The Realities of Social, Cultural and Literary Distinction

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Pierre Bourdieu, born in August 1930, was brought up in a rural area of the south west of France. Bourdieu pursued an elite academic curriculum from Paris studying philosophy, on the recommendation of his high school teacher. On graduating from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, Bourdieu went on to concentrate on the subjects, history of science and epistemology. From philosophy, Bourdieu shifted his vocation abruptly to social sciences. 

Bourdieu also served in the French army during the Liberation War (1956–1962). On his return from the army, he turned to empirical inquiry. He carried out statistical studies and ethnographies of colonial transformation, whilst absorbing the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. In 1964, Bourdieu returned to France and completed his conversion to sociology, thus becoming the Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris. 

He was theoretically inspired by Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Edmund Husseri and many other famous sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers and public intellectuals. His research introduced many influential concepts like social stratification, symbolic form of capital, symbolic violence and cultural reproduction. His major contributions in the field of sociology have been widely appreciated globally and influenced many related fields.

Pierre Bourdieu’s major publications are The School as a Conservative Force, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, Forms of Capital and Language, Symbolic Power however, he is mostly well known for his book in French, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste published in 1979. This book gained immense popularity and critically ranked as the sixth most influential work in the field of sociology in the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association.

Bourdieu states his opinion on the class system and how the judgment of taste acts as class stratification. Bourdieu supports his theory using interviews, data collected from quantitative surveys and photographs. With that he tries to integrate the influences of external social structures and specific experiences of the individual. Bourdieu claims that the social positioning of someone depicts how he or she chooses to present themselves within society. The term cultural capital was the focus of the book. 

Bourdieu, explains how cultural capital distinguishes an individual’s class and develops their taste according to capital. From an early age, humans have been trained subconsciously, are mentally prepared and reasonably accept being separated into classes in accordance with their capital, Bourdieu termed this ‘symbolic violence’. Bourdieu originally conducted his study in France. However, after Bourdieu’s book was translated into English other countries used his study to conduct their own research mainly in America, Canada and the UK.

This essay will discuss and critically evaluate the statement of “A middlebrow public is an illusion, shielding the realities of social, cultural and literary distinction” with the reference of Pierre Bourdieu. This essay will explore Bourdieu’s interpretation and the meaning of class and the illusion of middlebrow.

The term ‘Middlebrow’ refers to music, literature, art and films of good quality, which are interesting, popular and can be easily understood by individuals of a certain class and culture. Bourdieu states that the social class of an individual is defined by their capital, such as assets, knowledge and experiences that eventually build the taste of that individual into society. Social classes are defined into three main groups. Individuals with lower capital and education are considered as working class who have limited tastes. They cannot access a higher level of cultural capital because they lack some necessary requirements to do so. Individuals who have materials, goods and cultural capital yet do not have higher education are middlebrow i.e. office workers. 

An individual with a higher qualification and a higher income falls into the dominating class. Charles contradicted that no such readymade class system exists in the modern era. Although, according to Bourdieu, art, music, food and clothing are examples of taste that distinguish one class from another. Another example is sport, rugby in England is still enjoyed by the elite whereas, in France its symbolised as a working and middle-class game. The elite class purchase clothing for the purpose of maintaining their appearance and personality. Whereas, middle class buy clothing for its durability and reliability.

Bourdieu carried out survey questionnaires in the sample of 1,217 people in the year 1963 and subsequently 1967-68. The main focus of this survey was to understand cultural competence and dispositions of individuals thus leading to cultural consumption of goods with regards to art or music and personal items such as clothing, furniture and food and more legitimate tastes such as education. These results varied according to the area and educational background of each respondent. The results of these surveys showed that upper, middle and lower classes have different tastes in art due to their levels of education. Upper class individuals relate to ‘legitimate taste’, the taste of authentic work in art, music and painting, declaring their higher educational capital. 

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Common to the middle-class society is ‘Middlebrow taste’ demonstrating the minor work completed by major artists or important work carried out by some minor artists. The working class relate to ‘Popular taste’. This is due to their taste of light music being well known with industrial or commercial employers. Holt explained that awareness of class differences on the basis of taste has given people preferences and the concept of distaste towards a particular cultural object. Commonly, individuals with less cultural capital reject luxurious items and the practices of the upper class.

Bourdieu explained that the line of middle classes is particularly blurry and importantly with new fractions of these classes, which are grey areas, ambiguously located in the social structure, inhabited by individuals whose trajectories are extremely scattered, thus creating an ‘illusion’. The major factor of differentiating the classes of condition derived from the extent of capital, understood as actual power and resources such as economic capital, cultural capital and social capital. 

