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Consuming Kitchens. Taste, context and identity formation. DALE SOUTHERTON. University of Manchester. Abstract. The role that consumption might play in ...

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Consuming Kitchens Taste, context and identity formation DALE SOUTHERTON University of Manchester Abstract. The role that consumption might play in processes of identity formation has been subject to much recent sociological debate. This article explores four principles of kitchen consumption orientations that were described by three groups (differentiated by levels of economic and cultural resources) who live in an English new town. The varying meanings applied to kitchen usage are also explored. It is argued that the similarity of kitchen tastes and the meanings applied to its usage within the three groups cast doubt over theories that suggest consumption and identity formation are increasingly free from normative group constraints. In conclusion it is argued that association within locality-based ‘taste communities’ acted to confirm shared tastes which respondents mapped onto generic social categorizations of class, a confirmation made possible through varying degrees of sociability within local contexts. Key words class ● kitchens ● place ● practices ● style

CONSUMER CULTURE REFERS TO A CONDITION in which consumption is argued to mediate ever more aspects of social relations: . . . consumer culture denotes a social arrangement in which the relation between lived culture and social resources, between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, is mediated through markets. (Slater, 1997: 8) Copyright © 2001 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 1(2): 179–203 [1469-5405] (200111) 1:2; 179–203; 019431]

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The theoretical basis for such claims rests on the symbolic capacities of consumption to represent group affiliation and life-styles, and to generate senses of identity. That appropriation of goods and services into daily lives is an important symbolic mechanism of identity formation is rarely disputed. Theoretical contention centres on whether consumption is ‘free’ from the normative group attachments associated with class and symbolic of individually derived life-styles. For scholars such as Bourdieu (1984), consumption is the principal means through which class-based social distinctions are reproduced. In Bourdieu’s work, individuals’ volumes of economic (wealth), cultural (knowledge and demeanour) and social (networks) resources pre-dispose them to consume in particular ways. As these resources are tied to class position, and because the symbolic capacity of consumption is the most amenable means of distinguishing between class groups, ways of consuming act as normative mechanisms that demarcate the tastes shared by ‘Us’ from those appropriated by ‘Them’. For example, Bourdieu argues that the working class have a ‘taste for necessity’, a consequence of their material constraints and low cultural resources regarding knowledge of other tastes. A ‘taste for necessity’ is legitimate for the working class precisely because it contrasts with the orientations of the middle class who, through their higher economic and cultural resources, are more inclined toward cultural experimentation. Consumption orientations are therefore normative and, as modes of distinction, act to confirm social identities through the relational, and oppositional, character of shared tastes. Bourdieu’s theory is dependent on a number of mechanisms if its central prognosis – that social relations remain ordered by structural position – is to stand up to scrutiny. First, orientations toward consumption must map onto volumes of economic and cultural resources and remain consistent in their patterning across class-based groups. Second, tastes in consumption should remain relatively static because dispositions are ‘learned’ and only through significant changes in resource volumes can taste be modified. Third, in order for mechanisms of class-based distinction to operate effectively, members of different groups must consistently embrace the boundaries between class-based tastes and dismiss the orientations of other classes as ‘not for us’. It is on these three points that Bourdieusian approaches are criticized. While it is generally accepted that volumes of economic resources condition an individual’s scope for consumption, the view that orientations remain relatively static undermines the capacity for autonomous appropriation of goods and services into life-styles, and fails to reflect an increasing diversity 180

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of such life-styles. On this basis theories broadly labelled as late- and postmodern point to significant social changes that signal the emergence of new ‘consumer freedoms’. Processes such as globalization, economic restructuring and shifts from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production are highlighted as key mechanisms. The proliferation of goods and styles of consumption within global markets means that those with similar economic resources are presented with a range of life-styles from which to choose. Such choices are not mediated by class-based identities because economic restructuring has blurred the boundaries between class groups. The erosion of such ‘fixed’ reference points of identity means consumption is not simply a choice about goods and services, but a choice about a style of life, about who we are and how we wish to be perceived by others in particular social settings (Bauman, 1988; Featherstone, 1991; Giddens, 1991). With identities no longer ‘unproblematically assigned’ (Slater, 1997: 85), agents must take account of the plurality of often conflicting advice offered by markets (through the media, advertising and celebrities) in order to choose and integrate styles of consumption and narrate a sense of identity. As Giddens (1991: 81) suggests ‘we have no choice but to choose’ and in doing so the responsibility of identity formation falls increasingly on the shoulders of individuals. This process of individualization further erodes group-specific sources of meaning and individuals retreat further into the private sphere, focusing their attentions on negotiations of personal risk (Beck, 1992), intimate relationships (Giddens, 1991), and ‘romantic love’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996). This is not to say that individuals become detached from group affiliations. For Maffesoli (1988) and Bauman (1990), senses of association can be achieved through ‘neo-tribes’ – affectual, emotive and transitory attachments to small groups based around shared life-style images. Movement between such life-styles is unproblematic because group affiliation amounts to little more than buying into the selected life-style image. Consequently, the source of identity is the life-style image that individuals purposively appropriate rather than shared normative orientations. As Warde (1997) argues, the individual voluntaristic basis of neo-tribes might make life-styles visible but their impermanence raises doubts as to just how socially meaningful they might be as a basis for identity formation. Taking a cue from these debates, this article sets out to explore whether the consumption of kitchens within a specific local context was patterned according to respondents’ volumes of economic and cultural resources, and whether this ‘ordinary’ form of consumption acted as an expression of identity (Gronow and Warde, 2001). Had those who share similar volumes of 181

