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Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316


From aesthetic principles to collective

sentiments: The logics of everyday judgements
of taste
Ian Woodward*, Michael Emmison
School of Social Science, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia

Contemporary research into the sociology of taste has, following Bourdieu (1984), pri-
marily emphasised the role of taste judgements as mechanisms of social and cultural power, as
distinctive markers of social position, or more broadly as implicated in the reproduction of
social inequality. We argue that although important, such a preoccupation with the social
distribution of objectified tastes—for example in music, literature, and art—has been at the
expense of investigating the everyday perceptual schemes and resources used by actors to
accomplish a judgement of taste. Our argument is traced using a range of classical and con-
temporary literature which deals with the personal/collective tension in taste, aesthetics and
fashion. We use data from a recent national survey to investigate how a sample of ordinary
actors understand the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste. The analysis shows a strong col-
lective strand in everyday definitions of taste, often linked to moral codes of interpersonal
conduct. Also, taste is largely defined by people as a strategy for managing relations with
others, and as a mode of self-discipline which relies on the mastery of a number of general
principles that are resources for people to position their own tastes within an imagined social
sphere. The paper proposes a schematic model which accounts for the range of discriminatory
resources used to make judgements of taste. # 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: i.woodward@mailbox.uq.edu.au (I. Woodward).

0304-422X/01/$ - see front matter # 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S0304-422X(00)00035-8
296 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

1. Introduction

Contemporary research into the sociology of taste has invariably been pre-
occupied with the view that taste judgements and their underlying aesthetic principles
are matters of social determination. Given its centrality to sociological discourse, it
is not surprising that the role of social class has figured prominently in the debates
that have ensued on these themes. The Ur-text in this genre is, of course, Bourdieu’s
Distinction (1984), the work which more than any other challenges Kantian aes-
thetics in its insistence that judgements of taste, far from being ‘disinterested’, are
implicated in the very processes by which dominant groups obtain their power and
influence. More recently the work of Bourdieu on taste and status has been applied
outside the French context in a range of studies which have developed the nexus
linking class and taste as well as introducing further complexities such as the con-
trast between omnivorous and univorous taste structures, or the relative influence of
social networks compared with education as formative influences on cultural com-
petency (DiMaggio, 1987; Lamont, 1992; Peterson, 1992; Bryson, 1996; Erickson 1996;
Peterson and Kern, 1996; Relish, 1997). Whilst there are some important exceptions
to these prevailing views, for example commentators who argue that taste or con-
sumption choices may also be ‘‘processes which bind people together’’ (Longhurst
and Savage 1996: 295; see also Halle, 1993; Wynne and O’Connor, 1998) overall, the
principal achievement of contemporary sociological studies of taste has thus been to
emphasise that patterns of cultural taste are enmeshed within complexly interacting
forms of social and cultural power, by means of which differences in tastes and cul-
tural preferences are used as markers of social position and, in regards to social
reproduction, as a way of unequally distributing cultural life-chances.
Without seeking to discount the importance of this tradition, in this paper we use
empirical data to explore the formation of taste logics at an individual level, and
seek to connect them with broader themes concerning civility, collective sentiments
and techniques of fashioning the self. Our principal argument is that attention to the
social and cultural correspondences of tastes has left a number of important areas
concerning the ‘socialness’ of taste judgements scarcely touched by the scholarly
community. In particular, and as a corollary, we would argue few researchers have
built their understandings of taste on the everyday perceptions and attitudes of
ordinary actors. Whilst numerous studies of the social distribution of tastes in dif-
ferent cultural domains—music, design, literature, etc.—can be found, there is a
surprising indifference to the actual logics which inform and, indeed, constitute these
patterns. In their aggregate form and treated primarily as symbolic markers, as dis-
plays of status or distinction, these ‘judgements of taste’ have become reified or
objectified, severed from their underlying lay conceptual or discursive moorings. It is
precisely this everyday discursive realm of taste which concerns us here.
Using data from a large representative sample of Australians we investigate the
various meanings which actors attribute to the notion of ‘taste’ and the criteria they
employ for differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste. Our findings lead us to
suggest that in many instances everyday judgements of taste are not only understood
as a question of aesthetics but that they are also matters of moral, ethical and communal
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 297

sensibility. Moreover, in their understandings of taste lay actors proffer views and
forms of reasoning which are surprisingly consistent with many aspects of the clas-
sical writings on taste which have been largely neglected in the recent structural
accounts. Most contemporary studies of taste, that is, in their efforts to account for
social distribution of cultural choices, have failed to engage with earlier under-
standings of how tastes operate in a communal way, theorisations which, we argue
were prefigured in classical interpretations of taste and fashion. Before turning to
consider our data, we outline the principal themes which writers from Kant onwards
saw as implicated in making judgements of taste.

2. Theories of taste—personal and collective tensions

2.1. The Kantian legacy

Although he is generally regarded as the father of modern aesthetics it is largely

through Bourdieu’s ‘social critique’ that Kant’s ideas have infiltrated the socio-
logical community. In Kant’s terms, judgements of taste are not based on logical,
cognitive principles. In order to judge what is beautiful, a purely ‘esthetic’ judgement
must be made. The central component of this judgement is the feeling of pleasure or
displeasure provoked in the viewer of an object. In order to specify what is dis-
tinctive about aesthetic judgements, Kant distinguishes between three forms of
delight: delight in the agreeable, delight in the good and delight in the beautiful. His
argument is that only the third of these—that of delight in the beautiful—is devoid
of interest. Things which are agreeable gratify us; things which are good command
our esteem or approval. As he puts it in these cases ‘‘It is not merely the object, but
also its real existence, that pleases. On the other hand the judgement of taste is simply
contemplative, i.e. it is a judgement which is indifferent as to the existence of an object’’
(Kant, 1952: 48). Thus, emptied of notions of use, sensuous pleasures, or pecuniary
influences that might taint perception of beauty, people are freed to contemplate
things and judge their pure beauty based on the evocation of stirred feelings.
It is, of course, Kant’s insistence that judgements of taste must be ‘‘wholly disin-
terested’’ which is the key sticking point for Bourdieu (1984: 41). For Bourdieu,
disinterested judgements are the preserve only of the dominant classes—those whose
economic ‘distance from necessity’ permits them the luxury of these contemplative
forms of aesthetic reflection. In contrast, Bourdieu identifies a popular or working-
class aesthetic which contravenes Kant’s standard of taste because it is squarely
based on the criteria of interest: gratification of pleasure through the senses, utility,
or moral position; a ‘‘refusal of the refusal which is the starting point of the high
aesthetic’’ (Bourdieu 1984: 32). As he makes clear
‘‘Nothing is more alien to popular consciousness than the idea of an aesthetic pleasure that, to put it in
Kantian terms, is independent of the charming of the senses’’ (Bourdieu 1984: 42).

