Friday, December 10, 2010

Sociology for the holidays

In the spirit of the season, a brief respite from our traditional offerings. Christmas lights are an accepted and middle class phenomenon in North America. In Britain, not so much. They are seen as distinctly working-class and there are numerous sites devoted to mocking both the displays and the 'chavs' who spend money they don't have on them.

And, where there is a social division, there is likely to be a sociologist. Enter Tim Edensor and Steve Millington, two British sociologists, who have written 'Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas' (Sociology 2009; 43; 103-121; DOI: 10.1177/0038038508099100). The abstract provides a nice summary of the article -- minus the interesting details.
In the last two decades, illuminating the outside of a house with multi-coloured lights has become a popular British Christmas practice, typically adopted within working-class neighbourhoods and thus producing a particular geography of illumination.This article explores how such displays have become a site for class conflict mobilized around contesting ideas about space, time, community, aesthetics and festivity, highlighting how the symbolic economy of class conflict moves across popular culture. We focus upon two contrasting class-making practices evoking conflicting cultural values. First, we examine the themes prevalent in negative media representations of Christmas lights, notably the expression of disgust which foregrounds the working-class stereotype, the `chav'. Second, we analyse the motivations of displayers, exploring how the illuminations are imbued with idealistic notions about conviviality and generosity.

Mark Greif, author of “What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation” had an essay in the NYT Review of Books draws on Bourdieu to examine similar themes. Here are some of the key passages:
“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.
Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. .... The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.

The power of Bourdieu’s statistics was to show how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were. .... Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

No comments:

Post a Comment