1This book, derived from the author’s thesis, sets out to develop a theory of partner choice based on Bourdieu’s approach and to demonstrate empirically the relevance of this approach for on-line dating sites. The effort is to be commended for its originality and for the distance the author takes from the theoretical framework dominating this field of study internationally and especially in Germany, including in the collective project he worked on at the University of Bamberg. Despite his radical critique of rational choice theory, his analysis is always constructive, highlighting areas of compatibility between theories and possible exchanges with majority approaches that do not interpret phenomena in Bourdieusian terms.
2Schmitz begins by observing that online dating is essentially driven by market forces. However, he rejects the idea that this makes it fundamentally different from non-internet partner meeting, explaining that it needs to be seen in the long-term context of modernization (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 explains how closely online dating sites correspond to the ideal type market theorized by Weber and Simmel; that is, a place where people not only trade but also compete for the possibility to trade.
3It would therefore seem legitimate that most studies on the subject should use methodological individualism, presented in detail in Chapter 4. The author discusses three quite different methodological individualism-driven approaches: Gary Becker’s economic approach, wherein status maximization is combined with additional specializations for men and women; Peter Blau’s theory, which posits a preference for similarity; and Catherine Hakim’s idea of individuals’ erotic capital as fundamentally independent of their social position. The shared limitation of these three approaches is to assume that all actors have the same preferences and that they calculate in the same ways to satisfy them, whereas in fact they are constrained by their personal characteristics, which are more or less valuable on the market, and by the structure of potential opposite-sex partners. While these approaches are used “pragmatically and productively” in existing studies, they unduly simplify and fail to clarify the overall logic driving actors’ actions – a fact that has led several studies to propose adjustments to the classic models.
4In Chapter 5, the author says we need to scrap this theoretical framework and to replace the opposition between rational actor and structure with the idea that structures are incorporated by actors themselves: their preferences and actions are forged by their habitus, itself the outcome of their position and trajectory in social space. He then makes the following challenge, or demonstration by reductio ad absurdum. As a market that closely approximates the ideal type, online dating should be highly conducive to analysis in rational choice terms. If it can be demonstrated through theoretical and empirical analysis that the rational choice approach is, if not totally irrelevant, at least extremely simplistic when it comes to explaining how online dating sites work, then the relevance of Bourdieu’s more inclusive conceptual framework will be validated that much more effectively for other situations.
5Despite the three articles Bourdieu published on marital strategies in the Béarn, he offered no systematic theory of couple formation. It is therefore on the basis of Bourdieu’s general theory that Schmitz developed his analytic framework. For Bourdieu, social space is fundamentally relational: the value of an individual’s capital depends on how other agents assess it, and their assessments are in turn affected by symbolic domination mechanisms. Like many choices, partner choice is not usually consciously calculated or anticipated, though Bourdieusian theory does acknowledge that it might be in some social groups and historical contexts. Marital strategies are based instead on “the practical sense”, the product of interaction between habitus and structure, and of agents’ self-classifications and classifications of each other. Specifically, some women’s preference for men of a higher social standing than themselves (female hypergamy) follows from masculine domination and expresses interiorized power structures.
6Chapter 6 presents an empirical procedure for testing this theoretical framework. The demonstration is based primarily on the extremely productive matching of data on interactions from a generalist German online dating site with questionnaires filled out by consenting users (3,500 respondents) recruited directly by the site. The sources thus bear traces of all of an individual’s actions (who contacted whom, who answered), the signals released onto the market (descriptions and profile photos) and the more standard statements collected by the sociological questionnaire. Interviews with site users constitute a secondary source.
7Chapter 7 presents the findings. It is regrettable that this chapter is relatively short and arrives so late in what is otherwise a dense, detailed discussion of vast methodological questions. The backbone of Schmitz’s demonstration is his multiple correspondence analysis on individuals’ lifestyles, which constructs a social space similar to Bourdieu’s in Distinction. In a vivid display of methodological inventiveness, the author then delivers a series of analyses, each related to this social space. The findings bring to light the heterogeneity of forces driving agent behaviour: self-assessment of one’s chances on the market, objective chances as measured by a contact centrality index, stated preferences, deceptive self-presentations, and initiation and pursuit of interactions. Once the black box of interactions has been opened, the different categories of agents and agent dyads identified demonstrate with a clarity seldom encountered the relations of class and gender domination at work. Altogether, the violence of certain observations (for example, a romantic “taste for necessity” among agents with little symbolic capital) justifies the author’s claim that far from offering an attenuated version of the social structure, online dating sites actually reveal how fully offline relational forces are at work.