Taste/Taste Culture
International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences


Michèle Ollivier and Viviana Fridman
Department of Sociology
University of Ottawa
550 Cumberland Street, P.O. Box 450, Stn. A
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5 Canada



Taste/Taste Culture

Taste is the ability to make discriminating judgments about aesthetic and artistic matters.

It is one component of symbolic systems of classification whose content and structure both reflect and shape particular states of social relations. Taste is part of the process by which social actors construct meaning about their social world, classifying people, practices, and things into categories of unequal value. It is displayed in conversation, habits, manners, and in the possession of goods, which signal co-membership into communities of wealth or knowledge. Taste serves as an identity and status marker, being used simultaneously as Afences or bridges@ (Douglas and Isherwood 1979: 12) in processes of exclusion and inclusion. Displays of taste contribute to the creation of networks and shared identities within groups, but it also allows for the identification and exclusion of outsiders whose standards of taste differ and who do not belong. Taste cultures are clusters of cultural forms which embody similar values and aesthetic standards.

1. Taste and the Emergence of the Modern Self

In his 1757 AEssai sur le goût@ [An Essay on Taste] written for the Encyclopédie published under the direction of Diderot, Montesquieu defined taste as Athe faculty of discovering with quickness and delicacy the degree of pleasure which we should receive from each object that comes within the sphere of our perception@ (1970: 260). Montesquieu=s definition of taste has a double meaning. Taste refers both to the feelings of pleasure one experiences when confronted with beautiful objects and to the intrinsic standards of beauty embodied in these objects. Taste is an individual and subjective sentiment, but it is also a discriminating faculty, through which individuals discover the amount of pleasure that things ought to give them by virtue of their objective properties. According to Ferry (1990), the 18th century invention of taste as a subjective faculty mediating the perception of objective beauty represents a radical break with the past, since aesthetic standards are no longer seen as immediately given by nature, tradition, or other principles transcending human experience. It is emblematic of the emergence of the modern self. The individual=s ability to feel and to think rationally became the foundation of aesthetic experience at the same time that it became the basis of political legitimacy, economic life, and scientific truth.

Attempts to reconcile the subjectivity of aesthetic experience with objective standards of taste remained a central problem of modern aesthetics through the 18th and late 19th centuries. The classical Cartesian view maintained that art imitates nature according to principles which are discovered through reason, much in the same way that science uncovers the eternal laws of nature. In an argument which resonated well with the Romantic spirit, others argued that beauty does not rest on objective properties of nature, but in immutable and eternal characteristics of the human soul. The mid-18th century controversy on the sources of beauty in music, for example, opposed composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who argued that music is beautiful because its rules of harmony and melody reflect mathematical properties of sound, to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that music is beautiful because sounds mirror humanity=s primitive passions (see Ollivier 1987). Moving away from both of these positions, Immanuel Kant=s groundbreaking Kritik der Urteilskraftwork [Critique of Judgement], published in 1790, maintained that taste is an autonomous realm independent from external influences, be they rationality or passions, as well as from considerations of utility, morality, or economy. This position paved the way for theories of art for art=s sake, according to which art reflects the genius of the artist and should be allowed to develop unfettered by social and economic constraints. Throughout the 20th century, art increasingly came to be seen as an extension of subjective experience, reflecting the artist=s personal interpretation of the outside world rather than mirroring some pre-existing and eternal cosmological order. Aesthetic experience thus lost its objective foundations, and the search for universal and immutable standards of taste increasingly appeared illusory.

2. Taste in the Social Sciences

The abandonment of the search for objective standards of taste in aesthetic theory is contemporary with the rise of the social sciences, whose purpose is not so much to understand the universality of aesthetic experience, but rather to analyze how tastes are shaped by ever-changing social conditions. Social science perspectives on taste thus stand in sharp contrast both to theories of taste as a direct reflection of universal principles and to neo-Kantian theories of aesthetic experience as entirely detached from external constraints. Rather than speaking of the discriminating faculty of taste, in the singular, social scientists nowadays also refer to tastes, in the plural tense, acknowledging the changing, diverse, and often incommensurable standards of taste that co-exist in complex stratified and multicultural societies.