It is, however, Kant’s arguments concerning the universal characteristic of judge-

ments of taste which we seek to develop here. Kant goes on in his Second Moment
298 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

of the Analytic of the Beautiful to argue that given the satisfaction of the criteria of
disinterestedness, a person can reasonably assume that his/her assessment of some-
thing as beautiful (as opposed to merely pleasurable in sensual form) has a universal
‘‘Many things for him possess charm and agreeableness—no one cares about that;
but when he puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same
delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then
speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says the thing is beautiful;
and it is not as if he counted on others agreeing in his judgement of liking owing to
his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands
this agreement of them. He blames them if they judge differently, and denies them
taste, which he still requires of them as something they ought to have’’ (Kant
The theme of universal validity has application to Kant’s sensus communis of taste,
presented in the Fourth Moment. From a sociological point of view, this idea of a
common sense of taste is provocative, and has important affinities to later accounts
of fashion and taste in the classical sociological essays by Simmel (1904[1957]) and
Blumer (1969), and attempts to understand the possibility of aesthetic communities
in works by Bauman (1991), Ferry (1993), Gronow (1997), Maffesoli (1996) and
Lyotard (1988). Kant maintains that tastes only seem to make sense, or acquire
validity, in reference to others. We are not arguing here that Kant’s analysis is
proto-sociological. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that although the data we
present in this paper report the schemes and repertoires people use to distinguish
between what is aesthetically ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘tasteful’ or ‘tasteless’, such expres-
sions would clearly fail to satisfy Kant’s criterion of disinterestedness. The assort-
ment of schemes we report are generally strongly linked to a range of (thoroughly
‘interested’) social conventions and considerations, which plainly contravene Kant’s
model. In Kant’s model, sensus communis is contingent on the criterion of disin-
terestedness. In any pure judgement of taste people should judge beauty in the same
way—there is a harmony in social judgements which assumes an idea of ‘‘common

‘‘In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful we tolerate no one else being of a different
opinion, and in taking up this position we do not rest our judgement upon concepts, but only our feeling.
Accordingly, we introduce this fundamental feeling not as a private feeling, but as a public sense. Now,
for this purpose, experience cannot be made the ground of this common sense, for the latter is invoked to
justify judgements containing an ‘ought’. The assertion is not that every one will fall in with our judge-
ment, but rather that every one ought to agree with it. Here I put forward my judgement of taste as an
example of the judgement of common sense, and attribute it on that account exemplary validity’’ (Kant,

2.2. Elite and collective models of taste

Kant’s argument that judgements of taste are not purely private or individual but
display an orientation to, or awareness of, communal or collective standards re-
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 299

emerge, albeit in different forms, in the classical sociological literature on fashion,

taste and consumption. In the work of both Veblen and Simmel the maintenance of
class distinctions was seen as the primary mechanism driving the conspicuous con-
sumption of the elite strata and their attendant concern for visible signs of differ-
entiation from other classes. In Veblen’s (1899) model, the leisured classes are able
to demonstrate their status through wasteful expenditures. Concomitantly, main-
stream or popular taste judges beauty not by means of aesthetic criteria but rather
via the pecuniary canons of the leisured classes. As Veblen puts it,

‘‘The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste,
but it is none the less present as a constraining norm selectively shaping and sustaining our sense of what is
beautiful’’ (Veblen 1899[1934]:128).

Equally for Simmel class considerations underpinned the fashion mechanism in

modern society. For Simmel, fashion was the pivotal means of reconciling the per-
ennial problem of ‘‘socialistic adaptation to society and individual departure from
its demands’’ (Simmel 1904[1957]:542).

‘‘Fashion is the imitation of a given example and satisfies the demand for social adaptation; it leads the
individual upon the road which all travel, it furnishes a general condition, which resolves the conduct of
every individual into a mere example. At the same time it satisfies in no less degree the need of differ-
entiation, the tendency towards dissimilarity, the desire for change and contrast, on the one hand by a
constant change of contents, ... on the other hand because fashions differ for different classes the fashions
of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower; in fact they are abandoned by
the former as soon as the latter prepares to appropriate them’’ (Simmel 1904[1957]:543).

For Simmel (like Kant and later Blumer), fashion was a kind of public playing out
of taste mechanisms—it was a domain where levels of public taste were constantly
established, and re-appraised (1904[1957]:549). Imitation was a fundamental com-
ponent of this process, because it was the central practice or technique for indivi-
duals to orient themselves to the social. As it involved both reflection and mindless
copying, Simmel characterised this component of fashion as at once ‘‘a child of
thought and thoughtlessness’’ (1904[1957]:542). For the modern person, imitation
was not merely a negative thing, for it did free the individual from the responsibility
of maintaining self, and the work of generating an authentic individual style. How-
ever, in the process of copying, the modern imitator forfeited creativity and genuine
self-purpose. The modern fashion imitator was merely a ‘‘vessel of social contexts’’
(1904[1957]:543). Given imitation was such a fundamental process in fashion, and
hence a characteristic force of modernity as well, there must be a social group whose
fashions served as models available to be imitated. It is because of this important
demarcation between those who set the fashion agenda and those who followed, that
Simmel’s analysis of fashion is largely a class-based model of emulation, where the
lower classes constantly sought to imitate upper class fashions. Simmel argues that
fashion, in its most pure form, is the domain of the upper classes (1904[1957]:545).
Technically, the lower class possess few, if any, genuine fashions of their own. See-
mingly, this is what led to Fred Davis (1992:111) suggesting that Simmel’s idea of
fashion is a rather more subtle version of the classical trickle down model.
300 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

It is in Blumer’s (1969) analysis of the deficiencies of early conceptualisations of

fashion where Simmel’s logic is most strongly critiqued, and the theme of the col-
lective or communal character to taste reemerges most clearly. Blumer’s arguments
constitute a departure from the elite-to-mass model of fashion and taste, represented
by Veblen and Simmel, in a number of crucial ways. One of the structural keys to his
critique of Simmel is the conception of fashion as a modern process par excellence.
Blumer’s claim that the classical approach to fashion was time-space contingent
allows him to develop a more complex model of taste and fashion mechanisms. In
contrast to early-modern social forms in which Simmel’s analysis was framed, fash-
ion in modern societies is articulated and differentiated across a range of fields. In
such a model, the elite-to-mass conception of the transmission of fashion becomes
too restrictive as the fashion mechanism now incorporates the elite group.

