Social Class, Taste, and Literature: How Your Background Influences What You Read

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had a lot to say about class and culture. He came up with several theories to explain how your profession, parents’ professions, education levels, and social class influenced what kinds of music you’ll listen to, what kinds of art you’ll appreciate, and what kinds of books you’ll read. In short, how your tastes are affected by how you were raised. When talking about reading tastes, I think there are two theories that are particularly relevant: habitus and cultural capital.

two girls reading

First, the concept of habitus. Bourdieu understood habitus as a system of dispositions: long-lasting ways of being, acting and seeing that contribute to a particular style or lifestyle. It is a way of perceiving the world that is internalised and embodied at a young age. Furthermore, habitus shapes and is shaped by social practices, what Bourdieu refers to as ‘structuring structures’. Habitus explains why people from similar social backgrounds will have in common elements of their behaviour and attitudes. Importantly, habitus is not natural or inherent; it is acquired and thus can be changed. Bourdieu asserts, ‘Dispositions are long-lasting: they tend to perpetuate, to reproduce themselves, but they are not eternal’. Yet dispositions, as Bourdieu argues, are not destiny: people are free to re-position themselves on a social hierarchy and deviate from what is expected.

This is a pertinent point as readers are free to make their own reading choices, without curricula or prescribed reading lists. Their tastes and reading habits are reflections of who they are or aspire to be. People from different class, racial and gender backgrounds will have been exposed to different types of literature and reading material, and upbringing and education may lead to certain dispositions and preferences in terms of reading habits and tastes.

The concept of the habitus is further illustrated when considering reading as a cultural practice. Historian Martyn Lyons argues that ‘readers do not come to a text empty-handed, but bring to it a product of a life-long cultural formation, deep-rooted mentalities of a culture or class’. In other words, readers play an active role in producing a text’s meaning.

Second, cultural capital. Cultural capital refers to the knowledges, skills, and competencies of legitimate cultural codes which are acquired through upbringing and education. So, for example, possessing cultural capital won’t necessarily mean that you love classic literature, but you will at least know what the pieces of great canonical literature are. You will have been raised in an environment (whether at home or at school) where there was exposure to these cultural products and you are familiar with and aware of them. As such, social class, upbringing, and education can have significant influences on one’s knowledge and consumption of cultural goods.

Recently, a team of researchers in Australia investigated the links between social class, upbringing, education, and cultural tastes. The Australian Cultural Fields project asked participants about their tastes in a range of areas such as art, sport, music, heritage, and literature. Unsurprisingly, education and occupation were strong drivers of taste, and the higher your social class, the more ‘highbrow’ your tastes are likely to be. When it came to reading, romance was the only genre more likely to be enjoyed by working classes than upper classes. (This article goes in more depth about the research, and includes a quiz comprised of some of the questions asked in the project.)

These categories are not rigidly defined, nor are they necessarily unchanging. You might have been brought up in an environment that means you are likely to be aware of and listen to classical music and go to the theatre, and have read works of great literature. Or you might have been raised by parents who didn’t read, are from a lower class background, and you might think that reading literary fiction isn’t ‘for people like you’. But as Bourdieu argues, these categories and dispositions are not destiny. Your background does not dictate your tastes; it only influences them. Looking at these categories (of cultural goods as well as of people) has made me think about the differences between how academics might categorise people and how we categorise ourselves. Specifically, where do we fit as readers? Bourdieu’s theories were an important part of my PhD research on libraries, but despite years of pondering this question, I still don’t know where to slot myself.

Given my level of education, I think that I am technically supposed to favour literary fiction, poetry, and other forms of high literature. I am supposed to be aware of canonical works and authors (and probably have read them). However, my upbringing suggests something different. My parents did not attend university and they do not read, and all the books that were in the house when I was growing up were mine (there were a lot of Baby-Sitters Club books; it didn’t occur to me for a long time that adults read books too). With that background, you might think I only read romance and other ‘lower’ classes of fiction.

In reality, I think my reading reflects my social class and upbringing moreso than my level of education and profession. While I do read some literary fiction and am aware of canonical works and authors (and have even read some of them…), my preferred books are crime fiction, chick lit (though not romance, and yes, I think there is an important distinction between those two genres), and non-fiction. But even this statement does not fully illustrate the complexity and nuances of these categories. Given my upbringing, you might think that I would not be a reader at all, and yet here I am. I have been writing for Book Riot for two years, I completed a PhD essentially about books and reading, I am a registered member of seven different library systems in two countries, and I don’t think everything is quite right unless I am in the middle of a book.

So I think these categories do offer some value in thinking about how we sort ourselves as readers, but they do not (and cannot) completely capture the complexity of why we read what we do. Where do you, Book Riot readers, fit into this? Were you raised by parents who loved read and surrounded you with books from a young age? How did you become so enthralled with books and reading that you ended up reading Book Riot? Do Bourdieu’s theories and categories speak any truth about you as a reader? I’d love to hear your answers!

A woman checked out a book called How to Win a Local Election. And she did. Listen to Annotated on Apple Podcasts or Google Play to hear her story.