Last Updated on February 9, 2017 by
Mary Berry’s recent comments against deep fat fryers and Jaffa cake dunking could be interpreted (using Bourdieu) as an example of the unconscious process through which the middle classes assert and maintain their superiority by defining working class practices as ‘bad taste’ and ‘unhealthy’.
Gregg Wallace picked up on this with his comments about Berry’s attack on fried food as an attack on the British way of life, in fact, from a Bourdieuean (if that’s even a word?) perspective this is only really an unconscious attack against a working class way of life, part of the usual day to day process through which the middle classes (such as Berry) assert their arbitrary tastes (the ones they grew up with) as ‘normal’ ‘healthy’ or just ‘right’ against working class dispositions which are simultaneously defined as ‘abnormal’ ‘unhealthy’ or just ‘wrong’.
Mary Berry is here demonstrating a sociological concept called ‘cultural capital‘ – a simplified definition of which is the skills and knowledges a group uses to define itself as superior and thus gain or maintain advantage (more status, power, wealth) in society’. A lot of sociological research has focused on how the middle classes are able to use their cultural capital to give their children and advantage in the education system, and simultaneously disadvantage working class children, but I think it applies quite nicely to the world of food, dining and health too.
As Steph Lawler (2014) says, in her excellent introductory text on the sociology of identity…
‘One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.’
Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.
As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for ‘vulgar’ working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.
Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.
Where does this sense of disgust come from?
Bourdieu argued that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.
So from this perspective, Berry herself must feel low in status compared to the ‘proper rich’, and makes up for this sense of status-frustration by defining her ‘good manners’ as superior.
This is ultimately all about power, about the broader practice of the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.
However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because
- part of this process of constructing middle-classness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself
- because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.
- the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.
Mary Berry and Individualisation (?)
Another process which Berry is engaged in is that of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.
NOW do you think Mary Berry is such a sweet lady? – From this Bourdeuian perspective, in reality she’s the evil arbitrator of cultural capital, inflicting the hidden damages of class on deep-frying, jaffa-cake dunking working class people all over the country, well, mostly up north.
If this all sounds like it’s making a mountain out of a mole-hill, that’s precisely the point of the post because what doesn’t seem like a big deal really is… this is precisely how class divisions are perpetuated in contemporary society…
‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118, again taken from Lawler).
On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.
I thus felt it my professional duty to point Gregg Wallace in the direction of Bourdieu in order to help him defend our working class position against such subtle injuries.
There’s nothing wrong with eating fried food, dunking biscuits, or anything else which may not be middle class, but if one lets such things pass in silence, such practices have a tendency to being internalised as wrong and thus silently annihilated.
And P.S. It’s official – Gregg Wallace loves Sociology.
NB – I’m not suggesting that this type of analysis is in any way correct, it’s merely an example of how you might interpret recent events using a Bourdieuean (is that a word?) framework.
Cultural Capital (focusing on its application to educational achievement)
You might also want to have another look at some of those make-over programmes – surely this is just a case of middle class ‘experts’ empowering themselves through shaming the distasteful working classes?
Middle Class Identity – A Summary of a chapter of Steph Lawler’s book on class and identity
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