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Comparing Theories of Veblen and Bourdieu

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Published: 20th Sep 2021 in Sociology

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In Turkey or in the world, we generally come across with the news about shopping line in front of the stores to buy the brand new model of a kind of good. Mostly, report people go to these lines and make interview with the persons waiting on line. For example, again in such a line for the opening day to be first to buy iPhone, a man was interviewed. He was in line to buy the new iPhone. He looked like he was in his 60s and had had a few facelifts. When he was asked, he said this was his second day of waiting in line: The day before he had waited 12 hours and finally “got” a phone for his daughter. He had returned and spent nine hours to “get” a phone for him. He said he had the 3G, and wanted to upgrade to a 4G.

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In society, one establishes a status, not only by what one does or says, but also by purchasing and being seen to possess certain types of car, house, or clothes, or by being seen to live in a certain neighborhood or suburb, shopping in certain stores, going to certain theaters, decorating one’s apartment in a certain way, taking certain vacations etc.  All of these are social symbols to which society has attached certain connotations of a superior, different, or “normal” status. Conspicuous consumption makes individual’s desire to compete to buy the symbolic advantages.

Thus, I want to compare Veblen’s conspicuous consumption concept with Bourdieu’s cultural capital, habitus and taste concepts.

First, I will try to examine Veblen’s theory of leisure class. Then I will try to examine Bourdieu’s theory of capitals, taste and habitus. Finally, I compare both thinkers to understand the role of consumption in stratification in society.

Veblen’s Theory of Leisure Class and Conspicuous Consumption:

In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorsten Veblen thought up the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to designate the act of purchasing and using certain goods and services, not in order to survive, but rather to identify oneself to others as having superior wealth and social standing.  These possessions and services are extras that are to some extent wasteful as showed in the example above. They symbolize one’s ability to waste whatever one wants.

Veblen starts his examination by first demonstrating the pre-historical progression from savage to barbarian culture, and then claiming that the latter stages after barbarian culture to modern culture’s characteristics were still seen in the modern capitalist society.

Veblen’s Account of the Development of Society:

  • Peaceable
  • Predatory
  • Quasi-Peaceable Industry
  • Modern Savages
  • Barbarians
  • Moderns

Changes in society are generated by changes in the material facts of life. The change from peaceable society to predatory society requires enough accumulated stuff to be worth fighting for (tools, weapons, etc). Barbarian civilizations are different from the earlier stages of savage society. With their tendencies to martial and aggressiveness, it results in the appearance of a dominant leisure class. Thus, a new order occurs and that is made possible a new class which can produce beyond the minimum subsistence level. When this happens, a group of people redistribute the outcomes of other group of people’s productive labor in their own sake. Thus, this new class has the ownership of private property. According to Veblen, this creates envy that middle and lower classes desire to the same un-industrious lives. That allows the leisure class to form. Thus the accumulation of possessions is priority number one for the leisure class.

The emergence of leisure class coincides with ownership. The motivation behind ownership is emulation. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, he wrote:

The motive is emulation-the stimulus of an invidious comparison… especially in any community in which class distinctions are quite vague, all canons and reputability and decency and all standards of consumption are traced back by insensible gradations to the usages and thoughts of the highest social and pecuniary class, the wealthy leisure class (p.81).

In that sense, it can be claimed that men are led to accumulation of wealth because of pecuniary emulation. Veblen claims that the pecuniary struggle is the driving force behind the development of culture and society. The struggle for wealth (private property) is due to pecuniary emulation. It can be said that it is not a struggle for subsistence. If it were a struggle for subsistence, there would come a definite point after which the reason to gather goods would stop. But there is no such point. Veblen held that consumption is motivated by a desire for social standing as well as for the enjoyment of the goods and services per se:

The proximate ground for expenditure in excess of what is required for physical comfort is …a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency… (p.81)

People compare consumption but not leisure, and that they refer upwards, choosing their work and spending activities in order to be more like a higher income group. He indicates that a major source of this conduct is due to the pressures of “invidious comparison”, a “process of valuation of persons in respect of worth.” Veblen defines as a “comparison of persons with a view to rating and grading them in respect of relative worth or value” (1899: 34). Under modern conditions consumption is a more visible form of display. Individuals should find the ways to show off their wealth in order for invidious comparisons. Veblen pointed out two main ways to do this, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”. He argues that wasteful conspicuous leisure and consumption were most effective ways of displaying wealth. As a result, strategies of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption affected the class structure, and soon penetrated among non-leisure classes, leading to lower class people to engage in conspicuous leisure and consumption.

