Television Program Choice by Social Class

In Christopher Lasch's review of the book Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu, it was written, 

Bourdieu's analysis transcends the usual analysis of conspicuous consumption in two ways: by showing that specific judgments and choices matter less than esthetic outlook in general and by showing, moreover, that the acquisition of an esthetic outlook not only advertises upper-class prestige but helps to keep the lower orders in line.  In other words, the esthetic world view serves as an instrument of domination.  It serves the interests not merely of status but of power.  It does this, according to Bourdieu, by emphasizing individuality, rivalry, and 'distinction' and by devaluing the well-being of society as a whole.

Along the same vein, Ellen Seiter wrote:

Bourdieu focused attention on the role of education and the influence of 'cultural capital' on taste, the selection and valorization of certain cultural forms.  In his introduction, he formulates this in the widely quoted statement 'Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier'.  These distinctions are used to legitimate the privileges of those with more education and more money, who envision themselves as superior to those whose tastes differ from their own.  Bourdieu emphasizes that these distinctions are just as present in the selection of novels to read or pictures to hang on the wall of one's home as they are in choices of food or hairstyle.  His account focuses on the relationship among types of goods, and argues that the meaning of any given commodity (such as a television programme) derives from its similarities to and differences from other commodities in society (live performances of opera or ballet; football games).  Increasingly, society requires consumers to understand and manipulate complex meanings and connotations attached to consumer goods and commodified cultural forms, so that they may choose to make the right impressions --- and so that they may avoid mistakes.  This can involve complex negotiations in the linking of cultural forms to social status.  Emulation involves a double movement: imitation of those richer, and differentiation from those poorer or less 'refined.'

We will now cite some survey data from the 2001 TGI Latina study, which consists of interviews with 26,420 persons between the ages of 12 and 64 years old in five Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru).  These persons have been classified into the TGI socio-economic status groups (A for the top 10%, B for the next 20%, C for the next 30% and D for the bottom 40%) based upon factors such as the education and occupation of the head of household, and ownership/access to a variety of products (e.g. personal computers, automobiles) and services (e.g. domestic helpers, potable water).  These persons were shown a list of television programs, and they were then asked to indicate those programs they watch frequently.  The cross-tabulation of socio-economic status versus frequently watched television program types is displayed in the form of a correspondence map below.  

What makes these social classes distinct from each other?  Insofar as their television viewing are concerned, we observed these preferences:

 These relationships correspond to common notions about who watches what.

Of course, these relationships do not carry any value judgments by themselves.  No specific form can be said to be intrinsically superior than another.  Seiter quotes Charlotte Brunson: "Just as a Godard film requires the possession of certain forms of cultural capital on the part of its audience for it to 'make sense' --- an extra textual familiarity with certain artistic linguistic, political and cinematic discourses --- so too does ... soap opera ... the narrative strategies and concerns ... call on the traditionally feminine competencies associated with the responsibility for 'managing' the sphere of personal life."  Seiter then concludes that "members of the audience who despised soap opera, often were simply lacking in the cultural capital required to read the text adequately --- and that the low status of soap opera audiences could best be explained as a result of a social structure which routinely placed working-class and feminine forms at the bottom."  And since taste is acquired, not inherited, it is entirely possible for a person from any class to master the codes and ciphers of any cultural form. 

If cultural tastes are produced by upbringing and education, then this poses an interesting question.  How is one to know that one's fondness for a particular television program is genuine enjoyment or false class consciousness?


(posted by Roland Soong, 5/23/2001)

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