Taste Transformation in the Context of Social Mobility.

AutorPonte, Lucivania Filomeno


Taste, an internal judge that consumers use to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong, has been widely discussed in social sciences (Bourdieu, 1984; Hennion, 2001; Warde, 1997) and consumer behavior (Allen, 2002; Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982; Holt, 1998; Venkatesh, Joy, Sherry, & Deschenes, 2010; Zeithaml, 1988). Recently, the topic has again gained traction in the realm of consumer culture to address issues related to movements of taste regime acquisitions (Arsel & Bean, 2013; Maciel & Wallendorf, 2017; Quintao, Brito, & Belk, 2015; Skandalis, Banister, & Byron, 2015).

The conceptualization of the taste construct, however, depends on the epistemological paradigm, which supports the viewpoints that define taste (Barcelos, 2015). Taste was presented by Bourdieu (1984) as a system of classification and distinction and as a mechanism for constructing social boundaries (Holt, 1998). Nevertheless, some studies (Venkatesh et al., 2010) distance themselves from this structural approach and emphasize, for instance, sensory aspects and psychological responses to aesthetic stimuli (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982; Holbrook, 2005), thus following a more individual approach to taste. Other researchers relate taste to socio-cultural issues and to social practices of consumption (Allen, 2002; Ustuner & Holt, 2010).

This essay focuses on the approach of the Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) (Arnould & Thompson, 2005) to investigate taste. This approach constitutes a fundamental construct for the understanding of consumer behavior and taste has recently amassed growing interest in the area. Subsequently, researchers are making every effort to understand the taste transformation processes, whether by developing a taste regime (Arsel & Bean, 2013), analyzing taste transformation rituals (Quintao et al., 2015), or by studying the cultural competencies associated with the engineering of taste acquisition (Maciel & Wallendorf, 2017).

Although these studies analyzed taste acquisition mechanisms, consumers, in the contexts studied, belonged to the same social class (Arsel & Bean, 2013; Maciel & Wallendorf, 2017; Quintao et al., 2015; Skandalis et al., 2015) with stable social position and without any ascension concerns or material constraints that could put them on a downward path in the societal structure. Those frameworks do not consider or explain taste dynamics in the vertical social mobility process, so the investigated consumers did not face new patterns of consumption previously unfamiliar to them.

In this sense, we may ask how taste transformation processes occur when consumers experience social mobility dynamics. This is precisely the case of consumers from the new middle class around the world, mainly represented by the BRIC economies (Kamakura & Mazzon, 2013) and emergent markets like Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe (Kravets & Sandikci, 2014). The recent growth of this social stratum in emerging countries (Kamakura & Mazzon, 2013) became interesting contexts to investigate taste transformation phenomena, chiefly because of the occurrence of multiple and coexisting taste structures (Sandikci & Ger, 2010).

Similarly, Brazil is a representative case of these dynamics due to its constant economic movements in the last decade. The Brazilian working class has experienced two movements, namely its ascent to the new middle class, in which individuals encounter new categories of products and brands (Mattoso, 2013; Neri, 2010; Rocha, Rocha, & Rocha, 2016), and the return of budget constraints due to the country's political and economic instability (Pignata & Carvalho, 2015). The Brazilian experience, as in other emerging economies, leads us to question the flatness of taste transformation constructs. In dynamic social mobility contexts, in which consumers experience a reformulation of their consumption learning parameters and references, could there be opportunities to conduct additional research on taste transformation? This question illustrates just one of the opportunities to investigate this theme in the realm of consumer behavior.

Following MacInnis' (2011) call for more conceptual thinking in our field, this article has two aims. The first aim is to address the debate around taste in consumer behavior and discuss contributions and remaining gaps in recent literature. The second goal is to display how the new middle-class phenomenon and social mobility environments are fostering the construction of a more complex approach to taste. In this sense, the consumption experience of the new Brazilian middle class is a promising laboratory for future research.

