Sociology of Distinction

“There are some British people who are cool [Mick Jagger, for example], and then there are people like me who seem to be made of tweed.”

In an interview with Craig Ferguson, Stephen Fry talks about class in England and how punk changed notions of what Bourdieu calls “distinction”. That is, different classes reinforce social norms and social order through their activities and interests.

People generally tend to think of their individual preferences for music, fashion or their manner of speaking as a sign of their personality or family upbringing. Bourdieu shows that the things and ideas we like actually represent the aesthetics of our class. Working class “distinctions” not only set this group apart from upper class groups, their activities are often set up in opposition to other classes.

Popular culture nowadays might seem to transcend class, but in essence, our tastes still reflect social hierarchies.

To an outsider, Stephen Fry might represent the quintessential British culture, but as Fry actually notes, growing up in 1970s, he embodied all the aspects of British culture that the general public hated: he was highly educated, he liked Latin poetry, and he dresses in tweed. In summary, his personal aesthetic or distinction represented upper class British culture.

I thought that I was from a generation that was born at least 20 years too late. That maybe if I’d been born in the 50s, when wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pike and talking about Catullus and Ovid was somehow acceptable and you were admired for it. Whereas I felt that I was born into a post-punk era in which the idea of even speaking in sentences that didn’t break up at the end and go “sort of”, and “like” and “oh I wonder”. Just having an articulate voice was in itself was an offence. It was like rubbing people’s faces in the dirt. And I was hated for it.

In contrast, Scotland-born Craig Ferguson embodies the opposite distinction: his casual style, self-effacing humour, his swearing and dishevelled presentation evokes his working class background, which he often references directly. Ferguson, who has often discussed his affinity to the British punk movement (he was once in a band), talks about how he disliked Fry precisely for all the things he stood for: well-spoken, widely-read, affluent charm.

The exchange is a lovely example of how Bourdieu uses distinction to analyse class systems. Fry also discusses his addiction and psychological definitions of being bi polar.

Street Art and Distinction in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Zuleyka Zevallos

In the photograph below, street artist Shamsia Hassan is featured in front of one her graffiti creations in an industrial park in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hassan was featured today in The Guardian, where she argues that many people in Afghanistan have not been exposed to (non-religious) art, but she sees that graffiti is a way to change that. She says: “If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art”. To many people in “Western” countries, Shassan’s comments might seem to be consistent with the dominant view that Afghan people exist in a “backward” social vacuum. From the outside, Afghans are perceived to live in a society untouched by modernity and completely ravaged by war. This view fails to recognise the history of Afghanistan, as well as the cultural and educational diversity amongst urban and rural groups from different tribes in different regions. Moreover, I see that Hassan’s comments about street art go to the heart of much of Bourdieu’s work on taste and distinction.

 

Continue reading Street Art and Distinction in Kabul, Afghanistan

Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies

The Bourdieu tradition lives on…

Over the past two decades in the United States, there has been a new wave of criticism of higher education. Much of it has condemned the rise of “academic capitalism” and the corporatization of the university; a substantial wing has focused on the deteriorating conditions of academic labor; and some of it has pointed out the problems of students and their escalating debt. A good deal of this new work comes from literary and cultural critics, although it also includes those from education, history, sociology, and labor studies. This wave constitutes what Heather Steffen, a graduate student in literary and cultural studies with whom I have worked at Carnegie Mellon University, and I think is an emerging field of “critical university studies.”

Often criticism of the university seems a scattershot enterprise. A scholar from almost any discipline might have something to say about higher education, but it’s usually an occasional piece that’s a sideline from normal work. There is, of course, a sizable body of scholarship coming from the field of education, but it largely deals with elementary and secondary schooling. Or it follows established scholarly channels; for instance, it might gather and present data about the student body, or it could deal with administration, or fill in a segment of the history, sociology, or financing of education.

In contrast, this new wave in higher education looks beyond the confines of particular specializations and takes a resolutely critical perspective. Part of its task is scholarly, reporting on and analyzing changes besetting higher education, but it goes a step further and takes a stand against some of those changes, notably those contributing to the “unmaking of the public university,” in the words of the literary critic Christopher Newfield.

To give it a name recognizes that it has attained significant mass and signals a gathering place for those considering similar work. “Critical” indicates the new work’s oppositional stance, similar to approaches like critical legal studies, critical race studies, critical development studies, critical food studies, and so on, that focuses on the ways in which current practices serve power or wealth and contribute to injustice or inequality rather than social hope. “Studies” picks up its cross-disciplinary character, focused on a particular issue and drawing on research from any relevant area to approach the problem. “University” outlines its field of reference, which includes the discourse of “the idea of the university” as well as the actual practices and diverse institutions of contemporary higher education…

While those of us affiliated with critical university studies tack to a progressive ideal of free and open public education, teaching the university does not presuppose any political position. Instead, it puts the issue in front of students for them to question, investigate, and judge. After all, they are not only the subject of higher education but will soon be our citizenry, so they might more knowledgeably decide what system they want, how it might promote an enhanced public life, and how it might contribute to the flourishing of those who pass through its classrooms, quads, and online portals.

By Jeffrey J. Williams.

Homo Academicus Redux

jtotheizzoe:

Shit Scientists Say

I’m a little tired of the “Shit ____ Say/Don’t Say” meme already, but I’ll make an exception for this one. It’s mildly hilarious.

Stochastic.

(by RoseEveleth)

zeezeescorner:

Pretty good parody video. “In conclusion more research is required” (ha!).

Part of the joke in this video is the little regard some scientists have for treating living beings empathically and ethically, instead referring to animals and people as disposable tools: “Do you have an extra monkey?” “Hey, you got an extra undergrad?”. And feeling superior to everything and everyone: “She keeps talking about her Nature paper, but she was only the third author”. “I mean there’s science and then there’s social science”.

Funnily enough apart from this remark, the only science portrayed in this video are the natural sciences. Yes, this is a reflection of the producers of the video (who may be natural scientists doing a parody), but this is also indicative of how science is constructed in the public imagination. Plus on Tumblr I might add: the science and social science tags are separate, though I’ve yet to see social science show up in the science stream. (Also our thread has no editors, which I know some other sociologists have pointed out.)

Before we sociologists get up on our moral high horse about scientific superiority, I have heard some amazing derision amongst our peers, particularly from senior academics putting down applied sociologists.

Where does all this science holier-than-thou-shit come from? Read Bourdieu Homo Academicus, where he talks about how scientific disciplines structure knowledge, status and symbolic power. Here’s a clue, where Bourdieu quotes Hobbes: “Reputation of power is power”.

Ahh science, science, where for art thou science…

Erotic Capital and the Sociology of Beauty

Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.  The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.

Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.

Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. -  Pierre Bourdieu
Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. – Pierre Bourdieu

Continue reading Erotic Capital and the Sociology of Beauty