Class, Status, Closure. The Petropolis and Cultural Life
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This thesis concerns the correspondence between relations of social class and relations of social status. Dating back to the early days of the social sciences, the debate about class and status has been revitalised in the wake of the initial advances made by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), who firmly asserted that class relations express themselves through socially structured, and symbolically significant, lifestyle differences in contemporary societies. As a point of departure this thesis takes the debate about the applicability of Bourdieu’s theoreticalmethodological framework and his substantial claims about what I call the classstatus nexus to investigate processes of social closure based on lifestyle differences; in particular differences in people’s consumption preferences and aesthetical tastes. It addresses the question of whether, and if so in which ways, such lifestyle differences lead to social boundaries being formed between more or less exclusive groups of people. Empirically investigating an urban community located on the south-west coast of Norway – the city of Stavanger – the study is based on qualitative interviews with forty-six individuals located in different classes and class fractions.
Three substantial claims are forwarded. First, the analysis points to structural affinities between class positions and different cultural tastes. In particular, the thesis makes the point that how people appreciate cultural and material goods is at least as significant as what they prefer, consume or engage in. Based on the assumption that the ways in which people classify various goods are indicative of their modes of perceiving, appropriating and appreciating these goods, four main modes of consumption corresponding to different class positions are identified. These findings indicate that the social distribution of different consumption preferences and aesthetical tastes is clearly linked to the local class structure. Second, the analysis supports the idea that this classed distribution of lifestyles amounts to the formation of more or less exclusive status groups. It is argued that the interviewees’ expressed aversions to others indicate more or less explicit lifestyle-related antagonisms between social actors located in different class positions. More specifically, it is shown that entwinements of aesthetical and moral criteria of evaluation are used by interviewees to systematically demarcate ‘us’ from ‘them’. These findings indicate that the local class structure not only corresponds to a differential distribution of lifestyles; they also manifest themselves in socially differentiated judgements of lifestyle differences, indicating elective affinities and taste-related status hierarchies. Finally, the analysis suggests that socially recognised lifestyle differences express relations of domination and subordination, in the sense that privileged groups have power over less privileged groups. While the analysis certainly points to an extensive mobilisation of egalitarian sentiments against the perceived ‘elitism’ implied in certain lifestyles, such classifications are exclusively directed against people who are regarded as ‘showing off’ in ways deemed to be morally dubious. The unequal distribution of privileges and advantages tied to lifestyle differentials is, however, rarely problematised. On the contrary, if privileged others are perceived as acting in morally acceptable ways, it seems they are provided with an extraordinary endorsement in the eyes of the non-privileged. Thus, the analysis suggests that closure processes are largely misrecognised, because the privileged act under the ‘moral radar’ of egalitarian sentiments.
The thesis contributes to contemporary sociological debates on class, status and social closure, both on a substantial and on a theoretical-methodological level. Substantially, it expands on a body of research on class and cultural life, in particular the work of Professor Lennart Rosenlund, who has analysed correspondences between class and status relations in Stavanger on the basis of survey data. More generally, the present analysis points to an enduring significance of class in the structuring of social inequalities, in the sense that the social and economic conditions entailed by different class positions fundamentally affect the ways in which people perceive, think and act in the social world. Furthermore, the analysis indicates that these classed modes of conduct amount to social closure, meaning that groups of social actors, intentionally or otherwise, monopolise advantages and privileges by restricting opportunities to outsiders. While the structuring of subjectivities and cultural identities might not always be expressed in class terms by social actors themselves, the expressed demarcations and symbolic value production nevertheless seem to be systematically structured by underlying class relations.
On a theoretical-methodological level, this thesis explores the applicability of Bourdieu’s conceptual framework, employing it to comprehend a different research object than it was originally designed for. It is argued that an extended Bourdieuinspired analytical framework applied in a relational manner can contribute to a further development of what has come to be known as cultural class analysis, i.e. a type of class analysis which encompasses the cultural sphere of society. While the application of Bourdieu’s work is already at the forefront of this development, the present study can be seen as contributing new theoretical-methodological clarifications and elaborations regarding (1) the social distribution of lifestyle properties; (2) the formation of status groups on the basis of lifestyle differentials; and (3) how the unequal distribution of advantages and privileges come to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the non-privileged.