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economic and cultural resources shared kitchen consumption orientations and advanced narratives of class-based social distinctions, then Bourdieu’s arguments would be supported. However, should respondents describe their taste and use of kitchens as an expression of individually derived life-style images detached from normative group-based identifications, theories of consumer freedom would seem most plausible. At stake in this analysis is the degree to which respondents interpret consumption as symbolic of self (‘I’) and social (‘Us’) identity, and whether class or autonomous life-styles act as social bases in the affirmation of identity. Research context: the locality, the sample and the kitchen The empirical research studied a new town located in the periphery of Bristol, England.Yate has witnessed rapid population growth (from 6,000 to 35,000 between 1961 and 1995) meaning that, at least in the early stages of development,residents had limited network ties within the local area. Despite the majority of employed residents working outside the town, Yate is relatively self-contained in terms of services and amenities. The town evolved in two distinct phases. South Yate was developed in the early 1970s and consists of uniform three-bedroom terraced housing, and was home to twothirds of the town’s population in 1991. North Yate (built during the 1980s) comprises semi/detached 3–6 bedroom houses built with a number of house design variations. A shopping centre and major roads leading to Bristol and the nearby M4–M5 motorway interchange bisect the two areas.The housing division also maps onto the socio-economic profile of the town. In 1991, 32 percent of north Yate heads of households were employed in professional and managerial occupations compared with 17 percent of south Yate households. As a whole, 88 percent of Yate’s housing is owner occupied and less than 1 percent of the population consists of ethnic minorities (Southerton, 1999). Given the socio-demographic homogeneity of the population, the socio-economic housing status divide and new town characteristics, Yate provided a suitable context for empirical research. On the one hand, the north–south housing status divide provides an overt reference point for class-based social distinctions. On the other hand, the town’s ‘newness’ means it features few of the socio-historical configurations associated with community-based social bonds important for confirmation of class-based social identities (Crow and Allan, 1994; Elias and Scotson, 1965). Interviews were conducted with men, women and couples from 35 households, 15 from south Yate and 20 from north Yate.1 Representative of the Yate population as a whole, all respondents were white, owner 182

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occupiers, living as married, and while respondent ages varied from 23 to 68, 21 were aged between 25 and 50. Respondents varied systematically in their volumes of economic and cultural resources, producing three groups that, overall, comprised residents from three neighbourhood areas.2 The first group lived in Bowland Road (south Yate) and all had low economic and cultural resources, the majority of household heads being skilled manual workers.3 Cartmel Street formed the second group living in north Yate. They had higher levels of economic resources than Bowland respondents but equally low levels of cultural resources.4 In addition, most heads of household were skilled manual workers although unlike Bowland respondents most were dual-income households. Finally, Lonsdale Avenue respondents also lived in north Yate and had high levels of both economic and cultural resources. All heads of household were professional or managerial and over half were dual-income households. Employing a ‘conversational approach’ (Douglas, 1985), in-depth semistructured interviews enquired into respondents’ neighbourhood perceptions, spare-time interests, social networks and consumption of kitchens. This article draws primarily from discussions of kitchens, which focused on narratives of good and bad taste, past, present and ideal kitchens, and detailed discussion of kitchen practices. Respondents were asked how, and for what, they used their kitchen and how their kitchen was organized. Interviews lasted between one and four hours. Being located within the routine everyday practices of domestic life, kitchens are instructive because (a) they are not highly visible unless guests are invited into their space; (b) they might hold emotional meanings attached to the family (Corrigan, 1997); and (c) they are standardized in design and yet hold the possibility for stylization (Miller, 1988). The collection of these features affords kitchen consumption with the potential to be symbolic of social distinctions and identity. Importantly, being an ‘ordinary’ space of various forms of consumption, including spare-time interests with family and friends, food consumption, television watching and radio listening, a focus on the kitchen provides scope for a consideration of a range of domestic consumption practices. Moreover, with respect to the theories outlined earlier, being located in the private sphere, kitchens lack visibility to strangers, making ascription of particular tastes to specified social groups deeply problematic for individuals should contemporary forms of identity formation be non-foundational. The empirical basis of this research focused on the contexts of the home and the local community in which these were situated. In addition to the focus on kitchens the scope for generalizing research findings beyond 183

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these contexts is limited. However, by examining detailed narratives of consumption within specific contexts this research does shed light on a number of key mechanisms that relate consumption with identity and which demonstrate the degree to which consumer culture penetrates an ‘ordinary community’ and an ‘ordinary form of consumption’. ANALYSING TASTE The analytical strategy for this research was influenced by Holt’s (1997) ethnographic study of an American college town. Holt is critical of those who suggest that Bourdieu’s theory fails to appreciate cultural diversity due to its conceptualization of taste as a single objective currency. By distinguishing objectified (expressions of taste through object categories) from embodied (knowledge, cultural skills and expressions of stylistic appreciation) cultural resources, Holt suggests that Bourdieu’s approach to taste encompasses ‘unintentional consequences’ of social interaction. Interaction always involves classifying practices and it is through such classifications that cultural diversity becomes meaningful and distinctive. Consequently, tastes should be analysed not simply as ‘what’ people consume but ‘how’ they consume and the meanings they attach to the practices involved. Through systematic comparison of respondents with high and low cultural resources, Holt analyses tastes and practices in the fields of clothing, home décor, travel, movies, reading, food and socializing. Identifying six dimensions of taste distinguished by volumes of cultural resources, he shows how taste remains a fundamental mechanism in the generation of cultural distinction. The six dimensions identified can be divided into two generic categories. First, material tastes where those with low cultural resources evaluated material goods according to extrinsic, utilitarian and immediate referential qualities. Those with high cultural resources evaluated material tastes through ideologies of creativity, formal aesthetics and the capacity to critically abstract meaning from beyond the context of use. The second category referred to work and leisure. As ‘working class’ occupations are an experience of routine, application of technique, high surveillance and work-based solidarity, those with low cultural resources emphasized consumption as more fulfilling than work and evaluated tastes on the basis of autotelic and community-based normative criteria. ‘Professional middle class’ occupations are, by contrast, geographically mobile, offer an experience of individual achievement and competition, and are knowledge driven. This is reflected in high cultural resource consumption orientations which feature the pursuit of cultural accomplishment, 184

