Herber J. Gans: The Plurality of Taste Cultures

Herbert Gans criticised mass culture theorists by suggesting there was a plurality of cultures in America, each of equal value.

Writing in the 1970s Herbert J. Gans noted that America was developing a plurality of taste cultures which existed side by side with each other. He identified several different types of culture including:

  • High culture
  • upper-middle culture
  • lower-middle culture
  • low-culture
  • quasi-folk low culture
  • cultures based on age and ethnicity
  • total cultures
  • partial cultures.

Gans believed that each of these cultures were of equal worth and that all peoples had a right to engage with the culture they preferred. He was against cultural theorists who viewed high culture as superior and mass or popular culture as worthless.

Herbert J. Gans types of culture: a summary

Gans defined high culture as works of art, music and ‘serious’ literature which looked critically at social and psychological issues, emphasising these over story line and entertainment.

High culture paid more attention to abstract social and philosophical questions and subjecting societal assumptions to critique – it was more about ‘high philosophy’ rather than ‘politics on the ground’.

Upper-middle culture was the culture of well-educated middle class professionals who enjoyed reading works of fiction with more plot than was found in high culture. They enjoyed works such as those written by Norman Mailer.

Upper-middle culture rejected anything that was too experimental or abstract and also anything that was too vulgar and populist.

Lower-middle class culture was the dominant taste culture in America, exemplified by Cosmopolitan magazine and enjoyed by mainly lower middle class professionals such as teachers.

Low culture was the culture of the old working classes who liked stories about individuals and families with problems and action films. This is the culture of country music and tabloid newspapers

Quasi folk culture is a blend of pre WWII culture and commercialism enjoyed by Blue collar workers and the rural poor and includes comics, old westerns and soap operas.

Total Cultures

For Gans total cultures were cultures which existed completely outside of mainstream society and were critical of mainstream society. Total cultures were not followed by many people but they attracted a disproportionate amount of media concern and worry from other people.

There were five types of total culture:

  • communal cultures – which involved people living in communes
  • political cultures – for example groups wishing to overthrow the American government
  • religious cultures – for example people living in world rejecting sects.
  • neo-dadist cultures – experimental artists and musicians
  • drug and music cultures.

Partial Cultures

Partial cultures were part-time versions of total cultures. Partial cultures were also critical of aspects of mainstream society but hey were closer to mainstream society than total cultures and more likely to have been commercially exploited than total cultures.

According to Gans ‘ethnic cultures’ were a form of partial culture – each group of immigrants bought their own culture with them to America but this culture was less important to the successive generations of children born in America.

The hierarchy of tastes

Gans noted that was a hierarchy of tastes with High culture at the top, followed by upper-middle class culture, but this hierarchy was only because of the social class hierarchy in America at the time.

The cultures at the top had more status because the people who created and consumed them had more money to pile into creating cultural products and maintaining their status, but there was no intrinsic way in which high culture was superior to low culture.

in other words high culture wasn’t ‘superior’ to low middle class culture because it was better on merit, it was simply ‘superior’ because those involved with it were higher up the social class hierarchy.

Gans also believed there were no hard and fast barriers between different types of taste cultures – people were free to pick and mix from aspects of different cultural types.

Evaluations of Gans

Gans perspective is useful for criticising the critics of mass culture. For Gans, mass or popular culture had value in that it provided entertainment for people rather than being worthless.

However he did still come across as seeming to respect high culture more than other forms of culture!

Gans’ description of culture in America is far more accurate than mass cultural theorists as he recognises that there is much greater plurality in ‘popular culture’, and he recognises the differences across class and ethnic lines too.

However, in reality cultural divisions in America were probably a lot more clear cut than even Gans suggested!

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This material is primarily relevant to students studying towards to culture and identity option as part of the AQA’s specification.

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