Critically analyse the production of the distinction approach to understanding consumer culture.

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Media, Identity and Consumer Culture:

Paper 1.

Tutor: Marc O’Day.


Critically analyse the production of the distinction approach to understanding consumer culture. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?


No judgement of taste is innocent. This is what writers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen would have us believe, that we are all snobs. In the course of everyday life people constantly choose between what they find aesthetically pleasing and what they consider tacky, merely trendy, or ugly. The different aesthetic choices people make are all distinctions. That is to say, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes.  This is essentially what distinction theory relates to, how elements of choice and taste reflect social class. This essay analysis’s two writers, Pierre Bourdieu’s and Thorstein Veblen’s distinction theories, their strengths and weaknesses, and examines their relevance to society today.

Pierre Bourdieu: A social critique of the judgement of taste.

Pierre Bourdieu's work concerned the operation of taste in French society. It examined the links between peoples observed social class and their patterns of consumption. It was based on a large survey carried out in 1963 and 1967-8, with a total of 1217 subjects. In this survey, people were asked to specify their preferences in a huge range of things. People specified their personal tastes in music, art, theatre, home decor, social pastimes, and literature etc. They also responded to questions regarding their knowledge about these arts. This was important to Bourdieu as he felt that upbringing and education where important elements when judging taste patterns.

According to*, part of Bourdieu's aim was to undermine the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant, which continues to dominate philosophical aesthetics. Essentially this is the theory of what is beautiful.  Bourdieu argues that Kant's criterion of the disinterestedness of the aesthetic gaze is an essentially middle class phenomenon.  The 'pure' 'refined' aesthetic, which derives pleasure from considered reflection on things, is only possible by a distance from things. That good taste is dependent on a separation from the necessities of daily labour. This distance is produced by the status of the bourgeois classes as separate from manual productive labour. This element of conspicuous leisure is not essential when trying to understand distinction theory though it is worth noting as it illustrates a weaker argument within distinction theory.

Through this empirical study, Bourdieu believed he had discovered a new type of capital. For Bourdieu there was not just economic capital, there was also cultural capital. This, for Bourdieu, is a type of wealth that can not necessarily be bought. As Bourdieu points out:

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“Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practises and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level and secondarily to social origin.” (1979: p1)

What Bourdieu is saying is that no amount of economic capital can buy taste; it is something that individuals are predisposed to through their upbringing. This cultural capital is also expressed through ways of consumption. Individuals that possess cultural capital also consume in certain ways which ...

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