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Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste [Paperback]

Pierre Bourdieu , Richard Nice
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 1984 Polity Short Introductions

No judgement of taste is innocent. In a word, we are all snobs. Pierre Bourdieu brilliantly illuminates this situation of the middle class in the modern world. France's leading sociologist focusses here on the French bourgeoisie, its tastes and preferences. Distinction is at once a vast ethnography of contemporary France and a dissection of the bourgeois mind.

In the course of everyday life people constantly choose between what they find aesthetically pleasing and what they consider tacky, merely trendy, or ugly. Bourdieu bases his study on surveys that took into account the multitude of social factors that play a part in a Frenchperson's choice of clothing, furniture, leisure activities, dinner menus for guests, and many other matters of taste. What emerges from his analysis is that social snobbery is everywhere in the bourgeois world. The different aesthetic choices people make are all distinctions-that is, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes. Taste is not pure. Bourdieu finds a world of social meaning in the decision to order bouillabaisse, in our contemporary cult of thinness, in the "California sports" such as jogging and cross-country skiing. The social world, he argues, functions simultaneously as a system of power relations and as a symbolic system in which minute distinctions of taste become the basis for social judgement.

The topic of Bourdieu's book is a fascinating one: the strategies of social pretension are always curiously engaging. But the book is more than fascinating. It is a major contribution to current debates on the theory of culture and a challenge to the major theoretical schools in contemporary sociology.


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Review

A book of extraordinary intelligence. (Irving Louis Horowitz Commonweal)

One of the more distinguished contributions to social theory and research in recent years...There is in this book an account of culture, and a methodology of its study, rich in implication for a diversity of fields of social research. The work in some ways redefines the whole scope of cultural studies. (Anthony Giddens Partisan Review)

Bourdieu's analysis transcends the usual analysis of conspicuous consumption in two ways: by showing that specific judgments and chokes matter less than an esthetic outlook in general and by showing, moreover, that the acquisition of an esthetic outlook not only advertises upper-class prestige but helps to keep the lower orders in line. In other words, the esthetic world view serves as an instrument of domination. It serves the interests not merely of status but of power. It does this, according to Bourdieu, by emphasizing individuality, rivalry, and 'distinction' and by devaluing the well-being of society as a whole. (Christopher Lasch Vogue)

About the Author

Pierre Bourdieu (1930â2002) was one of France's leading sociologists. Champion of the anti-globalization movement, his work spanned a broad range of subjects, from ethnography to art, and education to television.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read! April 3 2004
By malvais
Format:Paperback
This is a fantastic explication of how social class prearranges our tastes and interests. I disagree with the reader who thinks that it is not applicable to American society--to the contrary. It is true that American culture is not so obviously stratified in the exact same ways as French culture (of the 1960s, I would add, when Bourdieu collected his data). Also, in American culture there is less of a tendency to exploit the social markers (dress, etc.) that one might find in Europe, and it's hip nowadays for the middle-class to adopt the style and dress of the street (e.g., hip-hop); nevertheless, I'd say that this is a veneer of street-cred, and that if you were to look at how the middle-class actually lives compares to those where hip-hop originated, you'd find some pretty significant differences.
However, his basic differentiation between working class/petit bourgeois (small business owners, clerical workers and the like)/grand bourgeois (professionals, executives, and large industrialists) certainly carries over into American society. And most interesting is his claim that the higher up in the food chain one goes, the more one's taste in the "aesthetic" inclines towards Kant's idea of disinterested formalism, while the lower classes tend to want their art to be informed by ethics and morality.
Bourdieu sees these tendencies as "embodied" and largely unconsciously adopted through our upbringing. One only has to watch a television show like "The O.C." and how they cast Ryan's mother in comparison to the trophy wives of Orange County to see that even in America class and taste and body language are still encoded in our body language, choice of dress, manners, and conversational style.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good French ethnography from brilliant intellect Sept. 11 2000
Format:Paperback
Pierre Bourdieu is a tremendous intellect, and has produced far superior work to this book. _Distinction_ is a fascinating book, particularly for those interested in French society. Yet its relevance cannot really extend to America, which has a markedly different system of class. The French have deeply entrenched class consciousness, in both a pragmatic sense and a Marxist sense, whereas 90% of Americans consider themselves "middle class." Bourdieu shows that the French are at pains to symbolically express their class differences, and he does so with aplomb. He compiles statistics and data which show ways in which the French produce their own class position through consumption, education, and taste. But his observations are less applicable to the vast American "middle class." Class mobility, education, and stylistic expression are much more democratically distributed in America. So while many French are content with their class position, vocation, and traditions, most Americans see themselves as "middle class," striving for better, and free from tradition. _Distinction_ is an interesting and accesible book, but those looking for Bourdieu's contributions to social theory will be better served by some of his other works.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Forget What's In It... Where Is It? April 26 2004
Format:Paperback
In 1998 Pierre Bourdieu's *Distinction* was voted by members of the International Sociological Association to be the sixth most important sociological treatise of the 20th century: but if Bourdieu's "theodicy" for the cultural market of the hexagonal 70s maintains its appeal today we have plenty of reasons. Presented with a country in stasis and a market full of options, Bourdieu took the liberty of declaring the case for economic determinism airtight: in his theory of social fields (presented to the reader in a variety of ways) we are given "templates" for freedom of economic choice which maintain their plausibility *in the breach*.
In the *pathetiques* gamely reporting likes and dislikes, and that matter-of-fact two-dimensionality characterizing interactions guided by cultural partisanship, we have something less than postwar French culture and something more than a damning indictment of Fifth Republic scandals: *Distinctions* is veritably a history of 70s France *as it was available to the common man*, and as such provides a model for cultural history well worth emulating for various purposes. Bourdieu's later union agitation to the contrary, it is advisable that a tenable market is absolutely the precondition of "edifying" cultural products: and here he goes quite a distance towards *vetting* France in this respect. A great work for a wide readership.
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4.0 out of 5 stars read it for the diagrams Oct. 28 2000
Format:Paperback
Distinction is the most cited book from Bourdieu, one of France's most prolific scholars. The book tends to assume that its readers are familiar with his key terms, developed mostly in _Outline of a Theory of Practice_ and _Logic of Practice_. Although it is the most cited, beginning readers of Bourdieu should probably start with _Partical Reason_ to get a handle on these concepts before getting involved in this larger tome.
Word for word, Bourdieu's writing style is not economical, and he is almost as cumbersome as Derrida. He does not approach the overly-complex mode of Deleuze and Guattari. His concepts bear the most resemblance to those of an early Baudrillard or a late Gramsci in terms of their interpretation of the social world, although he will depart into some more Marxist modes of interpretation.
Bourdieu's _Distinction_ is most valuable for his diagrams, as they provide a clear graphic representation of what he is trying to say. If one wants the read Bourdieu for content and/or argument, she would be better directed to one of his other books named above, as his arguments are more on-point and rpecide.
In addition, _Distinction_ is careful to limit itself to a data set collected in the late 60s and early 70s. Although the theory seems to be a sound one, Bourdieu makes claims of greater applicability in his books about the Bayle: _Outline_ and _Logic_. For discussions of modern Europe, his newer _Weight of the World_ provides a better, and more recent, analysis of the same social trends as in _Distinction_.
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