Culture, Class, Distinction

January 3, 2012

I’ve been following for some time the research by Tony Bennett and his team, working on a large-scale project to see how Pierre Bourdieu’s famous book Distinction plays out for Britain, and forty years after Bourdieu’s research in 1960s France. Bourdieu always stresses that he is not making a general theory about culture and social class, but is describing a particular society at a point in time. For example, giving a lecture on Distinction in Japan he stressed that the research results in Japan would be quite different.

It says something about the crisis in retail bookselling that the only ways to get this book is through the library or online.

I’m still reading the book. But the main finding seems to be that whereas Bourdieu finds the main axis is volume of capital (economic and cultural) this research in Britain finds that the primary axis is participation in a variety of cultural forms (popular culture and high culture) versus not participating (except for watching television). Bennett seems to argue that Bourdieu’s concept of class-based habitus is not relevant in Britain in the 2000’s. Though class and education are sometimes relevant, for example, when it comes to listening to classical music, or reading books on a regular basis.

I suspect that I have been reading Bourdieu on social class in a different way than Bennett. Bourdieu got attacked a lot in the 1970s and 1980s for NOT having a Marxist concept of class (the workers vs the capitalists). Its clear that by class Bourdieu does not mean a lifestyle or identity. He means a position in the social field. His discussion of the dominant sector stresses differences between old money and new money, and between industrialists and professors and writers. Similarly, he describes several different fractions of the middle-class. There are important differences between the (declining) sector of shopkeepers, office workers, and the new middle-class who are more or less selling a lifestyle (television presenters, therapists, etc.)

The section on the working class in Distinction is the shortest in the book. Not because of the lack of manual workers in France in the 1960s, but because the survey of legitimate cultural activities done by Bourdieu pretty much excludes most working people. As in Bennett’s findings, they don’t participate. What Bourdieu falls back on in this chapter is a kind of memoir, or ethnographic description of working-class lives. I’ve always found this section of the book deeply moving because I always thought Bourdieu is describing his own family. (Its no accident he had Richard Hoggart’s memoir of working-class life in Britain published in France.)

So my initial response to the book (I’m blogging as I read it) is yes: of course Great Britain in the 2000’s is not the same as France in the 1960s. There are lesbians in Bennett’s book! But I don’t see that the finding that people are excluded from legitimate kinds of culture, or that they exclude themselves, in any way contradicts the general drift of Bourdieu’s work: symbolic violence works to exclude people from culture and from public life.

Bennett finds that the working class is positioned in the field where most of the variables are negative:

never visiting museums, stately homes or art galleries; never going to the cinema; nor playing sport; never attending the theatre or concerts; and not having read a book in the last year. Also among tastes, dislikes for reading biographies and modern literature, and listening to classical music and jazz are found. Positive preferences are few: the poorly educated members of the working class are disproportionately likely to watch more than five hours television per day, to like soap operas and listening to country and western  music, and to like eating out at fish-and-chip restaurants. (p. 199)

Asked, if for your age is your health good, the professional executive class says yes 81% of the time. The figure for the working class is 67%. (p. 203)

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