‘‘The efforts of an elite class to set itself apart in appearance takes place inside of the movement of fashion
instead of being its cause. The prestige of elite groups, in place of setting the direction of the fashion
movement, is effective only to the extent to which they are recognised as representing and portraying the
movement. The people in other classes who consciously follow the fashion do so because it is the fashion
and not because of the separate prestige of the elite group’’ (Blumer, 1969:281–282).

Blumer characterises the mechanism of fashion as one of ‘collective selection’.

Selection is the social process of arrival at a ‘collective taste’. The social process of
selecting tastes is described by Blumer like an economic auction of competing tastes
and fashions in a social-aesthetic marketplace, where elite and mass groups pick and
choose from emerging differentiations of styles according to their own aesthetic
values. All the time, this ‘‘unwitting groping for suitable forms of expression’’ (Blu-
mer, 1969:282) pushes forward the direction of collective tastes.

‘‘The fashion mechanism appears not in response to a need of class differentiation and class emulation but
in response to a wish to be in fashion, to be abreast of what has good standing, to express new tastes
which are emerging in a changing world’’ (Blumer, 1969: 282).

Although his work is not intended as a contribution to these themes there are
nevertheless some intriguing similarities between the literature on taste and fashion
and Elias’ account of the civilizing process. This is not only because manners are
behavioural components of what people consider to be in good or bad taste, but also
because Elias’ conceptualisation of the drive toward civilisation as a tension invol-
ving psychological and social-structural elements is akin to theories of fashion dis-
semination. We return to this issue in a later section of the paper.
In different ways, then, we can observe a central strand in both philosophical
works and the classical and contemporary sociological literature on taste which
argues for consideration of the role that collective or communal elements play in
judgements of taste. Precisely how such collective sentiments play themselves out in
the formation of actual judgements, however, remains unclear. It is this issue
which we seek to address in the remainder of the paper through a consideration of
the logics which inform everyday understandings of good and bad taste. Our
analysis is distinguished by its approach. Rather than addressing what people like—
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 301

as do studies of ‘objectified’ tastes—we explore the means or resources people

have for expressing their preferences, and the relation of these to wider cultural

3. Data and methodological procedures

The data used in the following analysis have been collected as part of the
Australian Everyday Culture Project (AECP). The AECP is large scale investigation
of the cultural tastes and preferences of Australians, in part modeled on Bourdieu’s
Distinction, covering inter alia music, television, film, literature, newspapers and
magazines, the visual arts and design, sport, housing and furniture, fashion and
food. Data for the project have been obtained primarily through a national
random sample survey (N=2756) as well as focus groups and in-depth interviews. A
comprehensive account of the results of this project is available in a recently pub-
lished monograph, Accounting for Tastes: Australian everyday cultures (Bennett
et al., 1999). Although the AECP gave primary emphasis to the collection of
quantitative data relating to the taste structures of particular cultural domains, the
project also sought qualitative information on particular taste preferences. In this
paper we focus primarily on one key question used to elicit these qualitative
The question extracted from the AECP survey for the present analysis asked the
respondent to ‘‘indicate in a few words what you think good taste and bad taste
entail’’. Respondents were requested to report what they understand by each term
and (or alternately) to use examples to assist in the formulation of their response.
An initial coding was undertaken to distinguish ‘short’ (one or two words) from
‘long’ (up to two lines in length- the amount provided on the survey form) answers.
This initial coding yielded a total of 619 long responses, constituting nearly one-
quarter (23%) of the total AECP sample and which form the data for our investi-
gation here. All responses were introduced to NUDIST qualitative data analysis
software for coding and categorisation. At this stage of analysis, the principles of
open-coding as recommended by Strauss and Corbin (1990) were followed. Essen-
tially, open-coding is a data sensitive analytic procedure that rests on the use of a
constant-comparative technique (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) to generate grounded
concepts from texts, which are in turn continually fashioned and ‘reshaped’ by the
researcher in light of new textual data. The initial open-code of all 619 responses
generated seventy-seven categories, consisting of forty-three categories for the good
taste responses and thirty-four for the bad taste responses. These categories were
generated directly from the words used by the respondents, and can therefore be
seen as the least abstracted stage of the coding process. In the next phase of coding,
at a higher level of abstraction of responses, organising concepts were introduced by
the researchers. These were an attempt to develop a theoretical order for the pro-
liferation of concepts generated at the open-coding stage. While these organising
concepts should be seen as being grounded in the textual material of the responses,
they also form the basis of the theoretical ideas we introduce in this paper- quality,
302 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

quantity and composition, socialness and an ‘other’ orientation in taste practice, and
self-discipline or restraint.

4. The abstract classificatory schemes of taste judgements

Our data reveal that people possess an assortment of conceptual schemes which
they invoke to classify objects, behaviours, attitudes, or aspects of self-presentation
into broad categories of tasteful or tasteless. In our initial appraisal of the data,
these schemes or ideas have been organised into three prominent analytic spheres:
quantity, composition and quality. While it is clear from our data that these are
important schemes of judgement, our analysis is not able to demonstrate the extent
of mutual interaction between each of these classificatory schemes. Empirical ques-
tions dealing with whether actors employ such ideas as autonomous judgement
‘repertoires’ or ‘scripts’, or whether they are integrated within a matrix of schemes of
taste judgement would constitute valuable follow-up research in this area.

