Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu's Distinction

BOURDIEU'S THEORY OF CONSUMER TASTE FORMATION Bourdieu rejects the traditional notion that what he calls "tastes" (that is, consumer preferences) are the result of innate, individualistic choices of the human intellect. He argues that this "Kantian aesthetic" fails to recognize that tastes are socially conditioned and that the objects of consumer choice reflect a symbolic hierarchy that is determined and maintained by the socially dominant in order to enforce their distance or distinction from other classes of society. Thus, for Bourdieu, taste becomes a "social weapon" that defines and marks off the high from the low, the sacred from the profane, and the "legitimate" from the "illegitimate" in matters ranging from food and drink, cosmetics, and newspapers; on the one hand, to art, music, and literature on the other. (While it is sometimes thought that Bourdieu tends to focus on consumer preferences for products that have an obvious or recognized aesthetic component (e.g., clothing, home furnishings, entertainment, cultural activities, etc.), he also extends his analysis to the most mundane and functional items of consumption. This can be seen, for example, in his interpretation of working class selections in the realm of leisure activities and food (see Bourdieu 1984 Chapters 3 and 7)).


Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson (1994) ,"Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu's Distinction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 70-74.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 70-74


Douglas E. Allen, Pennsylvania State University

Paul F. Anderson, Pennsylvania State University


Bourdieu rejects the traditional notion that what he calls "tastes" (that is, consumer preferences) are the result of innate, individualistic choices of the human intellect. He argues that this "Kantian aesthetic" fails to recognize that tastes are socially conditioned and that the objects of consumer choice reflect a symbolic hierarchy that is determined and maintained by the socially dominant in order to enforce their distance or distinction from other classes of society. Thus, for Bourdieu, taste becomes a "social weapon" that defines and marks off the high from the low, the sacred from the profane, and the "legitimate" from the "illegitimate" in matters ranging from food and drink, cosmetics, and newspapers; on the one hand, to art, music, and literature on the other. (While it is sometimes thought that Bourdieu tends to focus on consumer preferences for products that have an obvious or recognized aesthetic component (e.g., clothing, home furnishings, entertainment, cultural activities, etc.), he also extends his analysis to the most mundane and functional items of consumption. This can be seen, for example, in his interpretation of working class selections in the realm of leisure activities and food (see Bourdieu 1984 Chapters 3 and 7)).

Bourdieu's analysis of consumption behavior is a straightforward extension of his broader sociological project. While Bourdieu's work defies easy classification within the confines of Anglo-American sociology (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992), it does share some affinities with conflict theory. However, Bourdieu's approach seeks to transcend the traditional structure/agency (objectivist/subjectivist) dichotomy that has long bedeviled British and North American social theory. The so called structure-agency issue seeks to make the explanation of human behavior problematic by asking how the institutional and structural properties of society interact with human agency (that is the human being's autonomous ability to act on the basis of independent cognitive processes) to produce the behavior (action) that defines the explanandum of sociology. The structuralist extreme is best represented by Marx and Durkheim who seek to explain human action by structural (e.g., class) and institutional (e.g. religious) factors that lie outside the reach of consciousness. The social phenomenology of Schutz and the ethnomethodology of Garfinkel reflect the extreme subjectivist (agency) view in which the sociologist seeks to understand behavior by grasping the objects of thought that constitute the common sense knowledge and thinking of social actors. Bourdieu seeks to transcend the traditional opposition of structure and agency by recognizing that:

On the one hand, the objective structures which the sociologist constructs in the objectivist moment, by setting aside the subjective representations of the agents, are the basis of subjective representations and they constitute the structural constraints which influence interactions; but, on the other hand, these representations also have to be remembered if one wants to account above all for the daily individual and collective struggles which aim at transforming or preserving these structures (Bourdieu 1990, pp. 125-26, emphasis added).

Thus, for Bourdieu, the relationship between structure and agency is dialectical rather than oppositional. He conceives of the consumption realm (as well as all sociologically relevant sites of investigation) as a field (champ) of power relations. The field is a multidimensional space of positions or locations in which a person's coordinates are determined by both the amount and composition of the types of "capital" that they possess. The most important forms of capital are economic and cultural capital. The former corresponds to the individual's economic resources while the latter includes such factors as: 1.) cultural knowledge, skills, experiences, abilities; 2.) linguistic competence, modes of speech, vocabulary; and 3.) modes of thought, factual knowledge, world views, etc. The most important fact about cultural capital is that it is generally acquired unreflectively via socialization in one's family, social class, neighborhood, sub-culture, etc. Moreover, it is reinforced by the institutional forces (e.g., schools, churches, welfare systems, parole boards, etc.) that one is exposed to as a result of the locational accident of one's birth.