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self-actualization (the continuous drive to maximize personal performance in cultural activities) and cosmopolitanism as energetic attempts at individuation. Consequently, Holt endorses the ‘omnivore thesis’, described by Erickson (1996) as ‘the most useful cultural resource is a little working knowledge of a lot of cultural genres combined with a good understanding of which culture to use in which context’ (p. 24), as indicative of embodied high cultural resources. Holt’s work is significant for its analysis of taste and its empirical findings. First, his analytical strategy allows for the systematic comparison of social groups by revealing the ‘underlying meanings’ behind practices of consumption, rather than starting from the point of general descriptions of material possessions. Second, if Holt’s argument is correct that those with high cultural resources pursue individuated tastes in consumption, then the basis of Bourdieu’s theory of identity formation through classbased distinctions would be undermined. If the professional middle classes exhibit omnivorousness as a consequence of individuating tendencies, then it would become increasingly difficult to read the boundaries of classbased identifications, a pre-requisite of Bourdieu’s distinction, with any certainty. The analytical strategy for my research adapted Holt’s approach by revealing four organizing principles of kitchen tastes and comparing them with the kitchen practices that made consumption meaningful to respondents (see the next two sections). The analysis reveals that kitchen consumption orientations systematically varied according to levels of economic and cultural resources and could broadly be mapped onto respondents’ generic narratives of social identity. This is not to argue that the relationship between consumption and identity is thoroughly structured according to volumes of these resources. Two groups shared low cultural resources, and their kitchen consumption orientations narrated class-based identifications, but they did not identify with each other. This asymmetry of identification is explained by respondents’ normative orientations regarding the significance of consumption for differentiating locally derived status groups. Those with high cultural resources did present themselves as individuated in their consumption tastes. However, it was through locally derived and normative understandings of what it was to be professional middle class that their attempts at individuation were made meaningful. All respondents referred to localized interpretations of status in order to describe how their kitchen tastes reflected membership in ‘taste communities’, which, in turn, acted to confirm generic class-based identifications. 185

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KITCHEN TASTES Order For Bourdieu (1984), tastes are principally ordered according to material constraints. Those with few economic resources consider issues of function and practicality above and beyond concerns with style, while those with less material constraints embrace style as a form of self-expression. Such a distinction was overt in respondents’ narratives of taste, with descriptions ranging from kitchens ordered to maximize utility and household organization to those ordered primarily around style as personal expression. Bowland Road and Cartmel Street These low cultural resource respondents ordered their ‘modern kitchens’ according to utility and household efficiency. Less affluent Bowland respondents rarely discussed their kitchen style beyond its practical features. Simon (aged 29) described his as: . . . white, the plastic Formica cupboards, you know it’s easy to clean. All the appliances are white and modern. That’s it really, what more can I say, it’s a modern kitchen. Other examples included: . . . it’s a kitchen, what else can I say. I cook and clean in it, so yeah, it obviously has to be easy to use. (Claire, aged 38) Lack of interest in the kitchen’s aesthetic potential was underlined by narratives of ideal kitchens. Beyond desiring bigger kitchens and additional or new appliances, many dismissed the notion of ‘ideals’ as inappropriate: I don’t know, we’re happy with what we’ve got. (Wendy, aged 57) Something bigger I suppose. (Claire) I suppose something bigger and a dishwasher maybe. (Bob, aged 56) Cartmel respondents did elaborate upon the style of their functional kitchens, as illustrated by Patricia (aged 44): It’s white, you know wood effect Formica units, it’s got a grey speckly surface. So it’s a light modern kitchen but with a traditional layout, nothing fancy. 186

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The higher economic resources of Cartmel respondents allowed them to consider style within narratives of function: I do like those pine kitchens, they look great . . . but, well, they’re not always that practical. Like you have to go the whole hog and that involves hanging pans and that and cluttered surfaces, and it’s just not practical really, not in a working kitchen. (Sarah, aged 37) Ideally, a big country kitchen with an island and flowers and veg and utensils and a big table and an Aga, all that. In reality I’d go for something more practical, imagine trying to clean that! (Stephanie, aged 36)5 Despite different volumes of economic resources both Bowland and Cartmel respondents narrated similar orientations toward kitchen styles. Economic resources only appeared to make a difference with respect to elaborating on the style of functional kitchens rather than being the primary resource that ordered tastes. In other words, it was volume of cultural resources that these two groups held in common and which affected their capacity for considering kitchen tastes as stylistically ordered. Lonsdale Avenue Household organization and issues of function were largely taken-forgranted by the high economic and cultural resource Lonsdale respondents. Emphasis was instead placed upon style as a form of self-expression. Prominent examples included styles that expressed cooking as a personal enthusiasm and was symbolized through a ‘working kitchen aesthetic’: We both love cooking so it’s arranged around that and I think it looks really good to be honest. So we have pots and pans on the wall, the knives are placed in a handy position, we’ve jars with herbs and spices on display and all that . . . And it looks good, first because the kitchen looks real and used and second . . . it shows we love food and cooking. (Colin, aged 45) For this group, the material ordering of the kitchen referred to a balance between practicality and personal expression: I’ve got a framed photo on the wall of a holiday cottage which we stayed in with friends . . . The boys brought us . . . a tiny mouse which has got scissors, glasses and string for a tongue . . . it’s our own personal style. ( Judith, aged 37) 187

