Symbolic Struggles in Changing Cultural Hierarchies

(Completed) PhD project by Janna Michael

How is status distinction practiced and negotiated while cultural hierarchies and symbolic meanings are changing?  Despite plenty of research on cultural consumption, relatively little is known about the meaning attached to these activities and how they relate to identity. This PhD project investigates how different status rendering criteria such as ‘high’ and ‘lowbow’ taste, authenticity, openness, and novelty are negotiated and organized among different social groups.

This PhD project is concerned with changes in cultural hierarchies. It investigates how status is perceived and negotiated among young Northern Europeans. While old distinctions between highbrow- and lowbrow culture seem to blur, alternative status rendering criteria have been suggested by recent researches. These recent approaches consider the crossing of cultural boundaries between legitimate or highbrow and popular culture (omnivorousness), often linked to the increasing relevance of openness and cosmopolitanism as desirable traits among today’s elites and therefore as effective means of distinction (e.g. Peterson 1992; Buchman and Eisner, 1997; Warde et al., 2007; Bellavance, 2008). In addition to breadth of taste, frequency of engagement in cultural consumption (voraciousness) is another way of distinguishing oneself culturally as it demonstrates a deep cultural involvement (Sullivan and Katz-Gerro, 2007). Observing ever-changing cultural trends and a high turnover of goods and experiences that characterize much of post-industrial consumerism (Bell, 1976; Bauman, 1996), Taylor (2009) introduced the ‘logic of trendiness’ as a structuring principle of social prestige. He argues that symbolic capital is gained by discovering and appreciating new cultural items quickly. What matters is being up-to-date, well-informed about the latest cultural developments and eager to discover new things.  It has therefore been argued that social prestige can be gained by being ‘in the know’ of new developments in the cultural field, which may thus offer an alternative to status hierarchies based on social class as Bourdieu described them (Thornton, 1995).

In this PhD project these criteria are studied in relation to each other and their validity among different socio-economic groups is explored. These considerations result in the research questions

  1. How is status distinction practiced in a time where cultural hierarchies and symbolic meanings are changing?
  2. Which status hierarchies can be observed among different social groups?

This can be specified into the following set of sub-questions:

  • How do different social groups draw symbolic boundaries and negotiate their identity with taste?
  • How do status hierarchies relate to socio-demographic background characteristics?
  • How do alternative status hierarchies (e.g. omnivorousness, trendiness) relate to the traditional cultural hierarchies to which Bourdieu referred?

In order to answer these questions in-depth and in a comparative manner, interviews are being conducted among participants with different socio-economic backgrounds. To develop a comprehensive understanding of cultural taste and boundary drawing, the analysis focuses on the fields of music, apparel and the arts. These three fields have been considered by earlier research as central fields of status distinction and especially music and apparel are deeply embedded in people’s everyday life. In the course of the PhD project, three samples of young people living in North-Western Europe are drawn. The first wave of interviews consists of young people deeply involved in urban cultural scenes. They can be considered aspiring cultural elite. They possess large amounts of cultural capital, but are rather low in economic capital. The second wave of interviews involves a sample of the professional managerial class, ‘high potentials’ as they are often called. Young people in the management trajectories in multinational companies.

The third wave of interviews involves people who possess relatively little cultural and economic capital. Little is known about his rather diverse group of people working in traditional working class occupations as the service sector. From recent survey research on cultural taste, we should suspect univorous, local taste orientations. But is there a shared discourse on music and fashion taste among people in traditional working class occupations and in the service sector?

In order to capture cultural ‘boundary work’ (Lamont 1992) in different social fields, this project will compare the perceptions of people from a similar age group that differ in their cultural and economic capital. Individual in-depth interviews provide opportunities for capturing subtle ideas and meaning-construction of the interviewees. The material is be approached with a discourse analysis. Language is “a domain in which our knowledge of the world is actively shaped” (Tonkiss 1998, p.246). It mirrors, constructs and organizes social reality at the same time. Looking at what is constructed by the discourse and how it is embedded in the social context is required in order to understand how cultural hierarchies and boundaries are perceived and constructed. A discourse-analytical approach emphasizes the importance of language use. It looks at manifest content and rhetoric and moves “through and beyond that to the social foundations of the rhetoric” (Hall 1975: 16), as well as latent meaning and functions (Gill, 2000). Looking at how arguments are constructed offers a means to look beyond the first impression, into the ideology and meaning attachment behind them.  


  • Bauman, Z. (1996). From pilgrim to tourist–or a short history of identity. Questions of cultural identity, 18-36.
  • Bellavance, G. (2008). Where’s high? Who’s low? What’s new? Classification and stratification inside cultural ‘repertoires’. Poetics 36, 189–216.
  • Bell, D. (1976). The Cultural contradictions of capitalism. New York: Basic Books. Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge and Kegan.
  • Buchmann, M. & Eisner, M. (1997). The transition from the utilitarian to the expressive self: 1900-1992. Poetics 25, 157-175.
  • Gill, R. (2000). Discourse analysis. In M. W. Bauer, & G. Gaskell, Qualitative researching with text and image and sound. A practical handbook (S. 172-190). London: Sage.
  • Hall, S. (1975). Introduction. In A. C. H. Smith, E. Immirzi, & T. Blackwell (eds.): Paper voices: The popular press and social change, 1935-1965. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-15.
  • Lamont, M. (1992). Money, morals, and manners. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.
  • Peterson, R. A. (1992). Understanding audience segmentation: From elite and mass to omnivore and univore. Poetics 21, 243-258.
  • Sullivan, O. and Katz-Gerro, T. (2007) The omnivore thesis revisited: Voracious cultural consumers. European Sociological Review 23(2), 123–137.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2009). Advertising and the conquest of culture. Social Semiotics 19, 405–425.
  • Thornton, Sarah (1995). Club cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Tonkiss, F (1998). Analysing discourse. In C. Seale (Ed.) Researching society and culture. London: Sage, pp 245-260.
  • Warde. A., Wright, D. and Gayo-Cal, M. (2007). Understanding cultural omnivorousness, or, the myth of the cultural omnivore. Cultural Sociology. 1(2), 143–164.  

Research team

Janna Michael MA

PhD Candidate (completed)

Prof. dr. Koen van Eijck



Research completed

This PhD research was successfully defended on 19 January, 2017. View the dissertation.

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