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.
Bourdieu does not begin his analysis of the tastes and practices of a group or class the way some Marxist sociologists would, by examining the volume and composition of its capital. Instead he says we must begin with what he calls its habitus. He attaches great importance to this concept, but it is not easy to define. It is his word for the process by which our position and “trajectory” in the social structure, including the capital we possess, give rise to habitual ways of understanding and judging ourselves and others. According to Bourdieu, “different conditions of existence produce different habitus”; he thinks, to recall my earlier example, that the conditions of existence of semiskilled provincial French factory workers give rise to a “life style” and to religious and political opinions different from those of skilled workers in Paris, who we know tend to be less respectful of religion, more accepting of modern inventions. All such differences Bourdieu sees as produced by one habitus as opposed to another.
Another of Bourdieu’s refinements of Marxism amounts to a deviation. Although he claims to find a fundamental opposition between the dominant and the dominated throughout social life, he asserts that the dominated do not see the social world as it really is; instead they see it through a “system of schemes of perception and appreciation” shaped by the dominant groups. This persuades them to accept their inferior condition, and allows “conservation of the social order.” Thus the class struggle does not ultimately disrupt society; it helps to integrate it. It also helps to reproduce society, “since those who enter this chase, in which they are beaten before they start, implicitly recognize the legitimacy of the goals pursued by those whom they pursue, by the mere fact of taking part.”
Clearly, in Bourdieu’s view, the social scientist should try both to understand the class struggle and to expose or debunk “acts of miscognition,” whether by the ruling class or by inadequate social scientists. Bourdieu attacks a number of well-known American sociologists, such as S.M. Lipset, and, in France, the more conservative Raymond Boudon, who has written extensively on education and inequality. But he also accuses economists of “formulating universal laws” about people whose preferences are not universal but depend on their position and prospects. Indeed, the very title of his book refers in part to the bourgeois claim that only their style is distingué, i.e., refined.
Bourdieu’s “three zones of taste”—“legitimate,” middlebrow, and popular—correspond to a distinction among the “distinguished,” the pretentious, and the vulgar. The fundamental contrast, for Bourdieu, is between the aristocratic and bourgeois emphasis on form and style (“a specifically aesthetic point of view”), and the emphasis among the lower classes on substance and function. Only those who are not driven by necessity can take the “specifically aesthetic point of view.” The same is true in such matters as food or sports. Bourgeois meals are eaten in a strictly observed sequence, according to rules that aim at denying the primary function of consumption by turning the meal into a “social ceremony.” By contrast, working-class meals are not only copious but “free and easy”; since working-class men take no part in house-work, this informality makes things easier for women and preserves ease “in the heart of domestic life,” whereas in the rest of life “necessity prevails.” “Tastes in food,” Bourdieu writes, “depend on the idea each class has of the body and of the effects of the food on the body,” and he therefore suggests that each class favors a different kind of body:
Whereas the working classes are more attentive to the strength of the (male) body than its shape, and tend to go for products that are both cheap and nutritious, the professions prefer products that are tasty, health-giving, light and not fattening. Taste, a class culture turned into nature, that is, embodied, helps to shape the class body.
The attitude toward the body explains, according to Bourdieu, why some sports such as tennis—those in which “the use of the body…in no way offends the sense of the high dignity of the person”—tend to become bourgeois.
Bourdieu sympathetically describes the tastes of the working class as a “realistic (but not resigned) hedonism and sceptical (but not cynical) materialism which constitute both a form of adaptation to the conditions of existence and a defence against them.” He defends the value peasants and workers attach to virility: these classes “depend on a labour power which the laws of cultural reproduction and of the labour market reduce…to sheer muscle power.”