2.1 Taste and Pecuniary Emulation

One of the first modern analyses of tastes in the social sciences is Thorstein Veblen=s study of conspicuous consumption (1939 [1899]). Veblen argued that invidious distinction and emulation are driving motives of social interaction. The accumulation of wealth is driven not only by a need to ensure basic subsistence, but primarily by the honor attached to its possession. In order to confer honor, Veblen argued, wealth must be displayed either through conspicuous leisure (abstention from work or from tasks considered demeaning) or through conspicuous consumption of costly goods. Standards of taste do not reflect autonomous and eternal standards of beauty, but a Asense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty@ (1939: 128). It is the honor attached to the appropriation and consumption of costly objects which determines our standards of taste, even when honorific considerations are not present in the consciousness of the valuer.

2.2 Taste and Class Domination

The most influential treatment of taste in the social sciences over the last decades has been Bourdieu=s (1984 [1979]) theory of distinction. Like Veblen, Bourdieu argues that taste is shaped by status competition: Agood taste@ is a mark of distinction, in the double sense of setting apart from, and conferring honor to, those who claim to possess it. ATaste classifies, and it classifies the classifier@ (1984: 6). As opposed to Veblen, however, Bourdieu argues that taste confers honor not because it is a signal of economic wealth, but rather as an expression of wealth which is cultural in nature. Taste is an unequally distributed capacity for appropriating, both symbolically and materially, classes of objects and practices. Along with attitudes, preferences, manners, know-how, and educational credentials, it is a component of cultural capital, which is transmitted by a complex process of socialization through the family and the education system. As part of class habitus, it is one element of a set of dispositions and preferences which are perceived as freely-embraced by social actors but which thoroughly reflect their objective class position.

In spite of appearances, taste is thus a cultivated rather than an innate disposition. In a society divided into antagonistic classes and class fractions, class membership determines both the position of actors in social space and the perceptual framework through which they make sense of their world. Since members of the dominant class experience few material constraints in everyday life, their aesthetic outlook reflects an attitude of detachment, an appreciation for abstract ideas, and a concern for formal properties of objects. Distance from economic necessity imposes a style of life and a legitimate way of perceiving the world. By virtue of its closeness to material constraints, popular culture is oriented towards the practical and functional. It is defined negatively, as the flip side of legitimate taste.

Because it is misperceived as spontaneous and disinterested, taste functions as an effective instrument of class domination and reproduction. The definition of Agood taste@ is part of struggles for the monopolization of symbolic violence, which arbitrarily imposes as natural and legitimate the evaluative standards and perceptual categories of the dominant class. Mastering the complex and subtle nuances of good taste requires a long process of familiarization. Since this process is carried out primarily within the family and in elite schools, good taste only comes Anaturally@ to upper class children who have long been exposed to it. In everyday interaction, displays of a taste for Adifficult@ objects signal membership in the privileged class while a taste for common, vulgar, or less refined ones betrays membership in the dominated class.

While Bourdieu=s theory of taste as a key mechanism of class reproduction has had a major impact in the social sciences, it has also come under intense criticism. Most importantly, Bourdieu has been criticized for postulating the existence of a single, objective space of distinction, in which cultural capital operates as a universally recognized currency of exchange. Although Bourdieu recognizes that cultural distinctions are expressed differently in various fields, he maintains that a unique organizing principle ultimately accounts for these variations. Bourdieu postulates a strict homology between class position and class dispositions. He subsumes under the concept of class the entire spectrum of status distinctions based for example on race, ethnicity, gender, language, and age (Hall 1992). As a result, he pays scant attention to non-class-based struggles for distinction in local status markets, where upper class tastes may be entirely irrelevant. Similarly, Bourdieu has been criticized for treating popular culture as a negative image of dominant culture rather than as an autonomous space of symbolic production, with its own logic and characteristics (Cingolani 1984). Bourdieu=s model is thus seen as giving analytical primacy to processes of distinction which most closely reflect the experience and world view of the French upper-classes.

2.3 Taste and Symbolic Classification

An interesting extension of Bourdieu=s model, designed for understanding how and why tastes vary over time and place, is proposed by DiMaggio (1987). Tastes, he argues, are one component of symbolic systems of classification. These systems are shaped by structural features of societies but they vary along four distinct dimensions: differentiation (the extent to which tastes are separated into few or several taste cultures); hierarchy (the extent to which tastes are arranged hierarchically as opposed to being considered of equal value); universality (the degree to which specific standards of taste are universally recognized and accepted as legitimate), and symbolic potency (the relative strength and permeability of boundaries between tastes).

