Bourdieu’s Food Space | Molly Watson

In college, a Xeroxed copy of this graph (click image to enlarge) hung on our refrigerator, so taken were my housemates and I with Pierre Bourdieu’s assessment of food in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). Food-specific coverage takes up just 23 pages of the 604-page tome, but it was the early 1990s and sex and gender and studies of the body were all the rage, so passages like “[t]astes in food also depend on the idea each class has of the body and of the effects of food on the body, that is, on its strength, health, and beauty… It follows that the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste” blew us away, just as the notion that our love of Ethiopian food and yogurt said as much about our class, education, and social status as it did about our taste buds unnerved us.

I’ve long thought a chronological and geographic update is in order. When I finally pulled the well-thumbed copy of the book from the shelf and turned to page 186, I was struck again by the elegance of such complex information displayed so simply. Parts of the chart hold true 30-plus years later and a continent away (raw and recherché food can still be seen as the purview of those with more cultural than economic capital), and yet other elements have completely flip-flopped. Charcuterie, listed as a choice of those without economic or cultural capital, has, if nothing else, become recherché.

So here is a new take on Bourdieu’s “The food space” chart. It has none of the deep sociological research that spawned the original behind it, and questions of women’s free time and status, as well as rates of food and cultural consumption, have been left off. I have embraced and re-positioned some of Bourdieu’s original categories and items, but also added some specific to 21st-century America. What I found rather glorious was how, when I thought through any single food item (i.e. yogurt), it couldn’t really be placed in one specific location. Rather, specific versions of it would belong in different places. Such are the choices and range of our foodstuffs. Such is the ever-widening world of human taste.


(illustration by Leigh Wells, http://leighwells.com)

I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with where some item has been situated, and even more people will think something essential has been left off. This graph is but a starting point. What would you include?

18 thoughts on “Bourdieu’s Food Space | Molly Watson

  • It would be interesting to also pull “labor” into this — not the individual’s labor like Bourdieu did with women’s work — but the larger issue of labor and mechanization in food production and tie it to calories and “productive” food. What I mean is that the high-fat, high sugar foods are (economic capital -, cultural capital -), and are the most mechanized, ecologically exploitative, and pull on global capital and fields/factories all while having the most “productive” caloric intake. (A 6-pack of PBR beer or soft drinks are cheaper than any other beverage at most grocery stores, McDonald’s Happy Meal is cheaper than the same meal made at home, etc.) and in terms of getting enough caloric intake to complete a day’s work, these fit the bill (and then some, as our obesity epidemic shows). Conversely, all the local, organic, crafty stuff is (economic capital +, and cultural capital +) and they are made by people not machines (for the most part), and do not carry a huge calorie load (unless you opt for the charcuterie).

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    • Interesting angle, Rochelle. The issue of mechanized versus human production (and levels thereof) would be a rich area to explore. My sense is you’re right and there would be a wave of increased touched-by-human-hands in one direction.

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  • Great piece, but I think its applicability might be limited to the Bay Area or foodier regions or social circles. Boston has few foodies but plenty of economic and cultural capital, and few of the non-foodie people I know with either sort of capital care much about eating seasonally, nice cocktails, or pickles.

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  • Oh goody. Now every pretentious hipster in town will be down at Whole Foods, giving themselves cachet by buying up all the agave nectar.

    What a load of tree-hugging hippie crap.

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  • Nice job! It would be interesting to update the graph with real data (maybe you’ve been influenced by your own social place to place the foods), and as user Boston said, it could be very interesting to see the changes in the different parts of the US. Maybe some of the economic – and cultural – could be the same, but the other ones could change. I’m surprised you put the wine glass in an economic + cultural – part.
    You should also recommend to other food writers to do the same in their own countries. It would be interesting to find similarities (I guess the economic + will tend to be similars around the globe, if occidental luxury propaganda is doing is job correctly).

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  • “It has none of the deep sociological research that spawned the original behind it, and questions of women’s free time and status, as well as rates of food and cultural consumption, have been left off. ”

    Yes, that’s certainly obvious. And thanks for belittling people’s legitimate medical issues by putting “wheat-free” in the cultural/economic+ categories alongside “trendy” food items. Newsflash: food allergies are a real and serious health issue, not something affected by rich people to showcase how delicate and refined they are. This charmingly-drawn graphic misses the point of the original entirely by managing to be classist, ableist, fat-phobic, body-policing, and straight-up inaccurate about many of the food items listed. Well done.

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    • There are two arenas of wheat free. One is the group of people who have a sensitivity/allergy to gluten or other wheat components (usually protein). The second is the group of people who, seeing that some people are made ill by eating wheat (vis. group 1), they self-diagnose their illness or decide in a quest for diet enlightenment to reject wheat or gluten foods. I think the latter group falls in the category of “faddist” which tends toward extremes of dietray choices, which fits very well into the schema as represented. Those who fall in group 1, people who are actually wheat sensitive, do not fit in the schema as “faddists” and that spot does not represent them. The distinction between the two groups is absent, and is a reasonable critique of the schema.

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  • try charting fish tacos, ahi, grilled, with homemade pickled cabbage, lime, feta cheese and served with Mexican Coke off a food truck in San Francisco near Zingo’s world headquarters consumed by a couple riding vintage fixies in from the Haight along the Zigzag bike route.

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  • Interesting re-interpretation of the original.
    Two questions:

    1) Where on the map would you put Mediterranean food?
    2) does it make sense to produce two charts, one for the home and one for the restaurant contexts?

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