The Social Distribution of Physical Activity: can Bourdieu help?

Dr Chris Bunn and Dr Victoria Palmer

Chris and Victoria are at the University of Bristol this week, speaking at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association’s Bourdieu Study Group. In this blog post they reflect on the value that Bourdieu’s work on the social distribution of culture and taste could have for those working in applied health contexts, such physical activity promotion.

We in the university are all familiar with the public health campaigns that tell us to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, to stop smoking and limit alcohol intake, watch our weight and do regular physical activity. These messages are the most visible manifestations of the public health agenda. They operate, through campaigns such as ‘Change 4 Life’, as a form of counter-ideology that attempts to contest the many incitements to consume health-damaging foods, drinks and sedentary activities that circulate in our media-saturated societies. However, these campaigns – sometimes dubbed ‘social marketing’ – tend to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to their audiences.

As sociologists working in public health, we know that blanket messages are only part of the solution: they help raise awareness, but they rarely help social groups that experience health inequalities to make the sustained changes to their daily lives that will give health-improving results. These groups are sometimes called ‘hard to reach’, but this perspective has, thankfully, been dropped and recognised as a form of ‘victim blaming’: groups that do not engage with the public health agenda often have legitimate reasons for this response. Instead, therefore, the fault is with us, in the academy: we have failed to use our analytical techniques to identify and work with the cultural forms that appeal to different social groups.

In our work, we try to facilitate increases in physical activity and reductions in sedentary time in different social groups.  Being active and avoiding sitting for long periods of time are linked with multiple health benefits including lowering risk factors for cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.  To communicate these benefits we work to understand the social and cultural conditions in which physical activity messages are circulated and tailor them to suit the groups we are trying to help.  But our attempts to do this are often hindered by a lack of robust evidence about the social distribution of physical activity: we have little knowledge about the physical activity routines and practices that are found across the sub-cultures that make up our societies.

This is a problem that sociology can assist with. In his classic work

Pierre Bourdieu

Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, Pierre Bourdieu mapped the variety of aesthetic distinctions that were found in 1960s France. In doing so, he demonstrated that our cultural consumption is structured by the resources (or ‘capitals’) that we have at our disposal, the social spaces (or ‘fields) that we inhabit, and our internalised schemes of perception (or habitus). These three dimensions reflect our social origins: the environments in which we grew up, the value that the groups we belong to afford a given cultural practice, and the structural forces that shape both of these processes. One example Bourdieu offers is that of food consumption. In 1960s France, those emanating from working class backgrounds tended to approach food in a functional way, as fuel for work, and therefore value calorie-dense foods that are ‘value for money’. By contrast, those from more privileged backgrounds tended to approach food from the perspective of ‘form’: as something to be appreciated and admired during the act of consumption.

We do not have this kind of information for physical activity practices. We do not have datasets that link objectively-measured physical activity levels and practices to social groups. In short, we don’t have a map of the social distribution of physical activity. An approach similar to that taken in Distinction by Bourdieu would close this knowledge gap and allow us to develop more effective programmes to increase physical activity in culturally-sensitive ways.  As we continue to build this approach, we are looking beyond Bourdieu’s framework. We’ll write again soon to tell you how we’re doing this.