The subtle differences

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The subtle differences is the title of the main work by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) with the subtitle Critique of Social Judgment , which wasfirst published in 1979in the French original as La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement appeared. Bourdieu begins with an analysis of the taste in art and extends it to the entire lifestyle including religious and political ideas (“ habitus ” based on Norbert Elias ). Based on intensive empirical studies ,he traces this habitusback to the social position of the respective people, which he defines with his capital model (economic, cultural and social capital). In reception, this work is often seen as a narcissistic offense for readers who believed in “innate” or “individual” tastes, and as an important source of inspiration for social science research.


Bourdieu assumes that taste is not something individual, but that it is always something shaped by society . So taste is not a peculiarity of humans, which everyone has by nature, but always comes from the way someone was socialized and how and in which social environment they move. Therefore the social origin , to which a certain habitus always belongs, is decisive. This is how they belong to a certain social field . Bourdieu developed this view on the basis of many empirical observations that he carried out as part of his study.

Bourdieu differentiates between three dimensions of taste:

  1. the dimension of legitimate taste,
  2. the dimension of medium taste,
  3. the dimension of popular taste.

Bourdieu explains the differences between these three dimensions using the example of the cultural practice of listening to music. The cultural is therefore nothing autonomous or spontaneous, but always the result of the respective socialization , as Bourdieu demonstrates on the basis of numerous everyday activities. Among other things, he also deals with specific behaviors and tastes in the areas of food and drink, clothing style and home furnishings. The establishment of flavors stabilizes and manifests social differences in a society. The different "taste classes" reproduce themselves accordingly.

With this view, Bourdieu overcomes the classic distinction between micro-theory and macro-theory by trying to prove that objective structures and subjective orientations are closely linked. According to him, the individual can only be viewed as a representative of a group provided with certain socio-economic characteristics. (see also social group , population group )

Thus, according to Bourdieu, an expanded class theory can be justified, since the concept of class is no longer closely tied to the economic position, but can be expanded into the realm of the cultural.


The subtle difference is the written elaboration of a comprehensive study that Bourdieu carried out from 1963 to 1979. The work is characterized by numerous detailed observations, which are evidenced by an abundance of material. The book became Bourdieu's main work, among other things, because most of the aspects and topics that Bourdieu dealt with throughout his life come together theoretically and empirically. In The Subtle Differences , Bourdieu also takes a critical look at the bourgeois philosophy of Immanuel Kant .


In 1998 the International Sociological Association declared The Subtle Differences to be one of the ten most important sociological works, even before Norbert Elias' The Process of Civilization (originally 1939).


Individual evidence

  1. ISA website