Bourdieu also discusses smaller groups within the dominant class of society, such as the intellectuals and artists. Borrowing from the seventeenth-century literary debate between doctes and mondains (the former wanting literature to rely on rules, the latter wanting it only to please), he writes, “It is no accident that the opposition between the ‘scholastic’ (or ‘pedantic’) and the mondain, the effortlessly elegant, is at the heart of debates over taste and culture in every age.” Many who know France will find this a familiar distinction, but for Bourdieu it is part of a struggle for cultural capital between “two contrasting modes of acquisition, and, in the modern period at least, two different relationships to the educational system.” Similarly, a lack of capital leads artists toward ascetic tastes, as compared with bourgeois tastes for luxury and ornament. This creates within the dominant class a struggle between dominant (bourgeois) and dominated groups like artists and intellectuals.
By contrast, the petit bourgeois, typically the small shopkeeper, clerk, or salesman, uses “strategies” of pretension.
Torn by all the contradictions between an objectively dominated condition and would-be participation in the dominant values, the petit bourgeois is haunted by the appearance he offers to others and the judgments they make of it. He is as insecure as the bourgeois is self-assured, incapable of playing “the game of culture as a game,” anxious about the right classifications and about knowing the right things.
The petit-bourgeois habitus, says Bourdieu, is based on “asceticism, rigour, legalism, the propensity to accumulation in all its forms.” The way in which the “upwardly mobile petit bourgeois” tries to accumulate cultural capital can be seen in his desire to limit his family “often to an only son, on whom all hopes and efforts are concentrated.” The petit bourgeois expresses thereby his conviction that “if he cannot increase his income, he must limit his expenditure, the number of mouths he has to feed.” Bourdieu gives a condescending account of the petit-bourgeois autodidact—a person who admires Camus’s Rebel and Malraux’s Voices of Silence.
Bourdieu is intrigued by what he calls the “new” bourgeoisie, who have “social capital of inherited ‘connections,’ ” and who “make up for their lack of formal qualifications…by moving into relatively unbureaucraticized areas of social space” such as journalism or TV production or market research. In such professions are also found, according to Bourdieu, people with only a high-school education, whose degrees have less and less value. Many “inheritors” threatened by déclassement as well as frustrated parvenus have entered the businesses of “cultural production” and other occupations that “ensure a maximum return on the cultural capital most directly transmitted by the family”—occupations that range “from marriage counselors to the vendors of slimming aids.”
Bourdieu sees in these indeterminate professions the demise of the old system of strong boundaries and internalized “scholastic divisions clearly corresponding to social divisions.” The fuzzy edges of the new system encourage ill-defined aspirations. Today, Bourdieu says, the dominated classes are no longer integrated into society by having absorbed “the old morality of duty” but rather through having needs imposed on them by advertising and therapeutic “professionals” such as psychologists, sexologists, and counselors who have promoted a “cult of personal health and psychological therapy.” To this new bourgeoisie corresponds a new petite bourgeoisie, which is its ally. It is sharply different from the old one, whose life style was so rigid and puritanical; the new petit bourgeois craves pleasure, self-expression, and consumption.
In his discussion of culture and politics, Bourdieu returns to his preoccupation with the way the French school system leads to inequalities of political power and other forms of discrimination. Citizens with little education do not feel entitled to political opinions; their indifference, he believes, is really impotence. Workers who want social change must entrust their fate to political spokesmen whose habitus is usually not that of their constituents, and who speak either the dominant language or a “routine, routinizing one”—what the French call langue de bois. No such discrepancy exists on the right. Bourdieu thinks that the frequent conservatism of workers concerning law and order arises from their failure to see that political elections are really not about mores and morals, as politicians claim, but “a particular form of the question of the conservation or subversion of the established order.”
How convincing are these views? And how close does Bourdieu come to his own ideal? The virtuosity of many of his analyses is impressive. But many objections come to the reader’s mind. First, how “scientific” is Distinction? The book tries to combine theoretical considerations and empirical data, yet these data are too sketchy, dated, and ambiguous to support the enormous superstructure he erects. (The contrast between the limited data gathered and the formidable intellectual construction is just as evident in Homo academicus, which presents a theory of French academic power based primarily on inquiries that preceded May 1968.) Many of his surveys (about attitudes toward sex, for instance) were conducted in the late Fifties or early Sixties. France has changed considerably since then. Class lines, already blurred by the “new bourgeoisie,” have become even less rigid and clear; status or social position has become at least as important as economic class.
