The symbolic production of Cultural objects

Bourdieu’s social theory is anti-dualistic attempting to reconcile, to seek a dialectic, a mutual constitution and correspondence between the subjective/objective, material/symbolic, synchrony/diachrony, micro/macro). He introduced and reformulated new and different concepts such as habitus, field and capital, which creates practices.  The concept of “practice” is used to bridge the gap between these traditional dichotonomies. Practice entails, active agents, who not only interpret experience but actively produce it. They interpret and act in the world in accordance with the understanding, the meaning it has for them and they react purposively towards it. He does not reduce agents to bearers of social structures or functions neither he abolishes agency. The social is made of  meaningful/intelligent, sensuous, embodied agents whose actions are purposive. Structure and Agency are related by power, structures confer agency on agents by distributing power to them (Parker,2000). Agents, use their powers to defend or increase their holding causing realignments within the distributional structure, changes in habitus and innovation of, and within fields (ibid, p.48). What is crucial is that agents are positioned within social groups and classes which compete to maintain an improve their standing in various fields,  in which kinds of capital are at stake. They are not  only able to reproduce themselves and their collectivities, but also they internalise long-lasting dispositions, transposable between fields. The dispositions are not consciously coordinated or governed by rules, however they provide agents with a “practical sense” (Le sens practique) or a “feel for the game” (Le sens de jeu). According to his empirical research findings, those within a same class were predisposed to share the same categories of perception, classification, appreciations, judgments and behaviour and to that extent their actions were predictable. He links the habitus of the agent to a Field, a space where people struggle to obtain different types of Capital. Capital not only involve the economic, but also the social, cultural and Symbolic. He empirically presented how his project could be applied to many fields such as Art, Politics, Education, Fashion, and Consumption. The embodied dispositions include taste, speech, dress and manners. Choosing according to one’s taste is homologous to the class position and this choice is assisted by many institutions such as shops, magazines, theatres (Bourdieu 1984. p.232). The author will be evaluating Bourdieu’s theory in the field of consumption at Selfridges, a shop located in Oxford Street, London.

The Field of fashion is a case study of Bourdieu’s social theory. A rising number of commentators in this area have attempted to compile and evaluate Bourdieu’s theory in the field of fashion (Rocamora , 2002), and particularly how his theory in this field might be applied to the British case.  Entwistle and Rocamora (2006, p738) argues that the British Field of fashion is made up of a hierarchical system of relations between key designers, magazine publications and shops. In the absence of couture houses, British fashion designers jostle for position on the international stage, with many of them securing top positions in French coutures houses (Mc queen at Givenchy and Mc Cartney at Cloe). They see Selfridges as  store, which dominate the field of high fashion in the retailing sector. Entwistle (2006) undertook an ethnographic fieldwork in this shop, emphasising the roles of buyers as cultural intermediaries.

This shop is not a single field, it has to be perceived as an abstraction linked to the field of fashion, the field of consumption and the field of economy, all interpreted as historical structures. Each field are the result of modernity, and each one is semi-autonomous, consisting of interrelated and vertically differentiated positions, with its own agents, its accumulation of history, its own logic of action and its own forms of capital. Capital is transferable. Each field is immersed in an institutional field of power (Puwar, N. 2004 p. 126)  Each field containing struggles, conflict and competition.

Selfridges is not only a shop or a business, it carries symbolic power, it operates as a “sign” associated with refinement, distinction, and provides honour or symbolic capital to other bodies. It is a “cultural intermediary” in charge of the Symbolic Production of Cultural objects, ensuring the ontological promotion and transubstantiation, assisting (Bourdieu 1975, p.28)  the Direct producers of Cultural Objects who struggle for capital, distinction and difference in the field of fashion, aiming for conservation, defending themselves against other players such as the pretenders and newcomers players in the fashion industry.

Structure and Agency are related by power (Parker 2000). Agents constrain structure but at the same time structure constrain agents. Structure is Habitus, embodied in the agent in dispositions and ironically, agents perceive structure externally as a field, by being caught in struggle for capital.  The products traded at Selfridges are the most expensive in the market. As a field of consumption only specific agents such as the higher classes can get access to it. Individual and the social are not mutual categories and the agent (bourgeoisie) as a consumer act on capacity to pursue the interest of their class, in that respect their agency enable them to be an strategic competitor but at the same time structure constrain them to seek certain ends, of preservation. Their dispositions are not conscious, so they seen to be constrained by the urgency of practice. Their habitus is adjusted to the immanent demands of this field, they just need to be what they are to choose a particular product/brand that goes along with his habitus, as an ontological complicity. They are predispose to adopt this taste because of his social class background.

