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Taste (sociology)

Taste as an aesthetic, sociological, economic and anthropological concept refers to a cultural patterns of choice and preference. While taste is often understood as a biological concept, it can also be reasonably studied as a social or cultural phenomenon. Taste is about drawing distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art. Social inquiry of taste is about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper.

Social and cultural phenomena concerning taste are closely associated to social relations and dynamics between people. The concept of social taste is therefore rarely separated from its accompanying sociological concepts. An understanding of taste as something that is expressed in actions between people helps to perceive many social phenomena that would otherwise be inconceivable.

Some judgments concerning taste may appear more legitimate than others, but most often there is not a single conception shared by all members of society. People with individual sensibilities are not unique either. For instance, aesthetic preferences and attendance to various cultural events are associated with education and social origin. Different socioeconomic groups are likely to have different tastes, and it has been suggested that social class is one of the prominent factors structuring taste.


Taste and Aesthetics

The concept of aesthetics has been the interest of philosophers such as Plato, Hume and Kant, who understood aesthetics as something pure and searched the essence of beauty, or, the ontology of aesthetics. But it was not before the beginning of the cultural sociology of early 19th century that the question was problematized in its social context, which took the differences and changes in historical view as an important process of aesthetical thought.[1] Although Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement (1790) did formulate a non-relativistic idea of aesthetical universality, where both personal pleasure and pure beauty coexisted, it was concepts such as class taste that began the attempt to find essentially sociological answers to the problem of taste and aesthetics. Metaphysical or spiritual interpretations of common aesthetical values have shifted towards locating social groups that form the contemporary artistic taste or fashion.

Kant]] also followed the fashion of his contemporaries. In his aesthetic philosophy, Kant denies any standard of a good taste, which would be the taste of the majority or any social group. For Kant, beauty is not a property of any object, but an aesthetic judgement based on a subjective feeling. He claims that a genuine good taste does exist, though it could not be empirically identified. Good taste cannot be found in any standards or generalizations, and the validity of a judgement is not the general view of the majority or some specific social group. Taste is both personal and beyond reasoning, and therefore disputing over matters of taste never reaches any universality. Kant stresses that our preferences, even on generally liked things, do not justify our judgements.[2]

Every judgement of taste, according to Kant, presumes the existence of a sensus communis, a consensus of taste. This non-existent consensus is an idea that both enables judgements of taste and is constituted by a somewhat conceptual common spiritual humanity. A judgement does not take for granted that everyone agrees with it, but it proposes the community to share the experience. If the statement would not be addressed to this community, it is not a genuine subjective judgement. Kant's idea of good taste excludes fashion, which can be understood only in its empirical form, and has no connection with the harmony of ideal consensus. There is a proposition of a universal communal voice in judgements of taste, which calls for a shared feeling among the others.[3]

Bourdieu argued against Kantian view of pure aesthetics, stating that the legitimate taste of the society is the taste of the ruling class. This position also rejects the idea of genuine good taste, as the legitimate taste is merely a class taste. This idea was also proposed by Simmel, who noted that the upper classes abandon fashions as they are adopted by lower ones. This pattern is known as the trickle-down effect.

Fashion in a Kantian sense is an aesthetic phenomenon and source of pleasure. For Kant, the function of fashion was merely a means of social distinction, and he excluded fashion from pure aesthetics because of its contents arbitrary nature. Simmel, following Kantian thought, recognises the usefulness of fashionable objects in its social context. For him, the function lies in the whole fashion pattern, and cannot be attributed to any single object. Fashion, for Simmel, is a tool of individuation, social distinction, and even class distinction, which are neither utilitarian or aesthetical criteria. Still, both Kant and Simmel agreed that staying out of fashion would be pointless.[4]

Taste and Consumption

Hogarth]] engraving 1746

Taste and consumption are closely linked together; taste as a preference of certain types of clothing, food and other commodities directly affects the consumer choices at the market. The causal link between taste and consumption is however more complicated than a direct chain of events in which taste creates demand that, in turn, creates supply. There are many scientific approaches to taste, specifically within the fields of economics, psychology and sociology.

Mechanics between taste and consumption

Definition of consumption in its classical economical context can be summed up in the saying "supply creates its own demand".[5] In other words consumption is created by and equities itself to production of market goods. This definition, however, is not adequate to accommodate any theory that tries to describe the link between taste and consumption.

