Critically analyse the production of the distinction approach to understanding consumer culture

No judgement of taste is innocent. This is what writers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen would have us believe, that we are all snobs. In the course of everyday life people constantly choose between what they find aesthetically pleasing and what they consider tacky, merely trendy, or ugly. The different aesthetic choices people make are all distinctions. That is to say, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes. This is essentially what distinction theory relates to, how elements of choice and taste reflect social class. This essay analysis’s two writers, Pierre Bourdieu’s and Thorstein Veblen’s distinction theories, their strengths and weaknesses, and examines their relevance to society today.

Pierre Bourdieu: A social critique of the judgement of taste.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work concerned the operation of taste in French society. It examined the links between peoples observed social class and their patterns of consumption. It was based on a large survey carried out in 1963 and 1967-8, with a total of 1217 subjects. In this survey, people were asked to specify their preferences in a huge range of things. People specified their personal tastes in music, art, theatre, home decor, social pastimes, and literature etc. They also responded to questions regarding their knowledge about these arts. This was important to Bourdieu as he felt that upbringing and education where important elements when judging taste patterns.

According to*, part of Bourdieu’s aim was to undermine the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant, which continues to dominate philosophical aesthetics. Essentially this is the theory of what is beautiful. Bourdieu argues that Kant’s criterion of the disinterestedness of the aesthetic gaze is an essentially middle class phenomenon. The ‘pure’ ‘refined’ aesthetic, which derives pleasure from considered reflection on things, is only possible by a distance from things. That good taste is dependent on a separation from the necessities of daily labour. This distance is produced by the status of the bourgeois classes as separate from manual productive labour. This element of conspicuous leisure is not essential when trying to understand distinction theory though it is worth noting as it illustrates a weaker argument within distinction theory.

Through this empirical study, Bourdieu believed he had discovered a new type of capital. For Bourdieu there was not just economic capital, there was also cultural capital. This, for Bourdieu, is a type of wealth that can not necessarily be bought. As Bourdieu points out:

“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 practises and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level and secondarily to social origin.” (1979: p1)

What Bourdieu is saying is that no amount of economic capital can buy taste; it is something that individuals are predisposed to through their upbringing. This cultural capital is also expressed through ways of consumption. Individuals that possess cultural capital also consume in certain ways which distinguish them from others who do not possess the same cultural capital.

Corrigan states that:

“For Bourdieu, time and money are also involved in cultural capital, and a key concept here is that of education”. (1997: p27)

Education is important to Bourdieu’s concepts as it follows that the longer an individual has been educated, for example to degree level, and the more elite the institution they have attended, the more cultural capital they possess. In the case of education the capital is legitimate or academic information and qualification. By drawing distinctions between the participants’ educational backgrounds in his studies, Bourdieu was able to find links between their social and educational backgrounds and the ways in which they consume. As Corrigan points out (1997: p27), through Bourdieu one thing has become clear, that different social groups appear to live in different but consistent worlds of specific combinations of cultural practises and that they could all be mapped out according to Bourdieu’s concepts of distinction. The problem with this mapping is that Bourdieu’s concepts leave no room for individuals to enjoy cultural endeavours above their supposed store of cultural capital. An example of this is Bourdieu’s discussion of the appreciation of culture and art:

“A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, with out rhyme or reason. Not having learnt to adopt the adequate disposition, he stops short of what Erwin Panofsky calls the ‘sensible properties’. He can not move from the ‘primary sanctum of the meaning we can grasp on the basis of our ordinary experience’ to the ‘sanctum of secondary meanings'”. (1979: p2)

This seems a very cynical view of the ordinary individual’s appreciation of legitimate art and culture. It implies that such art and culture is only for those who can understand its true meanings and appreciate its cultural value through exposure to such culture during education. It may be true that through social conditioning and cultural background/home life, individuals are predisposed to appreciate such culture as they have been conditioned to understand its cultural value or capital. It is however, unfair for Bourdieu to suggest that such pursuits are restricted only to culturally rich.