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Undoubtedly, higher economic resources allowed scope for greater consideration of stylistic issues. However, of equal importance was respondents’ capacity to work with their consumption (Miller, 1987) and personalize otherwise mundane goods. Unity: ‘object versus subject unity’ According to Corrigan (1997) the meanings applied to the ordering of goods within the home can be understood through the principles of object and subject unity. The former refers to the matching of objects according to brand or range unity, whereas the latter is achieved through the imposition of personal biography on stylistic order. Bowland Road and Cartmel Street These groups talked about object unity, which amounted almost exclusively to the colour co-ordination of utensils and appliances. Robert (aged 39) explained: We’ve got like the same colour bin and washing-up bowl, drying rack and that, all beige plastic. You know we don’t want it to look like mix and match. For other Bowland respondents object unity was also the principal criterion for evaluating bad taste, as Joan (aged 58) explained: I don’t know, I suppose, like if things didn’t match like white cupboards, green kettle and red floor or something like that. Cartmel respondents also highlighted colour co-ordination as important but developed this principle to embrace colour and appliance brand matching. For example, Angela (aged 48) explained the logic behind her colour co-ordinated kitchen: . . . we wanted a light theme, so I wanted the walls painted like terracotta, light units with blue jars and kettle and toaster . . . it looks clean and is practical and the white appliances fit-in. When reflecting on his newly installed kitchen Anthony (aged 36) stated that: . . . we’d have liked new appliances wouldn’t we, all Neff ’cause they’d fit perfectly and look that bit smarter.6 Applications of object unity demonstrate how low cultural resources were associated with autotelic understandings of consumption in the manner 188

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described by Holt. Significantly, object unity illustrates that these respondents were aware of the stylistic potential of the kitchen but, given their priority of function, came to evaluate style as the combination of formally complementary objects. Lonsdale Avenue As their orientations toward stylistic order suggest, Lonsdale respondents favoured subject unity. Anne (aged 48) had no qualms about placing a pine table in her oak unit kitchen, pine tables being significant to her from childhood memories, despite being: . . . a bit of a botched farmhouse because we’ve kept the original units . . . Of course this [a pine table] doesn’t really go with the units [oak], especially if you go by the magazines. The “working kitchen aesthetic” described by Colin was another example, in this case objects being unified according to the user’s creative cooking capacities. Volumes of cultural resources differentiated respondent tastes according to the degree of personal improvisation invested in kitchen consumption. Those with high cultural resources were acutely aware of this difference, as illustrated by judgements of bad taste. For example, Charlotte (aged 37) claimed: . . . there’s something quite sad about those blue or greens, all the fashion now I think. You know, those themes . . . it shows a complete lack of imagination, sterile. Yet, it was not only Lonsdale respondents that invested meaning in their kitchen tastes. In their narratives of style both Bowland and Cartmel respondents emphasized function through implicit contrasts with elaborate tastes. Cartmel respondents might have attached more significance to object unity but both groups used this principle as a means of highlighting personal investment in kitchen tastes. Originality versus massification If all kitchen styles involved some degree of personal investment, it then becomes important to understand the broader meanings through which respondents interpreted their taste. Holt’s dimension of originality versus massification is instructive. He suggests that those with high cultural resources construct ‘what they perceive to be a unique, original style through consumption objects . . . [they] are more energetic in their attempts 189

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to individuate their consumption . . . through authenticity and connoisseurship’ (1997: 113). By contrast, Holt argues, those with low cultural resources do not fear mass consumption because they embrace collective interpretations of taste. Bowland Road and Cartmel Street Consistent with Holt, Bowland respondents did not express great concern regarding mass consumption, after all “a kitchen’s a kitchen” (Yvonne, aged 49). They did not perceive mass manufactured goods as infringing upon individual expression, precisely because they did not perceive the kitchen as a particularly significant room for expressing personal taste. Kitchens provided little scope for individuation, and assertions that it was purely a functional space were consistently justified through collective orientations: It depends on the sort of person. I mean, ’round here [south Yate] we’re all . . . practical people. (Claire) However, Cartmel respondents were ambivalent toward mass consumption. For example, Andrew (aged 44) and Patricia described where they would seek information regarding kitchen styles: Andrew: We’d look in B&Q wouldn’t we, but not the bottom end of the range.7 Patricia:

You have to be careful, they’re all the same weren’t they. I mean if you spend that bit more, get the little extras and that, umh, otherwise it’s no different from buying an MFI wardrobe.8

