Culture, Class and Distinction

Recent sociological research criticises Bourdieu’s theory that social classes are divided by taste

Recent sociological analysis by Bennet et al (2009) analysed the extent to which cultural tastes vary by factors such as social class, age, gender and ethnicity.

They found that while social class explained 48% of the variation in tastes, gender and age were also important, but not so much ethnicity.

There was also evidence of a lot of cultural omnivores who had tastes that spread across the main class, gender and age ‘divisions’ and also a number of taste subcultures.

Overall they concluded that Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus in which tastes vary mainly by social class does not apply to society as whole, but there is a signifiant division between elite cultural tastes (and cultural capital) and everyone else.

Multivariate Analysis on social divisions by taste…

The National Centre for Social Research conducted survey research in 2004/5 to find out more about cultural divisions in the United Kingdom and test Bourdieu’s theories about social class and cultural capital.

The research consisted of questionnaires sent to a random sample of 1564 respondents, with the questions having been designed with the help of focus groups. An additional 224 respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds were also sampled. 44 respondents were then selected for interviews to collect more in-depth data.

They collected data on which activities people participated in and the frequency of their participation and then analysed that data using multiple correspondence analysis to see which tastes and cultural practices were correlated with each other.

The results were analysed and findings published in Tony Bennet et al (2009)

Variations in Culture by social class, gender and age

Bennet et al wanted to examine whether there really were distinctive class cultures as Bourdieu had suggested.

Their theoretical starting point (their hypothesis if you like) was that other factors such as gender and ethnicity would have more of an impact on cultural divisions and that divisions would not be as clear cut because of the impact of globalisation. Globalisation, they thought, has led to a transnational culture which undermines national conceptions of social class.

Bennet et al also examined whether the tastes of individuals were connected across different cultural fields such as art, music, media and sport.

Bennet et al found that there were four quantifiably distinct axis of taste – people ranked along the same axis for art and literature tended to have the the same tastes in other areas such as television. Altogether these four axis accounted for 82% of the variation in tastes.

Variations in cultural tastes by Social Class

Axis one distinguished groups in terms of levels of participation in ‘high culture’, which accounted for 48% of the distinctions between taste groups.

On one side of this axis were those who who went to the opera and museums frequently, preferred eating at French restaurants and disliked fish and chip restaurants, had lots of books at home appreciated impressionist art

Those on the other side of axis one liked fish and chip restaurants, Western films and snooker, had no books at home and never went to museums or the opera.

Does liking fish and chips mean you’re working class?

The taste-divisions above were highly correlated with social class, especially with levels of education, and on the basis of the above Bennet et al actually found there were three classes depending on the frequency with which they engaged with activities such as those listed above:

  • the working class
  • the intermediate class
  • the professional-executive class.

Variations in taste by age

Axis 2 revealed that there were taste differences by age.

Young people expressed a preference for more commercial forms of culture: they were were more likely to enjoy horror, science fiction and fantasy films, and preferred going to nightclubs.

Older people showed a preference for more traditional forms of culture: they preferred westerns, costume dramas, musicals, cartoons and documentaries and were more likely to visit stately homes and art galleries.

Variations in taste by Gender

Axis three found that there were variations in taste by gender:

Females expressed a preference for self-help books, soap operas, romantic fiction and television dramas while male preferences included sport and westerns.

Cultural Omnivores

The final axis focused on the extent to which people engaged in a wide range of cultural activities compared to a narrow range.

Here Bennet et al found that more highly educated and younger people were more likely to be cultural omnivores – picking and choosing from a range of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ cultural products.

They found that higher education lecturers and people who worked in the media were especially omnivorous.

Support for Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory

Bennet et al’s findings found that there was some support for the existence of a small cultural elite culture which valued high cultural practices such as the opera, classical art and going to the theatre and that knowledge of such tastes did confer social capital.

There are certain tastes which professionals look down on – such as watching lots of T.V, especially reality T.V. shows and reading tabloid newspapers, and they don’t like country and western music.

These cultural distinctions may form the basis of a class divide along social class lines, but it is nowhere near as significant at a societal level as Bourdieu suggested.

Criticisms of Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory

Bennet el al’s findings demonstrated that cultural tastes were not as influenced by social background as Bourdieu had theorised. There was a lot more variety in tastes across social class lines. There were enough people from working class backgrounds enjoyed museums and enough people from professional backgrounds liked football (for example) to show that cultural tastes were not ‘determined by social class background’ .

However social class did still have an influence on cultural tastes, but it acted more like a forcefield which steered people towards particular tastes, but within limits and not in a deterministic way.

There was little that was distinctive to working class culture. And one of the things the middle class valued was an openness to experiment with new cultural pursuits meaning the middle classes were increasingly adopting aspects of traditionally working class cultural pursuits. Football is a great example of this.

All of the above means that cultural divisions along class lines are not significant enough for there to be a distinctive habitus.

Bennet et al also found that there were significant variations in cultural practices along the lines of age and gender, but not by ethnicity.

Taste subcultures

Bennet et al argued that ‘taste subcultures’ were more important than social class

Familiarity with national cultures – belonging to a national culture is more important than social class for generating a sense of belonging (kids TV shows) and lack of familiarity with a national culture can prove a barrier

Subcultures are important for small groups but only small groups – draws on Thornton – but rave culture only gives status during the weekend.

emotional cultural capital is an additional form of cultrual capital – the ability to empathsis with others based on shared cultural experience.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

The material above is most relevant to the culture and identity topic, usually taught as part of the first year of A-level sociology.

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Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

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