Mapping Class & Culture

I’m going to ask you for your help here.

Bourdieu contends that class is structured as a space of “symbolic capital,” which itself is constructed by and in individuals out of three different types of capital: economic (meaning, in his terminology, financial), social (networks and relationships of acquaintance among people), and cultural (tastes, values, knowledge, skills, customs, practices). In Distinction, he argues that the multidimensional space of symbolic capital is structured along three axes: volume of capital, composition of capital, and trajectory of capital. He offers several diagrams (see pages 128-129, 262, 340, 343, inter alia) that map two dimensions of social space in order to help explain the class correspondences he sees in French culture. These maps are essentially Cartesian in nature, with the X axis representing composition of capital (more cultural capital and less economic capital on the left; less cultural capital and more economic capital on the right) and the Y axis representing overall volume of capital (more at the top, less at the bottom).

Figure 1

Cartesian graph of Bourdieu's space of symbolic capital.

He then populates the diagrams with aspects of culture in France: Kafka, flea markets, the Firebird Suite, and frozen food in the upper left quadrant; beer, potatoes, Brigitte Bardot, and farm laborers in the lower right. (Keep in mind: the ethnographic research here was conducted long ago, and in another country.)

Figure 2

Various points on Bourdieu's map of symbolic capital.

It sounds silly at first, certainly, but when you read Bourdieu’s analysis, it starts to seem quite compelling. So: I’m going to make a few more points below the fold, but my big point in this post is to ask you, reader, for your help. I’d like to perform the same sort of mapping Bourdieu does, only with American class and culture, and I hope you might suggest some aspects of American culture — with their corresponding Cartesian co-ordinates — in the comments.

If you’d like to join in the fun (or, less likely, if you’re interested in my dissertation-oriented further comments on Bourdieu and the intersection of his work with that of Raymond Williams), please, read on.

To facilitate this collaborative mapping, what I’ve done here (which Bourdieu is right not to do, since it would imply an absolute valuation rather that a relational space or field — again, I’m doing this simply for the sake of convenience in labeling) is assign numerical values to the axes, from -10 to 10 on both, with zero at their intersection.

Figure 3

A numbered version of Bourdieu's map.

These numbers have no real-world correspondent: they simply make it easy to say, “shopping malls and strip malls both have very little overall capital, and they’re valued much more in the economic sense and much less in the cultural sense, but strip malls are even less cultural and less highly valued than shopping malls, so: strip malls (9,-8); shopping malls (7,-6).” (Recall that with Cartesian coordinates, the X axis always comes first.) Here are some additional examples.

Figure 4

Various points of American culture applied to Bourdieu's map of symbolic capital.

A. 50 Cent (1,1)
B. Brown University (-2,8)
C. Carpenter (6,1)
D. College professor (-8,6)
E. CSI (6,4)
F. Dungeons & Dragons (-4,-7)
G. George W. Bush (4,6)
H. Harvard University (-1,9)
I. High school teacher (-6,2)
J. Hockey (5,-4)
K. Indian restaurants (-7,-3)
L. John Kerry (-3,3)
M. Mexican restaurants (-5,-5)
N. The New York Times (-1,7)
O. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (5,-5)
P. Plato (-10,7)
Q. Shopping malls (7,-6)
R. Strip malls (9,-8)
S. USA Today (4,5)
T. University of Southern California (2,5)

There are, of course, many difficult cases, particularly among those who self-consciously flaunt their transgression of class boundaries, like Eminem. But Eminem enacts his transgression in a narrative of class mobility performed over time, which is Bourdieu’s third dimension: the trajectory of capital. If Bourdieu’s X axis is the composition of capital, and his Y axis is the volume of capital, then it stands to reason that — in the multi-dimensional space of social capital — class trajectory (or, more loosely, time) is the Z axis, with the endpoints (our -10 and 10) being past and future, and zero point as the present. Here’s how it would look in isometric view.

Figure 5

A third dimension, along the Z axis, added to Bourdieu's map of symbolic capital.

