Drawing cultural boundaries, reproducing social in/equalities


Giselinde Kuipers & Dieter Vandebroeck (VUB, Brussels, BE)

in this episode, we discuss an often overlooked aspect of class inequality, namely how it becomes inscribed in the physical dimensions of the body. Far from being a genetic endowment or a personal achievement, the size and shape of our bodies are intimately tied up with our position in social space.  Drawing on research in social epidemiology and social psychology, this class will try to show that our bodies are not just an ‘expression’ of our social status, but effectively offer an ‘explanation’ for that status. In fact, the dominant view of body weight as an individual achievement and a personal responsibility plays a key role in the naturalization and hence legitimization of class privilege.

Mennell, S. (1987). On the civilizing of appetite. Theory, Culture & Society4(2-3), 373-403.
Vandebroeck, Dieter (2017) Distinctions in the Flesh. Social Class and the Embodiment of Inequality. London: Routledge. Chapter 4: The Perceptible Body
Darmon, Muriel (2012). A people thinning institution: Changing bodies and souls in a commercial weight-loss group. Ethnography 13(3): 375-398.

Additional readings
Darmon, Muriel (2009). The fifth element: Social class and the sociology of anorexia. Sociology 43(4), 717-733.
Vandebroeck, D. (2015) ‘Classifying bodies, classified bodies, class bodies. A carnal critique of the Judgment of Taste’ in: Coulangeon, P. & J. Duval (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Bourdieu’s Distinction, New York, Routledge: 227-254.

Sarpila, Outi, et al. “Double standards in the accumulation and utilisation of ‘aesthetic capital’.” Poetics (2020): 101447.

Assignment: discussion questions

  1. Over the past decade numerous policy makers have proposed the idea of a “fat tax”, not just on fattening foods and drinks, but also directly on people who are struggling with severe forms of overweight and obesity. After reading these three articles, do you consider such a tax as a good or a bad idea?
  2. In what ways is corpulence a form of physical stigma that is comparable to skin color or physical disability? In what ways does weight stigmatization differ from racism or ableism?
  3. In what ways does the contemporary glorification of slimness and the stigmatization of corpulence fit well with a neoliberal political climate focused on ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘personal achievement’?
  4. Why is the notion of an ‘obesity epidemic’ a misleading way of describing the historical evolution and social distribution of contemporary patterns of overweight?


Giselinde Kuipers & Simone Varriale (University of Lincoln, UK)

In this episode, we talk with Simone Varriale, about  the ways in which key concepts from cultural sociology – such as cultural capital, habitus and symbolic boundaries – have been used in the study of international migration, with a focus on cultural and economic inequalities among mobile EU citizens. We discuss how relatively privileged white migrants mobilise unequal resources in their strategies of social mobility and social distinction, and how migration triggers processes of boundary-drawing and stigmatisation connected to class, race, age and social mobility.

Oliver C. and O’Reilly, K. (2010) A Bourdieusian Analysis of Class and Migration: Habitus and the Individualizing Process. Sociology 44(1): 49-66.
Erel U. 2010. Migrating cultural capital: Bourdieu in Migration studies, Sociology 44(4): 642-660.
Varriale, S. 2019. Unequal youth migrations: exploring the synchrony between social ageing and social mobility among post-crisis European migrants. Sociology 53(6): 1160-1176

Discussion questions:

  1. In what ways does class ‘travel’ across national borders? What are the key processes of ‘class reproduction’ discussed in the three articles?
  2. Does migration always lead to upward social mobility? What do Erel’s and Varriale’s articles suggest about the relationships between social and geographical mobility?
  3. What might be the problems of classifying migrants according to their legal status or ethnicity, nation and race? Why do we need to take other social differences and divisions into account?
  4. How inequalities before migration shape the lives of EU citizens after migration? Think about this in relation to the following concepts: economic and cultural capital, habitus, social distinction.


Julian Schaap (Erasmus University Rotterdam, NL) & Jo Haynes (University of Bristol)

In this episode, Julian Schaap speaks with Jo Haynes about race, ethnicity and gender in popular music. Of all forms of popular culture and art, popular music remains one of the primary platforms of identity formation. While music allegedly ‘brings people together’ across various societal cleavages, in practice we see that music genres – as with many cultural genres in general – are shaped by and reflective of social divisions in society. In the session, we will focus on the relationship between social categories such as gender and race/ethnicity, and popular music, to understand how cultural production and consumption play a role in the construction, maintainance and/or deconstruction of symbolic boundaries based on gender and race/ethnicity. By zooming in on cases within popular music – why are there relatively few people of color in rock music? Why is hip-hop often perceived to serve minority voices? – we aim to extrapolate to larger questions of (popular) culture, difference and inequality.

Haynes, Jo (2010). In the blood: The racializing tones of music categorization. Cultural Sociology 4(1): 81-100
Hesmondhalgh, David, & Saha, A. (2013). Race, ethnicity, and cultural production. Popular Communication 11(3): 179-195.
Schaap, Julian, & Berkers, Pauwke (2019). “Maybe it’s… skin colour?” How race-ethnicity and gender function in consumers’ formation of classification styles of cultural content. Consumption Markets & Culture 1-17.

Additional materials
Brackett, D. (2016). Categorizing sound: Genre and twentieth-century popular music. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clay, A. (2003). Keepin’ it real: Black youth, hip-hop culture, and black identity. American Behavioral Scientist 46(10): 1346-1358.
Haynes, Jo. (2013). Music, difference, and the residue of race. London: Routledge.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why are certain genres connected to ethno-racial categories? What historical and sociological explanations can be identified to explain these ties?
  2. What is the difference between ‘racialization’ and ‘racism’ in categorization processes? Why/how does this difference matter?
  3. What are the consequences of the linkage between cultural products/practices and ethno-racial categories? How are these experienced in everyday life?
  4. How can findings within the study of (popular) music be expolated to other societal phenomena? What can we learn from these expolations beyond music?


Giselinde Kuipers, Sebastien Chauvin (University of Lausanne) and Bruno Cousin (Sciences-Po, Paris, FR)

Cousin, Bruno and Sébastien Chauvin (2017). Old Money, Networks and Distinction: The Social and Service Clubs of Milan’s Upper Classes. Pp. 147-165 in Cities and the Super-Rich. Real Estate, Elite Practices, and Urban Political Economies, edited by Ray Forrest, Sin Yee Koh and Bart Wissink. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cousin, Bruno and Sébastien Chauvin (2013). Islanders, immigrants and millionaires: the dynamics of upper-class segregation in St Barts, French West Indies. Pp. 186-200 in Geographies of the Super-Rich, edited by Iain Hay. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Mears, Ashley (2015). “Working for Free in the VIP: Relational Work and the Production of Consent.”  American Sociological Review 80(6): 1099–1122

Additional materials
Cousin, Bruno, Shamus Khan and Ashley Mears. 2018. “Theoretical and methodological pathways for research on elites.” Socio-Economic Review 16(2): 225-249.
Mears, Ashley (2020). Very Important People. Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.