Symbolic violence and poverty porn

I’ve been thinking off and on about Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence. His well-known book on Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture started with a discussion of ‘a theory of symbolic violence’, which defined it in terms of the power to ‘impose meanings and impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force’. He went on to describe all ‘pedagogic action’ as ‘symbolic violence in so far as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’.

While never returning to the idea in such depth, Bourdieu continued to use it in broadly similar terms. But it has never had the same currency as the other key ideas that he helped to generate. A search of the British Journal of Sociology of Education returned 53 papers which used the concept in some way, compared with 331 which referred to cultural capital and 247 which referred to habitus. Even social capital, with 159 mentions, fared better than symbolic violence. A quick check of the British Education Index confirmed my hunch that it is less popular than these other typically Bourdieusian concepts.

While I have drawn on Bourdieu in my own work, I have never warmed to the idea of symbolic violence. I can see what he is getting at, but I find it excessive. Even as a metaphor, it is a hyperbole which is good at capturing the attention but bad at explaining anything. Worse, it can distract us from the role of actual, physical violence, whether in the form of dangerous working conditions that cause direct or indirect damage to people’s bodies, or in the form of deliberately inflicted harm of the kind that is all too common within families.

Still, Bourdieu was on to something. Elsewhere he talked about the insults that the respectable feel free to heap upon the marginalised and poor, as well as the gentler disdain of the ‘culture of condescension’ found between different strata of the bourgeoisie. And of course people can then internalise these demeaning and scornful attitudes, seeing themselves as somehow worth less than other people. I was particularly struck by this while reading Vicky Duckworth’s excellent study of adult literacy learners in Oldham, which is one of the few sociological studies in our times to use Bourdieu’s idea.

And our times are certainly prompting me to think about how we – the comfortable and respectable – relate to the marginalised and dispossessed in our own society. Duckworth’s book made me think about the way in which different people are responding to Benefits Street, the Channel Four series which portrays people living on benefits in a single Birmingham street. For some conservative commentators, the programme has triggered opportunities to quote exactly the sort of language that Duckworth notes in her study: the street is ‘filthy’, a ‘moral cesspit’ inhabited by ‘scrounging vermin’. Against that we have the equally stigmatising disdain of those who turn their backs on ‘poverty porn’ – the mirror image of the shame that the stigmatised experience when confronted by the respectable.

Television documentaries like Benefits Street and The Scheme are double-edged. They reinforce a culture of blame, yet at the same time they force viewers to contemplate fellow citizens who otherwise they avoid seeing. For after all, we live in cosy suburbs and dormitory villages, we commute to work by car, we shop in anonymous warehouses – what are these behaviours about if not avoiding those parts of our society that we prefer not to see?

I have never come across a writer who bemoans ‘poverty porn’ yet who then goes on to explain what kind of documentaries on poverty they would prefer to see – or how they would reach a popular audience. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that these critics are therefore saying that documentary film makers should avoid poverty; and that audiences, if they must contemplate these things, should turn to fiction. I strongly disagree; I loved such films as Ken Loach’s Sweet 16 or Peter Mullan’s Neds, but there is also a place for documentary film. I am afraid that simply scorning it as ‘poverty porn’ is also a distancing technique.

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Passeron, Reproduction in education, society and culture, Sage, 1977 (original French edition 1970)