Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
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…
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