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A Must Read!
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.