Structure and Agency in Bourdieu’s Distinction

In this essay I argue that Bourdieu’s thesis in Distinction* generally favours the role of structure over agency in determining taste.  However, within that framework opportunities for agency do exist.  Such agency is particularly available to those rich in cultural capital, enabled by their distance from necessity.  Outside the dominant classes opportunities for agency still exist, for those able to understand and exploit the symbolic struggles of those from a different habitus.

In considering taste — the individual preference for food, art, music, clothing, sport, furniture, and much more besides — we are considering any choice that rests on individual preference or discernment.  It is certainly a broad remit.  Russians have three proverbs that all relate to taste:  Children are taught that “everyone has their own taste, some like melon and some like watermelon.”  Adults remark that “on taste and on colour there are no friends.”  Disagreements over taste are cut short with the rejoinder “one does not argue about tastes.”  In all cases, taste is seen as a peculiarity, too randomised and personal to deserve meaningful examination.  But Pierre Bourdieu gave it just that, peering into the seemingly trivial daily decisions of French people in the 1960s, using quantitative research to identify patterns and relationships between taste and class, and qualitative research to examine the reasoning behind taste-based decisions.

Despite the Marxist vocabulary and attention given to economic capital, Bourdieu elevated educational capital to give a nuanced picture of class that followed in the footsteps of Weber.  Bourdieu also draws on concepts of cultural capital and social capital, and within each flavour of capital he sees the capacity to accumulate, consume, and profit.  He acknowledges that equating the different types or speaking loosely of an “overall volume of capital” can be dangerous or misleading, because aside from the theoretical nature of the model, the different types of capital have conversion rates subject to “endless fluctuations” (p243).

Bourdieu divided the domains of taste between the personal and the legitimate, a paradigm that catered well for 1960s French society.  A more contemporary appraisal would have to include the new modes of expression enabled by a globalised and digitised cultural landscape (Graphic produced by essay author).

Bourdieu divided the domains of taste between the personal and the legitimate, a paradigm that catered well for 1960s French society. A more contemporary appraisal would have to include the new modes of expression enabled by a globalised and digitised cultural landscape.

In his analysis, Bourdieu overwhelmingly privileges the role of structure over agency in the moulding of people’s taste (Distinction, 1984).  To demonstrate the impact of class on cultural choices, Bourdieu examined quantitative data on two core causative factors: educational capital and social origin.  Educational capital was measured by level of education, and social origin was gauged by father’s occupation.  He found both factors have a major impact on taste.  A typical respondent made choices correlating with peers of the same educational standing, and peers with similar social origins.  These two groupings overlap but are still different; educational and economic capital are linked but not identical.  Examining those fault lines proved a rich seam of information, and Bourdieu found that some taste decisions seemed closely aligned with educational capital, while others were more closely aligned with social origin.  In the broadest of terms, Bourdieu found that decisions relating to “legitimate domains” of taste, which includes art and music, were heavily determined by the levels of education, while more “personal domains” such as food, clothing, and furnishings were heavily determined by social origin.

Educational capital is a significant factor in shaping tastes, but not simply through that which is learned from textbooks.  The role of schooling as a structure extends far beyond the curriculum.  Teacher and peer expectations foster an appreciation for high culture, and with it gratuitous knowledge.  For example, Bourdieu highlights that knowledge of the names of film directors correlates with educational capital more than with cinema going.  Likewise, when subjects in a survey were asked to rank a list of items and scenarios based on how nice an image they would make, responses correlated with education.  Those with less educational capital privileged images anchored in well established aesthetics (folk dancing), and accessible scenes of cultural significance (first communion).  They shunned the grotesque (butcher’s stall) and the banal (tree bark).  Among respondents with higher educational attainment, many of the responses were reversed.  Butcher’s stalls and tree bark were embraced as edgy and contemplative image subjects, while images of folk dancing, and first communion all fell lower down the list, losing value in their ubiquity.  Not all the images were treated with such neatly contrarian attitudes, car crashes were universally considered to be a tasteless subject matter, while sunsets and landscape were consistently ranked highly across all educational classes.  Bourdieu’s analysis included qualitative observations, such as the level of revulsion expressed for the taste preferences of rival class groups.

In a similar vein, Bourdieu found that social origin (as measured by father’s occupation) was the dominant influence in choices relating to the personal and domestic situations, including food, furniture, and clothing.  Controlling for education, survey results revealed that working class preferences for “clean, tidy” homes and “simple and well presented” meals were directly opposed to upper class preferences for “harmonious” decor and “original, exotic, delicate” meals.  Alongside the importance of learning the “right thing to say and do or, still better, not to say” (p33), Bourdieu’s research documented a whole array of subtle cultural skills being learned in the home (and thus linked to the class standing of the parents), including table manners, posture, conversation skills, and pronunciation.  These status-derived skills allow the holder to remain “effortlessly elegant” in satisfying the cultural demands of social situations, regardless of their familiarity with more legitimate cultural domains.  Thus, questions of knowledge can be turned into questions of preference, and ignorance can be hidden or decorated with the appropriate bearing, presence, and manners.

Thus, the taste-determining structure that Bourdieu finds is built on overlapping foundations, most notably the school and the family.  Both are centres of learning, where choices are rewarded or punished according to the norms of the environment.  Both are marketplaces for cultural goods, where sound cultural investment leads to class distinction and peer acceptance.