4.1. Quantity

An important component of assessing something or someone as in ‘good taste’

involves an appreciation of the acceptable quantity of the thing to present to others;
that is, gauging the socially acceptable, ‘correct’ amount of something. For example,
wearing clothing with too much or too little colour, saying too many or too few
words in a particular social situation, having too much ‘product’ in one’s hair, or
having shoe heels that are a centimetre too high may all tip a person outside accep-
table limits of what is tasteful. An assessment of what is acceptable is of course
relative to the social situation, so applying rules of appropriateness are crucial.
Employing notions of quantity to assist taste judgements are common for many
respondents, but particularly for women and those with higher levels of education.
Of those who use notions of ‘quantity’ to think about taste, women comprise nearly
two-thirds (62.5%) and those with tertiary education make up nearly half (45.6%).
The use of quantity to think about taste is succinctly expressed by a female respon-
dent who says that good taste is ‘‘knowing when enough is enough’’. In relation to
personal interactions another says it involves ‘‘economy of gestures and manner’’.
Contributing food as an example, a female respondent says that what is tasteful is
‘‘good food but not too much on the plate’’. Significant orienting concepts for jud-
ging good taste employed by respondents are understatement and overstatement,
which are linked to quantitative notions of what is perceived to be too much or too
little of something. Characteristically, understatement is imagined by respondents
using words like ‘‘restraint’’, ‘‘simplicity’’, ‘‘discrete’’, ‘‘subtle’’ and ‘‘subdued’’;
while too much or overstatement is imagined as ‘‘gaudy’’, ‘‘showy’’, ‘‘ostentatious’’,
‘‘overpowering’’ and ‘‘extreme’’. The idea that taste judgements involve assessments of
quantity illustrate that part of a person’s ability to rest on the correct side of the taste
spectrum, at least in others’ eyes, comes down to their mastery of what constitutes
acceptable limits to behaviour and self-presentation in different social situations.
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 303

4.2. Composition

In practice, judgements about what is ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ of some-

thing clearly cannot easily come down to a fine quantitative estimate. Thinking too
hard about the exact number of words suitable for a workplace hallway greeting, or
the precise length of what is considered an appropriate length of hair is not
only impractical but socially absurd; however, it is salient to consider that people
generally say they know when something or someone looks ‘right’, or some-
how ‘wrong’. We use the term ‘composition’ to refer to this particular sentiment. As
a social skill it is neatly invoked by a female respondent who summarises good taste
as ‘‘when things go well together’’, or more definitively by a male respondent
who describes having good taste as ‘‘a measure of a persons ability to select or
organise matters in a pleasing way to the majority of people’’. The question
remains, however, how do people distinguish when things ‘go together’, or are
organised in a pleasing way? What respondents suggest is that they rely on subtle
cues to help them gauge the taste expertise demonstrated in the verbal or physical
presentation of others. The data show that these assessments about how expertly
composed aspects of a person are rely heavily on perceived measures of harmony
and appropriateness. Preliminary analysis shows that these perceptual cues are not
found uniformly across the sample.
Though cited by respondents from all social groups, the use of ideas like ‘‘har-
mony’’, ‘‘balance’’, ‘‘complementary’’, ‘‘flow’’, ‘‘blending’’, and their antithesis such
as ‘‘clashing’’, ‘‘mismatched’’ and ‘‘garish’’ are more frequently, though not exclu-
sively, made by women and those with higher levels of education. Marginally over
two-thirds (67.8%) of those who refer to harmony as significant in judging taste are
women, forty percent (40.9%) are tertiary educated and one third (33.3%) are in
professional occupations.

4.3. Qualities

For an action or object to be in good taste it must have certain nonfunctional

qualities. The possession of these qualities is not always perceived to be the exclusive
domain of those groups with significant material resources, for feasibly one could
strive to be ‘‘elegant’’, ‘‘refined’’, ‘‘unobtrusive’’, and ‘‘coordinated’’ without invest-
ing significant monetary resources. Likewise, having money does not guarantee the
possession of some type of tasteful universal. Consider the examples used to describe
good taste by two men: the first, a tertiary educated professional in the 36–45 age
bracket says good taste is ‘‘enduring, timeless, understated, dignified, elegant, e.g.
Jaguar cars, Italian woolen trousers and shoes’’, the other, a labourer with a trades
certificate in the 26–35 age bracket, says ‘‘relaxing on a 38 foot boat a rod in one
hand and a beer in the other’’. Both examples require significant monetary resour-
ces, but signify very different conceptions of how it could be ‘tastefully’ spent.
Generally, notions of ‘‘elegance’’, ‘‘timelessness’’, and ‘‘classicism’’ are employed by
a small number of tertiary educated professionals, they are also most likely to be
304 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

5. Conceptual logics of taste judgements: basic dimensions

To further refine our analysis we undertook a recoding of our data using two
broad variables generated from themes developed at the initial coding stage. These
two variables have been titled ‘domain of taste’ and ‘basis of taste judgement’.
The ‘domain of taste’ variable is designed to capture the materiality or concrete-
ness of lay taste judgements. By domain we mean the specific social, cultural or
consumption sphere to which the respondent principally refers in their explanation
of what is entailed by good and bad taste. For example, a reference to clothing, the
media, or the home, as the foremost sphere that grounds their explanation. The
‘basis’ of the taste judgement, on the other hand, refers to whether understandings
of good and bad taste are principally couched in terms of a personal or aesthetic
judgement, or alternately by recourse to what we have called collective or social
norms. In operational terms a personal or aesthetic judgement was deemed to have
been made when the respondent interprets the meaning of good and bad taste prin-
cipally through reference to the personal or aesthetic characteristics of imagined
others. For example, if good taste was seen as someone ‘‘dressing smartly’’, or
‘‘having a stylish house’’, then this was assessed as being of a personal or aesthetic
nature. Alternately, if good taste was thought of as ‘‘dressing to suit the situation’’,
or ‘‘having a house colour that is in keeping with the rest of the street’’, then such
responses were judged to be of a collective nature, where some perceived social norm
is referred to and personal preferences are to some extent compromised in relation
to social requirements.

