Bourdieu on the Working Class

I am conflicted by Bourdieu’s representation of the working class, and so am hoping to use this blog post to find out whether or not other people responded in similar ways.  I find Bourdieu challenging at times because of the way he assumes the language of the ideas he is relaying – making it difficult to distinguish between the claims he is critiquing and those he is personally putting forth.  Bourdieu is making a class-based analysis of aesthetic judgment and taste, yes.  He is directly challenging the notion that taste is natural, that those of the dominant class are simply born with superior understanding and aesthetic feeling, yes.  But even as he identifies the ways in which taste is constructed and employed to naturalize class distinctions, does he present a reductive and patronizing view of the working class?

I’m thinking here of moments like the one on page 41: “By contrast, working-class people, who expect every image to fulfill a function, if only that of a sign, refer, often explicitly, to norms of morality or agreeableness in all their judgments.”

By asserting that all members of the working class always value function over form (a claim shown to be false by Hebdige’s work on the importance of style to punk), he is continuing to exclude the working class from the realm of the aesthetic.  He shifts the source of the exclusion from nature to education and social origin, but still indicates that this exclusion is definite and all-encompassing.  A member of the working class would not get – or, fair enough, want to get – this type of art.

And sometimes he’s simply patronizing, as on page 33: “…working-class viewers protest, not only because they do not feel the need for these fancy games, but because they sometimes understand that they derive their necessity from the logic of a field of production which excludes them precisely by these games…”

Occasionally, the working-class brain may be able to comprehend what he has grasped well enough to write a 500 page book about.

I’m overstating my claims here.  And, honestly, I’m still unsure about how problematic Bourdieu’s presentation of the working class really is.  But the way in which he generalizes and asserts working-class people’s opinions and capabilities for appreciation come too close to mirroring the very arguments he is attempting to challenge for my taste…

And now I wonder: Is his treatment of the bourgeois and other class groups similar?  Are they equally problematic?

2 responses to “Bourdieu on the Working Class

  1. i agree that bourdieu can sometimes be hard to swallow because he is so blatantly illustrating disparities of education, lifestyle, and even moral and aesthetic judgements among classes. we’d all like to think that there is some universal human “core” but bourdieu basically implies that, among different classes, schemas are fundamentally unique and at times irreconciliable. however, we should be inclined to consider that his observations may be dead-on. he is critiqueing a system that denies many pleasures and intellectual advantages to the lower class, not the members of that class themselves.

  2. I definitely agree with Erin on this. There are some disadvantages experienced by the lower classes, to deny that they have any aesthetic appreciation at all is crazy! Appreciation of art is innate, and although people from different classes may appreciate different types of art, I believe all people enjoy some sort of art. There is no class that only enjoy things that have a clear functionality. Honestly, I don’t understand how such a claim can even be made when so many highly respected artists have come from modest backgrounds.