Classical, country, or heavy metal: ‘Educational level and background influence your cultural taste’

Classical, country, or heavy metal: ‘Educational level and background influence your cultural taste’

A cultural snob with a predilection for classical music or a cultural omnivore with a broad taste in music? ‘Educational level and social background influence your cultural taste,’ explains former sociology student Romy Oomens in her Master’s thesis. ‘And this perpetuates social inequality.’

Image: Jeroen de Leijer

Where did the inspiration for your Master’s thesis come from?

‘In the second year of my Bachelor’s, I took the course Cultural Sociology with Peter Achterberg. In one of the lessons, he talked about cultural taste. I myself love music enormously, love to visit concerts or festivals, so I am a real culture lover. For me, my taste in music was very unique. I always had the idea that the bands I like to listen to are not appreciated by everyone.

‘After this lecture, I found out that my tastes were more predictable than I thought. After all, your cultural taste is tied to the social class you belong to. My parents are not highly educated. I, on the other hand, have completed a university degree and am, therefore, a ‘social climber.’ Nevertheless, my father and I largely share the same taste in music, and we even went to Rock Werchter (a major pop-rock festival in Belgium, ed.) together.

‘But in recent years I’ve also come to appreciate styles of music that I didn’t get from my background. Studying at university brings you into contact with other people with other musical tastes. Therefore, I wondered if my broad taste in music was a logical consequence of my social background and social ascent. So the choice to write my thesis about this was easily made.’

What is your thesis about?

‘I researched whether educational level and climbing the social ladder—also called intergenerational mobility—can determine one’s cultural tastes. For example, it may be the case that those with higher education are more likely to have broad cultural tastes than those with lower education. But it could also be the case that social climbers in particular have broad cultural tastes.

‘In my research, I looked at cultural taste in the broadest sense: music, art, literature, TV shows, movies, food, and cultural activities such as going to the opera. In doing so, I found is a distinction between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ cultural activities.

‘Although it is culturally and contextually dependent on what is considered ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow,’ most people characterize French cuisine, classical music, and a visit to the opera as highbrow cultural forms. Fast food, heavy metal, and going to the cinema are common examples of lowbrow cultural forms.’

How did you handle that?

‘For my research, I used data from the United Kingdom and performed a ‘latent class analysis’ on that data. This allows you to identify different types of cultural consumers. For example, you look at whether certain patterns are common in society. In the end, based on existing theories, I identified four types of cultural consumers.

Romy Oomens. Image: Jack Tummers

‘First of all, there are highbrow snobs. These are often somewhat older, highly educated cultural consumers who have exclusive and elite cultural tastes. They like to go to the opera, for example. In this way they are quite distinct from the mass consumer, whose taste they detest.

‘Then there are the highly educated, cultural omnivores. These are often young people who have broad, inclusive tastes and embrace both highbrow and lowbrow cultural forms. For example, they like classical music as well as heavy metal.

‘The people who fall into the third group are the low-educated univores. They have very limited tastes and often like only one thing. In the United Kingdom, for example, this group can mainly appreciate country music. Finally, there is a fourth group: the pop culture cluster. The often-young people in this group actually like all popular forms of culture.’

What are the results of your research?

My research shows that education level affects one’s cultural taste. Also, moving up the social ladder affects one’s cultural taste, only not in the way I expected. Namely, I thought that climbing the social ladder would lead to an omnivorous taste pattern: a mixed taste of lowbrow cultural forms from childhood and highbrow cultural forms due to the new, social position. Yet, this is not the case: social risers are more likely to identify themselves as highbrow cultural snobs.

‘In addition, my research shows that there are limits to the tolerant, inclusive tastes of cultural omnivores. For example, heavy metal—a genre that people are more likely to classify as lowbrow—is accepted by the educated cultural omnivore. But country music is frowned upon by the cultural omnivore.’

Why is your research important?

‘I think a lot of people don’t realize that one’s cultural choices, tastes, and preferences determine who you meet and what class you belong to. For example, the people you meet at a classical concert are often very different from the people you meet at a Frans Bauer concert.

‘And that’s worrisome because that’s how culture and cultural taste perpetuate inequality. If everyone stays in their own bubble, segregated social networks and worlds of experience are created, and highly educated people are not as likely to ‘open doors’ to someone they don’t know from another social class.

‘It just so happens that highly educated cultural snobs hardly interact with less educated cultural univores. My research exposes this, and I hope policymakers and organizations will do more to combat cultural inequality.

‘They could do this by introducing children to different cultural activities at an early age. Because how can you learn to appreciate something like a museum if you never go here? Not surprisingly, many people think a museum is a stuffy, boring place that only higher educated people go to.’

Master’s thesis

A literature review, experimenting in the lab or getting into the swing of things with SPSS? Tilburg University students write the most diverse theses. In the Master’s Thesis section, Univers highlights one every month.

Author: Romy Oomens
Title: Anything but Country and Western: analyzing cultural omnivorism in the United Kingdom
Supervisor: Peter Achterberg
Grade: 9.5

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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