Institutt for sosialantropologi
Master's thesis

Crafting Distinctions. Reinventing work, Desire and Design Among the Petty Bourgeoisie of Paris


Master's thesis submitted at Department of Social Anthropology, autumn 2015.

By: Frode Bakken
Supervisor: Professor Andrew Lattas

The aim of this thesis is not to accurately map out the Bobos as a subculture. I rather seek to unearth this group’s practices of aestheticization and commodification as part of their specific ethical values.

The Bobos I studied in Paris are, in the words of Brooks (2000 pp. 10), turning “ideas and emotions into products”. In this thesis I examine how they do so not randomly, but by paying attention to themes like ‘exoticism’, ‘authenticity’, ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘craftsmanship’. These themes are being marketed and disseminated as commodities available for commercial exploitation. The scale of this marketing, which is often small, is also part of a revaluing of craft skills and labor. Moreover, to the extent that the exotic, the authentic, marginal and the cosmopolitan are marketed, manufactured and sold, it is often with a touch of irony or parody. This is to say that these images of otherness and alterity are sough out to often be put in quotation marks, and are partly politicized caricatures of tourism and voyeurism.

I will look at the creative, symbolic and cultural practices of production and consumption among this diffuse group. Here my inspiration is Hebdige’s (1988) work on style in subcultures and how the self becomes a work of art, and how this art piece is continuously staged and performed in an everyday theatre. This theatre, as we shall see with respect to Bobos, is also a theatre of production, or more accurately of skilled labor, as well as a theatre of consumption. For the Bobos are not just revisiting the consumer culture and restylizing it, they are also revisiting every sites of production to revalorize the arts of labor.

I will look at the consumption and production of specialty coffee and gourmet street food, and the appropriation of cultural images that can often be embedded in these practices. I hope to reveal a new way of being a person, a modern creative subject, for creativity is celebrated in this movement that marks itself out in opposition to mass culture. I will be documenting and analyzing new aesthetic strategies and unpack the logic and practices of their cultivation. Within Bobo practices of consumption and production, there is a new ethics and art for governing life that is not just being proclaimed as words and thoughts, but as new everyday practices of work, pleasure and appreciation. There is a search for new ways of being an authentic self in these creative practices that often revalues marginality, alterity and lowliness. These are embraced to mark out realms of freedom and resistance to the dominant culture and its way of organizing work, consumption, pleasures and perception of tastes. The attentiveness to alterity also produces and requires attentiveness to the dominant culture. What is more, there is an attentiveness to the way the dominant mass culture can appropriate marginal-oppositional symbols and practices, leading to the need to reinvent the symbols and practices to remark difference.

This thesis will look at rituals of transgression and celebrations of the exotic (the latter often including marginality and lowliness). To the Bobos, the exotic is not just meaningless exotica, but a step in the development of new forms of cosmopolitanism, and part of a process of interrogating western society’s truths and identity.