All a Matter of Taste

Introduction

The following summary was created from the essay entitled “From Collective Principles to Collective Sentiments: The Logistics of Everyday Judgements of Taste” presented by Ian Woodward and Michael Emmison (Poetics: 2001).

Contemporary research into the studies of taste has shown that it is used as a social and cultural power. The research of Pierre Bourdieu Distinction (1984) has provided a wealth of information on the subject and has challenged the theories of Kant aesthetics. Bourdieu’s research has been elaborated upon in a range of studies outside the French context. These include not only linking class and taste, but a matrix of comparisons such as individual principles of taste and the link between social groups and their level of education, which determines their ability of taste competency.

There have been exceptions to the aforementioned theories such as in the case of Longhurst & Savage 1996, Halle 1993; Wayne and O’Connor; 1998, who argue that taste or consumption choices are “processes which bind people together.” Ultimately whatever the view of the researchers, they all convey that patterns of cultural taste are complex and are marked by social position. This notion of taste is marked by an ongoing cultural circle of distributing taste in varying social networks, some more equal than others. The concept of cultural taste is elitist driven, social networks where appropriate altering, suppressing and redistributing taste to elite aspiring lower socio-economic groups.

Empirical research was conducted in this paper to formulate the logistics of taste at an individual level, and to look to connect them with broader themes dealing whit civility, general sentiments and appearance. The key argument in the paper looks to explore specific areas in the “ socialness” of taste, which has vaguely been examined by the academic community.

Numerous studies have been conducted using cultural domains to define taste. Woodward and Emmison assert that few researchers have built their understanding of perceptions and attitudes on taste. In fact, logical interpersonal behaviour can give great insight into the “socialness of taste.” The findings of both researchers suggest that everyday judgements of taste are tied to moral, ethical and communal sensibilities, not just from an aesthetic point of view. On conducting the research it appeared that the layman when offering his perspective was consistent with many aspects of classical writings on taste, which have been neglected, in contemporary academia.

Theories of Taste

Bourdieu’s ‘social critique’, reintroduces the sociological community to Kant’s ideas. According to Kant taste is not based on: ‘logical, cognitive principles.’ In order to understand beauty we must focus purely on the aesthetic. The principle component is an object stimulates either pleasure or displeasure in the viewer.

According to Kant, there are three kinds of delight:

  • Delight in the agreeable: that which is pleasing or gratifying
  • Delight in what is good: that which refers to our esteem
  • Delight in the beautiful: Kant argues is devoid of  interest.

These delights overall refer not only to the object, but that it exists! This is where the pleasure is derived. With regards to the judgement of taste Kant sees it as a possibility, a judgement that is indifferent to the object’s existence. This leaves the viewer to make judgement based on intuition and speculation.  Kant asserts judgements of taste to be “wholly disinterested”. This theory applies to the elite who appear to be removed from areas of socio-economic interest. This is the key point of Bourdieu’s argument. This distance from the situation of the popular classes allows the elite to indulgently reflect on aesthetics. Conversely, Bourdieu identifies a popular class aesthetic that challenges Kant’s definition of taste because his theory is based on interest: pleasure through functionality, the senses and moral standpoint.  Kant later goes on to argu that everyone has a right to assert that something is beautiful whether others agree or disagree. This universal right is connected to common sense (sensus communis) according to Kant. Kant states that taste is common sense and is valid in reference to others. The notion of the judgement of taste appears to gravitate toward communal or collective standards. Within areas of fashion, consumption and taste, the theories of both Thorstein Veblen and George Simmel incorporate collective and communal standards utilizing class distinctions as the driving force for judgements of taste. Particularly in Veblen’s model (1899) the elite classes flaunt wealth and status through wasteful expenditures. Veblen expresses that the notion of wastage is not generally a ‘built in” human activity, but is present as a means to restrict the popular classes from acquiring ‘good taste’.

Simmel also states that as soon as a fashion has been adopted and/or imitated by the lower echelons of society it is discarded by the elite and new forms must appear in order to maintain superiority and differentiation. Simmel continues to argue that modern society’s quest for social acceptance along with the convenience of maintaining what is in fashion has blindly sacrificed individuality, creativity and personal reflection; “A child of thought and thoughtlessness.” (1904 [1957]: 542)

According to Herbert Blumer, fashion is a modern process and is expressed coherently and differentiated across a range of fields. Blumer asserts that the classical approach to the fashion mechanism is outdated and restrictive. The elite to mainstream concept is restrictive as the fashion mechanism incorporates the elite group. Blumer’s model builds a complex case on taste and fashion mechanisms. He explains that the entity of fashion is a movement onto itself simply because of the nature of what it  is. These elite groups can only be part of the fashion movement if they are recognized as so. The lower classes i.e. all classes below the elite intentionally follow fashion because of the fashion and not because they wish to emulate the elite. Blumer goes on to say the mechanism of fashion is built on ‘collective selection’; a socio-aesthetic process of arriving at what is valued as good taste. The desire ultimately is to be in fashion and explore new tastes in an ever-changing world.

