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An Analysis and Criticism of Bourdieu’s Distinction of Taste | Literature Review

In the book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu (1984) focused on finding the impacts that economic and social factors have on taste. The word ‘distinction’ here refers to the differences in the accumulation of capital of different social classes. Bourdieu recognised that culture and lifestyles are shaped by three types of capital namely economic capital (material wealth), social capital (social connection) and last but not least, cultural capital.

Unlike the other two capitals, cultural capital is a little bit trickier to explain. In his previous work, Bourdieu (1997) stated that cultural capital is the ‘instruments for the appropriation of symbolic wealth socially designated as worthy of being sought and possessed’ (cited in Yoon 2015). Accordingly, cultural capital is a desirable wealth effectively inherited within family of upper-class. These includes knowledge, skills, education which give preposition for advantages in society. Bourdieu (1984) particularly emphasised on the formation of taste as the direct derivative of cultural and economic capital.


In its most biological sense, taste refers to the ‘faculty of perceiving flavours’ (Bourdieu 1984, p.474). Therefore, similarly in its sociological sense, taste is the ability to recognise and evaluate aesthetic values in cultural choices (such as art, music, fashion, food and etc.). And according to Bourdieu (1984), sociologically, one has to acquire certain dispositions to reach different classifications of taste like legitimate taste, ‘middle-brow’ and popular taste. One’s taste is said to be corresponded to the level of education he receives and his social origin.

I hereby take one of his examples in regard to art and music. Popular taste is the lowest form of culture. The easy access of ‘low arts’ makes it widespread and later, devalued. ‘Middle-brow taste’ represents the ‘minor works of the major arts’ (Bourdieu 1984, p. 16). People acquired ‘middle-brow’ taste often belong to middle class, or as Bourdieu termed it, ‘the ‘intellectual’ fractions of the dominant class’ (Bourdieu 1984, p. 16). These are the one who come close to ‘learning’ the taste of the elites but lack economic and cultural capital to follow. Therefore, they try to enjoy ‘legitimate’ culture at a lower cost, termed ‘cultural goodwill’ (Weininger 2005). For instance, if the elites can afford to go to the theatre to enjoy the classical piece ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ of Bach, the middle class stops short at ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ which is a mixture of classical music and jazz (Bourdieu 1984, p. 16). Legitimate taste, nonetheless, is the highest form of all. This level of taste can be enhanced through education and achieved only by the dominant class. This hierarchy of arts is clearly socially constructed. Different social classes use this to differentiate themselves and place themselves on a dominant social position. Or in the word of Bourdieu (1984, p. 6), ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’.

Cultural capital consists of the acquisition of a set of code. According to Bourdieu (1984, p. 2), ‘A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded’. Working class uses a restricted set of code whilst the upper-class has an elaborated code (Bernstein 1966). An upper-class person who possesses this code can hence, use it to decode the value of semiotics embedded in a piece of art. ‘Love at first sight’ was the term used to describe this process of cognition and it should be as autonomous as a person’s second nature (Bourdieu 1984, p.3). A person without these inherited knowledge and skills would feel lost without the sufficient disposition. He would stop at the level of ‘sensible properties’ where he recognised the primary meaning and be able to perceive that this work of art is beautiful. But to achieve the secondary set of signified messages, he would not be able to explain why or what make this piece of art so phenomenon.

Form versus Function in Taste

Within cultural choice, there exist a divide between form and function. Form can be understood as the artistic freedom whilst function considers the economic necessity. The upper-class can recognise a work of art purely for what it is in its own form because they are free from economic burdens and all their necessities are fulfilled. Therefore, they can value form over function. In the words of Bourdieu (1984, pp. 5-6):

[N]othing is more distinctive, more distinguished, than … the ability to apply the principles of a 'pure' aesthetic to the most everyday choices of everyday life, e.g., in cooking, clothing or decoration … [Acquisition of the] taste of liberty-or luxury-which shifts the emphasis to the manner (of presenting, serving, eating etc.) and tends to use stylized forms to deny function.

For instance, in a meal, a rich person can choose to eat something not only delicious but also luxurious in its presentation and servings. The way he eats should also reflect the social class he comes from due to the gestures. Meanwhile, a working class person who still have to carry the financial burdens would only choose to eat something in response to his hunger without considering anything else other than its function. To him, food is to eat in response to hunger, not to enjoy. The working class, therefore, has a ‘taste of necessity, which favours the most 'filling' and most economical foods’ (Bourdieu 1984, p. 6). And that marks the difference between the taste structure of the two social classes.


Similar to any theory proposed, Bourdieu was criticised for certain points that he made. Firstly, Berger (1986) pointed out that Bourdieu was being too deterministic. Bourdieu perceived everyone as passive individual who blindly absorb everything given to them within the social class that they belong. However, in reality, people are rather active with their choices of cultural practice like what kind of music or food they consume. So, the individualistic values here are undermined. Secondly, within this research, Bourdieu placed his concentration on studying the two social institutions which were education and family. By doing so, he subconsciously ignored the existence of other institutions such as the government who might also have power over the class structure (Haralambos et al. 2013). Principally, government holds the ability to censorship and decide what is available for the people to consume. Third is the methodological problem of the scope of Bourdieu’s research. This book was written based on surveys and interviews conducted in the region of French only. Consequently, the question remains in the appropriation of the application of this theory on the rest of the world (Haralambos et al. 2013).


In the process of dissecting Bourdieu’s theory, I thereby learned that the formation of one’s taste is nowhere near natural. Taste is the product of social upbringing and quality of education, thus, a direct correlation to social origin. Accordingly, ‘hierarchy of arts ... corresponds with the social hierarchy of consumers’ (Bourdieu 1984, p. 2). People who acquire the dispositions of different social class like education and financial ability will develop the appropriate taste for that class. So where there is a dominant upper class, there would also be a cultural hegemony where taste is considered legitimate high cultural products and this is the dominant culture. Only when one can separate the economic necessity and freedom of art in his cultural choice of consumption, he can then begin to evaluate the art on its own, without the function of necessities, and enjoy it as a legitimate culture.


Berger, B 1986, ‘Taste and Domination’, American Journal of Sociology, May, vol. 91, no. 6, pp. 1445-1453, viewed 10 January 2019, JSTOR database.

Bernstein, B 1966 ‘ELABORATED AND RESTRICTED CODES: AN OUTLINE’, Sociological Inquiry, April, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 254-261, viewed 1 December 2018, Wiley Online Library database.

Bourdieu, P 1984, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R Nice, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, original work published 1979.

Haralambos, M, Holborn, M, Chapman, S & Moore, S, 2013, Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 8th edn, Collins, London.

Weininger, E 2005, ‘Foundations of Bourdieu’s Class Analysis’, in E Wright (ed.), Approaches to Class Analysis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 119-170.

Yoon, B 2015, ‘Cultural Capital, Agency, and Voice: Literacy Practices of Middle School English Language Learners’, Middle Grades Review, September, vol. 1, iss. 2, pp. 1-13, viewed 10 January 2019, <>.


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