This essay attempts to define the concept of taste by providing a critical observation of it. I begin my discussion by looking at how taste has been defined over the years starting from the early nineteenth century up until our modern times. I unpack these definitions by referring to a Kantian definition which was developed in the 18th century as mentioned in Michael Thomas Taylor’s (2009:572-591) text in relation to a modern definition of taste. Furthermore I look at how taste is practiced in different social classes and I attempt to examine whether those practices are developed by individuals or perpetuated by society’s ideas of what constitutes good taste. I then move on to arguing whether social identity, habitus, field and capital are relevant in understanding the: notion of taste.
Over the years the definition of taste has taken many different forms. In the early years of the eighteenth century taste was defined as an abstract philosophical phenomenon by Emanuel Kant (Taylor 2009:572). Kant argued that taste cannot be classified as a social phenomenon as taste is associated to individual’s state of mind. This state of mind, however, was considered to have high qualities when associated with members of the ruling class of the 18th century (Taylor 2009:572).
During the 18th and 19th centuries men were considered to have good taste on the basis of their intellectual capacity, humility and uprightness (Amy Aronson 1946:229). So if high intellectual capacity and humility were basic taste standards then this suggests that taste has a concealed layer of rules that individuals have to follow without even noticing. When one attains “good taste”, they attain a full package of it which comes with rules (similar to a buyer’s manual) and social expectations. The reason why I say taste is infused with rules is because taste is closely aligned with culture and therefore one has to obtain a cultural identity and then abide to the taste standards of that culture. This suggests that taste gives one a sense of belonging. Regarding the artifacts, the 19th century taste was based on highly elaborated interiors and furniture as seen in figure one (Lindsay Boynton 1967:56). Whereas in the mid-20th century things became less detailed and there was a strong focus on the conceptual side of things rather than the aesthetic aspect. Therefore reduced and simplified products became a new taste during the post-Victorian period.
However, in the mid-20th century, a lot of subcultural groups such as punks and goths were established (Gordon Tait 1999:1). These groups developed their new taste which was seen as socially inappropriate. These groups were not interested in following the majority and therefore they chose to develop a new set of preferences that were somewhat antisocial. According to Tait (1999:1) punks believed that having tattoos, wearing black cloths and listening to punk rock was good taste however, people in other cultural and subcultural groups would have a different opinion.
The above paragraph proves that the taste of one social class or culture cannot claim to have universal validity because people of different classes and cultural groups experience taste in many different ways. Those experiences are often based cultural interests and on the amount of cultural and economic capital they possess. Usually, people who have more resources than others claim to have better taste, this is because the haves often consume what Louis Kaplow (2006:417) calls “expensive taste”. This kind of taste demands more resources than other kinds of tastes.
A modern definition of taste, according to Howard V.M, Kumaraiah V, Sharma K, Jacobs H and Sharma S (1975:1217-1218), can be defined as a pattern of preferences that exist alongside one’s social status. These preferences do not only refer to artifacts such as fashion, technological objects and art but can also connote economic, social and cultural preferences. An example of this could be one’s preference to associate with a particular group of people or choose to live in a particular place because of its historical significance. One’s set of preferences illustrate a sense of judgment, in other words knowing what is good and what is not and to lack this sense of judgment is to lack a sense of taste.
Bourdieu (2003:137-151) implies that certain people produce culture and taste and others inherit it, in other words the ruling class proposes a lifestyles that seduces the lower class. This then subverts Kant’s definition of taste which refers to individual’s feelings rather than the general taste of the society. Individuals often develop a sense of judgment of taste through social experiences and understanding of social values. Gronow (1997:10) adds that individuals need to be taught the standards of good taste in order to make conscious decisions when making taste choices.
This suggests that taste is acquired on the basis of social standards and not on individuals’ preferences, the society decides on what constitutes good and bad taste and then individuals conform to those decisions. This then suggests that taste is a socially constructed idea that many individuals, especially those in the lower deck of the social class, have no control over. Speaking of people in lower social classes, one can argue that their taste is somewhat similar to the taste of the middle class people. I say this because low class citizens are constantly developing their consumer habits and this bridges the gap between the two classes as the middle class is believed to be growing as a result of the lower class trying to catch up with the middle class.
When speaking of classes, the middle class for example, one has to specify as to which level of the that particular they are referring to because Gidden’s (1997:251) text informs us that within one class there is a hierarchical cluster of other classes. This suggests that people of the same class do not possess the same amount of resources. Within one class there are different fields.
The middle class earn their economic capital by entering a field. According to Bourdieu a field is a structure that comprised of components (Andrei-horia Murariu 2010:2). These components may include education, career and religion. Fields have hierarchies as there are different positions. Each component requires a unique set of skills and usually the most significant position is the one that allows individuals to have power and control over others (Andrei-horia Murariu 2010:2). So there is a strong sense of power relationship in fields. These positions need to be maintained by earning educational and economic capital. Once a field is occupied and the capital is earned, individuals begin to develop a habitus that suits their social position. Habitus is closely related to one of the seven deadly sins which is gluttony. When individuals have earned their economic capital they usually develop a consumer habit
To conclude this essay has attempted to define the concept of taste by providing a critical observation of it. I did this by looking at how taste has been defined over the years starting from the early eighteen century up until our modern times. I came to a realization that what constituted taste during the Victorian era is totally different from constitutes taste in our modern times. Post-Victorian ideas of taste are based on dynamism, speed, logic and simplicity in terms product and graphic design. During the 19th century taste was based on decorative and highly detailed artifacts that were embedded with personalised style (Boynton 1967:56). They also were very static in their visual appearance. This shows that taste can be affected by change of time and one taste cannot be passed on to another generation.
Taste is not stable or fixed, it changes with time. The priorities of one generation will get eliminated but future generations as new tastes emerge. However, if it is true that one class shares the same taste then the current situation of the growing middle class could result into a large number of people who share similar tastes in future. Unless, taste is measured on cultural taste and not on capital and field basis then this is a possibility.
In my opinion, a lot of goods and services are produced in accordance with the taste of the middle class. This puts a great deal of economic pressure to lower class citizens as they have to purchase those goods and services designed for the middle class which are usually costly. However, it would be better if corporate companies prioritized the lower class because they are considered to be a growing group of consumers who have the urge to reach the middle class level.
I unpacked my definitions by referring to a Kantian definition which was developed in the 18th century as mentioned in Michael Thomas Taylor’s (2009:572-591) text in relation to a modern definition of taste. By putting these two definitions next to each other, one sees a transition of taste and class is always attached to the idea of taste. Furthermore I looked at how taste is practiced in different social classes and I attempted to examine whether those practices are developed by individuals or perpetuated by society’s ideas of what constitutes good taste. I came to a realization that different classes experience taste in different ways but that is derived from or rather influenced by one class which is the middle class. I also pointed out that society is in control when comes to deciding what good taste is and what is not. I then moved on to arguing whether social identity, habitus, field and capital are relevant in understanding the notion of taste. Yes they are because an individual’s taste is indirectly decided by society on the basis of their tangible and non-tangible capitals.
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