5.1. Conceptions of taste and the individual/collective tension

In this section we examine in more detail the results pertaining to the two core
dimensions of ‘domain’ and ‘basis’ of taste judgements. We look first at the domains
of cultural practice used to ground definitions of good and bad taste (Table 1), and
second, we consider the basis of definitions of taste (Table 2).
Table 1 illustrates two important points about the domains of cultural practices
used by respondents to define good and bad taste. The first—which might be

Table 1
Domains of cultural practice used to ground definitions of good and bad taste (column %)

Domain of practice principally used When defining When defining

good taste bad taste

No specific domain used 53 42

Interpersonal conduct 24 33
Clothing and personal appearance 11 10
Home design and architecture 3 2
Media 6 9
Misc. others 2 3
Totals (n) (619) (619)

Notes: p<0.01.
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 305

Table 2
The personal/collective dimension in judgements of good and bad taste (row %)

Basis of judgement Personal and/or Collective or Totals (n)

principally used aesthetic judgement social judgement

When defining good taste 54 46 (619)

When defining bad taste 42 58 (619)

Notes: p<0.01.

construed as a negative finding—relates to the deployment of abstract, conceptual

resources when defining taste. A substantial number of our respondents do not
employ a specific domain in their explanations: just over fifty percent (53%) offered
no specific domain in their understanding of good taste and just over forty percent
(42%) formulated their idea of bad taste in a similar way. These respondents defined
good and bad taste by using abstract ideas—the notions of quality, quantity or
composition we have just examined—rather than specific taste practices or fields of
practices. The following examples are representative of such abstract responses:

‘‘good taste is something that is classic, stylish, elegant and most importantly suits you and your

‘‘simple lines, functionality, elegance, colour coordination, subtle, comfortable’’.

The second notable feature in Table 1 is the popularity of ideas about inter-
personal conduct as ways of illustrating both good and bad taste. This category of
response was by far the largest of all the specific domains that were offered and
refers to practices such as politeness, courtesy, discretion and sensitivity. This fea-
ture of our data is intriguing. We did not find music, literature, film or the visual
arts—the principal domains traditionally employed by sociologists to study patterns
of objectified taste—to be important in the way our respondents defined taste.
Rather, ideas relating to conduct and the treatment of others in everyday dealings
are the most commonly employed practical ways people use to explain taste: up to
one-third of our sample define taste through notions of interpersonal conduct.
Equally intriguing is the finding that a recourse to the theme of interpersonal con-
duct is most likely to be made when seeking to explain bad taste: one-third (33.1%)
of the examples of bad taste made reference to interpersonal conduct as opposed to
just under a quarter (24.4%) of the good taste responses.
Formulations such as these clearly point to the way in which we can begin to think
of lay understandings of taste as grounded in communal or collective sentiments
rather than derived from aesthetic principles. This aspect of our research is evident
in the data in Table 2.
The trend to deploy notions of collective ideals and interpersonal behavioural
norms to define bad taste in particular is prominent again when the basis of taste
judgements is considered (Table 2). What is most evident here is the reversal of the
personal/collective basis of taste judgements.
306 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

The results show that when respondents sought to explain good taste they were
more likely to utilize personal judgements (54.1%); however, when defining bad
taste collective or social norms were likely to be prominent in their response
(58.3%). The invocation of such collective or social norms is evident in the following

‘‘socially offensive and thoughtless behaviour’’,

‘‘outlandish behaviour, body actions and speech’’,

‘‘unreasoned, avoidable, malicious and hurtful behaviour’’.

In contrast the socialness of good taste was evident when respondents spoke of
themes such as ‘‘appropriateness’’, ‘‘acceptability’’, and ‘‘consideration’’:

‘‘pleasing to a majority of people and inoffensive to all’’,

‘‘anything which is considered to be morally and culturally acceptable by the general populace in which
one resides’’.

These patterns raise two important theoretical implications. The first relates to the
relative difficulty of defining good taste compared to bad taste. To some degree it
seems easier for people to specify what they do not like than what they like. Bour-
dieu has observed that ‘‘it is no accident that, when they (taste judgements) have to
be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes. In
matters of taste, more than anything else, all determination is negation, and tastes
are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral
intolerance (‘‘sick-making’’) of the tastes of others’’ (Bourdieu 1984:56). The data
we have examined provide support for this proposition to the extent that our sample
appears to be able to formulate concrete instances of ‘bad taste’ more readily than
those which illustrate ‘good taste’. Second, our findings suggest that the resources
people use to express their understanding of taste depends on whether they are
assessing this positively or negatively. One way to think of what might be happening
here is to say that good and bad taste judgements seem to require different discursive
strategies rather than being variants of a single operation at opposite ends of a taste
continuum. Judgements of bad taste discursively invoke the imprimatur of ‘the col-
lectivity’ as well as being more easily formulated concretely. Good taste, alter-
natively, resonates more as a matter of personal of aesthetic judgement, but the
difficulty of using such reference points results in a greater proliferation of abstract

5.2. Descriptive patterns: Social differences in the individual/collective dimension of

definitions of taste

In the following section we consider the influence of three important variables on

the formulation of everyday definitions of taste: educational attainment, gender and
age. Our data demonstrate a number of relevant social differences in the ways people
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 307

think about the categories of good and bad taste. Perhaps the simplest pattern—and
in some ways the most intuitively self-evident—concerns the impact of level of edu-
cational attainment. As Tables 3 and 4 show, the proportion of respondents who
employ abstract concepts when defining good and bad taste increases as the level of
education attainment increases from 20% for those with a primary education only
to over sixty percent (62.8%) for those with a university education in definitions of
good taste, and from sixteen percent to fifty-four percent (53.8%) for the bad taste
responses. These differences are taken up in large part by the associated change in
percentages of those who invoke the theme of interpersonal conduct. The odds of
explaining the meaning of good taste by reference to interpersonal conduct among
primary educated respondents is nearly four times as large (OR=3.8, 95%CI=1.6–
6.8) as the odds for those with tertiary education, and three and a half times as large
when explaining the meaning of bad taste (OR=3.6, 95% CI=1.5–8.2)1.
When the role of gender is considered two important findings emerge (Tables 5
and 6). Firstly, when defining both good and bad taste, women are more likely than
men to specify a particular domain of taste practice. We offer a couple of examples
drawn from the data to illustrate this difference. A male respondent invokes general
principles in maintaining that good taste is ‘‘pleasing to a majority of people and

Table 3
Domain of cultural practice used to define good taste by educational attainment (row %)

Stage finish. Abstract Interpersonal Clothing and Home design Media Totals (n)
Education definition conduct appearance and architecture
(no domain)

Primary 20 44 16 12 8 (25)
Some secondary 48 30 13 1 5 (132)
Complete secondary 47 27 9 2 11 (129)
Vocational 54 19 17 2 4 (52)
Part tertiary 59 21 9 4 5 (95)
Completed tertiary 63 17 10 3 5 (156)

Notes: p<0.001.

