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The links between taste, consumption, social class and power
The renowned French sociologist and philosopher Pierre-Félix Bourdieu believed that taste and cultural consumption was inextricably linked to social class, which in itself is determined by those with power and position (Bourdieu’s 1994). His detailed research on the subject concluded that the pressures of the society that we live in thus bring about all human acts and, to this extent are not governed by decisions made by solely by the individual. In his view the society in which we live, together with our standing individual standing within that culture will have considerable influence upon both our particular tastes and the choices of taste that we make. Furthermore, Bourdieu finds that those in a position of power, such as the media and government, by virtue of their position, are consistently using the power that they possess to create and feed the social distinctions that we see about us, and therefore manipulating the consumption pattern. The conclusion of Bourdieu’s research therefore is that the individual does not act autonomously from the dictates of his or her society, but rather reacts to patterns of social distinction that are being presented to them.
To assess the validity of this theory, it is the intention of this research to identify, examine and evaluate the potential links that exist between “taste” and cultural consumption and social class. The research will be segmented in an attempt to first of all provide an understanding of consumption and its cultural relevance and how this can be manipulated by those with the power to do so, before examining the relevant aspects of social class. This process will enable us then to reflect upon taste and reach a conclusion as to whether the hypothesis outlined above is still as relevant in modern society as it was when Bourdieu (1994) conducted his research into the subject.
In the context of this research, the term consumption is not simply being examined in relation to the goods or services that we purchase with the purpose to consume, for example grocery items, although that is an integral element of the purchasing act. However, it also is relevant to the purpose and reasoning that lies behind the consumption process itself.
The basic concept of consumption is that we make a choice of purchase based upon a number of factors, for example because we like the taste of the content in the case of food products or we are attracted to the look of the item, as would be the case in the decision for non foodstuff, such as furniture, automobiles, homes and a host of other goods. Irrespective of the validity of these determinates of choice consumption is not “merely the recognition or miss-recognition of the aesthetic intention” (Storey, 2003, p.48).
When we make a product choice we are also, either making a statement about our social position, and ourselves, or reacting to a statement that has been placed before us by others. Furthermore, as is reflected in the term “keeping up with the Joneses,” an element of our buying patterns will be made in relation to what others, our peers, might have that we do not. In terms of the influence of others, be the media or peers, this may be perceived as a guide to move us in a certain direction or to give us a distinction that we previously did not have. Therefore, it is true to say that the way in which we exercise our right to consumption is determined by the social structure that surrounds us (Mackay 1997, p.255).
This can perhaps be better seen when viewed in a historical context. In the Victorian era, when the class situation within UK society was more pronounced, the patterns of consumption were seen as an inherent part of that system, in that the purchase should match the social position. A typical example of this process was obvious in the clothing industry, In those days one purchased clothing, that was considered to be commensurate with one’s standing in society, be that class or professional position. It would have been considered “an offence to dress above one’s station” (Corrigan 1997, p.6). The theory of consumption being relative to position, and objected too if it does not maintain that distinction has been seen more recently in research conducted by Radway (1990, p.705 and p.710). The case being studied here was the emergence of book clubs and the controversial reaction to this in some areas of society. These book clubs were offering products that ranged from the mass-market romantic and detective novels through to the classics and “highbrow” products. The controversy arose because many believed that this was an unacceptable intrusion into the considered norm of social culture and distinction.
Despite the fact that the social strata and distinction has been blurred to some extent in modern times, to a great degree the cultural habits of consumption still exist and operate in society. Irrespective of the wide variety of goods and products available, the patterns of individual purchase are still determined by the social and cultural position. For example, when faced with a choice for holidays, the general perception is still that the package tour and coastal seaside two-week summer break is mainly the domain of the working class element of society. Similarly, purchasing a Ford car instead of the more expensive Mercedes will automatically make a statement about the buyers standing, therefore producing a social distinction in consumption (Miller 2002, p.275).
However, nowadays this pattern is tempered with consumption for the purpose of aspiration. Today the objective of bettering oneself is an integral part of the social culture. Peer pressure has also become more intense. People are concerned with being seen to either maintain their status by ensuring that they have the latest product, as may be the case with their neighbour, or wishing to use consumption and purchase as a way of moving up a position in the social ladder. They use consumption to make a statement to this effect (Brewer 1994, p.275). Furthermore, the availability of the product, in terms of price, model and novelty is also important. Consumption will change as a product becomes more popular. For example, a person of high social standing seeks a product that is not generally available to the masses. This can be seen in the case of the Mercedes car, once solely affordable by the few. As it became more popular and therefore more affordable, the novelty and distinction it gave to the wealthier elements of society wore off (Miller 2002, p.180), and they sought to re-establish their position by transferring their consumption to more distinction and expensive automobile ranges.
Typically, the peer-generated influence can be seen occurring with the “new rich,” such as footballers, corporate moguls and celebrities. Having achieved a position of wealth such people will use the purchasing process to acquire products that make a conspicuous statement about the new position they have achieved within society (Featherstone 2000, p.20).
