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Distinctions: Space and Power

In Beauty, book reviews, Business, Contact Information, Creative Writing, Culture, Education, Entertainment, Environment, Events, Health, Living, Media Writing, Opinion, Technology, Writing (all kinds) on September 8, 2010 at 3:00 AM

This essay will explore how four authors have made distinctions of social space and of power in the social world. For instance, Pierre Bourdieu’s “Social space and symbolic power” from his In Other Words, theorizes on how social space is created and how groups exist in social space.

Similarly, Dick Hedbige’s “Towards a cartography of taste 1935-62,” from Popular Culture: Past and Present, considers some of the changes in British social and cultural life during 1935 to 1962. He attributes the changes to two factors, “Americanization” and the “leveling-down process.” John Frow’s “The concept of the popular,” from his Cultural Studies & Cultural Value, points out flaws in Bourdieu’s theory, such as working from a top-down model of social domination, and also theorizes what the “popular” means. Mica Nava’s “Consumerism reconsidered: buying and power,” from Cultural Studies 5 discusses the relationship between people and commodities and shows how consumerism can be used in a political way.

In particular, I will show how Bourdieu contrasts with Frow on distinctions of social space and power, second, how Bourdieu and Hebdige share similar theories about space and power, third how Bourdieu and Hebdige differ with Nava in their distinctions of power, and fourthly, how Nava and Frow share similar theories on distinctions of power. Through the differences and similarities in the authors, we will see how Nava and Frow are more relevant to understanding distinctions of space and power in today’s social world, the ‘global village.’ Throughout the study of these distinctions the relevance of Nave and Frow’s theories become apparent.

Bourdieu theorizes on how the social space is divided, by using terms such as “habitus.” He says that the “’sense of one’s place”, or the “habitus,” and the “’sense of the other’s place’” creates a social distance (Bourdieu 128). This knowing of one’s place and knowing of another’s places is a social space distinction. Bourdieu’s argument however does make allowance for the person who watches the “Simpsons,” drinks beer and bowls, and also listens to the opera. He states:

Agents classify themselves, expose themselves to classification, y choosing, in conformity with their tastes, different attributes, clothes, types of food, drinks, sports, friends, which go well together and which they also find agreeable or, more exactly which they find suitable for their position (Bourdieu 131-132).

Bourdieu only recognizes that people choose their tastes based on their social position. This does not consider that many people have tastes that do not fit neatly together; someone who drinks beer and bowls can like the opera too.

For Bourdieu the distance between different groups’ social space is distinct, while Frow seems to suggest a less ordered social space than the one proposed by Bourdieu. For Frow, the social space is divided between the popular and the dominant culture that he frames as a political conflict. His use of the word ‘popular’ encompasses a social space, but within that space there is diversity. Bourdieu, on the other hand, says that the social world is neither chaotic nor completely structured. However, Bourdieu’s vision of social space distinctions is more structured than Frow’s. The distinctions of Bourdieu are also emphasized by his use of the word “class.” Frow instead refers to differences of culture. In an advanced capitalist society like ours, Frow believes that there are not strict class differentiations because we have a media and an education system that break down strict class lines. “These institutions have thoroughly transformed the system of ‘post modern’ relations to cultural value” (Frow 86). Therefore, Frow is more aware than Bourdieu of the effect that mass media and mass education have on blurring the distinctions in our social space.

Clearly, Bourdieu’s position seems to assume a total acceptance of one’s sense of place and that of the other: unlike Frow, there is no political conflict involved in Bourdieu’s theory. For Frow, popular culture is in opposition to the power structure of the dominant culture. Frow, for instance, maintains that culture forms are not fixed (something not recognized by Bourdieu), a text is not fixed, and a text is not bourgeois in the sense that it cannot be anything else. Also “’there is no one-to-one relationship between a class and a particular cultural form or practice’” (Frow 73). Class structures intersect and overlap. For example, Tiger Woods (African-American and Asian) plays golf (associated with the white upper middle class). Golf then does not become fixed to what is most commonly identified as golf. Frow’s theory therefore more modern than Bourdieu’s and takes into account the cross-cultural and other-class considerations in the “global village” of today. However, though Frow disagrees with Bourdieu on many points, he agrees with Bourdieu’s key thesis “that the primary business of culture is distinction” (Frow 85).

