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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