New directions in the study of culture and inequality


Julian Schaap, Jeroen van der Waal and Joost Oude Groeniger (Erasmus University Rotterdam. NL)

Ample research demonstrates that there is a relationship between a person’s socioeconomic status (SES) and their health. The most striking finding in this matter is that people from lower-socio-economic status groups tend to have a lower life-expectancy of around six years and a severely lower disability-free life-expectancy in comparison with people from higher class-backgrounds. This relationship between socioeconomic position and health follows an almost linear gradient and is found in many countries. Scholars and media often relate this to questions of economic inequality. For example, in most Western societies, high-calorie, unhealthy food (junkfood) is significantly cheaper than healthy alternatives and sports participation can be costly, which have been identified as primary causes for the rise of obesity among lower socioeconomic groups. Cultural sociologists, however, have  increasingly focused on the relationship between one’s cultural habits – reading, museum visits – and health, and found that these two are intrinsically linked. This seems puzzling at first sight: how can stationary activities, such as reading, cause a decline in weight, while other stationary activities, such as watching television, cause an increase in weight? In other words, why and how is culture important for understanding health inequalities?

Fielding-Singh, P. (2017). A Taste of Inequality: Food’s Symbolic Value across the Socioeconomic Spectrum. Sociological Science, 4.
Oude Groeniger, J., de Koster, W., van der Waal, J., Mackenbach, J. P., Kamphuis, C. B., & van Lenthe, F. J. (2020). How does cultural capital keep you thin? Exploring unique aspects of cultural class that link social advantage to lower body mass index. Sociology of Health & Illness.
Oude Groeniger, J., van Lenthe, F. J., Beenackers, M. A., & Kamphuis, C. B. (2017). Does social distinction contribute to socioeconomic inequalities in diet: the case of ‘superfoods’ consumption. International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 14(1), 4

Additional readings:

Pampel, F. C. (2012). Does reading keep you thin? Leisure activities, cultural tastes, and body weight in comparative perspective. Sociology of Health & Illness, 34(3), 396-411.
Williams, S. J. (1995). Theorising class, health and lifestyles: can Bourdieu help us?. Sociology of health & illness, 17(5), 577-604.


Suggested activity: Students explore data from various countries on health inequalities (for example, recent data on higher obesity rates among lower-SES groups in the Netherlands) and on the basis of this try to identify the mechanisms asked in discussion question 1.

Discussion questions:
1. Which social mechanisms explain why people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds have worse health than people from more advantaged backgrounds? To what extent can these mechanisms be differentiated in terms of social, economic and cultural causes?
2. Which mechanisms that are consequential for health can you think of which are not/do not seem to be related to differences in socioeconomic status? Why are they unrelated, you think?
3. What interventions can you think of that may decrease socioeconomic inequalities in health? How would these interventions take place in practice?



Simon Stewart (University of Portsmouth, UK)

While ‘canons’ of culture were dismantled decades ago by postmodern, postcolonial and feminist critics, evaluative judgements about ‘the best’ and ‘best ever’ continue unabated in the cultural field and in everyday life. We find examples of these judgements in the prizes and awards bestowed by powerful institutions but also in the relentless to and fro of internet forum discussions among individuals. In this episode, Simon Stewart discusses questions such as: How might we make sense of these evaluative judgements using sociological approaches? How do judgements at an individual and collective level intersect? How do they play out over time? How do they relate to the specific logics of cultural fields? In what ways are they expressive of wider societal inequalities? How can we distinguish between various types of judgement (ethical, aesthetic, instrumental)? How can we research their cumulative logic over time?



Stewart, S. (2020). Evaluative judgments. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Edited by George Ritzer and Chris Rojek.
Stewart, S. (2018). Making evaluative judgements and sometimes making money: independent publishing in the 21stCentury. Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change, 3(2), 10.
Stewart, S. (2020). Celebrity Capital, field-specific aesthetic criteria and the status of cultural objects: the case of Masked and Anonymous. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(1), 54-70.
Wolff, J. (2006). Groundless beauty: feminism and the aesthetics of uncertainty. Feminist Theory, 7: 143.

