September 04, 2017

Football and Foie Gras: How Taste Makes Groups

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Think about how taste works in your life. At some point you have, perhaps quite passionately, argued with a friend about a style or genre of music. Do your tastes define who you are as a person? Your taste in music, your taste clothes, your taste in food?

Taste seems like a very personal thing. It helps you craft your identity, right? It’s who you are. But taste is not a personal matter. It’s a profoundly social one.

What is taste? Let’s say that taste is the trained ability to make judgments on culture.

You might think your style is highly individualized. Yet, taste is not innate. Rather, it emerges from interactions with others. Through communication and socialization we learn how people express themselves and how we can do the same for our own identities. Taste is, therefore, a kind of learned behavior. Taste channels our behaviors. Once we have a developed sense of taste, we start to fall into what anthropologist Theodore Bestor calls “grooved channels:” well-worn pathways of thoughts and actions that are easy to ease into. One taste, in a way, informs other tastes.

This also helps us understand subcultures. Subcultures are communities of style—a symbolic combination of dress, music, language—that are distinct from the larger popular culture. We start conforming to group norms, we adopt the values and visions of reality that are collectively shared by the group. This even happens when the group is enthusiastically countercultural! Punks, goths, juggalos, and other subcultures all have their own distinct styles and tastes that shape who they are as a group. “Let’s be against the normal! (Yet, hold very strong feelings about what ‘normal’ is within our community!)”

And here we can see how tastes are boundary maintaining. The words we use, and the values we learn through our tastes not only allow us to develop new behaviors, but also allow us to identify which people are like us, and which people are different.

Have you ever read Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire, Gulliver’s Travels? In it the protagonist comes across two groups of ankle-sized people, the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians. Bitter enemies with different cultures and language, the central tension between the two groups revolved around an argument over which side of an egg should be cracked: the bigger end or the little end. The story is a satire of Protestant and Catholic, British and French culture at the time. Today, however, the story serves as a reminder of how a particular cultural view, no matter how trivial, can have significant social consequences, as lines between groups are drawn.

Through Emile Durkheim—who felt that symbols, activated through rituals, foster shared meanings and create community—we know that culture can bond people together. It can be a bridge. Tastes also inform our sociability: we make friendships and social ties through our taste in music or clothes, and we are able to maintain those connections through continued cultural activities.

Our social networks inform our tastes, introducing us to new ideas, fashions, and cultural wares, classifications, passing along through our social interactions. Take, as an example, sports. Have you ever felt an affinity for a stranger based on their allegiance to a particular team? Ever given a stranger a high-five at a football game?

At the same time, sociologist Paul DiMaggio also points out how culture and tastes also be a “fence.” Sports, while generating warm feelings in one instance, can also generate strong negative feelings in another. Sports, like culture more generally, creates in groups and out groups. This phenomenon occurs everywhere, from American football to Argentinean soccer (called football there). Matches between Buenos Aires football teams, Boca Juniors and River Plate are so important they are called “superclasico!”

Boundaries between groups are hardly inconsequential, even when they play out in sports: In the case of cricket in South Asia, where a match between India and Pakistan reflects decades of political conflict. Over 60 students were expelled from their Indian university—and even threatened with sedition charges—for cheering the Pakistani team.

Even though there is nothing objective that makes any one taste better or worse, or more or less legitimate, taste can keep people apart and generate hierarchies. Take, as an example, how the exact same cultural object can generate passionate and conflicting responses, seeking greater position over the other. Michaela DeSoucey’s Contested Tastes examines the conflict over foie gras—the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been force fed via a tube.

She finds two opposed groups, basing positions for and against this type of food upon very different moral grounds. On the one hand, there are food connoisseurs who consider foie gras to be a delicacy. On the other, there are animal rights activists who feel that the process of making foie gras is detestable. DeSoucey’s study how these two groups rest upon different values in order to establish their moral authority: Whereas the French government legally defined foie gras as a part of their country’s “official gastronomical heritage,” animal rights activists who see the practice as inhumane and cruel.

From football to foie gras, our cultural tastes create in groups and out groups.

At a wider level, if group members hold the belief that their culture is superior to all others, we call it ethnocentrism. Somewhat opposite to that would be what anthropologist Ruth Benedict called cultural relativism: acknowledging differences in values, norms and the like across groups, without assigning greater or lesser value to those dissimilarities.

Last, I’ll say this: There are definitely some tastes that we likely keep to ourselves. Guilty pleasures, perhaps. Think of a song that you love that you maybe wouldn’t want other people to know about. The song that you play when you’re alone. Do you have one in mind? Now, why wouldn’t you want to share it? Is it that country song, but your friends all like hip hop? Is it a bubblegum pop song with a catchy hook that your punk girlfriend would judge you for?

One of the best ideas from the sociology of taste is the realization that people are increasingly omnivorous, meaning that our tastes are broader. People used to know a lot about one specific genre of taste: knowing a lot about opera, or about Mexican food. These days, however, we differentiate ourselves by knowing a lot about many different cultural spheres. Cultural omnivores might talk about opera but also jazz or punk music too.

So, it’s ok to be a punk who likes Katy Perry.

Comments

Taste in this case seems to follow similar paths to the concepts of neuronal synapse construction and the illusion of free will. As with all life the goals of an organism are simply survival of the organism and propagation of the species. Therefore these trained tastes are the parameters developed from synapse formation guiding the organism into grooved channels it believes will optimize survival and maximize propagation.

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