Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore

by Richard A. Peterson, Roger M. Kern
Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore
Richard A. Peterson, Roger M. Kern
American Sociological Review
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Richard A. Peterson Roger M. Kern

Vanderbilt Universitv Vanderbilt University

Appreciation offine arts became a mark of high status in the late nineteenth centuiy as part of an attempt to distinguish "highbrowed" Anglo Saxons from the new "lowbrowed" immigrants, whose popular entertainments were said to corrupt morals and thus were to be shunned (Levine 1988; DiMaggio 1991). In recent years, howevec many high-status persons are far from be- ing snobs and are eclectic, even "omnivorous," in their tastes (Peterson and Simkus 1992). This suggests a qualitative shift in the basis for marking elite status-from snobbish exclusion to omnivorous appropriation. Using com- parable 1982 and 1992 surveys, we test for this hypothesized change in tastes. We confirm that highbrows are more omnivorous than others and that they have become increasingly omnivorous over time. Regression analyses reveal that increasing "omnivorousness" is due both to cohort replacement and to changes over the 1980s among highbrows of all ages. We speculate that this shift from snob to omnivore relates to status-group politics influ- enced by changes in social structure, values, art-world d.ynamics, and gen-

erational conflict.

Not only are high-status Americans far more likely than others to consume the fine arts but, according to Peterson and Simkus (1992), they are also more likely to be involved in a wide range of low-status ac- tivities. This finding confirms the observa- tions of DiMaggio (1987) and Lamont (1992), but it flies in the face of years of his- torical research showing that high-status per- sons shun cultural expressions that are not seen as elevated (Lynes 1954; Levine 1988; Murphy 1988; Beisel 1990). In making sense of this contradiction, Peterson and Simkus

* Direct correspondence to Richard A. Peter- son, Department of Sociology, Vanderbilt Uni- versity, Nashville, TN 37235. We thank Nara- simhan Anand, Bethany Bryson, Paul DiMaggio,
Michael Epelbaum, Larry Griffin, Michael Hughes, Guillermina Jasso, Barbara Kilbourne, Michble Lamont, Holly McCammon, Claire Peterson, and Darren Sherkat for comments on the methodology or on an earlier draft of this pa-
per. Early versions were presented at the 1994 annual meeting of the American Sociological As- sociation in Los Angeles, at Princeton and Harvard Universities, and at the New School for Social Research. Finally, we gratefully acknowl- edge the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and of its Director of Research, Thomas Bradshaw.

(1992) suggest that a historical shift from highbrow snob to omnivore is taking place.

The 1982 national survey on which Peterson and Simkus (1992) base their findings was replicated in 1992, so it is now possible to test for the changes in highbrow taste that they posit.' Both surveys ask respondents to select the music genres they like from a list of alternatives ranging across the aesthetic spectrum, and then to pick the one kind of music thev like the best. We focus on musical taste, rather than taste for other types of art because only for music were respondents
asked to choose from such a list of contrast-
ing alternatives.

Highbrow is operationalized as liking both
classical music and opera, and choosing one
of these forms as best-liked from among all

I The data come from the Survey of Public Par-
ticipation in the Arts, which polled two national-
area probability samples of persons over age 18,
one in 1982 and the other in 1992. The surveys
were conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census
for the National Endowment of the Arts. For a
detailed description of these data sets see
Robinson et al. (1985) and Robinson (1993).

American Sociological Review, 1996, Vol. 61 (October:900-907)

kinds of music. This measure appears to be a valid index of being highbrow because those respondents we labeled highbrow attended performances of plays, ballet, classical mu- sic, musicals, visited art galleries, and at- tended opera significantly more often than did others in the sample.

Among highbrows, the snob is one who does not participate in any lowbrow or mid- dlebrow activity (Levine 1988), while the omnivore is at least open to appreciating them all. Perfect snobs are now rare in the United States. Indeed, in the 1960s Wilensky (1964: 194) "could not find one [Detroit area resident] in 1,354 who was not in some area exposed to middle- or low-brow material," and in our national sample of 1 1,321 we found just 10 highbrow respondents in 1982 and 3 in 1992 who said they did not like a single form of low- or middlebrow music.

We operationalize omnivorousness as a variable that can be measured as the number of middle- and lowbrow forms respondents choose. Following Wilensky (1964) and Rubin (19921, we differentiate between middlebiow and lowbrow because they are distinctly different and because critical ob- servers have suggested that when highbrows are open to non-highbrow art forms, they seek out lowbrow forms created by socially mar- ginal groups (Blacks, youth, isolated rural folks) while still holding commercial middle- brow forms in contempt (Lynes 1954; Sontag 1966).

