Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Taste is a matchmaker"

So says Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction. The most fruitful idea to come to me so far from our sojourn in Bourdieu's great study is the notion of taste endogamy.

It is well known that people with similar backgrounds are more likely to marry one another. The normal sociological standards for measuring background are rather blunt instruments, though. We run across thousands of people with similar backgrounds who we would not think of marrying. The subtler connector is shared taste. Taste is, certainly, connected with background – that is one of the main points of the book. But taste is also more individual than just a shared class measure. Taste is individual enough to bring two people together.

And then, as Bourdieu notes, we often see "the astonishing harmony of ordinary couples who … progressively match each other by a sort of mutual acculturation." This is, I think, what Max Weber means by "elective affinity." I can testify to this in my own marriage in many ways. My favorite, which is delightful for its sheer mystery, is that my wife and I, having started out with different favorite colors, now have grown to share a passion for yellow. Neither of us could say why this is so, but it does make decorating together easier.

Sociologists are accustomed to measuring similarities of education and occupation between parents and children. What the idea of taste endogamy suggests is that we should be just as interested in comparing parents-in-law and children-in-law. At the least, we should measure similarities in education and occupation between a man and his father-in-law and a woman and her mother-in-law. Deeper than that, though, we should look for similarities of taste within those pairs. If is woman sees a similarity in taste between her father and her potential husband, it would go a long way toward explaining their attraction and marital success.

As Bourdieu observes,

"Two people can give each other no better proof of the affinity of their tastes than the taste they have for each other."


Heather said...

What surprises me is many of the attributes I like most about my current (second) husband are those I recognize from my father AND my first husband! I tell people he has all the best parts of both. ;-)

LMR said...

I think this assessment only works if the person in question was close to his/her parents growing up and had a fairly normal childhood. If someone grew up in a dysfunctional family and worked very hard to distance him/herself from that background, the tastes of the child would be distinctly different from those of the parents.

Gruntled said...

Bourdieu does consider the case of upwardly mobile classes of people who set out to live quite differently than their parents did. Likewise, a family might be so dysfunctional that it not only does not pass on its class culture, but destroys it - something like the "bonfire of the assets" following a divorce that I wrote about earlier (

Gruntled said...

Heather, I must confess that the way you put it made me envision a bad horror movie ... :-)

Mark Smith said...

I may be an example of the "bonfire of the assets".

I grew up in what I consider a dysfunctional family (my parents probably wouldn't agree). I have chosen to avoid being like them, though I have found it unavoidable.

My wife and I have chosen not to have children, in part because I am afraid that I would be the same kind of parent to my children that my parents were to me.

Interestingly, I am on the opposite end of the political scale from my father (my mother was more closed-mouthed about her political leanings). I suspect that this is also a result of family dynamics.

Gruntled said...

So who are you transmitting your assets to?

Mark Smith said...

You mean financial assets?

We'll work that out later once we have no heirs. For now they go to parents and siblings. We'd love to give to nieces and nephews, but all of the siblings are over 30 and so far even the married ones show no signs of having kids (on both sides - mine and my wife's family).

It'll probably go to charity. So I suppose it's not so much a bonfire of the assets as a distribution outside the family structure.

Of course in both cases the family has only had significant assets in either my generation or the one prior - before that we were lower middle class at best. Now we're solid middle class to upper middle class (and possibly slightly higher).

I guess I thought you were talking about family/genetic assets. I should have read your previous post (I have now).

Victoria Crowell said...

Mark Smith could be right. Obviously there are some unconscious aspects of my personality that definitely did come from my parents, but I've also seen a lot of my parents' problems growing up since they tended to be disfunctional, and wanted to make my life different than theirs, so it has resulted in a bit of rebellion.

However, I have noticed that, while I looked for someone very different than my father, my boyfriend is very similar to my grandfather, who I admire very much.

Gruntled said...

Taking marriages that you admire as a model is a good idea. If they are in the family, that increases the likelihood that you could make one like it. And both factors support the idea of taste endogamy.