If you’ve ever changed the radio station when stopped at the traffic lights or pretended to have read George Orwell’s 1984, you already have some idea that your cultural tastes betray something deeper about who you are.
New research from the Australian Cultural Fields project — one of the most detailed investigations into how cultural tastes and lifestyles connect with privilege in Australia — sheds light on what that might be.
The findings, to be published later this year, reveal how strongly our cultural tastes — such as the books we read, the music we like, the TV shows we watch, and so on — align with characteristics like class, education, age and gender.
More than that, the research shows that cultural privilege is often passed from generation to generation — a finding with all the more importance at a time of widening class inequality in Australia.
So, are your tastes upper class or working class? Middle-age or teenage? For a light-hearted look at how your cultural tastes compare, take our quiz, based on the project’s results. (You’ll need around 6 minutes.)
And don’t worry, your answers are not linked to your identity, nor will they be stored or passed on to anyone else.
This feature isn’t available on the ABC app. Tap the link below to go to the quiz on the ABC website.
The quiz contains a fraction of the questions put to a nationally-representative sample of more than 1200 Australians as part of the Australian Cultural Fields project, funded by the Australian Research Council.
The survey asked participants around 200 questions about their tastes and activities in the visual arts, sport, heritage, literature, music and television. It also gathered detailed information about participants’ personal characteristics, such as income, occupation, education, housing and assets — even the work and education characteristics of parents and partners.
A team of researchers from Western Sydney University, the University of Queensland, New York University and the University Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, then calculated how strongly each of these hundreds of variables connected to one another.
Turns out that whether you rock out to Madonna, can’t stand Jane Austen or binge watch Grand Designs or Game of Thrones (or have never heard of either) is largely shaped by factors that have nothing to do with how cool you are.
How class and culture fit together
“The strongest drivers in taste are occupation and education,” Tony Bennett, project director and research professor in social and cultural theory at Western Sydney University, said.
So, the higher your class, the more “highbrow” your tastes are likely to be.
The research defines class by the type of work you do. It considers not just the job itself but also things like whether you’re self-employed; how much autonomy you have at work; the degree of control you have over others; and how much economic capital you own (for example, if you own a small business or a large corporation or significant property assets).
Class is often, but not always, closely linked to education, the researchers found.
“By and large, people with postgraduate degrees have the most distinctively high cultural tastes,” Professor Bennett said.
“And if you’ve been to a private school, the chances of your having… higher cultural tastes are much greater than if you’ve been to a state school.”
But class and education doesn’t always have the biggest influence on taste. In sport, the most powerful divider is gender; in music, it’s age.
“Similarly, in some aspects of television, age can be a more powerful divider than class and education,” Professor Bennett said.
By mapping how our cultural tastes and personal characteristics fit together, the researchers were able to show overlapping patterns in the preferences at the heart of our cultural selves.
“We can’t predict exactly what any individual will like or not like,” Professor Bennett said. “What we can do is predict the strong likelihood that tastes and social positions will stitch together.”
So people who love Tim Winton’s books and Monet’s art, for example, are more likely to play tennis than rugby league and to listen to classical music than pop. They’re also more likely to have postgraduate qualifications and work in management or professional occupations.
Age and gender are also part of the mix. Generally, women tend to have higher cultural tastes than men, and younger people tend to have more cutting-edge, contemporary tastes than older people of the same class, Professor Bennett said.
The cycle of advantage
The research goes further, revealing not only the connections between class and culture, but also that these connections are reproduced across generations.
How middle class are your tastes?
The researchers found these tastes and characteristics tend to go together:
- You work in lower management or a professional occupation such as teacher, social worker, nurse, accountant or solicitor
- You own a lot of books (more than 500)
- You read Australian novels
- You like modern art
- You prefer visiting museums or art galleries than playing organised sport
- You prefer going to music events than watching television
- You have a postgraduate degree, probably in the humanities and social sciences
The findings build on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory that power in society is made up of a combination of three kinds of capital: economic, social and cultural.
Bourdieu argued that people from the upper and middle classes were more likely to grow up in homes where they were exposed to “highbrow” cultural activities and tastes. This familiarity with high culture pays off in the education system by giving people the kinds of cultural capital rewarded in the education system, according to Bourdieu.
This means people from upper and middle-class backgrounds, who are rich in cultural capital, are more likely to go university.
“And if you go to university, you’re more likely to get a better job,” Professor Bennett said.
“There’s a cycle here of reproduction and inheritance here.”
Widening class divisions mean these findings are potentially more important now than when Bourdieu first developed these ideas in the 1960s.
Class inequalities have increased dramatically since then, both in Australia and other western societies, Professor Bennett said.
“These class relations are also power relations. The owner of a large enterprise exercises a degree of control over the lives of routine workers, for example, in ways that the reverse is not true.”
How working class are your tastes?
The researchers found these tastes and characteristics tend to go together:
- You work in a routine, lower supervisory or technical job such as machine operator, bus driver, labourer or factory worker
- You love country music
- You watch more than five hours of television per week
- You’d rather watch The Block than Australian Story
- You’re a fan of Eddie McGuire
- You don’t keep books at home or visit art galleries or museums
- You’ve never heard of Tim Winton or Jackson Pollock
- You have high school or incomplete high school qualifications
The patterns connecting culture and privilege operate in much the same way for Australia’s multicultural and Indigenous communities as for Australians generally, the research found.
“Indeed, they’re often more pronounced,” Professor Bennett said.
“The connections between cultural capital, education, and class show that Australia still has a fair way to go before it can truly claim to be a society of the fair go. This is even more true if we take the full complexion of Australia’s cultural diversity into account.”
In addition to the 1202 respondents in the main sample, the researchers surveyed a further 260 Australians from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Lebanese, Italian, Indian and Chinese communities. Their analysis found these groups tended to engage more with Australian authors, music, art, celebrities and so on, than with international ones.
The ACF research has its limitations, Professor Bennett cautioned. It doesn’t capture Australia’s elite — “that very small percentage of the population that exercise significant economic power through their accumulation and inheritance of economic capital”, he said.
It also doesn’t produce a comprehensive picture of working class tastes and interests because it was designed to analyse what advantage accrues to those with higher cultural capital. “So, we already knew that very, very few people go to opera, but we put it in the questionnaire because it’s a sign of distinction,” he said.
It’s also possible that some respondents could be reluctant to admit to tastes seen as “lowbrow”. If we read survey data alongside ratings figures, for example, reality television seems to be “universally disliked but universally watched”, Professor Bennett points out.
Nevertheless, the research reveals connections between culture and privilege in Australia that cannot be explained by economic forces alone.
Take just one example: visual art.
“Entry to art galleries is free in Australia but… our research showed that something like 35 per cent of people have never been to an art gallery,” Professor Bennett said.
“This clearly isn’t because of the cost. Powerful social and cultural barriers make many people, especially from lower class positions, feel that art galleries just aren’t meant for them.”
Data and reporting: Inga Ting
Design and illustrations: Alex Palmer
Want to know more about class in Australia?