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Monsieur Taste

Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

by Pierre Bourdieu, translated by Richard Nice
Harvard University Press, 613 pp., $29.50


In 1963, and again in 1967 and 1968, approximately twelve hundred French men and women in Paris and Lille and in a small provincial town were asked to answer questions about their tastes in furniture, clothes, food, TV programs, music, paintings, and photos. These answers, extensive interviews, and various other surveys are the basis of Pierre Bourdieu’s enormously ambitious attempt to create a sociology of aesthetic judgment. His book was published in France in 1979. Bourdieu was already famous (his enemies would say “notorious”) for his works of the 1960s on the French educational system. In these works he asserted that this system was little more than a machine of the French bourgeoisie to “reproduce” itself, since only people from that class had the “cultural capital” needed for educational success.

These books were widely read, or at least referred to, by the student rebels of May 1968. The official spokesmen for French education had always pointed proudly at the system’s ability to select the best from the lower and middle classes, provide them with scholarships (bourses), and thus prevent the children of the upper bourgeoisie (héritiers, heirs) from monopolizing the dominant positions in society. Bourdieu himself is a boursier—a product of the provinicial lower classes who made it to the prestigious Ecole Normale. There he studied philosophy and went on to write anthropological works about the peasants of his native Bearn, in southwestern France, and about Algerian workers and peasants, as well as studies in the sociology of art. He was for several years a close associate of Raymond Aron, with whom he broke over the events of May 1968, which Aron deplored and derided.

Bourdieu’s controversial reputation rests both on his engagement of 1968 and on his ambition to renew the attempt of the great sociologists of the past to establish a genuine science of society. During the last five years, his most notable works have been a book on the social functions of language, Ce que parler veut dire,1 and a study of French universities and the May 1968 crisis, Homo academicus;2 they apply the same categories and kind of analysis as Distinction. He was also elected professor at the Collège de France—a boursier‘s triumph. In the spring of 1985, he presented to President Mitterrand, on behalf of the Collège, a scheme for democratic educational reform. It would give equal recognition to all forms of competence, put achievements above formal titles, create autonomous and competing institutions in secondary and higher education, and combine the study of scientific and historical culture—all notions familiar to Americans, but still resisted by much of France’s educational establishment.

Distinction can be read, Bourdieu tells us, as an ethnography of France in the 1960s and 1970s. But above all, it is the expression of an intellectual tradition that is peculiarly French. Bourdieu proposes “a model of the relationships between the universe of economic and social conditions and the universe of life-styles.” He begins and ends his book with an attack on “the ideology of charisma,” by which he means not the appeal of a heroic political or religious leader, but the belief that the tastes people have are “a gift of nature independent of social background.” He also attacks the tradition of art history and criticism that stays within the boundaries of art and springs from a “typically intellectualist theory of artistic perception,” instead of a sociological one. This—rather than any specific interpretation of French culture—is what Bourdieu is writing against: he attempts to make the study of human judgments and tastes of all sorts into a science of society.

Those who have studied French culture and tastes since the eighteenth century have always emphasized their heirarchical aspects, the fine distinctions of style and manners that separate the different social classes, the barriers that keep each group in its place, the decisive importance for one’s career of having gone to the right schools and got the right degrees. Much has been written about the tendency of the petit bourgeois to copy a bourgeoisie that had itself imitated and absorbed many of the features of the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie, however, clung to its own values—hard work, thrift, and the importance of the family—many of which could be traced to the bourgeois’ distant peasant origins. In France, intellectual professions such as law and university teaching have always been more prestigious than business. “High culture” (including an emphasis on the proper accent and on impeccable spelling) have gradually either destroyed lower-class and provincial culture, or made them seem illegitimate. It was the taste first of Versailles, later of Paris, that defined the only legitimate culture.

What does Bourdieu add to this analysis? The surveys he has drawn on do not present a very different picture. He finds that taste in popular singers (Georges Brassens and Leo Ferré vs. Georges Guétary and Petula Clark) and in works of music (The Well-Tempered Clavier vs. The Blue Danube) depends on how much education people have. “One finds,” he writes,

that the higher the level of education, the greater is the proportion of respondents who, when asked whether a series of objects would make beautiful photographs, refuse the ordinary objects of popular admiration—a first communion, a sunset or a landscape—as “vulgar” or “ugly,” or reject them as “trivial,” silly, a bit “wet.”

According to Bourdieu, even when people have the same amount of education, their social origin still determines how much they know about music and films. Participation in sports such as tennis, riding, skiing, and soccer, he tells us, also depends on social origins. Soccer is an enthusiasm of the children of manual workers; other sports are favored by some executives and professionals. Not only social rank but also “family tradition and early training” have a part in forming tastes. The working classes read local newspapers and sensational papers such as France-Soir; the middle classes read more serious national papers such as Le Figaro and political newspapers such as Le Monde. Industrial and commercial employers spend more than a third of their family budget on food, almost nothing on culture; teachers spend only one fourth on food, almost 5 percent on culture; members of the professions spend close to a fourth on “presentation” (clothing, toiletries, servants)—almost twice as much as the two other groups.

