David Brooks/Pierre Bourdieu

David Brooks’ column on Tuesday (“How We are Ruining America“) has attracted a vast wave of criticism, generally from his left. He argues that upper-class Americans preserve economic advantage primarily by using “cultural signifiers” that exclude others. To preserve their advantages, upper-class Americans demonstrate that they “understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”

That this behavior determines relative economic advantage is a contentious thesis–although Brooks is pretty careful to cite other explanations for the lack of mobility in America. His short and slight newspaper column hinges on a cringey anecdote. But it occurs to me that if you make this argument as a pundit labeled as a conservative, you risk ridicule. If you make essentially the same points as a trendy French cultural theorist, you will find yourself cited by 566,786 scholarly articles, according to Google Scholar.

I refer to Pierre Bourdieu: “Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously. It always remains marked by its earliest conditions of acquisition which, through the more or less visible marks they leave (such as the pronunciations characteristic of a class or region), help to determine its distinctive value.”

Bourdieu says that he developed this concept to “explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes by relating academic success …  to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fractions.” Materialist economists take “account only of monetary investments and profits, or those directly convertible into money, such as the costs of schooling and the cash equivalent of time devoted to study.” They miss “the whole set of educational strategies” used by upper-class parents, “the system of reproduction strategies,” and the “domestic transmission of cultural capital.”

Brooks: “Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids. … Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents.”

Bourdieu: “Ability or talent is itself the product of an investment of time and cultural capital. … It can immediately be seen that the link between economic and cultural capital is established through the mediation of the time needed for acquisition. Differences in the cultural capital possessed by the family imply differences first in the age at which the work of transmission and accumulation begins.”

Just because Bourdieu says something, it isn’t necessarily right. On the other hand, just because Brooks says something, it isn’t necessarily wrong. And if they both say it, maybe it should be taken seriously.

See also: Bourdieu in the college admissions officeChua and Rubenfeld, The Triple Package; the “fit” between cultures and the labor market

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Leo Casey

    Peter:
    I am not certain that Brooks and Bourdieu are talking about the same things, or at least in the same conceptual depth, although they are on the same terrain. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is particularly useful in understanding the reproduction of class advantage in education, in its focus not only on the knowledge of educational strategies, but also in access to networks of knowledge (knowing, for example, where to find out what needs to know about the quality of educational options for your child.) Brooks’ talk of cultural signifiers seems far more superficial, more Debord than Bourdieu. It reminds me of the Club for Growth ad about the “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving” liberals.
    Leo

  • Darian Meacham

    Good points, though I think that Leo is also correct. Indeed, Brooks wrote his very next op-ed making precisely the connection to Bourdieu that you make here.