The degree to which tastes are segmented, are arranged hierarchically as opposed to being considered of equal value, are universally recognized as legitimate rather than being contested, and have strongly bounded rather than permeable boundariesBthese features of classification systems vary over time and place according to changing social and historical conditions. If tastes are homologous with certain characteristics of social structure, it is because they are shaped by a complex interplay of social forces, including the extent of social differentiation and inequality in a community, the cohesiveness and capacity for mobilization of status groups and classes, state policy toward the arts and popular culture, the degree of centralization of cultural authority, and the types of organizational structures through which art and culture are produced and distributed. For example, DiMaggio (1982) has shown that the emergence of a sharp differentiation between high and popular culture in 19th century Boston was the result of class action on the part of urban elites, whose status claims were reinforced by exclusive access to high culture. The differentiation and stratification of tastes was sustained through specific organizational structures, including upper class patronage for the arts and a system of upper education which transmitted canons of taste to upper class youth. Similarly, Lamont and Lareau (1988) argue that Bourdieu=s conception of tastes as highly hierarchized, differentiated, and universally recognized cultural capital more accurately represents France than North America, where social and geographic mobility, ethnic and racial diversity, as well as political and cultural decentralization account for more fluid and less stable boundaries between tastes.

3. Taste Cultures: Highbrow, Lowbrow, Nobrow

One of the most ubiquitous and ritually potent classification of tastes in modern times is the distinction between high culture, based on formal aesthetic standards and displayed in museums, theaters and symphony halls, and low or popular culture, in its commercialized and folk versions. The ritual strength and universality of the high/low boundary, however, has varied over time, in different societies, and across cultural genres. In the United States, several observers have noted that after a period of relatively low differentiation and hierarchization through much of the 19th century, tastes became more sharply polarized at the turn of the 20th century. In a process whose pace varied in different geographical locations and across cultural genres, high and low culture became more strongly differentiated and the boundary between them gained in ritual potency (DiMaggio 1982, Kammen 1999).

The debate about mass culture, which culminated in the 1950s, may be understood as one manifestation of the polarization between high and low culture. Critiques of mass culture reflected anxieties about the coming of mass society, in which traditional hierarchies were seen as rapidly tumbling down. Mass society was perceived as an aggregate of atomized and depoliticized individuals, whose passive consumption of standardized cultural goods made them easy preys for totalitarian ideologies. The commercialized forms of popular culture, produced for mass consumption by profit-driven cultural industries, were seen as aesthetically worthless and socially dangerous. Radical (Horkheimer 1986) and conservative (MacDonald 1964) critics of mass culture cast a pessimistic look on social relations, arguing that declining standards of taste were evidence of a degradation in individual autonomy and independent judgement, capacities seen as essential for participation in an egalitarian and democratic society.

It is in this context that Herbert Gans (1974) developed the concept of taste cultures. In explicit contrast to much of the literature on mass culture, Gans wishes to go beyond any sharp distinction between high and low culture. He identifies several taste levels within high and low culture and encompasses them all within a single theoretical framework. As stated above, taste cultures are clusters of cultural forms (e.g. in art, entertainment, architecture, consumer goods, etc.) which embody similar values and aesthetic standards. The concept of taste cultures applies as much to classical symphonies performed by the best orchestras as to garish landscapes printed on black velvet. Gans thus rejects the negative connotations associated with low, mass, and popular culture. He advocates what he calls Acultural pluralism@, arguing that all cultures should be considered of equal value and be placed on an equal footing, at least from the point of view of social analysis and public policy. Taste cultures correspond to a diversity of taste publics, defined as unorganized aggregates of people sharing similar aesthetic standards. Gans acknowledges that the conditions for appreciating works of art associated with different taste cultures are unequally distributed across taste publics, but he does not examine how these inequalities both reflect and reinforce social processes of domination and exclusion.

4. Postmodern Tastes

The degree to which discrete and homogeneous taste cultures actually exist as empirical categories has long been a topic of debate among social scientists. In spite of disagreements, a strong consensus has emerged that there has been, in the last decades of the 20th century, an erosion of boundaries between taste cultures. Evidence of a convergence between high and popular culture is found in all aspects of cultural production and consumption, from content and aesthetic standards to organizational structures and publics. With regard to taste publics, surveys of cultural preferences do not support the picture of societies stratified into sharply differentiated and class-based taste levels. Rather, surveys show that high socio-economic status respondents report preferences for, and participation in, the broadest range of cultural genres and activities, while low status respondents display more restricted tastes and practices (Peterson and Kern 1996).

