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Distinction summary

Pierre Bourdieu

A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

4.6 (57 ratings)
46 mins

Brief summary

Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu is a sociological study that explains how cultural taste creates class hierarchies. Bourdieu shows how people use cultural consumption to signal their social status and how this perpetuates social inequality.

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    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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    What is Distinction about?

    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. 

    Distinction Review

    Distinction (1979) by Pierre Bourdieu is a thought-provoking exploration of the social hierarchies that shape our tastes and lifestyles. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With its in-depth analysis of cultural capital, Bourdieu offers a fresh perspective on how society influences our preferences and behaviors.
    • Supported by empirical data, the book provides compelling evidence of the ways in which class and education impact our choices.
    • The book's critical examination of social stratification sheds light on the symbolic power dynamics that exist within society, making it an enlightening read.

    Who should read Distinction?

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

    About the Author

    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 FAQs 

    What is the main message of Distinction?

    The main message of Distinction is how social class influences cultural taste and lifestyle choices.

    How long does it take to read Distinction?

    The reading time for Distinction varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Distinction a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Distinction is worth reading as it helps understand the cultural dimension of social inequality.

    Who is the author of Distinction?

    The author of Distinction is Pierre Bourdieu.

    What to read after Distinction?

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