In terms of other influences on consumption, the advertising and marketing media have played a pivotal role. This has become particularly apparent during the period of rapid developments in technological and digital advances being made in the media. Marketers distinguish their target markets by demographic segments, and therefore operate on the basis of class distinction when determining “consumption criteria” (Miller 2002, p.112). These organisations will use the segment analysis for a number of reasons. In terms of mass marketing, for instance with grocery and low cost household products, the intention will be too attract the working classes to consume their products in preference. Similarly, this system will be used to drive the “peer-pressure” determinant, using the subconscious cultural message that to maintain one’s individual standing, these products are culturally essential. At the other end of the scale, Marketers will use their message to accentuate the difference in social standing that can be achieved by purchasing their product. Again this can be aptly seen with motor vehicles, where the promoter might use the vision of ownership of a 4×4, or top of the range vehicle as an indication of higher social standing.
From this analysis it can be seen that consumption when viewed on a number of levels does reflect, either directly or indirectly, a social struggle to achieve a certain level of distinction. Consciously or sub-consciously it will affect the consumers position and social standing (Corrigan 1997, p.32).
Taste in dictionary terms, is defined as being the manifestation of an individual’s particular preference. This will extend beyond the simple food connotation of the word to all aspects of life, including all of the goods, services and activities they purchase or use. In his research Bordieu (1994, p.42) rightly identifies taste as being a matter of choice, which varies from individual to individual. Therefore, by definition taste has both a positive and negative reaction. For example, one chooses a particular food because of the preference to its taste or conversely rejects of food because of individual’s dislike of its taste. In the same way, similar decisions are made about other goods. Furthermore the levels of taste are varied. For example, one may react on a low level of negatively to something simply on a matter of ascetic taste, as in not being keen on the colour, or the level of taste dislike can reveal itself in the emotion of disgust, which in the case of food can even lead to sickness. From the individual point of view taste can therefore be attributable as an indications of the specific preferences of a particular person (Featherstone 2000, p.83).
However, having previously stated that taste is a matter of choice, a rider should be added to this. Choice in taste is not always a decision that is taken freely. In most areas of life there is limitations and taste is often one such area. As Bordieu (1994) pointed out in his research, often in our daily lives and decision-making processes our taste decisions are restricted by a choice being forced upon us. For example, to return once again to an automobile comparison, it is often the case when faced with a choice of vehicles to purchase, that one’s deep routed preference would be for a Mercedes. However if the income level of the purchaser is only say $10,000 per annum, this vehicle is clearly out of an acceptable price range. In such a situation one has to make a taste decision based upon an affordable, or forced, range of lower standard vehicles. Therefore taste is tempered by the social and economic position that the individual is situated within.
Taste can also be applicable in a cultural sense and in this respect Bourdieu (1984, p.56), states that it can act as a class barrier. As with consumption, again this can be seen as more pronounced in historical times, although it still exists. By nature, the individual will aspire to a certain social level and consequently they will have an aversion to a life-style that does not match with their expectations. In respect of society itself, there are two levels of taste that can be deemed to play both an interactive and exclusive role. These are common taste and class taste respectively.
In addition to individual taste, the format of society also dictates that there will be a common taste. This is an element that is shared within the specific culture to which one belongs. For example, within the UK there will be commonly accepted tastes in terms of the way that people should behave, and where the limits of acceptable common legislation should be drawn, although this is by no means the only area of taste that would be considered to be common. However, as Bordieu (1994), this common taste scenario produces a dichotomy. Achieving a balance between the common taste and the taste of individual classes of society is often difficulty. By the simple distinction of their class, there will be those elements of society that will wish at least part of their taste to be separate from those of other classes. For instance, the upper class will have a distinct taste that they would perceive to set them apart from the working class (Bucholtz and Sutton 1999, p.355).
Taste and choice is another are where those with power, such as the media, can exercise significant influence. One only has to look at the television to notice the wide range of new products and designs that are constantly being promoted. This can serve to create movement in the individual and social taste requirements (Miller 2002, p.216). Whilst consumers demands and tastes for new products may change, as has been demonstrated this is not always as a result of their own changing tastes (Brewer and Porter 1994, p.601). Similarly, as with consumption, often these taste determinants will be directed at particular demographic segments of the community. A typical example of this occurred when “Wedgewood Potteries, in north Staffordshire, deliberately tried to direct upper-class taste” through design and promotional efforts (Corrigan 1997. p.9).
Taste therefore is influenced by a number of factors, not the least of which is the relative position of the individual “in the social structure” (Mackay 1997, p.230) of their own culture. Similarly, taste can be distinct between the relative class structures and also can create a tension when seen not to be achieving the correct values (Corrigan 1997, p.100).
What is social class and how does it manifest itself? As will be seen within this section there are many aspects to class and numerous influences attached to its creation and maintenance of the class system. The class system in the UK has been in existence for countless centuries and, despite the moves during the last century to achieve equality is has still managed to survive, particularly, as Bordieu (1994) points in his research, within the higher intellectual and ruling class level. Indeed, as Brewer (1994, p.128), points out, in Wigston Magna, an old village, which is now a part of an expanded city called Leicester, social differences were being created as the village grew.
