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Cultural Hostility Re-Considered

It is often remarked that dislikes are more revealing of taste than likes. The evidential basis of this insight, which can be found in the work of Bourdieu (1984) and of Douglas (1996), who called it ‘cultural hostility’, is slight. This paper specifies and evaluates the thesis, ‘the cultural hostility thesis’, that people share strong, symbolically significant, dislikes which function to demarcate cultural boundaries between antagonistic social groups. I examine progressively more precisely specified versions of the thesis and, using data from a survey of cultural practice in Britain, apply different operationalizations in order to estimate the prevalence of cultural hostility. I show that: expressed dislikes are probably not the primary indicator of meaningful social boundaries; evidence for overt generalized cultural hostility is relatively weak; even the best indicators of hostility suggest limited antagonism; class differences are evident, but more because cultural omnivorousness has become a principle of good taste than as an expression of condescension or resentment. Indications of cultural hostility can be found, but they operate in a restricted manner, revolving around axes not only of class but also generation and gender. I conclude that a strong cultural hostility thesis is not readily applicable to contemporary Britain.