Data & Methodology

The data gathered for the studies is part of the Australian Everyday Culture Project (AECP). Procedures included acquiring data through a national sample survey, focus groups and in-depth interviews. Emphasis was placed on quantitative data as it relates to the structures of taste in certain cultural domains. Qualitative data was gathered on taste preferences and participants were asked to indicate in a few words. “What do you think good taste and bad taste entail?” Participants were asked to report what they understood by each term and (or alternately) give examples to assist in articulating their response. Open-coding is application used and is the technique of reinterpreting and adapting text based information based on current textual data.  Open-coding helps to distinguish ‘short’ and ‘long’ answers. Following this phase, complex responses were organized into concepts and an attempt was made to create a theoretical framework.

The Classificatory System of Taste

The data of Woodward and Emmison uncovered that people possess a mixture of ideas they call upon to classify attitudes, behaviour, objects or areas of self-presentation into broad categories of what is considered to be tasteful and tasteless. In the initial phase data analysis, concepts are organized into three distinct categories: quantity, composition and quality. It is evident that these categories are key factors in determining taste but it was challenging to ascertain the extent of the interplay between them.

Quantity

Assessing good taste involves an appreciation of the acceptable quantity of something. It is also an appreciation of someone to present to their peers. Therefore we critically assess what is considered socially adequate and furthermore the correct dosage of it. As one female respondent had stated, “knowing when enough is enough”. But this is according to whom? Who or what dictates for example when bad taste has reached a limit? Evidence has indicated that the notion of quantity as a judgement of taste was common for many participants, particularly women and those with a tertiary education. For participants good taste was articulated as understatement and overstatement, i.e. too little or too much of something. Descriptive terms such as ‘”restraint”, “discrete”, “gaudy”, and “extreme” are only a few examples. It is clear that rules of appropriateness are crucial in the discussion of what is acceptable in a social situation. We instinctively cultivate our image as seen through the eyes of others.

Composition

According to the researchers, composition refers to the individual’s intuition on whether something looks ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Respondents revealed they were able to distinguish when things ‘go together’ by relying on subtle signals of physical and behavioural patterns of others. It is apparent that women and particularly those of a higher education have an acute sense of taste employing high descriptive words.

Quality

To be in good taste an action or an object should possess certain nonfunctional qualities. These qualities are not only in the possession of the privileged and having money certainly does not mean that one automatically has taste. Two examples of good taste described by two men of different age and education revealed similar findings. Their notions of taste demonstrated different perceptions on how a day of leisure should be spent.. It could be interpreted that regardless of age, education and so on, that their perception of taste is dictated by money, meaning, once acquired only then can one do ‘tasteful’ things. The ideas of “elegance”, “timelessness” were articulated by a small number of tertiary educated professionals, who were mostly women.

Conceptual Logics of Taste Dimensions

The researchers have divided their data into two variables using tables and have titled them as ‘domain of taste’ and a ‘basis of taste judgement’. ‘Domain of taste’ is simply captures concrete concepts of the layman’s judgement of taste. The term domain specifically refers to social, cultural or consumption factors to which respondents explain what is goo and bad taste according to them. ‘Basis of taste judgement’ refers to the judgements of good and bad taste expressed in specific terms of a personal nature, while referring to others or alternately by resorting to what the researchers call ‘collective or social norms’. These norms according to authors demonstrate consideration of others for the common good. Ultimately, personal preferences are somewhat compromised to achieve social inclusion.

Conceptions of taste and the individual/collective tension

By utilizing tables to present data, the researchers examine in greater detail the two dimensions of ‘domain’ and ‘basis’ of taste judgements. The results proved quite remarkable. Initially studying domains of cultural practice the authors noticed that the ‘no specific domain’ had the largest response when defining good taste and just 40% developed their idea of bad taste in a similar manner. This evidence indicates that participants defined both aspects of taste by using abstract and intuitive concepts i.e. the notions of :

Quality:              How taste is utilised to an end.

