Elite Culture

Elite culture can be defined as those ‘‘high’’ cultural forms and institutions that were exclusive to, and a distinguishing characteristic of, modern social elites. It is a term that particularly references the cultural tastes of the established aristocracy, the commercial bourgeoisie, educated bureaucrats and political power brokers, and the professions in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Over most of this period such groups dominated those who consumed and supported such cultural styles as opera, symphony orchestras, ballet and dance companies, the decorative arts, fine art, museums and galleries, and the literary end of live theater. While these forms all thrive in contemporary times, it is no longer clear that elite culture can be distinguished from popular culture in the way it was before the mid twentieth century (Blau 1986, 1989). While sociologists still identify the power and significance of social elites and their relatively closed cultural domains, their exclusive grip on elite culture has relaxed while at the same time they have become more omnivorous in their taste and now consume widely and freely from all styles, from the lowbrow to the highbrow. At the same time, new styles that blur elite and popular cultural forms emerged from around the 1960s: the Beatles, for example, combined African American rhythm and blues with British working class ‘‘brass band,’’ with western elite orchestral and strings, and, in places, with traditional Indian music. In turn, their audience base spanned the entire social spectrum. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Damian Hurst produced other such blurring or fusions and are credited with popularizing modern art.

According to Raymond Williams (1981: 97), the word elite does not emerge until the mid eighteenth century but was more commonly in use around the early nineteenth century. It was used to express social distinction by rank and Williams argues that its emergence can be attributed to a crisis over leadership. As he says: ‘‘there had been a breakdown in old ways of distinguishing those best fitted to govern or exercise influence by rank or heredity, and a failure to find new ways of distinguishing such persons by formal . . . election.’’ Secondly, in response to socialist arguments about rules by class and class political conflict generally, it was widely argued that elites were more effective than classes (for example, by the Italian sociologists Pareto and Mosca). It is no accident therefore that this elitism, and the elite culture it produced, soon drew a cultural drawbridge up to distinguish itself from and cut out the ‘‘others.’’ This is evident in Kant’s ‘‘principle of pure taste,’’ which identified absolute aesthetic value and valorized refinement, the attainment of virtuosity, and educated reflection over the popular, easygoing, immediate, simple, or traditional. But as Bourdieu argued, pure taste and its aesthetics were based on a refusal of the vulgar, simple, primitive, or popular and therefore constituted a social device or techniques of distinction. In the nineteenth century particularly, and long into the twentieth century, considerable energy was put into the creation of ‘‘high’’ cultural institutional development. At the same time, those low cultural forms which had hitherto been part of mainstream everyday culture were undermined and devalued as shallow and vulgar.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the possession of education (or what Bourdieu calls cultural capital) which distinguished the social elite became more commonplace through mass secondary education and the expansion of the universities. Hitherto the social elite had been a relatively closed and circumscribed social group, sharing not only culture in common but also background, schooling, social net works, and experience. However, from the 1960s many from non elite backgrounds were being recruited into elite positions and making it in the culture industries and professions. It was this generation that reclaimed the cultural value and aesthetic depth of popular culture and placed it on an equal footing with elite culture. Meanwhile radio, television, and other media alongside new electronic technologies made elite culture more available to a wider audience and popular culture more popular with the elites. From the 1970s onwards, while it is still possible to identify elite culture, it has become more entwined in a broadening of popular, indeed globalized culture (DiMaggio 1997) and has now been identified in a new class formation, what Florida (2002) calls the creative class.

This is reflected in sociological surveys of consumer taste. Peterson and Kern (1996) looked at musical taste in the United States and found that highbrow consumers (those who mainly like opera and classical music) are increasingly consuming middlebrow (say, musicals) and ‘‘lowbrow’’ (country music, rock and pop). However, as with Bourdieu’s pathbreaking book Distinction, a study of cultural taste in France, it is still possible to detect broad pat terns of taste based on different combinations of cultural and economic capital and the habituses in which they combine. In Australia, another survey modeled on Bourdieu’s (Bennett et al. 1999) found the cultural elite still cultivated a taste for highbrow cultural forms. So, while two thirds of those with minimal education could identify only two classical composers from a list of ten music works, almost half of those with higher degrees knew eight or more. In broad terms, Bourdieu’s distinction thesis was found to be true for Australia. However, an important caveat was that ‘‘the entire con figuration of relations in our sample appears to have been skewed towards cultural forms which in Bourdieu’s terms are ‘popular,’ devalued, or of diminished aesthetic value. Moreover, class judgments of taste seldom display a logic that is separate from the confounding effects of age and gender.’’


  1. Bennett, T., Emmison, M., & Frow, J. (1999) Accounting for Taste: Australian Everyday Cultures. Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.
  2. Blau, J. R. (1986) The Elite Arts, More or Less de Rigueur: A Comparative Analysis of Metropolitan Culture. Social Forces 64(4): 875-905.
  3. Blau, J. R. (1989) The Shape of Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. Blau, J. R., Blau, P. M., & Golden, R. M. (1985) Social Inequality and the Arts. American Journal of Sociology 91(2): 309-31.
  5. Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  6. DiMaggio, P. (1997) The Sociology of Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  7. Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.
  8. Peterson, R. A. & Kern, R. M. (1996) Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore. American Sociological Review 61(5): 900-7.
  9. Williams, R. (1981) Keywords. Fontana, London.

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