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Field-Specific Capital

As Bourdieu’s ideas diffused and became subject to debate among sociologists, the criticism that jelled over time was not that cultural capital is limited to a specific social milieu, nor that it applies only in the case of objects of high culture; rather, as Gronow (1997) puts it, the difficulty with an endowment conception of cultural capital is that it presumes a static social arrangement (Lamont 1992). As an endowment, cultural capital explains reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977); it explains how social position is maintained, newcomers denied, and upward social mobility thwarted. In Gronow’s (1997) telling, that makes it peculiarly unsuited to explain contemporary Western society, and more particularly the consumption of fashion— where change is of the essence (Davis 1992).

In response to criticisms of its static character (Schatzki 1996), Bourdieu’s thinking gradually evolved away from a reliance on the concept of habitus toward a reliance on field, and a conception of field-specific capital (Swartz 1997). His thinking became less focused on social position within society as a whole and more concerned with how individuals maintained or advanced their position within specific fields. Bourdieu gradually ceased to speak of ‘cultural’ capital, or of any type of capital, replacing these with either ‘specific capital’ or ‘[name of field] capital’ (Bourdieu 1998, 1999, 2008).

The emerging and more dynamic conception of field-specific capital can be seen in this later account (Bourdeu and Wacquant 1992): “A capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field... We can… compare a field to a game… [and] picture each player having in front of her a pile of tokens of different colors, each color corresponding to a given species of capital… players can play to increase or conserve their capital… A species of capital is what is efficacious in a given field, both as a weapon and as a stake of struggle, that which allows its This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

possessors to wield a power, an influence, and thus to exist… instead of being considered a negligible quantity” (98-101). Here there emerges a conception of capital that could explain why some bloggers are able to grab the megaphone and acquire a mass audience: in the later Bourdieu, a consumer can put her tokens at risk to amass more. Capital can be invested and further accumulated, much in the same way as money can.

The key change that marks the later Bourdieu’s thinking is that field-specific capital can now be approached as both input and output: ‘as a weapon and as a stake of struggle’. This evolution has the effect of rejuvenating the money metaphor underlying references to ‘capital’.

One of the factors that distinguish money from some other kinds of resources is that it can be invested to generate more of itself, with the amount of money returned a function of the risks taken. Cultural capital would then point to a resource, having to do with cultural matters and the aesthetic domain, which can be used as a weapon to win a struggle, and also awarded as stakes to those winning that struggle.

We take this resource to be taste, understood in Gronow’s (1997) terms as judgment power. This definition highlights the connection between taste and aesthetic judgment and skill—an individual’s capacity to discriminate between the beautiful and graceful versus the labored and unappealing. Taste thus has levels, and individuals can be sorted in terms of how good their taste is—on their ability to discriminate stylish, fashionable clothing from merely acceptable dress. Cultural capital in the fashion field can now refer to the capacity to exercise taste in the sense of discrimination of aesthetic quality. But, consistent with the later Bourdieu’s dynamic formulation, cultural capital also refers to the stakes that may be gained from that exercise of taste. Fashion bloggers can be theorized as individuals who start with some capacity for taste and proceed to accumulate cultural capital from its repeated exercise and display.


It is important to acknowledge that a different conception of taste has dominated work in Consumer Culture Theory (Arnould and Thompson 2005). Where Bourdieu (1984) and in particular Goffman (1951) emphasize taste level, work by Arsel and Bean (2012), Arsel and Thompson (2011), Holt (1998), and Thornton (1996) emphasizes taste preferences and taste communities or regimes. Thus, participants in Arsel and Thompson (2011) used taste preferences to protect their identity investments in the alternative music field, perceived as under a devaluing assault from a commercialized mythology of the hipster. Thornton (1996) similarly sees subcultural capital as a resource for authentication, which clubbers achieve by differentiating their taste preferences from those of a despised (and fictive) mainstream. For these authors, taste preferences serve as a resource for drawing identity boundaries that include desired people and objects and exclude shunned or scorned others (Lamont 1992).

Note that taste is a contested notion subject to many more definitions than can be offered here (Gans 1999; Gronow 1997; Holt 1998; Johnston and Bauman 2010; Lynes [1955] 1980). As Bayley (1991, xviii) puts it, “an academic history of taste is not so much difficult as impossible.” Hence, these two meanings of taste are not presented as exhaustive, but simply as useful for situating this study relative to prior work.

Two Meanings of Taste This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

Following Holt (1998), taste in contemporary American consumption has been primarily treated as a means to affiliate with a group and to signal that identification. The focus has been on the formation of taste communities, rather than an individual’s exertion of taste leadership.

As Arsel and Thompson (2011) put it, consumers learn to calibrate their tastes to a field, community, or group with which they identify—to join with others who share the same taste regime (Arsel and Bean 2012). Likewise in Holt (1998), members of the social elite find one another and recognize one another based on their shared tastes (e.g., for movie directors), even as non-elite and elite members are repelled from one another by their differences in taste (regarding a $22 couch purchase). This is taste as preference rather than taste as judgment power and aesthetic discrimination, as developed in Gronow (1997). It is the difference between taste as a device for affiliation, versus taste as a standard for discriminating the laudable from the pedestrian.

