How culture affects power

Unbeknown to most people, there exists a particular – and slightly peculiar – research domain in the discipline of consumer behaviour called; The Socio-Cultural Patterning of Consumption.  It addresses the question of how systematic consumption behaviours are precipitated by institutionalised social structures.  A nexus of these social structures is; Social-Class.  The provenance of this now established discipline grew from academic myopia regarding how and when social-class could be used to abet business and marketing practices.  As a nascent research stream it appropriated Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of capitals and habitus to augment existing theories, and to develop new analytic tools to plumb consumption-based theoretical lacunae.

Bourdieu’s seminal contributions to sociology – and all other disciplines to appropriate his theories – provide us with innovative insights into the political landscape in Britain.  To demonstrate how efficacious these theories to be I delineate an age-old construct of British politics – the problematic of Old Etonian iterative-incumbents in the heart of government – and seek to illustrate how consumption and Bourdieu can provide new modes of explanation.

A startling fact about British society is that of the population, only 7% is educated at private institutions.  This small percentage goes on, however, to dominate professional employment spheres.  Finance Directors and Judges are grossly overrepresented by the privately educated; 75% and 70% respectively.  This social imbalance is also reproduced at the top of government, in the cabinet.  Recent disquiet from the government’s Chief Whip, Michael Gove and former Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Warsi, recently put this issue in the spotlight.  The common explications for this social imbalance are nepotism and/or cronyism.  However, Bourdieu offers us an alternative theory, one based on culture, institutions, consumption and class-reproduction that offer an alternative insight.

According to Bourdieu, educational institutions are ostensibly objective outfits that make meritocratic judgements about the intelligence, ambition, aptitude and ability of its members.  Because of this, the natural and unquestioned corollary is to assume the belief that those occupying dominant positions in society – educated in elite institutions – are there by objectified virtue.  Bourdieu tells us, however, that this is a misconception, a fallacious belief subversively reinforced by the dominant systematically devaluing the masses’ cultural capital.  This process of devaluation happens because the dominated mistakenly believe high-end culture to be associated with a specific form of knowledge that allows elites to ‘appreciate’ the cultural object in question.  However, rather than drawing from a source of ‘special knowledge’, elites consume culture purely on arbitrary whims.  Because the hierarchy of cultural tastes goes unquestioned, middlebrow and popular culture is viewed as subordinate.  The reason educational institutions reinforce social inequalities is precisely because it unwittingly demonises middlebrow and popular culture whilst pedestaling highbrow forms.  The net effect of which is that much of the population from working-class backgrounds valorise elite cultural forms.  They form distant relationships to it and develop antagonist attitudes because they feel they have not had the necessary inculcation of skills and experience to legitimately appreciate it.  The misconception manifests here.  Elites do not have stores of knowledge that affords them the opportunity to appreciate said forms, but, rather, have an arbitrary predilection for dispositions to choose such forms.  This misrecognition has engendered aspirational middling-classes to consume appropriately legitimate cultural forms – opera, classical music, reading of the classics, philosophy, and subscription to academic journals – as a mechanism to rise upwardly in the social hierarchy.

So, is the social makeup of the cabinet really just a product of ‘Bob’s your uncle’ or ‘Jobs for the boys’?  Or is it a result of a social structure that establishes a hierarchy of taste that seeks to subversively predominate lower orders?  Two eminent consumption theorists, Douglas Allen and Paul Anderson, point towards the answer in the sociological axiomatic belief that educational institutions are one of the most crucial agencies of class reproduction.  Because educational institutions act as consequential site for class reproduction they systematically develop routinized professional trajectories for their members to follow.  It is no wonder then that elite institutions such as Eton and Oxbridge act as cabinet nurseries.

It is unlikely that the social reproduction at the heart of government will change any time soon.  However, increasing pressure to form a more egalitarian government has strong-armed David Cameron to promote two female ministers – Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan – to cabinet positions.  Although government seems more willing to redress the dire state of gender imbalance – though still grotesquely weighted in favour of men – it seems insouciant towards class bias.  This unfortunate reality is further demonstrated by the Oxford degrees of cabinet’s newest female members.

By Alexander Smith 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Europe

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