Although Bourdieu differs from Frow in his construction of social space, he is similar to Hebdige. Bourdieu says that commodities such as playing gold, red wine, champagne and whiskey are distinctive signs that differentiate group or classes of people. This leads to a social space that is symbolic, “ a space of lifestyles and status groups, characterized by different lifestyles” (Bourdieu 133). Similarly, Hebdige divides social space in relations to taste, and uses commodities to describe a social space. Hebdige also depends on language to form a cultural value and uses the same distinctive signs as Bourdieu to exemplify the relationship between class and commodities in an excerpt from Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The reader forms and identity of the character based on his dislike of commodities like plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz. Hebdige, in particular, illustrates the distinctive force of words. He writes of words that embrace a meaning that creates a social space. These words form a language of value:

Specifically we have seen how a number of ideologically charged connotation codes could be invoked and set in motion by the mere mention of a world like ‘America’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘streamlining.’ Groups and individuals as apparently unrelated as the British Modern Design establishment, BBC staff members, Picture Post and music paper journalist, critical sociologists, ‘independent’ cultural critics like Orwell and Hoggart, a Frankfurt-trained Marxist like Marcuse, even an obsessive isolationist like Evelyn Waugh all had access to these codes (Hebdige 213).

The cues Hebdige speaks of create distinctions. These codes are embodied by language. Language is also part of the significance of commodities in creating and symbolizing their value. To a lesser extent, Bourdieu sees language as distinctive signs. His use of the word “habitus” is one that encompasses a social space. He also uses words, such as “petty bourgeois,” which encapsulate a meaning that distinguishes social space.

Similar to Hebdige and Bourdieu, Nava examines the distinction of social space in relation to commodities. In Hebdige, commodities have their identifications, their selling points: streamlining became associated with the new and the future; the Cadillac became a symbol of the American dream. For Nava, social space is a relationship between consumer and commodity. Like Frow she sees a political element in this construction of social space. In the social space discussed by Nava, commodities make distinctions. Hebdige also examines this in part by Bourdieu and. Nava, however, concentrates her theory on distinctions of power. A main concern for all authors is distinctions of power; these distinctions of power will be with Hebdige’s view.

The dominant group, through the “leveling-down process”, sees in the ‘other,’ namely America, as well as Hebdige’s discussion of power. Hebdige exemplifies the power of American culture in Britain by discussing the introduction of rock music to the BBC. The BBC, as an ‘official point of view,’ was late in accepting rock music in its programming:

Despite the relaxation in the tone and style of the BBC broadcasting allegedly affected by the advent of commercial television in 1954, rock n’ roll was deliberately ignored and resisted by the BBC radio networks (Hebdige 202).

When the BBC finally did accept rock music, the ‘official point of view’ of the disc jockeys still influenced it with their commentary. This shows the power of the ‘official point of view’ that Bourdieu speaks of. Hebdige also discusses the power relationship between people and commodities.

Hebdige puts forth the view of Hébert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man that there is a passive consumerism. Marcuse uses examples of a black person who owns a Cadillac and a typist who is made up as if she were the daughter of the boss to show how people, especially those of disadvantaged groups are influenced by the power of commodities. The struggle of one class to become part of another by consuming the commodities of the higher class was a popular theme in the discourse of the 50s and 60s. Hebdige sees a top-down approach to the power structure of the 1930s to 1960s. Nava has a different view on the power structure that is in agreement with Frow.
Nava, like Hebdige, also discusses the view of Marcuse in relation to the more dated view of the power relationship between commodities and people. In relation to Hebdige, Nava sees the lower classes as exercising much more control, and resistance to the dominant group. Nana cites Marcuse as well as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (which supports Marcuse). Nava downplays the point Marcuse makes that “people recognize themselves in their commodities” (Nava 160) and that these commodities form a social control. Marcuse takes the power out of the hands of the people and puts it into the commodity. For Nava these ideas held by 50s and 60s cultural theorists do not respect ordinary people:

The pertinent features of my argument which emerge from this picture of the cultural theorists of the fifties and sixties are then first of all a lack of respect for the mentality of ordinary people, exemplified by the vie that they are easily duped by advertisers and politically pacified by the buying of useless objects. Their pursuit of commodities and their enjoyment of disdained cultural forms are cited as evidence of their irrationality and gullibility (Nava 161-162).

