This is a sociological study of the process of evaluation and judgement in the realm of aesthetics. Its empirical focus concerns everyday judgements of what is in good and bad taste, and the practices and narratives used by people to justify how they have furnished and decorated their homes. Narratives refer to the resources, discursive strategies, schemes and contexts that actors use to give a warrantable account of something. The skill of being able to discern and judge what is appropriate, worthy and good is a valuable form of capital in a consumer society. From a sociological perspective, perhaps more important however, are the narratives people use to justify and give account of their choices.
Contemporary research into the sociology of taste has largely, following Bourdieu, emphasised the role of taste judgements as markers of social and cultural power, as distinctive symbols of social position, or more broadly implicated in the reproduction of economic inequality. This thesis argues that whilst these are valuable traditions in sociological studies of aesthetics, such a preoccupation with the social distribution of objectified tastes - for example, in art, music or literature - has been at the expense of investigating the everyday perceptual schemes and resources used by actors to accomplish a judgement of taste. In their aggregate form and treated primarily as symbolic markers, 'judgements of taste' have become objectified; severed from their underlying conceptual bases and cultural meanings. By shifting the focus in studies of taste from the what of aesthetic preferences to the how and why of the accomplishment and expression of judgements of taste, the everyday, discursive realm of taste can be uncovered and diverse logics of taste recovered.
The theoretical foundation of the thesis traces arguments about the nature of the personal/collective tension in taste, aesthetics and fashion using a range of classical and contemporary literature, including Kant, Simmel, Veblen, Blumer and Bourdieu. In part, the thesis seeks to complement mainstream sociological accounts of taste by arguing for a position which acknowledges the structural theories of Bourdieu, but recovers overlooked ideas in the philosophical position of Kant, and the classical sociological pieces of Simmel, Veblen, and later Blumer. In this project the context for a sociological study of taste, understood as manifest preferences for certain categories of goods or for particular practices in relation to goods, is to be found in studies of consumerism. Traditionally studies of tastes in sociology tend to be situated as an applied field within mainstream studies of class or inequality. Where this thesis has affinities with and applications to such studies, the focus is shifted to a concern with taste as a set of schemes that allow people to navigate the world of consumption.
The schemes or resources for making consumption choices are explored using two bodies of data. First, quantitative and qualitative techniques are applied to a sample of survey responses that deal with people's understandings of the categories of 'good' and 'bad' taste. Second, a domain of taste practice — the decoration and design of the home - is investigated through a series of in-depth interviews. The survey data show that while aesthetic understandings do exist, there is a strong collective sentiment in everyday definitions of taste, often linked to moral codes of interpersonal conduct and modes of disciplining or attuning the self to others. The ethnography of home decoration also illustrates that aesthetic concerns of good taste in home beautification are important, but are connected to constructing plausible narratives of self-identity, the needs of family, and the desire for a simple and relaxing lifestyle that is firmly unaesthetic. By uncovering a collective sentiment in everyday understandings of taste, and by allowing a richer context to surface in regard judgements of taste within the home, these findings have implications for the way taste and consumerism is theorised.