Table 4
Domain of cultural practice used to define bad taste by educational attainment (row %)

Stage finish. Abstract Interpersonal Clothing and Home design Media Totals (n)
Education definition conduct appearance and architecture
(no domain)

Primary 16 56 12 8 8 (25)
Some secondary 37 38 11 2 8 (132)
Complete secondary 36 36 6 1 18 (129)
Vocational 35 37 12 4 12 (52)
Part tertiary 51 26 13 2 5 (95)
Completed tertiary 54 26 9 2 8 (156)

Notes: p<0.001.
308 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

inoffensive to all’’, and, ‘‘a practical opinion not too distorted from the general
public view’’. Conversely the following specific responses come from two female
respondents who say that good taste is ‘‘holding conversations at a dinner party
which intend to involve everyone’’, or ‘‘refined speech and behaviour which is con-
sistent with current standards and attracts favourable comments from others’’. The
odds of women using an abstract explanation, where no specific domain of taste is
employed, is only two-thirds as large as the odds of men employing similar cate-
gories (OR=0.68, 95% CI=0.49–0.94).
The second important gender difference is found in the specific domains males and
females use to define taste. Table 5 shows a small difference in the area of inter-
personal conduct. More important is the difference in clothing. The odds of women
using the domain of clothing and personal appearance to explain the meaning of
both good and bad taste is more than twice as large as the odds for men making
similar explanations (for good taste definitions, OR=2.19, 95% CI=1.3–3.8, for
bad taste definitions OR=2.1, 95% CI=1.2–3.6).
Perhaps the most significant source of variation in the making of taste judgements
is that of the age of the respondent (Tables 7 and 8). The clear pattern revealed is
that as age of respondent increases, there is a linear decrease in the likelihood that
definitions of both good and bad taste will be made along personal-oriented,
aesthetic lines and a corresponding recourse to collective concepts. Table 8
shows that, in relation to bad taste, less than half (45.6%) of under 25s base their
definitions of taste in collective concepts in contrast to over seventy percent of
people aged 60 or over (71.5%). The odds of a respondent in the 18–25 age
group using a personal or aesthetic concept to explain the meaning of bad taste is
nearly two and a half times as large as the odds of a respondent in the 60 and above

Table 5
Domains of cultural practice used by men and women to define good taste (row %)

Abstract Interpersonal Clothing and Home design Media Misc. others Totals (n)
definition conduct appearance and architecture
(no domain)

Females 49 26 15 3 6 1 (345)
Males 58 22 7 2 7 4 (272)

Notes: p<0.01.

Table 6
Domains of cultural practice used by men and women to define bad taste (row %)

Abstract Interpersonal Clothing and Home design Media Misc. others Totals (n)
definition conduct appearance and architecture
(no domain)

Females 39 36 13 2 8 2 (345)
Males 47 29 7 2 11 4 (272)

Notes: p<0.05.
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 309

age group using a personal or aesthetic concept. Equally important is the choice of
interpersonal conduct as the primary domain to express taste judgements. The odds
of a respondent aged 60 and over explaining their understanding of taste in terms of
interpersonal conduct is more than three times as large as the odds of those in the
18–25 age group (OR=3.5, 95% CI=1.8–6.6), who prefer personal and aesthetic
concepts in their explanation.
Fig. 1 summarises these various trends. The diagram is an attempt to portray the
conceptual resources used in formulating notions of good and bad taste as a matrix
derived from the core dimensions of ‘abstract/specific’ and ‘collective-social/perso-
nal-aesthetic’. The upper-left quadrant of the matrix is occupied by resources which
are simultaneously abstract and collective in character. These resources—terms such
as ‘considerate’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘thoughtful’, are typically drawn upon by older
respondents, men more than women and those with higher levels of education. The
upper-right quadrant, although still in the collective half of the figure, houses
resources for thinking about taste which invoke specific behaviours or acts toward
others, like ‘‘cruelty’’, ‘‘kindness’’ and ‘‘good manners’’. These are more likely to be
used by older people, women, and those with minimal education. The two lower
quadrants of the matrix each contain resources whose principal characteristic is that

Table 7
Basis of good taste judgments by age (row %)

Age group Principally employ Principally employ Totals (n)

personal or aesthetic collective or social
concepts when defining concepts when defining
good taste good taste

18–25 65 35 (94)
26–35 63 37 (129)
36–45 52 48 (151)
46–59 49 51 (125)
Over 60 43 57 (116)

Notes: p<0.01.

Table 8
Basis of bad taste judgments by age (row %)

Age group Principally employ Principally employ Totals (n)

personal or aesthetic collective or social
concepts when defining concepts when defining
bad taste bad taste

18–25 54 46 (94)
26–35 50 50 (129)
36–45 39 61 (151)
46–59 39 61 (125)
Over 60 28 72 (116)

Notes: p<0.01.
310 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

they rely upon the use of personal or aesthetic criteria in making judgements of
taste. The bottom-right quadrant locates specific examples of these inherently per-
sonal matters: for example wearing ‘‘matching clothes’’, ‘‘appropriate clothes’’, or
‘‘speaking clearly’’. Once again these are resources associated with older respon-
dents, women and lower education. Finally in the bottom-left quadrant of the
matrix we have abstract examples of these personal or aesthetic frames—resources
most commonly employed by tertiary educated and younger respondents.
While it is not the purpose of this paper to seek a comprehensive explanation of
such trends, given such decisive and intriguing results it is worthwhile reflecting
briefly on how these results fit with other findings in studies of tastes. In relation to
the impact of gender on aesthetic judgement, Bourdieu’s suggestion that women
tend to employ aesthetic distinctions less frequently and systematically than men,
and therefore ‘‘men are, ex officio, on the side of culture whereas women (like the
working class) are cast on the side of nature’’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 40) deserves further
scrutiny. While our findings do show that men are more likely to explain the mean-
ing of taste via abstract concepts (Tables 5 and 6), it is also apparent that women’s
aesthetic expertise lies in their ability to offer a large range of specific, grounded
examples of good and bad taste. This finding is supported in other recent research.
For example, Madigan and Munro (1996) found that women tend to bear chief

