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Cracking open cultural experiences: what else may sociology tell us about art? By Simone Varriale

One of the most interesting recent developments on The #culturalvalue Initiative blog is the burgeoning debate on what sociology can contribute to the study of the arts, aesthetic experiences and – via this route – cultural value. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pierre Bourdieu has found himself at the centre of this lively discussion, the latest instalment of which takes the shape of a mini-essay by Simone Varriale. Simone offers a different and distinctive sociological perspective to the exploration of cultural value by bringing us back in time to 1970s Italy and discussing how music criticism reacted to the spread of rock and jazz music of US origin. So the debate goes on!


Daniel Allington’s post on cultural value and network analysis has generated a lively debate, with subsequent comments (by Patrycja Kaszynska and Stephen Pritchard) taking issue with a familiar ghost for art sociologists. Namely, the idea that sociology, especially Bourdieu-inspired analyses, can only reduce aesthetic experiences to a social construction. This is, in essence, Patrycja’s critique to the analysis of Daniel: it tells us that cultural value is a collective belief supported by networks of peers, audiences and, in some instances, national institutions. Cultural value is thus a social convention; a black box devoid of any meaningful content (at least for the sociologist).

By contrast, Patrycja argues that sociologists should ʽcrack open cultural experiencesʼ and explore ʽthe complexities of artistic and aesthetic encountersʼ. In other words, they should address the meanings, and perhaps the affects, that people put into their cultural choices. She suggests the work of DeNora (2000), Hennion (2007) and Born (2005) as possible alternatives to Bourdieu. However, there are at least two problems with this narrative, and with the more culture-friendly approaches of these sociologists.

First, these authors have all been terribly shy with questions of social difference and inequality. DeNora’s analysis of music as a ʽtechnology of selfʼ (2000) is quite explicit in this respect, as she sets her work apart from other approaches concerned, à la Bourdieu, with the relations between cultural taste and social standing (ibid., p. 48). To be sure, DeNora’s work is invaluable to remind sociologists that music, as other cultural forms, move people emotionally and psychologically, and in ways that are meaningful to them. And yet, I would suggest that a culture-friendly sociology doesn’t need to shy away from issues of inequality and difference, or worse, to frame such questions as an old (or unoriginal) academic concern.

Indeed, my second source of dissatisfaction with this strand of art sociology is the way it maintains a somehow artificial distinction between society and culture, putting social structures (such as gender, race and class) on one side, and aesthetic experiences on the other. As recently argued by Prior (2011), there is a good deal of idealism in this position, as it suggests that the complexity of cultural experiences and artifacts is beyond the grasp of ʽcriticalʼ sociologists like Bourdieu (Hennion 2007: 102).

So, how could we avoid this opposition between the aesthetic and the social? And why would avoiding it benefit our understanding of cultural value? I would argue that we can explore how people’s life histories and social trajectories inform the very meanings, anxieties and passions they put into culture. This means going back to Bourdieu, but to a different sort of Bourdieu than the one used by Daniel,[1] one more interested in the ʽencountersʼ between people’s social history and the history of pre-existing social contexts (or fields[2]). Bourdieu was very interested in the ʽstrugglesʼ arising from such encounters. However, one can treat them in a less normative way, accepting that encounters between people and cultural artifacts, or entire cultural fields, are not necessarily about securing prestige and distinction (as social life does not always follow a Bourdieusian economic logic). My point, then, is that looking for a greater variety of meanings and experiences doesn’t require a dismissal of social differences (as Hennion and others seem to suggest), but a return to them.

I have recently conducted some research about the consumption of American and British popular music in Italy, focusing on the early adoption of rock, jazz and soul music by Italian music critics in the 1970s. This national and historical context might look quite removed from the aforementioned debates, or from the concerns of British cultural policy. However, it effectively shows how people’s trajectory – including their position within a highly unequal ʽglobalʼ cultural industry – informs their cultural choices and attachments. For the Italian critics I studied (a urban and educated fraction of the Italian youth), rock and jazz music were powerful sources of identity. For instance, their narratives on the discovery of Anglo-American rock are accounts of the disruption of their everyday experience. Consuming rock, then, was for them a way of questioning institutions such as the family, the church and (as you’ll see in the second excerpt) Italian cultural institutions.

