The Power of Copy

Here we are again looking at polysemy (images with many meanings). Three advertisements were given to participants without text. They were not told they were advertisements, but were asked to describe the image and explain how they felt about it.

The following images given to the participants are made up of real objects and are uncoded because of their obviousness. It is safe to say that the first impression of seeing an image is expressed as a literal one. After describing in a literal fashion, participants began to interpret the images at a deeper level and not necessarily in an orderly fashion… rather random.  In Barthes essay he describes it as ‘discontinuous’.

For the participants to be able to understand what they are seeing, they use their cultural knowledge and common sense to pull a narrative together. In one instance the eldest participant on describing the ‘Kiss’ advert referred to a particular eye test as a child, a test we both suspected were no longer in use. Additionally she referred to the speaker as a ‘record’, though iconic, an old fashioned reference for music. On the other hand a young man described the speaker as both ‘modern’ and ‘funky’ and most adamant that it was connected to music. Within the cultural knowledge discourse we can see that the generation gap plays a role in how images can be interpreted by various audiences. The uncoded (literal) and coded (subjective/symbolic) image work individually and together which we see on a regular basis in advertising. The uncoded image is easily understood but ultimately functions to disguise the true meaning.

Text anchors image providing a literal description of the image. Without text, particularly with the ‘Statue’ of Jack Daniel no one had a clue what it really represented. Text if included in the exercise would have implied, “What is it that we are seeing?” Ultimately, text navigates the reader through the meaning of the message causing participants to filter out some meanings and embracing others.

The symbolic message is unique because participants may be given the same image to read and they will interpret it in a different manner. Interpretation of the image is made up of an internal bank of signs drawn from a range of personal experiences, knowledge, activities etc. As these interpretations unravel, the language must incorporate an element of surprise, which increases overall interest. Metonymy can be seen in each advertisement provided the text has been incorporated.

  1. The statue represents tradition and longevity of the ‘JD’ brand.
  2. The speaker and mike represent ‘Kiss FM’ is the beginning of life – a progenitor of music. (Composition is key as there are references to the marriage of both objects in a sexual union).
  3. The supermarket scene represents Exorex as an improver of a happy, enviable lifestyle – creating a quality life.

Left to right: Jack Daniel's advert, Kiss FM Radio, Exorex prescriptions for psoriasis


Responses for the image of ‘The Statue’ ranged from:

It looks old.

He is staring into space, thinking about something

It’s dark.

A Smart man, very well to do, rich.

Quite authoritative, he looks lie he is talking with a crowd gathered around him.

Western times – ‘Billy the Kid’

He’s distinguished.

What is the statue made of?


Responses for the image of the ‘Circle’ ranged from:

A speaker with a microphone. Is it a karaoke speaker?

Definitely something to do with music.

Nice warm colour… it looks like it has been turned on recently

It’s an eye but now it looks like a speaker, now it looks like a sperm going into an egg.

Dot looks like the eye test I took when I was a child, now it looks like a record, it’ looks like a target too! … an an eye! Why is a microphone there?

A modern, funky speaker… it’s connected to music.

Resembles an eye.


Responses for the image of the ‘Supermarket’ ranged from:

She’s very healthy with her basket of vegetables

It’s a shock factor

Women are staring in disgust and the men look quite happy

I wish I looked like that!

She’s quite hot.

At first it looks like an airport

It’s silly

This reminds me of healthy eating

Looks like a teen comedy

It’s weird, wandering around with no clothes on. The women’s boy-friends expressions are that of a typical male put in that situation.

It’s funny

Notes on the project

It is increasingly difficult to source advertisements where image and text are kept apart. Technology means we have more text and image and text as image merging being pushed in other creative ways. Men tended not to be as descriptive and with the exception of the Kiss advert, persons were surprised with the ‘true’ meaning of the images.

I enjoyed this project immensely and will introduce the same adverts as case studies to my students. This is a method that is definitely a lot more digestible. Students will be encouraged to gather their own images and conduct their own tests and we will ‘ease’ them into Barthes. J

A summary on Barthes essay the ‘Rhetoric of Image’ is in the previous blog. (Scroll lower).

