Focus groups, Bourdieu and cultural taste

By Martine Jonsrud, SAGE Books Editorial Assistant

A couple of weeks ago, we were honoured by the visit of Professor Rose Barbour, SAGE author of Doing Focus Groups (2008) and Introducing Qualitative Research (2007), amongst others. She joined us to talk about focus groups and to help us reflect upon the way in which conversations come into being and how meaning is generated in social groups. It was especially the last point that caught my attention, for what exactly is it that makes us think, for instance, that a book cover works? Or why is it that a certain title just doesn’t cut it? And what about those adjectives that we use to express our opinion such as boring, exciting, annoying, old-fashioned and even American – why is it that something just is something, without us being able to explain exactly why – they just are?

According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, these presuppositions and opinions are far from arbitrary. They are culturally calculated opinions that we unconsciously use to define ourselves, and others. Bourdieu argues that our cultural preferences are not only produced on a cognitive level but they are also embedded in our physical selves; the initial response to something is an embodied reaction going beyond our rational reflection as such.

This doesn’t mean that we are necessarily cultural dopes without the ability to think beyond our own cultural limits. If this was the case, there wouldn’t be innovation, there wouldn’t be theory. What we can learn from it however, is that there is lots of valuable information in those initial gut responses. It may seem banal, and even superficial, but it is exactly those fine, subtle cultural preferences that are crucial for us to grasp, as editors, authors, librarians, necessarily because they are key to understanding our audience and their taste.

If you are interested in reading more about Pierre Bourdieu and cultural taste, have a look at:

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

If you’d like to read more about focus groups and social research methods in general, join our exciting multidimensional online network Methodspace:

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