The “merely” empirical research that survey organizations have compiled on changing attitudes—which reveals greater permissiveness, openness, and emphasis on individuality—is not drawn on in Distinction at all. Television, which has done much to form more homogenous tastes, was so new when the information was collected that it has no part in the book. Moreover, even the data on which Bourdieu relies often contradict his generalizations. For instance, he hardly notices that the different classes can have remarkably similar views on how people ought to look and on hygiene. Watching sports events is a pleasure shared almost equally by all groups. In 1970 almost as many workers as executives were found to favor some limitation of the right to strike in public services. Increasing benefits to the poorest families in order to reduce inequality was endorsed by 50 percent of the workers—and 71 percent of the employers.
Distinction offers some relief from the relentless social analysis of the author in the statements by more or less typical citizens from various classes who describe their tastes and styles of life. They bring some breath of everyday activity—furnishing apartments, choosing places for vacations or clothes and food—into this suffocating house of theory. Indeed, Bourdieu himself is often most convincing when he is most concrete, as in his very funny dissection of the different reviews of a play by Françoise Dorin, the most successful boulevard playwright. The play made fun of an avant-garde writer. It was applauded for its politics by the reactionary L’Aurore; endorsed—but only on aesthetic grounds—by Le Figaro; approved, but more cautiously, by L’Express; reviewed in an “ostentatiously neutral” way by Le Monde; and ignored by Le Nouvel Observateur.
In some of the most enjoyable passages in the book Bourdieu writes as a kind of twentieth-century La Bruyère, commenting on the mores and foibles of his contemporaries—especially those in the vaguely defined new professions. “Two people can give each other no better proof of the affinity of their tastes than the taste they have for each other.” He quotes from the index of a guide to adolescent counterculture: “anti-gymnastics, anti-nuclear, anti-psychiatry, anti-radiation, anti-scientism, anti-vaccination, astrology, basket-making.” The problem, however, is that La Bruyère, and much of the French moraliste tradition, deal with archetypes, rather than with the infinite variations of social experience. Bourdieu shows the same tendency to generalize, and thus to distort—but for different reasons.
As a social scientist, Bourdieu is much closer to Durkheim than to Max Weber, or even to Marx. As with Durkheim, we get the somewhat stifling sense of a society that determines the behavior of its members; but Durkheim’s main concern was to explain how the various parts of a society cooperate with one another and create a social consensus, whereas Bourdieu’s vision is one of constant class struggle—yet one that makes for social integration. Throughout his book he insists that to have particular tastes is to choose a way of life, but he calls it “a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere day-dreams and leave no choice but the taste for the necessary.” For instance, a member of a dominated class (who is seen as vulgar by the dominant classes) must, in order to “make it,” effect “a leap from nature to culture,” which obliges him to reject with “shame, horror, even hatred of the old Adam, his language, his body and his tastes, and of everything he was bound to, his roots, his family, his peers.” Bourdieu’s system simply excludes the fact that many workers are attracted by good theater or classical music, that many philistines are to be found among teachers or executives, that people of all classes enjoy Piaf or jazz, that there are adventurous petit bourgeois, hedonistic artists, and very informal or else insecure bourgeois.
In Bourdieu’s universe, people have no freedom because they are conditioned by their habitus. They appear to “direct” their own strategies for getting on in the world, yet these turn out to be determined by their social positions and by their socially determined psychological dispositions, not by free choice. All social and cultural values, including aesthetic ones, are only the result of class habitus; they are no more than aspects of practices that have proved useful in preserving or improving the position of one’s group. The habitus embeds “what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body”—such as handwriting or “ways of walking or blowing one’s nose.”
