Social hierarchy and popular culture

There is some interesting work being done on the sociology of taste these days.  I’m thinking specifically of a literature that has developed around the idea of “omnivorousness” and social status.  Richard Peterson initiated much of this discussion in 1992 with an article in Poetics entitled “Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore” (link).

Between World Wars I and II it was widely accepted in intellectual circles that the emerging mass media were  spawning an equivalent mass audience, an audience that was unthinking, herd-like, and inherently passive yet easily swayed by skilled political and commercial demagogues. (243)

But, Peterson claims, empirical research in communications does not bear this out; instead, the audience has differentiated into multiple audiences.  The simple model of a “highbrow discerning elite with well-refined tastes and … an ignorant and stimulus-seeking mass” (244) has been discredited. In other words, the simple theory of status that postulates that elites can be identified by a set of uniform refined cultural tastes does not hold up.

The hallmark of those at the top of the hierarchy according to the received elite-to-mass theory is patronizing the fine arts, displaying good manners, wearing the correct cut of clothes, using proper speech, maintaining membership in the ‘better’ churches, philanthropic organizations and social clubs, and especially for the women of the class, cultivating all of the attendant social graces. (245)

But, according to Peterson, this assumption can be tested, and it turns out to be incorrect. Peterson and other collaborators (Albert Simkus in particular) used social data sets to examine the distribution of preferred music styles across occupational groups arranged from high status to low status.  Their status hierarchy of occupational groups ranges from “higher cultural” — architects, lawyers, clergymen, and academics, to farm laborers.  And the musical genres include a list of 10 types of music, ranging from classical to country. Here is one of the central findings:

The data presented in table 4 do not show this clear pattern of aesthetic exclusivity. Indeed, the occupational groups at the top are more likely to be high on liking these non-elite forms while the occupational groups at the bottom are likely to be low on their rate of liking them. Only one category of music, country and western, fits the predicted pattern, while three groups, mood music, big band, and barber shop music, show just the opposite of the predicted ranking. (249)


Based on these findings, Peterson recommends junking the “elite culture-mass culture” distinction in favor of an “omnivore-univore” distinction.  There is indeed a significant difference in the cultural tastes of high-status and low-status people; but it doesn’t correspond to the elite-mass distinction previously postulated.

Peterson and Kern’s “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore” (ASR 1996, link) carries this line of thinking forward.  Here is how Peterson and Kern begin their article:

Not only are high-status Americans more likely than others to consume fine arts, but, according to Peterson and Simkus (1992), they are are also more likely to be involved in a wide range of low-status activities.  This finding … flies in the face of years of historical research showing that high-status persons shun cultural expressions that are not seen as elevated…. In making sense of this contradiction, Peterson and Simkus (1992) suggest that a historical shift from highbrow snob to omnivore is taking place. (900)

“Snob” is defined as a person who does not like a single form of lowbrow or middlebrow activity, and “omnivore” is open to at least one such activity.  Here are the lowbrow activities they track: country music, bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues (901), and the defining highbrow arts activities they select are classical music and opera.  Their empirical finding is that highbrows have increased their “omnivorousness” by about half a genre in a ten-year period of time from 1982 to 1992, from 1.74 lowbrow genres to 2.23 lowbrow genres (902).

They ask the natural question, what are some of the causes of this marked change during these years?  And they put forward five factors; “in concluding we speculatively suggest five linked factors that may contribute to the shifting grounds of status-group politics” (905). They cite structural changes in society (broader education and exposure to the media, for example); value changes (declining levels of racial exclusion and stereotype); art-world changes (decline of elitist theories of art, rising appreciation of non-elite art forms); generational politics (the rock’n’roll generation); and status-group politics (gentrification of “lower-class” artistic forms). 

This research is interesting in several ways.  First, it is a statistically sophisticated attempt to observe the distribution of cultural tastes across a population and across time. The statistical analyses in the two studies allow Peterson and his collaborators to sort through issues about within-cohort and across-cohort taste changes. So this permits a more nuanced observation of a shifting social reality. And second, it arrives at what appears to be a statistically sound finding — that highbrows were broadening their cultural tastes during the decade observed.  Highbrows became less snobbish.

So this literature provides some tools for observing and measuring the prevalence and shifts of things that seem highly subjective — musical tastes, in this instance.  And it suggests some ways of formulating and evaluating hypotheses about the factors that explain the observed distributions and changes.

This literature pays explicit homage to Bourdieu’s theorizing about taste in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally published in 1979 in French.  But the thrust of Bourdieu’s work seems to be quite different from Peterson’s. Bourdieu does indeed seem to believe that there are some very specific cultural markers that identify the elite class in society. He finds that one social group, the petite bourgeoisie, is indeed “omnivorous” in at least one sense: “Uncertain of their classifications, divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to, the petit bourgeois are condemned to disparate choices … ; and this is seen as much in their preferences in music or painting as in their everyday choices” (326).  But this statement seems to reproduce the elite-mass paradigm that Peterson rejects, in that it seems to position the tastes of the petit bourgeoisie intermediate between elite and mass tastes. 

Here is a fascinating and complex graph Bourdieu provides mapping cultural items against occupational groups (higher-ed teachers, engineers, secondary teachers, industrial employers, etc.).


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