While reading Bourdieu’s explanation of how some kids have an advantage in school because they are part of the dominant (class) culture, my honest reaction was: My friends and I have been talking about how this works since middle school.
Then again, perhaps Bourdieu’s discussions of institutional power seem instinctual to me only because some of his ideas are prominent ways of thinking about social difference. But to go back to my middle school, the question was not about who was reading certain higher-status-signifying books, but which children chose to read at all. There was no simple social and academic domination of the elite children over the children of the working class. The cool kids were white, working class kids, and they said they didn’t read; so no child, regardless of class background, could openly admit to such behavior with impunity (regardless of how beneficial it might be for job prospects). The dominant culture of the school was not that of the “dominant class,” and the tastes that would make one accepted among the majority were certainly not something that could be acquired in school.
Bourdieu’s analysis feels as disconnected from the American Midwest public school experience as it does to Rutgers, where learning “high status cultural signals” is near impossible and potentially not beneficial. As Lamont and Lareau note, there is “a greater autonomy of lower class high status cultural signals from middle class ones” (162). Perhaps Bourdieu’s discussion makes more sense in an elite university, where upper class American students are able to have a jumpstart on academic culture, than any of the schools I have inhabited.
Even if I’m not that impressed by Bourdieu, I can recognize that Lamont and Lareau are (dare I say it) enchanted with him. For example, as they are painstakingly disentangling Bourdieu’s inconsistent and unclear use of the term “cultural capital” over the course of several books and articles, they say:
“Subtle shifts across these analytical levels are found throughout the work. This polysemy makes for the richness of Bourdieu’s writings, and is a standard of excellence in French academia.” (156) I wonder what it is about Bourdieu that makes them defend his style, even as they seek to “rescue” the term cultural capital.
“American research suggests that class culture are weakly defined in the U.S.; that ethnic and racial minorities reinterpret mainstream culture into their own original culture; that high culture is being debased by commercialization; that the highly educated consume mass culture, but also have a wider range of cultural preferences which distinguishes them from other groups “(161).
In the U.S., the question of literature and its place in high culture is relevant because our society is one that consumes and creates different forms of literature. In a society with many different identities and ideals, one cannot help but confront mass culture. The educated elite of Ivy League schools are familiar with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These individuals mainly of traditionally high cultured lifestyles live and function within a society that recognizes these types of works as widely influential and even “brilliant.” Despite the fact that works such as these have achieved global critical acclaim, have been adapted into films featuring Academy Award recognized actors, and have earned the kind of dollars the high cultured cultural capitalists wish they could have, conformists to Lamont and Lareau’s new definition of cultural capital reject HP and HG as “pop literature” since their existence reverberates within mass culture and because they have become forces unto themselves that reach all levels of American social strata.
In their essay on Cultural Capital, Lamont and Lareau begin by explaining the many different concepts associated by the term “cultural capital.” They propose a new definition, defining it as institutionalized, as in “widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preference, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and culture exclusion” (156). This definition becomes problematic when discussing American society where there is no single cultural center. One modification they set out to make is in response to the micro-political dimension that they believe should be preserved in the American study of cultural capital. They say that “the relative absence of interest in the micro-political facet of cultural capital in the U.S. literature parallels the traditional resistance of American sociologists to deal with exclusion as a form of power relations; they tend to conceive it as an unintended consequence of action, and to understand power as involving coercion” (161). In this sense, Lamont and Lareau seem to be saying that American literature reinforces the negligence that Americans give to exclusion as a form of power relation. It seems that literature has helped maintain this idea – that power relations is simply not a thing in America.