taste, sociology of 4941

fashion trade could each year select, from among
a multitude of dress designs brought to the
show, just a few stylistically similar ones. It
looked almost as if they had reached a consensus
or an agreement by actually negotiating and
arguing about the merits of their own favorites
whereas, in fact, they chose them largely inde
pendently of each other. What was important to
Blumer was that this collective taste did not
emanate from any powerful or prestigious cen
ter, but took place among peers or colleagues.
Somehow, almost as if by magic, a taste shared
by all crystallized out of a multitude of indivi
dual tastes and a new seasonal fashion collec
tively selected.
Blumers idea has far reaching consequences
for sociological reasoning because he empha
sized that such dynamic social processes like
taste formation do not necessarily presume any
hierarchical order of superiority. The gravita
tional center of taste in a modern society is its
social center, the middle class, and not its
peak. In this respect it reminds one of Gabriel
Tardes classic work on the laws of imitation,
where he claimed that in imitating social mod
els people just imitate themselves, or others
who are just like them. Consequently, taste is
not a class, but a mass phenomenon. The idea
of social worlds with their own aesthetics and
etiquette of conduct, developed later by sym
bolic interactionists, makes it possible to take
into account social differentiation of taste
which is not hierarchic.
Fashion, without a doubt, serves economic
interests and ultimately promotes the accumu
lation of capital by artificially aging otherwise
functional products. In clothes fashion strong
economic incentives are at play. But it can
reasonably be argued that what goes on in the
collective selection of taste is similar to a pro
cess of aesthetic judgment. The basic criter
ion of fashion is that it could just as well
be otherwise. As far as fashion is concerned,
there cannot be any objective criteria of super
iority. Therefore, it does not actually matter
what, exactly, is the fashion at each point in
time, or, say, what will be the fashionable color
of the next season or the length of the female
dress this autumn. Even if manipulation of
taste takes place one can always ask who manip
ulates the manipulators.

One of the most pertinent questions concerning
the role of taste in society has been to what
extent taste is an expression of an individuals
preferences alone. Are the individuals choices
in consumption free and conscious choices?
To what extent are they socially determined
and habitual? In economistic market research
such choices are as a rule regarded as individual
preferences. Sociologists, contrariwise, empha
size choices social origin and their socially
shared nature. Pierre Bourdieus work Distinc
tion: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,
published in English in 1984 (French edition,
1979), has perhaps more than any other single
sociological work influenced the sociological
discussion of taste during the last decades.
Bourdieus work was explicitly intended as a
sociological critique of Immanuel Kants analy
sis of aesthetic judgment (and, with him, of the
whole tradition of philosophical aesthetics).
Bourdieu aimed at revealing the true social nat
ure of good taste, which always presents itself as
objectively valid and legitimate.
To Bourdieu, taste is the basic analytical
concept of sociology. Distinction is a study of
social distinctions of taste and their relation
ship, on the one hand, to social positions and,
on the other hand, to different symbolic activ
ities and lifestyles. An individuals relative
social position, and, consequently, lifestyle and
taste disposition, is always determined by the
specific combination of the three different types
of capital: economic, cultural, and social. To an
extent, these three forms of capital can be trans
formed into each other. In Bourdieus study,
the sum total of ones capital, as well as the
interplay of these three forms of capital, explain
the class differences in taste dispositions and
their visible expressions, different lifestyles
and, finally, consumer choices.


If Distinction had only claimed that tastes and
lifestyles of various social groups will vary
according to the amount and type of capital in
their possession, it would not differ much from