We are once again close to Durkheim, who tended to “explain” the existence of social values as a natural fact arising from a society’s need to cohere or preserve itself. Replacing Durkheim’s idea that the common values of a group create a “collective mind” with the idea of class habitus is no improvement, since Bourdieu fails to tell us how the habitus comes into being, how it can be identical in the large number of people who constitute a social class or group, how it can be either observed or inferred from the practices it is said to determine. In all societies we find that people have ways of advancing themselves and their classes. But can people and society be reduced to this? Are all personal choices and activities—watching shows, going to concerts, exhibits, and films, buying clothes and food—necessarily weapons or moves in such games? Moreover, are not the ways in which both the material and the symbolic struggles are waged, and what is at stake in them, shaped in part by factors that are not wholly explained by the current contests for position?
One such factor is what I would call atavism: the mark left on the contemporary struggle by forms that struggle took long ago and that are now obsolete—yet live on in the minds and practices of the dominant and the dominated, as values that shape the current struggle. The French bourgeoisie cannot be understood without reference to its long battle with, and violent victory over, France’s aristocracy. The bourgeoisie at different times and in different places have used very different strategies of domination, depending on the legacy of the past. True, when Bourdieu mentions the time lag between changes in jobs and changes in titles, he refers, very briefly, to one aspect of this. But he moves right on: on the whole, history is missing from his account.
So, as an active force, is politics. Bourdieu—like Marx and Durkheim, unlike Tocqueville and Weber—considers it more a product than a shaper of society. To be sure, he treats the political system as a separate sphere, but one that is best grasped through an understanding of the educational system and of the class struggle. Through force or through deception (also known as the representative system of government), the dominant classes ensure their domination through politics. But in reality, political activity is as much a determinant as a product of class struggle, or a stake in it. Many of the barriers and classifications Bourdieu sees as weapons were set up by political action. So is the educational system itself. Political processes (elections, the deliberations of congresses, the acts of the executive, the decisions of courts) can either reinforce or weaken the social controls imposed by the dominant groups; and they always complicate them. (Think of the peasants’ and workers’ conquest of universal suffrage in Europe, or of the modern welfare state.) In other words, politics has a distinct and often decisive part in the permanent contest Bourdieu describes, and it can rise above that contest by itself helping to produce different values. (In 1986, for example, one may well ask how much the Socialist reforms of the past four years in France, particularly decentralization of governmental power and the new social legislation that increases the workers’ right of self-expression, have changed the rules of class conflict and the stakes and classifications that groups fight over, especially in a society as dominated by the central government as France is.)
A third factor is ideological. Religious as well as political or aesthetic ideologies may often, as Bourdieu claims, help social groups preserve their gains. But they are usually more than that—their appeal cannot be reduced to individual or group interest.
If each of us is the product of class habitus, moreover, is scientific observation of habitus really possible? In order to unmask the ideologies, hypocrisies, and manipulations by which domination is maintained, doesn’t the scientist have to transcend his own class habitus, whatever it may be? If he can’t, what value does his work have, other than that of another expression of the class struggle? But if such transcendence is possible, doesn’t the whole deterministic theory seem deeply flawed? Bourdieu himself writes that when dealing with a social object, “scientific work…depends above all on the capacity” of the social scientist “to dominate practically, in his practice, the mechanisms he is endeavouring to objectify, which may continue to govern his relation to the object.” His admirers believe that he has succeeded in that heroic enterprise. His detractors think that he merely combines a remarkably successful personal strategy based on his own educational capital with a tendency to debunk all “strategies” and to reduce all events and practices (such as May 1968) to group “strategies.”
Clearly Bourdieu has formidable insight, but he has abandoned neither his emotional solidarity with his class of origin (which shows itself in the sentimental way he describes its practices and how it has been cheated by more powerful political groups), nor his sardonic view of the petit bourgeois (“a proletarian who makes himself small to become bourgeois”), nor his indignation at the costs imposed by the dominant on the dominated. He too displays, unwittingly at times, the same acceptance of the dominant values and outlook that he finds in the lower classes: when he writes that “music is the ‘pure’ art” and therefore the bourgeois art par excellence since it “represents the most radical and absolute form of the negation of the world,” he simply ignores the hugely popular music that attracts young people of all classes and that just as obviously does not “negate” the world.
