Social Class and Cultural Mobility: Reconfiguring the Cultural Omnivore Thesis

Article excerpt

The field of consumption continues to be not only one of the most active arenas of contemporary sociological research but also one in which the 'sea changes' that the discipline has witnessed can most readily be observed. Alan Warde, for example, has recently drawn attention to what he describes as a wholesale shift from a materialist perspective on social life to one in which signs, discourses and mental constructs have been given an 'exclusive role in understanding social activity' (Warde, 1997: 1). This reorientation, he argues, prioritizes inter alia, the theme park over the shop floor, shopping over labouring, consumption over production, and lifestyle over class. Warde's concern that these intellectual realignments have run far ahead of available empirical evidence provided the impetus for his own investigation into food consumption, a study which he describes as being 'structured around doubts about the adequacy and accuracy of theories of radical social transformation'--specifically those of postmodernism and post-Fordism--which had come to prominence in the previous decade. For Warde, although theoretical innovations are important, only through 'empirical examination of particular social practices' will evidence be obtained 'to challenge current accounts of the transformation of the field of consumption' (1997: 2).

The present article is written very much in the spirit of Warde's call for empirically informed work in the sociology of consumption. Taking his arguments as its point of departure, this article sets out to examine the idea of 'cultural mobility' as a way of thinking through a number of interrelated debates that currently occupy the field of consumption studies. In doing so I return initially to the concept's roots in Herbert Gans's work (1966, 1974) on taste cultures and their links to social class. In much of the current work on consumption, class, as Warde has noted, has been abandoned in favour of the more fluid and indeterminate concept of lifestyle, in which actors construct their cultural identities almost at will, subject only to the vagaries of choice. I want to argue, however, that class still matters to consumption, albeit in ways that are more complex than hitherto appreciated. In the tradition which Gans inspired, class and culture were understood to be more or less isomorphically related: 'highbrow' or elite cultural activities and forms being the preserve of the upper or economically advantaged classes, with 'middle' and 'lowbrow' or popular practices in turn enjoying their own distinctive class moorings. Taste cultures, for Gans, were seen as comprising aggregates of any cultural items--books, paintings, films, architecture, television programmes, etc.--'that reflect similar aesthetic standards and are chosen by people partly for this reason. People who make similar choices among these products, and for the same aesthetic reasons, will be described as a taste public' (Gans, 1966: 551). The idea of 'choice' is not incidental here. By conceptualizing taste cultures as actively embraced by their constituent publics, Gans explicitly challenged models of mass consumer culture which he saw as offering only spurious gratification to passive audiences. In its place Gans envisaged a more pluralistic society in which active consumers made cultural choices on the basis of aesthetic standards commensurate with their class and educational backgrounds. But Gans's ideal was also a society in which people should be provided with opportunities for cultural mobility (Gans, 1966: 604-6) through educational improvement which would lead them 'naturally' to gravitate to an appreciation of the higher taste cultures.

In this article I argue that a distinctive form of cultural mobility--although not that envisaged by Gans--has emerged which serves as a new and important social division in contemporary postmodern societies. Whereas Gans saw cultural mobility as indexing societal-level processes of cultural improvement or edification, I understand the term to reflect the differential ability among individuals to consume culturally or to participate in divergent cultural fields. …


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