Five music genres are considered lovtbro~v: country music, bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues. Each of these genres is rooted in a spe- cific "marginal" ethnic, regional, age, or re- ligious experience (Malone 1979; Lipsitz 1990; Ennis 1992). There are three rniddlebrow music genres-including moodleasylistening music, Broadway musicals, and big band music. These forms have been in the mainstream of commercial music throughout the twentieth century (Goldberg 196 1;Nanry 1972; Ennis 1992).~ The lowbrow measure can range from 0 to 5; the middlebrow mea-

? Both the 1982 and 1992 surveys asked about other musical forms as well. Barbershop, rap, reggae, New Age, and marching band music, for example, were included in one survey year but not the other, so they could not be included ex- cept as noted below. In addition the category "folk" was reworded in a way that made it incom

sure can range from 0 to 3. Omnivorousness can range from 0 to 8.

In both years (1982 and 1992) highbrows, on average, have about two years more edu- cation, earn about five thousand dollars more annual family income, are about 10 years older, are more likely to be White, and are more likely to be female than are others in the ample.^ All of these differences are sta- tistically significant. Neither highbrows nor others, however, are more likely to be cur- rently married.3

The top row of Table 1 shows that, on aver- age, highbrows chose 1.74 lowbrow genres of 5 possible in 1982 and 2.23 in 1992, a sta- tistically significant increase of nearly half a genre per person in just one decade. This finding is in line with the prediction of in- creasing highbrow omnivorousness. The first row also shows that others increased their number of lowbrow choices as well, but the rate of change for highbrows is significantly greater than for non-highbrows (p< .05, dif- ference of proportions test). Also, in the 1982-1992 decade, highbrows overtook oth- ers in the number of lowbrow genres chosen.

In the second row of Table 1 we see that in 1982 highbrows, on average, liked almost two of the three middlebrow music genres. This sharply contradicts the expectations of Lynes (1954) and Sontag (1966) that highbrows will shun middlebrow forms, but is congruent

parable from one survey year to the next. Jazz was included on both years, but it was not put in either of the scales because, while its roots are clearly lowbrow, it is now taught in conservato- ries of music as highbrow and largely consumed as middlebrow (Leonard 1962; Nanry 1972; Ennis 1992), and survey data has clearly shown an unusually diffuse evaluation of what is called "jazz" by different people (DiMaggio and Ostro- wer 1990; Peterson and Simkus 1992).

Unfortunately respondents to the 1992 survey were not asked their occupation, so we cannot as- sess this important component of social class po- sition as Peterson and Simkus (1992) did using the 1982 data.

Currently married respondents were distin- guished from all others because, on average, they attend arts performances less often than do those who are single, divorced, and widowed (Di- Maggio and Ostrower 1990).

Highbrows Others Variable 1982 1992 Difference 1982 1992 Difference
Number of lowbrow     1.74     2.23     .49**     1.80     2.07     .27**
music genres liked                         
(max. = 5)                         
Number of middlebrow     1.98     2.12     .14     1.01     1.12     .I I**
music genres liked                         
(max. = 3)                         
Percent male     44     3 5     -9     46     46     -2"
Age In years     54.19     56.18     1.99     42.98     46.59     3.61"
Family lncome     $26,360     $33,304     $6,945"     $20,614     $28,301     $7,686"
Percent married     66     63     -3     64     64     0
Percent White     96     96     0     88     8 6     -2
Education in years     14.57     14.33     -.24     12.19     12.67     .48**
*p< .05 level     **p< .10 level     (one-tailed tests)             

Note: A highbrow is defined as a respondent who likes both opera and classical music and chooses one of these forms as the music genre he or she likes best.

with Peterson and Simkus's (1992) ideas To answer these questions, we pool the two about omnivorousness because highbrows are years of data and ernploy four OLS regresfound to like more middlebrow forms than sion analyses. The deuendent variable in others and because this difference increases each analysis is the number of middlebrow (although not significantly statistically) from or lowbrow genres chosen by highbrows and 1982 to 1992. by others, analyzed separately. The indepen-