Fig. 1. Conceptual resources in the determination of good and bad taste judgements.
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 311

responsibility for decorative choices in the home. In their study of Australian taste
cultures, Bennett et al. (1999) report that in relation to domestic decoration women
talk animatedly about their homes, while men tend to be taciturn, distancing from
questions of aesthetics and oriented towards practical issues around the home. Also,
in his interviews with shoppers, Colin Campbell (1997: 176) reports evidence that
male interviewees ‘‘have difficulty making judgements of taste’’, and that some men
avoid aesthetic questions altogether. The influence of sex role socialisation may well
be important here, and we note that the cultural assignment of consumption as a
feminine activity has been well documented in feminist literature, and acknowledged
in the consumption studies literature (see Campbell, 1997). In relation to the ques-
tion of age and aesthetic judgements, our clear finding is that young people prefer
aesthetic concepts to explain the meaning of good and bad taste, while older peo-
ple’s explanations are grounded in collective or social concepts (Tables 7 and 8).
Such a finding is consistent with the ‘postmodern consumption’ thesis, which has
suggested that new hedonistic regimes of consumerism proliferate in postmodern
societies, and that younger people are the first to adopt these new styles and forms
(see Featherstone, 1987; Lash and Urry, 1994; Campbell, 1995).

6. Discussion: The sentiments of good and bad taste

6.1. Introduction

In his inquiry into the history of manners Norbert Elias illustrates how emerging
models of taste refinement are linked with increasingly differentiated modes of self-
restraint. Elias’ imperative is to explain historical changes in human conduct and
sentiment given a mass of historical data about manners, and the bounds of social
acceptability of a range of bodily functions across numerous social settings. One of
Elias’ central arguments is that historical changes in sentiments of civility move
toward self-restraint (1994: 443), rather than external or institutional restraints. For
Elias, this historical process is linked to shifts in patterns of ‘danger zones’, from
physical combat to shame, and to the emergence of cultural symbols based around
money, prestige and distinction (1994: 456). Activated by the ‘‘drive economy’’ of
shame, fear and embarrassment, the human personality tends toward ‘‘continuous
reflection, foresight, and calculation, self-control, precise and articulate regulation
of one’s own effects; knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in
which one acts, become more and more indispensable preconditions of social suc-
cess’’ (Elias, 1994:476). Momentary inclinations are thus suppressed, as people
adapt their behaviour to what they perceive to be the ‘‘tempo’’ of the era (1994:
456). Changes in models of refinement are formed slowly and relatively ‘‘noiselessly’’
(1994: 471), and based on self-reflection and the continuous referencing of conduct
in relation to others (1994: 445).
Whilst survey data such as ours cannot be used to assess the validity of the pro-
cesses which are at the core of Elias’ theory there are, nevertheless, some intriguing
affinities to be found. In this final section we revisit our data and consider the extent
312 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

to which the schemes people use in making everyday assessments of taste resonate
with Elias’ theoretical point about the growing restraint and attunement of conduct
toward others. We describe these interlinked themes broadly as the ‘socialness’ of
taste judgements. Specifically, our analysis shows that this orientation to others in
understandings of tastefulness incorporates sentiments of taste which rest upon the
principles of attunement to others, and self-restraint or discipline.

6.2. The socialness of taste judgements—attunement and restraint

The socialness of taste judgements are evident in terms such as ‘‘thoughtful’’,

‘‘civil’’, ‘‘courteous’’, ‘‘politeness’’, ‘‘discretion’’, ‘‘sensitivity’’ and above all by the
word ‘‘considerate’’. The word ‘‘considerate’’ is found in 84 cases in the qualitative
analysis, constituting around 13.5% of all responses. Conversely bad taste is ima-
gined as ‘‘selfish’’, ‘‘self-opinionated’’, ‘‘insensitive’’, ‘‘confrontational’’ and ‘‘vul-
gar’’. The practice of consideration for others in material and behavioural choices is
summed up by this response:

‘‘things that are in good taste are generally not upsetting or disgusting to the general public, people who
act in good taste care about the people around them and do not want to upset them’’.

As illustrated in the following examples, essentially this seems to amount to pre-

senting oneself in ways perceived as appropriate by others. An older male says that
good taste is to:

‘‘have good manners, treat people with decorum, dress in a suitable fashion, be an example to other people’’;

similarly another reports good taste as:

‘‘conforming to a standard which is recognised that will not offend the average person—morally, sexually,

The skill of determining the appropriateness of something for a particular cir-

cumstance is a crucial element of the taste judgement. A female respondent states
that the key to good taste is ‘‘a knowledge of what is acceptable at the right time and
place’’. Displaying good or bad taste in something is not necessarily a matter for
absolute judgement, because having either a surplus or lack of taste is not always
inherent as a fault of the object or sign employed, but the person who has endea-
voured to employ the sign and somehow failed to thoroughly master the ‘rules’ that
apply in its use. A couple of examples from the data illustrate this point. Wearing
black clothing is something that several respondents are divided on. Some find it a
sign of bad taste, others see it as stylish and elegant. One person says that wearing
black clothing is not problematic in itself, only when it is worn to a wedding. Simi-
larly, a young women says that black stockings and red shoes are acceptable items of
clothing on their own, but together they are patently bad taste, presumably because
together they signify something greater than when worn as separate items of clothing.
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 313

Alternately, the practice of conceiving bad taste as insensitivity and selfishness

manifested when people ignore the social needs of others, or the requirement of the
social situation, is summed up by two female respondents. The first says that bad
taste is: ‘‘a total disregard for situations and feelings of those involved and exploit-
ing a situation for self gain’’, the other says more simply that bad taste is ‘‘when
your choices make others feel uncomfortable’’. The conception of taste in terms of
practising consideration for others is approximately equally common for both men
and women, though the data suggests that men are more concerned with their taste
choices ‘fitting in’ or being ‘generally acceptable’ than women.
The practice of positioning one’s personal taste within the range of acceptable
social practice is well illustrated in the spheres of manners and civility. In this
sphere, good taste is imagined as showing ‘‘respect’’, ‘‘understanding’’, ‘‘caring’’,
‘‘concern’’, and being ‘‘sympathetic to others feelings’’. Those who act in bad taste
are ‘‘rude’’, ‘‘abrupt’’, ‘‘arrogant’’, ‘‘attention seeking’’, ‘‘loutish’’ and ‘‘uncouth’’ in
their dealings with others. This linking of manners to taste is often part of a broader
dispositional outlook, as identified by a female respondent who says that good taste

‘‘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’’.