Of course this theory can be applied to all forms of culture. Corrigan (1997: p28) uses the example of asking new acquaintance what type of music they like or. He suggests that this is a way of identifying the individuals’ position in social space and giving an indication of their other cultural practices. This is because such practices do not occur as isolated events but fit into a more or less coherent combination off practices. In many ways, these are the best ways of distinguishing between different social groups. Bourdieu states that these combinations:

“allow the most fundamental social differences to be expressed” (1979: p226)

Bourdieu seems to not recognise the individual. It is true to say that for many, high culture is not of interest unless they have been brought up in an environment of rich culture and education. It is also true to say that an individual can appreciate high culture despite apparent lack of cultural capital. Its also seems that Bourdieu has two levels of taste, legitimate being able to appreciate:

* ‘Form over function’. An example of this being extravagance: buying the latest washing machine despite having one that works perfectly well, also known as conspicuous consumption.

* ‘Critical contemplation’. Visiting art exhibitions, opera etc. Considered refined by Bourdieu.

And popular being able to appreciate:

* ‘Function over form’. Buying a washing machine because of cost, practicality and necessity.

* ‘Close sensory participation’ such as watching football. This would be regarded as a vulgar pursuit by Bourdieu.

Bourdieu states:

“taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” (1979: p6)

By this, how an individual is perceived to spend their time and money illustrates their social classification. This, yet again, does not allow for variety of variance to the rule which is the down side to Bourdieu theory of distinction, he does not recognize the individual. However, he recognises the competition between groups for social standing, particularly groups which are close to each other, such as the young.

Thorstein Veblen: Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen was the first major contributor to the literature on consumption. When trying to find what lies at the basis of social honour, prestige and status, Veblen came to an equally cynical, if different answer to Boureiu, the answer being wealth. Corrigan states that Veblen believed:

“The possession of wealth can grant us social currency of a more important kind than mere dollars.” (1997: p21)

Veblen believed that the more individuals were seen to consume, the higher their social standing. The amount of money they waste of social gatherings, parties, big houses etc. illustrates their pecuniary strength. Veblen identifies certain excesses and health conditions which are regarded as noble and thus accepted as a mark of social prestige:

“The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific. Therefore the base classes, primarily the women, practice an enforced continence with respect to these stimulants, except in countries where they are obtainable at a very low cost.” (1899: p70)

He goes on to say:

“Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark, at the second remove, of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence. Infirmities induced by over-indulgence are among some peoples freely recognised as manly attributes. It has even happened that the name for certain diseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin has passed into everyday speech as a synonym for ‘noble’ or ‘gentle’.” (1899: p70-71)

Veblen believed that it is not only an individuals conspicuous consumption that illustrates his pecuniary strength but also conspicuous leisure, a wealthy man who can afford not to work having more pecuniary strength than a wealthy man who does work. Veblen’s theory seemed to be that the more money wastes on nothing, the higher their social prestige so the higher their social class. Corrigan expands this theory by saying:

“One can expand ones prestige by being able to support more and more people who produce nothing – so if one has lots of servants with no productive tasks to accomplish, then one will be very honourable indeed.” (1997: p22)

This also applied to a wife who must be young, glamorous, and essentially be a trophy to illustrate her husbands’ wealth and a man who’s wife ‘doesn’t have to work’ has a higher social standing.

Corrigan (1997: p25) points out that conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption work differently depending on the geographical situation. Conspicuous consumption comes into its own in large societies where there are more strangers to show ones pecuniary standing. This is the case in such cities as London where groups and individuals compete for status. It is not the same for conspicuous leisure in the case of the unemployed and homeless. These situations are classed as enforced leisure and are frond upon which is ironic when considering the wastefulness which is regarded as noble to the higher classes. Through as Corrigan says of Veblen:

“he tends to assume that all classes want to emulate higher classes, rather than they might live according to different and competing principles.”(1997: p26)

Final Analysis and Conclusions:

When comparing the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen, it is apparent that there are many differences in their theories. Bourdieu believes that distinctions between social classes are based of education, upbringing and cultural capital where as Veblen believes it is down to capital itself and how it is used wastefully. Bourdieu fixed and frozen theories of class division leave no room for the individual and give a rather cynical view of society. There are many different ways of appreciating culture. Sports such as football can be appreciated on both legitimate and popular levels. One can cheer with the crowd will marvelling at the grace and precision of the players.

Veblen’s theory doesn’t mention an individual’s cultural capital favouring pecuniary wealth as an indicator of ones social standing. Veblen’s theory ignores the very basis of Bourdieu’s, though pecuniary strength would play a part in a good education. Though both writers identify the struggles for supremacy of social standing in society, on their own their theories leave no room for individuality or deviation. However, if cultural capital and pecuniary strength are combined, it must lead to a higher social and cultural distinction.