An odd gentleman seated on a toilet; with a funny moustache and a laughable name [...] We were in the middle of the 1968, and the seated-on-a-toilet Zappa gave us the subtle emotion of the baby saying ‘poo’ to the priest-uncle. That vulgarity became a positive value; a way to construct and affirm an identity denied by a patriarchal and liberal-repressive family.[3]


Varriale image 

As shown by this description of Frank Zappa’s famous ʽtoilet posterʼ, for Italian critics (as for many of us) music was something more than just sound. It was a complex aesthetic experience encompassing aural and visual elements, such as bodies and places, but also other people’s narratives (such as those found in British and American music magazines). For Italian critics, ʽcultural valueʼ was not simply about aesthetic hierarchies, as the author of the article (the critic Giaime Pintor) situates music’s value in relation to its own social world and biographical trajectory. Such an experience, then, is about a more anthropological understanding of culture (Williams 1976), one that emerges also in the following passage (by the critic Maria Laura Giulietti).

I remember when several years ago it was considered outrageous to go out with short skirts and long hair […]. I also remember thousands of discussions about the emergence of a new music [...] they were pronounced with some doubts. Was it culture or otherwise? If [Eugenio] Montale’s poems are culture and make us shiver, and if Cesare Pavese’s images are striking for their beauty, then John Coltrane’s saxophone and Bob Dylan’s long spoken-songs deserve the same consideration.[4]

As these narratives show, critics’ engagement with music was aesthetically and emotionally rich, and was grounded in their everyday experience. It was not simply about drawing normative distinctions between high and low culture, albeit this was an integral part of their experience (as the last excerpt shows). After all, they were a socially privileged fraction of the Italian youth; they had high educational qualifications and thus the cultural resources to question the assumption that modernist Italian writers, such as Eugenio Montale and Cesare Pavese, were intrinsically more valuable than Bob Dylan and John Coltrane. Indeed, it was their job to define new aesthetic hierarchies, albeit the distinctions they heralded were by no means a broadly recognised cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984) in 1970s Italy.

What does this story tell us about cultural experiences and the way we might ʽcrack them openʼ? It tells us, with Bourdieu, that people’s history and everyday life (which depend on class, gender, ethnicity, age and so on) are very likely to inform their cultural attachments. But it also tells us, with DeNora, that aesthetic objects are not all equal, as they have material and symbolic properties that matter, and which resonates with people’s social experience. We should pay more attention to this sort of encounters, without reducing them to either social or cultural determinism (i.e. the epistemological limitations of different sociologies). The study of such encounters might shed some light into the criteria through which cultural value is both established and questioned, and into what is valuable for different social groups and individuals. Such a perspective might also illuminate attitudes as diverse as historically-informed aesthetic appreciation (what Bourdieu called Kantian aesthetic), insecurity (i.e. people feeling that some art forms are ʽnot for themʼ), repulsion (people rejecting ʽpretentiousʼ art), but also intense forms of attachment such as fandom. After all, when it comes to the arts (both high and low), not everything is about distinction, but that doesn’t mean that cultural experiences are completely autonomous from social differences.



Allington, D. 2013. ʽIntrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspectiveʼ, The #culturalvalue Initiative [online] (URL: http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/).

Born, G. 2005. ʽOn Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativityʼ, Twentieth-Century Music 2(1): 7-36.

Bourdieu, P. 1984 (1979). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1990 (1980). The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1995 (1992). The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant L. 1992. Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Chicago, University of Chicago.

DeNora, T. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hennion, A. 2007. ʽThose Things That Hold Us Together: Taste and Sociologyʼ, Cultural Sociology 1(1): 87-114.

Kaszynska, P. 2014. ʽSociology and Art – the Estranged Bedfellowsʼ, The #culturalvalue Initiative [online] (URL: http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2014/01/15/sociology-art-estranged-bedfellows-patrycja-kaszynska/)

Lizardo, O. 2011. ʽPierre Bourdieu as a Post-Cultural Theoristʼ, Cultural Sociology 5(1): 25-44.