Quantity :          Knowing when enough is enough

Composition:  When something just  feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’

Additionally in the same table, ideas of interpersonal conduct with regards to good and bad taste were also of a significant number. These practices include politeness, sensitivity, courtesy, discretion and so on. These findings for the researchers are significant because the traditional domains such as music, art, literature and film which sociologists have utilized to study patterns of objectified taste were not applicable to the layman. Rather, the concept of good and bad taste is underpinned by commercial or collective beliefs than from aesthetic ideals.

The second table demonstrated clear evidence of the reversal of the personal/collective judgements of taste. When respondents were asked to explain good taste, more than half utilize personal judgements. However, when defining bad taste, collective or social norms were at the forefront of their response totaling to 58.3%. According to Bourdieu, when we assert that something is in poor taste, we negate by refusing the tastes of others. The challenge when assessing good taste is that it is a matter of personal or aesthetic judgement, which is more challenging to measure because of its abstract idiosyncrasies. There is a self-centredness and overconfidence attached to a person thinking they have good taste.

Descriptive patterns: Social differences in the individual collective dimension of definitions of taste

The research conducted in this section covers the three most important variables that define everyday taste: educational attainment, gender and age. There are social differences in the ways people think about good and bad taste. The most intuitive of these is educational attainment. Research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that the higher the level of education, the greater the use of describing tatse based on abstract concepts. Generally these differences in articulation of good and bad taste were found most significant under ‘interpersonal conduct’ with those of a primary education highest in number, nearly four times larger than their tertiary counterparts, when describing their concepts of good taste. When explaining bad taste, primary levels were three and a half times as large.

Two important discoveries were made in the area of gender. When asked to define both good and bad taste, women were more likely than men to express a particular domain of taste practice. For instance a male respondent described in general terms that good taste is, “pleasing to a majority of people and inoffensive to all” – while on the other hand a female respondent determined good taste as, “holding conversations at a dinner party which intend to involve everyone.”

The second aspect of gender differentiation was discovered in specific domains men and women use to define taste. Using the domain of clothing and personal appearance to describe both good and bad taste, women were more than twice as high as men. The age of respondents also played a role in the making of taste judgements. The older the respondent, the least likely they were of determining taste through personal means and aesthetic pathways. Respondents between the 18-25 age group confidently explained the meaning of bad taste utilising personal and aesthetic concepts, almost two and a half times larger than respondents over the age of 60. Equally respondents over the age of 60 elaborated at length on decorum more than three times as large as their significantly younger counterparts.

Woodward & Emmison developed a model which best describes notions of both good and bad taste derived from core dimensions of ‘abstract/specific’ and ‘collective-social/personal’ sentiments. The main points are:

1)   Upper left quarter – Made up of terms that are simultaneously abstract and collective. These descriptions held by older respondents and mostly men who have a higher level of education.

2)   Upper right quarter – In the collective half, this idea of taste summons specific behaviour or acts towards others. These terms are more likely used with older people, women and those with minimal education.

3)   Bottom right quarter – Composed of terms of a personal nature and associated with older respondents, woman and those with minimal education.

4)   Bottom left quarter – Made up of personal and aesthetic criteria most commonly used by younger respondents and those with tertiary education.

The results of the research have indirectly allowed for further reflection and exploration of other studies on taste judgements.

Conceptual resources determine good and bad taste judgements. Redrafted based on Woodward and Emmison Model

Discussion: The sentiments of good taste

Introduction

The authors make reference to the sociologist Norbert Elias who hypothesizes that models of taste refinement are connected to increasingly, differentiated modes of self-restraint. Elias’ central arguments are bound to historical changes in manners. Essentially he argues that opinions of civility move towards self-restraint rather than external factors such as written rules or doctrine. For Elias the human personality evolves by what it experiences or observes around him, i.e. shifts in patterns of culture and image. Man’s fear of shame and ridicule forces him in a cycle of continuous reflection, which he in turn regulates. This act or ‘regulating’ creates that refinement. In addition, man constantly refers to the conduct of others to keep himself in check.

There are similarities between the data of the authors and Elias’ theory. Authors describe this interconnectedness as the “socialness” of taste judgements. The study by the authors demonstrates that this gravitation to others in the quest to understand taste incorporates opinions of taste, which fall upon beliefs of adaptation to others, discipline and self-restraint.

The Socialness of Taste Judgements – Attunement  and Restraint

The socialness of good taste judgements are clear in descriptions such as “thoughtful”, “politeness” etc. and above all “considerate” which was found in 84 cases in the qualitative analysis making up approximately 13.5% of all responses. On the contrary, bad taste is described as “ self opininated”, “insensitive”, “vulgar”, etc. The act of being considerate to your neighbour can be summarized by this example:

“Conforming to a standard which is recognized that will not offend the average person – morally, sexually, visually.”