The irony of Andrew and Patricia’s description is that while they implied distance from standardized kitchens they would still opt for a massproduced one. Cartmel respondents indicate how the appropriation of mass consumption, despite some distancing from it, can be interpreted as individuated so long as additional selections to the standard format are made and incorporated within object unity. Lonsdale Avenue As might be expected, Lonsdale respondents took a different stance toward massification. Aversion to mass consumption was most prominently expressed through celebrations of their ‘original kitchens’, described by Tracey (aged 31) as: 190

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. . . dark oak cupboards and the wooden beams in the ceiling, with a white plastic work surface and heavy large, grey splash tiles, oh and the heavy red quarry tile flooring. Fitted as standard in these “top of the range” ( Judith) or “de-luxe” (Danny, aged 55) houses, original kitchens were distinctive. No other local houses have them and they are, apparently, not available in the open market. These characteristics presented original kitchens as authentic, as Colin explained: . . . the oak is really special, it’s French oak and you just can’t get hold of it any more it’s so expensive. Exclusivity was reinforced through comparisons with other Yate kitchens: In Yate, Heron [the company that has built most of Yate’s houses] put in horrible turquoise kitchens in most houses, so these are special. But they also did a good job and I must admit, this type of kitchen is back in fashion but they’re not the same. Oak needs to age. (Sylvia, aged 50) Aversion to mass consumption was most prominent for Lonsdale respondents. However, interpretations of ‘originality’ and ‘individuality’ in kitchen tastes only became meaningful when supported by comparisons within local contexts. Consequently, rather than support notions of autonomous appropriation of individualized life-styles, it was through expressions of shared aversions to massification that a sense of individuation became salient. Quality: ‘critical versus referential appreciation’ The final principle of kitchen tastes narrated by respondents referred to Holt’s dimension of ‘critical versus referential appreciation’. In his analysis of media tastes he suggests that those with high cultural resources favour critical interpretations of cultural texts. Those with low cultural resources interpret texts through reference to depictions of the ‘real’ world as relevant to their life. This dimension of taste was most explicit through discussions of the ‘quality’ of objects. Bowland Road and Cartmel Street Bowland respondents only mentioned quality with passing reference to utility. For example, old and trustworthy pans that had proven their durability: . . . they’re good quality, I think we’ve had ’em, what, twenty years. And they’re as good as new. (Wendy) 191

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Cartmel respondents also judged quality with reference to use value, claiming that in their experience the more expensive the item the greater its durability. John (aged 39) explained through a frequently cited phrase: I’d rather pay a bit more for good quality, otherwise it’s false economy as they’d not last so long. Stephanie evoked an experience of what can happen when ‘buying cheap’: I once got a cheap wok and all the non-stick coating flaked off in a stir-fry! Lonsdale Avenue By contrast with the other two groups, Lonsdale respondents judged quality according to the rarity of objects. The retention of the ‘original kitchen units’ by all Lonsdale respondents served as a good example. The perceived exclusivity, expense and unavailability on the mass market, in addition to its French origins and symbolism of local housing status, were the main criteria for judgements of good quality. Quality was also valued in terms of ‘craftsmanship’ as Barbara (aged 36) explained: . . . we got someone in who put in some under wall-unit lighting and some spots . . . The quality of his work was fantastic . . . I’d say we have high-quality lights! Other examples of quality evaluations included the aging of pans for particular dishes in order to retain flavours and the use and design of cupboard spaces. Such examples of ‘critical abstraction’ demonstrated how Lonsdale respondents interpreted tastes from beyond the immediate contexts of reference. This is significant because it acts as a mode of cultural distinction that is meaningful only through the application of abstract knowledge. Summary Levels of cultural resources had particular effects upon orientations toward kitchen consumption. However, the implications were not straightforward. Those with low cultural resources presented small but significant variations in their narratives of functional kitchens. For example, the higher economic resources of Cartmel respondents appeared to allow greater consideration of issues related to style and aesthetics. Consequently, while Bowland and Cartmel orientations toward kitchen tastes followed principles of utility, object unity, massification and referential

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interpretations of meaning, it remains unclear whether such shared orientations can lead to shared social identifications, as would be expected in a Bourdieusian analysis. In the case of Lonsdale respondents, issues of style and taste received greater attention in relation to expressions of individual investment in consumption. For Holt (1997) ‘personal style is expressed through consumption practice even if the object itself is widely consumed’ (p. 114). Individuality can therefore be maintained (at least in an illusory fashion) despite processes of massification, through the investment of cultural and personal meanings in the material order of the kitchen. For example, the principle of subject unity allowed those with high cultural resources to take mass produced items and order them in a way which de-commodified and re-appropriated them in relation to personal meaning (McCracken, 1986; Miller, 1987). The similarity of Lonsdale taste orientations in addition to their comparisons between local residential areas did, however, suggest that while they actively pursued individuated forms of kitchen consumption, this only became meaningful through the notion that individuation was a pursuit shared by others. To understand this shared sense of individuation it is necessary to examine the practices that went on within respondents’ kitchens. USING KITCHENS The practices that took place in respondents’ kitchens are important because they illustrate how interpretations of the symbolic are tied to considerations of use value. While this is likely to be a particular feature of ‘ordinary consumption’, where cultural objects are primarily consumed for function rather than style, utility does demonstrate how tastes are intelligible to actors through reference to contexts and normative understandings of practices. Prominent in respondent narratives were practices related to the family, intimate relationships and sociability. (Re)producing the family As could be expected from their discussions of taste, Bowland and Cartmel narratives of kitchen use did not venture beyond considerations of hygiene, household efficiency and related domestic chores. Sandra (aged 50) claimed that: The kitchen is probably the most important room in the house, it’s where I spend lots of my time doing washing and cooking. 193