Barthes & the Meaning of Images

If an image has certain meaning we must explore its meaning and why it exists. Why is meaning significant? Where does meaning originate and is it finite or infinite? If it’s the former, then what lies beyond it?

This summary looks at Roland Barthes theories on the messages in images and is based on an essay in his book Images Music Text. Images are constructed intentionally utilizing particular attributes and presented as clearly as possible to an audience. Images in advertising are direct and emphatic.

Barthes states there are three messages, which he attempts to explore in a Panzani advertisement, analyzing colour, composition, cultural baggage and text etc.

Panzani advertisement


The first message is linguistic. The text is written in French and the name Panzani not only gives us the name of the company, it is Italianised. The linguistic message contains two meanings, which Barthes describes as denotational and connotational. Denotation refers to what it indicates; connotational refers to how we interpret the elements. These two messages are lumped together and created as one message. We are left with the pure image. This image has a series of irregular/nonlinear signs that Barthes calls ‘discontinuous’. Barthes makes it clear that the order in which we see the signs is not of importance. The scene represents a return from the market. The concept (termed by Barthes as ‘signified’) contains two values.

  • The freshness of the products and the idea of them being prepared for consumption in a domestic setting.
  • The form (termed by Barthes as ‘signifier’) is the half opened bag with provisions spilling out over the table “unpacked”. Barthes argues we are able to identify with this image because of our knowledge of widespread where shopping around for oneself is opposed to the more mechanical approach of shopping with prepackaged foods.

The message sign is found in the gathering of the vegetables with their tri-coloured hues of red, green and yellow in the poster. These colours suggest Italy or as Barthes calls it ‘Italianicity’. This sign appears redundant with the connoted Panzani name. Barthes continues to explore the image stating there are two other signs.

a)    The collection of objects conveys the idea of a total culinary experience – Panzani provides all that is proper and necessary for an authentic dish. The sauce in the tin contains the same freshness as the produce around it.

b)   The composition harks to a ‘still life’ painting (p.271) In order to for the viewer to discover this, it require that they are culturally aware of the setting.

Other clues include the image may be an advertisement based on where it is located and from the emphasis of the labels. This detail is part of the scene and we know that the advertising nature of the image is primarily functional. Essentially the four images form a whole though irregular and require some general cultural knowledge. Barthes asserts that if these signs were removed we are still left with some information and we will still attempt to make sense of it.

The third message is found in the real objects in the setting. This message is defined by the relationship between form and concept. These objects on their own are simply objects and become what Barthes calls a ‘message without code’. Reading these objects is tied to our perception and cultural knowledge in its most elementary level. For example, we know what an image is from very young. Therefore the message becomes literal. Barthes formulates the theory that the photograph offers three messages:

  1. A linguistic message
  2. A coded iconic message
  3. A non-coded iconic message

The linguistic message can be separated from the two, but the coded and uncoded work individually and together which can be seen in the reading of images in mass culture. The literal message i.e. ‘non-coded’ message appears to support the symbolic one. Barthes asserts that one must be aware that when one system takes over another to create form for a ‘system of connotation’, one may use the term denoted to mean the literal image and the connoted to mean symbolism.

The Linguistic Message

According to Barthes the linguistic message appears in all levels of mass communications whether it is a ‘caption, title, comic strip etc. and more than ever we are a civilization of writing, with writing and speech the basis for informational structure. The linguistic message is indeed crucial as it contains the signified i.e. connotation/symbolism which connects it to the image. There are two functions that allow us to understand the message. These are as Barthes terms, anchorage, which can be interpreted as a base or support and as Barthes calls relay i.e. convey the message delivered for interpretation.

Barthes states all images are polysemous (having multiple meanings), prodding and suggesting, utilizing an object/form containing a network of signifieds, the reader is able to select some and ignore others. Polysemy creates the question of meaning and this querying comes through as a dysfunctional exercise. In each stratum of society various techniques are developed to make sense of the ‘floating chain of signifieds’ (p.274) and these are used to counteract the fear associated with uncertain signs. The linguist message is one of these techniques. I.e. certain text or language is used so that the reader does not feel alienated.