One reason that these two senses of taste have not been teased apart in past consumer research is that Bourdieu’s own work encompasses both meanings of taste, as seen in this oftcited remark: “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make” (Bourdieu 1984, 6). As we read him, Bourdieu deliberately plays on the two meanings of ‘distinction’, here and throughout Distinction, making this word refer sometimes to difference and boundary while at other times pointing to elevation and prestige. The double meaning of distinction corresponds to the double meaning of taste. Taste can be used to draw boundaries (Arsel and Bean 2012), as in ‘do you like what I like’? But taste can also function as a claim of and a denial of status, as in “he has a lot of taste … all of it bad” (Bayley 1991, 77).

To keep the two meanings straight, we will refer to distinction-between versus distinction-over. Taste as distinction-between draws boundaries, creates groups, and fosters solidarity. It is local in its operation and acts to cluster like-minded individuals and sequester them from others with different tastes. Taste as distinction-over asserts preferment, claims status for one above others, and sustains hierarchy. It operates at the societal level and can raise select individuals to positions of prominence. Rather than grouping peers together into an Us apart from a Them, taste as distinction-over elevates select individuals over the mass.

Prior accounts in consumer research have successfully imported Bourdieu’s account of taste aimed at distinction-between, and developed how taste can be pressed into service as a boundary marker between groups, providing a basis for affiliation and community. The opportunity presented by online consumer behavior is the occasion it provides to look at taste in the service of distinction-over, taste as an agent of social mobility, taste as a resource for climbing a hierarchy. Our hypothesis is that it is this kind of taste that enables some fashion bloggers to grab the megaphone and it is this sort of taste that they deploy to amplify its volume.

Goffman on Audiences

In principle, fashion bloggers can deploy taste in either its horizontal or vertical sense.

Clothing choice—taste as preference—can readily be used to identify the community or (sub) culture to which the wearer belongs: hipsters or clubbers or indie rockers (Elliott and Davies 2006; Goulding, Shankar and Elliott 2002). Fashion blogs would then draw their audience from among consumers pursuing related identity projects, and the clothing and accessories most likely to be displayed on the blog would be those that send a strong signal about the particular community and sub-culture to which the blogger belongs (Berger and Ward 2010).

This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

Goffman’s (1959) work provides a basis for an alternative account of fashion blogging that emphasizes taste leadership rather than taste preference. Goffman applied a dramaturgical metaphor to everyday life, arguing that participants in social encounters could be parsed into actors and audience, with actors striving to put on a front and convey a certain persona, and audiences accepting successful actors as seeming as they wish to be seen. In Goffman’s account, no social actor is ever authentic in his or her behaviors toward an audience; authenticity, to the extent it is possible, is reserved for the private or intimate sphere. To an audience one shows a persona, rather than revealing one’s identity. Goffman (1959, 58) draws on Simone de Beauvoir for support: “the least sophisticated of women, once she is ‘dressed’, does not present herself to observation; she is, like… the actor on the stage, an agent through whom is suggested someone not there, that is, the character she represents, but is not.” Blogging, especially the visual self-presentations found in fashion blogging, can be theorized as the apotheosis of Goffmann’s dramaturgical metaphor. Unlike in face-to-face interactions in everyday life, or conversing with known friends on Facebook, a fashion blogger gains the capacity to represent a persona that may be far removed from her ‘real’ self, a persona she can rehearse and re-write until she gets it right. Display of such a persona seems ill-suited to the construction of an authentic self. Blogging must then represent some kind of authoritative performance (Arnould and Price 2003). But if so, it is a novel kind, insofar as it is an individual rather than a collective act, and a matter of fashion rather than tradition. Fashion blogging, interpreted in Goffmanesque terms, thus points the way to an expansion of the category of authoritative performances to include an individual’s successful enactment of style—the authority of her taste.

Rather than a means to seek affiliation with a community of like-minded consumers, through exhibiting taste preferences useful for drawing boundaries, a Goffmanesque perspective on blogging would point to its suitability for exercising taste in the vertical sense, as a means of drawing a mass audience of strangers. This theorization was explored by examining ten fashion blogs that succeeded in drawing such an audience.

–  –  –

Blog Sampling In October 2011 blogpulse.com estimated there were over 170 million blogs worldwide, with 100,000 being added per day. Likewise, the blog tracking site Technorati.com indicates that a majority of internet users read one or more blogs (Winn 2009). This provides context for how the advent of blogging makes a mass audience potentially available to ordinary consumers.

We sought out fashion blogs that had achieved a sizable audience, relying on seven sources that purported to measure the top fashion blogs by audience size (note to Table 1).

Among the selection criteria were that each blog had to be written by a consumer as a personal blog; thus corporate, brand, or retail blogs were eliminated. In addition, the blogs had to be written by amateur consumer bloggers only; in this way, we eliminated free-lance photographers’ and journalists’ blogs that were used as a type of resume to troll for work. The initial cut left us with 27 blogs that appeared most often in the seven sources. Next, we eliminated blogs that were not written by women, as women’s and men’s blogs were quite different, and we sought a relatively homogeneous sample suitable for generating depth of understanding. For instance, at the time we drew the sample, the most viewed men’s blogs This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

focused on the fashion choices of others (both men and women), while women’s blogs focused on their own fashion choices and thus only on women’s clothing. For the same reason, we set aside blogs that were not originally written in English; in addition, translated blogs might not capture the original word choice and nuance of the blogger. Finally, we excluded the single most famous young fashion blogger (Rosman 2009), as possibly idiosyncratic. This yielded a final sample of ten blogs (Table 1).

----------------------------------Table 1 about here

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