Taken together, these findings suggest that dent variables of interest in each of the in 1992 highbrows, on average, are more analyses are the birth jear of the respondent omnivorous than they were in 1982 and have (measured by subtracting the respondent's become more omnivorous than others. At the age from the year of the interview) and the same time, non-highbrows are increasing year of the irltewiew (measured as a dummy their number of musical preferences as well. variable; 1 = 1992). With just these two data points it is not pos- A number of variables have been shown to sible to say definitely whether there is along- influence arts participation independent of term secular trend toward omnivorousness or age.5 These include education, gender, race, whether the change is due to forces just af- (measured here as Whites versus others), ad- fecting the decade under study. We return to justed family in~ome,~

and the size of the res- these questions below. pondent's residential community7 (DiMaggio Did all highbrows tend to become more and Useem 1978; Blau 1989; DiMaggio and

omnivorous between 1982 and 1992-in

Each control variable was tested for interac-

other words, could the difference be called a

tions with both birth year and year of interview,

period effect (Rogers 1982)? Alternatively,

and no significant interactions were found.

did individual highbrows retain their tastes

"ecause family income was reported in cat- unchanged, with the observed difference re- egories, the midpoint of the respondent's income sulting from older cohorts of highbrows category was subtracted from the mean of the in- with more snob-like tastes being displaced come midpoints for the year in which the inter- by younger, more omnivorous cohorts? view took place. This transformation means that the income distributions for each year were set to

Abramson and Inglehart (1993), for ex-

a mean of zero, nullifying any effect of inflation

ample, show that cohort replacement has

while retaining the effect of changing distribu-

dramatically changed values in eight West-

tions of income across years.
ern nations. Cohort is here measured as year This was measured in 12 categories ranked

of birth (Rogers 1982). from small to large.

Table 2. OLS Coefficients from the Regression of Number of Lowbrow and Middlebrow Musical Genres Liked on Birth Year, Year of Interview, and Selected Control Variables

Highbrows Others

(Model 1) (Model 2) (Model 3) (Model 4) Number of Number of Number of Number of Lowbrow Middlebrow Lowbrow Middlebrow Genres Liked Genres Liked Genres Liked Genres Liked


Birth year Year of interview (1 = 1992)
Control Variables


Adjusted family income White Education in years Size of community Constant

Significance of F Adjusted R~ Number of



b Beta b

.02 .44

-.07 .OO

-.92 .05 -.01





+p < .05 ++p< .01 (one-tailed tests) 'p < .05 **p< .01 (two-tailed tests)

Ostrower 1990; Robinson 1993). Each of these could conceivably influence the degree of omnivorousness, so they are included as control variables. Marital status was not in- cluded as a control variable because it was not significantly linked with the number of music genres chosen.

The results of the four OLS regression analyses are presented in Table 2. The posi- tive coefficient for birth year in Model 1 shows that, controlling for the year of the in- terview and the other variables, highbrows in later cohorts like significantly more lowbrow forms than do older highbrows. The size of the effect is such that two people born 20 years apart differ by .40 (20 x .02 =.40) mu- sic genres chosen. The positive effect of 1992 interview year shows that, net of the controls, highbrows interviewed in 1992 liked significantly more lowbrow music gen- res thai highbrows did a decade earlier, indi- cating an increase of .44 forms chosen.

~uFningto the number of middlebrow mu- sic genres liked by highbrows, Model 2 shows that birth year has no effect on mid-

Beta b Beta b Beta

dlebrow music taste, but highbrows inter- viewed in 1992 did like significantly more middlebrow genres than did those inter- viewed a decade earlier, an increase of .25 genres. Taken together, these results show that both cohort replacement and period ef- fects increase highbrows' tastes for lowbrow music, while only period effects increase their taste for middlebrow music.

The results of the OLS regression analyses for non-highbrows are shown in Models 3 and 4 of Table 2. We see a pattern similar to that for highbrows: Controlling for the other variables in the model, in 1992 non-high- brows liked more low- and middlebrow mu- sic genres than they had in 1982, and youn- ger cohorts of non-highbrows liked more lowbrow genres and fewer middlebrow gen- res than did older cohorts.

