The idea that popular culture consists of distinct “taste cultures” was developed by Herbert Gans (1974) as an alternative to the then dominant theory of mass culture. Mass culture theorists (Horkheimer & Adorno 2001) viewed popular culture as a commercial enterprise that represented a debased form of high culture. They claimed that mass culture targeted a mass audience that was passive and uncritical and thus susceptible to mass persuasion, with potentially dangerous consequences for society as a whole.
Gans argued that the concept of mass culture was an oversimplification. Popular culture exists in various forms that appeal to audiences with different educational backgrounds and tastes. High culture requires a sophisticated audience and, inevitably, appeals to a minority of the population; most people prefer popular culture.
Gans developed a typology of “taste publics” that consume “taste cultures” appropriate for their educational level and social background. A taste culture consists of values and aesthetic standards for culture, cultural forms that express those values, and the media in which they are expressed. Five principal taste cultures, stratified by social class, represented American culture in the 1970s. “High culture” comprised both classics and contemporary styles in literature and the arts. Its taste public included creators and highly educated upper- and upper-middle-class people. “Upper-middle culture” was associated with an upper-middle-class taste public, who were uninterested in the relatively esoteric aspects of high culture, preferring forms of culture that spoke to issues that were relevant to their personal lives. “Lower-middle culture” was America’s dominant taste culture. Its taste public provided the major audience for mass media and sought content that confirmed its worldview, particularly its moral values. The taste public for “low culture” consisted of older, lower-middle-class people who preferred entertainment that dealt with traditional working-class values. “Quasi-folk low culture” was a simpler version of low culture. Its taste public consisted of unskilled blue-collar and service workers with little education.
Thirty years later, Gans’s theory of taste cultures has been eclipsed by subsequent developments in the discipline. Bourdieu (1984), who was also interested in identifying social groups with different levels of taste, developed an elaborate theory to explain how social class and education influence cultural choices. According to Bourdieu, the capacity to appreciate different forms of culture is developed through socialization in childhood. Families provide different cultural environments for their offspring, ranging from the culture of distinction in the upper class to the culture of necessity in the working class. Members of the upper class and members of the lower class have different tastes and different perceptions of the same forms of culture. Consequently, arts and culture consumption can be used to legitimate social class differences and as a form of “capital” to advance one’s social position.
Recent research reveals that many people do not restrict their attention to a particular type of culture, possibly because of the enormous variety of cultural choices that are now available (Peterson 2005). Studies of tastes for different types of popular music show that “omnivores” consume a wide variety of cultures, both highbrow and lowbrow. “Univores” restrict their attention to a single form of culture, either highbrow or lowbrow. Omnivores and highbrow univores have more education and social status than lowbrow univores.
Today, the most widely used approach for the location of social groups with specific cultural tastes is through the identification of lifestyles. In this approach, the emphasis tends to be placed on factors affecting the selection of consumer goods. Differences among lifestyles within the same social class as well as across social classes are anticipated. One approach to the identification of lifestyles is that of matching America’s 36,000 zip code areas with census data and consumer surveys. This produces 40 “lifestyle clusters” that can be differentiated from one another very precisely in terms of income, race, education, leisure activities, media usage, food preferences, and political leanings (Weiss 1989).
In both the US and Europe, market researchers have identified lifestyle clusters on the basis of demographic variables, such as education, income, and age, and surveys that assess people’s values, attitudes, and behavior toward work, family, leisure, money, and consumption. For example, in the US, research using Market Statistics’ GeoVALS system has identified eight American lifestyles on the basis of personal orientations and resource constraints such as education, income, and age (Waldrop 1994). Traditional as compared to modern or liberal values have proved to be important influences on cultural preferences. The lifestyles of over half (57 percent) of the American population were influenced by traditional values. In Europe, the Sinus-Milieus approach also combines structural and cultural variables to map lifestyles and detect differences in consumer behavior in different countries (Sociovision n.d.). This approach differs from the American research through its use of ethnographic data to identify more precisely the characteristics of the specific milieus or contexts which shape people’s behavior, on the grounds that the life contexts of people with similar socio-economic backgrounds can be very different.
Gans’s typology of taste cultures was not based on survey research. Lifestyle research creates typologies that are based on sophisticated quantitative techniques for identifying clusters and indices based on census data, consumer surveys, life histories, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gans, H. (1974). Popular culture and high culture: An analysis and evaluation of taste. New York: Basic Books.
- Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2001). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In M. G. Durham & D. M. Kellner (eds.), Media and cultural studies. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 71– 101.
- Peterson, R. (2005). Problems in comparative research: The example of omnivorousness. Poetics, 33(5–6), 257–282.
- Sociovision (n.d.). At www.sociovision.com, accessed August 7, 2007.
- Waldrop, J. (1994). Markets with attitude. American Demographics, 16, 22–32.
- Weiss, M. J. (1989). The clustering of America. New York: Harper and Row.