Elite eats: Multimodality, materiality and the discursive production of privilege

Crispin Thurlow, Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Bern, gives an open lecture about the powerful but subtle ways status and inequality are created in the sumptuous world of elite mobility.

Grounded in Pierre Bourdieu's enduring ideas about the class-sustaining notion of "taste", Professor Thurlow's analysis focuses specifically on the interplay of symbolic and material resources in the framing, organization and production of Business Class dining services. For Thurlow, these meals are at the core of contemporary class inequality and reveal some of its essential, inescapable truths. It is here that we find semiotic practices be artfully deployed in the service of what he calls "post-class ideologies" – the egregious illusion that class no longer matters and that privilege is accessible to all.


Elite eats: Multimodality, materiality and the discursive production of privilege

Crispin Thurlow University of Bern, Switzerland

As I have been arguing (e.g. Thurlow, 2016), contemporary class formations increasingly exceed language and, therefore, defy the usual empirical approaches of sociolinguistics and discourse studies. In this vein, the current paper is theoretically grounded in Bourdieu's (1984: 466) famous observations about the class-sustaining role of taste which he defines as 'an acquired disposition to "differentiate" and "appreciate"' and 'to establish and mark differences by a process of distinction'. We are, says Bourdieu, largely unaware of these acts of distinction which are often enacted outside language through various banal 'techniques of the body' such as ways of walking or ways of eating. Following these principles, and staying in the intensely classed field of eating, my paper presents a social-semiotic analysis of the particular role menus play in producing distinction and in materializing taste – both gustatory and social. Rather than taking the obvious tack of addressing their linguistic content (cf Jurafsky, 2014) or typographic design, however, I focus on the tangible, experiential properties of menus; for example, their shape, size, weight, density and other actual textural or haptic features (cf Djonov & van Leeuwen, 2011). To give critical focus to this analysis, my core evidence is a sample of Business Class menus from international airlines where we find eating practices (or foodways) being explicitly framed as both distinctive and elite. The bottom line is this: menus (or any other texts) cannot be properly understood by simply attending to their linguistic, representational or symbolic meanings. If we are to fully understand the material consequences of discourse, we must address its sensory and, indeed, sensuous materialities. It is here that some of the most subtle but powerful status-making happens.


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste [trans. R. Nice] Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Djonov, Emilia. and van Leeuwen, Theo. (2011) The semiotics of texture: From tactile to visual. Visual Communication, 10(4), 541–564.

Jurafsky, D. (2014). The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu. New York: W.W. Norton.

Thurlow, C. (2016). Queering critical discourse studies or/and performing post-class ideologies. Critical Discourse Studies, 13(5), 485–514.

Charlotte Hommerberg Add to your calendar