Leah Reich on Symbolic Exclusion

by Reihan Salam

The sociologist Leah Reich has written an illuminating post on symbolic exclusion. She begins with a brief Twitter conversation prompted by the following remark by Jason Kottke, a widely-read blogger: “We get it, you don’t like sports. What I’m confused about is, why can’t you shut up about it?” We can replace “sports” with any number of words — rap music, Republicans, hippies, etc. — to get a sense of the sentiment Kottke has in mind. What exactly are we trying to tell people about ourselves when we publicly describe how much we dislike something? 

To explain part of what’s going on here, Reich offers a definition of culture:

One of my favorite definitions comes from a scholar named Ann Swidler both in “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies” and in her later book Talk of Love. What I love about Swidler’s definition is that she thinks of culture as a tool kit. This tool kit is essentially a set of resources, like symbols, rituals, and traditions. We’re influenced have access to symbols by these resources and we draw on them — selecting from our repertoire of knowledge, of symbols, of experiences – to create what Swidler calls “strategies of action.” We depend on our cultural settings in order to define not only ourselves but also to develop perceptions of and to figure out how to behave in and adapt to a wide variety of contexts and circumstances.

As this definition suggests, our tool kits can in various ways limit our capacity to understand and interpret new information.

Now, there’s no way I could sum up Bourdieu’s Distinction here in a sentence or two — it’s long, it’s dense, and, y’know, a seminal work of great sociological importance, plus it’s in storage, along with nearly all my books — but I got to thinking about it. I also got to thinking two long-time favorites: another book (also in storage) Herbert Gans’ Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste and Bethany Bryson’s paper “‘Anything But Heavy Metal’: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes”. Because when we ask the question ”why are people jerks about not liking sports?” we’re kind of asking “why do people draw a symbolic boundary around themselves and a particular set of cultural tastes, and then proclaim dislike about the cultural tastes outside those boundaries – or the cultural tastes of people who are not like them?”

We’ve discussed Bryson in this space before, and the concept of “multicultural capital,” to which we’ll return in the future. Reich goes on to describe the role of tastes and preferences as cognitive tools:

That second question doesn’t sound as good, I know. And maybe you’d ask a different question. But that’s what the question sounds like to me, and I hear pieces of Distinction: We have what’s called “taste,” which provides us with a ”sense of one’s place,” or a social orientation. For Bourdieu, this has to do with class, social position, and the properties of those social positions — what people buy, listen to, watch, consume, more. These tastes and preferences are ”cognitive structures…are internalized, ‘embodied’ social structures” that become natural to people. What does that mean? Your tastes is something that orients you and it’s also something that comes a “natural” part of you. That means that different tastes are — you got it — unnatural, so we reject them. Bourdieu says the result is a “disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘feeling sick’) of the tastes of others.” 

Bryson’s proposition then rings in my ears: ”Individuals use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike.”  [Emphasis added]

This helps explain why many disagreements in a diverse democracy end in an impasse. Disagreements flow from heterogeneity in tastes and preferences, e.g., basic disagreements regarding the meaning and implications of fairness. Recently, for example, I had an exchange with several friends on Twitter (which comes up a lot) over whether or not Harvard graduates who take lucrative jobs in the financial services industry should be the objects of moral condemnation. To me, the idea seems absurd, as it is premised on the notion that our lives aren’t our own, or that the relevant constellation of social and moral obligations isn’t family-centric but rather state-centric or polity-centric or, more ambitiously still, humanity-centric. My own view is that evaluating my choices as an individual in terms of what is best for “humanity” soon collapses into absurdity, as the range of human societies and value systems is irreducibly diverse and complex, e.g., urban individuals living in the metropolitan West will presumably value different practices and ways of life than hunter-gatherers. State-centric utilitarian moral architectures strike me as flawed because they overgeneralize from an American or French experience of stateness, in which the writ of the state is relatively complete. In other societies, as we’ve discussed, the writ of the state is incomplete; rather, the state is a vehicle for one or several ethnic or tribal mafias that compete with others in a constant series of negotiated settlements. This, and not paradigmatic Weberian stateness, is actually the historical norm, and it’s not obvious that it will be inevitably swept away through technological progress or the march to modernity. Indeed, we see certain kinds of “amoral familism” reassert themselves in even the most advanced societies, in part because kin-based social networks have adapted relatively well to a world of dense cross-border flows. 