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In the case of Sally (aged 23): It must be easy to clean, I couldn’t bear the thought of germs and that when I’m making the tea. Whereas Yvonne described how: . . . you have to keep it clean. It’s no good if we all catch a bug because it’s not been disinfected properly. In sharp contrast, Lonsdale respondents paid less attention to hygiene and advanced vigorous narratives of the kitchen as a family room. Of particular importance for all Lonsdale respondents was the kitchen table as an irreplaceable conduit of family interaction: . . . they should have a table . . . you can sit as a family and eat as a family, very, very important. A kitchen should be seen as a central room to the house and the family, a place for all the family to sit and talk. (Tom) . . . all the family can sit around this table . . . I think that’s very important . . . And we try and sit down as a family and eat and I know a lot of families don’t do that. (Anne) As these quotations illustrate, Lonsdale respondents emotionally invested in kitchen practices as symbolic of family values, whereas Bowland and Cartmel respondents viewed it as a room devoted to household maintenance. The objective differences between kitchens cannot be held responsible for the lack of emphasis placed on kitchen tables by the low cultural resource groups because Cartmel kitchens were of similar size to those of Lonsdale respondents. Rather, practices of family reproduction seem best understood through the degree of engagement with contemporary discourses that emphasize a sense of ‘loss’ or decline in the ‘wellbeing’ of the family (Morgan, 1991). By associating the contextual features of kitchens with familial values and practices, this domestic space became significant beyond personal expressions of taste and represented moral evaluations of contemporary family life. Maintaining intimate relationships For Bowland and Cartmel, respondents’ intimate relationships did not enter discussions except for passing references to the domestic division of labour. Lonsdale respondents, by contrast, described the kitchen as an important space for generating intimacy. Examples included: 194

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We [herself and husband] also like to sit in here when we have time to ourselves . . . it gives us the chance to have a nice meal and to talk, that’s important. (Anne) Actually, we’ll sit in the kitchen when we’re sorting out bills and that. I don’t know, you have proper conversations, less distractions. (Michelle, aged 49) Get the kids off and then we can sit and cook for ourselves, and we have a chat and a laugh and some proper time. (Alex, aged 37) As with narratives of family interaction, Lonsdale respondents viewed their kitchens as spaces of significant personal investment in practices that maintained the most sacred social bonds and personal relationships. Sociability Bowland and Cartmel respondents also did not use the kitchen for sociable purposes. Again, objective differences in terms of the potential for sociable usage are not particularly significant, as Bowland respondents did not socialize within their homes at all. Cartmel respondents did invite others into their homes, but the kitchen was off-bounds to these visitors in preference for socializing in dining and lounge rooms. By contrast, Lonsdale respondents not only used the kitchen as a social space but also as a marker of close friendships. The room was perceived as an informal space in which friends were welcome to enter and participate in food preparation for social events: . . . when people come around we often or usually sit in the kitchen. We tend to socialize around the table rather than in the lounge. ( James, aged 50) . . . when we have people ‘round’ they tend to come and have a drink with me in the kitchen . . . there’s no sort of ceremony, they like to be in the thick of it and helping. (Tracey) . . . we always start off in the kitchen . . . they go straight to the kitchen and start opening wine and things. (Linda, aged 54) The kitchen as a space of sociability is important with respect to the visibility of the kitchen to others. This also demonstrated how the kitchen had meaning at various levels for Lonsdale respondents: a room of intimacy for couples; a room in which ideal family relationships can be achieved and 195

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performed; and a highly visible space open to symbolic consumption by friends. Summary The relationship between using the kitchen in a social capacity and Lonsdale respondents’ investment in personal tastes is instructive. This suggests that consumption is most readily understood as symbolic when others have the opportunity to read the message; the lack of visitors to Bowland and Cartmel kitchens reduced its symbolic potential. Sociability may also play an important role in the confirmation of appropriate kitchen tastes and usage, particularly given that high cultural resource respondents also socialized in their friends’ homes (Southerton, 1999). It was not simply the degree of visibility to others that made kitchen practices important for understanding differential tastes in the consumption of this domestic space. Of equal significance is the relationship between tastes and practices. Bowland and Cartmel respondents used the kitchen for few practices other than domestic chores. Consequently, it was not surprising that kitchen tastes focused on the functional. In a similar way, the range of practices in which Lonsdale respondents engaged provided a host of further considerations when narrating kitchen tastes. As a space of domestic organization it required considerations of practicality. As a space of sociability and intimacy an appreciation of aesthetics was desirable; hence the working kitchen aesthetic, and a kitchen table was necessary for the maintenance of family values. In other words, the foundations of kitchen tastes were located in context-specific practices. KITCHEN CONSUMPTION AND SOCIAL IDENTITY The coherence of tastes within each group and the consistent distance between them suggest that levels of economic and particularly cultural resources had a conditioning effect on orientations to kitchen consumption. On this basis Bourdieu’s theory that consumption is tied to socioeconomic status appears persuasive. However, there was sufficient discrepancy between respondent volumes of economic resources and their narratives of taste and practices to suggest this relationship is not straightforward. According to a Bourdieusian approach, those with similar resources hold similar consumption orientations and, critically, recognize this through relational evaluations of taste. Narratives of taste did suggest a relational evaluation of personal style, for example Bowland respondents distanced themselves from stylistic investment because “a kitchen is a kitchen”. Cartmel respondents distanced themselves from mass consumption by 196

