Pierre Bourdieu is a French anthropologist and sociologist who has had an enormous impact on the social sciences. He was a professor of sociology at the College de France, Paris until his death in 2002.

Bourdieu was born in 1930 in the Pyrenees in France; his father was a postal worker. Bourdieu studied philosophy, receiving his degree in 1954, after which he undertook fieldwork in Algeria during the War of Independence. This fieldwork formed the basis for his first major work, translated into English as Outline of a Theory of Practice, which lays out his great contribution: praxis or practice theory. This is the only book of Bourdieu's I have read, and so can speak with any first-hand knowledge about, but I can tell you that his entire oeuvre is innovative and extraordinary.

In Outline he elaborates on the concept of habitus which he developed in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. In essence, habitus refers to the forms of social construction by which people are made members of society; that is, the system, or more properly systems, by which individuals internalize the structures of the social order. Michel Foucault might refer to this process as subjectivization. Like Foucault, Bourdieu believed that social structures are not disinterested, but rather are based on unequal power relations between groups of people. Habitus is how elites ensure the reproduction of social structures, which are also necessarily, in Bourdieu's view, systems of domination. Over time, habitus becomes fully integrated into the social order, and elites no longer have to be directly involved in the reproduction of social structure.

All this sounds very abstract, but what is exciting about Bourdieu is that the social analyst can understand these structures and processes through an examination of mundane practical acts. Like Foucault, Bourdieu pays attention to the everyday, the lived - dispositions, Bourdieu calls bodily, habitual modes of behaviour and action - and he plumbs them for what they reveal about power relations. Humdrum acts like holding a spoon in a certain way or laying out a living room point to dispositions, to the habitus.

Bourdieu is a complex theorist who has written many many books, and I have merely scratched the surface of his contribution here. The apparently definitive webliography of Bourdieu's work in French, English, and German can be found at HyperBourdieu

The relationship between class and culture is a sociological debate that has produced many different conclusions. Culture can be seen as reproducing the class position. A person’s taste in things like food, sports, entertainment, and other cultural aspects is shown to reflect his or her class, showing a difference between working, middle, and upper classes. Certain culture behaviors that come from a person’s class serves to reinforce these social hierarchies showing that cultural capital has an important impact on lifestyle.

Bourdieu describes the term habitus as a class based outlook to life so that people have class-specific ways of being in and relating to the world, and would therefore distinctly affect a person’s taste. This makes sense since the habitus is socially constructed so that those who have to struggle to make ends meet, the working class, will have a different outlook on life than those who have a lot of money to waste, the upper class. The middle class is often problematic since belonging between these two groups tends to make definitions harder to formulate. The middle class is therefore shown to play a game of distinction and is labeled as “status seekers”, so that they can separate themselves from the lower class. These different outlooks on life based on class affect a person’s cultural taste.

Habitus therefore influences lifestyle choices. The upper class are not concerned with the necessities of life and therefore have a certain freedom in their taste They will go to high class restaurants where presentation and environment are more important than getting their money’s worth. They will play tennis or polo and go to opera and museums. All this reflects a highly formalized taste. The working class however needs to work to make ends meet and are therefore more practical, functional, and down to earth than the upper class. This specific position and habitus again affects the class’s taste. For example, the working class will instead eat at family restaurants where a lot of food is served at a low price. They will go to bars and public dances and play football. The specific choice to go the family restaurant rather than the expensive French restaurant is therefore specifically associated with class.

This point is further proven through the middle class. The middle class habitus is characterized as playing the game of distinction. They seek to be like the higher class but do not have the assets to do so. Therefore the typical taste in culture is reflective of this. For example the middle class will eat at expensive restaurants and where designer clothes whenever possible, spending any extra money to be like those in the higher classes.

Therefore, a person’s culture preference is determined by the class-based habitus of which they belong to. Likewise, a person’s taste will then reflect his or her class history. Cultural capital helps strengthen the distinction between the classes. Cultural capital is types of speech, educational level, and cultural preferences. These, according to Bourdieu develop from and are reflective of class background. Thus this cultural capital restricts access to other cultural assets and powers. For example, since a working class person is not inclined to go to the opera or an important art exhibition, he or she will not interact with the higher class. This therefore creates more distinctions between classes and reinforces cultural preferences.

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