A more complex economic model for taste and consumption was proposed by economist Thorstein Veblen. He challenged the simple conception of man as plain consumer of his utmost necessities, and suggested that the study of the formation of tastes and consumption patterns was essential for economics. Veblen did not disregard the importance of the demand for economical system, but rather insisted on rejection of the principle of utility-maximization.[6] The classical economical conception of supply and demand must be therefore extended to accommodate a type of social interaction that is not immanent in economical paradigm.

Veblen understood man as a creature with a strong instinct to emulate others to survive. As social status is in many cases at least partially based on or represented by one's property, men tend to try and match their acquisitions with those who are higher in social hierarchy.[6] In terms of taste and modern consumption this means that taste is formed in a process in of emulation: people emulate each other, which creates certain habits and preferences, which in turn contributes to consumption of certain preferred goods.

Veblen's main argument concerned what he called leisure class, and it explicates the mechanism between taste, acquisition and consumption. He took his thesis of taste as an economical factor and merged it with the neoclassical hypothesis of nonsatiety, which states that no man can ever be satisfied with his fortune. Hence, those who can afford luxuries are bound to be in a better social situation than others, because acquisition of luxuries by definition grants a good social status. This creates a demand for certain leisure goods, that are not necessities, but that, because of the current taste of the most well off, become wanted commodities.[7]

In different periods of time consumption and its societal functions have varied. In 14th century England consumption had significant political element.[8] By creating an expensive luxurious aristocratic taste the Monarchy could legitimize itself in high status, and, according to the mechanism of taste and consumption, by mimicking the taste of the Royal the nobility competed for high social position. The aristocratic scheme of consumption came to an end, when industrialization made the rotation of commodities faster and prices lower, and the luxuries of the previous times became less and less indicator of social status. As production and consumption of commodities became a scale bigger, people could afford to choose from different commodities. This provided for fashion to be created in market.[8]

The era of mass consumption marks yet another new kind of consumption and taste pattern. Beginning from the 18th century, this period can be characterized by increase in consumption and birth of fashion,[9] that cannot be accurately explained only by social status. More than establishing their class, people acquired goods just to consume hedonistically.[10][11] This means, that the consumer is never satisfied, but constantly seeks out novelties and tries to satisfy insatiable urge to consume.

In above taste has been seen as something that presupposes consumption, as something that exists before consumer choices. In other words taste is seen as an attribute or property of a consumer or a social group. Alternative view critical to the attributative taste suggests that taste doesn't exist in itself as an attribute or a property, but instead is an activity in itself.[12] This kind of pragmatic conception of taste drives its critical momentum from the fact that individual tastes can not be observed in themselves, but rather that only physical acts can.

Critical perspectives on consumption and taste

Consumption, especially mass consumerism has been criticized from various philosophical, cultural and political directions. Consumption can be deemed as overly conspicuous or environmentally untenable, and it can also be a mark of bad taste.

Many critics have voiced their opinion against the growing influence of mass culture, in the fears of the fall of the global divergence of cultures. For example, McDonald's can be seen as a monument to the cultural imperialism of the West. McDonaldization is a term to describe the process, where the fast food company broadens its supply of into every quarter of the world. On account of this smaller ethnic enterprises and food cultures disappear. The efficiency and convenience of getting the same hamburger all over the world can easily surpass the interest for ethnic experiences.[13]

The Western culture of consumerism has been criticized for its uniformity. While the culture industry promises consumers new experiences and adventures, people in fact are fed the same repeating pattern of swift but temporary fulfillment of needs. Here taste can be seen as a means of repression that, as something that is given from above or from the industry of the mass culture, makes people devoid of contentual and extensive ideologies and of will.[14] This critique therefore insists that the popular Western culture depicts taste that eventually does not fill people with aesthetic and cultural satisfaction.

Taste and social classes

Arguably, the question of taste is in many ways related to the underlying social divisions of community. There is likely to be variation between groups of different socioeconomic status in preferences for cultural practices and goods, to the extent that it is often possible to identify particular types of class taste.[15] Also, within many theories concerning taste, class dynamics is understood as one of the principal mechanisms structuring taste and the ideas of sophistication and vulgarity.

