Book Reading in Urban China The Uneven Distribution of Cultural Capital

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The Uneven Distribution of Cultural Capital:

Book Reading in Urban China 1

Shaoguang Wang

Chinese University of Hong Kong
Deborah Davis

Yale University

Yanjie Bian

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

December 7, 2004

The Uneven Distribution of Cultural Capital:

Book Reading in Urban China

With Pierre Bourdieu and Richard A. Peterson as our points of departure, this exploratory study examines to what extent cultural capital coincides with other dimensions of social and regional inequality in urban China. Drawing on interviews with 400 couples in four Chinese cities in 1998, the paper documents variations in reading habit by occupational class, city of residence, gender, education, and age. Our analysis shows that social class can to large extent explain differences in reading habit. There are also significant regional variations within each occupational class. In addition, we find that gender, education and age have their effects on people’s reading habits.

Key words: Cultural capital, class, regional disparity, inequality, China

Word count: 7,918


Beginning with Weber ([1922] 1978), there emerged theoretical acknowledgment of the importance of cultural as well as economic dimensions in forming power structures in society. By applying an economic metaphor, Bourdieu calls usable cultural resources “cultural capital.” What matters here is not intrinsic aesthetic value of cultural materials, but their “symbolic power.” In most societies, cultural choices are vertically ranked so that some are viewed socially “high” while others are socially “low.” Consequently distinction in cultural taste with respect to such seemingly trivial things as clothing, leisure pastimes, music, reading, and so on can serve as a device to signify social standing and to maintain, reinforce, and reproduce already existing social structure (Bourdieu 1984, 1985).

Like economic capital, cultural capital is unequally distributed across social space. It has been established by numerous empirical studies that the distribution of cultural capital often correspond to other dimensions of human activities and of social structure (DiMaggio, 1987, 1991, 1994; DiMaggio & Ostrower, 1990; Davis 1992; Ganzeboom & Kraaykamp, 1992; Aschaffenburg, 1995; Katz-Gerro & Shavit. 1998; Katz-Gerro, 1999). In this sense, any study of social inequality would be incomplete if it fails to take into consideration the unequal distribution of cultural capital (Wilson, 1980; Sobel, 1983; Rojek, 1985; Zolberg, 1990; Lamont & Fournier, 1992; Ultee, Batenburg & Ganzeboom, 1992).

In the China field, however, the study of social stratification has predominantly focused on economic dimension. To date, differentiated cultural tastes have been largely overlooked. As an initial effort to fill up the lacuna in contemporary scholarship, this article reports on variation in reading habits tracked during a year long study of consumption practices among 400 urban couples in 1998 in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Wuhan. By doing so, we attempt to address two related questions raised by Bourdieu in the context of urban China: how is cultural capital differentially distributed across social space, and what do the observed patterns of distribution tell us about the contemporary Chinese society?2

Section I begins with a discussion on how to define cultural capital, followed by theoretical explorations of possible factors that may affect its distribution. Our focus is placed on two test variables: individual attributes and geographic location. Using differentiation of preferences in book reading as an indicator of cultural capital, Section II operationalizes both dependent and independent variables for this study. To obtain valid measurements of people’s book reading preferences, Section III first applies the method of factor analysis to classify various book genres and literary authors into a manageable number of cultural and literary categories. Then, it investigates the extent to which differentiation in reading preferences are related to other dimensions of social stratification and to geographic location. Section IV reports the results of our regression analysis, which shows that social class can to large extent explain differences in reading behavior. Party/government officials, professionals and enterprise managers, for instance, possess significantly more cultural assets than service workers, production workers, and self-employed. In addition, geographic location proves to be a significantly differentiating factor. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, Shanghai residents appear to read less than their counterparts in the other three cities. And, their literary tastes are no higher, either. In sum, individuals from different social classes and different regions exhibit significantly different patterns of cultural preferences. This observation sheds new light on the nature of the emerging social structure in contemporary China.

Cultural Segmentation and Its Determinants

Two Conceptions of Cultural Capital

Our theoretical point of departure is Pierre Bourdieu’s analytic framework of multiple capitals (Bourdieu, 1984). According to Bourdieu, the social structure of an advanced capitalist society is not simply a hierarchy determined by income and property ownership. Rather, it is a muddy “social space” in which multiple forms of capital define hierarchically and horizontally distinctive social positions. Although any asset, resource, or good that is valued in society can be a capital (Bourdieu, 1985), in his analytic showcase, Distinction, Bourdieu (1984) primarily focuses on economic and cultural capitals. In France, he shows, professionals and industrial/commercial employers form distinct classes in social space not only because they possess economic capitals, but also because they have distinct orientations of consumption, distinct tastes for cultural products, and more generally, distinct lifestyles or habitus (Bourdieu 1984: Figures 5 and 14).

In Bourdieu’s model (1984), cultural capital is mainly embodied in people’s cultural tastes. The culture of the highest class is viewed as the most distinguished culture. Dominant classes (or fractions of them) can use their distinct cultural tastes as both an indicator of their social status and as an instrument to maintain their advantage in social, economic, and cultural arenas. Cultural tastes here operate as an exclusionary device for distinguishing among social groups and a means for facilitating class cohesion (or elite solidarity).

Richard A. Peterson (Peterson and Simkus 1992; Peterson 1992; Peterson & Kern 1996), however, presents a different model of cultural capital. According to him, although higher-status people are more likely to consume highbrow culture than are lower status people, they do not limit their tastes to the highbrow. Instead, they indulge more in many sorts of culture, not just the most elite forms. Equipped with knowledge about wide-range of cultural genres, those people can navigate successfully in many settings, including, for instance, making a better impression in job interviews, in social relations on the job, or in building up social networks that can help in getting jobs or doing jobs (DiMaggio, & Mohr, 1985; DiMaggio, Evans, & Bryson. 1996). In Peterson’s terms, high status people are not cultural “snobs” but cultural “omnivores.” At the same time, Peterson labels those in the lowest occupational groups as “univores,” because they tend to have little contact with or knowledge of spheres beyond their class, locality, race, ethnicity, and religion. What distinguish “omnivores” from “univores” are not distinctive tastes but familiarity with various cultural genres (Erickson 1996).

Thus, cultural capital may exist in two forms: distinct tastes and cultural repertoire. By generating either “a hierarchy of tastes” or “a hierarchy of knowledge” (Erickson, 1996: 219), cultural capital can function both as a practical identifier of social boundaries and a theoretical construct of class distinction.

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