All of the above happens to be my framework for thinking about these issues — a reflection of my tastes and preferences, which in turn flow from my idiosyncratic experience. Statism doesn’t just strike me as wrong on principle. It strikes me as analytically naive, which is why I may well have an implicit distaste for it. It is so pervasive, particularly among elite-educated people from relatively “disembedded” backgrounds, that I’ve come to find it drearily familiar, narrow, and even depressing, though I wouldn’t say I find it disgusting as such. But I suppose I would say that.  

Bryson brings up one of Bourdieu’s most famous concepts, and one a lot of people may be familiar with: cultural capital. She presents cultural capital as “cultural knowledge that can be translated into real economic gains, for example, by allowing access to elite social networks and clubs.” Of course, this cultural capital is knowledge based on consumption of culture, and in order to consume that culture, a person must have access to it. If access is restricted, because of social status, then only certain types of people can gain that type of cultural capital, gain access to elite social networks and clubs, and so on.

This is why an understanding of class based solely or even primarily on income is so flawed. Income fluctuates from year to year, particularly for the highest earners. What is more durable is the potential to earn income, which can be deployed or not deployed. A highly skilled person might choose to deploy said skills to earn a high income or to consume leisure. As female labor force participation has increased, for example, male labor force participation has decreased, both due to rising incarceration rates and other factors suppressing formal labor force participation among the less-skilled and as skilled and affluent men “consume” more leisure, more time with children, etc. This is a choice that involves trade-offs. And we are in a sense living through a cultural war in which some who’ve chosen, say, more leisure and prestige are waging a symbolic struggle against those who’ve chosen more income — the object is to devalue the accumulation of material possessions, to characterize it as “greedy,” etc. Indirectly, the proximate goals are to extract more tax revenue to finance public sector work that, in some but not all cases, offers relative stability if not very high cash incomes. Naturally, risk-averse people and people who are inclined to embrace the “greed” narrative are more inclined to sort into public sector work while risk-taking people who, say, like the idea of achieving some modicum of economic stability for their families by building their private wealth will be more inclined to sort into lucrative private sector work. But a risk-averse individual may nevertheless be a very privileged one in terms of cultural capital, while a risk-taking individual might be much less so.

Back to Reich: 

So Bryson points out there are two interrelated levels of cultural exclusion. There’s social exclusion, which is based in part on this cultural and social capital (and on capital itself), and there’s symbolic exclusion. Not everyone has access to social exclusion, but we all have access in different ways to different types of symbolic exclusion. Symbolic exclusion is all about taste, like Bourdieu talks about. When we proclaim taste or distaste, when we symbolically include or exclude, we reinforce our own taste and our own self-definitions. When I state that sports are stupid, or that this aspect of pop culture is a waste of time, I’m drawing a boundary. I’m including myself and others like me, and I’m excluding you. If I can’t shut up about it, it’s because I’m expressing my disgust. I really want to reinforce that symbolic boundary. [Emphasis added]

Now, there are many perspectives on culture – not everyone agrees with Swidler, and there’s been much scholarly work that has challenged aspects of Bourdieu. In addition, the cultural landscape of the United States has shifted in ways such that — as Gans and Bryson, among others, point out — there is less cultural inequality and inaccessibility so we need to differentiate between being excluded from culture and simply not liking something. If anyone who reads this wants to offer more recent works and/or counterarguments — I’ll be delighted. But for those who have an interest in this, these are fantastic places to begin.

Reich’s observation about cultural inequality is interesting, and might prove controversial to some. A larger and more diverse range of people have access to the material resources they need to pursue self-expression. A political implication is that a larger and more diverse range of people can engage in acts of political self-assertion. Some of those who do belong to outgroups. Populist conservatism often elicits the reaction of disgust from “cultural elites.” Yet the power of those “cultural elites” has waned, and there are oppositional “cultural elites” that find secular liberalism similarly distasteful. Their influence or power isn’t necessarily equivalent. But these symbolic rivals certainly have the means to assert themselves.