Imitation and distinction

In expressing and displaying taste through various everyday actions, people reveal much information about their positions in social hierarchies. Preference for certain consumer goods, appearances, manners etc. may signal status because it is conceived as part of the lifestyle of high-status groups. But it is not just that patterns of taste are determined by class structure. Also, people may strategically employ distinctions of taste as resources in maintaining and redefining their social status.[16]

When taste is explained on account of its functions for status competition, interpretations are often built on the model of social emulation. It is assumed, firstly, that people desire to distinguish themselves from those with lower status in the social hierarchy and, secondly, that people will imitate those in higher positions.[17]

The German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858 1918) examined the phenomenon of fashion - as manifested in rapidly changing patterns of taste. According to Simmel, fashion is a vehicle for strengthening the unity of the social classes and for making them distinct. Members of the upper classes tend to signal their superiority, and they act as the initiators of new trends. But upper-class taste is soon imitated by the middle classes. As goods, appearances, manners etc. conceived as high-class status markers become popular enough, they lose their function to differentiate. So the upper classes have to originate yet more stylistic innovations.[18]

The particular taste of the upper classes has been further analyzed by an economist Thorsten Veblen (1857 1929). He argues that distancing oneself from hardships of productive labour has always been the conclusive sign of high social status. Hence, upper-class taste is not defined by things regarded as necessary or useful but by those that are the opposite. To demonstrate non-productivity, members of the so called leisure class waste conspicuously both time and goods. The lower social stratum try their best to imitate the non-productive lifestyle of the upper classes, even though they do not really have means for catching up.[19]

One of the most widely referenced theories of class-based tastes was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930 2002), who asserted that tastes of social classes are structured on basis of assessments concerning possibilities and constraints of social action. Some choices are not equally possible for everyone. The constraints are not simply because members of different classes have varying amounts of economic resources at their disposal. Bourdieu argued that there are also significant non-economic resources and their distribution effects social stratification and inequality. One such resource is cultural capital, which is acquired mainly through education and social origin. It consists of accumulated knowledge and competence for making cultural distinctions. To possess cultural capital is a potential advantage for social action, providing access to education credentials, occupations and social affiliation.[15][20]

By assessing relationships between consumption patterns and the distribution of economic and cultural capital, Bourdieu identified distinct class tastes within French society of the 1960s. Upper-class taste is characterized by refined and subtle distinctions, and it places intrinsic value on aesthetic experience. This particular kind of taste was appreciated as the legitimate basis for "good taste" in French society, acknowledged by the other classes as well. Consequently, members of the middle classes appeared to practice "cultural goodwill" in emulating the high-class manners and lifestyles. The taste of the middle classes is not defined as much by authentic appreciation for aesthetics as by a desire to compete in social status. In contrast, the popular taste of the working classes is defined by an imperative for choosing the necessary . Not much importance is placed on aesthetics. This may be because of actual material deprivation excluding anything but the necessary but, also, because of a habit, formed by collective class experiences.[15][21]

Criticism on class-based theories of taste

Theories of taste which build on the ideas of status competition and social emulation have been criticized from various standpoints. Firstly, it does not seem reasonable to trace all social action back to status competition. Marking and claiming status are strong incentives, but people surely have other motivations as well. Secondly, it is not plausible to assume that tastes and lifestyles are always diffusing downwards from the upper classes. In some situations the diffusion of tastes may involve quite the opposite direction of emulation.[22]

It has also been argued that the association between social class and taste is no longer quite as strong as it used to be. For instance, theorists of Frankfurt School have claimed that the diffusion of mass cultural products has obscured class differences in capitalist societies. Products consumed passively by members of different social classes are virtually all the same, with only superficial differences regarding to brand and genre. Other criticism has concentrated on the declassifying effects of postmodern culture. Consumer tastes are being less influenced by traditional social structures, and they engage in play with free-floating signifiers to perpetually redefine themselves with whatever it is that they find pleasurable.[23][23]

Bad taste

Bad taste is generally a title given to any object or idea that does not fall within the normal social standards of the time or area. Varying from society to society and from time to time, bad taste is generally thought of as a negative thing, but also changes with each individual.

Some varieties of black humor employ bad taste for its shock value, such as Pink Flamingos or Bad Taste. Similarly, some artists deliberately create vulgar or kitsch works of art to defy critical standards or social norms. Some artists argue that the only thing that is in really bad taste or that is vulgar, is the Kitsch, intended as a lack of "technical awareness". Despite the economic risks, some retailers also deliberately design and sell objects ordinarily regarded as vulgar, relying on inflated price tags to instill an Emperor's New Clothes effect amongst customers.

Aristophanes, Plautus, Fran ois Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift never considered "good" or "bad" taste to be a way to judge their classic works of art.


See also


External links

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