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Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and public intellectual. Bourdieu's major contributions to the sociology of education, the theory of sociology, and sociology of aesthetics have achieved wide influence in several related academic fields, popular culture, and the arts.
Bourdieu's work was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, especially the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and social order is maintained within and across generations. In conscious opposition to the idealist tradition of much of Western philosophy, his work often emphasized the corporeal nature of social life and stressed the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics.
His research pioneered novel investigative frameworks and methods, and introduced such influential concepts as cultural, social, and symbolic forms of capital (as opposed to traditional economic forms of capital), the cultural reproduction, the habitus, the field or location, and symbolic violence.
His best known book is Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, in which he argues that judgments of taste are related to social position, or more precisely, are themselves acts of social positioning. The argument is put forward by an original combination of social theory and data from quantitative surveys, photographs and interviews, in an attempt to reconcile difficulties such as how to understand the subject within objective structures. In the process, Bourdieu attempts to reconcile the influences of both external social structures and subjective experience on the individual.
Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, preserve their social privileges across generations despite the myth that contemporary post-industrial society boasts equality of opportunity and high social mobility, achieved through formal education.
Distinction is based upon a massive survey which Bourdieu and his assistants administered in Paris during the 1960’s regarding the impact of people’s economic and educational backgrounds upon their tastes in kinds of food, quantity of food, table manners, dress, posture, vocabulary, accents, stores, furniture, wall décor, entertainment, singers, instruments, reading material, politics, etc. This amount of empirical research sets him apart from most other critical theorists with which he tends to be associated. That said, the specific context in which this data was gathered does place certain limitations upon the extent to which his results can be generalized to today’s American culture. Indeed, Bourdieu fully acknowledges that aesthetic tastes evolve across time and place in a never-ending quest for distinction.
Bourdieu did many experiments with diagrams. Techniques of data visualization are not usual in contemporary sociology and were not that usual forty years ago when Bourdieu was using them in his practice. Bourdieu said, “Diagrams are useful in two ways. First they offer an economical way to give the reader information reduced to the relevant features and ordered according to an ordering principle both familiar and immediately visible. Second, they enable us to show some of the difficulties that are created by the effort to gather and linearize the available information.”
Bourdieu wanted his diagrams to be read quite easily, but he did not want his diagrams to be only simple, he wanted them to show that the translation from the observed reality to the graphical space is difficult. To show the work involved in creating these diagrams they need to show many data points. One can find a few texts that reflect Bourdieu’s use of diagrams, photographs, graphs and typographic variations. For example in Michel Gollac’s text “Rigor and fun,” this text reflects Bourdieu's oral advice that sociology should be “fun”. Gollac’s idea in this text is that Bourdieu’s diagrams were supposed to be a “fun time” during the reading. A fun pause, a “free trip” into social space. But these graphs required a “strenuous effort” to be drawn by Bourdieu.
A central part of his text is: Whether handmade diagrams or true correspondence analysis graphs, what’s essential is that they offer a novel possibility to wander freely in a social space. This virtual trip is a fun time, in the strongest sense of the word, offering in a single gaze the whole possibility of lifestyles. This trip condenses in a short amount of time the pleasure to “live all the lives”, to use one of Bourdieu’s expressions.
The chart he created presents a large portion of the information gleaned from his survey. The chart is organized along two dimensions. Horizontal positions range from those on the left, whose cultural-to-economic capital ratio is very high, to those on the right, whose cultural-to-economic capital ratio is very low. Vertical positions indicate the amount of combined capital associated with the people and lifestyles found there. Thus, at the very bottom, we find (in black writing) unskilled workers and individual farmers. Moving upward to the right, we find farm laborers, shopkeepers on up to commercial/industrial employers (capitalists). Starting again at the bottom and moving upward toward the left, we basically rise through the hierarchy of cultural guardians – primary, secondary and higher-education teachers. Upward through the middle of the diagram, we find foremen, office workers, technicians on up to executives and professionals (lawyers, doctors, etc.). The chart also includes several arrows that depict the historical trajectory of various professions through this social space.
