Distinctions

Pierre Bourdieu’s La distinction (1979) is one of the most influential works in sociology ever, and its impact has been far wider than the academy. It is a broad analysis of the French society in the 60’s and 70’s based on a certain thesis: There is a homology between the space of life styles and the space of social positions. Life styles and tastes distinct social groups – culture is power.

Bourdieu found a ‘vertical’ dimension, revealing a socio-economic hierarchy: An aristocracy in one end, a working class in the other, and a middle class in between. To underline the significance of culture Bourdieu coined the concept cultural capital. This tool made it possible to distinguish dimensions within these groups. One of the factors was the distribution of economic and cultural resources: Groups with high cultural capital but low economic capital could be distinguished from groups with the opposite characteristics. Fractions of classes could be distinguished – the aristocracy contained the culture elite and the economic elite.

Culture was especially important in certain groups characterized by high cultural capital and lower economic capital, such as teachers and journalists. They developed a selective taste, and was attracted to for example esoteric literature. The economic fractions had a different relationship to culture – business leaders on higher levels preferred ordinary entertainment or strictly canonized literature.

Pierre Bourdieu

The education system played a key role to create and consolidate the credence to culture. Bourdieu identified three different kinds of cultural capital: objectified, embodied and institutionalized. The objectified condition is artefacts like books, records, paintings etc. The embodied condition comprises for example taste, language, and behavior, and takes a lot of effort to achieve. You have to work on it at home, at school, and after.

What have happened since Bourdieu’s famous study? Has the picture changed? Are the results relevant today? In Sweden? There has been a lot of research since Bourdieu’s study, some of them verify the study, and some of them do not. According to the omnivore thesis, times have changed. The distinctions are just not relevant today. The groups with great resources have broadened their taste – today they are omnivores, consuming a wide range of cultural practices. And on the opposite, people from lower classes, are today exposed to what used to be considered as high-brow culture, for example classical music.

A lot of differences and distinctions are as far as I can see, still obvious, at least in Sweden. (See several reports from Swedish agency for Cultural policy analysis/Myndigheten för kulturanalys). The geographical variations are apparent: The differences between the countryside and the big cities are for example clear, urban people are more cultural active than rural. The difference between the big cities (Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö) and the small cities are about the same as between the small cities and the countryside. 

Gender is another distinctive category – women are more cultural active than men, but geography is actually more distinctive than gender. And the same pattern goes for level of education and socioeconomic class: Degree and economy is more distinctive than gender. The difference between men and women is clear in every age, but the difference between young females and old females is bigger than between young females and young men. The same pattern occurs if we compare young and old men, and young men and young females.

Another distinction occurs if you consider art forms – females prefer high culture (classical music, dance, and art) more than men. And if you combine professions and gender, yet another interesting distinction occurs: Female leaders are more attracted to culture than male leaders.

There are no details in the data above, and therefore it is not possible to make like a perfect comparison with Bourdieu. But the picture is clear enough – cultural preferences correlate with social structure, and culture is a part of the social stratification.

In a report from last year, the conditions in Stockholm for youths in the age of 13–16, were studied (Youth’s Life styles in high and low status areas/Ungas livsstil i låg- och högstatusområden). The study gives an expected picture: Lower grades, lower attendance in organized sports and culture activities, and less physical activity were found in the low status areas. The gender differences were actually also higher in these areas.

Last year The National Endowment of the Arts in the US, published the report When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, and some of the results support the social dimension of cultural activity sketched above. The main reason for attending art events is, according to the survey, “socializing with friends and family”. Income does not effect the answer on this question. And one of the main reasons for not attending is actually lack of company. Social networks are obviously a motivation. (Perhaps cultural institutions should spend more interest in creating environments for socialization?) Even the funding and the organization of the event are of importance: More than 50 % of the adults attending, do so to support community organizations or events sponsored by community members.

Despite what is said above, we should not forget the importance of the content. The untold stories need to be told, the unrepresented need to get represented. Without supply there is just nothing. The crucial thing is to find combinations of the social dimensions, the medium and the content. Representation is always a kind of prioritization. When public funding is redirected, transferred from one institution to another, it is a painful experience for the institution losing its power.

Which is the problem with the social differences in cultural activity? A common answer is that culture represents democracy, freedom of speech and other basic values of our society. Art is certainly one of the most powerful tools to make distinction between social groups, but probably art could be used also for other and more refreshing purposes.


Fredrik Sandblad || 2016-08-14