Text implies one to question ‘What is it?’ text helps to identify the elements of the scene and the scene itself. The text gives a literal description of the image, but a description that is not necessarily complete. The text corresponds to ‘anchorage’ i.e. a basic support of all the possible literal meanings of the objects. Barthes states that when it comes to the symbolic message, the linguistic message no longer directs identification, but interpretation holding the meaning so that it does not become too vast. Therefore this places limitations on the projective power of the image. Text ultimately navigates the reader through the meaning of the image, causing him/her to avoid some meanings and receiving others; Barthes describes it as:

‘… It remote controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.’ ‘Anchorage’ is necessary, allowing language to shed light on what is being communicated although it is selective, revealing certain signs. Anchorage asserts a control holding a responsibility for the use of the message combined with powerful images. The text also contains a repressive value with regards to the meaning of images.

The function of conveyance (called ‘relay’ by Barthes) is less common at least with the fixed image. Relay can be seen in cartoons and comic strips. Text here is seen as a quick reference and the image becomes complementary. In other words, the words just like images are parts of a more general sequence of linguistic units (in relation to each other) and the entire message is realized at a higher level, i.e. the story, the narrative and the fictional world, the latter also known as ‘diegesis’. When text contains a diegetic value it means that society must learn a code of reading.

When the linguistic message is being used as a secondary element, the image holds additional clues, and the image, just like the text, (which also has clues) we are able to interpret the ad/comic strip etc. in its entirety. The image cuts out the unnecessary details that a text may contain, speeding up the process of interpretation for the viewer.

The Decoded Image

In advertising there is never a literal image in a pure state. The symbolic message and literal message work together. Even if it could be argued that an image is naïve it would be considered another sign and the characteristic of the literal message would not be of much substance, only part of a unit. This literal message with regards to naivety is a message by removal/deletion; made up of what is left of the image. The connotations have been removed from the psyche, which under further analysis really isn’t so as our interpretations have already been embedded. This state of deletion corresponds to an abundance of scenarios. Ultimately, ‘it is an absence of meaning full of all meanings.’ (p.276). It is a sufficient message already because it holds one meaning at the level of identification of the scene depicted. As the literal message is both sufficient and removable the denoted image appears utopic, without connotations and therefore becomes objective.

The photograph contains a similar message – it is without a code. Above all kinds of imagery the photograph is able to transmit literal information without it creating irregular signs and rules of transformation. Barthes informs us that the photograph is an opposing medium to drawing. The drawing though denoted, is actually a coded message. The coded nature of drawing can be studied at three levels.

  1. Drawing is guided by rules that change places such as in the area of perspective. There is no clear depiction of the pictorial copy.
  1. The workings of a drawing reveal a demarcation between the important and not so important. A drawing creates all information without delivering a clear message. The subject of the photograph is created and determined, i.e., its point of view, angle etc. but it is unable to intercept within an object except by trickery. In other words, the literal meaning of the drawing is less pure than that of the photograph because there is no drawing without expression.
  1. The drawing demands apprenticeship i.e. bound to employer. Denotation facilitates connotation since it immediately establishes discontinuity in the image. The act of drawing in itself is a connotation. Both connotation and denotation meanings are modified. There is no longer a relationship between nature and culture with the photograph but between two cultures. The viewpoint of the drawing is not the same as that of the photograph.

The literal message of the photograph serves as a record. The absence of code reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ i.e. what one sees first and foremost is the photo. The scene has been captured but becomes mechanized by man’s manipulations, as Barthes terms as ‘interventions’. These include effects such as framing, lighting, speed, distance, focus etc. These elements belong to the area of connotation. The merging of techniques with the object itself i.e. the photograph creates the character of the photograph and allows the socio-cultural revolution to represent man’s history.

