P. Bourdieu's Sociology of Taste -- making sense of strange movies

1. Bourdieu's work helps us address questions like 'why do people make strange and experimental films?' The issue of taste is important in these discussions: experimental pieces cannot often be grasped from a 'popular' structure of tastes, and, for that matter, our usual analyses of popular media products are not much help either. Popular media can often be grasped in terms of narratives and representations designed to smoothly involve the viewer -- but experimental pieces often refuse to represent anything, deliberately break conventional narratives, and set out to shock or alienate viewers.

2. If you're not a sociologist, the idea that taste has a sociology might seem strange. Taste seems so personal a matter, so subjective, and so tied up with our image of ourselves as mature people. Bourdieu sets out to demonstrate that there are social patterns in matters of taste, though,that tastes are connected to major social divisions like class and gender, divisions between provincials and cosmopolitans, and between the highly and poorly educated. Indeed, tastes are used in whole structures of judgement and whole processes of social distinction that produce substantial barriers between such social groups. Bourdieu's work should be read as a description of tastes and NOT an evaluation of them: he is not condemning the popular taste, and, if anything, his sympathies lie in exposing the falsely universal nature of elite tastes.

3. It is important to see immediately that Bourdieu's work is controversial. Much of it is based on rather old data (despite the misleadingly recent dates of some of the English editions of his work), and it is very French. Some 'postmodernist' commentators believe the whole social structure has changed so dramatically that it is now pointless to refer to 'social classes' in the old sense, for example. Further, there were always exceptions to broad sociological generalisations even twenty years ago: the whole cultural scene these days certainly features much more mixing between 'high' and 'low' cultures than it did. The debates with the postmodernists are not all one-sided, though, and Bourdieu has often been cited as helping us grasp postmodernism in social class terms, as we shall see.

4. As a quick example of the work, Bourdieu (1986) features some empirical work on cultural tastes involving a questionnaire issued to respondents from different social backgrounds (what a dissertation this would make!). For example, respondents were asked about their views on what topics would make a 'beautiful, interesting, meaningless or ugly' photograph -- ' a car crash, a landscape...the bark of a tree'. The proportion saying that the bark of a tree could make a 'beautiful' photograph varied from 16% of those with no educational qualifications to 61% of those with elite h.e. qualifications. Similar patterns arose with musical tastes: 54% of manual workers, 16% of professionals, and 0% of higher education teachers expressed a preference for The Blue Danube, for example (I'd love to try this in Britain for, say, My Way).

5. Cinema-going similarly offers a pattern -- attendance is lower among the less well educated, provincials and the old. The way people think about cinema varies: only 5% of those who left school at the 'elementary' level could name up to four directors, while 22% of those with higher education could. Further, 'where some only see "a western starring Burt Lancaster", others discover an "early John Sturges" and "the latest Sam Peckinpah"'. These differences are not 'natural' or purely personal, but are linked to social class and education. The sort of analytic framework used to describe and classify films (and other texts) arises from 'a disposition acquired through the domestic or scholastic inculcation of  legitimate culture'. Certain patterns of upbringing or schooling provide people with the terms, concepts, knowledge and experience to make these more abstract and technical judgements about films -- this is 'cultural capital'. Those with large amounts of it 'perceive, memorise and classify [art] differently'.

6. Different amounts of cultural capital produce different structures of taste. Let's consider two main ones: popular and high aesthetics (in the book, different combinations of inherited and acquired cultural capital, and different types of cultural capital, produce a more complicated schema). The 'popular aesthetic' is 'based on a continuity between art and life', a similarity between 'ordinary dispositions' and aesthetic ones. It favours functions over form, it dislikes experimentation, it likes, for example, logical and ordered plots in plays or films, as in life. It features a deep-rooted demand for participation, a strong desire to be able to enter the fictional world and identify with the characters. Any denial of that demand is likely to lead to 'strong feelings of hostility', 'panic mixed with revolt', because experimental art is seen as an affront to common sense and to all sensible people.