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injecting small differences into mass-produced kitchens, and Lonsdale respondents emphasized individuation of tastes as a response to those who “lack imagination” and “creativity”. However, it is not clear whether such relational tastes map onto narratives of identity in the ‘group specific’ sense that Bourdieu’s theory requires in operation. Indeed, as theories of individualization would suggest, such narratives of personal taste might reflect expressions of self-identity in relation to life-style images. Considering each group in turn, it is therefore necessary to examine the significance that respondents attached to their kitchen tastes and practices as expressions of identity. Bowland Road Bowland respondents generically employed class in the articulation of identity. Statements such as: . . . people ’round here, they don’t go for the best china and that when they come around. (Robert) and . . . we’re all roughly speaking, working class ’round here, you know Joe average, no pretences. (Bob) indicated broad identifications with class and neighbourhood groups. This was reinforced by shared ‘practical’ tastes in kitchen consumption, as continually emphasized by the functional importance of the kitchen: . . . the kitchen’s for cooking in and that’s about all, and I think most people around here are the same. We see our kitchens as kitchens and not as a sort of lounge/kitchen. (Martin) It’s a middle-class thing. There’s no point in getting too carried away like some people do. You hear of all the pretty kitchens . . . but you know, a kitchen has to be easy to use and clean, I mean what’s the point, it’s a functional thing. Well it is for most of the people ’round here. (Mavis) I mean it’s not a showhouse, it’s a home it’s a working thing . . . there are people like that you know the sort, professional people. (Wendy) The above quotations undoubtedly led to senses of identity in relation to ‘group specific’ sources of meaning. Confirmation of shared characteristics such as being “down-to-earth” (Robin, aged 51) or “average” ( Jackie, aged 197

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52) came through the employment of a local ‘Us’. Rather than narrate individualized life-styles, these respondents anchored their interpretations of kitchen consumption in generic understandings of how the ‘working class’ consume in relation to the ‘middle classes’. Indeed, the coherence of their taste, practices and interpretations of identity did confirm that the local ‘Us’ shared normative consumption orientations. Cartmel Street In a similar way to Bowland respondents, localized senses of ‘Us’ littered discussions of consumption. Andrew claimed that: . . . in this street . . . they [kitchens] are well presented . . . [and] mid-range. “Tidy” kitchens were another popular phrase, as Stephanie explained: I’d say most kitchens around here are tidy and not the cluttered sort. Margaret’s (aged 64) opinion was that: . . . like the outsides, people ‘round here take care of their home . . . and I expect the kitchens are no exception. However, such narratives of ‘Us’ as expressed through kitchen consumption were less readily associated with class and more specifically honed towards local status distinctions. Descriptions of style as distanced from bland or ‘cheap’ kitchens were frequently evoked to justify interpretations of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. Sarah described how: . . . if you went to south Yate, you’d expect the sort of MFI kitchen . . . that might be a bit of a generalization but it comes down to the fact that they can’t afford it, or have other things to worry about. When Christine suggested that kitchen consumption was indicative of shared tastes she claimed that: . . . it’s what’s important, ’round here, we all spend time in our homes and appreciate that they feel comfortable, not old and dirty or mix and match which you get in, umm, well, I suppose, less affluent areas. While the boundaries were not as sharply defined as in the narratives of Bowland respondents, Cartmel respondents employed generic social 198

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categorizations when describing ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. They drew explicitly on narratives of personal good taste to distance themselves from ‘less respectable’ social groups and used local housing status to anchor classifications of ‘Them’. Ironically, the tastes and practices of ‘Them’ were not significantly dissimilar from those of ‘Us’. However, it was subjective interpretations of taste and identity that mattered and by associating their kitchen tastes with their ‘respectable’ neighbours Cartmel respondents generated a narrative that blurred style with function. In this way Cartmel respondents shared volumes of cultural resources and orientations toward the kitchen as a functional space with Bowland respondents. However, by identifying ‘Us’ as distinct from less affluent south Yate residents they embraced style as a marker of social group differences. In both cases, the relationship between consumption and identity did not reflect individualized life-styles but normative attachments to locality-based status groups. Lonsdale Avenue Lonsdale respondents presented the most elaborated considerations of selfidentity in their kitchen tastes. They narrated biographic narratives that embraced personal interpretations of a life-style which they actively pursued. This was best illustrated by the connection between their kitchen tastes and practices, which took the meaning of the kitchen beyond its functional role. However, the biographic narratives presented by this group made little, if any, sense without reference to group-based social identifications. For example, the retention of original kitchens was discussed as symbolic of social status and was most clearly expressed in terms of shared kitchen orientations. They ‘knew’ that friends and neighbours shared their orientations toward kitchen consumption due to sociability; not only did they see each others’ kitchens but they also discussed them. This was evident in some of the quotations presented earlier. Sylvia provided a further example: . . . we all, and I know that all the people in this street have got or would like to have a proper wooden table in their kitchen. And that is for the same reason as us, because it’s a very positive thing to have for the family. Senses of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ were based upon two levels of differentiation. The first was based around knowledge of others within their neighbourhood who had rejected their orientations towards kitchen style and usage. This was illustrated through reference to those who had failed to retain their original kitchen: 199

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There is only one couple in this street which I have known who changed the existing cupboards . . . they took down their cupboards and went for MFI would you believe. We [the neighbours] all thought how mad they was. (Colin) James:

When these houses were built it was the quality of the kitchen which was emphasized. Although the people who first brought the house over there . . . they painted the units yellow.

