taste, sociology of 4939

part of common sense or sensus communis,
and it was both futile and unnecessary to argue
about it. On the other hand, according to the
self understanding of the representatives of this
moral sense theory, taste was based on a sense
of feeling about the goodness or badness of
objects or forms of conduct. Therefore, it was
in principle impossible to formulate any general
maxims of good taste. Sole reliance on ones
sense or instinct of good and bad, tasteful
and tasteless, precluded distinction of both
beauty and goodness: sense of beauty and
sense of right and wrong were inseparable.
Taste was essentially both an aesthetic and a
moral category. Thus, decent conduct, dress,
and decorum, as well as eating habits, were all
indicators of an individuals moral and aesthetic
value, or good taste.
In neoclassical economics taste is an exogen
ous factor. Consumer preferences are taken as
given and regarded simply as something which
lie behind an individuals choices. Therefore, in
economics, individual tastes and the social pro
cess of their formation are neither theoretically
problematized nor empirically studied.


This problem inherent in the common sense of
taste (i.e., taste as basically both totally private
and subjective, and universally valid and objec
tive) was formulated most poignantly by Imma
nuel Kant in his third critique, The Critique of
Judgment. He called it the antinomy of taste.
According to Kant, in claiming that something
is beautiful we only express our own feeling or
subjective taste, but at the same time presume
that all others will join us in this judgment.
Without this latter presumption, our statements
of taste would only express our subjective feel
ings of sensual pleasure and their general validity
would be decided solely empirically by count
ing how many fellow citizens join us in any
particular judgment of taste. In this influential
tradition of thought, genuine aesthetic judg
ments differ from judgments of pleasure exactly
because of their claim to universal validity.
Whereas the criterion of good taste gradually
disappeared from the aesthetics of fine arts dur
ing the eighteenth century, it retained its role
in the aesthetics of everyday life and popular
culture, in the aesthetics of lower arts like
gastronomy or popular music, which were often
understood to be closer to sensual delights. The
philosophical aesthetics in the classical Eur
opean humanitarian tradition of thought which
culminated in Kants third critique has left deep
traces in later sociological thinking and concep
tualization of taste. One could claim that his
famous antinomy of taste is repeated in two
ways in later sociological thinking about taste.
First, since it is obvious that peoples tastes, in
fact, differed, often drastically, from each other,
the question of a common or good taste became
an empirical question: taste or good taste
was understood to be either the taste of a certain
group of people, representatives of a high
society, or in a more democratic interpretation,
of the great majority of people. It became in
principle an empirical question to find out to
what extent people shared a common taste and
to what extent different tastes existed side by
side in any society or culture. This tradition of
research can, with good reason, be traced back
to David Humes writings on taste. In a sense,
the rich and long history of sociological studies
of lifestyles and consumer choices or prefer
ences can be understood to originate from this
question: to what extent do people, as a matter
of fact, share a common taste which unites them
in some respects and gives coherence to their
choices in various fields of consumption, from
housing to clothing, from art and music to food?
It is the guiding principle in most market
research to search for some standards unifying
certain consumer segments and various social
groups at the same time as singling them out
from others.
Second, taste is an important concept in
sociological theories of what constitutes the
relation between an individual and his or her
social existence and in answering the question of
what unifies the members of any social commu
nity. In the tradition of classical sociology most
prominently represented by Georg Simmel,
taste was something which helped to overcome
the distance or opposition between an indivi
dual and the larger social totality of which she
or he was supposedly a part. Through shared
taste or style, people would show their affilia
tion to a common social group as well as pre
serve their individuality. In social life, as in art,
it was possible to share a style, as well as retain