The Aristocracy of Culture, Pierre Bourdieu

When we talk about the inequalities within a certain social group, it’s important to take into account the idea of cultural capital. According to Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas in his essay “The Aristocracy of Culture,” this means stocks of cultural knowledge to produce a certain type of performance used to fit in with the dominant model. This includes learned behaviors such as distinctions in language, etiquette, dress, interests and so one that serve to reinforce the standards of the elite. The standards of this aristocracy stems from the historical link between the French and the English aristocracy, which helped form what is now considered high-class forms of art, music, fashion, etc. Take, for example, the history of haute couture. It originally came from an Englishman’s work in Paris, in which he fitted custom-made clothing for the wealthy elite. Now, it is known as the impetus of the cultured fashion industry where affluent designers try to emulate styles for global fashion weeks. What fashion enthusiasts fawn over on the runway during these events don’t actually serve the general public, but it does reinforce the idea of what expensive and flashy trends will be emulated in mass produced clothing lines.

Today, the dominance of this type of “correct” behavior also helps to empower the institutional class-based systems of societies worldwide, and it is still very much alive in the United Kingdom. A year ago, the BBC covered The Great British Class Survey, considered to be the biggest scientific investigation into social class in the U.K. The research methods were actually designed based on Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital. Instead of looking into where the Brits fell into on the working, middle or upper class scale of wealth, researchers conducting the study took into account more than the size of an individual’s pocketbook. They also analyzed one’s cultural capital based on how often they partake in 27 cultural activities listed in the survey. Researchers made a point to categorize high-brow activities from more emerging or popular forms of culture, such as going to the theater versus going to a pop concert. The results showed users where they fell on the spectrum of seven different classes: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers and the precariat. The calculator also took another look into how cultural capital affects individuals’ lives by analyzing participant social capital, or what kind of people they associated with. Not only were their occupations considered, but also those of their closest friends. Of course, economic capital played a part in the results, but the new types of classifications were about more than financial accumulation.

In relation to this kind of study of class structure, Bourdieu would say that cultural capital is becoming less of a resource for the elite and instead increasingly more accessible to the public. This is in part to his claim that culture, taste and perception are all learned depending on the individual’s access to the corresponding coding resources. Howard Becker set out to support this concept with his essay “Becoming a Marihuana User.” The focus of his study was to examine how people who engaged in marijuana use did so out of learned behaviors from others. He claims that although most new users don’t get high from the substance, their continued use is out of expecting the sensation that they are supposed to experience. The individual will only use marijuana for pleasure when he 1) learned how to smoke it in a way that produces the effects, 2) learns to recognize the effects and connected it to the substance, and 3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. In recognizing that tastes, both literally and figuratively, change depending on social influences, Bourdieu would recognize that the old air of aristocracy might be diminishing toward a more popular culture of tastes. However, these tastes and values still reinforce the dominant cultural order and shape individuals to fill these roles.

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