Pierre Bourdieu – A Critical Review of His Text – ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste’ & Some of his Key Ideas
(Text translated by Richard Nice) Routledge, London, 1984.
The key to understanding Pierre Bourdieu perhaps lies in striving to understand how he explores the various ways in which people conduct their lives in relation to one another and social institutions. Of primary interest to me was to establish whether Bourdieu would be relevant to my study: an investigation into different generations’ use of social media platforms to consume, produce and disseminate popular cultural content such as music.
Bourdieu popularised terms such as habitus, field and hysteresis among others and what is of relevance to me, a scholar navigating social research field is to consider the extent to which Bourdieus’ concepts are valuable as tools for analysis/in establishing my epistemological framework. Practice and field have been described by scholars as: central to the conceptual armoury of Pierre Bourdieu, in addition to other concepts like capital and habitus. These have subsequently been useful tools of analysis in empirical investigations.
Much as Bourdieu is lauded as a luminary with far reaching influence in the field of Sociology and empiricism, there is need to critically focus on sections of his work, for instance, Distinction in order to appreciate whether this view holds. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste is regarded as one of Bourdieus’ acclaimed books, having won an accolade bestowed by the International Sociology Association as one of the 20th centuries’ ten most important works of Sociology. Such is the ‘prominence’ synonymous with this text that it has received critical acclaim from diverse scholars.
Opinion is therefore divided on the ‘grandeur’ of Bourdieu as a scholar especially as seen through the ‘lens’ of criticism levelled against ‘Distinction’. One area which has been a bone of contention can be gleaned from the formula presented in Distinction: [(habitus) (capital)] plus field = practice. (Bourdieu, 1984: 101) The formula has been the subject of controversy and debate amongst scholars as they strive to make meaning of it. Commentators and scholars, alike have advanced their own ‘take’ on the formula, (e.g. Crossley, 2001) It is not unreasonable to read this as Bourdieu’s attempt to encapsulate the fundamental theoretical thrust of the analysis, one which, as Bourdieu (1984: ibid) continues, would reveal ‘the structure of the life-style characteristic of an agent or class of agents, that is, the unity hidden under the diversity and multiplicity of the set of practices performed in fields governed by different logics and therefore inducing different forms of realization.’ In the same vein, it is not clear whether this passage is suggesting that there are many practices in each field, or one practice to each field. Neither is it clear whether it is practices or fields, or both, which have logics. (Warde, 2004: 4)
The formula was equally impenetrable to me, a keen scholar navigating Bourdieusian terrain. It is excerpts such as these which make me question Bourdieu’s greatness as a scholar, yet such ‘important’ concepts as the quoted formula comes across as dense and obscure. In tandem with my perspective, Warde goes further and asserts: In fact the rest of the book: Distinction fails to make the relations between the concepts: habitus, capital, field and practice much clearer. The formula is testament to the general theoretical inadequacies of Distinction which lie in the way these four concepts, and particularly the last two are articulated. For Distinction, though a wonderful book in almost every respect, sits uneasily at a crossroad in the theoretical development of its author. Arguably, it was written without being entirely clear how the concept of practice could be applied to contemporary France and before a theory of field had been adequately developed (Warde, 2004: 4) Drawing insights from Warde’s contention, taking into account Bourdieu as still an author undergoing development in terms of his theoretical perspectives at the time of writing Distinction, then criticism of the limitations of Distinction needs to be considered within such a perspective. Such a measured approach enables me to still acknowledge the contribution of Bourdieu to social research field and to particular strands of my research as this review will endeavour to show. Distinction is still remarkable as a text especially in the way it championed the concepts of practice and field. Bordieu has established himself as the forerunner of future empiricists. Bourdieu’s successors and those seeking to apply his concepts in other empirical contexts (e.g. Benson, 1999; Brown & Szeman, 2000) very often use habitus, capital and field as their major tools of analysis. So, therein lie, part of Bourdieu’s scholarly legacy. It is essential to define Bourdieu’s contribution to the field of Sociology/Sociological research. He is credited with having constructed a theory of ‘social practice and society’ It is emphatically not a ‘temporary construct’ subordinate to the needs of empirical research. Bourdieu has developed a body of social theory which is worthy of detailed discussion in its own right (Jenkins, 2006).
The Concept of Field & My Research
Taking on Bourdieus’ ideas further, i.e. the notion of field, I’m looking at different fields within the broader scope of my research, i.e. carrying out social research in the field of digital technologies, vis-a-vis adults and young peoples’ consumption patterns of digital media. Pertinent questions abound in the exercise, i.e. how are different generations using technology/social media platforms to access, produce or disseminate popular cultural content such as music? Can both adults and youngsters’ use of diverse technologies be regarded as an expression of their agency, or in Bourdieus’ perspective ‘such human agents are socialised in a field, an evolving set of roles and relationships in a social domain, where various forms of capital such as prestige or financial resources are at stake?’ This is particularly instructive to me as some of my respondents are saying in preliminary pilot interviews, I’m beginning to conduct: ‘It is prestigious and a reflection of your social standing to have, say an Apple gadget’. Could this be the socialisation, Bourdieu meant?
In tones reminiscent of Anthony Gidden’s reflexive theory which postulates, humans act on the lifestyle choices put foward to them by culture industries , Bourdieu refers to numerous facets of life vis-a-vis: eating and drinking, choices in clothing, music, holidays, and (in Gidden’s parlance), all sorts of other lifestyle choices/practices. Giddens is particularly important to me as I will draw on his reflexive theory as an epistemological framework. This also draws a chord with agency, which I intend to examine and revisit.