The art of determining the appropriateness of something for a particular situation is key to understanding taste judgement. Demonstrating good or bad taste should not be judged as absolute entities as having lesser or greater taste is not the fault or problem of the object or environment, but how the person assesses the situation at large. An example from the data sums up a few of the respondent’s opinion of wearing black clothing. Some find it in bad taste, some see it as stylish and elegant and someone else stated that wearing black garments is not problematic in itself  -only when it is worn at a wedding.

The notion of bad taste as insensitive and selfish appears when people ignore the requirement of the social setting. Respondents describe scenarios such as:

“When your choices make others uncomfortable.” Or even:

“Exploiting a situation for self gain.”

The notion of taste in the art of practicing consideration for others is the same for both men and women, though data reveals that men show concern with taste choices fitting in or a general acceptance by others. Therefore the art of placing one’s personal taste within a number of acceptable social scenarios is well demonstrated in the areas of manners and civility. Examples of good taste is “ showing respect”, “being sympathetic to others feelings”, “concern”, and so on. Conversely those who act in bad taste are “loutish”, “uncouth”, “attention seeking” when interacting with others. Connecting manners to taste is frequently part of a broader perspective as can be summed up this example:

“well dressed or living in a well designed environment, being in harmony with your surrounds and having a well-mannered, caring attitude to yourself and your community.”

In addition, everyday judgements of taste are exhibited when participants utilize restraint or more generally, the art of self-discipline. For instance good taste is viewed as:

“tailoring speech and actions in accord with the company and situation you are in,” while bad taste is “ introducing subjects, manners of speech, and actions in inappropriate situations and company.”

In the area of clothing, the majority of women are highly attuned to wearing matching or appropriate garments. Most respondents when discussing clothing do not report specific items of clothing as tasteless or tasteful but rather focus on the ability of the person to simply dress appropriately, sacrificing personal comfort to blend or complement. Overll, the data has shown that what is perceived by persons as tasteful or tasteless aids in managing and constructing self through introspection. This in turn also affects their relationships with others.

Conclusion

Sociological studies on taste are underpinned by ‘objectified’ tastes, i.e. cultural domains such as art, music and literature. The aim of the researchers is to understand the layman’s discerning taste for one thing over another. The authors have explored the principles that help to define taste logics at an individual level, and the type of research, which gives great insight into everyday understandings of these categories.

It must be noted that respondents participating in the study were more confident than the non-respondents with an open-ended questionnaire. Written responses created by the authors encourage brief answers, which in turn allowed participants to express their thoughts using ‘valid’ opinions that break into established perceptual models of taste quite readily. Furthermore, Bourdieu has argued that these models which researchers use is of a practical application to the social world. The researcher’s analysis of layman’s understandings of taste has revealed strong collective opinions in defining taste, and harks back to classical literary themes on taste and fashion. The layman uses ideas related to interpersonal conduct when he/she explains taste. In addition, data has shown that negative judgements are easier to express when specific examples have been applied.

At the heart of the findings it was discovered that taste judgements are connected to moral, ethical and communal practices. Participants generally do not rely on specific aesthetics to define tastefulness or tastelessness though the expression varies with age, gender and level of education. On the subject of clothing an older femaile respondent described good taste as being:

“a neatly dressed person, have good manners and respect for other people,” while bad taste is “loutish behaviour, to dress in garish coloured attire to seek attention, to be rude and have no respect for other people.”

Some of her descriptions or typical characteristics could be considered subjective. It depends as one can tell by her statement, that upbringing and level of conservatism could also be tied heavily to this statement. Especially in her definition of bad taste she describes “garish attire to seek attention.” If the entire world were to follow these sentiments, it would be rather a boring place. Her statements suggest a lack of self-expression, introversion and severe conformity. There would be a heck of a lot of awkward and unhappy people in this world if all in this world followed these so called accepted modes of behaviour.

Having good taste means being considerate to others and having the finesse to discipline oneself and reflecting on acts of self and others to make sure one fits in with so called positive codes of conduct. In conclusion,  the authors have explored  the making good and bad taste judgements and compared to previous models, has a variety of classificatory models involving collectiveness, civility and acceptability which helps to form views on how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste is determined.

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About s o l o s t u d i o

Graphic Designer and Tutor View all posts by s o l o s t u d i o

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