Bourdieu conceptualizes the field as a site of struggle in which individuals and groups seek to maintain or alter the distribution of the various forms of capital that are specific to it. With respect to the consumption field, the main object of struggle is the definition of legitimate, middlebrow, and popular culture. On this view, those who possess large amounts of economic or cultural capital (or both) are "dominant" and will seek to impose a hierarchy of taste or preference on those with less capital (the "dominated").

Within the consumption field, social classes (what Bourdieu calls "classes on paper") may be discerned. Classes on paper are not real groups because they lack a strong group identity and are not mobilized for action in the struggle over economic and cultural capital. Classes on paper are made up of individuals who happen to occupy similar positions in multidimensional "capital space" (i.e., they possess similar amounts and types of capital). As a result, they will have experienced similar material and cultural conditions and will have submitted to similar types of conditionings. This means that members of these classes will "have every chance of having similar dispositions and interests, and thus of producing similar practices and adopting similar stances" (Bourdieu 1991, p. 231). Thus, for Bourdieu, a "class on paper" is a taxonomical device that has no independent ontological existence. It is a theoretical construct that allows one to explain and predict the actions of those it classifies (including their potential to form into real groupsCe.g., labor unions).

It can be seen, then, that Bourdieu's notion of class owes much to Weber. Like Weber, Bourdieu sees "class" as a theoretical construction that allows one to characterize the propensities of people with similar social conditionings and similar material conditions of life. Thus, the structuralist element in Bourdieu's theory would allow one to refer to the "objective" life chances of individuals in specific social classes. As long as we remain at a sufficiently high level of statistical aggregation, it is legitimate to speak of the of various social classes.

This can be demonstrated by using the available data on occupational groupings as a weak surrogate for social class. Featherman and Hauser (1978) present tables that show the outflow percentages from father's occupation to son's current occupation for the 1962 and 1973 OCG surveys. If we take as an example the outflow figures from upper manual to upper nonmanual, we see that in 1962 approximately 24.7% of the sons of upper manual workers had positions in the upper nonmanual category. By 1973 this percentage had increased to 30.9%. Thus, in a very rough way, these figures reflect the occupational opportunity structure for these men in the early 1960s and 1970s. Sons from upper manual origins entering the labor force in the 1960s and early 1970s could be said to have between a 25 and 30 percent chance of attaining an upper nonmanual position. (According to data from the NORC General Social Survey published by Hout (1988), this figure held steady at about 30% over the years 1972-1985.)

Thus, structural constraints in the form of economic and cultural resources, educational opportunities, supply and demand conditions, etc., could be said to limit the occupational mobility of men from upper manual origins. (They are limited in the sense that, for example, men from upper nonmanual origins are about twice as likely to attain upper nonmanual positions in all three data sets. Indeed, path analytic analyses of mobility table data confirm the continuing role of father's occupation in determining the destinations of sons across the occupational structure.) Thus, structural factors impinge on social class members in the form of statistical life chances. Structural elements determine the opportunity set within which individual actors live out their lives and produce the practices which we come to associate with specific class locations.

Of course, structural factors can only be used to "explain" the statistical probabilities or tendencies of actors in the aggregate. Thus, structuralist analyses have tended to leave opaque the mechanisms linking structure and practice at the individual level. Bourdieu seeks to remedy this lacuna with a "bridging" concept that he refers to as "habitus". Habitus is a Latin term that refers to a habitual or typical condition, state, or appearance. Bourdieu uses the word to refer to an "open set of dispositions" of individual actors that is constantly modified or reinforced through experience (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 133). These dispositions generate individual practices, perceptions, and attitudesCbut only in the context of a specific situation. That is, the habitus triggers reactions and influences perceptions in the context of a specific field. Moreover, such dispositions are said to be transposable in that they are "capable of generating a multiplicity of practices and perceptions in fields other than those in which they were originally acquired" (Bourdieu 1991, p. 13).

While the habitus is sufficiently "open" to allow for human agency, it is nevertheless the product of social conditioning. The dispositions that constitute a "class habitus", for example, are learned in the family, school, and neighborhood and unavoidably reflect the material conditions and social conditionings that one experiences as the result of one's location in "capital space". Thus, individuals from working class backgrounds have every chance of experiencing similar life conditions and have every likelihood of generating similar perceptions, practices, and attitudes. One's class origin is not, therefore, a structural straight jacket that determines with certainty one's actions. But, on the other hand, there is a certain probability that persons exposed to similar life experiences will display similar "lifestyles" and behaviors. The habitus, then, acts as a flexible explanatory tool that seeks to mediate between the determinism of structure and the obvious openness of individual action.

