Richard A. Peterson and the culture of consumption

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  • ELSEVIER Poetics 28 (2000) 207-224



    Richard A. Peterson and the culture of consumption

    Koen van Eijck*

    Tilburg University, Department of Leisure Studies, P.O. Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, the Netherlands


    This article discusses the work of Richard A. Peterson in the field of cultural consumption. Peterson studied patterns of cultured choice and coined the term 'cultural omnivore', which has become part of the standard vocabulary of cultural scholars. After a brief overview of the current state of the art, and Peterson's contribution to it, the author attempts to provide a description of who the cultural omnivore is and how we might better understand the omnivore taste pattern by simultaneously considering breadth and content of cultural tastes. 2000 Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

    I. Introduction

    In 1983, Richard Peterson edited an issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist, devoted to 'patterns of cultural choice'. The volume was a joint effort to empirically account for taste. How can culture consumption be understood from the viewpoint of the consumer, the participant, or the audience? Peterson wanted to make a fresh start with the ,;ubject by introducing the term 'patterns of cultural choice', avoiding available terms such as class culture, lifestyle, or subculture. In an article co-authored with Michael Hughes in the same volume (Hughes and Peterson 1983), eight cultural c, hoice patterns were distinguished using a clustering technique. Nine years later, Peterson and Simkus (1992) concentrated on the breadth of cultural tastes by distinguishing cultural omnivores and univores. In this study, Peterson did not look fi~r distinct patterns, but his focus was on the obser- vation that the higher status groups like more different types of music than the lower status groups. Both approaches to the subject of taste have in common that they are successful attempts r.o put into question the nature of the relationship

    I thank John Ryan and Hans Mommaas for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

    * E-mail:

    0304-422X/00/$ - see front matter 2000 Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. PII: S0304-422X(00)00022-X

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    between consumption patterns and social class as seen from a more traditional point of view.

    Peterson's project presents us with a number of challenges. It is probably becom- ing increasingly difficult to transform "the buzz of human activity into a set of delimited patterns" (Peterson, 1983: 428). Can we still expect to find certain activi- ties to typically 'go together' because they belong to the same pattern if patterns are thought to be changing from homogeneous packages of preferences into creative juxtapositions of heterogenous elements? And if patterns are becoming more diffi- cult to interpret in terms of traditional labels, does this mean that people are con- sciously creating a certain lifestyle or consumption pattern that renders distinction? Or are these patterns becoming more blurry because people are less concerned about the social connotation of their preferences but rather let their 'natural' need for vari- ety prevail in the formation of their lifestyle, as is suggested by Longhurst and Sav- age (1996)? Such questions are further complicated by the vast emergence of cul- tural cross-products which are hard to classify due to the constant emphasis on renewal and originality on the part of cultural producers.

    In this article, I want to discuss Peterson's work on patterns of cultural choice and cultural omnivores. It will be argued that Peterson's findings and interpretations regarding current cultural patterns can be both affirmed and further specified if we compare them to other studies on the subject. The taste of the cultural omnivore will be looked at in more detail, leading to the conclusion that the emergence of the cul- tural omnivore is a cultural expression of personal qualities that are highly valued and thus rewarded in today's complex society.

    2. The waning self-evidence of highbrow culture

    Studies on the relation between social stratification and cultural consumption have oftentimes been concerned exclusively with participation in highbrow culture. It has typically been found that the higher educated participate more in this field, including e.g. literary reading, museum visits, ballets, operas, theater, et cetera (DiMaggio and Mohr, 1985; Robinson, 1993). These results might suggest that we are dealing with a more or less one-dimensional domain. 'Difficult', 'high-minded' culture is appre- ciated by those who are able to make sense of it and enjoy it, i.e. the higher edu- cated, and awarded within the higher status groups for reflecting desirable personal attributes.

    Sociologists of stratification considered cultural capital as a resource for educa- tional and occupational success (DiMaggio, 1982; De Graaf, 1986). As a conse- quence, they were mostly interested in legitimate culture. Popular culture didn't really matter for life chances otherwise than perhaps indicating an interest that was unlikely to be rewarded in terms of status (a lack of the 'right' type of cultural cap- ital). Yet the fact that the higher status groups consume more highbrow culture does not imply that they shun other cultural products. On the one hand, both in the U.S. and the Netherlands, studies on high culture show a declining correlation between schooling level and highbrow culture participation, suggesting that such activities

  • K. van Eijck / Poetics 28 (2000) 207-224 209

    are becoming less elitist (Kraaykamp and De Graaf, 1995; Robinson, 1993). On the other hand, the audience for the traditional performing arts can be considered as an elitist rearguard because, during the seventies and eighties, this culturally experi- enced audience had little to gain from new forms of electronic participation through media (LP's, tape recorders, television; Knulst, 1992). According to Knulst, those who have invested in highbrow culture and have become connoisseurs are least inclined to settle for alternatives offered by the media.

    These results do not contradict each other. For reasons explained below, highly educated youngsters are less inclined toward highbrow culture than their older coun- terparts, and more familiar with a number of popular alternatives to traditional per- forming arts (television, pop music, internet, cinema). Initially, the educational expansion led many to expect that participation in highbrow would increase because its potential audience was growing. However, as the cultural domain broadened, ado- lescence was prolonged, incomes rose, and the traditional Bi ldungsideal diminished in significance, participation in highbrow art was no longer a self-evident choice for this new generation of highly educated persons. Schooling therefore differentiates relatively poorly between young people's levels of participation in highbrow culture. Among the older generation, on, the other hand, those with lower schooling levels were more inclined to turn to television and other forms of electronic home enter- tainment than the higher educated. Comparing educational categories therefore only makes sense if one takes into account the fact that the younger generations are over- represented among the higher educated. And these youngsters do not pursue an elit- ist lifestyle, despite the fact that they meet the intellectual prerequisites traditionally assumed to lead to such a lifestyle (see also Peterson, 1990: 209-210).

    Thus, due to differences in socialization, the highbrow-lowbrow model is a decreasingly useful tool for understanding audience segmentation. Instead of focus- ing on indicators of cultural capital, we should rather ask to what extent patterns of cultural choice as a whole differ between status groups. Peterson and DiMaggio (1975: 504) suggest that '"[r]ather than begin with social classes, it may prove more fruitful to categorize persons in terms of cultural classes, that is shared patterns of consumption, and then search for the correlates of strata so defined". Then it will also become clear that the decline of differences in schooling levels, or socio-eco- nomic status in general, between participants and non-participants in highbrow cul- ture does not mean that status differences are disappearing. If we look at other aspects of cultural behavior as well, new differences between status groups emerge.

    3. Clustering cultural preferences

    Let us take a brief look at previous attempts to cluster cultural taste patterns. Using a large diversity of activities, including e.g. sports, domestic activities, or trips, results in activity patterns that cannot easily be arranged into any clear-cut sys- tem such as a distinction between lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow (e.g. Hughes and Peterson, 1983; Mitchell, 1'983). Also, such descriptive analyses are often diffi- cult to generalize because they are highly contingent upon the specific set of cultural

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    indicators used and their level of aggregation. Broad lifestyle studies have, never- theless, attempted to inform us about the principles underlying lifestyles. Yet it is problematic that such structuring principles are often no more than labels describing the lifestyles that emerged from the analysis, thereby offering little explanation.l

    The authors in the 1983 issue of American Behavioral Scientist come up with dif- ferent numbers of clusters, ranging from four (Sobel) to fourteen (Greenberg and Frank). A number of labels nevertheless consistently recur, such as home-centered, outdoor, arts, community, fa