The photograph is positioned in the immediate i.e. what the viewer see presently but we are also acutely aware that the image is set in a different place and time. The denoted message is an illogical one showing itself as unreal/false. Its reality is actually that of the present, i.e. what we see before us. Barthes describes this as a reality of which we are unawares. He asserts that this kind of push and pull of the ‘real and unreal’ in time possibly diminished the amplification of the image. ‘This was so’ easily defeats that ‘It’s me.’ He explains that the photograph must be related to the viewer’s consciousness and not to the make believe on which film thrives on. This notion reinforces the idea that film works counter to the photograph. Film therefore cannot be visualized as animated photographs. The past gives away to the present of the thing. The photograph is not the last in image making but a kind of hybrid of informational economies representing in a flat format socio-cultural facts.

The denoted image makes the symbolic meaning more natural to digest/interpret and gives the appearance of being harmless and timid, but this is done through trickery. The message appears to be found in the natural signs of culture, which can be described as rudimentary. As technology advances the more it will be employed to mask constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning, that which is literal.

Rhetoric of Image

The symbolic message is irregular and is a sign separated from other signs. Composition has aesthetic meaning. The symbolic message is unique because individual may be given the same image to read and he/she will interpret it in a different manner. Four connotative signs have been identified in the Panzani advertisement although there are more. Another can be found in the net representing the ‘draught of fishes plenty’ which has a biblical reference. Based on one’s knowledge whether national, cultural, practical or aesthetic, various interpretations can be made. Within an individual one reading triggers more readings based on the aforementioned knowledge. Barthes states eloquently that ‘there is a plurality and co-existence of lexicons in one and the same person.’ These lexicons refer to various languages, knowledge and techniques used by the viewer to make sense of it all.

Interpretation of the image is made up of an internal bank of signs drawn from a range of personal experiences, knowledge, activities etc. As these interpretations unravel the language must incorporate an element of surprise, which increases overall interest. A challenge of analyzing connotation is that there is no special analytical language related to the particularity of what the concepts represents. What are the meanings of connotation? An attempt was made by creating the term ‘Italianicity’ but other meanings can only be articulated by use of ordinary language. (Remember Barthes used descriptions such as culinary preparation, ‘still life’, plenty). Those words as concepts have a certain language or character attached to them. Barthes explains the word ‘plenty’ does not really cover the true meaning of plenty in the literal sense. ‘Plenty’ from a connotative sense is certainly different to plenty in the denotive sense!

Connotative has typical forms dependent on the different elements utilized such as image, language, objects, and modes of behaviour). Connotation holds all its meanings in common. The same meanings are to be found in the written press, the actor’s gestures and the image, which is why semiology is applied to the entire framework. The notion of meanings of connotation, fall under ‘ideology’, and is the single most thing shaping a society and history.

The forms of which the sign takes are called connotators and the set of connotators, rhetoric. This means the connotators communicate and persuade the viewer and is an aspect of ideology. Rhetorics vary by their content and not necessarily by their form. In the Panzani advertisement metonymy is employed. For example, the tomato represents Italianicity. Metonymy gives the image the greatest number of connotators as well as elements/details, which creates the whole interpretation. We must remember though that connotators are made up of discontinuous traits. These connotators do not reveal the entire story, meaning not all we read/see can be interpreted.

Creative or Uncreative?

So I was watching a bit of TV the other night and saw a music group being promoted on the BBC. I was jolted out of my seat when I saw the cover. On your right see the album cover of a group called Hurts. I heard a bit of the music. It sounds very 80s. Memories of my 1987 tape of the Pet Shop Boys flooded back. Design and music definitely moves in cycles. I guess I am a child of my time because I still prefer the Pet Shop Boys cover. It look less rehearsed even though we know that it is not.

Pet Shop Boys: Still looks fresh; Hurts - Not bad at all but the word 'copy' keeps creeping up in my mind.

Encouraging Braille

A blind child learning to read braille

Bruno’s lecture on exploring how Braille can be developed is interesting. I was more intrigued with his statement on how research has shown that Braille helps the mental development of a blind child. As much as Braille is considered old fashioned, it is clearly still relevant. Apart from exploring how Braille can be developed in all aspects of daily life, Bruno may also wish to consider work on a… yes… very graphic oriented thing… promotion or a campaign that disseminates awareness on the positive affect braille has on a child’s development or any other misconceptions. On the flip side his concept of Braille embedded in fruit (which by the way is a great idea), I was picturing a blind person equipped with some kind of sensor that alerts them what street they are on. Perhaps billboards or posters embedded with similar transmitters with up and coming events, which may alert blind people that perhaps there is a play or a sale in a store. This I believe  would make the experience of walking down the street that more heightened as well as a greater sense of well being.