Additional Readings:
Banks, M. (2017). Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality. London: Rowman and Littlefield. See Chapter 2: Justice for Cultural Objects.
Hanquinet, L. (2018). ‘But is it good’? Why aesthetic values matter in sociological accounts of taste. Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change, 3(2), 09.
Harrington, A. (2004). Art and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity.
Stewart, S. (2012). Reflections on Sociology and Aesthetic Value. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 13(2), 153-167.
Stewart, S. (2013). Evaluating Culture: Sociology, Aesthetics and Policy. Sociological Research Online, 18(1), 14.
Stewart, S. (2015). Aesthetics and time: sustained and distracted modes of engagement. Cultural Sociology 9(2), 147-161.
Stewart, S. (2017). Evaluative judgements: ethics, aesthetics and ‘bad taste’. The Sociological Review, 65(1), 37-51.
Wolff, J. (2008). The Aesthetics of Uncertainty. New York: Columbia University Press.

Discussion questions:

  • Why do you think sociologists have had a tendency to put aside questions of value and evaluative judgements, leaving them to other disciplines?
  • Discuss the ways in which you evaluate cultural objects. Consider the various dynamics that affect your evaluation(s).
  • Provide an outline of the various dimensions of evaluative judgements discussed in Stewart’s work (i.e. aesthetic, ethical, temporal).
  • Provide an outline of Wolff’s argument for an ‘aesthetics of uncertainty’.
  • What insights are offered in the articles/chapters you have read on the relation between culture and inequality?

Find a review of a cultural object (i.e. a review of a film, television programme, album or book in broadsheet media or in online forums). What field-specific aesthetic criteria are being deployed in the review? What kinds of evaluative judgement are deployed by the critic/blogger (i.e. ethical, aesthetic judgements)? To what effect? What assumptions are made about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’?


Giselinde Kuipers, Predrag Cveticanin (University of Niš, Serbia) & Yang Gao (Furman University, US)

How does cultural distinction and social capital work in Serbia? Why do young educated Chinese tv consumers love GossipGirl, and moreover, appreciate for it “realism”? How are post-socialist Serbia and not-so-socialist-anymore China different and similar at the same time? In this episode, we speak about the applicability of European (French) and American sociological theories on taste and cultural consumption outside our Euro-American bubble. We also ask ourselves how this is all related to the future of cosmopolitanism. Join us as we dive into these and many more topics in this intriguing conversation.

Cvetičanin, Predrag, and Mihaela Popescu (2011) The art of making classes in Serbia: Another particular case of the possible.” Poetics39: 444-468.
Gao, Yang (2016). Fiction as reality: Chinese youths watching American television. Poetics 54: 1-13.
Lavie, N., & Varriale, S. (2019). Introduction to the special issue on global tastes: The transnational spread of non-Anglo-American culture. Poetics, 75, 101388.


1. The assignment would be to think of the ways and mechanisms through which horizontal social divisions (differences in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexuality, taste) contribute to the creation of social inequalities (vertical social divisions) in your own society. You might want to consult interesting books by Charles Tilly (1998) Durable Inequality, Berkley: University of California Press and Rogers Brubaker (2015) Grounds for Difference, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

2. The paper by Gao was published in 2016. With the fast changes in global relations, the relation of Chinese youth with American media content is likely to have changed. Such changes may be result, for instance, from changes in cultural production (eg American TV, film, games increasingly targeting “Asian audiences”), dissemination (increasing importance of VOD platforms like Netflix), or consumption (for instance, increasing focus on Korean cultural goods). Use online sources (eg academic articles, trade website/magazines like to investigate changes in media consumption of Chinese youths: do you find evidence of such changes and if so, what types of explanations are offered? Do you find these explanations convincing?



Giselinde Kuipers, Magne Flemmen (Oslo University) and Jonathan Mijs (Harvard University)


This week, we turn the table and look at how non-sociologists, i.e. normal people believe about inequality. Giselinde speaks with dr. Jonathan Mijs (EUR/Harvard) and prof. dr. Magne Flemmen to dive deeper in the relation between rising inequalities, meritocratic beliefs, and egalitarianism. Inequalities are rising yet people seem to care increasingly less about it. Why do people display meritocratic beliefs instead? And how do lower class people in supposedly egalitarian societies perceive cultural inequalities? And how does cycling relate to egalitarianism and inequalities? Why is the Dutch royal family, one of the most wealthy families in the world, cycling? We discuss this and many more topics in this intriguing conversation.

Mijs, Jonathan (2019). The paradox of inequality: income inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in hand. Socio-Economic Review

Jarness, Vegard, & Flemmen, Magne (2019). A struggle on two fronts: boundary drawing in the lower region of the social space and the symbolic market for ‘down‐to‐earthness’. The British journal of sociology, 70(1), 166-189. Kuipers, Giselinde (2013). The rise and decline of national habitus: Dutch cycling culture and the shaping of national similarity. European journal of social theory 16(1): 17-35.

(additional readings will follow)


(will follow)