In his famous book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu reports findings from a French survey of cultural tastes fielded in 1967-68. Of particular note is a figure showing the distribution of preferences for three musical works by class fractions. Bourdieu reports that Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” represents “legitimate taste” and is favored by “those fractions of the dominant class that are richest in economic capital.” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stands in for “middle-brow taste” favored by the middle classes. And Strauss’s “Blue Danube” represents “popular taste” — which Bourdieu characterizes as “so-called ‘light’ music or classical music devalued by popularization,” and also “songs totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension” such as works by Petula Clark. This taste “is most frequent among the working classes and varies in inverse ratio to educational capital” (p. 17).

I do a mini-version of Bourdieu’s survey in my sociological theory class, playing these three songs for my students and asking them to indicate which they like. There are often very seemingly idiosyncratic patterns in the responses to these songs. Strauss is generally pretty popular overall, though, which is exactly the opposite of what Bourdieu would expect from my generally well-educated and fairly affluent student. Discussion of this often highlights the fact that the music in Bourdieu’s study is too old to allow for meaningful interpretation of the relationship between American social class, educational capital, and taste. So, I field another survey for my students.

I am assisted in my choice of songs by a student who sent me a link to the following chart, from an on-line story called “Does Your Taste in Music Reflect Your Intelligence?”

MusicthatmakesyoudumbLargeThe results bring together the most popular songs at 1,352 American colleges and universities and the average SAT scores at those same institutions. Of course, this is not a sociological study, though the person who did the work, Virgil Griffith, is a PhD student at Caltech studying the “information-integration theory of consciousness” (not exactly a rocket scientist, but close to alot of rocket scientists at Caltech).

Bourdieu talks about “educational capital” rather than intelligence, but we do know that one of the things that the SAT measures is the economic and cultural capital of the students taking the exam, so the SAT is not a terrible proxy for what Bourdieu is talking about.

In my reduced version of Bourdieu’s study, I chose three songs that appear high, middle, and low in the SAT spectrum: Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (high), OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” (middle), and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” (low). I asked students to indicate which of the three songs was their favorite. The results were as follows:

HIGH (Radiohead): 21%
MEDIUM (OutKast): 38%
LOW (Beyonce): 41%

I welcome any comments on the results of this exercise!

 

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One thought on “Contemporary Application of Bourdieu’s Distinction in Musical Taste

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