Turner, B and Edmonds, J (2002) ‘The Distaste of Taste: Bourdieu, cultural capital, and the Australian postwar elite’, Journal of Consumer Culture 2(2): 219-40.

Practice is defined as ‘notions of accomplishment, strategies and skill’ in structures (219).  Cultural capital affects tastes rather than anything innate.  It involves ‘informal understanding of cultural artefacts and practices’ (220).  Bourdieu identified three levels of taste: highbrow culture, middlebrow, as enjoyed by petty bourgeois groups, which  ‘embraces aspects of both high and low culture but does not feel as at ease with high culture as the dominant class’ (220).  The process of distinction arises from showing tastes usually in opposition to others.  Discussed is a particular kind of ‘symbolic violence’.  Bourdieu’s work has led to several other studies (cited on page 221).  The usual criticisms are that it is over deterministic, based on structuralist Marxism, and failing to give account of non material factors in taste for.  The analysis is also seen to be outdated, because the boundaries between different tastes have been blurred in postmodernism. It is also seen as exclusively French.  Bourdieu’s response has been to say that there is nothing inherently involved in good taste and the process of defining good taste and practice in distinction is what matters.  However, it is possible to argue that generation has been neglected in this analysis .

Bourdieu does discuss generation in Sociology in Question, and there are generational conflicts over the ownership of cultural capital in Homo Academicus.  There seem to be artistic generations too, mentioned in Reproduction.  Generations are social, for Bourdieu, however, and categories such as young and old are constructed in struggle, reflecting different aspirations and different experiences in educational systems.  This is shown, for example in struggles over what is in fashion.

This particular article reports an Australian case study, of that generation produced by a postwar baby boom, from the marriage revolution, and from new waves of immigration.  Australian elites have been little studied, although there has been a Marxist analysis.  This study looks at a particular cohort born in 1945.  They enjoyed benefits of all kinds, and began youth cultures.  The elite is defined by membership of Who’s Who in Australia—the team admits this is an odd sample.  1133 respondents were sent questionnaire, and 544 responded.  Interviews were conducted with a sample of those who had completed—16 men and 12 women.  The interviews were semi-structured.  They were about general lifestyles including tastes.

The results show no particular taste for highbrow culture among this group, more a taste for middlebrow and lowbrow.  They have eclectic interests, enjoying both rock and classical music, and largely in mainstream cinema they pursued cultural activities that lead to escape and diversion, rather than those that are ‘elevating and educational’ (227).  For example, they read ‘for pleasure and enjoyment rather than intellectual engagement and distinction’ (227).  Reading also tends to be work related.  There is some strong dislike of ‘trash’, but no contempt for popular culture in general.  This group do show some signs of ‘critical’ reading and ‘sophisticated interpretation’ (228).  There are some gender differences, with women doing more reading and enjoying more highbrow culture.  There is some interest in feminist reading as well.  There is some evidence that women did have an important role in raising the level of cultural capital of the family.

 There is a general liking for rock and pop and the more popular operas such as Carmen.  The group displays no serious knowledge of classical music, however, and indeed it is common to deny any such knowledge.  There seems to be a definite generational liking for 60s music.  The group have fairly conventional tastes in film, with a preference for those which explain the social world, which permits them to pursue ‘sophisticated understanding’ [as in classical realist feelings that you’ve understood something about the world?].  There is no embarrassment at enjoying lowbrow film and entertainment.  Again there is some tendency for the women to be more highbrow.

Eclectic tastes in cuisine partially reflect recent ways of Australian immigration from Europe and Asia.  Tastes here can sometimes be highbrow, and there is a disdain for Australian food, but there are also widespread popular tastes, for example in eating pizza.  The group did visit museums and galleries, but showed no serious interests. 

There was a ‘general unwillingness to appear highbrow in their eclectic tastes’ (233).  There was no wish to generate deference or to ‘assert symbolic power’ (233).

So a conventional connection between cultural capital and elite status does not seem to be supported.  This group have no interest in using culture to do distinction.  They have eclectic tastes, they resemble the petty bourgeoisie.  And they have no clear specialist interest in any particular aspect of high culture.  What is distinctive is ‘an understanding of a plurality of cultural genres and strategic knowledge of the most appropriate genre to use in a given social setting’ (234).  There is some evidence that they are omnivores.  Apparently these trends are detectable in the USA as well.

The ‘”collapse” of taste’ does have particular features in Australia though, because it is a decentralised society and there is no agreed regulator of taste – even the main cities see themselves as in competition (235).  There is no coherent intelligentsia.  There are populist themes, such as a widespread support for ‘larrikanism’ (235).  There are no public displays of upper class tastes.  Irony, especially as it affects masculinity, is a common theme.  There are general features as well such as a mark to multiculturalism which has affected cuisine in particular, and a widespread tolerance of diversity.  Politicians are also populist, and there is ‘considerable cultural distaste for people “who are up themselves”’ (236).  There is social mobility as well.  The persistence of generational 1960s values is also marked—this is been an unusually active generation in cultural terms, producing the ‘Sydney Push’ a collection of populist intellectuals and anti establishment figures.

So the specifics do not particularly fit Bourdieu, but do the processes?  The study still shows general connections between ‘social conditions, tastes, fields of consumption and social reproduction’ (237).  However, the Australian elite is unusually ironic, especially towards high culture, and celebrate the debunking style.  This can be seen as ‘a cultural strategy that we have called that distaste of taste’ (237).

[A very interesting study that predates Bennett et al, and makes the point succinctly without pages of empirical findings!  It is particularly interesting to note the effects of generation and Australian irony as possible sources of cultural omnivorousness and also respect for popular culture.  The final suggestion that this might be a cultural strategy seems to have been largely overlooked by Bennett.  So does the more general point towards the end that the processes are important, rather than the specific contents].  

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