Alphabet Braille

Images interpreted in different ways

Images can be interpreted in a variety of ways. When we look at images we bring our cultural baggage and personal experiences when we look to decode the image. This brief composition looks at the interpretation and expressions of the viewer.


Under advice from one of my peers, I was adamantly told that if I wanted to test my images, I would need to email them from the safety of my computer as persons in the City Centre can be quite impatient and even aggressive in the City Centre. Before making a final decision on how to approach the project, I went into town to see this for myself. I observed the ‘Cancer Research Representatives’ desperately trying to stop people who either pretended not to acknowledge their presence or pulled their hoodie lower over their face or my favourite a quick dart in a semi circle, yet walking in a straight line…


On realizing this was going to be much more difficult than I thought, I went for another approach. I joined the gym recently and I am not familiar with anyone there. There is a lounge and restaurant area and a juice bar. So while people were waiting to be served or simply just reading a newspaper I approached them before and after my workout. People were most pleasant and cooperative as they were not in a rush to go anywhere. I informed them I was a student and I had a test to conduct using four images, which would take a total of 60 seconds.


Participants were prompted to say briefly what they felt when they saw the following images. 3 of the four images contained no text references. On conducting the test there was one loophole, which was rectified quickly. Initially for speed and convenience for the tester, the images were placed separately on sheet of paper and space left below for jotting notes. The second participant conveniently slotted in what the previous person had said in one image. So all notes thereafter were hidden, so as not to influence the viewer. The results are as follows:



12 participants: Male – 6            Female – 6 (of all ages ranging from 25 – 65).

Dear Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear Image

25 % – Felt sorry for ‘Teddy’

25% – Awww… he’s Cute

25% – Sad

8.3% – Felt nothing

8.3% – Medical reference

8.3% – Childhood memory but without the bandages

Real’ Context: The teddy bear image was collected from Q & A health section in Glamour Magazine. 2011

Kenyan Man

Man of Hope

16.6% – Puts the whole world in perspective

16.6% – Poverty

8.3% – Feels nothing

8.3% – Praying for something better

33.3% – Sad

Simply interested in image

Real’ Context: Yoga magazine. An article on a Yoga Campaign, showing Kenyans how yoga can improve their lives.  2011

Linford Christie as poster boy for Kleenex 'Pocket' tissues

Kleenex ‘Pockets’ Advertisement

8.3 % – This is not what is important – (After viewing ‘man of hope’ photograph)

41.6% – Chuckled

8.3% – Butch

16.6% – Feels nothing

8.3% – Strength and nice body

8.3% – He’s fit


*33.3% of those who chuckled were women.


Real’ Context: Kleenex advertisement from Men’s Fitness magazine using British sprinter Linford Christie. 2011

A form of decadence (for some)

Strawberry & Chocolate Photograph

8.3% – This is pure advertising!

16.6% – Hungry

8.3% – Someone’s sweet!

Delicious: immediate descriptions such as “Yummy….Heavenly”, “Happy! I want chocolate!”,

16.6% – Sexual Feelings

16.6 – It’s just chocolate and/or fruit

8.3% – Feels nothing


Real’ Context: (Modifed by partial cropping) A double page spread found in Yoga magazine informing readers on alternative aphrodisiacs apart from what is shown.



