Understanding Cultural Omnivores

This project is funded by the British Academy, and is a follow-up study of an ESRC/AHRC project on Social Status, Lifestyle and Cultural Consumption.


This study seeks to develop a new agenda for research into the social stratification of cultural consumption. Past research in this area has been concerned with the overall relationship between the social and cultural hierarchies. The debate has been long and occasionally heated. But most researchers are now converging to the view that in contemporary societies those who consume "highbrow" culture have little aversion against consuming "middlebrow" or popular culture (e.g. Bennett et al, 2009, Chan, 2010). That is, contrary to the arguments of Bourdieu, the socially advantaged in contemporary societies tend to be cultural omnivores rather than "cultural snobs".

In this project, I use recent survey data to address the following new research questions. Where do cultural omnivores come from? Are they a product of social mobility in the postwar period? In what ways is cultural consumption affected by the social status of significant others? And how is cultural consumption related to material consumption, working life, and leisure activities in general?

Key questions

  1. What is the origin of cultural omnivores? Empirical research has clearly established that in contemporary societies individuals in advantaged social positions are omnivorous rather than exclusive in their cultural tastes and consumption. But where do cultural omnivores come from? One argument is that they are the products of intergenerational upward social mobility in the post-war period. That is, individuals of lower status origin carry with them cultural preferences that are formed in their family of origin, but they also acquire new cultural tastes in their current elevated status milieu. To test this hypothesis, we need information on status origin and cultural socialisation. Such information wasnot available in previous surveys. But with the new Taking Part surveys, I can now address this question directly.
  2. How do significant others affect cultural consumption? Previous research suggests that cultural consumption is stratified by social status (Chan, 2010). One reasonable interpretation of this result is that individuals express their social identity through cultural consumption. However, other interpretations are possible. For example, the presumed status effect might simply mask unmeasured effect of, say, the information processing capacity of individuals. One way to verify the status interpretation is to explore how the social status of significant others (e.g. close friend) might affect cultural consumption. Since it is unlikely that the social status of one's close friend is simply a proxy of one's information processing capacity, this strategy should help us circumvent, at least partly, the unmeasured effect problem. In particular, I shall examine cases where there is incongruence between the status of individuals and that of their close friends. Such analysis will give further insights into why social status matters in cultural consumption.
  3. How does cultural consumption relate to other domains of social life? It has been shown in several countries (e.g. see the chapters on Chile, France and the US in Chan, 2010) that omnivores are more likely than others to exercise, to take part in voluntary activity, to engage in home improvement, to go to sport events, to travel, and, at least in the US, a higher proportion of omnivores work long hours too. The only activity that they seem to spend less time on is watching TV. To understand cultural omnivores better, we need to relate cultural consumption research to other fields of enquiry. Since the Taking Part surveys also contain information on participation in sport, use of media and other leisure activities, I will be able to test whether the pattern observed in Chile, France and the US also holds for the UK. I will also draw on data from other large scale surveys, e.g. the Family Expenditure Survey and the 2000 UK Time Use Survey, in order to explore the links between cultural consumption on the one hand, and work and material consumption on the other. This will allow me to relate research on conspicuous material consumption in Economics and Sociology (e.g. Veblen, 1899; Charles et al, 2009; Schor, 1998) to studies of cultural consumption.

Contact Info:

Department of Sociology
University of Oxford
Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ
United Kingdom

tel: +44 (1865) 286176
fax: +44 (1865) 286171
email: tw [dot] chan [at] sociology [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk

Last modified: Mon Jun 21 19:30:49 BST 2010