On Culture Vultures and Class Warriors: Marketing and Class Reproduction

Having developed the bare bones of Bourdieu's perspective, the remainder of the paper will focus on specific applications of the theory to consumer behavior. As noted above, Bourdieu sees the consumption field as a site of struggle over the definitions of legitimate, middlebrow, and popular culture. In his view, the socially and economically dominant in any society seek to maintain a strict hierarchy of cultural forms so that all judgments in the consumption sphere are subject to the hegemony of "legitimate" (i.e., dominant) cultural tastes. This is accomplished without conscious direction or coercion because a person's class habitus presents each individual with a preexisting set of "natural" classifications that constitute his or her unreflective definition of reality. Thus, in western industrialized societies, classical music, opera, legitimate theater, books on philosophy, knowledge of foreign languages, modern art collections, and subscriptions to academic journals are just a few of the cultural forms that are unquestionably (and unquestioned) elements of the legitimate or dominant culture. While members of the middle and working classes may eschew such cultural forms (indeed, they may well view them with suspicion or disdain), their position at the pinnacle of the cultural hierarchy goes unchallenged. As a result, those who can appropriate elements of legitimate culture as their own have the power to define the status of all other cultural forms.

This power goes unrecognized, of course, because it appears to be the natural state of "how things are". In particular, the autodidact, the parvenu, and the middlebrow will assume that legitimate cultural forms attain their position as the result of disinterested, objective, and autonomous (Kantian) judgments flowing from a special "knowledge" of such things. Indeed, Bourdieu argues that cultural hegemony is maintained by the dominant because the middle and working classes mistake the arbitrary and socially structured judgments of these classes for choices that require special cultural knowledge. Thus, the door is open for enterprising marketers to offer mobility aspirants (particularly among the middle classes) what has come to be known as "middlebrow" culture. Invariably, such cultural forms are "knock-off" versions of the "legitimate" forms that have been appropriated by the dominant. As a result, a whole "industry" has emerged that specializes in providing palatable versions of legitimate culture and the "knowledge-tools" necessary to appropriate (and appreciate) said forms. Examples include "best-loved classics" on compact discs, the various "great books" programs, the Book-of-the-Month Club, "supermarket" encyclopedias, books on wine appreciation and selection, and foreign language tapes. More specific illustrations would surely include Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, American Heritage Magazine, the Durants' The Story of Philosophy, An Incomplete Education, Emily Post's Etiquette, Where There's a Will There's An "A", and a plethora of public and commercial broadcasting programs (and books) designed to make science, technology or philosophy accessible to the "average man" (e.g., Nova, The Body in Question, The Tao of Physics, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, etc.).

The foregoing is just one set of examples that can be used to contrast Bourdieu's approach with the traditional Warnerian model of social class and consumption. Clearly, the latter takes a classic structural-functionalist approach to consumption differences across social classes. For Warner and his followers in marketing, different classes simply have different tastes, preferences and economic resources. The Warner model tends to classify choice behavior rather than attempt an explanation of the deep sociological roots of class preferences. In contrast, Bourdieu sees consumption behavior as one manifestation of (non-Marxian) class conflict with complex implications for cultural hegemony and the often hidden forces that produce what appear to be mundane apolitical product choices.

On Misrecognition

For Bourdieu, the singular mistake made by dominated class fractions, particularly the petite bourgeoisie, is to associate culture with knowledge. Lacking the lived experiences that produce the elite habitus, the petite bourgeoisie misrecognize what are essentially arbitrary aesthetic selections for special knowledge of what counts as "legitimate" and "illegitimate" in the cultural sphere. The oft repeated (and frequently caricatured) bromide: "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like", perfectly captures the insecurity of those who have been led to believe that culture equals knowledge. Indeed, as the endless cinematic retelling of the Pygmalion myth ("My Fair Lady", "Pretty Women", "Working Girl", "Educating Rita", etc.) seeks to remind us, the only thing that separates the street vendor from the princess is a little cultural capital and a few elocution lessons.

Unfortunately, in their discussions of art consumption, some consumer researchers are also prone to misrecognize the arbitrary nature of aesthetic judgments. For example, one prominent Warnerian (with a strong psychological bent) suggests that a lack of appreciation for legitimate culture represents a kind of sociopsychological pathology (Levy 1980). While recognizing the psychological and social conditioning that leads people to reject legitimate culture, he, nevertheless, reveals a tacit commitment to the arbitrary cultural hierarchy imposed by the dominant class fractions:

To lack aesthetic appetite is a form of starvation, afflicting personalities whose lives are generally ungratifying, whose family relationships are strained or hateful, or whose emotional tone is desperate, depressed, and deprived (Levy 1980, p. 33).