Lizardo, O. 2012. ʽThe Three Phases of Bourdieu’s American Reception: Comment on Lamontʼ, Sociological Forum 27: 238-244.

Prior, N. 2011. ʽCritique and Renewal in the Sociology of Music: Bourdieu and Beyondʼ, Cultural Sociology 5(1): 121-138.

Pritchard, S. 2014. ʽHere We Go Round the Mulberry Bushʼ, The #culturalvalue Initiative [online] (URL: http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2014/02/14/go-round-mulberry-bush-stephen-pritchard/)

Williams, R. 1976. Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London, Croom Helm.




Simone Varriale is completing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Warwick. From May 2014, he will be Early Career Researcher at the Warwick Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). He is currently writing articles based on his doctoral research (if you’d like to know more about the Italian music press, here is a pre-print). Simone is a sociologist with a background in art history and film studies. You can find him on Academia and Warwick. He tweets at @franklyMrS (which is a song you should listen to).

[1]          See Bourdieu (1990, 1996) and Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992). See also Lizardo (2011, 2012).

[2]          For Bourdieu, fields are ‘social microcosms’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 97) inhabited by individuals and organisations with shared interests, but with different trajectories and resources. For example, the literary field includes writers, publishers, critics, but also literary works, genres and canons.

[3]          Giaime Pintor, ‘C’è un signore seduto sul cesso coi baffi’, Muzak, n. 4 (NS), July 1975, pp. 39-40.

[4]          Maria Laura Giulietti, ‘Allora, esiste la cultura rock?’, Ciao 2001, n. 45, 16 November 1975, p. 17.


2 Responses to “Cracking open cultural experiences: what else may sociology tell us about art? By Simone Varriale”

  1. Enjoyed this, thank you very much!

    I relied a lot on Hennion and Latour for my MA dissertation on voluntary cultural organisations (i.e. sites where collective cultural valorisation/evaluation happens) and I’d be interested to know where you think Hennion’s pragmatics of taste dismisses social differences. My understanding is that, within Hennion’s “moments of attention” – the situated activity whereby we open ourselves up to cultural objects – all sorts of mediators jump into the mix, including socially determined views, but also, crucially, the properties of the objects themselves. Actor-network-theory, in other words, provides an appropriate theoretical framework for collapsing the distinction between material/social or cultural/social, placing all “actants” – things, ideas and people – on a level playing field of sorts.

    I apologise if this seems like nit-picking, and I totally accept that ANT scholarship tends to “background” social difference. But I feel that Hennion’s pragmatics of taste and Latour’s sociology of translation (as outlined in Reassembling the Social, at least) provide ample room for a genuinely three-dimensional critical sociology of culture. I would love to hear your take on this, thanks!

    Posted by OliverH | April 1, 2014, 12:24 am
    • Hi Oliverh,

      Thanks for this!

      I agree with you that ANT (at least as I understand it) could deal with ‘socially determined views’. However, neither Hennion nor others have been particularly interested in doing so (please do let me know if I’m missing something). DeNora’s approach also has room for a consideration of social differences (after all, music’s meaning is a ‘co-production’), but again I don’t see much interest in pursuing a direction of this sort (tough I still have to read her recent work on music therapy).
      More generally, the ‘new sociology of art’ (De La Fuente 2010) tends to ‘bracket’ social differences in order to emphasise its difference from Bourdieusian approaches (and other ‘institutionalist’ approaches to the study of culture – assuming that Bourdieu can really be considered an institutionalist). I am simply arguing that this is not a very useful distinction, and that there are ways to avoid some of the normative oppositions which have been established by post-Bourdieusian scholars (e.g. pragmatic vs. critical sociology), and by Bourdieu himself (who wasn’t very keen on ANT). So, focusing on ‘encounters’ (and putting Bourdieu ‘in conversation’ with DeNora) might be one possibility, but starting from Hennion might be another one. There is plenty of room for a ‘third way’ in cultural sociology, and several scholars have already made interesting proposals in this direction (two names on top of my head: Nick Prior and Motti Regev).

      I hope this clarify my point of view – thanks again for your contribution!


      Posted by Simone Varriale | April 7, 2014, 5:46 pm

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