Michelle: They painted them, that’s sacrilege. Second, on a more generic scale, ‘Them’ was associated with assumptions regarding class-based practices and tastes. A strong feature of ‘Them’ was the failure to appreciate the kitchens’ role in producing meaningful family interaction and such classifications drew upon the local housing status division for illustration. Rose (aged 36) summarized the dominant narrative: I suppose the people in south Yate . . . don’t spend lots of time in the kitchen, cooking and things. You know, but because they have smaller kitchens they are likely to eat off trays, you know all sat in front of the tele and not talking . . . I would say that people in this street . . . use and see the kitchen in a very similar way to us. It’s funny really but we are very similar in that sense. Identification and classification were not straightforward for Lonsdale respondents. While generic associations of class distinction were an apparent mechanism of classification, identification came in the form of association with immediate others, particularly friends and neighbours who shared orientations toward the tastes and meanings of kitchen consumption. Consequently, while Lonsdale respondents presented the greatest sense of individuation through their consumption, their narratives of identity revolved around shared orientations toward individuation. Articulation of personal biography was meaningful precisely because it was an expression of group-based identity. The orientation to individuate consumption tastes and to display this through kitchen practices that were shared by known others acted to legitimate interpretations of professional middle class social identities. CONCLUSION By concentrating the empirical research on kitchen consumption, it has been possible to analyse the relationship between taste and practice. This

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relationship demonstrates that consumption and the process of identity formation not only embrace the symbolic capacities of goods but also how goods are used. Whether the kitchen presents a special case is, therefore, an important question. As a domestic room, the kitchen lends itself to such a consideration of taste and practice. Significantly, kitchen consumption is ordinary and, as a result, largely inconspicuous. This has a number of implications for how the kitchen is perceived and the extent to which its symbolic capacities are recognized by different social groups. However, this may also be more a feature of ordinary forms of consumption than it is particular to kitchens, suggesting that further empirical research of the ordinary, rather than the overtly conspicuous, should prove instructive for understanding the significance of consumption in the mediation of contemporary social relations. In this case, the focus on kitchens within a local context demonstrates a number of important mechanisms in the relationship between consumption and identity formation. At its broadest level, the research suggests that Bourdieu’s argument that consumption orientations are constrained by volumes of economic and cultural resources is convincing. That consumption orientations loosely mapped onto interpretations of class-based social identities further supports the mechanism of social distinction. Consequently, theories that suggest an erosion of normative sources of identity, such as the weakening of class-based social bonds in favour of individualized life-styles, are unpersuasive in the context of Yate. However, the respondents of this research narrated senses of identity that did not correlate perfectly with volumes of cultural resources nor with kitchen tastes and practices. Bowland and Cartmel respondents exemplified this: they shared volumes of cultural resources and principles of kitchen tastes and yet, in relating these orientations to senses of identity, drew clear distinctions between one another. The local context is critical for explaining this discrepancy. Respondents identified with generic class-based social categorizations primarily through associations with locality-based ‘taste communities’. For Simmel (1971) ‘taste communities’ are normative mechanisms that, on the one hand, allow tastes to be viewed as subjective and a matter of personal interpretation. On the other hand, they legitimate tastes as socially meaningful through shared appreciations of taste that act to solidify groupbased attachments. Judgements of taste were made on the basis that such taste communities exist and expressions of personal taste were meaningful to others. For this research, status divisions between local areas provided the basis for anchoring attachments to taste communities. In the 201

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process, personal tastes were legitimated as a meaningful expression of social identity through the association of local taste communities with generic class-based social categories. Understanding the relationship between consumption and identity through taste communities helps explain why the apparently individuated kitchen consumption of Lonsdale respondents was related to group specific sources of identity. Of equal significance is the power of ‘taste communities’ to explain the asymmetrical class-based social identifications of the Bowland and Cartmel groups. For these respondents, local status divisions acted to generate cultural distinctions that could only be described as assertions of difference, rather than objective status divisions. Association with local taste communities acted as the normative mechanism that confirmed their assertions of difference as socially meaningful. Importantly, while the taste communities of this research fit within a Bourdieusian framework of distinction, they also highlight the weakness of his approach – its failure to adequately account for contextual nuances in the relationship between consumption and the formation of group-based identities.

Notes 1. Interviews were conducted with 13 couples, 12 women alone and 10 men alone – see Southerton (1999) for a discussion of the research sample. 2. Economic resources were measured according to household income, house value and number of cars owned. Cultural resources were measured according to levels of educational attainment and occupational status. Both resources refer to the resources available to individuals in making consumption decisions. 3. Head of household was taken as the highest earner – in all cases men. 4. Yate is the real name of the town studied; however, all street and respondent names have been changed. 5. Aga is the name of an expensive ‘range cooker’ produced from cast steel. In Britain, Agas are associated with ‘farmhouse kitchens’ and retain the stylistic and functional features from when they were first introduced into the UK in 1929. 6. Neff manufacture appliances for integrated kitchens. Appliances are ‘hidden’ within kitchen units and feature cupboard door fronts. 7. MFI and B&Q are large national retailers of mass-produced fitted kitchens and household furniture. 8. Quotations presented with respondent names first indicate the exchange of views from a couple interviewed together.

Acknowledgements I am grateful to Nick Abercrombie, Graham Allan, Kerry Southerton, Alan Warde and two anonymous referees for their comments on various drafts of this paper.

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