Matters of Taste: Cultural Value and Class

Sociology of Culture
October 2017

There are multiple levels of value and meaning in the context of food and drink. In this essay, I will particularly focus on the manner in which food and drink transcend their physical forms representing nourishment and necessity, and become meaningful symbolic entities which represent cultural values that both challenge and reproduce class divisions. This symbolic interpretation of food and drink will be explored through namely a sociological lens, synthesised with elements of aesthetic philosophy which concerns value. I will explicate the views of Marshall Sahlins, who discusses food preferences and value; and Mary Douglas, who discusses food as a “code” loaded with “particular messages” that represents a “microscale social system” (Douglas 1972, p. 61). Roger Scruton’s discussion of wine will serve as chief example of this meaning-making process. This interpretation will be the hinge to present and challenge the views of Pierre Bourdieu, who produces a discrete classification of food choices based on [cultural and economic] capital, and thus forms class distinctions. I will argue that agency and choice-consumption is an important and neglected influence under Bourdieu’s framework.

An argument will be formed in two stages. Firstly, it will be established that food and drink maintain cultural value through constructed symbolism – this value is not inherent to these entities, but rather constructed and culturally relative. Once this has been established, I will then assess the arguments for and against the position that the cultural value of food and drink has an inextricable relationship with class; insofar that as attitudes towards different foods and drinks change, class divisions mutate and shift accordingly.

In this discussion, I have proposed a duality of meaning concerning food and drink: functional and symbolic. This distinction draws inspiration chiefly from Baudrillard and his work on symbolic consumption (1998).

The first layer of meaning holds food and drink as a consumable entity – its value is achieved due to its salubrious ability of nourishment and its plain “necessity” for survival and wellbeing – this is the functional meaning of food (Bourdieu 2010, p. 173) (Sahlins 1976, p. 170). On this level, food is held as either edible or inedible; food or not-food, and therefore food and drink are anthropocentrically defined by biology (Douglas 1972, pp. 61, 64). This level of meaning is strictly binary and concrete. It is not culturally relative, but rather species specific, for if there are benefits of vitality or nutrition to be had from its consumption by humans, then it is determined to be edible (Sahlins 1976, p. 175). If something is adverse to health, then it is contrastingly deemed to be inedible and non-food. Importantly, the notion of consumable is distinguished from ingestible – for a piece of glass may be ingestible, but is not consumable based on this functional definition. To say otherwise is to commit an erroneous category mistake. Furthermore, processes which turn an inedible item into an edible food, such as extracting collagen from bones to form gelatin to make a ‘jelly’ dessert may be considered as two separate entities altogether: inedible bones and edible jelly. Taste in this instance is interpreted in its biological and survival-based form separated from the faculties of judgement and association (Scruton 2010, pp. 97, 118 – 120).

Beyond this, food and drink transcend purely functional definitions and move onto a plane of symbolic meaning. It is on this level that food and drink gain their cultural meaning and importance (Douglas 1972, p. 61). ‘Transcendency’ is used to describe this level of meaning as it cannot be judged on a purely physical or functional level – it is attached to a relativised code system, where value is given on a social level and meaning has a “social component” (ibid.). These values are encoded by the changing patterns of social relations (ibid.). Therefore it can be said that from functional meanings are contained and found by virtue of human biology. In contrast, symbolic meanings are created and maintained on a semiotic basis, “detached from their causes” (Scruton 2010, p. 134). This is the basis of a constructivist attitude towards food and drink, for its value and meaning is shaped on a relational basis that groups of humans impose upon the entity.

