Rethinking Class with Bourdieu

There’s a really smart discussion on WCS-L (the working class studies listserv) right now about definitions of class, and it’s intersecting in curious ways with my re-reading of Bourdieu’s perspectives on class for my dissertation’s chapter 3. For me, it’s useful to think of one pole of the discussion as being Marx’s tension between class-as-position (where one stands in relation to the means of production; whether one’s exploiter or exploited) and class-as-consciousness (how one feels oneself to be a member of a group), and the other pole of the discussion as being Bourdieu’s attempt to ease that tension by showing how positional structures of class get unknowingly internalized into one’s consciousness as inhabited structures of feeling (and, subsequently, structures of tastes and values). When I first encountered Bourdieu’s work, I didn’t understand this at all; now, it seems elementary. And — perhaps as a result of this — I’ve begun to reconsider much of my initial dislike for the authenticity-based rhetoric of class as lived experience, partly because I’m starting to understand what Bourdieu’s saying about class, experience, and affect, and how it gets structured: Bourdieu was, in his background, what Americans would call a hick, and he took a lot of flak for it early in his academic career, and it profoundly shaped his research. So while my initial intent in returning to Bourdieu was to try to better understand his relational model of class — I’m really not much interested in the commodifying tendencies so obviously evident in the whole cultural capital thing — I’m now seeing, partly through the WCS-L discussion, the ways in which economic and cultural rhetorics of class get connected to rhetorics of the personal. In other words, I started chapter 3 with the intent of raiding Bourdieu’s work for his assertions that class is a relational quality enacted within a social space, and therefore, classes are infinite: “difference (which I express in describing social space) exists and persists. […] Social classes do not exist […]. What exists is a social space, a space of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something given but as something to be done” (Practical Reason 12; see also, of course, the entirety of Distinction). But I’m coming to find that this understanding of class is inextricably tied to a rhetoric of the personal that I’ve incompletely addressed in chapter 2 and expect to be a significant component of either chapter 4 or chapter 5, and that I’ve yammered on about at some length in the past.

So yeah: the diss is starting to come together a bit.

In other news, Tink loudly insists that I play with her toes. Gotta go.

Rethinking Class with Bourdieu

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Class with Bourdieu

  • July 24, 2005 at 12:35 pm

    Michelle, I can’t find a Web link, but if you want to subscribe to the list, let me know and I’ll send you instructions.

    Thanks Joanna!

  • July 24, 2005 at 3:57 pm

    No, that’s OK. I just thought perhaps I’d missed it.

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