Taken together, the findings of this study support the assertion that omnivorousness is replacing snobbishness among Americans of highbrow status. The change is due in part to cohort displacement, but has occurred mostly because highbrows of all ages are becoming more omnivorous. This is not to say that most highbrows have become perfect omni- vores. (In 1982 only eight and in 1992 only seven highbrows said that they liked all other types of music.) The point is that in 1992 highbrows, on average, reported liking sig- nificantly more kinds of nonelite music of all genres than did highbrows a decade earlier and also that in 1992 highbrows are more omnivorous than non-highbrows. This latter finding is strengthened by using the informa- tion on all 17 nonelite genres of music in- cluded in the 1992 survey. Highbrows report liking 7.49 of the 17 genres of music in- cluded in 1992 versus 4.84 genres, on aver- age, for the non-highbrows, and this differ- ence is signifi~ant.~

In addition, the findings for non-highbrows show that the increase be- tween 1982 and 1992 in the number of mu- sic genres liked, while greatest among high- brows, is a society-wide trend.
Theorizing on Omnivorousness

The omnivorousness of high-status persons, as reported by Peterson and ~imkus (1992), is an empirical generalization and does not provide an explanation for why there has been such a profound shift in the way high status is designated. Having found strong support for the shift from snobbishness to or&ivorousness, we now focus briefly on the omnivore concept and suggest a number of factors that contribute to this shift.

As we understand the meaning of omnivo- rous taste, it does not signify that the omni- vore likes everything indiscriminantly. Rather, it signifies an openness to appreciat- ing everything. In this sense it is antithetical to snobbishness, which is based fundamen- tally on rigid rules of exclusion (Bourdieu [I9791 1984; Murphy 1988) such as: "It is de rigueur to like opera, and country music is an anathema to be shunned." While by definition hostile to snobbish closure (Mur- phy 1988), omnivorousness does not imply

The significance of the difference between these two means is inferred from a test of the dif- ference of proportions of the number of music genres liked by highbrows and others, which is significant at the p < .O1 level (one-tailed test).

an indifference to distinctions. Rather its emergence may suggest the formulation of new rules governing symbolic boundaries (Lamont and Fournier 1992).

Several studies have shown that criteria of distinction, of which omnivorousness is one expression, must center not on what one con- sumes but on the way items of consumption are understood. Bourdieu ([I9791 1984, [I9651 1990), for example, contrasts unreflective consumption for personal enjoyment with intellectualized appreciation. He identi- fies intellectualized appreciation In ways that most easily fit a monolithic symbolic land- scape appropriate to the era of the elitist snob. Nonetheless, the culture of critical dis- course (Gouldner 1979) central to Bourdieu9s view is also amenable to a discriminating omnivorousness if the ethnocentrism central to snobbish elitism is replaced by cultural relativism. Under these conditions, cultural expressions of all sorts are understood in what relativists call their own terms.9

If this indeed is the way omnivores mark symbolic boundaries, they do not embrace contemporary country music, for example, as representing how they identify themselves as do hard-core country music fans (Peterson and Kern 1995). Rather, they appreciate and critique it in the light of some knowledge of the genre, its great performers, and links to other cultural forms, lowbrow and highbrow. Intellectuals have long provided the grounds for an aesthetic understanding of jazz, blues, rock, and bluegrass music. More recently country music has begun to be taken seri- ously as magazine articles in elite cultural periodicals such as American Heritage (Scherman 1994) and books by humanist scholars (Tichi 1994) begin to provide omni- vores with the tools they need to develop an aesthetic understanding of country music.
Why the ~jstoric Shift from Snobbishness to Omnivorousness?

Changes in fashion are often ephemeral (Davis 1992), but a shift in the basis of taste from snobbishness to omnivorousness sug-

'As critical thinking within anthropology has made clear, the idea of "cultural relativism" itself is a form of hubris because it is impossible for an outsider to experience another's culture as a na- tive does (Clifford and Marcus 1986).

gests that significant alterations in social power relationships are involved (Williams 1961). In concluding we speculatively sug- gest five linked factors that may contribute to the shifting grounds of status-group poli- tics (Shiach 1989).

Structural change. A number of social processes at work over the past century make exclusion increasingly difficult. Rising lev- els of living, broader education, and presen- tation of the arts via the media have made elite aesthetic taste more accessible to wider segments of the population, devaluing the arts as markers of exclusion.

At the same time, geographic migration and social class mobility have mixed people holding different tastes. And the increasingly ubiquitous mass media have introduced the aesthetic tastes of different segments of the population to each other. Thus the diverse folkways of the rest of the world's popula- tion are ever more difficult to exclude, and at the same time, they are increasingly available for appropriation by elite taste-makers (Lip- sitz 1990).

Value change. If structural changes shape the opportunity, value changes concerning gender, ethnic, religious, and racial differ- ences rationalize the change from snob to omnivore. In the nineteenth century group prejudice was widely sanctified by scientific theory and expressed society-wide in laws of exclusion. his changed gradually, and the Nazi brutalities of World War I1 gave "rac- ism" of all sorts such a bad name that most discriminatory laws in this country have since been abolished. It is now increasingly rare for persons in authority publicly to es- pouse theories of essential ethic and racial group differences (Takaki 1993).1° The change from exclusionist snob to inclusionist omnivore can thus be seen as a part of the historical trend toward greater tolerance of those holding different values (Inglehart 1990; Abramson and Inglehart 1993).

