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Distinction

A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

By Pierre Bourdieu
25-minute read
Audio available
Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu

Distinction (1979) is widely considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century sociology. Drawing on extensive empirical research and developing many new concepts that have had a lasting impact on the social sciences, it puts forward a groundbreaking theory about the relationship between taste and class. 

  • Students of sociology 
  • Fans of French theory
  • Anyone interested in the underpinnings of class or taste

Pierre Bourdieu was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. A professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the Collège de France in Paris, his academic work covered a wide array of subjects ranging from the sociological dimensions of education to aesthetics. He was the recipient of the Goffman Prize from the University of California, Berkeley, the Huxley Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the Médaille d'Or from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. 

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Distinction

A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

By Pierre Bourdieu
  • Read in 25 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 16 key ideas
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Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu
Synopsis

Distinction (1979) is widely considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century sociology. Drawing on extensive empirical research and developing many new concepts that have had a lasting impact on the social sciences, it puts forward a groundbreaking theory about the relationship between taste and class. 

Key idea 1 of 16

We associate different tastes with different social classes.

Imagine two people with very different tastes in leisure activities. The first person likes to attend classical music concerts and visit art museums, while the second prefers to watch wrestling matches and go to amusement parks. 

Now, if you had to guess, to which social class would you say each person probably belongs? 

Chances are, you’d say the first person probably belongs to a much “higher” class than the second one. And that’s because all of us have intuitions about taste that are strongly tied up with our ideas about class. 

The key message here is: We associate different tastes with different social classes.

Generally speaking, we tend to divide both tastes and classes along a scale that goes from low to high. At the bottom of the scale, there are the “popular” tastes of the working class. Next up, there are the “middle-brow” tastes of the middle class. And at the highest end, there are the “bourgeois” tastes of the upper class, along with what sociologists call the “legitimate” tastes of the cultural elite. 

The cultural elite includes the more “refined” members of the upper class but also thought-leaders and taste-makers like intellectuals and artists. They may not be affluent, but they do have a lot of cultural cachet, so their tastes carry a lot of weight. 

Now, the details of all these tastes vary from culture to culture. They also change from one era to the next. They can even differ within the same society during the same time period based on factors beyond class, such as ethnicity, gender, age, and place of residence. For instance, residents of trendy and happening cities tend to have more “fashionable” tastes than people in small, sleepy towns – even if they’re members of the same class. 

It’s, therefore, impossible to give any timeless, universal examples here. The ones that author Pierre Bourdieu focuses on are drawn from 1960s France, so many of them will seem dated or culturally specific to us now. For instance, back then, “The Blue Danube” was an example of popular French taste in music, while “Hungarian Rhapsody” was middle-brow, and “Concerto for the Left Hand” was “legitimate.” Nowadays, many people wouldn’t even be familiar with any of these pieces of music. 

But Bourdieu invites us to apply his ideas to our own cultural contexts, so let’s take him up on that invitation for a moment. In your society today, what would you consider popular, middle-brow, and legitimate tastes in music? 

We don’t want to offend anyone by calling their favorite artist “middle-brow,” so you fill in the blanks here.

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