Selfridges provides agents with the symbolic capital that will allow them not only to differentiate themselves, but to preserve and reproduce itself as a class. By providing products from the dominant players of the field of fashion, It is clearly aiming not only to increase profit as a business, but  to establish itself as expert or cultural authority over the provision of symbolic goods and services.  It also targets the new petite bourgeoisie, such as celebrities, and members of the new cultural intermediaries, who aspire to differentiate themselves from the cultural goodwill of the lower middle class which lack knowledge of legitimate culture, they are motivated by interests rather than identities to achieve a position. They are aware that this shop will provide them with transferable capital that they might use in other fields, in other set of relations. The struggle is over status. Due to its elevated prices it clearly excludes the working class whose logic of consumption is that of necessity. It is not individuals who produce differences within a field but the objectified dispositions Swingewood, A. (2000, p.213). The result of this is reproduction. Agents and structures ad infinitum reproduce the entire structure and their positions within it. It is very hard to escape from this factors constraining agents because they are embodied in dispositions, actions, taste, as a result of this, the higher class acquire distinction.

A number of criticism seem to arise and it has been noted by different commentators. Structure appears to unduly constrain “agency” in Bourdieu’s work to the extent that the consumers who appear in it seem rather too passive or acting in a mechanical way. Du Gay, P, Hall, S., et al. (1997 p 102.) His theory only conceptualize consumption as social differentiation. De Certau (1984) argues that consumption is not a passive process. Meanings (and multilple) are also produced by consumers through the use to which they give and put to those objects in their everyday life. Agents are able to use product for other purposes not necessarily adopting the meaning received by the producers and cultural intermediaries as Bourdieu argues. Products of mass consumption also allows accessibility to all types of classes including working classes. They are able to access products and allows them to create their own identities. Rocamora (2002) also focuses on the pleasures of consumption, the object is perceived as producing a sensual experience in the agent. Consumers make meaning in reception and do not simply “receive” and “ingest” sent messages. (ibid, p. 104). Agents create something new rather than just reproducing structure.

Similar problems with Bourdieu’s theory is that all action takes place through “positionality” not “interaction”, structures can not be reduced to interactions and practices through which structures express themselves (Swingewood, A (2000, p.217) Practices are the result of not only positions and dispositions, but also of interactive situations (Mouzelis, 1995  p113) Individuals do not automatically follow formal rules or normative expectations, this is due not only to the flexibility of he habitus, but also to the logic of specific interactive situations (ibid p. 111). Given that dispositions have a non-volitional, quasi automatic character, how is one to account for practices that are predominantly the result of conscious, reflexive monitoring of others ad one’s own actions and interactions? (Ibid, 112).  Not everything is conscious, but the final result always derives from a mixture of conscious, less conscious and unconscious elements (ibid 117).

Bourdieu’s social theory enables us to see other aspect of reality that I previously did not perceive, or a set of correlations of abstractions that I did not take into account, whose combination provides a different account of reality. Experience is perceived by different people in different ways, it encourages individuals to achieve objectivity.

Bourdieu’s social theory does not complicate the analysis of this case, however,  the language issued by the theorist to express their ontology is what makes things complicated, by encouraging the reader to learn first his/her language. Social theory is not only useful but is a need if we are to improve ourselves as a humans. If we can use our theory to find out about the world, then our range of effective action increases; we become more free. (Craib 1992 p10p2). The strength of social theory lies elsewhere, I think: in the sensitive attempt, as Hegel put it, to capture its time [broadly conceived of course] in thought. Although social theory, and particularly sociological theory, were generally slow, for example, to address issues of race and gender and of international conflict or the environment, they have responded relatively promptly to the theoretical and practical challenges posed by ethnic minority, feminist, peace and environmentalist movements in the last third of the century, just as the social theory of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century responded to the crises of liberalism and the rise of socialist and communist movements. (Outhwaite, 2000)

The complexity of the subject matter of social science, the impossibility of isolating significant aspects of the social world in order to carry out experiments, the fact that human activity is self-conscious and reflective, al combine to make such puzzle-solving activity damaging – what some people call “reductionist” (ibid p11p2), Totalisation, generalisation, analytical abstraction makes social theory a very hard field.. The social sciences are marked by tendencies towards both unification and division, pressures for specialization. More cooperation is a key for the future.

I have learned that in order to theorize I have to strive for objectivity, be open to criticism, and willing to debate. The Future of Social theory is uncertain (Beer D, 2004) What C.Wright Mills denounced in the Parsonian era as the coexistence of grand theory and abstracted empiricism remains an equally possible future for the social sciences in the twenty-first century (Outhwaite, 2000). Clearly social theory should aim not only to identify  the current problems facing humanity due to the many changes in contemporary society, but also should strive to overcome old theories, and to determine their relevance to the current world. Be open to new theories and arguments and willing to criticize them.

I believe that we live in a modern society, not in a post-modern society, but we have not done enough to improve it, and reflexivity is a key theme to explore. Globalisation is important, this we must now take to include not just economic and inter-state processes, but also the globalisation of culture. Social theory which recognises its own continuities and traditions has a chance to create a better future.



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