Nava further states that people have more power, especially those who seem to be most at prey – women, children, and the less educated. This power is apparent if you consider the fact that as many as 90 per cent of new products fail in spite of advertising (Nava 161).

Consumerism, or the relationship between class and commodities, can be understood “as a form of defiance, a refusal to remain marginalized in class terms” (Nava 165). People show their power with product boycotts as a form of defiance against ‘the power-bloc,’ for example, the product boycotts against South Africa. This same consumer power has been used in the environmental movement where “according to the Daily Telegraph, 50 per cent of shoppers operate product boycotts of one kind or another…” (Nava 168). Nava writes of a relationship to commodities that is selective buying, “the buying of products which conform to certain criteria” (Nava 168). This is exemplified in the purchasing of green, or environmentally friendly products. Such purchasing power forms a class identity.

Nava’s position is agreed upon by Frow. For Frow, not only do commodities (or texts in his instance) become part of culture, but also these texts are passive in themselves. In Frow, we have a popular culture struggling against the dominant one, yet there is an acceptance of the power held by the dominant culture. He also is suspicious of Bourdieu’s idea of a spokesperson and institutionalization, which is a top-down model of social domination. Moreover, he notes that consumers of popular culture are not passive dupes and do hold power which they exercise. His view of the masses is one of empowerment. Frow also locates power more with people than with texts. The “texts are ‘discursively limited or bounded’ and thus ‘offer’ a relevance that is taken up by the reader’s criteria of relevance” (Frow 63). This means that classes embrace commodities that fit into their schema, or social allegiances. The expression of this opposition to the dominant class is expressed by commodities, for example, the wearing of torn jeans, listening to rock music, or going shopping are all symbols of resistance to the ‘the power-bloc’ (Frow 62).

Different from Frow, Bourdieu is concerned with symbolic power and how it relates to constructing the social space, and he seems to have an individual emphasis on this. He speaks of the ‘official point of view’ and how much power that holds.

To change the world, one has to change the ways of making the world, that is, the vision of the world and the practical operations by which groups are produced and reproduced (Bourdieu 137).

Bourdieu goes on to say that symbolic power is exemplified in the power to form groups. He bases this power on two conditions, of which one will be discussed. This condition is more relevant to the topic of distinctions of power. The condition is that symbolic power has to be based on symbolic capital. Bourdieu says, “symbolic capital is a credit, it is the power granted to those who have obtained sufficient recognition to be in a position to impose recognition…” (Bourdieu 138). Bourdieu sees the power of creating a group as associated to the “process of institutionalization” (Bourdieu 138). For Bourdieu, people speak through a representative, while in Nava’s work she writes of a collective buying power for example, people against apartheid and people against environment destruction. In Nava, we have the masses exercising a great deal of power and re-creating the social space in a mass movement, different from the view of Bourdieu. For her, this change of the world was able to take place without any clearly identified spokesperson.

This essay has discussed four essays by Pierre Bourdieu, Dick Hebdige, John Frow, and Mica Nava. The purpose of this essay was to show how these authors discuss distinctions of social space and power. What resulted through this discussion was that Bourdieu’s theory contrasts with Frow’s, Bourdieu and Hebdige share similar arguments, Hebdige and Bourdieu differ with Nava in their distinctions of power, and Nava and Frow share similar theories on distinctions of power. Frow and Nava have theories that are more modern than Bourdieu and Hebdige. Their arguments are more relevant to the global village of today where distinctions of social space are sometimes blurred and the masses exercise power that therefore doesn’t come from the top-down.

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