Class, Consumption and Taste Cultures

My attention was caught the other day by a sleight little piece in a London newspaper (“12 signs you’re middle class”) that got me thinking about a neglected – but I’d argue increasingly relevant and interesting – dimension to social class: the role of taste cultures in defining different class identities.

While the article is an interesting “discussion piece” for students to get them thinking about class, consumption, culture and taste, the background to this might be to think about the development of taste cultures over the past 50 years.

Conventional ways of thinking about class and taste involve arguing for a general convergence of working and middle-class tastes, such as to make class distinctions increasingly blurred. Fenster (1989), for example, notes that “even into the 1980’s class based taste cultures (defined in terms of a recognisable group “of similar people making similar choices”) could be relatively easily identified”. There were still, however, certain broad areas in which different class identities could be delineated in terms of cultural orientations:

Working-class identities were reflected in orientations such as:

  • present orientations (a concern with immediate consumption — because you might not get the opportunity later)
  • immediate gratification (leaving school at the earliest opportunity to take paid employment, for example)
  • tastes such as pop music, football, television, not ‘eating out’

Middle-class identities, on the other hand, were reflected in orientations such as:

  • future orientation
  • deferred gratification (staying in education to obtain qualifications that give entrance to professional careers, for example)
  • tastes such as ‘popular’ classical music, theatre and ‘eating out’

Taste cultures as indicative of distinctive boundary lines between working and middle class identities have, however, changed dramatically in recent times. Prandy and Lambert (2005) suggest ‘there is a gradual shift amongst the population from seeing themselves as working class to middle class’. Savage (2007) argues that although people generally still use traditional class categories as a source of identity, the meaning of this identity has changed: greater emphasis is now placed on individual, rather than collective, experiences.

Savage argues people now talk in terms of hybrid class identities, which involve a mixture of traditional working- and middle-class tastes. For him this reflects the idea that social class is a fluid identity based on the ‘ability of people to make some kind of choice’.

In this respect Brooks (2006) identifies three general cultural themes contributing to middle-class identity:

1. Not working class: Brooks argues ‘The construction of middle class identities has primarily been related to the claim that one is “not working class” – expressed in contemporary society by the idea middle-class identities involve taste cultures (the consumption of music, food, literature, film, clothing and so forth) qualitatively different from those of the working class (the difference, perhaps, between shopping in Lidl and Waitrose).

2. Disgusted subjects: Lawler (2005) argues ‘expressions of disgust at perceived violations of taste [and] white working-class existence’ are a consistent and unifying feature of middle-class identities. An example here is the idea of chav culture: the claim large sections of the white working-class lack taste. Although ‘chavs’ may buy expensive clothes (brands such as Burberry that were once exclusively middle class), their lack of taste (involving cheap flashy jewellery, for example) marks them out for (middle-class) ridicule. The ‘ownership of taste’ allows the middle classes to distinguish themselves from those below and, to some extent, those above (who can be categorised in terms of ‘vulgar and tasteless shows of wealth’). As Bourdieu (1984) puts it, ‘Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, that which represents the greatest threat.’

3. Social capital: This involves the ways in which people are connected to (or disconnected from) social networks (‘who you know’) and the value these connections have for what Putnam (2000) calls ‘norms of reciprocity’ (what people are able and willing to do for each other). Middle-class families are better positioned to tap into significant social networks (such as those found in schools or the workplace) that reinforce their sense of identity and difference. One important aspect of this is what Bourdieu (1986) calls cultural capital – the various (non-economic) resources, such as family and class background, educational qualifications, social skills and tastes, that give people competitive advantages over others.

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