Holt stated that in advanced capitalist societies the cultural boundaries are already blurred noticeably and even then, if we use cultural capital as a mechanism of distinguishing classes that will be indistinct. Objects no longer characterise accurate depiction of consumer practices. Bourdieu states that the structure of upper class and middle class is the product of the same principle. An educational boom created changes within the educational system and social classes. The competition intensified between dominant classes and middle classes who had economic capital.

Bourdieu feels that middle classes are the main consumer of middlebrow culture, referencing legitimate culture justifies as well as encourages confusion. The consumer and producers of middlebrow culture share similar structural relationships to legitimate culture. Therefore, their interests are similar to each other perhaps from pre-established harmony. These factors create an illusion around middlebrow public with regards to their social, cultural and literary distinctions. For example, expensive clothing and furniture are still out of reach for some classes, however brands now have regular promotional sales that allow every class to buy and use good quality, fashionable items at cheap prices for example Next, New Look and Primark.

Researchers have discussed and critically analyzed Bourdieu’s concepts in various books and articles, subsequently following its translation into English. Intense debates started amongst sociologists regarding the implications of Bourdieu’s theory in the international context. Peterson and Peterson and kern both argued that the middle classes were becoming ‘cultural omnivores’, who grazed and ranged across cultural forms, incorporating elements from both high and popular culture. 

Peterson carried out research in America, hence, he reported the average middle-class individual displays a greater variety in taste and practices as compared to others, their tastes merge the boundaries between high and popular culture. Peterson agreed with Bourdieu, as he also noticed the blurriness in middle classes cultural, social and literary boundaries. Peterson did however argue that Bourdieu’s questionnaire survey was unfair. Detailing that Bourdieu clearly stated that he was intentionally biased towards upper and middle classes which ultimately affected his results. The semi-skilled and un-skilled labourers did not have fair opportunities within this research.

Kane also carried out a survey in America. Kane’s article compared results between the American and French class system, revealing that his research shows Americans are more likely to draw moral rather than cultural boundaries. French professional men placed a high value on cultivation in friends. Whereas, American professional men were much more likely to name honesty and responsibility as desired characteristics. 

Kane agreed with Bourdieu, finding the same results in America that arts activities create boundaries in class fraction. Kane feels that cultural stratification and symbolic boundaries play an important role in maintaining boundaries and lines between the classes. Interestingly, Kane’s article also discovered two different systems exist within America itself, individuals of Asian culture and American culture.

The music industry has gained popularity in recent years, many sociologists are considering music to be a significant factor in establishing taste and breaking down the opposition between high and low culture. Peterson and Kern carried out a cross- culture survey that showed the increasing numbers of Americans who are confused about their preferences in specific genres of music for instance either classical or popular music, as they listen to a variety of genres. This ‘mix-and-match’ culture has been strengthened by the use of digital technology such as radio and television and further in this era YouTube, Spotify and different applications which allow listeners to assemble and customise their playlists in ways that were not possible using vinyl or even compact disc technology. 

Hence, some listeners love to listen to music that relates to their current life and aspiration, eventually that become their taste. Another factor is because individuals have grown up listening to certain music which affects their choices. Individuals having multiple tastes can create confusion with regards to which class they belong to, consequently isolating themselves from their peers. DiMaggio stated that social exclusion is not inherent to heterogeneous taste. The effectiveness of taste as a factor of social stratification centers upon the structural properties such as hierarchy, symbolic potency, universality and differentiation.


In the conclusion, this essay revolves around the statement ‘’A middlebrow public is an illusion, shielding the realities of social, cultural and literary distinction” discussed with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu along with agreements and arguments of several other sociologists contributing their work on middlebrow. Sociologists have agreed and disagreed with the statement of middlebrow public. The majority agreed that the confusion exists around the term middlebrow for middle class.

As the essay discussed middlebrow is more about the taste of middle-class people. Peterson, Kern, Kane and Holt agree with Bourdieu to some extent that the illusion exists however, Charles rejected the notion of a fixed class system. Before the 19th century, the theory of stratification of classes on taste can be justified completely. Now, it is difficult to establish borders due to major technological advancements. The middle-class individual is trapped between the elite and privileged individuals and the underprivileged. Individual taste falls between and sometimes crosses the boundaries of the upper classes and lower classes.

Bourdieu argues that class system is defined by the capital each person has and one can only become upper class if they meet specific requirements of being worthy of that position. Class system and taste theory is justified effectively but I agree with Charles that no such readymade system exists in the modern century. Upper, middle and lower classes are created by own efforts and no one can restrict anyone from changing their class. Through hard work and education, an important factor, can improve the class of people and gives them chances to excel in life and subsequently improve living standards. I feel class systems and taste theories by Bourdieu have to upgrade now, as times have changed, technology has advanced, classes, culture and tastes have broadened and integrated creating a confusion and stigma which needs to be removed. 

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