Does Cultural Capital Still Classify Us?
|A new essay collection considers the relevance and stakes of a contemporary re-reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction, which was first published in 1979. The result is a critical discussion that is particularly vibrant, as much in terms of the positions the authors take vis-à-vis Bourdieu, as in terms of the themes and origins of the scholars who appropriate his arguments.|
Bourdieu’s Distinction, which was first published in 1979, is one of the most cited and read works of sociology written in French—which does not, however, mean that it is always read correctly. Since its appearance, the book, which was as original in its substance as in its methodology, has met with a mixed reception, eliciting dithyrambic praise as well as acerbic attacks from scholars and journalists. It belongs to a series of studies conducted by the author and several of his collaborators, notably Jean-Claude Passeron, on the illusions of educational meritocracy and their role in legitimating inequalities in the distribution of cultural capital, as well as on museum attendance and the practice of photography.  Drawing on the abundant data they collected in studies conducted between 1960 and 1970, Bourdieu challenged the maxim that taste is inherently natural. Quite to the contrary: employing the new (at the time) methodology known as multiple correspondence analysis, which consists first in placing various variables and individuals into a two or three dimensional coordinates based on their relative proximity, then in interpreting the meaning of the axes that structure this space, Bourdieu and his team demonstrated not only that taste and cultural practices are not randomly distributed through social space, but that they obey a hierarchy that resurfaces in multiple realms.
In other words, the space of social positions defined according to the overall volume of economic and cultural capital which social agents possess, the relative distribution of each of form of capital, and the space of cultural preferences, exhibit strong structural homologies. The latter express and even realize the relative social position of their members through more or less covert struggles of classification that occur on a daily basis. Bourdieu’s first contribution is to have revealed the cultural dimension of social stratification, against a narrowly materialist vision which granted no autonomy to cultural factors, while also stressing the eminently relational character of these processes, a fact that some substantivist readers fail to grasp when they conclude, based on Bourdieu’s data, that certain tastes and practices inherently characterize particular social groups to the exclusion of others. Put differently, practices are not inherently classificatory, like the game of pétanque for the French working class; they are so only in relation to other practices and social classes, whose tastes and (in particular) distastes represent their relationship to others people. While this revamped approach to social stratification developed by Bourdieu has now become essential to any sociologist’s training, some take pleasure in pointing out its limitations, whether temporal (the fact that this data was collected during the 1960s and 1970s), spatial (their focus on French society), or theoretical (the fact that its theoretical framework was largely inspired by earlier authors, including Norbert Elias, Edmond Goblot, and Thorstein Veblen, and that it is said to have lost its validity as society has supposedly become more eclectic and less differentiated). Hence the question that is asked of any work that has acquired the status of a classic: more than three decades after its publication, why should we still read Distinction?
This question inspired a major conference that was held in Paris in November 2010, upon which this collection is based. In their introduction, after revisiting the debates that followed Disinction’s publication, the two organizers, Philippe Coulangeon and Julien Duval, admit their surprise at the massive response to their call for papers, which alone testifies to continued interest in the topic. More than 130 papers were ultimately presented, half of which by non-French scholars. Of these, only 25 were published, the goal of the selection being to present the major themes that the conference brought to light.