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The Silent Markers of Desire and Disgust

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In so much of the research on class influenced by Bourdieu, there is clear evidence of a more complex relational cartography, a world of ‘horizontal’ relations that, while mostly unacknowledged, act as a counterpoint to the standard ‘verticalising’ of relational activity so beloved of Bourdieu and his devotees. This is especially the case in accounts of middle-class formations. In Stephen Ball et al’s study of middle-class childcare choices, for example, the depiction of how class ‘gets done’ reveals a strikingly fragile and tense intersubjective dimension, one in which recognition of others ‘like us’, and recognition of difference from ‘others’ not ‘like us’ ‘rest upon and are revealed within the power of allusions, asides, avoidances and aversion’. While not explicitly acknowledged by the authors in question, their efforts to illuminate the ‘social structures in the head’ as they call them, also brings to the fore at the very least the coexistence of intra-psychic relations alongside those based on social location.

A similar form of interaction between forms of recognition and distinction can be witnessed in Mendez’s account of Chilean middle-class identity formation, in which the compulsion to cloak themselves in forms of authenticity is ‘immersed in social relations that act as referents, even in internal dialogues’. It is Lawlor’s account of disgust as a form of middle-class distinction, however, that best exemplifies this co-existence of relational forms. Working on Bourdieu’s notion that difference acts as the ‘greatest threat’, Lawlor argues that middle-classness ‘depends on expulsion and exclusion’. Disgust implies, to use Lawlor’s phrase, a form of recognition, ‘recognition of (and horror at) sameness’. The middle class milieu illustrated by Lawlor is one in which participants are all too aware of ‘what is respectably sayable’ and what is ‘silently marked as normal and desirable’

While Lawlor provides strong evidence of a strong intersubjective component to this doxic-like ‘common understanding’, she also claims that a similar common understanding among the working-class, particularly in relation to intra-class disgust, ‘simply does not count’. Granted, this comment was made regarding relations of social location; nevertheless, it does highlight the pitfalls inherent in an over-reliance on Bourdieu’s one-sided relational sociology. From an intra-psychic perspective, the formation of ‘common understandings’ could be viewed as equally important in every social class formation. Does the threat of expulsion and exclusion not also apply to the working classes? It could be argued that the ‘sour smell of distinction’ operates as a potent signifier and limiter in working-class cultural life as much as it does for the middle-classes. But so long as legitimacy is denied to the power of intra-psychic relations, these forms of common understanding effectively remain invisible.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.