Institutions: Impact on Cultural & Social Patterns
In Distinction, Bourdieu argues about the effect of institutions on general social and cultural patterns. He further proposes that social structures are reproduced rather on the level of individual dispositions and styles of life. He does not deny that individuals feel themselves to be and act as though they were members of institutions, nor that some social groupings members share a common lifestyle, arguing only that unless we can understand the ways in which the attitudes and actions of individuals reproduce for themselves and for others elements of culture and society then we will be forced to continue to think of these as external existing entities. These will be interesting strands to pursue in my study when I look at the consumption and relationship patterns among different social groups, – for instance, to look at how culture industries such as Apple have created a brand and ‘cult’ following in terms of gadgets like iPods’, the iphone, iTunes digital platform and Mac computers among other paraphernalia. In some of the preliminary, pilot interviews/discussions, participants in my study have pointed out how, ‘Apple as a media conglomerate is the be and all’ and they’re only too happy to associate with its gadgets as its more a mark reflecting their ‘affluent’ social standing, (even when some people attesting to these sentiments are merely sixth form students). It remains to be seen however, with the progression of the study whether I can fully concur with Bourdieu that culture industries such as Apple for instance, are authoring and reproducing social structures in terms of individual dispositions and style of life. Will be important to refer to agency in all this, where does agency come in?
Bourdieu and Distinction
‘Distinction’ is another key strand synonymous with Bourdieu. In some places, Bourdieu (1985d, 1992f) asserts what he means by ‘distinction’ is simply that clusters of individuals in social space each develop cultural peculiarities which mark them out from one another. They have distinct cultures – hence ‘distinction.’ However, these differences can become a focus of symbolic struggles (struggles for distinction) in which members of those clusters seek to establish both the superiority of their peculiarities and an official sanction for them. These symbolic struggles are, in effect, aspects of class struggle. Control over the knowledge that is valued, sanctioned and rewarded within the education system is one aspect of this. However, in ‘Distinction’ Bourdieu casts his net wider to capture a more general sense of dominant forms of the judgement of taste. Could popular culture such as music be regarded as one aspect of distinction, a brand of culture, in which consumers are in constant opposition with the culture industries, as they harness technology to consume/produce their preferred culture? What Raymond Williams terms: ‘lived culture.’ What is the relationship like between consumers and the global media conglomerates? Is it a relationship of conflict throughout or it’s a negotiated mediated- relationship of compromises in between? These are pertinent issues which will become clearer with the progression of my research.
The Struggle for Distinction/Exclusivity?
The struggle for distinction is another context in which distinct class habitus is formed. Groups form themselves, in some part, by cultivating distinguishing features and signs of ‘superiority.’ Note, however, that this already presupposes some degree of ‘in group’ identification and interaction (Grenfell, 2009:96). I keep referring to Apple and how it’s viewed by some of my target group for this research, preliminary pilot interviews are pointing out how class habitus is being cultivated, with some groups aligning themselves more to Apple and its resultant products for instance. Some of my sixth form students have been remarking how they believe the iPhone is more superior to Blackberry phones, both as a mark of social standing and the diverse functions it offers in music consumption. Owning an iphone becomes a defining group thing/ mark of exclusivity.
Of Power, Taste & Agenda Setting
In Distinction, Bourdieu discusses how those in power define aesthetic concepts such as taste. They set the agenda of what constitutes taste, – could these be leading players in the culture industries/or consumers themselves? Bourdieu’s Distinction prompts the cultural studies scholar to reflect on pertinent questions, i.e. who produces and defines culture in our society? Is it culture industries such as Sony BMG, Apple or ‘taste makers’ i.e. role model individuals the media eulogises and puts on a pedestal as standard bearers? The Simon Cowells and Max Cliffords of this world? Ever since the death of Princes Diana, there has been what is termed ‘the dianification of Cheryl Cole’ by certain sections of the media in the UK. Are these not attempts by ‘taste makers’ to define and promote an ideology in the name of taste to the populace?
Bordieu & Habitus
A central concept synonymous with Bourdieu is that of habitus, this is essentially to do with how we make choices to act in certain ways and not others, as we go about the business of living our own lives, people resorting to p2p f/s for instance, different generations harnessing diverse digital platforms and devices to consume, produce and disseminate music would be apt examples of this in practice. In relation to my study, I would also consider agency as synonymous with habitus especially in the sense there is a possibility that cross-generational consumers of music, access, consume and disseminate popular cultural content of their own free will, and this may be seen as an expression of agency. In this way, I will draw connections between habitus and agency as both have leanings towards individuals’ choice of actions.
Habitus appears to be a slippery concept, yet it is central to Bourdieus’ distinctive sociological approach, ‘field’ theory, and philosophy of practice. It is also key to his originality and contribution to the field of social science. It constitutes one of Bourdieus’ most widely cited concepts, yet also the most misunderstood, misused, and hotly contested of Bourdieus’ ideas. Despite its popularity, ‘habitus’ remains anything but clear.
Habitus is very much evident in Bourdieus’ approach. The concept habitus is meant to provide a means of analysing the workings of the social world through empirical investigations. (Grenfell 2009: 49) It’s more like a template/blue-print to be used for analysis in empirical research, therein lies its relevance even to contemporary researchers like myself. I intend to integrate this concept in executing my research.