Still, on the whole, he has the penetrating view of the inside that only an outsider can have when he becomes an insider (it is no accident that, at one point, he mentions Rousseau’s refusal to treat culture as a game, and his being assigned, by the players in that game, the part of a boor).4 Could his system account for his own very peculiar habitus, unless he creates a category of people like himself, whose interests are expressed in works such as this one? But what happens, then, to the pretense of being scientific? Indeed, this enormous book, overtly a schematic, debatable interpretation of French society, is, more deeply, a revelation of—and an act of catharsis by—Pierre Bourdieu.5
Books by Frenchmen about France are usually expected to be well composed and clearly written. This one is difficult to read. It is extremely repetitious: for example, Chapter 5, “The Sense of Distinction,” restates much that had been established in the previous chapters. Bourdieu defends his “long, complex sentences” by telling us that they aim at “reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective.” At best, this produces condensed tours de force, which oblige the reader to stop, both in order to try to understand and in order to admire the author’s cleverness (if not always his accuracy). Thus, writing about intellectuals and artists, he says that both linguistic virtuosity and an aesthetics that refuses “the facile” are just one variant of
the master-slave dialectic through which the possessors affirm their possession of their possessions. In so doing, they distance themselves still further from the dispossessed, who, not content with being slaves to necessity in all its forms, are suspected of being possessed by the desire for possession, and so potentially possessed by the possessions they do not, or do not yet, possess.
But if “using rare words and tropes in place of common words and phrases” is a strategy of “deliberate transgression” of the norms of clear prose characteristic of the dominant classes and is opposed to “the hyper-correction strategies of pretentious outsiders,” then Bourdieu is a master strategist. Words such as lexis, allodoxia, chiastic, askesis, espace hodologique, hysteresis, and of course habitus (and, indeed, hysteresis of habitus) are scattered throughout the text.6 That a work of social science should—“unlike the sometimes illuminating intuitions of the essay”—require an effort on the part of the reader is fair enough. Here, however, reality disappears into the hypertrophied rhetoric of the Ecole Normale.
April 10, 1986
Paris, Fayard (1982). ↩
Paris, Editions de Minuit (1984). ↩
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. ↩
Distinction, from this perspective should be compared with the brilliant, unpublished Harvard Ph.D. dissertation of Jesse R. Pitts—half-French, half-American—on “The Bourgeois Family and French Economic Retardation” (1957), an even more ambitious (also more historical, and Parsonian) attempt at comprehending the French class system. ↩
In the preface to the English-language edition, he claims his model is valid for every society that is divided or arranged in classes “even if the system of distinctive features which express or reveal economic and social differences varies considerably from one period, and one society, to another.” When divisions between classes are more fluid, or more rigid, than in France, however, the nature of the links between social conditions and styles of living and the strategies in conflict would appear to be completely different. Here again, the very factors Bourdieu tends to leave out—history and politics and ideology—are the ones that would be central to any comparison. ↩
These stylistic obstacles and provocations make the translator’s task formidable. Richard Nice deserves the highest praise: he has, rigorously and loyally, transposed Bourdieu’s style into English. The text does not read like a translation; it reads like Bourdieu. Once or twice, Mr. Nice did not quite find the English equivalent. In a nasty passage on Camus’s Rebel, “that breviary of edifying philosophy having no other unity than the egoistic melancholy which befits an intellectual adolescence,” the last two words do not quite render the more precise, but untranslatable, adolescence hypokhagneuse. And “an anomic reward system which forces a choice between a safe thesis and a flash in the pan, pedantry and prophecy” is clearly a second-best rendition of “l’alternative du ménage ou du remue-ménage, de la thèse ou de la foutaise.” But, on the whole, Mr. Nice’s work is one of extraordinary distinction. ↩