“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success. 

Do the thing you love and the money will follow! 

I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” – manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.

They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)

Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”

In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).

Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”

I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation. 

Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.

And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.

I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.

In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.

It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.

And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.

But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.

The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.

But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.

And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.

Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.

That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most  – or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.

As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”

In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.

I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.

And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.

That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.

Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.

The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.

Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.

But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.

As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.

But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?

Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.

You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction  makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.

So. Here’s my hypothesis:

In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.

One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.

I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.

In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.

I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.

We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.

Does this make sense?

In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.

Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.



a gift horse in the mouth

So, why are you so attached to capitalism?

He’s smiling when he asks the question, though he’s not joking. He asks, more or less, if I see myself married to Bourdieu in my framing of my dissertation project.

I know how to spell Bourdieu, and I have a longstanding casual acquaintance with the idea of cultural capital. Less so social capital.

I Google. “Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” – Bourdieu, 1983.

I shrug, equivocally. Dude has a point.

I use the term social capital – along with reputational capital, an idea I initially (ha!) thought I’d been genius enough to just conjure up as a description of my experience – to talk about what is exchanged in social media; in our blog interactions, our Tweets, our wiki contributions. The notion of this sociality as capital, and thus as capitalism, is a deeply embedded part of my concept of social media.

I suddenly want to explain to him that I’m NOT attached to capitalism, per se, but think it’s important to reflect the ways it shapes the online environment that my dissertation will argue shapes US.

Then I realize he gets that. That he’s having fun.

A thesis committee might as well be fun.

He notes that Bourdieu, to an extent, reduces social activity to an economic relationship. He mentions Marcel Mauss and the idea of gift economy. I nod, note that I’d started down the gift economy road in our Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) research back in the fall. Started remains the operative word. Let’s face it: in both philosophy and social science, I am an academic hack, eternally on the learning curve. I suspect I will feel this way even if I die at the ripe old age of 103, having memorized the entire canon of Northrop Frye and Foucault, both.

I wonder if my preliminary writing has over-emphasized the capital aspects of an environment in which my own experiences have been largely, overwhelmingly non-monetary. For Mauss, it’s not like the gift economy precludes exchange or even the obligation of exchange: as I understand it in these early forays, it’s an honour system, but not a quid pro quo one. Customs govern the future benefits derived from actions, and both status and trade are part of the system. It sounds, to me, a lot like the blogosphere I knew back in 2006 and 2007, vestiges of which still beat at the heart of a great many of my online relationships.

And so I take it to the place where all my intellectual inquiries into the veracity of social media representations begin – to the crowd. A Twitterary Salon, of sorts: do you see social media as a gift economy or a social capital economy? In 140 characters or less.

Here, in highlights from five or six overlapping conversations, is the beginning of what I think is a great and unfolding debate on the nature of our communities and our interactions online.

@SaraHamil: My inner anthropologist just squee’d over you even asking that question. Also, I’d argue social capital.

@SaraHamil: I think we desire for social media to be gift, but in reality I feel the value of connections outweigh giving (not to sound negative)

@suefisher: A social capital exchange combined w/ the consumption/boasting of cultural capital. Status by affiliation & being in the know.

@Quadelle: Both. Some people/media will always fall higher on the gift spectrum, some on the social capital, but most will do some of both.

@SaraHamil: I totally agree about ye olde blogosphere being more gift culture though, for sure

@dougsymington: my vote is for ” social capital exchange” — particularly when more than one social media space involved in consideration

@Quadelle: gift = IVF online board. Everyone there to give (& receive) – mostly encouragement, but also ideas, info, stories, knowledge, etc.

@suefisher: Excellent point about discussion boards & their purpose. Yes, more like a gift economy there.

@dougsymington: was thinking one’s social media capital or “stock” rises (potentially) in proportion to number of “spaces” inhabited

@courosa: See there can be a problem of dilution, however.

@courosa: i think weight has to be unbundled from visibility – some correlation, but not necessarily positive.

@Quadelle: I think there’s three factors to consider: the individual (their motivation, which can change over time), the medium

@Quadelle: (some way more gift, others way more capital) & the network/community they form/join in them (peer influence).

@suefisher: In a certain respect, Wikipedia is the ultimate online gift economy.

@dougsymington: I see consistency of one’s conduct over time, and across spaces, most important factor when assessing social media resources

@AureliaCotta: I think the FB movie kind of answered that, no?

There you go. An informal, entirely unauthorized and entirely voluntary focus group of sorts, made up of people with a multitude of vested interests and histories online, some professional, some entirely personal, most a mix of both.

Apparently, I’m not alone in leaning toward the social capital idea, especially in the “matured” blog world of 2011. Apparently though, too, there are still ways to congregate online – wikis and discussion boards being the primary ones mentioned, though I think of a community like Glow in the Woods, and nod – wherein the interaction is still ostensibly and primarily less about reputation and potential capital gain, whether monetary or no, than about simple participation, or sharing, or contribution. And at the same time, social capital online is apparently no simple equation. I figured. Apparently, I need to think through how this matters, and what the distinctions mean.

Apparently, I need to see the Facebook movie.

Thanks, to all of you who threw your two cents in to the Twitter conversation. Everyone else, please consider it still open here: how do you see the economy of the online world in which you interact? In what ways do you experience it or perpetuate it along the principles of a gift economy?

And in what ways – even if not for money or love of money – are you attached to capitalism? Do you think I need Bourdieu?