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a detailed analysis of lifestyle choices and aesthetics
on 20 January 2003
'Distinction' is the product of several studies and is an attempt to trace the links between a person's position in social space and their judgement of 'taste', what is 'tasteful' and 'desirable' and so on; but, in addition to this, it is an examination of how different groups in society try to define their particular styles and aesthetics and promote them as 'legitimate'. Bourdieu draws on data pertaining to many areas of life: eating and drinking, choices in clothing, music, holidays, and all sorts of other lifestyle practices - even down to the way people interact and comport themselves (he speaks, for example, of 'the slow, measured, confident delivery of the old bourgeoisie'). He shows how different groups engage in different practices - so that, for example, one class fraction might attend a football match while another would prefer to visit an art gallery, and explains why this is so. Another part of the book deals with the development of the refined sense of aesthetics possessed by those who claim to be 'cultured'.
In a nutshell, the book describes how a person's taste is a product not just of their own innate desires, but is actually something that comes from that person's position in the social field. A central concept employed by Bordieu is that of 'habitus': this is essentially a distillation of our own objective social position, which fundamentally determines the choices we make as we go about the business of living our lives. Another central concept is that of capital. Bourideu argues that different types of groups are generally in possession of different types of capital; some groups possess economic capital (i.e. money and property), some possess cultural capital (such as knowledge of artistic, literary, and academic fields), and some are rich in social capital (links with 'movers and shakers', 'old boys' networks') and so on.
There is so much contained in this book, it is frankly a huge injustice to try and sum it up in less than 1000 words. It was written with French society in mind, but the arguments employed can just as easily be applied, with a little discretion, to any other modern capitalist nation. And although Bourdieu's style of writing (or that of the translator) can at times seem long-winded, you soon realise that this is necessary in order to convey the subtlety of his arguments.
My review has brutally hacked up bits of Bourdieu's ideas which unfortunately does them little justice; the whole book is characterised by subtlety, detail and perceptiveness. It has enriched my view of the social world immeasurably, and now when people make judgements on the taste or choices of others, I feel I have a clearer idea of where these judgements come from and on what basis they are made. I wholeheartedly recommend this astonishingly perceptive work.