Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
by Pierre Bourdieu ©1984
You said it, my good knight! There ought to be laws to protect the body of acquired knowledge. Take one of our good pupils, for example: modest and diligent, from his earliest grammar classes he’s kept a little notebook full of phrases. After hanging on the lips of his teachers for twenty years, he’s managed to build up an intellectual stock in trade; doesn’t it belong to him as if it were a house, or money? Paul Claudel, Le soulier de satin, Day III, Scene ii
There is an economy of cultural goods, but it has a specific logic. Sociology endeavours to establish the conditions in which the consumers of cultural goods, and their taste for them, are produced, and at the same time to describe the different ways of appropriating such of these objects as are regarded at a particular moment as works of art, and the social conditions of the constitution of the mode of appropriation that is considered legitimate. But one cannot fully understand cultural practices unless ‘culture’, in the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage, is brought back into ‘culture’ in the anthropological sense, and the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food. Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practices (museum visits, concert-going, reading etc.), and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level (measured by qualifications or length of schooling) and secondarily to social origin.1 The relative weight of home background and of formal education (the effectiveness and duration of which are closely dependent on social origin) varies according to the extent to which the different cultural practices are recognized and taught by the educational system, and the influence of social origin is strongest—other things being equal—in ‘extra-curricular’ and avant-garde culture. To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’. The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it: the importance attached to manners can be 1
Bourdieu et al., Un art moyen: essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Paris, Ed. de Minuit, 1965); P. Bourdieu and A. Darbel, L’Amour de l’art: les musées et leur public (Paris, Ed. de Minuit, 1966).
understood once it is seen that it is these imponderables of practice which distinguish the different—and ranked—modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic or scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as ‘pedants’ and mondains). Culture also has its titles of nobility—awarded by the educational system—and its pedigrees, measured by seniority in admission to the nobility. The definition of cultural nobility is the stake in a struggle which has gone on unceasingly, from the seventeenth century to the present day, between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore differing in the conditions of acquisition of which these dispositions are the product2 Even in the classroom, the dominant definition of the legitimate way of appropriating culture and works of art favours those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines, since even within the educational system it devalues scholarly knowledge and interpretation as ‘scholastic’ or even ‘pedantic’ in favour of direct experience and simple delight. The logic of what is sometimes called, in typically ‘pedantic’...
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