The exigencies of the modern industrial system frequently place individuals and households in juxtaposition between whom there is little contact in any other sense than juxtaposition. One’s neighbors, mechanically speaking, often are socially not one’s neighbors, or even acquaintances; and still their transient good opinion has a high degree of utility. The only practicable means of impressing one’s pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic observers of one’s everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of the ability to pay. (p.71)

Conspicuous consumption emphasis pecuniary emulation even more so than leisure, because the working classes engage in “wasteful” expenditures in an attempt to appear wealthy, even when their employments are not of the leisurely point of view. Overgenerous dress, gluttonous banquets, grand mansions, and iPhones, etc are all examples of conspicuous consumption. Any item that is without a productive function, or that has a price well above what is indicated by its practical utility alone, constitutes a good that is valued predominantly for the social capital that it brings.

Take foie gras as an example. Suppose a group of people likes the taste of beef more than the taste of foie gras. Of course, foie gras is much more expensive than beef. It is not that people eat foie gras despite the fact it provides less utility than beef; rather, foie gras provides more utility, because utility is not based on taste alone.

So what is providing the utility? The money was spent by this class with little regard for utility. Veblen’s theory was that people want to buy things because they want to signal wealth, power and taste to others – in other words, signals about social status. People would not want to buy something which gave signals of a lower social status; they always want to aim higher. The idea is that you consume like the upper classes in order to be the upper classes, consciously or not. It can be stretched to apply to almost any example of consumption. I agree with the idea that people buy things as a display to others. I think it is also true that people buy things to identify with a particular idea of class or culture.

Another aspect of leisure class is that it loses its contact with labor and its characteristic becomes conspicuous exemption from all useful employment. Leisure connotes non-productive consumption of time. Having the information about the past, antiques, ancient languages and sciences to know, horses, dogs, home decoration, these are all indicative of the industry that you do not do a job. Conspicuous leisure has the greatest vogue as a mark of reputability.

The consumption of the more desirable things becomes honorable. Luxuries and the comforts of life belong to leisure class. Industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. The consumption of luxuries is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself and is a mark of the master. Women should consume only for the benefit of their masters. Master man consumes of the best food, drink, weapons, narcotics, shelter, ornaments. This kind of consumption is an evidence of wealth and it becomes honorific.

As wealth accumulates the leisure class develops further in function and structure and there arises a differentiation within the class. This differentiation is furthered by the inheritance of wealth and the consequent inheritance of gentility.

Veblen’s explanation of emulation has the root of ownership; in other words once our immediate material needs are met, we buy items for their conspicuous nature, to emulate those in higher earning strata, status. Veblen conceives of status among humans as a stratification system. Ownership became associated to power and dominance, and originated a new sort of social division: that separating owners from non-owners. Veblen asserts “Wealth is now itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor” (Veblen, 1899: 18). Thus the struggle for survival became a struggle for pecuniary respect. In other words, competition for the accumulation of goods envisaged gaining the esteem of the community and enhancing one’s reputation.

Veblen established an objective relationship between social structure and class lifestyles, cultural values and ultimately, consumption practices. The acquisition of social repute and honour depended upon primarily by the ability to waste economic resources that had been acquired without effort. Some eighty years later, Pierre Bourdieu ([1979] 1984) a French sociologist also examined the relationship between social structure and economic and cultural dimensions of social life. Bourdieu analyzed consumption practices and taste to show how social position and lifestyles are related. In this account, instead of a dominant class culture, one finds class cultures.

P. Bourdieu: Habitus, Field, Capital and Taste

Max Weber (1978) discussed the term ”social class” to grasp the idea that, in addition to the economic conditions discussed by Marx, hierarchical social structure are also established and reproduced through ”styles of life.” In that sense, it can be said that societies separate into different groupings based not only on economic conditions, but also on non economic criteria such as morals, culture, and lifestyle, etc. In that sense, it was ¬rst analyzed in Veblen’s (1899) theory about the leisure class and Simmel’s theory of trickle-down status imitation (Coleman, 1983).

In Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984), Bourdieu describes how these various capitals operate in the social ¬elds of consumption. In Distinction, (Bourdieu, 1984) consumption practices and taste engender and maintain social relationships of dominance and submission (Campbell, 2005). Bourdieu’s views on taste and preferences are more complex than those of Veblen’s (Guimaras et all, 2010: 8). Despite bearing some similarities with Veblen (1899), Bourdieu built a broader and more complex theory secured with three primary concepts: habitus, capital, and field.

The concept that Bourdieu proposed in order to connect his depiction of systemic structuration and his accounts of individual action is habitus (King, 2000). Thus, the habitus may be defined as the mental or cognitive structures through which people deal with the social world; a system of dispositions. The dispositions, produced by the habitus, are passed on through the generations, inculcated from an early age and socially reinforced through education and culture. Habitus refers, in Bourdieu’s own words, “an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted”.

In other words, habitus is thinking and acting in an innate way; is not a set of rules one consciously learns. Therefore, Bourdieu claims that habitus helps to transmit distinct culture of a class and reproduce that culture. It constitutes a component of a field of objective relations, which is independent of the individual’s consciousness and will. The objectivity of fields is provided by the distribution of different species of power, which Bourdieu characterizes as economic, cultural, and social capital. “Each field corresponds a tacit struggle over these resources. Fields determine relational positions which impose present and future situations on their more or less powerful occupants. A given population may occupy positions in multiple fields. Multiple fields may impose more or less consolidated relations of domination and subordination.” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology, 2006). It reflects divisions in the class structure, age groups, genders and social classes. A habitus is required a long term occupation of a position within the social world. People who occupy the same position within the social world tend to have similar habitus.

Habitus is both produced by the social life and also produces it. It is a structured structure; it involves both the internalization of external structures, and also the externalization of things internal to individual. It is because regularities are inherent in an arbitrary condition; tend to appear as necessary and natural. Bourdieu (1984: 170) states:

The habitus is both the generative principle of objectively classifiable judgments and the system of classification (principium divisionis) of these practices. It is in the relationship between the two capacities which define the habitus, the capacity to produce classifiable practices and works, and the capacity to differentiate and appreciate these practices and products (taste), that the represented social world, i.e. the space of life styles, is constituted.

Habitus is “the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them” (Wacquant, 2005: 316, cited in Navarro 2006: 16). In this sense, life styles are defined as the products of habitus and, perceived in their mutual relations to the systems of the habitus, they become sign systems which are socially considered such as ‘distinguished’, ‘vulgar’ and alike (Bourdieu, 1984: 172). Habitus is not a direct reflection of the conditions of existence of a class, but a sensibility acquired through a life-time and an upbringing in those conditions and the possibilities they include or exclude. Different from Veblen, Bourdieu claims that people acquired a culture of habitus based on both economic and cultural capital instead of Veblen’s concept of emulation.

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Thus, whether a person actually has money, skills, education or family, in practice turns out to be secondary to the habitus they have acquired, which may be at odds with the life-style and attitudes, the way of using the body, command of language, friends and contacts, preferences in art and aspirations, etc., which are normally associated with those conditions. Action, in Bourdieu’s perspective, is ‘a product of class dispositions intersecting with the dynamics and structures of particular fields’ (Swartz, 1997: 141). To have economic capital is not enough as it does in Veblen, in Bourdieu’s theory, you should also have the cultural capital for it.

Bourdieu attempted to explain the relationship between people’s practices and the context that is institutions, values and rules, in which these practices occur. This attempt led him to the idea of the field, which is a “series of contexts which constitute an objective hierarchy and which produce and authorize certain discourses and activities” (Webb, 2002: 21-22).

Bourdieu classifies two aspects of a field: first of all that people in a specific field have its specific dispositions imposed upon them; and secondly fields can be characterized as area of struggle “through which agents and institutions seek to preserve or overturn the existing distribution of capital” (Wacquant, 2008: 268). Through capital Bourdieu understands both the material things and the symbolic and culturally significant attributes such as prestige, honour and status, in other words anything that is considered by an agent valuable enough to attempt to obtain it.

Bourdieu’s field theory describes the field as a domain where specific activities are produced. This is to say that each field entails a specific game and specific interests, which are not reducible to the interests and to the game of other fields. Thus, to enter a field is to accept the rules of the game and to share the field’s main goals. The notion of field is even more powerful when equated with capitals and habitus.

