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Omnivores Versus Snobs?

Musical Tastes in the United States and France


Angèle Christin
Working Paper #40, Summer 2010

Two major theories structure debates on the relationship between socioeconomic status and aesthetic tastes. The distinction hypothesis, developed by French scholars with French data, claims that high-status people with highbrow tastes shun popular culture. The “omnivores” hypothesis, developed by U.S. sociologists with American data, states that highbrow respondents have on the contrary more tolerant and omnivorous musical attitudes than other respondents. Do these propositions reflect real differences between the United States and France with regard to socioeconomic variation in musical tastes, or differing theoretical traditions in the two countries?
This research provides some support for both views. An examination of data on musical tastes (Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 2002, Enquête sur les Pratiques Culturelles des Français 2008) reveals a very similar organization of aesthetic judgment in the U.S. and France: in both countries highbrow respondents are omnivorous. But significant differences between the two countries are also documented for older cohorts. Older cohorts follow a pattern of distinction in France, but not in the United States. This finding delineates how once-real differences between the two countries in the relationship between socioeconomic status and aesthetic tastes may have been blunted by historical change.

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