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David Harris

Related: Pierre Bourdieu - cult movies

P. Bourdieu's Sociology of Taste -- making sense of strange movies

1. Bourdieu's work helps us address questions like 'why do people make strange and experimental films?' The issue of taste is important in these discussions: experimental pieces cannot often be grasped from a 'popular' structure of tastes, and, for that matter, our usual analyses of popular media products are not much help either. Popular media can often be grasped in terms of narratives and representations designed to smoothly involve the viewer -- but experimental pieces often refuse to represent anything, deliberately break conventional narratives, and set out to shock or alienate viewers.

2. 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.

3. It is important to see immediately that Bourdieu's work is controversial. Much of it is based on rather old data (despite the misleadingly recent dates of some of the English editions of his work), and it is very French. Some 'postmodernist' commentators believe the whole social structure has changed so dramatically that it is now pointless to refer to 'social classes' in the old sense, for example. Further, there were always exceptions to broad sociological generalisations even twenty years ago: the whole cultural scene these days certainly features much more mixing between 'high' and 'low' cultures than it did. The debates with the postmodernists are not all one-sided, though, and Bourdieu has often been cited as helping us grasp postmodernism in social class terms, as we shall see.

4. As a quick example of the work, Bourdieu (1986) features some empirical work on cultural tastes involving a questionnaire issued to respondents from different social backgrounds (what a dissertation this would make!). For example, respondents were asked about their views on what topics would make a 'beautiful, interesting, meaningless or ugly' photograph -- ' a car crash, a landscape...the bark of a tree'. The proportion saying that the bark of a tree could make a 'beautiful' photograph varied from 16% of those with no educational qualifications to 61% of those with elite h.e. qualifications. Similar patterns arose with musical tastes: 54% of manual workers, 16% of professionals, and 0% of higher education teachers expressed a preference for The Blue Danube, for example (I'd love to try this in Britain for, say, My Way).

[...] --David Harris via http://www.arasite.org/nbdieu2.htm

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