7. Persons with that aesthetic stance are quite right to feel excluded, Bourdieu insists, since the 'high aesthetic' is deliberately defined 'against the popular', as an inversion of it, as a definite way to exclude the popular and to mark off an elite grouping. It stresses cool distancing and a refusal of involvement, instead of direct emotional engagement, form rather than function, disinterest in content, an admiration for artistic effects, a taste for formal complexity and 'objectless representations'. These stresses and preferences are only possible with considerable dollops of cultural capital: when this is passed on in families, people acquire the necessary concepts and techniques effortlessly, 'naturally', 'unconsciously', as part of their taken-for granted 'habitus' (a kind of local social world). To put it bluntly, you can afford to be cool, distanced and calmly indifferent to almost any content if you have been raised in one of those families that has several languages, perhaps; that visits famous European museums and art galleries; that exposes its children to European and Asian film, poetry, painting and novels; that has experience of living in different cities or countries; that holidays in exotic locations and is widely travelled; owns lots of books, knows lots of academics and writers; that sees university as a place to develop culturally and make even more contacts; that has the financial security needed to avoid any worry about getting a job or having to move around or being socially mobile, a 'world freed from urgency'.

8. Let's remember that this is not an analysis which simply approves of high bourgeois aesthetics. Bourdieu goes on to analyse the ways these structures of taste are used to maintain boundaries and reinforce social distinctions. The education system is an interesting site for such processes, of course. It can help to pass on cultural capital to those not born into it -- but academic life itself is based on the same unconscious structures of taste and judgement, at least among its elite sectors. Bourdieu (1988) offers a splendid analysis of the French system (some years ago)

9. I know education is not your main interest, and you can skip this bit if you're not particularly gripped, but here is a bit from one of my own recent papers (on distance education -- in Evans and Murphy 1994) which develops a bit of Bourdieu on education:

A detailed study of French universities, using both basic statistical techniques and close textual analysis of internal documents, reveals the persistence of the effects of social location on academic success (Bourdieu, 1988). For academic staff, Bourdieu offers a sophisticated analysis of inter-faculty politics involving claims to status, and manoeuvres to maintain a solid front and a coherent discipline (roughly, the less coherent the intellectual framework, the more necessary a social coherence based on common and largely unconscious perceptions of the world, an habitus). In general 'The structure of the university field reflects the [complex] structure of the field of power, while its own activity of selection and indoctrination contributes to the reproduction of that structure' (ibid, p.41)

Turning to the processes of academic classification of students, Bourdieu collects evidence of social locations of students (eg girls from different social classes in a Paris selective school), grades awarded, and comments entered about them in files and references. To be very succinct, his analysis shows that particularly frank and negative judgements are reserved for those from the 'lowest' social origins, and rarely applied to 'those with the richest cultural capital', while those in between receive a curious mixture of euphemism, coded comment, and faint praise. Actual grades awarded are more evenly distributed, but those judgements remain on file. The judgements themselves are based on a 'whole collection of disparate criteria, never clarified, hierarchized or systematized' (1988, p. 200) which are listed as 'handwriting', 'appearance', 'style', 'general culture', '"external" criteria' such as accent, elocution and diction', and 'finally and above all the bodily "hexis"' which includes 'manners and behaviour, which are often designated, very directly, in the remarks'. (1988, p. 200)(original emphasis).

It is clear that, in France at least, these judgements are 'naturalised' and socially shared 'transmitted in and through practice, beyond any specifically pedagogical intention', and they originate in experience gained from life in social locations before becoming an academic: '..they are the product of the transformation imposed by the specific logic of the university field on the forms which organize the dominant thought and expression'. A strong implication, then, is that, if they extend beyond French universities, these forms of classification are 'deeper' than mere teaching style, 'behind' rational assessment policies (a wonderful site for future research would be the final examination board as one site where judgements are delivered as opposed to mere marks), rooted deeply in the very professional activity of university academics, and largely beyond reform.

[turning to the more general work in Bourdieu 1986]

To be very brief about a massive work, it is clear that different social groups develop quite different 'readings' of cultural activities across the spectrum, that they acquire the ability to perform these readings from the cultural capital they inherit, and that these readings are used to make further distinctions between groups. Dominant groups claim a natural legitimacy for their readings, of course. These legitimate readings are based on certain concepts and codes which act as 'programmes for perception'. Those without these codes stop at '...the sensible properties [ of a cultural experience]... or at the emotional resonances aroused by these properties...[They] cannot move from the "primary stratum of the meaning we can grasp on the basis of our ordinary experience" to the "stratum of secondary meanings" ie the "level of meaning of what is signified" (Bourdieu, 1986, p.2). Naturally, this is not how those with the necessary codes see it - they have acquired concepts and codes 'by insensible familiarization within the family circle...which implies forgetting the acquisition' (ibid, p.3).