In other words, the habitus is strongly related to ones position in the social structure. Across different studies, Pierre Bourdieu has synthesized Weberian, Marxist, Durkheimian to argue for a theory of social status, and that for which is competition for various types of capital within social ¬elds. With Weber, Bourdieu based his theory on the idea that culture is a field like the economic world, in which some actors compete to get various types of resources or “capital.” While in the economic level actors fight over economic capital, in cultural level they contend to apt cultural capital goods and practices that are socially defined as distinctive and hence let individuals an impression of superiority. But Bourdieu points out that the cultural struggle for distinction is connected to the economic distribution of material goods, which it both legitimates and reproduces. An individual’s material conditions of subsistence, determined by her economic capital, establish a habitus or set of dispositions, which in turn produces cultural tastes.

Gartman (2002) claims that “the “right” tastes make possible the accumulation of cultural capital, which makes the individual look distinctive and hence justifies the economic capital that determined her cultural tastes to begin with.” Consequently, culture is closely related with the economy that Bourdieu considers society as a social field that is the intersection of the economic and cultural fields. The positions in the social field are classes, each defined by its relative balance of economic and cultural capital and its overall volume of the two kinds of capital combined (Bourdieu, 1984: 169-75).

Taste is a component of the habitus, thus, given the relationship between tastes and social structure. Bourdieu examines the taste and life-style in relation to social classes and class fractions and he analyses the “economic and social determinants of tastes” (1984: 101). In this sense, taste is a marker of social class or of class position, because tastes place individuals in relation to other tastes which express social divisions. Such divisions also express social distinction and reflect the struggle for social distinction. Moreover, “Taste is an acquired disposition to “differentiate” and “appreciate” … to establish and mark differences by a process of distinction”Bourdieu (1984: 466). Taste is therefore a way of ensuring social recognition and status.

Different from emulation, taste is, nonetheless, also linked to necessity. The existence of an upper class culture and upper class taste does not supersede lower class values and tastes. Instead, he argued that while material need is dominant to the definition of higher-class taste, lower-class taste is born because of necessity. This is to say that lower class taste has restrictions caused by material deprivation. Such restrictions have limited access to cultural objects and practices that are highly valued and constitute the very realm of upper-class taste. As such, Bourdieu stresses that taste is the practical affirmation of difference; it is materialized class culture that unites all those who are the product of similar conditions. What is more, Bourdieu observed that the rich justified and naturalized their economic advantage over others not only by pointing to their bank accounts, but by being the arbiters of taste.  Bourdieu shows us that taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition.

Discuss: Comparing Veblen and Bourdieu

When we examine the concept of conspicuous consumption, Veblen stresses the function of it as the “status symbols” in order to show off one’s social standing in the society. He focused on upper and unproductive classes which are not directly involved in economic production activities. Thus, Veblen talked about valued practices of upper classes and emulation by the other classes. To spend lots of money on wasteful products is the result of the conspicuous consumption as being a member of the leisure class.

On the other hand, Bourdieu discussed about not only conspicuous consumption but also all kind of consumption. As it is discussed above, according to him, both economic and cultural capitals reinforce the class positions. In that sense, tastes and practices are determined by the position of somebody in social structure. Tastes are related to one’s habitus which is related with one’s social class.

Another issue related to both thinkers is the trickle down and trickle up effect. Trickle down effect is, in its simplest way, emulation of upper class culture or taste by lower class. For example, many lower class people in Turkey have the brand new model of cellular phones although their monthly salary does not afford this kind of consumption. On the other hand, tickle up effect means that there can also be impression from bottom to up. For example, some women from upper class started to wear “yemeni” or “ÅŸalvar” which are signs of lower class culture. However, in Veblen theory, leisure classes use consumption in order to distinguish themselves from both lower classes and “new money” people. In that sense, they have “accumulated culture” which upper class people inherent it from the family that they belong to as a way of distinction like taste in Bourdieu’s theory. Bourdieu claims that lower classes also have taste. However, this taste is different from the upper classes since lower class taste is born out of necessity. Because of this necessity, lower class people, for Bourdieu, do not pay attention some cultural practices such as going to opera or museum, buying books, etc. Different from Veblen wasteful conspicuous consumption, for Bourdieu, lower class people avoid consuming because of necessity. Moreover, as it is in the example of “Yemeni,” upper classes can move down to popular taste. Another point should be mentioned. In Bourdieu’s theory, upper classes try to maintain their status as a distinction from the tastes of lower classes. Thus, they turn the popular taste.

