Cultural Taste, Power and Social Difference

Donald Clarke writing in the Irish Times this Saturday pieces together some spontaneous musings on the workings of popular taste in Irish society. His article pretends to examine the massive draw of Irish audiences to Garth Brooks who recently sold-out 240,000 tickets in 90 minutes. Such pseudo-analysis I always find irritating, especially when there exists a mass of research on the issue of public taste within the discipline of sociology ready for the day critical journalism emerges within the culture section of Irish broadsheets. Much of this work is founded on that of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu  and his tome Distinction which analyses political and cultural tastes based on surveys carried out in 60s France (although typical of the overly-reflexive and pernickety struggles amongst sociologists, not all of this research is complementary of Bourdieu’s). Although his findings are for a period and society where socio-cultural differences were possibly more acute than they are in Ireland now, they offer potential pathways of investigation as to the distinctions in taste currently operating in Irish society.

Bourdieu recognises the dispositional nature of human behaviour and the social unconscious that is absorbed into those dispositions. It is through this premise and the development of his comparative method of research and analysis that Bourdieu has managed to convey a unique understanding of class and behaviour. Those who hail from the same “social space”[1] – although they may not share local or even interactional space[2] – can experience “identical histories” (Bourdieu, 1990: 59) such as the “’closed doors’, ‘dead ends’ and ‘limited prospects’” for the most dominated (ibid: 60). Bourdieu has found in his work that through such shared regularities which encourage similar “systems of dispositions” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 105) these spaces are prone to homologous activity, perspective and behaviours (this is not to say that people are mere automatons of their social conditions but that they are subject to some determining effects. Their level of agency is partially dealt with in the preceding link). In the following bullet points I provide some brief insights, drawn from his analysis and observations, concerning this process of how social position influences taste. So then how does Bourdieu explain a taste for gourmet meals and bed settees?

  • Dominant individuals, groups and institutions hold symbolic and consecrative powers when it comes to the particular cultural objects that they are most associated with. Art museum curators, for example, have the power to act as “taste makers” or “artistic guides to an elite of art lovers” (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 98): they play a role in projecting and hierarchising a particular representation of objects of art. These consecrated objects rise to the top of a symbolic hierarchy of taste presented in Bourdieu’s Distinction wherein he shows how that hierarchy serves to disguise the unequal class structure that reproduces that order. The logic of the order projects such myths as: only the innately refined can know ‘good taste’ whereas vulgar taste is anything equated with lower classes.
  • Cultural objects, whether they exist as stable observable matter such as a work of art or as a practice, an idea, an interpretation, undergo a process whereby relations of power combine or conflict in the struggle to impose a certain representation of that object. How this object is constructed has consequences for how it is received. Distinction illustrates this when it demonstrates one of the principles of dominant, high-brow taste in 1960s France, to be the expansion of abstractness. Gourmet dishes come to resemble works of art as opposed to the “filling” and “economical” meals of lower classes; the form of paintings start to trump content, rendering what they depict as all but unrecognisable, except to those who have acquired the “cultural code” (Bourdieu, 1984: 3). Such abstractions served to make dominant French taste inaccessible to the working class who hailed from social conditions bereft of the modes of consuming such high-brow art, which would’ve facilitated the capacity for deciphering the “cultural code” (Bourdieu, 1984).
  • An effect of power operating through class and social space distinctions, reinforced hierarchical relations of exclusivity embedded in  French notions of “high art” or “good taste”, valuing certain properties of cultural goods above those equated with ‘poor taste’. That was particularly the case where the distinctive property distinguished the product from properties equated with the popular taste of the lower classes. Hence “authentic” and uncommonness enhanced an object by way of contrast to “imitation” and “popularization” (Petit Bourgeoisie buy prints of famous art while upper classes buy the real thing) (Bourdieu, 1984). These are supported by other relations of class subordination and the sense of inferiority of the lower classes who fail to see how supposedly meritocratic systems of legitimation (e.g., career ladder, educational qualifications) favour the privileged who have a greater familiarity with the dominant culture the system seeks to inculcate (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990).

At a more specific level:

  • Bourdieu noted how the 1960s French “rising” petite bourgeoisie, with relatively low economic capital and a desire to appear middle class, “deploy[ed] prodigious energy and ingenuity in ‘living beyond its means’” (Bourdieu, 1984: 322-3). Hence they attempted to make their homes look bigger through “‘space saving ideas’”: “‘storage areas’, ‘moveable partitions’, ‘bed settees’, etc” (ibid).
  • He describes how skilled workers, with longer education are “more under the sway of cultural legitimacy” than unskilled workers. Therefore they are more likely to claim an interest and to submit to a subordinate approval of elite cultural forms despite an insufficient level of socially acquired skill or knowledge of such forms: e.g., “‘I love classical music but I don’t know much about it’” (Bourdieu, 1984: 336).
  • His interpretation of non-response to survey questions also identifies the workings of differential relations of social power. Establishing how higher non-response rates occurred amongst women and the lower classes, as the questions on politics required more up-to-date and technical policy-based knowledge,  he tied the non-responsiveness to their subordination to, and exclusion from, a sphere of technocratic political activity. He depicted a viscous circle where political disempowerment restricted the development of the capacity to exercise political power: “the capacity to vote or ‘talk politics’ or ‘get involved in politics’” (ibid: 406). Thus Bourdieu, through an attentive reading of the micro dimensions of societal power relations concluded that in relation to public receptivity to politics “indifference is only a manifestation of impotence” (ibid). Thus the potency of political leanings or taste in politics appears linked (along with a raft of other social, environmental and dispositional factors) to a quantity of embodied social power required for confronting political issues and policy.
  • The following figure drawn from his work in distinction illustrates how spaces are prone to homologous activity, perspective and behaviours:


Based on his survey data from 1960s France used in Distinction the graph displays social space tendencies towards taste, cultural activities and political leanings. Social space is arranged here according distribution of capital. Higher overall volume of capital increases rising up the table while economic capital increases going from the left to right and vice versa for cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1998: 5). Click on image to enlarge. 

So how do social space, its encompassing practices, and society’s differing relations of social power contribute to the taste for Garth Brooks? Admittedly this does look like too much work for one journalist but the question remains valid and shouldn’t be ignored.


[1] Social space is another Bourdieusian concept: referring to spaces where groups and individuals hold homologous, economic, social, symbolic, educational and cultural resources (Bourdieu, 1989: 17). For example, agents that share a social space would include budding Irish sociologists, with middle-class backgrounds, nearing the end of their doctoral thesis.
[2] Although there is a greater likelihood of people of the same social space sharing the same geographical space (Bourdieu, 1989: 16).


Bourdieu P (1984) Distinction : a social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu P (1990) The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu P (1998) Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu P, Darbel A and Schnapper D (1991) The love of art: European art museums and their public. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bourdieu P, Passeron J-C (1990) Reproduction In Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Bourdieu P, Wacquant L J D (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.


One thought on “Cultural Taste, Power and Social Difference

  1. Pingback: Another Head Start for the Privileged | Myths of Our Time

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