Levy suggests that the "pathological extremes" among those who reject legitimate culture "often reveal dynamics at work in more moderate instances" (Levy 1980, p. 33). On this view, the majority of people who eschew the aesthetic realm do so because of an interaction between a negative self-concept and their perception that the arts are "hopelessly beyond them" (Levy 1980, p. 33). Indeed, Levy reveals his full commitment to the culture-equals-knowledge equation when he claims that:

The reality of the obstacles to aesthetic appreciation is great. Some high art simply cannot be understood by that half of the population that has below average intelligenceCan intellectual basis for elitism that may never disappear (Levy 1980, p. 35, emphasis added).

Of course, the assertion that the appreciation of certain kinds of art requires an intelligence level found lacking in half of our citizens not only reinforces elitism, but it also reveals a misrecognition of the arbitrary and class-based nature of society's aesthetic hierarchy. Thus, consumer researchers who are themselves under the spell of the Kantian aesthetic are unlikely to advance our understanding of cultural consumption.

Consumption and Education

It is perhaps understandable that some consumer researchers and arts marketers should misconstrue the linkage between "intelligence" and the aesthetic disposition. The well established correlation between educational credentials and arts consumption can easily lead one to the conclusion that the appreciation of "difficult" art requires the intellectual capacities of those who are able to attain advanced educational certification (Bourdieu 1984). Unfortunately this equation rests on the premise that the "intellectually gifted" in society attain their status because our educational systems are impartial, fair and objective judges of individual worth. Hence it is easily concluded that the "best and the brightest" attain the rank, stature, and aesthetic perceptions that are "appropriate" to their intellectual endowments. However, it is now axiomatic among sociologists of education that western educational institutions are one of the most important agencies of class reproduction (e.g., Bourdieu and Passeron 1977; Willis 1977, London 1978; Giroux 1983, 1988, 1992; Giroux and Simon 1989; Valli 1986; MacLeod 1987; Brint and Karabel 1989; Weis 1990). As argued elsewhere (Anderson 1991), rather than acting as "social mobility escalators" for the "more talented" members of ethnic/racial minorities and the white working and middle classes, the educational system has a strong tendency to reproduce the existing social order by devaluing the cultural capital of dominated groups. By judging, classifying, and tracking students from dominated class fractions on the basis of the alien standards of the dominant, schools perpetuate the extant status hierarchy. Moreover, the educational system insures that its reproductive practices will be misrecognized because it makes its judgments on what appear to be "objective" and "meritocratic" criteria. It is only rarely recognized that said criteria reflect the (arbitrary) cultural capital of the dominant.

If, as Bourdieu (1984) argues, the cultural, educational, and linguistic field is a site of struggle over the definition of "legitimate" knowledge, aesthetic taste, and appropriate modes of speech (e.g., Bourdieu 1991), then the school is one of the chief instruments that allow the dominant to carry the day. Indeed, path analysis of contemporary mobility tables show that the ability of high status fathers to produce sons who are disproportionately represented in high status occupations is no longer the result of some type of "direct inheritance" (ascription). Instead, the primary effect of father's occupation and education is on son's educational attainment, and it is the educational attainment of the son that has the major impact on his occupational destination (Hout 1988). Indeed, Hout (1988) finds that the college degree is one of the most critical factors in occupational attainment. Thus, it is the ability of high status fathers to insure that their sons achieve a college education that is one of the principal factors in class reproduction.

The Aesthetic Disposition as a "Relationship" to Culture

Against this backdrop we may find it instructive to explore Bourdieu's (1984) analysis of the micro and macro processes that generate a disposition toward legitimate art among the highly educated. First, as noted above, the class-based vetting practices of schools insure that a disproportionate number of those attaining high educational credentials will have a relationship of comfortable familiarity with legitimate culture. On Bourdieu's view, this is acquired unreflectively in virtue of the fact that one is raised in the dominant class. Beyond this, higher education has a tendency (especially important for students from middle or working class cultures) to encourage "legitimate autodidacticism". That is, teacher expectations and peer pressure encourage the acquisition of cultural experiences and knowledge that are not directly related to the school curriculum. As Bourdieu (1984) puts it:

The educational institution succeeds in imposing cultural practices that it does not teach and does not even explicitly demand, but which belong to the attributes attached by status to the position it assigns, the qualifications it awards, and the social positions to which the latter give access (p. 26).

