Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).
This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.
The book explores four main questions:
1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?
2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?
3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?
4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?
1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.
This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.
Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of “ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).
But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).
At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).
And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.
2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.
Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.
What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.
However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.
Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.
3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?
Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).
There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.
4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.
However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.
Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.
So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.