The erosion of high/low boundaries parallels a series of social transformations which have increased the breadth and anonymity of social relations: high levels of geographic mobility, made possible by the development of means of transportation and communication; the declining significance of physical place and the concurrent extension of loose networks associated with the new communication technologies; high levels of intragenerational and horizontal occupational mobility under the joint effect of technological change and economic globalization; greater accessibility to higher education beyond the restricted circles of traditional elites; and the extraordinary increase in the amount and diversity of information in circulation, as print and electronic media bombard us with images which are used in strategies of self presentation in everyday life.

Greater breadth and anonymity, in turn, affect processes of identity formation and status competition, as more people come into more frequent and fleeting contact with others in a wide diversity of social situations. In relatively small and stable communities, status and identity are linked to personal knowledge of fixed categories such as family name, reputation, kinship, and place of residence. In enlarged and anonymous social spaces, individuals typically participate in a multiplicity of groupings which do not necessarily coincide. Combined with the availability of a wide range of styles conveyed by mass communications, this expands the possibilities of experimenting with self construction in various social circles. Elites no longer form cohesive and tightly bounded status groups but more diffuse networks of well educated and geographically mobile professionals and upper managers. In this context, the ability to manipulate a diversity of cultural symbols becomes a crucial resource in social interaction. Knowledge of the cultural codes appropriate in various social milieus and the ability to culture-switch according to circumstances become more useful than knowledge of a restricted range of high culture symbols.

While the case for a convergence between high and popular culture is well documented, the meaning of this convergence is open to conflicting interpretations. At one extreme, the erosion of cultural boundaries and the proliferation of aesthetic hierarchies, none of which can claim absolute legitimacy, is taken as an indication that tastes are now strictly an expression of individual preferences and private choices (Lipovetsky 1983). Taste-based inequalities may persist, but they are individual in nature rather than an expression of class domination. A less extreme but related position is that tastes, along with other cultural resources, remain linked to status competition among groups and classes. Contemporary societies, however, are characterized by multiple, heterologous, and incommensurable status markets rather than by a single, objective space of distinction dominated by a legitimate elite culture (Erickson 1996; Hall 1992). Taste-based domination is constantly challenged, as no one group succeeds in imposing as legitimate its own standards of taste. This leads to the coexistence of multiple spaces of distinction anchored in constantly shifting identities and hierarchies.

Without contesting the coexistence of multiple status markets in contemporary societies, still others argue the blurring of boundaries between taste cultures signals a transformation rather than the end of taste-based class domination (Peterson and Kern 1996). The celebration of cultural diversity expressed by high status respondents does not mean that tastes no longer serve as a means of distinction, but rather that new rules of distinction are emerging. Upper class position is no longer expressed as an exclusive taste for a limited range of high status cultural objects. It is above all characterized by an openness to an array of multicultural objects and practices, which include high culture but are not restricted to it. The omnivore/univore pattern is thus consistent with a new class division which separates high status omnivores, who prefer and consume a wide range of cultural products, from low status univores, whose tastes and activities are more restricted.

Regardless of the specific patterns and meanings attached to them, it is clear that tastes are no longer considered an expression of universal and eternal standards of beauty originating outside social experience. Tastes are part of symbolic systems of classification which both express and shape social interaction. They are closely linked to processes of identity formation and status exclusion. Tastes are instrumental to the creation of symbolic boundaries (Lamont and Fournier 1992), whose degree of differentiation, hierarchization, universalization, and ritual potency varies over time and space. Whether this social conception of taste necessarily leads to cultural relativism remains an open question. If there are no objective criteria of evaluation and if aesthetic hierarchies simply reflect the arbitrary values of the dominant classes, nothing distinguishes a Shakespeare play from a comic strip or a pair of boots (Finkielkraut 1987). Whether the equalizing of all hierarchies should be celebrated as the triumph of democracy and the end of all cultural domination, whether it should be lamented as a failure to reach beyond cultural particularities and to tap into truly universal aspects of human existence, or whether these questions are outside the reach of social sciences, remains a pressing issue in societies increasingly shaped by economic and cultural globalization.


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