“When I hear the word culture .., I release the safety on my Browning!”
Schlageter, by Nazi playwright Hanns Johst
(misattributed to Herman Goering)
A simple ‘elite vs common’ division tells us very little about the people of India, yet this is what we mostly hear in the media. In reality, hierarchies of caste, class, gender, region and so on, work in complex ways and require different approaches to analyse. Sometimes a closer, micro-level look at the different social spaces around us tell us a lot about how hierarchies manifest. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu’s concepts allow us to do just that.
A religious sect, the corporate sector, an academic campus – Bordieu considers all of these to be social ‘fields’. They are heavily influenced by the economy/market. But these fields also have some autonomy to decide what traits count as prestigious in each field. There are certain ways of gaining symbolic value and status in these fields, which include a certain kind of behaviour, vocabulary and a body of cultural knowledge.
Bordieu calls these social and cultural capital. And the rules regarding this is different for say, the corporate sector and a religious sect. Often individuals learn these traits unconsciously, practicing them over time till they are ingrained into their minds and bodies. Such capital depends on an individual’s socio-economic background and education. There is always a struggle between those who have too much capital, and those with little. Those who have high amounts of capital can easily handle different social contexts and spaces. On the other hand, those from marginalised backgrounds often have lower amounts of capital in multiple fields.
Campuses for social science studies in Delhi can serve as an interesting example to understand how these concepts operate in real life.
In recent times, certain right-wing groups and media houses have been attacking the premier institutions for humanities in New Delhi. Students from across the country and various socio-economic backgrounds study at these campuses, where they interact and learn about one other. These institutions are portrayed as progressive spaces that afford researchers and students intellectual, social and personal liberty not easily available elsewhere.
However, hierarchies can be seen in these campuses as well. Not all students can navigate these spaces with equal ease. Many are first generation learners/researchers. Others may already have received educational and cultural training in their formative years. Numerous accounts speak of experiences of exclusion from the everyday lives and social networks of one’s peers. Provincial elites can, however, build up on their existing economic and social capital and join metropolitan circles of their peers with ease.
The English language – pronunciation, accent, vocabulary, grammar – is a common cause of exclusion in campuses. This happens due to unequal access to quality primary education in the medium. But ‘judgement of taste’ in cultural products (literature, music, cinema etc.), as Bordieu called it, can also set students apart from one another. Students reveal this to one another during conversations and their everyday lives. ‘High’/classical, folk, pulp – these cultural forms have their own value in these campuses.
Progressive values and liberation are associated with some arts and culture forms. An appetite for such forms is considered a sign of ‘good taste’ in campuses and academia. Literature and music in Urdu, for instance, is considered beautiful. But it also represents harmonious Hindustani culture and progressive politics for many (Urdu also has had to withstand attacks by the Hindu right that attempts to replace it with Sanskritised Hindi).
A taste in such art forms can be used to signal love for harmonious regional values and love for religious minorities. With time and social struggles (sometimes between dominant groups), newer forms come to represent good taste. Bordieu argues that we do not ‘naturally’ develop a liking for a particular kind of music, literature, cinema etc. Our social-cultural capital teaches us to read the ‘codes’ inherent in them.
Classical music, ghazal, bhakti music, indigenous protest songs, trendy ‘woke’ pop music, The Beatles etc. – to be seen as a critical connoisseur of all of them is to have ‘good taste’ in campuses. Not everyone, however, has the social-cultural capital to do so. To display a liking for the cultural forms of marginalised sections can also indicate virtue (these forms face the prospect of appropriation). On the other hand, certain other popular cultural forms and ‘fan’ sub-cultures may be treated as signs of market/western influence and intellectual immaturity.
French New Wave exponents like Mani Kaul, Luis Buñuel are filmmakers whose names would lead to acceptance in certain circles. A John Carpenter or a George Lucas could, however, lead to disapproval. Some sections might call a Netflix subscription a sign of privilege to display self-awareness. However, performances by the same sections that are meant to indicate giving up privilege may go hand-in-hand with a taste for niche, dearly-priced commodities that are used as signs of sophistication.
Those that do not possess the ‘right’ tastes and adequate capital may find entry barred to certain social networks and relationships. This also applies to intimate relationships. Social-cultural capital influences ‘sexual capital’, along with physical appearance, disposition etc (fetishisation of the ‘other’ may operate differently).
An altruistic political orientation – displayed in speech, public behaviour, taste (discussed above) – also draws approval. The associated vocabulary changes with time. In addition to the older secular rationality, emotive expressions of empathy, compassion etc. also indicate virtue. Fearless political positions may sometimes be backed by networks across the political spectrum.
These are not hard and fast rules. The question of agency is important too. Also, Bordieu’s approach does not attribute any hidden intentions to the individuals/groups. But all these markers discussed here do not merely establish distinction and a virtuous disposition. The unequal distribution of social and cultural capital may lead to the formation of exclusive social circles and networks. Such capital and networks are important for careers in academia, advocacy, media and so on.
Krishanu B. Neog is a doctoral student of political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.