By definition, semiotics and relativity contain the possibility for a variance of meaning across groups. There is a discernible basis in which certain foods and drinks are preferred over the other, insofar that a hierarchy of value exists. These are value judgements based on perceived “use-values” (functional meaning), and shifting “commodity-values” (symbolic meaning) (Sahlins 1976, p. 170). Of particular relevance to cultural value are “commodity-values”, for these values are “established in the discourse of things”; they are constructed beyond their concrete properties and use-value (ibid.). For instance, there is a certain relationship between humans and certain animals regarding consumption: dogs are championed as ‘man’s best friend’ and horses are “loved” as they “participate in American society in the capacity of subjects”, they are deemed “inedible” for their functional use-value does not entail consumption as food, despite being ingestible (ibid., pp. 172 – 173). In contrast, cattle are “raised for beef” and are of object and utility. They are deemed “edible” and are functionally framed for consumption (ibid.). Scruton maintains that intoxication is a property inherent to wine, but due to the reverential symbolic meaning people construct towards fine wine, the experience of wine is unique and separate from the experience of intoxication (Scruton 2010, pp. 117 – 119).

These examples neglect how far relativity extends in light of symbolic meaning. It is totally conceivable that on some alternate society dogs are farmed for their meat and cattle are championed as kinsman. Additionally, there is no necessary reason why the experience of wine must differ from any other experience of intoxication. What is biologically consumable remains concrete in meaning, but what is determined to be of functional and symbolic value have the disposition to change – they are shaped by attitudinal dimensions and social interaction.

Of particular interest to this essay is how cultural value affects class divisions and how it concurrently lumps and splits people together. I have deliberately emphasised symbolic meaning in order to champion Bourdieu’s discussion of class.


Bourdieu relies on a uniformity of consumption patterns (taste) to lump people together into the same social class. Taste is therefore the result of their social condition: there are the negotiations of food on its functional level “by virtue of necessity”, but it is income and material conditions which play a role determining the distance one has from necessity (Bourdieu 2010, p. 173). It is this concept of distance which forms symbolic meaning and value to food. The working class meal is defined by “freedom, abundance and plenty” of both food and attitude, adapted to the concreteness of food’s function: it symbolises the function of nutrition, for there is insufficient capital to treat it otherwise (ibid., pp. 192 – 193). Foods are thus communal, hearty, and filling: represented by the nutritional and satisfying generosity of pot-au-feu, the bountifulness granted by the communal serving ladle, the density of pasta and potatoes, the fatty richness of foie gras, and importantly the cheapness of foods, which represent the working class; defined by low economic and cultural capital (ibid., pp. 182 – 183, 192 – 193).

This is in direct contrast to bourgeoisie mealtime, where “due form” and “rhythm” are emphasised (ibid., p. 194). Food is slow and denies the primary and necessary function of consumption in favour of “aestheticisation of practise”; it is the “habitus of order”, “an invisible censorship” which extends into everyday life, where the division between home and the exterior is rejected (ibid.). It is in this social class where food transcends onto symbolic heights most openly. The communal emphasis is swapped for rhythm and order, “a strict [and separate] sequence is observed”: “fish and meat”, “cheese and dessert”, insofar that “haute-cuisine is [shaped like] an art form” (ibid.) (Scruton 2010, p. 121). Food becomes ceremonious, dictated by a formula “affirming ethical tones and aesthetic refinement”, achieving the latter in the way food is presented and organised to “emphasise their visual substance as of their consumable substance” (Bourdieu 2010, pp. 194 – 195). Food’s ethical dimensions echo Douglas’ idea that food is a “microscale social system”, representing broader and bigger “social boundaries” through symbolism, where food categories syntagmatically blur into social categories (and vice versa), then creating class restrictions (1972, pp. 61 – 62, 64, 68). This parallels the Bourdieusian concept of the field, such as the “working class cafe” with its emphasis on community and companionship, contrasted against the “petit-bourgeois restaurant” [in Bordeaux] with its ritualistic and pattern-like maneuvers of serving food and wine. These are cultural spaces loaded with an ambient stream of symbols that creates a “stable social base” – a set of prescribed habits set within the field, anchoring expectations, creating class divisions, and putting habitus at play (ibid., p. 69) (Bourdieu 2010, p. 180).

