less well-known amongst the general Anglophone intelligentsia than Foucault or Jacques Derrida, both of whom Bourdieu castigated in Homo Academicus as Parisian mandarins, distant from the real world, secure in their privileges.

In France, Bourdieu was not seen as an ivory tower academic or cloistered don, but as a passionate activist for those he believed subordinated by society. Again, from The Guardian: "[In 2003] a documentary film about Pierre Bourdieu - Sociology is a Combat Sport - became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre in French public life, and slugging it out with politicians because he thought that was what people like him should do." Perhaps the nearest equivalent in the English-speaking world would be Noam Chomsky. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bourdieu [Feb 2005]


If you're not a sociologist, the idea that taste has a sociology might seem strange. Taste seems so personal a matter, so subjective, and so tied up with our image of ourselves as mature people. Bourdieu sets out to demonstrate that there are social patterns in matters of taste, though, that tastes are connected to major social divisions like class and gender, divisions between provincials and cosmopolitans, and between the highly and poorly educated. Indeed, tastes are used in whole structures of judgement and whole processes of social distinction that produce substantial barriers between such social groups. Bourdieu's work should be read as a description of tastes and NOT an evaluation of them: he is not condemning the popular taste, and, if anything, his sympathies lie in exposing the falsely universal nature of elite tastes. -- David Harris

La Distinction (1979) - Pierre Bourdieu

La Distinction is a sociological book by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) based on his demographic research carried out in 1963 and concluded in 1967-8. It was originally published in France in 1979. It was translated into English by Richard Nice and published in America in 1984 under the title "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste". In 1998, it was voted one of the ten most important sociological books of the 20th century by the International Sociological Association.

In this often densely-worded volume, Bourdieu discussed how aesthetic concepts such as "taste" are defined by those in power. Using research, he shows how social class tends to determine what our likes and interests will be, and how distinctions based on social class are reinforced in daily life. He observes that even when the subordinate classes may seem to have their own particular idea of 'good taste', "...[i]t must never be forgotten that the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics..." (page 41)

Example: Titanic (1997)
La Distinction has influenced academics across disciplines. For example, the negative reputation of Titanic (1997, Cameron) can be explained as a backlash from its own popularity and position within popular culture. In his BFI monograph, David Lubin compares attitudes against the film directly to the main thesis of la distinction. He suggests that derisory attitudes against the film are a desire to disassociate the critic from fanatics who reportedly attended multiple screenings, and coverage in tabloids and teen magazines focussing upon the two main stars. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_distinction [May 2005]

see also: Pierre Bourdieu - taste - sociology

All determination is negation

Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes. In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation, and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others … Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes… (Bourdieu 1984: 56)

Distinction (social)

Distinction is the social force which gives different individuals different value. The criterion for such judgements have always been contemplated or criticised, and are likely always changing.

In the 60's book, La Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu describes that those in power define aesthetic concepts such as "taste". Using research, he shows how social class tends to determine a person's likes and interests, and how distinctions based on social class get reinforced in daily life.

The 2004 book, The Rebel Sell describes distinction as a social arms race, in which social styles are in constant development, and those who do not follow the development become stale. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinction_%28social%29 [Mar 2006]

Common taste

Grossberg is thus correct in arguing that shared taste for some texts (and practices, I would maintain) "does not in fact guarantee that [the] common taste describes a common relationship. Taste merely describes people's different abilities to find pleasure in a particular body of texts [and practices] rather than another" (1992, 42). Still, as Bourdieu argues, "the most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated" -- Doug Kellner and Ann Cvetkovich via http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/papers/CSETHIC.htm [May 2005]

Bourdieu and the sociology of aesthetics

All of [Bourdieu's] works explicitly contest formal theories of culture, of language, of aesthetics, of literature, with an analysis that argues the main force of these discourses as creating and maintaining hierarchies of power and domination. Bourdieu, himself, talks of this analysis as fundamentally transgressive, remarking in the English language preface to Distinction that, "although the book transgresses one of the fundamental taboos of the intellectual world, in relating intellectual products and producers to their social conditions of existence--and also, no doubt, because it does so--it cannot entirely ignore or defy the laws of academic or intellectual propriety which condemn as barbarous any attempt to treat culture, that present incarnation of the sacred, as an object of science" (D, xiii). This claim to transgress is fairly absurd. Bourdieu's project is surely now a central one in literary studies. But the claim of his analyses upon our attention is not the novelty of thinking that literature, canon formation, culture and language have some connection to the manifestation of social power, rather the methods he has given for articulating that connection more clearly. Bourdieu, in other words, has said with theoretical detail and precision, something that literary critics have been looking for a way of saying for some time.--Jonathan Loesberg [...]