Much of the creation of class Bordieu (1994) puts down to education and language. Success in education is achieve not simply by the act of learning, but also as a result of behaviour and even language, which in turn is a reflection of upbringing. Those students from privileged backgrounds will have learnt how to present themselves physically, in speech and their attitude, whereas the less privileged will not, precisely as a result of the way they have been brought up. Language is also important, not simply because it is a way of communication, but because it is seen as an indicator of position within society. To evidence this one only has to look at the immediate perception that is formed in the mind as a result of the “mannerism of speech of different social groups” (Bucholtz and Sutton 1999, p.101). Automatically, the subconscious seeks to identify not simply the geographical background, but also their position within society. The way that people speak does therefore tend to create an immediate recognition of class.
There is a natural tendency for people to segregate themselves into groups where they feel comfortable, and an equal tendency to reject or distance themselves from those who do not fit into their own “circle.” This phenomenon is known as social distinction. Social distinction is what creates the various classes. It is defined by different values, tastes and consumption activity. Furthermore, its occupants rigorously protect it. For example, when describing ourselves to others we tend to refer to the social category that we belong to as a way of distinguishing ourselves from others (Mackay 1997, p.68). Mackay (1997, p.205) further evidences this by explaining how the middle classes, in an attempt to maintain their distinctive class, will put “geographical distance between itself and manual labour” or working classes.
Even within classes that can be demonstrated by economic advantage, there still remains a distinction that is closely protected. The latter half of the last century saw a significant increase of wealth created and attracted to people who previously would have been considered to be working or middle class. As the wealth accumulation continued, these people began to acquire the trappings of the upper classes, such as large land estates, international residences and the like. This situation threatened the existence and position that was previously the domain of the nobility and aristocrats. As Bourdieu (1994) explains, the nobility were not prepared to lose their standing within society, based upon position and breeding, nor would they settle for it being diluted by invasion from individuals who they considered to be of a lower class, irrespective of wealth. Thus they encapsulated the retention of their previous distinction by use of the terms “old money” and “new money,”
Individuals and groups within society use numerous ways to distinguish themselves from other classes. For example, the amount of leisure time that is available to an individual is often used as an example of their social standing (Storey 2003, p.37), as might be their house style where a detached property is viewed a social standing distinct from a terraced. Similarly, ones work position can be used to reinforce the social distinction. Subconsciously, when the terms blue-collar worker, white-collar worker and professional are used in relation to the employment of the individual, there is an automatic social and class distinction attributed to them.
Power also helps to maintain the social distinction and class. By its terminology, the government is as guilty of this as any other sector of society. For example, consistent references to being a party of the “working class” by Labour is intended to distinguish them from the more affluent reaches of the conservatives. Similarly, the media makes use of class distinction in promotional strategy. For example, if a retailer wishes to appeal to the masses, for example with cosmetics, its promotion will lead with the term “Lower-priced cosmetics” Corrigan 1997, 87. Conversely, if it wishes to appeal to affluent classes it will use quality and aspirations as its message.
From the research that has been studied during the preparation of this paper, it is concluded that there are numerous and significant links between consumption, taste and social class and power. Despite the fact that the modern trend is towards a more deregulated and less controlled society (Featherstone 2000, p.15), these links still exist, although they manifest themselves in different ways to those that were used in the past.
Consumption is still driven by an individual’s desire to better themselves, which is deemed to be achieved by improving ones class or standing in society. Taste is still governed by ones upbringing and changed by both peer pressure and a desire to changes ones position in society, and the various social classes still endeavour to maintain their individuality and distinction from other classes.
The major difference in the modern world when compared with the historical structure of society is the manner in which all of these links and distinctions are maintained. Today, the concentration is upon the use of signs and images as a method of promoting ones position in society (Featherstone 2000, p.85). Material possessions, together with the work position are used, consciously or subconsciously, to denote where the individual stands in society in terms of their class.
Encompassing all of these aspects in the manipulative forces of those with power, such as the media and government. The government, by attributing demographic segmentation to the population, maintains the concept of different social classes with varying tastes and consumption needs. The media, whilst in many ways performing the same social distinction role as government, also use the individual’s distinctive position to create situations that convey how these positions should be maintained and, in addition, provide a perceived path for the individual to exchange the class and position they are currently in for one that would improve their standing in the community.
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Brewer, J., and Porter, R. (eds.) 1994. Consumption and the World of Goods. Routledge. London, UK.
Bucholtz, M., Laing, A.C and Sutton (eds.) (1999). Reinventing Identities. Oxford University Press. New York, US.
Corrigan, Peter (1998). The Sociology of Consumption: An Introduction. Sage Publications. London, UK.
Featherstone, Mike (2000). Consumer Culture and Post-modernism. Sage Publications. London, UK.
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Storey, J. (2003). Cultural Consumption and Everyday Life. Arnold. London, UK.
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