When we speak of subculture the idea of anti – establishment pops into the mind. We must think about why certain groups adopt codes of social behaviour. A subculture is simply a small group of like- minded individuals with distinct traits and beliefs that differentiate them from a larger group. A subculture distinguishes itself through a number of factors that may be aesthetic or stylistic, occupational, political, sexual, religious or even an amalgamation of these. Subculture is all around us and encompasses the age of its members, class, ethnicity, and gender. The Caribbean has its share of subculture. For instance the ‘bad boy/girl’ culture, *Van Stand culture in the Caribbean, skaters, surfers, followers of Hip Hop culture and Rastafarianism. Other cultures on a global scale include the Punk movement, New Age Hippies, Graffiti artists and the Goths. The term subculture originates from the working classes in the1940s and is generally associated with the youth. The term itself was not put into significant use until the early fifties and was at its height of development during the sixties and seventies. Subculture is formed out of defiant and deviant behaviour and would not be in existence without a parent culture and a dominant culture. It fits between the cracks and to some degree embodies multiculturalism particularly in larger nations.

Subculture Practice.

Subculture cannot exist without the growth of a consumer market targeted at the youth. Members of subculture are conspicuous consumers and commodities help to define this culture. Subculture can be perceived as organic and informal as subculture has the ability to reinvent and evolve. For instance a subculture group may have particular likes and/or dislikes of mainstream culture and can extract certain practices from the dominant culture. In addition, a subculture group can select practices and create constructions from other subcultures. On the other side of the coin, subculture is structured. For example surfers may use a secret language or code verbally and aesthetically, to which only members of the group possess the key.


Objects that are consumed in subcultures are used to create distinctive traits. This simply means that styles are constructed from a specific choice of elements to form a style. This involves transforming the present meaning of an object to signify something else, or to change the way it has been utilized. Symbolic objects in subcultures are dress, appearance, language, ritual occasions, styles of interaction and music.  Thereby all merchandise has a social use and thus creates a cultural definition. We can all relate to a quote from the theorist Roland Barthes who observed that,

‘There is no such thing as a simple sweater: there is only a sweater for autumnal walks in the wood or a sweater for relaxing at home on Sundays, or a sweater for casual wear, and so on.’

I have barely scratched the surface of what subculture embodies but I find it crucial to mention the negative backlash, which takes shape in the form of stigmatizing and stereotyping of these groups by public figures and advocates of social and moral control. Not everything about subculture is negative. This has changed significantly since the nineties. Subculture can and has made positive contributions to dominant culture. We can observe the practice of yoga which has been capitalized upon on leisure centres and television programmes to stimulate overall well being. Without subculture mainstream culture cannot evolve either. Although it is evident that mainstream culture generally do not identify with subculture, ultimately there is an upset of understanding in subculture behaviour when objects and customs are translated into commodities and are made generally available to the dominant culture. As soon as elements of the culture are recognised by entrepreneurs in fashion and mass media etc., they are transformed into comprehensible material that become profitable. Due to this phenomenon, a subculture style must establish a new code of conduct, dress and so on by creating new commodities or even in some instances revamping elements from other existing cultures. The purchasing of punk clothing in a popular mail order catalogue is a relevant archetype of this. It is evident that the coding of subcultures becomes diluted and must find alternative means to define and express themselves.

Contemporary subculture extracts influences from all over to formulate new constructions. What has not changed is that it continues to live on through the youth. Young persons are picking and mixing images and ideas from the media to construct identity. The NEW subculture is based on contemporary culture. Diversity is the order of the day through multicultural contact. The concept of what mainstream signifies needs to be challenged. Could it be that globalisation is the new identity of subculture? This is where the antagonism lies.

*Van stand culture is distinct to the Caribbean region. Mid size vans transporting mostly the youth. The vans service routes more frequently than public transportation making illegal stops, exhibiting dangerous driving styles for example ‘Milkshakes’, Loud music – referring to Reggae, “bashment hits”, Dancehall etc., Run ins with the police, the occasionally smoking of ‘chronic’ and ‘seasoned spliffs’, excessively young girls hanging out with drivers and conductors.

‘Nobody Puts Flowers On a Flower’s Grave’ - A piece of graffiti in a toilet in Tacheles, a dilapidated structure in Berlin, Germany that houses underground artistes. The anti-establishment attitude of defacing the wall by a graffitist is combined with melancholic poetry, which is reminiscent of Gothic attributes, (a preoccupation of having a beautiful, romantic death). Here we observe the assimilation of literary and visual language from two subcultures to fashion a new one. Image supplied by Shelly Mayers. (2004)

All a Matter of Taste


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.