Category: sociology

Distinction: What our food choices say about our social position

Hipster Food

Photo by electric.porcupine [bmazz.tumblr.com], AKA Barbara Mazz, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Although my day job keeps me busy in academia, I’m mostly removed from sociology, which was my primary area of study back in the day. So, I was pleased to get a dose of the old “sōsh” yesterday when I came across Molly Watson’s piece on Pierre Bourdieu’s “food space”. I didn’t read much Bourdieu as an undergrad or grad student, but I know he made big waves among many late 20th century examiners of culture.

By way of introduction, let me first excerpt a fine essay from The New York Times by Mark Greif:

Bourdieu chose to make it his life’s work to debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below. He aimed his critiques first at his own class of elites — professors and intellectuals — then at the media, the political class and the propertied class.

“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals….

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up.

While the focus of Greif’s essay is the cultural phenomenon of the hipster, Watson’s piece updates Bourdieu’s two-dimensional graphing of French food preferences decades ago for 21st century US. There are things to quibble with in her specific rendering (see the comments that have been posted for some valid critiques, alongside the usual internet hot air), but there’s plenty of food for thought.

As she begins,

In college, a Xeroxed copy of this graph hung on our refrigerator, so taken were my housemates and I with Pierre Bourdieu’s assessment of food in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). Food-specific coverage takes up just 23 pages of the 604-page tome, but it was the early 1990s and sex and gender and studies of the body were all the rage, so passages like “[t]astes in food also depend on the idea each class has of the body and of the effects of food on the body, that is, on its strength, health, and beauty… It follows that the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste” blew us away, just as the notion that our love of Ethiopian food and yogurt said as much about our class, education, and social status as it did about our taste buds unnerved us.

Check out her full post at Gastronomica, including a graphic with various food preferences mapped on axes of economic and cultural capital. Then consider where you might position some of your own favorites on the map and ponder how your, my, and everyone else’s food choices have been shaped by our social position.