But Bourdieu’s espousal of “structure” is more nuanced than that of Levi-Strauss, whose deterministic social and linguistic ordering formed part of postwar humanism and left little room for agency.  Bourdieu takes structure and places it within his concept of class habitus, the “internalized form of class condition and of the conditionings it entails” (p95).  He later describes habitus as “a structured and structuring structure” (p167).  Essentially, habitus is our way of responding to living conditions with a set of dispositions, values, and expectations.  The result is a system of which generates practices and works, and a system of perception and appreciation of those practices and works (and the practices and works originating from the living conditions and habitus of other classes).  That perception and appreciation is essentially taste.  It entails our opinions and choices relating to every aspect of lifestyle and consumption.

Adapted by essay author from Bourdieu's Distinction, p167

Adapted from Bourdieu’s Distinction, p167

By identifying perception as a product of habitus, and thus taste a product of class, Bourdieu does two things in relation to agency.  The first is that he rejects the orthodoxy of taste as being something innate, and thus unlearnable.  This opens up room for agency of the individual, free to navigate an ecosystem of practices and works that will never objectively align into correct and incorrect.  However, in linking habitus and taste to stratified social groups, Bourdieu also locks agency into a deterministic recipe for taste based on the volume, structure, and trajectory of capital.   All of a sudden the individual navigating the ecosystem of practices and works seems a lot less empowered, the ecosystem now looks more like a market with four fluctuating currencies and no price list.  In such an environment, value is salvaged in opposition, and that opposition is expressed through taste.

“Taste is the practical operator of the transmutation of things into distinct and distinctive signs, of continuous distributions into discontinuous oppositions; it raises the differences inscribed in the physical order of bodies to the symbolic order of significant distinctions.  It transforms objectively classified practices, in which a class condition signifies itself (through taste), into classifying practices, that is, into a symbolic expression of class position.” (p170) 

If taste is the operator used to create difference and express class position, those that define that difference are empowered.  Bourdieu is unambiguous in pointing to the “dominant class,” those rich in economic and/or cultural capital, as the taste makers.  The concentration of apparent autonomy over taste in the dominant class is such that it becomes a defining feature of membership of that class, expressed as a demonstrable distance from necessity.  Economic capital implies a self-evident distance from economic necessity, but cultural capital implies the same, its accumulation requires a prolonged withdrawal from necessity (to allow for extensive education, or in more extreme cases the pursuit of artistic activity).

But such apparent autonomy does not necessarily translate to agency if decisions are made using popular taste as a foil, or negative reference point.  Bourdieu argues that this is the case among the bourgeoisie, with value defined in rarity, and constructed negatively against the backdrop of the vulgar other.  As the distance from necessity grows, lifestyle becomes an “affirmation of power over a dominated necessity.”  The unconstrained lifestyle defines and asserts itself against a lifestyle of necessity in order to hold an implicit superiority (pp46-48).

Not all bourgeois taste is defined and asserted against a lifestyle of necessity.  On the contrary, sometimes the taste of necessity is embraced by those richest in cultural capital.  This is often visible in subversion and irony in the arts, where avant-garde artists can embrace “banal” subjects, though nothing so close to their near-peers that it may be mistaken for a first-degree intention (p52).  The experience can be immersive, as with intellectuals who put themselves “provisionally and deliberately into the working-class condition” (p374).  As demonstrated with Russia’s failed 19th-century narodniki movement, the intellectual living with those of a lower station is rarely welcomed with open arms.  The relationship is a confused one, the intellectual’s rich and rarefied habitus enables him to embrace squalor and also reject it with an alarmism unlikely to originate from someone with the habitus of a worker or peasant.  The result is that accounts of working class or peasant life vacillate between “miserablism and millenarian exaltation” (p375).  But regardless of its questionable merits, the intellectual’s embrace of the taste of necessity does seem to be a demonstration of agency.  Not all intellectuals go to the people, but the option to do so is more viable for them than for members of the petite bourgeoisie, whose economic proximity to the working class means any adoption of tastes of necessity may be interpreted as a fall in social standing, a danger intellectuals are less likely to face.

Apart from the self-assured intellectual, who has sufficient cultural capital to navigate a relatively autonomous path through the fields of lifestyle choice, does anybody else have a claim to agency?  Bourdieu thinks so, and that person is the bluffer — the person who has mastered “one of the few ways of escaping the limits of social condition” (p250).  Although most who try to impose a self-representation associated with a higher habitus will not fail, and in fact undermine their legitimacy with behaviour perceived as awkward or arrogant, some invariably will succeed.  The result is an uncanny valley, with rewards for non-pretension and perfect pretension, but punishment for imperfect efforts in between.  Although not the norm, this does offer a route to agency for those able exploit bourgeois commitment to the symbolic and obsession over appearance.

While Bourdieu generally elevates structure over agency, the placing of that structure within a generative chain of living condition, habitus, practice, and lifestyle provides cracks through which opportunities for agency emerge.  Bourdieu’s structure-within-habitus gives us a more subjective, embodied sense to an otherwise disembodied structure.  In imagining a habitus built on and rebuilding the consequences of human practices, Bourdieu presents us with a structure that constantly needs to be reproduced.  Agency in this process lies primarily with those rich in cultural capital, the taste makers, enabled by their distance from necessity and their ability to sometimes appropriate tastes of the dominated classes.  Outside the dominant classes opportunities for agency still exist, for those able to understand and exploit the symbolic struggles of those from a different habitus.

*All citations refer to the 2010 Routledge edition of Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction”, (Richard Nice 1984 translation)

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