Bourdieu goes on to explain how this basic insight can be used to explain the social patterns which he uncovers in a wide range of cultural preferences, but we also have here an explicit link with 'deep' and 'surface' approaches in education [much discussed in distance education and strongly recommended in 'normal' higher education]. The implication is that the [much admired] 'deep' approach is not merely a cognitive (or metacognitive) technique but an aesthetic, connected to much wider cultural predispositions, a source of pleasure and power, a matter of social distinction, social solidarity, and social reproduction.

Bourdieu, incidentally, has never denied that cultural capital can be acquired during schooling, but likens the process to the painful 'primitive accumulation' of economic capital, where 'like the Puritans [self made persons]...can count only on their asceticism...and get the chance to realise [their ambitions] by paying in sacrifices, renunciations, goodwill, recognition...' (1986, p.333). And even after success, there remains the crucial status differences between 'autodidacts' and those born into the dominant habitus: the former are 'too [serious and anxious]...to escape the permanent fear of ignorance or blunders, or to side-step tests by responding with the indifference of those who are not competing or the serene detachment of those who feel entitled to confess or even to flaunt their lacunae' (1986, p.330).

10. Work on the university suggests that the 'high aesthetic' is confined to a rather powerful minority. Perhaps we never routinely meet such people socially -- but we are likely to encounter them in crucial 'gatekeeping' roles, on admission to university, on examination boards, at job interviews.

11. Finally, Bourdieu's work can look very old-fashioned, and it can be criticised for using out of date categories, discredited methods, and 'serious' old politics of emancipation. I have over-emphasised the material on social class, to be fair: Bourdieu is well aware of the interactions between social class, gender and educational qualifications (as well as regional differences), so he is far from being an old-fashioned marxist! Nevertheless, the old patterns of culture and distinction are breaking down for postmodernists, and so the analysis must be abandoned. As Wacquant (1993) makes clear, though, Bourdieu is quite capable of a critical response: postmodernism itself reflects the tastes of the 'petit bourgeoisie', especially of that fraction which has more educational cultural capital than inherited cultural capital. In their struggles to draw boundaries around themselves and gain advantages, that group talks up a picture of constant cultural change, and smites its 'serious' rivals with philosophical underminings of the old certainties (including the old barriers between cultural specialisms), and ironic detachment verging on cynicism -- all the central features of 'postmodernism' in fact! In classic terms, these rather particular values are alleged to be universal cultural trends which 'must' be happening. This sort of work has given much comfort to (usually marxist) critics of 'postmodernism' and is found in work in cultural studies like Hewison (1987) or Urry (1990), for example.

12.  Not all experimental work faithfully reflects the values of the 'high aesthetic' or the politics of the high bourgeoisie: some sets out to disturb, rattle and confound those groups, and challenge them to stay calm and detached in the face of provocation. Surrealism fits nicely here as we'll see, and so might Godard's political cinema. Strange alliances are possible between non-bourgeois groups and these provocateurs, and there are also cycles of shock and re-adjustment as the bourgeoisie learn to love being challenged. Finally, postmodernism offers other odd possibilities, as proletarians, bourgeois and capitalists in the culture industry all promote artistic experiment, as long as it threatens no radical politics.


Bourdieu, P (1986) Distinction
Bourdieu, P (1988) Homo Academicus
Bourdieu, P (1970) 'Systems of Education and Systems of Thought' in Young, M (ed.) Knowledge and Control...
Harris, D (1994) '" Active Learning" and "Study Skills": a Technical Fix?' in Evans, T and Murphy, D Research in Distance Education 3
Hewison, R (1987) The Culture Industry...
Urry, J (1990) The Tourist Gaze
Wacquant, L. (1993) 'On the tracks of symbolic power: prefatory notes to Bourdieu's State Nobility' in Theory, Culture and Society, 10, 3:1--18.
Wacquant, L and Bourdieu, P. (1993) Invitation to A Reflexive Sociology