A further way in which everyday judgements of taste exhibit an orientation to

culturally acceptable modes of being can be observed when respondents invoke the
necessity of restraint or—more generally—the practice of disciplining the self as an
important component of accomplishing good taste. For example good taste is seen
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 sphere of clothing the same dis-
ciplined attunement to others is identifiable, but particularly for women, who make
up over two-thirds of those who align tastefulness with wearing matching or
appropriate clothing. Many respondents who talk about clothes when explaining
taste do not report specific items of clothing as tasteful or tasteless but rather focus
on the ability of a person to dress appropriately, despite the fact their personal
desire may be to dress in a manner dictated strictly by personal comfort. As the
following example from an older female respondent demonstrates, clothing is often
part of a bundle of factors included in the assessment of others’ taste credentials:
good taste is ‘‘to be 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’’.
The practice of discretion and self-discipline in presenting good taste has a
broader social implication that is evident in the data. People’s conceptions of good
and bad taste appear to be one way of forming the contours of social acceptability
and the striving for what is seen as inherently ‘good’ in things. The data show that
what is conceived by people as tasteful or tasteless helps to manage and construct a
view of themselves and also their ideal relations with others. Those aspects of social
314 I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316

life which are perceived as tasteful are those that are ‘‘pleasing’’, ‘‘wholesome’’,
‘‘complimentary’’, and provide ‘‘satisfaction’’, ‘‘well-being’’ and ‘‘edification’’.
Alternately, those perceived as being in bad taste are ‘‘demeaning’’, ‘‘degrading’’,
‘‘sour’’, ‘‘devaluing’’, ‘‘destructive’’ and ‘‘nasty’’. An exemplary response of this sort
describes good taste as ‘‘expressed through behaviour, performance or artwork does
not cause offence but rather is edifying and pleasing and not crossing the boundaries
of decency’’.

7. Conclusion

The data we present in this paper are both unique and significant. We have poin-
ted out in our literature discussion that sociological studies of tastes are routinely
grounded in the study of ‘objectified’ tastes—patterns of preferences for cultural
goods such as music, art and literature. We do not seek to devalue such studies.
Rather, as Mary Douglas has expressed it, the contemporary problem of taste and
aesthetic choice is not so much knowing that people have unique preferences which
can be mapped according to certain theoretical principles to form social patterns;
but it ‘‘is to get at some underlying principle of discrimination’’ (Douglas, 1996: 62).
By asking individuals to reflect on their personal understandings of good and bad
taste, we have been able to explore the principles informing these taste logics at an
individual or subjective level—one which taps into everyday, discursive under-
standings of these categories. Our analysis thus stands as an alternative to the reifi-
cation of taste, manifested in aggregate patterns of cultural and aesthetic choices.
Some caution in the interpretation of our results is needed. It is possible that the
respondents in our sample are more confident or able than non-respondents with
attempting an open-ended, written survey question. In addition, while the form of
data we have used could be described as qualitative and subjective, the fact that it is
derived from written responses means that it precludes further checking, question-
ing, and clarification. In our favour however, the form of response we have dealt
with in this paper does overcome interviewer effects, which are likely to be an
important factor in interviews about personal tastes. Additionally, written responses
of the sort we have used seem to encourage brevity, so that respondents are likely to
express their ideas using ‘tried and true’ opinions which tap into established per-
ceptual schemes of taste quite readily. Moreover, Bourdieu has argued that these are
schemes which ‘‘social agents implement in their practical knowledge of the social
world’’ (1984: 468).
Our analysis of these subjective or lay understandings of taste has uncovered a
strong collective sentiment in definitions of taste, consistent with the largely over-
looked themes in the classical literature on taste and fashion. Specifically, ideas
relating to interpersonal conduct and fair or honest treatment of others in everyday
dealings were found to be the most commonly employed ways of explaining taste.
Our data also demonstrates that negative judgements are somewhat easier to express
using concrete, specific examples, and that recourse to collective ‘rhetorics of
taste’—as Meyer (2000) has recently labeled them in his historical analysis of taste
I. Woodward, M. Emmison / Poetics 29 (2001) 295–316 315

formation in pluralistic societies—is more common when expressing ideas about bad
taste. It is, thus, possible that the cultural and aesthetic resources people use to judge
value or worth varies according to whether they assess something as good or bad.
More fundamentally, we have argued that our findings demonstrate that taste jud-
gements are commonly framed as matters related to moral, ethical and communal
sensibility. When invited to think about the meaning of taste, respondents generally
do not rely on identifying specific aesthetic forms as tasteful or tasteless—though the
degree to which they do will vary with age, gender and level of education as our data
show; rather, being in good taste is held to involve an attunement to others, a dis-
ciplining or ‘‘tempering’’ (Miller 1993) of the self in order to ‘fit in’, and a general
respect for other people. These data lead us to conclude, therefore, that making
judgements of good and bad taste is not merely a distinction-seeking exercise as
emulation models of taste suggest, but invokes a variety of classificatory schemes
about civility, collectiveness and acceptability which assist in the formation of con-
tours of what is assessed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.


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Ian Woodward is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Queensland. His current research is in the
field of consumption, taste and aesthetic judgement. His other interests include theories of post-
modernization, and urban space and symbolism. Most recently, he has published on narratives of aes-
thetic judgement and methodologies of consumption (Journal of Material Culture), consumerism and
disorientation in postmodern spaces ( The British Journal of Sociology, with Micheal Emmison and Philip
Smith), and in Architectural Theory Review, on historical changes in the discourses of shopping mall
Micheal Emmison is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Queensland. He has written
widely on cultural consumption and social class as well as the mass media and social interaction. His most
recent books are Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures, CUP 1999 (with Tony Bennett and
John Frow), and Researching The Visual, Sage 2000 (with Philip Smith). He is currently co-editor of the
Journal of Sociology and serves on the editorial advisory boards of the Journal of Contemporary Ethno-
graphy and Visual Communication.