Meditations on Bourdieu’s “Distinction”

Distinction is pretty dense, and it’s based on empirical sociological research done in France, so its methodologies are not immediately applicable to my work on sensation literature. For this reason, I’m not going to write about it in a whole lot of depth right now–I may come back to it after my exam. However, its conclusions and theories are immensely useful to studies of popular culture, so I’m going to reflect on some of the things that initially stood out to me.

Why to people like what they like? What is taste? How is it formed? These are Bourdieu’s main areas of interest in this study. Bourdieu surveys a whole bunch of people from all over France’s socioeconomic spectrum, and because he’s Bourdieu, he finds that–surprise surprise!–social class tends to determine an individual’s taste. Of course, class-based distinctions get reinforced in everyday life, so that social reproduction occurs seamlessly and ideologically. There is definitely such a thing as “working-class” taste for Bourdieu, but the difference for working-class folks is that their sense of taste is subordinate, so their likes and dislikes are constantly getting defined according to dominant classes’ aesthetic preferences: “the working-class ‘aesthetic’ is a dominated ‘aesthetic’ which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics” (41).

Aesthetic choices, for Bourdieu, create “class fractions” and actively distance people in one class from those in another. People internalize their class-based aesthetic preferences at a very young age, and these preferences end up filtering them into the “appropriate” class-affiliation so that the social status quo can be upheld. This is a great theoretical context for a lot of the Victorian responses to sensation fiction and sensation theater–I’m thinking specifically of the reviews of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s work that accuse her of merging the “literature of the kitchen” with the “literature of the drawing-room.” When a person encounters aesthetic products from another social class, Bourdieu finds, this person often reacts with disgust or horror–much like many (middle-class) reviewers reacted to sensation fiction.

Because this amorphous concept of “taste” is internalized so early and so rigorously, it’s incredibly hard to change, so “taste” is part of the equation of social mobility that makes “climbing the social ladder,” as it were, incredibly difficult. If you were raised on Budweiser, it’s going to be difficult for you to acclimate to home-brewed artisan beer, for example. If you were raised on McDonald’s and Taco Bell, molecular gastronomy is going to be a hard pill to swallow. If hanging out in your garage, tinkering with the car you bought for $2000 and drinking Budweiser is your idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon, wine-tasting in Napa, followed by light conversation at an organic, local-ingredient juice bar may seem insufferably boring. Okay, enough of the examples.

The point here is that one of these taste-categories has cultural capital, and the other doesn’t. The artisan-beer-drinking, molecular gastronomy-loving, wine-tasting, locally-grown-organic-food-eating, Jane Eyre-reading middle-to-upper class person has access to cultural capital, while the car-fixing, Budweiser-drinking lower-class individual (who doesn’t even get as many compound-adjective descriptors in my characterization here) has less of a taste for the products of cultural capital. However, since the aesthetic preferences of the dominant class tend to, well, dominate those of the lower classes, the Budweiser-drinking person might feel pressured to approximate a “taste” for artisan beer, for fear of appearing vulgar or tasteless. My summary so far has been an odd and socially stereotypical one–and is a bit disjointed from my own experience, suggesting that Bourdieu’s critique may be a bit dated in some ways. I think a lot of this still holds true, but I also think that marketing plays an enormous role in this equation–Budweiser could be marketed in such a way that it could attain the same cache as home-brewed artisan beer (if the marketing campaign was successful enough). And currently, I think that targeted marketing practices have unearthed niche markets that don’t necessarily feel a whole lot of pressure to conform to a standardized version of “upper-class” taste. Or, perhaps a better characterization would be that, currently, standardized versions of “upper-class” taste are based on the eccentricities of niche markets–hence the appeal of the hipster figure? I don’t know–Bourdieu probably talks about all of this in places of Distinction that my skimming didn’t quite reach.

Anyway, I’m interested in the habitus and the definition of taste. So, here’s some definitions:


  • “the propensity and capacity to appropriate (materially or symbolically) a given class of classified, classifying objects or practices” (169)
  • “the generative formula of life-style, a unitary set of distinctive preferences which express the same expressive intention in the specific logic of each of the symbolic sub-spaces, furniture, clothing, language or body hexis” (169)
  • “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” (170)
  • “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, by perceiving them in their mutual relations and in terms of social classificatory schemes” (170)
  • “Through taste, an agent has what he likes because he likes what he has, that is, the properties actually given to him in the distributions and legitimately assigned to him in the classifications” (171)


  • “both the generative principle of objectively classifiable judgments and the system of classification of these practices. It is the relationship between the two capacities which define the habitus, the capacity to produce classifiable practices and works, and the capacity to differentiate and appreciate these practices and products (taste), that the represented social world, i.e., the space of life-styles, is constituted” (165-166)
  • “The habitus is necessarily internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions; it is a general, transposable disposition which carries out a systematic, universal application–beyond the limits of what has been directly learnt–of the necessity inherent in the learning conditions” (166)
  • “The habitus is not only a structuring structure, which organizes practices and the perception of practices, but also a structured structure: the principle of division into logical classes which organizes the perception of the social world is itself the product of internalization of the division into social classes” (166)

Essentially, the concept of the habitus explains many of the Victorian responses to popular fiction and other popular media, and, as I’ve argued before, it explains the professionalization of many sensational detectives, including Robert Audley, Sherlock Holmes, and even Watson. In fact, I wonder if the Sherlock Holmes/Watson relationship could benefit from a more thorough analysis of how the habitus works in those texts. Something to think about for the future…


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