To what extent do you agree with Bourdieu’s theory that our taste is a signifier of social class
To what extent do you agree with Bourdieu’s theory that our ‘taste’ is a signifier of social class and in what ways do media texts contribute to this notion?
Most people would reject the idea that their tastes and preferences are anything but socially conditioned to reflect a symbolic hierarchy. Yet this is what Bourdieu’s theory, that our ‘taste’ is a signifier of social class, argues. In this essay, I will examine this theory and examine the extent i agree with it and also see in what ways media texts may contribute to this notion. I will to use examples too to illustrate some key points.
In his book "Distinction: A social critique of taste", Pierre Bourdieu asserted that peoples ‘taste’ is a signifier of social class. But before we define what Bourdieu meant by this, it is imperative to first define what ‘Taste’ and ‘social class’ refer to. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Taste’ as peoples tendency to like or prefer one thing as well as the quality of having high aesthetic standards. On the other hand, ‘Social class" is defined as a social division that is based on social or economic status. When you apply both definitions to what Bourdieu implied when he stated ‘taste’ is a signifier of social class", he was essentially saying that, what people like or prefer or what they see as beautiful such as wearing a designer Burberry jacket, as opposed to a Primark, is a result of their social or economic status. According to Bourdieu (1984), someone wearing a Burberry jacket would in essence signify they are from a high social class and wearing a Primark jacket would symbolize lower social class. This is because for Bourdieu, taste or preference is a "social weapon" people use to create identities separating themselves from others, separating the high from the low, the blessed from the cursed, and the "legitimate" from the "illegitimate" (Allen and Anderson 1994).
There are many arguments Bourdieu uses to support his stance. especially when considering how taste is formed and why people consume what they consume. According to Bourdieu, What people consume is always a reflection of their taste which is reflection of social class. But more importantly, Bourdieu asserted that taste is formed as a result of dominant class hierarchies such as the upper class who impose on lower class society certain tastes that become culturally dominant. So the different tastes of British people such as what food some British peoples eat, or if they love football, rugby, horse riding, or polo, the films they watch, if they love art, or reading literature, the clothing they wear, how they spend leisure activity can all signify social class. Bourdieu says all these consumption habits reflect taste that signifies peoples social class but more importantly, dominant taste is always the taste of the higher social classes who dictate the cultural standards because they have cultural and economic capital to do so (Bourdieu 1984; Allen and Anderson 1994).
Bourdieu (1984) hence declared that people consume what they consume and display certain tastes because their social class makes them do that. Bourdieu thus suggests that a person who is of low education will not really appreciate art compared to a highly educated one. The lowly educated will for example merely concentrate on just appreciating content and how art re-represents the real world (realism) while the highly educated will have more intellectual understanding focussed on the style of the art, its form as well as its relation to other arts. Even when it comes to something as watching films, the less educated person is satisfied with just the action from the film while the highly educated person will have a more intellectual film taste that is refined. To Bourdieu, such film taste may come across as interest in distinct vintage directors like Federico Fellini, because they want to appreciate the film as art form. This is what Bourdieu (1984) sees as the distinction between social classes and how their tastes signify their social classes. As a further example, the lower class will likely appreciate different film genres while the higher classes will also appreciate an entirely different genre of films due to class.
Of course the lowly educated might say they have a choice in what films they prefer or that they don’t like art because it bores them rather than admitting their tastes are a signifier of their lower class. Bourdieu has an answer to this! False Kantian ideology which is failure to recognise that taste is result of social conditioning that hides peoples social hierarchy of dominant from dominated (Allen and Anderson 1994).
People from one social class will tend to condition another to acquire similar tastes as a way to distinct themselves as a class and legitimize their classifications using taste. This is why people from upper class society may guide and remind each other on what art events to attend, or what film is a must watch; conditioning members of that class to have certain tastes worthy of their class. Hence aesthetic differentiation like the literature to read, attendance of theatre or appreciation of art is one aspect of economic and political power that serves an ideological purpose to hide class and power relations between classes (Bourdieu 1984).The role of media in contributing to this is substancial and there are many ways that media contributes to taste as a signifier of social class.
Media texts especially films contribute through construction of narratives or ideologically acceptable tastes which become institutionalized. For instance, many commercial films have the materiality of public taste with ideological manipulation and sanctioned taste that puts value judgements on consumers of such films. So a film by Federico Fellini gets to become a media text whose intellectual analysis, appreciation and decoding means one is of a higher social class whereas if one cannot intellectually decode a Fellini film, it means one doesnt have the cultural capital to decode ideology in such a film, a signifier of a lower class. This is why Bourdieu (1984) states film as media text has legitimate cultural status because of its role in helping to consolidate class hierarchies that sanction taste. Aesthetic intolerance like refusal of one higher social class to accept popular movies is one way that taste in films is used to justify class endogamy.
Apart from films, other media text such as advertising is also used to contribute to the notion that our ‘taste’ is a signifier of our social class. Advertising has done this by helping to create a consumer culture that promotes commodities or modes of consumption as ways to buy legitimacy to certain classes. So advertising sells cultural products such as going to theatres as something which when consumed, can help anyone with the cash to attain social mobility. Advertising as a media text thus becomes very important, a way of showing people that if they acquire certain tastes for certain products, say luxurious brands, they will also become part of the high social classes (Slater 1997; Corrigan 1998). Advertising as a media text is now used to promote status luxury brands of the traditional high classes so that anyone with money can also get acquired taste and become like them. Leiss et al (2005) thus argued that promotional media text has resulted in status competition where winning is signified not by the status goods themselves people possess but rather the showing off of taste through having such goods, a perfect demonstration of how media contributes ‘taste’ as a signifier of social class.
According to Leiss et al (2005), media, unlike other social institutions, is one of a few institutions that do have power to define the reflection of social success. Such reflection can be the in the act of showing taste in popular luxury brands such Dior or Channel products if you are a girl. Since advertising media has become globalized through globalizing media, more and more people are now advertised the message that their taste in such brands will show they are high class. Even traditionally Asian consumers like the Chinese are now becoming obsessed with luxury labels because global media texts communicate that to have such goods is show your taste is of the affluent classes, hence Bourdieu's‘taste’ is a signifier of social class". In the Philippines for example, young people from a lower social background have been reported to “spend many hours sitting in strategic places where people look at them while eating at McDonalds restaurants". After eating, they then walk with the empty burger bags so that other people see where they had lunch (Arvidsson 2006). This is what happens when media culture infiltrates contemporary life globally and provides consumers with perceptions of consumption and tastes that embody dominant capitalist ideologies from affluent western nations. For these low class Philippine consumers, such ideology includes the idea that eating at McDonalds is a signifier of higher social class. But this has happened with help of representations and symbols promoted by media such as popular TV, radio, cinema advertising and low brow press (Arvidsson 2006 p11; Richards et al 2000).
So what extent do I agree with Bourdieu’s theory that our ‘taste’ is a signifier of social class and in what ways do media texts contribute to this notion? I agree to a large extent that peoples taste is signifier of social class because taste is manifested preference and where there is preference, there is difference. This difference seen in the essay is also a marker of social class distinction. Further, I have demonstrated that media culture such as TV, films also helps to promote such representations of taste and taste in different media like the films one watches can indeed signify ones class.
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