The artist agrees with the ‘bourgeois’ in one respect: he prefers naivety to ‘pretentiousness’. The essentialist merit of the ‘common people’ is that they have none of the pretensions to art (or power) which inspire the ambitions of the ‘petit bourgeois’. Their indifference tacitly acknowledges the monopoly. That is why, in the mythology of artists and intellectuals, whose outflanking and double-negating strategies sometimes lead them back to ‘popular’ tastes and opinions, the ‘people’ so often play a role not unlike that of the peasantry in the conservative ideologies of the declining aristocracy. (Bourdieu, 1984: 62)

Thus, in Bourdieu theory, there is a struggle for “good taste” and “bad taste” which make people distinct from each other through cultural consumption. In Veblen’s theory, emulation is the possession of the certain goods but does not lead them to have the knowledge of the goods such as a work of art. On the other hand, upper classes have developed this kind of knowledge.

In that point, for Bourdieu, key concept is cultural capital. The positions of individuals in the field are determined by the amount of and relative weight of the capital they posses. Bourdieu discusses 4 types of capitals.

  • Economic capital: the economic resources possessed by an actor.
  • Cultural capital: the various kinds of legitimate knowledge possessed by an actor.
  • Social capital: the extend of the valued social relations possessed by an actor.
  • Symbolic capital: the amount of honor and prestige possessed by an actor.

According to Trigg (2001), “cultural capital is the accumulated knowledge which is learned trough education and social upbringing. Through the practical applications and implications of taste, people classify objects and also classify themselves. In this frame, culture is a kind of economy, a marketplace that utilizes cultural rather than economic capital.” This capital is usually people’s social class origin and educational experience. Thus, cultural capital is correlated to high-status class positions and makes them distinct from other classes. Thus, distinction is a broader notion than Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. Consequently, instead of a single dominant upper class lifestyle that lower classes try to emulate, in Bourdieu we find different class tastes and lifestyles.

To sum up, according to Bourdieu, different consumption practices and the taste behind of them make distinction among classes and create hierarchical social relations. On the other hand, Veblen pointed on wealth and emulation of wealth as a source of distinction. Bourdieu did not concern on wealth as much as Veblen. He emphasized on cultural capital. Veblen used wealth as a source of social stratification with the display of wealth. In Bourdieu, however, the competition for status takes place within the fields.


In this paper, my main aim is to compare and contrast the theory of Veblen and Bourdieu by examining of their main concepts such as conspicuous consumption, leisure class, emulation, habitus, field, cultural capital and taste.

In that sense, first of all, I discussed Veblen’s theory which he concerns that consumption is a way of displaying wealth. He uses conspicuous consumption as a way of stratification. He describes emulation to examine the stratification among upper classes and lower classes.

Secondly, I try to examine Bourdieu’s theory by focusing on the book of Distinction. Different from Veblen, he deals with all kinds of consumption and does not focus on wealth as much as Veblen does. He emphasizes the concept of taste in different classes. He uses cultural capital to distinct different classes.

Finally, in the last part, I compare both thinkers. Briefly, I found the following ones:

When we examine the concept of conspicuous consumption, Veblen stresses the function of it as the “status symbols” in order to show off one’s social standing in the society. Bourdieu discussed about not only conspicuous consumption but also all kind of consumption.

In Veblen, emulation moves down words. In Bourdieu, taste moves up and down words.

Veblen discussed that accumulated culture is a way of social prestige which distinct upper classes from lower classes and “new money.” In his theory, he focused on individuals who caused the distinction by conspicuous consumption and social hierarchy. In Bourdieu’s theory, consumption and taste are involved which they help the reproduction of class structure. Bourdieu studied beyond the individual and pointed out that the habitus creates the class position with the help of accumulated knowledge, aka cultural capital.

Taste is a marker of social class in Bourdieu and not just of wealth as Veblen thought.

Veblen’s focused on the significance of economic capital. On the other hand, Bourdieu highlighted on the cultural capital.


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