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Discussions and analyses of culture are common in the social sciences. Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists are often interested in similarities and differences between groups and societies. An important component of social scientific research on culture revolves around the question of stratification. In other words, are some cultures more valued than others?
According to sociologist Herbert Gans, cultures can be divided according to various tastes. In his article American Popular Culture and High Culture in a Changing Class Structure (1986), Gans argues that “taste cultures” are the “array of arts, and forms of entertainment and information, as well as consumer goods available to different taste publics” (pp. 17–18). Taste cultures fall into at least five categories, each differing by preferences in literature, art, consumption patterns, hobbies, and other leisure activities. According to the author, the categories are different, but not implicitly unequal.
However, empirical evidence suggests that not all cultures are equally valued. A stratification system exists in which some cultures are considered “high” cultures while others are considered “low.” According to Tia DeNora (1991), the differential valuation of cultures has been present throughout history in a variety of nations and is maintained through an array of institutional practices.
The difference between high culture and low culture is somewhat arbitrary. Both types of culture involve tastes in music, art, literature, and various material goods, for example, so the distinction generally revolves around specific types of tastes within those categories. High culture, in general, involves an interest in classical music or opera, fine art, gourmet foods, and so forth. Low culture tastes, in contrast, fall outside of these particular preferences.
Because high culture is valued more highly than other forms, several advantages are bestowed upon those who participate in high cultural activities. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1977), participation or interest in high culture leads to a form of capital that can be used to produce various types of “profits.” For example, several scholars have argued that children who possess cultural capital are advantaged in the school system because teachers may “communicate more easily with students who participate in elite status cultures, give them more attention and special assistance, and perceive them as more intelligent or gifted than students who lack cultural capital” (DiMaggio 1982, p. 190). Numerous empirical studies have supported this claim. Students with higher degrees of cultural capital tend to have higher grades, higher educational attainment, and higher educational expectations.
Theoretically, the opportunity to obtain cultural capital is open to all members of a society. However, there is a strong correlation between cultural capital and socioeconomic status. Since cultural capital is likely to be obtained through socialization, family background strongly influences whether or not individuals will have access to opportunities that could increase their levels of capital. According to Gans, “it takes money to buy culture” (1986, pp. 18–19). Those with low incomes may be unable to afford to participate in high culture activities. Other factors that can affect the accumulation of cultural capital include educational attainment and occupational status. To be able to understand and appreciate high culture, one may need to have a particular level of education. Because information about cultural events is likely to be transmitted through social networks, occupation status becomes important. Because the poor have lower incomes, lower levels of education, and fall into the lower levels of the occupational hierarchy, they may be excluded from opportunities to participate in high culture activities, which will limit the amount of cultural capital they, and their children, possess.
Members of racial and ethnic minority groups may also be excluded from opportunities to obtain cultural capital, partially due to those factors that exclude the poor in general. Members of minority groups are disproportionately represented in the lower classes of society, have lower levels of educational attainment, and are underrepresented in professional occupations. Therefore, like poor whites, they may lack opportunities to participate in high culture activities. However, minority groups may face further exclusion based on various unique circumstances they face as a result of racial or ethnic group status.
As high culture, to a great extent, is synonymous with Euro-American culture, those who are not Euro-American may be particularly disadvantaged with regard to access to cultural capital. According to Paul DiMaggio and Francie Ostrower (1990), historical practices involving overt discrimination excluded African Americans from fully participating in high culture activities. For example, various museums either denied or limited access to blacks, black artists and white artists were segregated, and audiences were often separated by race. Discrimination in education, the economy, and other institutions also played a role in limiting cultural opportunities.
Although opportunities for blacks have expanded since the 1960s, both past and present discrimination may continue to limit access. As noted earlier, race continues to affect socioeconomic status. Due to high degrees of educational and occupational segregation, blacks may lack access to important forms of economic and social capital that could contribute positively to participation in high culture activities. According to DiMaggio and Ostrower, blacks may also participate less in high culture because the benefits of doing so vary by race. For example, attendance at high culture events may be uncomfortable for blacks, as they may be less familiar with these environments, or may be subjected to “‘social slurs, unpleasant incidents,’ and discrimination” (DiMaggio and Ostrower 1990, p. 758). Therefore, the cost of attendance may outweigh the benefits.
Another important factor to consider is that of taste. DiMaggio and Ostrower find that blacks, for example, are more likely to attend or participate in events that involve jazz, soul, rhythm-and-blues, and other forms of music. Because these tastes are historically associated with African American culture rather than Euro-American culture, they tend to be valued less. Since these tastes are not considered to be as valuable or prestigious, blacks may be excluded from the rewards they might otherwise have received by conforming to dominant cultural tastes.
In conclusion, cultures are not only different but also unequal. Since participation in high culture activities is dependent upon factors such as socioeconomic status, equal opportunity, and taste preferences, poor and minority group members may be excluded from participation, and may therefore also be excluded from the benefits that accompany involvement.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Cultural Reproduction and Social In Power and Ideology in Education, ed. Jerome Karabel and A. H. Halsey, 487–511. New York: Oxford University Press.
- DeNora, Tia. 1991. Musical Patronage and Social Change in Beethoven’s Vienna. American Journal of Sociology 97 (2): 310–346.
- DiMaggio, Paul. 1982. Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades of U.S. High School Students. American Sociological Review 47: 189–201.
- DiMaggio, Paul, and Francie Ostrower. 1990. Participation in the Arts by Black and White Americans. Social Forces 68: 753–778.
- Gans, Herbert. 1986. American Popular Culture and High Culture in a Changing Class Structure. In Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, 17–38. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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