Bourdieu finds that clerical workers spend less on food than skilled manual workers: as much on meat, more on fish, fresh fruit, and aperitifs, less on bread, dairy products, poultry, and pork. Women who don’t have jobs tend to spend more on cosmetics. Farmers, workers, and shopkeepers are more conservative about social behavior—for instance, about parental authority and mixing the sexes in classrooms—than are junior or senior executives and members of the professions.


Such observations may seem unsurprising, but the main interest of Distinction is not in its empirical analysis of the way tastes and styles are distributed among the French. Nor does Bourdieu make use of the innumerable accounts and satires of the French class scene—by French play-wrights and novelists from Molière and Lesage to Marcel Aymé and Sartre. His concerns are far more abstract. His enterprise is both very simple and very complicated.

It is simple because his basic categories are familiar. He tells us that he wants to “rethink Max Weber’s opposition between class and Stand,” i.e., between economic class and social position (or status). He does so by developing a notion of “class” that can make sense of both. People have wealth or capital not only because they have money, he argues; education is a form of “capital” as well; so is knowledge of culture. Social classes differ in the amount of capital they possess, and in the “composition” of this capital. The major differences between them, he says, “derive from the overall volume of capital, understood as the set of actually usable resources and powers—economic capital, cultural capital and also social capital.” Among the professional classes, very high incomes and high cultural capital are found together, whereas in the class of employers and industrialists economic capital is dominant. For university and secondary school teachers, cultural capital is dominant. In both upper and middle classes, he sees as opposed those who are, on the one hand, “owners (of their own home, of rural or urban property, of stocks and shares), often older, with little spare time, often the children of industrial or agricultural employers,” and, on the other hand, those who are “non-owners, chiefly endowed with educational capital and spare time.” The nonowners belong to “the wage-earning fractions of the middle and upper classes or [to] the working class.”

For Bourdieu, society is a battlefield on which the dominating and dominated classes fight for power and capital. Each group enters this contest with an initial amount of capital—economic, educational, cultural—and tries to acquire more. The “social trajectory” of the group, he says, is the change in the volume and composition of a group’s capital over time. The members of these groups try different “strategies” of capturing more capital; for example, they “convert” economic capital into educational capital by sending their children to better schools so they can improve their position in the class structure.

Bourdieu’s main claim is that he can account for the tastes of a group’s members by its capital and its “social trajectory.” For example, he writes that

differences such as those between semi-skilled, educationally unqualified, provincial factory workers of rural origin, living in an inherited farmhouse, and skilled workers in the Paris region who have been in the working class for generations, who possess a “trade” or technical qualifications, must be the source of differences in life-style and religious and political opinion.

To take a different example, Bourdieu finds three “zones” of taste in musical works and paintings, “legitimate” (the taste of those in the dominant class who are richest in educational capital), middlebrow (the middle classes), and popular (the working classes, but also those employers with the lowest educational capital).

Is this Marxism? Yes, insofar as class interest and the class struggle are said to explain the main features of social life. Not entirely, since Bourdieu, coming after Gramsci and Lukacs, refines many Marxist categories. He rejects the “materialist theory of knowledge,” because it insists on “direct determination” of customs, beliefs, and practices by forces of production and other material conditions. It leaves out the ways people interpret their own experience. “Far from reacting mechanically to mechanical stimulations,” he writes, people “respond to the invitations or threats of a world whose meaning they have helped to produce.”3

Bourdieu thus stresses aspects of the class struggle that Marxists sometimes neglect. For example, he discusses “principles of division,” by which he means the ways different social groups distinguish between rich and poor, elite and mass, “pure” and “vulgar,” “insiders” and “outsiders.” These categories, he says, help determine how these groups see themselves and others, and “function within and for the purpose of the struggle between social groups.” For example, professional groups often try to dominate other groups by using new labels. Those who call themselves “physiotherapists,” Bourdieu notes, count on their recently concocted title to “separate them from mere masseurs and bring them closer to doctors.” Even the labels used more or less innocently by social scientists (such as “bourgeoisie”) must be seen as weapons in the class struggle—a point Bourdieu makes repeatedly in all his works.

  1. 1

    Paris, Fayard (1982).

  2. 2

    Paris, Editions de Minuit (1984).

  3. 3

    On Bourdieu’s differences with Marxism, see his article “Espace social et genèse des classes” in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales (June 1984), pp. 3–14.

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