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Global Affairs Blog

Culture Series: Human Experiences That We Can Have Collectively

By: Hamza El Mouahid, LLM ’18

First, as we are all sitting here discussing the meaning of culture, it is hardly possible to define this concept in a 5-minute talk, or even a one-year seminar paper. However, what I roughly mean by culture, are these human experiences that we can have collectively, that relate to several fields: religion, gastronomy, arts, literature, etc.

When I saw the topic we are discussing today (i.e. class and culture), the first thing that came to my mind is this research made by a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, in his notorious book: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. I would say that theoretically, this book is my reference when discussing both these concepts and their connection. In his work, Pierre Bourdieu made a major assumption: the higher class (for Bourdieu, this doesn’t mean the wealthiest class, but rather teachers, professors, artists, lawyers, doctors, etc.) decides what taste should be; and this is a way to differentiate itself from the lower class. The result is that lower classes are unfamiliar with higher class culture, that is deemed inaccessible. For Bourdieu, some activities are only reserved for the higher class (golf, whisky, tennis, chess, piano), while some others are for lower classes (soccer, regular red wine, beer, pastis) – this would not be relevant nowadays. The intrinsic problem of this distinction, is that the ruling class is trying to differentiate itself from the lower class by mean of culture, and this is considered as a form of symbolic violence exercised toward the lower classes in order to establish their domination.

Now, I would like to stress more on my experience dealing with the intertwining connection between class and culture, and how the distinction made by Bourdieu might be relevant, or irrelevant at some point. I grew up in Morocco, a small country in North Africa, colonized by France until 1956 (but this is merely relevant here), that was always more open to Europe rather than Africa. There is nothing such as a Moroccan culture, but rather a legacy from Jewish culture, Islamic culture, Arab culture, Berber culture, European culture, etc. I grew up in a well-educated family, and was able to attend one of the best schools in Morocco, which is, unsurprisingly, the French school. Now the elite that I attended school with, would somehow only speak in French, listen to the latest US or French songs, only eat fresh Italian pasta or French gratin. At the same time, the local Moroccan culture (let’s partially sum it up by: eating tagines on a daily basis, listening to Arab music, watching Egyptian and dubbed Turkish TV series), is seen as being uncivilized by the elite.  This creates an imaginary in the mind of the average Moroccan: cultures are not equal; some cultures are superior to others.

Whether this is a result of colonization (I personally don’t believe so, as this phenomenon was seen even before and during the French colonization) or a way for the ruling class in Morocco to distinguish itself from the lower class, maintaining the symbolic violence as an expression of their domination, the answer seems a little bit more complicated than that. It is not uncommon in Morocco to witness the people from the lower class call the higher class “fils à papa et maman” (“sons of daddy and mommy”), and the higher class referring to the lower one as “hbash” or “bhima” (“savages” or “animals”). The consequence is that living in Morocco makes you feel that you live in what some people called a “Cultural Schizophrenia”: there is a standard culture for the ruling class, and a standard culture for the lower class, with the middle class tangled between mimicking the ruling class and living in the local culture to which they feel the closest. The remaining question is, and I would conclude with that: why is “western culture” (specifically French culture in Morocco) perceived by the elite as being more civilized?

Supporting sources:

  • Bourdieu Pierre, (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
  • Gallagher Charles F, (1968) North African Problems and Prospects: Language and Identity.
  • Sabry Tarik, (2010) Cultural Encounters in the Arab World: On Media, the Modern and the Everyday.