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Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2004
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. The economic reality of America is that a Wal-Mart worker or transcontinental trucker is NOT middle-class in the same way as a doctor, whether in terms of taste or salary. Anyone who thinks so is either deluding themselves or doesn't want to see the truth.
Bourdieu does not neglect to mention sex (although he doesn't have as much to say about race), and has sections on women's body image (the richer, the thinner) and how the different classes deal with food (high-fat, high-carb for lower classes, fresh veggies and lean meats for higher classes). In America, our current epidemic of obesity is not only the result of marketing campaigns, but also (perhaps largely) the result of poor quality food (e.g. fast food, prepared food) being made much more affordable than high quality food (fresh produce, fish, organic). If you can't afford to eat well in America, you probably won't.
Moreover, Bourdieu makes the observation, which holds true in America as much as anywhere else, that formal education (which reinforces "legitimate" taste) can change one's tastes and values, but that one's early social upbringing will lead to a quicker assimilation of "legitimate" culture. As someone who went to bourgeois schools without a bourgeois background, and who has subsequently taught at state universities in poor areas, this truism is so obvious as to hardly need explication. Much of the poor performance of underclass or non-bourgeois students is as much due to lack of early acculturation (by this I mean exposure to "culture" like non-Hollywood films, art museums, etc., but also the habits and customs associated with school learning and higher education) as it is to any basic intelligence.
Finally, it's true that Bourdieu's style is rather ponderous, repetitive, and academic, and the book is very long indeed. Nevertheless, I can't agree that it compares with the difficulty of Derrida, Jameson, Bhabha, or other high theorists. Bourdieu's sentences are sometimes long and have many subordinate clauses, but their basic subjects and verbs are easily identifiable! The Conclusion and Postscript do raise the level of difficulty, but the Introduction and body of the main text are accessible and basically say everything he has to say (many times). Anyone with a basic undergraduate education (one that has done its job properly) should be able to handle Bourdieu's style in this particular book.
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on April 26, 2004
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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on October 28, 2000
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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on September 11, 2000
I come back to this book time and again in my own work and see it as one of the most indispensible books today on issues of aesthetics, class distinctions, group identity, and covert social inequality. Bourdieu takes on the Kantian aesthetics of the "subjective universal," showing that the value judgments about things reflect material and social conditions and in fact index social and class differences. The way we classify things (operas, desserts, leisure activities) is inextricably tied up with the way we classify ourselves as social beings and others as members of other social groups.
Distinction is a long and difficult book, but from start to finish it is full of fascinating and original insights. Bourdieu's language is loaded with big words and long sentences, but I find that after I get used to the kinds of words and structures he uses, his language actually becomes pretty clear and straight-forward. It's definitely worth the time and brain-power needed to read it.
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on May 10, 2000
Pierre Bourdieu in the philosophe (probably more than the sociologue) of determinism. According to him all our acts are led by social pressures. And this is why this book is so interesting. Even if he sometimes go too far, he shows in a brilliant way, that what we consider today natural is definitely cultural. Our tastes in food drink, music, cinema... do not depend on us but on our social background. Perfect conterpoint of today simplification and illusion of freedom, this book reminds us that "what is true is probably too complicated"(P.Valery).
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on March 14, 2013
There's really no point to review the contents of this book. There's volumes of research dedicated to praise and critiques of Distinction already. If you're here, you know what to expect. You've likely already read excerpts from the book, and now you need to read the whole thing (It's not so bad!). Amazon's delivery was very quick, and the price was good considering the free shipping.
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on April 10, 2000
This book contains a really interesting theory about the way that groups of people make different choices because of their position relative to other groups. Stated so simply it perhaps doesn't sound so exciting - but it is. It is one of those books that changed the way I look at life. I took from it an analytical framework which I use to give me amusing insights into behavior.
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on June 9, 1997
While the text is academic and sometimes rather heavy going, Pierre Bourdieu has written a clear-eyed, erudite exposition on class and taste: how taste is judged by various classes and how heavily choices based on "taste" can weigh in a sociological sense
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2000
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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