Do low-brow tastes demonstrate stronger categorical differentiation? A study of fiction readership in Russia
In his paper establishing the foundations of omnivorousness theory, Richard Peterson suggested that the system of tastes is organised as a pyramid “with one elite taste at the top and more and more alternative forms at about the same level as one moves down the pyramid toward its base”, with tastes at the bottom “mark[ing] the status boundaries between taste groups defined by age, gender, race, region, religion, lifestyle” (1992, p.254). Whereas high-status individuals are likely to consume a few genres at all levels of the taste pyramid, low-status ones tend to patronise only one genre situated at the bottom. One of the predictions following from this model concerning the omnivorounsness of privileged groups has been tested in numerous studies, but the thesis of low-brow tastes having stronger structural embeddedness has been researched much less extensively. If Peterson is correct, we should find that the consumption of high-brow objects strongly correlates with status characteristics such as education where the consumption of low- and middle-brow does not; by the same token, the consumption of low-brow objects would correlate with gender, age, ethnicity, or other groupings where the consumption of high-brow objects does not. In this paper, we use a dataset from a St Petersburg public library system to analyse 1 300 000 book choices of over 100 000 readers to find out whether these predictions hold. We find that there is indeed a strong negative correlation between the attractiveness of authors for predominantly educated readers and the gender and age specificity of their audience. We discuss three possible theoretical explanations of this finding which can be discerned from the literature: (1) “group” and (2) “grid” interpretations, using the terms from Mary Douglas’s cultural theory, and (3) the opposition between relaxational and self-cultivating usages of culture. We argue that the particular differentiation pattern speaks against the “group interpretation” prevalent in other literature.