Does popular culture bridge cultural holes? A study of a literary taste system using unimodal network projections
Which cultural objects are most likely to become topics of conversation between strangers who have little in common in terms of their cultural background? A widely shared view is that artistic products that play this role are likely to be “popular” in the dual sense of being both widely consumed and less legitimate. To test this proposition, we developed a unimodal network approach to analysing cultural consumption data. Using data from St. Petersburg (Russia) municipal library system, we reconstruct a network of 21,931 authors. We demonstrate that authors with predominantly university-educated readership are more likely to bridge cultural holes in taste networks, as measured by aggregate constraint and betweenness. At least as far as the literature is concerned, it is the legitimate figures that provide themes for “culture talk” across large cultural distances. We argue that the observed pattern might be explained as an outcome of two phenomena: (1) participation of lower-status audiences in the consumption of legitimate culture, particularly under pressure from formal educational institutions, and (2) asymmetry in tastes, with high-status consumers placing more value on the distinctiveness of their preferences.