Bourdieu proposes that those with a high volume of cultural capital – non-financial social assets, such as education, which promote social mobility beyond economic means – are most likely to be able to determine what constitutes taste within society. Those with lower volumes of overall capital accept this taste, and the distinction of high and low culture, as legitimate and natural, and thus accept existing restrictions on conversion between the various forms of capital (economic, social, cultural). Those with low overall capital are unable to access a higher volume of cultural capital because they lack the necessary means to do so. This could mean lacking the terminology to describe or methods of understanding classical artwork, due to features of their habitus, for example. Bourdieu asserts in this respect that 'working-class people expect objects to fulfill a function' whilst those free from economic necessities are able to operate a pure gaze separated from everyday life. The acceptance of 'dominant' forms of taste is, Bourdieu argues, a form of 'symbolic violence'. That is, the naturalization of this distinction of taste and its misrecognition as necessary denies the dominated classes the means of defining their own world, which leads to the disadvantage of those with less overall capital. Moreover, even when the subordinate social classes might seem to have their own ideas about what is and what is not good taste, "the working-class ‘aesthetic’ is a dominated aesthetic, which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics" of the ruling class.
The aesthetic choices of a person create class fractions (class-based social groups) and actively distance a social class from other social classes of a society. Hence, predispositions to certain kinds of food, music and art are taught and instilled in children and these class-specific (not particular nor individual) tastes help guide children to their "appropriate" social positions. Therefore, self-selection into a class fraction is achieved by impelling the child's internalization of preferences for objects and behaviors suitable for him or her as a member of a given social class and also, the development of an aversion towards the preferred objects and behaviors of other social classes. In practice, when a man or a woman encounters the culture and the arts of another social class, he or she feels "disgust, provoked by horror, or visceral intolerance (‘feeling sick’) of the tastes of others."
Therefore, "Taste" is an important example of cultural hegemony, of how class fractions are determined. It's not only the possession of social capital and economic capital, but possession of cultural capital as well. Instilling and acquiring cultural capital is used as an insidious mechanism to ensure social reproduction as well as cultural reproduction of the ruling class. Moreover, because people are taught his and her tastes at an early age, taste is deeply internalized. Social re-conditioning for taste is very difficult. The taste instilled and acquired tends to permanently identify a person as one from a certain social class and this impedes social mobility. In this way, the cultural tastes of the dominant (ruling) class tend to dominate the tastes of the other social classes, forcing individual men and women of economically and culturally dominated classes to conform to the dominating aesthetic preferences, or risk "societal" (but in fact, fractional and domineering) disapproval – appearing crude, vulgar and tasteless.
Influenced by structuralism, Bourdieu sought to go beyond the traditional reliance on regression analysis in contemporary sociology and achieve a more rigorous quantitative approach. Rather than relying on the correlation of multiple independent variables, he was interested in developing a framework to allow him to view "the complete system of relations that make up the true principle of the force and form specific to the effects recorded in such and such correlation." For the analysis in La Distinction, Bourdieu, working with his statistical technician Salah Bouhedja, employed multiple rounds of correspondence analysis on a set of data from two surveys, the "Kodak survey" of 1963 and the "taste survey" of 1967. In addition to this analysis, Bourdieu also applied correspondence analysis to a subset of the data, the responses from what Bourdieu labelled the "dominant classes" and the "petite-bourgeoisie." This type of research represented an early attempt at geometric data analysis, specifically multiple correspondence analysis, which would become an important methodological framework in Bourdieu's later work.
Cultural capital comprises the social assets of a person (education, intellect, style of speech, style of dress, etc.) that promote social mobility in a stratified society. Cultural capital functions as a social-relation within an economy of practices (system of exchange), and comprises all of the material and symbolic goods, without distinction, that society considers rare and worth seeking. As a social relation within a system of exchange, cultural capital includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers social status and power.
