April 01, 2019

Culture, Conflict, and Politics

Author photoBy Jessica Poling

Sociology Ph.D. student, Rutgers University

The 2016 presidential election sparked a nation-wide period of cultural conflict characterized by the working-class’s rising frustrations towards “elites.” President Trump himself has fostered a spirit of anti-intellectualism, at times even celebrating his own lack of intellectualism. These tensions go deeper than just economic class; rather, they are grounded in differences in cultural proclivities.

The differences between the often culturally conservative working-class and the often liberal upper-middle class may therefore be deeper than political affiliations. To understand this particular political moment, we must thus understand the cultural tensions beneath political divisions.

In his classic book, Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu explores individuals’ subconscious preferences for different forms of culture, or what he terms “habitus.” For example, Bourdieu demonstrates how upper-class French citizens are predisposed to expensive, high-end wines versus those in the working-class, who favored less fancy drinks. Bourdieu argues that this difference is not due to some inherent difference between working and upper-class people; rather, it is because of their cultural upbringing.

He argues that an individual’s habitus is cultivated over their life course in ways that reflect their socioeconomic upbringing. Therefore, habitus (the food or music you enjoy, your familiarity with classic literature or art, your knowledge of dinner etiquette, etc.) is both a product of your class position and also continues to reinforce your class position over time.

Heather Curl, Annette Lareau, and Tina Wu take on this issue in their recent article, “Cultural Conflict: The Implications of Changing Dispositions Among the Upwardly Mobile”. Using interview data, the authors explore the ways upwardly-mobile Americans experience a shift in their habitus due to their changing class position and to what extent this creates tension with family members and acquaintances who occupy different cultural and socioeconomic positions.

The authors identify three sites of significant change. First, the authors argue that upwardly mobile individuals’ cultural disposition changes regarding their inclination towards new experiences. Respondents contrasted this new disposition with that of their family members who seemed comfortable in their set routines and places.

The authors note that their upwardly mobile respondents expressed more interest in a healthier lifestyle and diet. Respondents also noted improvements in their language skills and ability to communicate with others. Moreover, the authors explain that these three areas of change frequently spark tension between upwardly mobile individuals and their families, as upwardly mobile individuals and their families are often critical of each other due to the differences in their habitus.

Consequently, growing rifts between upwardly mobile individuals and their families is not simply the result of economic divides; rather—as Bourdieu originally argued—it is caused by shifting cultural positions and inclinations.

people arm wrestling
Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-people-bar-men-4417/

These tensions effectively mirror national cultural conflicts that were brought to the forefront during the 2016 Presidential election. Like these families, debates between Democrats and Republicans often center around experiential differences and a willingness to expand one’s horizons. Are we willing to open our borders to people who may be different than us? Can we put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in need of an abortion? Can we make it easier for college students to access higher education? We have witnessed differences in communication, an attack on the educated airs of liberals. Even more recently, Trump’s nutritional choices came into question after serving the Clemson football team a feast of fast food.

The prevalence of these cultural conflicts indicates a need for communal dialogue, regardless of the next election’s outcome. Given the seemingly increasing gap between these groups, how do we encourage communication?

The key may lie with the uniqueness of upwardly mobile individuals featured in Curl, Lareau, and Wu’s work. As the cultural sociologist Anne Swidler argued in her seminal article, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” our individual actions are shaped by culture. Whereas in the past many sociologists believed that culture uniformly motivated individuals to act in similar ways, Swidler argues that individuals can draw from a unique collection of cultural influences-or a “tool-kit” to choose how we act.

This phenomenon has also been discussed in the context of “code-switching,”or individuals’ ability to adapt their behavior to different social contexts. For example, college students routinely code-switch depending on who they interact with on their campus; while students might use slang and talk about their weekend plans with their friends, they will probably use proper language and adopt a professional manner with their professors. While the use of slang and professional language is appropriate in their respective contexts it is important for the student to decide what parts of their culture they take out of their “tool-kits” at a given time.

As researchers like Jennifer Morton have noted, upwardly mobile individuals are in a unique position to move between different value systems. While the upwardly mobile individuals of Curl, Lareau, and Wu’s study may experience tension with their families due to their newfound socio-economic identities, this same identity also grants them a unique opportunity to move between these groups.

Upwardly mobile individuals are often able to move navigate different social worlds because of their experiences in different social classes. While they might share tastes and preferences with new friends and colleagues, these individuals are also able to go home to their families and share experiences with those who first cultivated their habitus. Upwardly mobile individuals therefore possess a chameleon-like quality that could help facilitate communication between increasingly disparate groups.

image of woman holding sign saying make america think again
Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-holding-protest-sign-1464205/

Clearly, much work needs to be done to decrease the growing tensions in our country. In the meantime, perhaps the communication we desperately need can be facilitated by the individuals who hold these complex habitus and have the ability to move in and out of groups.

 

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