In Bourdieu’s early work with Jean-Claude Passeron, we find the term “the cultural arbitrary” used in a way which seems quite similar to Gramsci’s concept of normative grammar: “In any given social formation the cultural arbitrary which the power relations between the groups or classes making up that social formation put into the dominant position within the system of cultural arbitraries is the one which most fully, though always indirectly, expresses the objective interests (material and symbolic) of the dominant groups or classes.” In developing this concept, Bourdieu draws upon William Labov’s early work which showed that “members of a speech community can share allegiance to the same standard, despite differences in the (nonstandard) varieties they themselves speak.” Bourdieu’s work with Passeron serves to highlight how the educational system institutionalizes these arbitrary standards; thus naturalizing the success of the elite who are socialized into these norms before they ever set foot in school. Unlike normative grammar, however, the phrase “cultural arbitraries” reveals a lingering Saussurian structuralism. The specific content of the dominant cultural or linguistic form is less important for Bourdieu’s theory than the mere existence of an arbitrary standard which is recognized as legitimate even by those unable to perform it.
Gramsci’s historical method serves to highlight the cross-class alliances that stabilize in any given “historical bloc”-a phrase that refers to the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures” and corresponding “relations of production.” The hegemonic ideology of any given bloc does not simply reflect the interests of only the ruling elite, but also those of the other classes with whom they have entered into alliances and even the very process by which that alliance took shape. For instance, even though America’s financial elite share a generally secular libertarian ideology, the conservative movement was able to succeed by combining elite interests with those of evangelical southern white Christians. This has its roots in post-Civil War Reconstruction and in the “Southern strategy” adopted by Nixon’s Republican party in the wake of the civil rights movement. Choices regarding hegemonic cultural forms are not arbitrary nor do they simply reflect the cultural forms of the elite. They are the product of the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble” of a given historical bloc. While Bourdieu may tacitly acknowledge the importance of such processes, his theory of the “cultural arbitrary” retains its structuralist roots. (Friedman, 361-363)
Friedman, P. Kerim. “Ethical Hegemony.” Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 3 (July 2009): 355-365.