Social and Cultural Distinctions Research Paper

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Over the past forty years, there has been a surge of academic inquiry into the relationship between cultural practices and social stratification. In particular, scholars have explored how distinctions drawn between members of varying social strata with respect to lifestyle, preferences, habits, and consumption practices contribute to unequal access to economic and social rewards. This article reviews key works addressing the role of cultural demarcations in the persistence of class inequality, highlights major debates within the field, and suggests potentially fruitful directions for future research.

Distinctions and Class Closure

Through his concept of social closure, classical social theorist Max Weber (1958) described how social distinctions play a crucial role in the production of systems of power. According to Weber, advantaged groups within societies establish and retain social dominance through monopolizing, or “closing,” access to valued resources and opportunities at the expense of other members of the community. In order to facilitate such exclusion, privileged groups tend to adopt one or more “badges” of social standing so that group membership is readily perceptible, and the distribution of resources can be restricted within group lines.

Building upon Weber’s work, Thorstein Veblen and Norbert Elias explored techniques used specifically by economic classes to distinguish themselves from the less affluent masses. In Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen described how the wealthy use material boundaries—specifically, the conspicuous consumption of costly consumer goods and services—to outwardly demonstrate their superior standing. Conversely, Elias’s The Civilizing Process (1978) documents the development of elaborate behavioral codes and etiquette rituals established by elites in premodern Europe to signal membership in the more cultivated classes.

Culture as Capital: the Work of Pierre Bourdieu

However, it is the work of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu that has been the most influential in shaping contemporary sociological understandings of the relationship between cultural practices and social stratification. Expanding upon Weber’s, Veblen’s, and Elias’s earlier insights, Bourdieu argues in Distinction (1984) that cultural boundaries play a vital role in the reproduction of class inequalities.

According to Bourdieu, differences in material conditions result in different modes of interpreting and experiencing the social world. In particular, the institutions of family and schooling transmit class-specific values to younger generations. As a result of their upbringings, individuals develop goals, attitudes, knowledge, preferences, tastes, codes of appropriate conduct, and consumption practices consistent with their class position, the constellation of which Bourdieu refers to as cultural capital. Due to their restricted standard of living, for example, the lower classes develop cultural preferences and practices consistent with their subsistence and survival needs; members of these classes emphasize functionality and usefulness over more ethereal qualities such as aesthetic or intellectual value. Upper-class values, on the other hand, are characterized by their distance from necessity, or their removal from the immediate concerns of present-day life. In contrast to the “base” or “vulgar” tastes of the working classes, they emphasize complexity and form over usevalue. An important component of upper-class cultural capital is that it is difficult to acquire and exclusive in nature; because the pursuit of these cultural practices and forms of understanding tend to require dedication of significant economic, mental, educational, and/or temporal resources, they are a luxury available only to those who have risen to a certain level of economic comfort. To illustrate the divide between low and high cultural tastes, Bourdieu uses the example of food preferences.

Specifically, he argues that lower classes gravitate toward foods that economically satisfy basic nutritional requirements, whereas higher classes cultivate more sophisticated palettes and value features such as presentation and distinctiveness of flavor. Using survey data from his native France, Bourdieu documents similar patterns in preferences for artistic genres, tastes in fashion, and participation in leisure activities.

According to Bourdieu, such seemingly benign differences in culture serve to reproduce existing class relations in two ways. First, shared norms and values foster common aspirations among members of a social class. Consequently, individuals gravitate toward class-appropriate social relations and occupations. Second, culture is used to actively exclude members of lower classes from positions of prestige. Although all social groups possess cultural resources, only the cultural capital of the dominant classes is rewarded in society at large. Key gate-keeping institutions, most notably the educational system, privilege upper-class, or “dominant” styles of thought and behavior, channeling their possessors into positions of power and economic success, while barring lower-class individuals from avenues of mobility. Through such processes of exclusion, elites consolidate their own power and pass on economic privilege to their kin. Consequently, in Bourdieu’s model, culture serves to reproduce and even mask systems of economic domination.

Critiques of Bourdieu

Throughout the 1980s, Bourdieu’s writings, and in particular his concept of cultural capital, sparked a tremendous volume of empirical work in cultural sociology, the sociology of education, and cultural studies. Yet, after an initial surge of scholarship, researchers began in the early 1990s to highlight potential shortcomings of Bourdieu’s theory of class reproduction. Specifically, Bourdieu came under fire for (1) overemphasizing the role of early childhood experiences in determining class outcomes (Aschaffenburg and Mass 1997); (2) overestimating the importance of high culture to members of privileged strata, while underestimating the importance of moral, socioeconomic, and racial boundaries (Erickson 1996; Lamont 1992; Peterson and Kern 1996); and (3) failing to account for national and other contextual variations in the content of class boundaries (Lamont 1992). Moreover, the utility of the term cultural capital has been criticized for grouping together too many conceptually distinct variables (Lamont and Lareau 1988) as well as for its inability to reliably predict academic success (Kingston 2001). Finally, given the increasingly fragmented nature of social class and reported declines in class identification in postindustrial societies, a few more controversial scholars have questioned the very existence of class, let alone class cultures (Kingston 2000; Grusky and Weeden 2002).

Symbolic Boundaries: Current and Future Directions

In light of such critiques, many scholars shifted away from discussions of cultural capital and focused instead on symbolic boundaries, or conceptual distinctions made by actors to make sense of their social world. Drawing heavily on the work of classical theorists such as Émile Durkheim and more recently the work of cultural sociologist Michèle Lamont, this burgeoning literature explores the lines people draw between “us” and “them,” particularly when evaluating the worth of others (Lamont and Molnar 2002). Although current studies tend to focus on investigating the context of symbolic boundaries and how they vary by context, the field of culture and inequality could benefit from future research examining how people actively draw upon these conceptual categories of worth in their educational, occupational, and social lives, particularly in the context of microsocial interaction.


  1. Aschaffenburg, Karen, and Ineke Mass. 1997. Cultural and Educational Careers: The Dynamics of Social Reproduction. American Sociological Review 62 (4): 573–587.
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. DiMaggio, Paul, and John Mohr. 1985. Cultural Capital, Educational Attainment, and Marital Selection. American Journal of Sociology 90 (6): 1231–1261.
  4. Durkheim, Émile. 1965. Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press.
  5. Elias, Norbert. 1978. The Civilizing Process. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Urizen Books.
  6. Erickson, Bonnie H. 1996. Culture, Class, and Connections. American Journal of Sociology 102 (1): 217–251.
  7. Grusky, David, and Kim Weeden. 2002. Decomposition without Death: A Research Agenda for the New Class Analysis. Acta Sociologica 45 (3): 203–218.
  8. Kingston, Paul W. 2000. The Classless Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  9. Kingston, Paul W. 2001. The Unfulfilled Promise of Cultural Capital Theory. Sociology of Education 74 (4): 88–99.
  10. Lamont, Michèle. 1992. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and American Upper-Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Lamont, Michèle, and Annette Lareau. 1988. Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps, and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments. Sociological Theory 6 (2): 153–168.
  12. Lamont, Michèle, and Virag Molnar. 2002. The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 28 (1): 167–195.
  13. Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore. American Sociological Review 61 (5): 900–907.
  14. Veblen, Thorstein. 1899. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York: Modern Library.
  15. Weber, Max. 1958. Class, Status, and Party. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 180–195. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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