Art- World change. Developments in the fine art worlds over the past one and one-half centuries first provided the theories and the modes of display for the making of the high-

lo Essentialist arguments are still often made concerning certain behavioral differences be- tween the sexes and as explanations for sexual orientation (the latter are made both by advocates for and opponents of gay men and lesbians).

brow into snob and more recently provided the rationale for the omnivore. The elitist theorists of the early nineteenth century Eu- ropean Royal Academies of music, painting, drama, and dance argued among themselves, but they stood united in their belief that there was one standard and that all other expres- sions were vulgarities (White and white 1965). Thus they created an aesthetic and moral environment in which highbrow snob- bery flourished (Arnold 1875:44-47; Levine 1988:171-241).

The market forces that swept through all the arts brought in their wake new aesthetic entrepreneurs who propounded avantguardist theories that placed positive value on seeking new and ever more exotic modes of expression, but in the latter half of the twentieth century the candidates being cham- pioned for inclusion were so numerous and their aesthetic range so great that the old cri- terion of a single standard became stretched beyond the point of credibility. It became in- creasingly obvious that the quality of art did not inhere in the work itself, but in the evalu- ations made by the art world (Zolberg 1990: 53-106), and that expressions of all sorts from around the world are open to aesthetic appropriation (Becker 1982). This is the aes- thetic basis of the shift from the elitist exclu- sive snob to the elitist inclusive omnivore.

Generational politics. Before the third quarter of the twentieth century youngsters were expected to like pop music and pop culture generally but to move on to more "serious" fare as they matured. Beginning in the 1950s, however, young White people of all classes embraced popular African Ameri- can dance music styies as their own under the rubric of rock'n'roll (Ennis 1992), and by the late 1960s what was identified as the "Woodstock Nation" saw its own variegated youth culture not so much as a "stage" to go through in growing up but as a viable alter- native to established elite culture (Lipsitz 1990; Aronowitz 1993), thus, in effect, dis- crediting highbrow exclusion and valorizing inclusion. One of the lasting impacts of this view is that not as many well-educated and well-to-do Americans born since World War I1 patronize the elite arts as did their elders (Robinson 1993; Peterson and Sherkat 1995), and many say they like a wide array of musical forms (Schaefer 1987; Peterson

and Sherkat 1995).

Status-group politics. Dominant status

groups have regularly defined popular cul-

ture in ways that fit their own interests and

have worked to render harmless subordinate

status-group cultures (Sennett and Cobb

1972; Shiach 1989). One recurrent strategy

is to define popular culture as brutish and

something to be suppressed or avoided (Ar-

nold 1875; Elliot 1949; Bloom 1987); an-

other is to gentrify elements of popular cul-

ture and incorporate them into the dominant

status-group culture (Leonard 1962; Tichi

1994). Our data suggest a major shift from

the former strategy to the latter strategy of

status group politics.

While snobbish exclusion was an effective

marker of status in a relatively homogeneous

and circumscribed WASP-ish world that

could enforce its dominance over all others

by force if necessary, omnivorous inclusion

seems better adapted to an increasingly glo-

bal world managed by those who make their

way, in part, by showing respect for the cul-

tural expressions of others. As highbrow

snobbishness fit the needs of the earlier en-

trepreneurial upper-middle class, there also

seems to be an elective affinity between

today's new business-administrative class

and omnivorousness.

Richard A. Peterson is Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. With Roger Kern, Michael Hughes and others, he is exploring the changing ways that tastes are used in signalling status dif- ferences. 111 connection he is editing aforthcom- ing special issue of Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Literature, the Media and the Arts.

With Narasimhan Anand, he is researching the role of information in structuring industrial fields. In addition, he is completing a monograph for the University of Chicago Press on the fabri- cation of authenticity and the institutionalization

of the field of "country music."

Roger M. Kern is a Ph. D. student in Sociology at Vanderbilt University. He is currently completing his dissertation, which explores the relationships between cultural capital and social stigma ac- quired in adolescence and the attainment of so- cial status as an adult. Other projects include an analysis of countervailing relationships between parental social class and juvenile delinquency (with Gary Jensen ), and a content analysis ofthe use of personal resources by upper-middle-class elites in personal advertisements appearing in the

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