Distinction Essay

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Distinction references the social consequences of expressions of taste. When people consume — whether it be popular culture, leisure, fine arts, the home, vacations, or fashion — these actions, among other things, act to express tastes. And tastes are not innocuous. Rather, what and how people consume can act as a social reproduction mechanism. So expressions of taste are acts of distinction to the extent that they signal, and help to reproduce, differences in social class. Distinction can be distinguished from other important class reproduction mechanisms such as educational credentials, the accumulation of financial assets, and membership in clubs and associations.

Pierre Bourdieu in his seminal Distinction: A Social Critique ofthe Judgment ofTaste (1984) makes three major contributions to the idea of distinction. First, he carefully unpacks and details the independent contributions of economic capital and what he terms cultural capital. Economic capital allows one to express tastes for luxurious and scarce goods, much like Veblen describes. Cultural capital is different in that it consists of the socialized tastes that come from ”good breeding : growing up among educated parents and peers. Cultural elites express tastes that are conceptual, distanced, ironic, and idiosyncratic. So rather than a unidimensional social class hierarchy, Bourdieu is able to specify carefully how class fractions are composed (and often clash) due to differences in their relative amounts of economic and cultural capital.

Second, he specifies a materialist theory that explains why different class fractions tend toward particular tastes. He traces the causal linkages between social conditions and tastes; for example, the economic deprivations of the working class lead to the ”taste for necessity. Rather than a consensus model, with Bourdieu’s theory, one is able to predict the kinds of cultural products different class fractions will like and the ways in which they will consume them.

Third, what is most notable about Bourdieu’s book, and least commented upon, is his nuanced eye for the subtle distinguishing practices that pervade everyday life. Much like Erving Goffman, Bourdieu is able to pick apart the micro details — how one dresses, how one vacations, the way in which one justifies aesthetic preferences — to reveal their broader sociological impact.

Bourdieu’s research has stimulated a variety of empirical studies that have sought to test the relationship between tastes and social reproduction.

The results of these studies have been inconclusive. One of the inherent problems in such studies is that cultural practices that communicate distinction are often quite subtle. Many of these practices are not easily captured by conventional social science constructs, nor by survey measures, the primary method for follow-up studies to date.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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