The paper begins with a review of taste literature. Then, we present the theoretical frameworks in the literature of the consumer culture theory used to analyze taste transformation. A third section examines the social mobility phenomenon and its articulation with contemporary thinking on taste transformation. Subsequently, we present the new Brazilian middle class as a promising research context. The last section discusses the limitations of current frameworks for analyzing taste transformation in a social mobility context. Finally, we identify opportunities for future research and outline potential contributions to (a) taste as a mechanism of distinction-across and (b) taste in inertial acquisition dynamics.

The Taste Construct in Consumer Behavior

In order to understand the role of taste in literature on consumer behavior, we performed a root metaphor analysis (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011) and outlined the different approaches to taste and their different theoretical bases. We identified that taste has been investigated according to three main different perspectives: (a) Taste as individual phenomena, (b) Taste as a social boundary, and (c) Taste as tension between structure and agency.

A significant stream of research envisions taste as an individual response to things. It may be, for instance, a synonym of judgment and the manifestation of preferences that become tangible with consumption objects. It also appears as an appropriate and consistent individual response to consumption objects, obtained through sensory means, or as an individual's emotional response to these objects (Zeithaml, 1988). Other studies analyze the sensory dimensions of taste related to the five senses of the individual (Bloch, 1995; Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982; Venkatesh et al., 2010). Here, taste is seen as preferences that can be used to protect the consumer's identity project.

Another stream of research considers taste as a social boundary (Allen, 2002; Gronow, 1997; Holt, 1998; Pereira & Ayrosa, 2012), which creates distinctions in a status game (Bourdieu, 1984; McQuarrie, Miller, & Phillips, 2013; Ustuner & Holt, 2010). In this approach, taste operates as a system of classification that perpetuates symbolic hierarchies through embodied action (Ustuner & Holt, 2010). Taste theorization here draws on Bourdieu's definition of taste (1984) as a symptom of the habitus; the way he or she classifies himself or herself and classifies others. This view contrasts with the approach that considers taste as belonging to an individual dimension and pure individual aesthetic judgment. Accordingly, here taste is analyzed as an eminently social faculty resulting from class origin and education (Bourdieu, 2007; Holt, 2002) and manifested in embodied preferences, which focus on class-bound resources such as education or long-term familiarity with artistic and aesthetic objects (Holt, 1998).

The last stream of research makes some advances in this viewpoint. According to this stream, in the postmodern condition, the consumer is supposed to be a liberated subject with agency (Firat & Venkatesh, 1995) who assembles choices from marketplace resources through a process of bricolage. These studies reject a purely structural analysis in favor of a more contextualized interpretation perspective. Taste is investigated in terms of the affiliation of people, groups, or communities (Arsel & Bean, 2013; Arsel & Thompson, 2011) or as an aesthetic discrimination mechanism (Joy & Sherry, 2003; McQuarrie et al., 2013). In this sense, taste, for this last stream of research, is the locus where the individual agency actively deals with a given structure.

Consequently, defining taste depends on the epistemological paradigm. The authors, following the consumer culture theory paradigm (Arnould & Thompson, 2005), see taste as a social construction that involves not only its structural dimension but also the consumer's agency in the taste transformation process. Therefore, given the number of influential works that investigate taste, especially in the recent literature on consumer behavior (Arsel & Bean, 2013; Maciel & Wallendorf, 2017; Quintao et al., 2015; Skandalis et al., 2015), it is important to fully understand how taste is outlined in this more recent stream and how it is constructed or transformed in different consumption fields. The next section presents the different approaches used to discuss taste from a consumer culture perspective (Arnould & Thompson, 2005) as a transformation process.

The Taste Transformation Process

The literature on taste transformation in consumer behavior, mainly in CCT articles, is inspired by sociocultural lenses. One important influence is the work of Bourdieu (1984), who conceives taste as a symptom of social distinction in a more structural manner. The second source of influence is Hennion (2001), who adopts a reflexive approach of taste as a dynamic activity expressed in daily consumption practices. In general, the Practice Theory is another pervasive theoretical lens in this research stream (Maciel & Wallendorf, 2017), thus providing ground for an approach to taste that accommodates agency and structure (Askegaard & Linnet, 2011). Other approaches to taste transformation emphasize the role of rituals (Quintao et al., 2015), while other studies throw light on the spatial...

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