Cover of the first edition
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (French: La distinction) is a 1979 book by Pierre Bourdieu, based upon the author's empirical research from 1963 until 1968. A sociological report about the state of French culture, Distinction was first published in English translation in 1984. In 1998 the International Sociological Association voted Distinction as one of the ten most important sociology books of the 20th century.
Bourdieu proposes that those with a high volume of cultural capital -- non-financial social assets, such as education, which promote social mobility beyond economic means -- are most likely to be able to determine what constitutes taste within society. Those with lower volumes of overall capital accept this taste, and the distinction of high and low culture, as legitimate and natural, and thus accept existing restrictions on conversion between the various forms of capital (economic, social, cultural). Those with low overall capital are unable to access a higher volume of cultural capital because they lack the necessary means to do so. This could mean lacking the terminology to describe or methods of understanding classical artwork, due to features of their habitus, for example. Bourdieu asserts in this respect that 'working-class people expect objects to fulfil a function' whilst those free from economic necessities are able to operate a pure gaze separated from everyday life. The acceptance of 'dominant' forms of taste is, Bourdieu argues, a form of 'symbolic violence'. That is, the naturalization of this distinction of taste and its misrecognition as necessary denies the dominated classes the means of defining their own world, which leads to the disadvantage of those with less overall capital. Moreover, that even when the subordinate social classes might seem to have their own ideas about what is and what is not good taste, "the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated aesthetic, which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics" of the ruling class.
The aesthetic choices of a person create class fractions (class-based social groups) and actively distance a social class from other social classes of a society. Hence, predispositions to certain kinds of food, music and art are taught and instilled in children and these class-specific (not particular nor individual) tastes help guide children to their "appropriate" social positions. Therefore, self-selection into a class fraction is achieved by impelling the child's internalization of preferences for objects and behaviors suitable for him or her as member of a given social class and also, the development of an aversion towards the preferred objects and behaviors of other social classes. In practice, when a man or a woman encounters the culture and the arts of another social class, he or she feels "disgust, provoked by horror, or visceral intolerance ('feeling sick') of the tastes of others."
Therefore, "Taste" is an important example of cultural hegemony, of how class fractions are determined. It's not only the possession of social capital and economic capital, but possession of cultural capital as well. Instilling and acquiring cultural capital is used as an insidious mechanism to ensure social reproduction as well as cultural reproduction of the ruling class. Moreover, because persons are taught his and her tastes at an early age, taste is deeply internalized. Social re-conditioning for taste is very difficult. The taste instilled and acquired tends to permanently identify a person as one from a certain social class and this impedes social mobility. In this way, the cultural tastes of the dominant (ruling) class tend to dominate the tastes of the other social classes, forcing individual men and women of economically and culturally dominated classes to conform to the dominating aesthetic preferences, or risk "societal" (but in fact, fractional and domineering) disapproval --appearing crude, vulgar and tasteless.
Influenced by structuralism, Bourdieu sought to go beyond the traditional reliance on regression analysis in contemporary sociology and achieve a more rigorous quantitative approach. Rather than relying on the correlation of multiple independent variables, he was interested in developing a framework to allow him to view "the complete system of relations that make up the true principle of the force and form specific to the effects recorded in such and such correlation." For the analysis in La Distinction, Bourdieu, working with his statistical technician Salah Bouhedja, employed multiple rounds of correspondence analysis on a set of data from two surveys, the "Kodak survey" of 1963 and the "taste survey" of 1967. In addition to this analysis, Bourdieu also applied correspondence analysis to a subset of the data, the responses from what Bourdieu labelled the "dominant classes" and the "petite-bourgeoisie." This type of research represented an early attempt at geometric data analysis, specifically multiple correspondence analysis, which would become an important methodological framework in Bourdieu's later work.
In 1998 the International Sociological Association voted Distinction as one of the ten most important sociology books of the 20th century, behind Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), but ahead of Norbert Elias' The Civilizing Process (1939). The critic Camille Paglia expressed agreement with Bourdieu's conclusion that taste depends on changing social assumptions in Salon, but suggested that it should have been obvious, and dismissed Distinction.