Cultural pessimism [...]

Many neo-liberal writers echo the concerns of the Frankfurt School, although they do not accept Marxist solutions. Neil Postman emphasizes how modern technology and media corrupt our culture. The title of Herbert Schiller's book summarizes the views of many: Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. Pierre Bourdieu, one of the leading sociologists of culture, argues against the corporate control of culture that he associates with a market economy. Even the mainstream American case for liberal social democracy portrays capitalism as an uneasy ally of culture, at best. The political correctness movement often identifies market culture with the suppression of women and minorities. Puritan feminist Catherine McKinnon, in her book Only Words, argues that sexually explicit literature and art create harm and should be banned. Some branches of multiculturalist thought argue that free cultural exchange leads to cultural homogenization and a culture of the least common denominator. Marshall McLuhan raised the specter of a "global village," in which we all consume the same products. In the political realm we find cultural protectionism practiced around the world. - Tyler Cowen [...]


In Bourdieu's universe there are only snobs, at least according to what I shall call his official view. Everybody is all the time looking over his shoulder, or at least tout se passe comme si that is what everybody is doing. Bourdieu appears to know all there is to know about one-upmanship, except that one-upmanship is not all there is to know. He is a great debunker, but carries debunking to ridiculous extremes. One can, however, learn from his shortcomings as well as from his insights. It is certainly true that intellectual and cultural life abounds in attempts to carve out niches by sheer extravagance of thought or conception: indeed, conceptual art may be a prime example. Like hyperinflation, it can be modelled on the following simple game: 'All players are to write down a number. The one who has written the largest number is declared the winner.' For another example, consider the following rather inconsistent characterisation of A.J.P. Taylor by Bernard Crick (Sunday Times, 9 November 1980): 'Taylor is an admirable writer: not merely does he not pause to look over his shoulder at what fellow scholars may think; he actually enjoys shocking them.' Crick imputes non-conformism to his hero, and goes on to describe him in terms of anti-conformism - which is, of course, just another kind of conformism. George Orwell, to take another of Crick's heroes, is an example of a writer who did not play at being an enfant terrible; who genuinely shocked, because he was not out to shock. Bourdieu, to be sure, would say that the disregard for distinction is just another strategy for achieving it.-- Jon Elster [...]


  • http://www.homme-moderne.org/societe/socio/bourdieu/distinct/introUK.html [2002]

    Choice [...]

    For Bourdieu, taste, the preference for one type of food, entertainment, etc. over another, is not a freely chosen/discovered penchant for baseball rather than hiking or a physiological predilection for vanilla ice-cream over chocolate but “amor fati, the choice of destiny.” It is “a virtue made of necessity which continuously transforms necessity into virtue by inducing ‘choices’ which correspond to the condition of which it is the product” . According to his view, the choice of national brand cheddar cheese over imported brie or the decision to drive to the beach on Sunday versus critiquing a new art exhibition is indeed a choice, “but a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams and leave no choice but the taste for the necessary” . Thus for Bourdieu it is not surprising that I, surviving on an income of $12,000 a year, prefer a home-cooked meal to eating in a restaurant. It is as if my psyche is aware of the fact that I simply cannot afford to prefer goat cheese and pine nuts on a bed of fresh baby spinach to red leaf lettuce and peanut butter. Through this subconscious comprehension, my tastes are shaped to conform to my set of possibilities. If I were to win the lottery, perhaps I would develop a taste for pine nuts, but as long as I exist on a TA’s salary, pine nuts will continue to taste bland and oily. --Alyson Prude http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/crawford/classes/prude_2.html

    Old money

    Bourdieu’s relentlessly empirical investigations into the taste for modernist works as symbolic goods show that its public are not just drawn from other artists, but principally from those patrician families who have “old money”, often bankers, liberal professionals and higher education teachers (1984). Thus, once aesthetically certified by a leading critic and authenticated by the artists’ signature, the works of the contemporary avant-garde have moved into the arms of power. “Legitimate taste” (“good” taste) is far from randomly scattered: it is the possession of an “aristocracy of culture”. -- Brigit Fowler http://www.variant.ndtilda.co.uk/8texts/Brigit_Fowler.html

    Jenkins, R. (1982) `Pierre Bourdieu and the reproduction of determinism', Sociology 16(2), 270-281.

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