In the sociological essay, "The Forms of Capital", Pierre Bourdieu identifies three categories of capital:
- Economic capital: Command of economic resources (money, assets, property).
- Social capital: Actual and potential resources linked to the possession of a durable network of institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.
- Cultural capital: A person's education (knowledge and intellectual skills) that provides advantage in achieving a higher social-status in society.
There are three types of cultural capital: Embodied capital, Objectified capital, and Institutionalized capital:
Embodied cultural capital comprises the knowledge that is consciously acquired and passively inherited, by socialization to culture and tradition. Unlike property, cultural capital is not transmissible, but is acquired over time, as it is impressed upon the person's habitus (character and way of thinking), which, in turn, becomes more receptive to similar cultural influences. Linguistic cultural capital is the mastery of language and its relations; the embodied cultural capital, which is a person's means of communication and self-presentation, acquired from the national culture.
Objectified cultural capital comprises the person's property (e.g. a work of art, scientific instruments, etc.) that can be transmitted for economic profit (buying-and-selling) and for symbolically conveying the possession of cultural capital facilitated by owning such things. Yet, whilst possessing a work of art (objectified cultural-capital) the person can consume the art (understand its cultural meaning) only with the proper conceptual and historical foundations of prior cultural-capital. As such, cultural capital is not transmitted in the sale of the work of art, except by coincidental and independent causation, when the seller explains the artwork's significance to the buyer.
Institutionalized cultural capital comprises an institution's formal recognition of a person's cultural capital, usually academic credentials or professional qualifications. The greatest social role of institutionalized cultural-capital is in the labor market (a job), wherein it allows the expression of the person's array of cultural capital as qualitative and quantitative measurements (which are compared against the measures of cultural capital of other people). The institutional recognition facilitates the conversion of cultural capital into economic capital, by serving as a heuristic (practical solution) with which the seller can describe their cultural capital to the buyer.
The cultural capital of a person is linked to their habitus (embodied disposition and tendencies) and field (social positions), which are configured as a social-relation structure. The field is the place of social position that is constituted by the conflicts that occur when social groups endeavor to establish and define what is cultural capital, within a given social space; therefore, depending upon the social field, one type of cultural capital can simultaneously be legitimate and illegitimate. In that way, the legitimization (societal recognition) of a type of cultural capital can be arbitrary and derived from symbolic capital.
Habitus comprises socially ingrained habits, skills and dispositions. It is the way that individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. These dispositions are usually shared by people with similar backgrounds (such as social class, religion, nationality, ethnicity, education and profession). The habitus is acquired through imitation (mimesis) and is the reality in which individuals are socialized, which includes their individual experience and opportunities. Thus, the habitus represents the way group culture and personal history shape the body and the mind; as a result, it shapes present social actions of an individual.
These attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits have influence on the individual's life chances, so the habitus not only is structured by an individual's objective past position in the social structure but also structures the individual's future life path. Bourdieu argued that the reproduction of the social structure results from the habitus of individuals.
The concept of habitus has been used as early as Aristotle but in contemporary usage was introduced by Marcel Mauss and later Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However, it was Pierre Bourdieu who turned it into a cornerstone of his sociology, and used it to address the sociological problem of agency and structure: the habitus is shaped by structural position and generates action, thus when people act and demonstrate agency they simultaneously reflect and reproduce social structure. Bourdieu elaborated his theory of the habitus while borrowing ideas on cognitive and generative schemes from Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget dependency on history and human memory. For instance, a certain behavior or belief becomes part of a society's structure when the original purpose of that behavior or belief can no longer be recalled and becomes socialized into individuals of that culture
The habitus of a person is composed of the intellectual dispositions inculcated to him or her by family and the familial environment, and are manifested according to the nature of the person. As such, the social formation of a person's habitus is influenced by family, by objective changes in social class, and by social interactions with other people in daily life moreover, the habitus of a person also changes when he or she changes social positions within the field.