Remember how I said I wanted to talk about organizational culture? The other day on Twitter, I overheard (overread? eavesread?) this snippet of conversation between Jason Kottke, Anil Dash, and Mike Monteiro. When I read these three comments together, I immediately thought “What about taste? What about symbolic exclusion?” Right now you’re thinking “um, what does this have to do with EHR?” Let me pull the focus way back for a second, and then we’ll focus down again.
These three comments got me thinking about something that has been an integral, central focus for me, no matter where I’ve been in my career: Culture. Culture is one of those things that often seems like the most hand-wavy, indefinable, airy-fairy - forgive me - Berkeley-esque concepts around. I mean, what is culture, right? It turns out culture is definable, although like so many things, there are many ways in which we can define it.
One of my favorite definitions comes from a scholar named Ann Swidler both in “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies” and in her later book Talk of Love. What I love about Swidler’s definition is she thinks of culture as a tool kit. This tool kit is essentially a set of resources, like symbols, rituals, and traditions. We’re influenced by these resources and we draw on them - selecting from our repertoire of knowledge, of symbols, of experiences - to create what Swidler calls “strategies of action.” We depend on our cultural settings in order to define not only ourselves but also to develop perceptions of and to figure out how to behave in and adapt to a wide variety of contexts and circumstances.
Now, there’s no way I could sum up Bourdieu’s Distinction here in a sentence or two - it’s long, it’s dense, and, y’know, a seminal work of great sociological importance, plus it’s in storage, along with nearly all my books - but I got to thinking about it. I also got to thinking two long-time favorites: another book (also in storage) Herbert Gans’ Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste and Bethany Bryson’s paper “‘Anything But Heavy Metal’: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes”. Because when we ask the question ”why are people jerks about not liking sports?” we’re kind of asking “why do people draw a symbolic boundary around themselves and a particular set of cultural tastes, and then proclaim dislike about the cultural tastes outside those boundaries - or the cultural tastes of people who are not like them?”
That second question doesn’t sound as good, I know. And maybe you’d ask a different question. But that’s what the question sounds like to me, and I hear pieces of Distinction: We have what’s called “taste,” which provides us with a ”sense of one’s place,” or a social orientation. For Bourdieu, this has to do with class, social position, and the properties of those social positions - what people buy, listen to, watch, consume, more. These tastes and preferences are ”cognitive structures…are internalized, ‘embodied’ social structures” that become natural to people. What does that mean? Your taste is something that orients you and it’s also something that becomes a “natural” part of you. That means different tastes are - you got it - unnatural, so we reject them. Bourdieu says the result is a “disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘feeling sick’) of the tastes of others.”
Bryson’s proposition then rings in my ears: ”Individuals use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike.”
Bryson brings up one of Bourdieu’s most famous concepts, and one a lot of people may be familiar with: cultural capital. She presents cultural capital as “cultural knowledge that can be translated into real economic gains, for example, by allowing access to elite social networks and clubs.” Of course, this cultural capital is knowledge based on consumption of culture, and in order to consume that culture, a person must have access to it. If access is restricted, because of social status, then only certain types of people can gain that type of cultural capital, gain access to elite social networks and clubs, and so on.
So Bryson points out there are two interrelated levels of cultural exclusion. There’s social exclusion, which is based in part on this cultural and social capital (and on capital itself), and there’s symbolic exclusion. Not everyone has access to social exclusion, but we all have access in different ways to different types of symbolic exclusion. Symbolic exclusion is all about taste, like Bourdieu talks about. When we proclaim taste or distaste, when we symbolically include or exclude, we reinforce our own taste and our own self-definitions. When I state that sports are stupid, or that this aspect of pop culture is a waste of time, I’m drawing a boundary. I’m including myself and others like me, and I’m excluding you. If I can’t shut up about it, it’s because I’m expressing my disgust. I really want to reinforce that symbolic boundary.
Now, there are many perspectives on culture - not everyone agrees with Swidler, and there’s been much scholarly work that has challenged aspects of Bourdieu. In addition, the cultural landscape of the United States has shifted in ways such that - as Gans and Bryson, among others, point out - there is less cultural inequality and inaccessibility so we need to differentiate between being excluded from culture and simply not liking something. If anyone who reads this wants to offer more recent works and/or counterarguments - I’ll be delighted. But for those who have an interest in this, these are fantastic places to begin. In particular, I use Swidler in my dissertation research, so keep that in mind in future weeks as we return to the connection between electronic health records, technology, and culture.