Bourdieu’s Theory of Social Distinction

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced the theory of social distinction in the late 1970s. In a nutshell, this theory explains how people differentiate themselves from others based on their cultural and social preferences. According to Bourdieu, individuals use cultural practices to signify their social position and create boundaries between themselves and others.

The Three Types of Capital

Central to Bourdieu’s theory are the three types of capital: economic, social, and cultural. Economic capital refers to wealth and financial resources, whereas social capital is the network of relationships an individual has with others. Cultural capital, on the other hand, comprises non-financial assets such as education, language proficiency, and aesthetic tastes.

Bourdieu argued that individuals use cultural capital to establish their social position. The greater one’s cultural capital is, the higher their status in society. For instance, someone who speaks multiple languages or has a degree from a prestigious institution is likely to be viewed as more cultured than someone who doesn’t possess these attributes.

Cultural Practices Shape Social Class

Bourdieu believed that an individual’s cultural practices reflect their social class position. For example, people from working-class backgrounds tend to have different tastes in music and art than those from upper-class backgrounds. These differences are not innate but rather shaped by one’s upbringing and environment.

Bourdieu observed that certain forms of culture are valued more highly than others in society. High culture or “legitimate” culture (such as classical music or literature) is associated with upper-class tastes while popular culture (such as hip-hop or reality TV) is associated with working-class tastes.

The Role of Taste

Taste is central to Bourdieu’s theory of social distinction. He argued that taste is not innate but rather learned and shaped by one’s social class position. Taste signifies one’s cultural capital and is used to distinguish oneself from others.

For instance, a person who likes avant-garde art may be viewed as more cultured than someone who likes pop art. This preference for avant-garde art is seen as a marker of high cultural capital. In contrast, someone who likes pop art may be viewed as having lower cultural capital.


Bourdieu’s theory of social distinction highlights how individuals use cultural practices to establish their social position. This theory underscores the importance of cultural capital in shaping one’s status in society. It also emphasizes the role of taste in creating boundaries between different social classes.

This theory has been influential in sociology and has contributed to discussions around the relationship between culture and inequality.