In such a three-dimensional space (if X is left-right and Y is up-down, think of Z as front-back), classes at any given moment are two-dimensional shapes on the XY plane, with no volume on the Z plane, while lived class experience is traced as a three-dimensional and volumetric shape on all three axes. Note, also, that what I’m asking you to help me with is synchronic; it exists only at the present moment as two-dimensional space — but we all know that the valuation of social capital changes over time; points appear, disappear, and change their positions on the XY plane. This, in fact, is the central object of the analysis Raymond Williams performs in Culture and Society: to trace paths — or, more properly, curves and discontinuities — in the changes in the positions of elements on the XY planes from 1780 to 1950. Those curves and discontinuities from past to present determined, and — my dissertation’s chapter 3 argues — continue to determine (from present to future) the shape of American class experience.

In other words: if you’ll help me place enough points on Figure 3’s map , I think we might be able to draw and talk about various shapes that enclose various points on that map (because people will never agree to a single definition) that define our contemporary experience of working class culture, or middle class culture, or professional class culture, or whatever. But that’s jumping the gun a bit, and I know there are all sorts of problems with such a project: Bourdieu’s notions of capital stand as metaphors that unnecessarily commodify every aspect of lived existence, and even if the inverse relation he proposes for composition of capital between cultural and economic capital holds true for French culture, that same inverse relation doesn’t necessarily hold true for American culture.

Still, I’m thinking this might be fun, to assign valuations (remember: it’s not how much capital something objectively earns or possesses or is worth, but how much value others assign to it in the field of symbolic capital) to everything from IHOP to iPods to eye doctors, and to argue over those valuations. (“No way does George W. Bush have that much symbolic capital in American culture!”)

When we come up with enough points, I’ll plot them all and post them as a big JPEG. And if anyone knows of a WP Plugin or a Perl script that’ll do this stuff live and on the fly, please by all means point me towards it. But for right now, I’d be most grateful if you might just name any aspect of contemporary culture that comes to mind, and give it an X value and a Y value in relation to the other points.

Or, alternatively, feel free to correct someone else’s foolish valuation. 😉

Mapping Class & Culture

9 thoughts on “Mapping Class & Culture

  • July 28, 2005 at 2:19 am

    Here is lettuce:

    iceburg (6, -8)
    baby spinach (4, -7)
    hearts of romaine (3, -5) not many people like them but the rich do

    Somebody should do cars.

  • July 30, 2005 at 12:33 am

    Not contributing much, here, I’m afraid, but: What about, say, NASCAR? Do we look at capital volume as a measure of aggregate appeal/influence in a culture, or as a measure of, well, snob factor? Do we look at economic capital in terms of the mind-boggling sums tossed into advertising and ticket sales and stock car swag, or at the class identity of many/most NASCAR fans?

    Maybe I’m just resisting Bourdieu’s schema a little too much. [Creeps back into the bushes.]

  • July 30, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    “Snob factor” might be one way of describing Bourdieu’s “symbolic capital,” I think. The “aggregate appeal” thing is, actually, what confused me, and why I now realize that many of my mappings above are incorrect: since he’s writing about distinction, then that which is distinct — i.e., not mass appeal — would seem to have more value, and, indeed, soccer and rugby are at the bottom of his map, and golf, tennis, and water-skiiing near the top. So I need to go back and redo figure 4. In that sense, there’s a connection between symbolic capital and class identity, but a loose one — and little connection between how much money goes into something (again, note that soccer is near the bottom of Bourdieu’s map) and volume of capital; rather, the money thing plays into economic versus cultural. So for American sports, I think you’re going to see a line staying fairly close to the Y axis, but going mostly down and to the right (i.e., with a negative m, if you remember your high school algebra where y=mx+b, with m=slope=rise/run: now, who can give me a quadratic equation that describes the shape of the working class?). So maybe:

    polo (-3,9)
    tennis (-2,7)
    cycling (-2,5)
    golf (-1,3)
    baseball (2,-2)
    basketball (3,-5)
    football (4,-8)

    Given that, where might you put NASCAR, Chris? (Wherever you put it, I’ll argue that Formula 1 goes something like 1 unit above but 2 or 3 units to the left.)