Thus, museum attendance, theater going, recreational reading of "the classics", as well as the development of interests in cinematic genres and directorial styles, foreign travel, and avant-garde music may become a natural and everyday part of one's experience outside the official curriculum.

The "gratuitous" acquisition of cultural interests and experiences by the educated may be contrasted with the autodidacticism of the petite bourgeoisie. This has important implications for consumer research since the latter often constitute the potential target market for both "legitimate" culture and its pale imitations. Bourdieu (1984) notes that autodidacticism can only be understood in relation to the educational system which offers "(very unequally) the possibility of learning by institutional stages in accordance with standardized levels and syllabuses" (p. 328).

Because he has not acquired his culture in the legitimate order established by the educational system, the autodidact constantly betrays, by his very anxiety about the right classification, the arbitrariness of his classifications and therefore his knowledge... [However,] the absences, lacunae, and arbitrary classifications of the autodidact's culture only exist in relation to a scholastic culture which has the power to induce misrecognition of its arbitrariness ... (Bourdieu 1984, p. 328, emphasis added).

Thus, once again, because the autodidact mistakenly identifies culture with knowledge, s/he does not know "how to play the game of culture as a game" (Bourdieu 1984, p. 330). On Bourdieu's view, upwardly mobile members of the middle classes are likely to take culture too seriously by displaying a reverence for legitimate art that is lacking in those whose appreciation for culture has been acquired unreflectively in the environs of the home or the educational system. The petite bourgeoisie assume that the "cultivated" possess an immense store of knowledge that is the source of their aesthetic dispositions. Thus they fail to see that, in reality, the dominant aesthetic amounts to a "relation" to culture rather than a fund of special knowledge.


Following Bourdieu, it has been argued that consumer preferences and aesthetic dispositions have deep roots in a class-based hierarchy that is imposed on society by the culturally dominant. Indeed, the Kantian notion of "taste" as an innate faculty residing within the human intellect is itself a device that allows those who are endowed with the "right" quantity and quality of cultural capital to determine society's notion of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" food, clothing, leisure activities, housing, literature, art, etc. In opposition to Kant, Bourdieu argues that such judgments are (in one sense) the purely arbitrary preferences of the dominant social classes who are in a position to dictate the cultural standards that separate the high from the low, the legitimate from the illegitimate, and the sacred from the profane. Unfortunately, the arbitrary nature of the cultural hierarchy is misrecognized by dominated class fractions because the latter are taught that cultural and artistic judgments flow from some type of "special knowledge". In reality, however, the cultural selections of the dominant are the result of a "comfortable familiarity" acquired through family and class socialization and the "legitimate autodidacticism" encouraged by institutions of higher learning. Moreover, the well documented class bias of the educational system insures that the dominant will be able to maintain their hegemony in the cultural field by limiting access to the means by which legitimate culture is appropriated.

Bourdieu argues that simple denunciations of the nature of the cultural hierarchy are inefficacious. What must be changed are the conditions that allow the hierarchy to exist. Thus, we must work to universalize "the conditions of access to what the present offers us that is most universal" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 84). In his opinion, if we can say that "high" art is superior to kitsch, it is because the former is only accessible if one masters (via the "socialization" processes described above) the cumulative history of previous artistic productions. Thus, in this sense, we can say that "legitimate" culture is more universal. But, the conditions of appropriation of universal culture are not equally distributed.

Bourdieu argues that the conditions that allow one to access universal culture include: the freedom from economic necessity, a distancing from practical urgency, the availability of "skholF" or the leisure time necessary to invest in cultural capital, and the elimination of the reproductive functioning of the educational system. Whether marketing and consumer research will have a significant role to play in the universalization process is not clear since Bourdieu has given few details of the practical steps necessary to implement this project. What is clear, however, is that consumer researchers bear responsibility for their complicity in activities that help to sustain the extant hierarchy.

Thus, as noted earlier, marketers unreflectively maintain the cultural hierarchy through their attempts to offer mobility aspirants "knock-off" versions of "legitimate" cultural forms. In effect, marketers both profit from the misrecognition of the dominated while reinforcing said misrecognition. In the nonprofit arena, marketers assist in the reproductive activities of sub-baccalaureate educational institutions and mistakenly assume that their efforts to "open the doors" of museums and art galleries to "le peuple" will somehow enrich the cultural lives of the masses. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that this amounts to little more than "liberal chic" that is inefficacious in either transforming the hierarchy or in universalizing the conditions of access to legitimate culture.


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Douglas E. Allen, Pennsylvania State University
Paul F. Anderson, Pennsylvania State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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