In This Article Cultural Omnivorousness

  • Introduction
  • Reference Texts
  • Commentary: Theoretical Contributions
  • Investigation of Multiple Cultural Fields
  • Music and Omnivorousness
  • Omnivorousness and Bodily Consumption
  • Visual and Performing Arts and Reading
  • Qualitative Analysis of Omnivore Profiles
  • Comparisons of Different Cultural Consumption Domains and National Contexts
  • Change in Cultural Consumption Patterns over Time and the State of Omnivorous Profiles
  • Omnivorousness and Education, Youth, and Social Mobility

Sociology Cultural Omnivorousness
by
Irmak Karademir Hazir
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0134

Introduction

The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres. Peterson’s initial studies—with Kern and Simkus—used data on tastes in music in the United States. Later, especially after researchers in Europe developed an interest in the term, many other cultural consumption domains were analyzed to see whether highbrow taste profiles tend to become less exclusive. This interest has been so consistent that we now have sufficient empirical and theoretical research to label the discussion a coherent sociological “debate.” The relationship between omnivorous orientation and variables such as education, age, gender, class, ethnicity, and race has been analyzed in many different national contexts and cultural fields. The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others. The debate has progressed quite successfully. Many different types of omnivorousness have been discovered since the term was first coined; not every eclectic repertoire holder follows the same trajectory of boundary crossing. For instance, some omnivorous consumers cross the highbrow-lowbrow boundary by adding highbrow genres to their profile after having experienced upward mobility, while others include lowbrow genres to their once exclusive highbrow taste repertoires. Different forms of omnivorousness—and their degree of cultural tolerance—allow us to see more clearly the current status of the association between cultural hierarchy and consumption. Although limited in quantity, some important research has been done critically questioning the kind of social structures, institutions, national contexts, and school curricula that enlarge the cultural cultivated fractions’ repertoires. Recent research on contemporary forms of cultural capital and cosmopolitanism also engages closely with the omnivore debate. It is important to note that arguments still remain with regard to methods and analysis; not every contributor agrees on a common definition for measurement—operationalization—of the omnivore profiles. Some researchers take participation, while others take taste or knowledge, as proxies to measure omnivorousness. Some contributors measure only the breadth (the status of the genres preferred) and others measure volume of tastes (the number of preferred genres/activities) without looking at their composition, namely how far people cross boundaries. Other disagreements (methodological and theoretical) with regard to other aspects of the debate have been briefly referred to above. These disagreements not only make the debate more lively and dynamic, but also ensure that interest in the concept does not decrease over time.

Reference Texts

Peterson and Kern 1996 first coined the term in their studies of audience segmentation in the United States (Peterson 1992, Peterson and Kern 1996). These studies stand in close dialogue with discussions in Gans 1975 on mass culture and the relationship between the elite and the masses in the cultural sphere. However, the thesis later received the attention of researchers, in works such as Bennett, et al. 2009; Bennett, et al. 1999; and Lamont and Fournier 1992, who have been highly engaged (critically or noncritically) with Bourdieu’s work and this significantly changed the trajectory of the debate. Bourdieu 1984 uses the terms capital, field, and habitus to show the correspondence between cultural and economic hierarchy. For Bourdieu, taste, or cultural appreciation patterns, which are also the concern of the omnivore thesis, are important avenues to show the reproduction of privilege and the arbitrariness of “high culture” definitions. The omnivore thesis can be considered a critique of Bourdieu’s thesis of cultural hierarchy, since it points to a shift in cultivated fractions’ appreciation from cultural exclusiveness toward tolerance. To place specific case studies on omnivorousness into a larger context, including issues of tolerance, class, distinction, privilege, fields, and capitals, one needs to go back to these theoretical and empirical reference texts.

  • Bennett, Tony, Michael Emmison, and John Frow. 1999. Accounting for tastes: Australian everyday cultures. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Explores Australian cultural tastes. Engages with the debates of the time: Bourdieu’s homology, omnivore, etc. Argues that Bourdieu’s account reflects a “modernist” view and cannot account for the 20th century. Puts forward the conceptual tool “regimes of value.” Identifies a difference between knowledge and taste and suggest that omnivorousness should be understood in terms of knowledge.

  • Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright, eds. 2009. Culture, class, distinction. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important for students and researchers since it explores cultural hierarchy and Bourdieu’s key concepts in the United Kingdom by means of a representative database specifically tailored for this purpose. Examines differences from Bourdieu’s Distinction, such as the influence of age, omnivorousness, etc. Discusses how these new trends should inform our understanding of taste, culture, and inequality.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Significant because contributors to the omnivore debate frequently engage with Bourdieu’s homology thesis on taste and class position. In this book, Bourdieu uses various quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the dynamics of French people’s cultural appreciation, and he builds his theory of social distinction by means of this elaborate analysis.

  • Chan, Tak Wing, ed. 2010. Social status and cultural consumption. 2010. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511712036E-mail Citation »

    A very informative and clear collection through which students from all levels can familiarize themselves with the key figures and debate regarding cultural stratification and consumption. It includes thoroughly conducted case studies from Europe and the United States and theoretical discussion regarding the current dynamics of cultural consumption and social status.

  • Gans, J. Herbert. 1975. Popular culture and high culture: An analysis and evaluation of taste. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    Essential reading for students of cultural sociology. Many texts in this subfield of sociology, including the one in which the omnivore thesis emerged, reference Gans’s discussion. Gans engages with hotly debated issues such as mass culture thesis, highbrow and popular culture distinction, taste cultures, etc.

  • Lamont, Michèle, and Marcel Fournier, eds. 1992. Cultivating difference: Symbolic boundaries and the making of inequality. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important edited resource that includes case studies exploring boundaries drawn by means of cultural resources. All chapters are insightful, but chapter 7 (“How Musical Tastes Mark Occupation Status Groups” [pp. 152–186]), written by Peterson and Simkus, is a must-read because it deals specifically with omnivore repertoires and the occupational groups with which they associate.

  • Peterson, Richard A. 1992. Understanding audience segmentation: From elite and mass to omnivore and univore. Poetics 21.4: 243–258.

    DOI: 10.1016/0304-422X(92)90008-QE-mail Citation »

    Challenges the widely accepted cultural classification understanding of the time—elite to mass theory—and coins the term omnivorousness for the first time. Shows that members of the elite have knowledge of a wide range of musical forms and thus do not show the features of stereotypical elite snobs. Peterson discusses various sociocultural conditions that may have helped to promote the emergence of the omnivore and its displacement with the elite.

  • Peterson, Richard A., and M. Roger Kern. 1996. Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review 61.5: 900–907.

    DOI: 10.2307/2096460E-mail Citation »

    Uses comparable data collected in 1982 and 1992 in the United States to analyze the shift from “elite to omnivore” thesis. Shows that the highbrows of 1992 are more eclectic in their tastes than the highbrows of 1982. Authors argue that many structural changes, including in the art world, have led highbrows to distance themselves from an “exclusive snob” cultural attitude.

  • Robson, Karen, and Chris Sanders, eds. 2009. Quantifying theory: Pierre Bourdieu. Toronto: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-9450-7E-mail Citation »

    An important contribution to the Bourdieusian literature, as every chapter in the book clarifies the link between Bourdieu’s concepts and their operationalization. In particular, chapter 4, “The Homology Thesis: Distinction Revisited” (pp. 47–60), written by Philippe Coulangeon and Yannick Lemel, is an essential read in order to understand the meaning of eclectic repertoires.

  • Warde, Alan. 2011. Cultural hostility re-considered. Cultural Sociology 5.3: 341–366.

    DOI: 10.1177/1749975510387755E-mail Citation »

    An essential read because it analyzes the prevalence of cultural hostility, which is an unexplored issue in the literature on taste stratification. The omnivore debate also lacks such a source, because tolerance is directly associated with eclectic repertoires in many cases. Takes the United Kingdom as its case and identifies different conditions (of likes and dislikes) that do and do not generate cultural hostility.

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