  • August 2, 2005 at 7:35 am

    A lot of what you’re talking about here (I think– I read this kind of quickly, and you are much more familiar with your dissertation than I am) reminded me of the site The Political Compass. Have you seen that one?

  • August 3, 2005 at 11:45 am

    Would it be possible for a further axis to account for ironic participation in “low” culture? I’m thinking of hipsters co-opting mass culture, kitsch, and various artifacts of cheesyness. Same goes for camp and queer culture. We can talk about, say, The Golden Girls, or Knight Rider, or Britney Spears, as having little cultural capital, but what about the moment when cultural capitalists consume such texts ironically? I’d be interested in not only seeing an axis for but also a way to visually signify the moment of co-opting.

  • August 3, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    Bill, I think that ironic co-optation happens partly on the third, temporal Z axis, since all of the examples you offer of kitsch and camp had to be already widely recognized elements of “mass” “low” culture in order to allow their queering: in other words, this was a transition that took place over time, over the trajectory of symbolic capital from past to future.

    But your question points, for me, to a necessary weakness of Bourdieu’s scheme as applied to our contemporary culture: Bourdieu, as I’ve noted before, was working in the ideological context of an economy of mass production and consumption and its concomitant culture. Despite the wonderful relational complexity of his model, your question about ironic versus non-ironic consumption shows that he’s still largely in a framework structured by homogeneity: consumption is a unitary act, happening only in one way in a society whose tastes are structured by the dominant class. For Bourdieu, consumption is mass consumption, not the new individuated consumption described by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin in The Support Economy (and hinted at by Thomas De Zengotita, Hal Shapiro & David Varian, and others).

    If one wants to do a synchronic mapping of cultural valuation, one could certainly replace the temporal Z axis with a Z axis that’s some sort of continuum of societal positions of identity — but what would the endpoints be? Ironic to non-ironic, it seems to me, replicates some of the valuation of the Y axis, in that the ability to ironically consume something (for some people) possesses more overall capital than the ability to consume something non-ironically: liking David Hasselhoff for his camp qualities is more culturally sophisticated — more a mark of distinction — than liking David Hasselhoff because he plays the part of Michael Knight so well.

    And the question of overlapping axes of value takes me to Steve’s question, as well: I’m familiar with the Political Compass, and have used it (and its less problematic successor) in my class when we’re starting the argument unit to talk about positionality, perspective, and audience. Yes, the graphing of those surveys performs something similar to what Bourdieu’s doing, by taking a single variable (“right/left” politics; cultual value) and showing how it’s complicated by more than one factor, in effect taking a hierarchy and turning it into a more complex relational space. But Bourdieu’s graphing feels more difficult because the variables — the axes of value — are so closely interrelated, and Bill’s point makes it clear that there are even more variables (who consumes and how they consume; both, themselves, culturally value-laden variables) than those Bourdieu works with.

    So, yeah, maybe I just need to head over to the Mathematics department and ask if they’ve got some N-dimensional mapping software I can borrow.

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  • November 26, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    I have not read Bourdieu extensively, which is probably why I’m confused about the diagram, but why do cultural and economic value have to be inversed. I understand that this is the case some of the time, maybe even most of the time, but necessarily so. It seems very possible to me for things to have both significant cultural and economic value. I give the example, though I’m sure it isn’t perfect, professional sports (specifically I have the NFL in mind). This is something that very obviously has great cultural significance at both the macro-cultural level and at the micro-cultural level. It is also something that has extreme economic value. It is, in fact, a very powerful industry. So why is it not possible for something to be both culturally and economically significant? Also, I noticed the mentioning of high and low culture in one of the earlier posts. When Bourdieu talks about a culture, is he assuming the existence of a uniform and ubiquitous cultural structure? It seems strange to me that something highly valued in high culture should be considered to have a high overall cultural value. That is, of course, unless he is talking about cultural prestige, but even then making blanket statements about what is valued in American or French culture seems like an unnecessary gross over generalization to me. But again, I haven’t read very much Bourdieu.

  • September 25, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Interesting- I’d like to map the field in my study also. you’ve provided me with some ideas. Am happy to continue conversation…

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