Under this framework, the aesthetic turn of food relies on high economic capital in order to have access to this particular culture of exotic foods (Bourdieu 2010, p. 182); and high cultural capital – for gustatory pleasures can only symbolically transcend into “aesthetic pleasures” granted there is sufficient “knowledge, [power of] comparison, and culture” (Scruton 2010, p. 120). It is this adequate distance from necessity of nourishment where scarcity and “refinement” can be afforded based on economic capital, time, and appetite: the refreshing and languid maneuver of the “aperitif” is a definite marker of this attitude, further marked by fresh vegetables and lean meats, and an inclination to “consume exotic food types in all areas” (Bourdieu 2010, pp. 182 – 183).

Bourdieu’s discussion of food as a mechanism that reproduces class divisions erroneously neglects agency and the crucial concepts of choice-consumption and the self as a project of reflexive identity formation as a means of challenging class divisions. The structure of Bourdieu’s argument is exceedingly fatalistic: taste is construed as an inevitable “condemnation”, “a forced choice of destiny”, and a result of “early social condition” (ibid., p. 173). Taste under Bourdieu’s framework lacks an individualistic flavour, neglecting agency in favour of immense social attachment and regulation (Warde 1994, p. 888). Taste as a marker of identity is too tied up with class and belonging, construed as a collective social phenomenon.

It is important not to diminish symbolic value too sharply in light of this criticism. Food as a symbolic entity is consumed, and this active choice of consumption shapes identity formation. Consumption thus becomes a reflexive process: it is an awareness on the consumer’s part that choice is invariably guided by taste, while taste (as a marker of identity) is invariably guided by choice – there is no speak of an underlying habitus, a preceding consciousness of choice; or calculations regarding capital possession when it comes to consumption. Rather, the self is championed through continual self-definition. To choose to consume lean foods over fatty foods, or vin de table over grand cru wine is to transmit a message through possession, consumption, and a display of goods on their symbolic level (ibid., p. 878). This is how the self is constructed.

This argument hinges around the notion that individuals are not passive agents, but active choice-makers (ibid., p. 877). Individuals conceive of an identity for themselves and actively work towards it by consuming the relevant symbols (Baudrillard 1998). The balance must be met, as Bourdieu shapes taste as non-arbitrary and deterministic, whilst active choice-making implies a high degree of arbitrariness. This therefore evolves into a discussion of motivations which guide choice, for while consumption is uniformly construed as a system of intaking symbols of meaning, it is the weight given to these symbols that are also subject to further discussion. For if symbols are hierarchical, then class distinctions may be drawn on that basis, thus preferencing Bourdieu’s interpretation. However, if these symbols are malleable enough to be subject to self-definition, then these distinctions dissolve, for normative markers of class based on consumption disappear. Nevertheless, economic and cultural capital continue to define the scope of potential choice-making and consumption habits by means of accessing these symbols: for there is a difference between wanting expensive Champagne and to have access to it; and another matter to talk about food preferences in a biological sense. Are the working classes destined to enjoy fatty foods due to a socialised and biological disposition for it? It is clear that determinism has not completely been eliminated from discussions of class division: freedom and agency are facilitated but the illusion of total unconstraint is not.

What can be distilled from this discussion is that consumption matters. The ‘choices’ made at the table represent a working system of constructed symbols and relativised meanings that imbue their value upon the consumer as part of a social process. It is unavoidable. Consumption (at its most menial and grandest level) is to then reflexively negotiate a sea of value-laden symbols and to choose where one places themselves within a social system. Food and drink are valuable cultural entities that give meaning to personal identity, both reaffirming and challenging class identities constantly.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, J. 1998, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Sage Publications.

Bourdieu, P. 2010, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

Douglas, M. 1972, ‘Deciphering a Meal’, Daedalus vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 61 – 81.

Sahlins, M. 1976, Food Preferences and Taboo in American Domestic Animals, University of Chicago Press.

Scruton, R. 2009, I Drink Therefore I am, Bloomsbury.

Warde, A. 1994, ‘Consumption, Identity-Formation and Uncertainty’, Sociology, vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 877 – 888.

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