People with wide cultural tastes like the EU

Professor Tak Wing Chan

Some people have broad cultural tastes, and enjoy highbrow, middlebrow and popular culture. What can Understanding Society tell us about them?

Some of us like opera, and some like Love Island. Some, however, have wide-ranging tastes, and are equally happy whether they’re watching ballet, at a gig or reading a crime novel. I wanted to find out more about these ‘cultural omnivores’ – and Understanding Society data allowed me to do that.

Who are the omnivores?

In Wave 2 (2010-11), respondents were asked if they had been to eight different kinds of cultural events in the previous year:

  1. opera
  2. classical music
  3. a rock, pop or jazz concert
  4. an exhibition or collection of art, craft, photography or sculpture
  5. an event including video or electronic art
  6. street arts or public art display or installation
  7. a carnival or cultural festival
  8. a museum or gallery

I think 1, 2, 4 and 5, are highbrow, while 6 and 7 can be seen on the street, so I’ve defined them, along with 3, as popular culture. 8 lumps museums and galleries together, but might be taken to include a local natural history museum, for example, which doesn’t really contain art, so I’ve defined that as middlebrow.

Only 14% of people were likely to consume across cultural boundaries, as defined above. They’re the omnivores. The largest group of respondents (58%) are ‘univores’ – they only went to popular events in category 3 or 8 during the year. The other 28% fall somewhere in between, and are paucivores (‘pauci’ meaning ‘few’).

What are omnivores like?

We know from previous research that cultural omnivores tend to be well educated, of higher social status, to live in urban areas, and not have young children at home, but we don’t know very much more than that.

Paul DiMaggio, a professor of Sociology at New York University, has written that people who visit art museums were “somewhat more secular, trusting, politically liberal, racially tolerant, and open to other cultures and lifestyles” than comparable people who didn’t go to art museums.

And Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, in his book Distinction, suggested that our tastes are a way of “legitimating social differences”, in other words, of setting ourselves apart from others.

So, we might expect cultural omnivores in the UK to be well educated, tolerant, cosmopolitan and so on – and if Bourdieu is right, we’d also expect them to be quite status-conscious.

I also wanted to look at their stance on Europe and national identity, and to see where they stood on traditionally left-right political ideas such as income inequality, tax and public services. Finally, I examined their personality types, too – to see if they were more extravert and open to new experience. I took into account factors such as age, gender, education, income and social status.

What I found

The full results are in my paper, published in the British Journal of Sociology, but among the findings were the following:

  • Omnivores are more pro-European. In the British Household Panel Survey in 2006, just over a third (36%) of the respondents thought being a member of the European Union was a good thing, compared to 68% of cultural omnivores in Wave 2 of Understanding Society (2010-11) with a degree who thought this.
  • Their national identity is different. Cultural onmnivores were more likely to see themselves as British than English.
  • Cultural omnivores are politically more engaged. 74% of cultural omnivores with a degree were interested in politics, compared to 52% of omnivores without a degree and just 28% of univores without a degree.
  • But omnivores are not more ‘class conscious’, nor are they particularly left-wing or right-wing on distributional issues. 
  • The politics of cultural consumption has more to do with post-materialist issues. For example, omnivores were more egalitarian when it came to gender roles, and tended to have liberal views on homosexuality

One thing the data didn’t support was Bourdieu’s idea that cultural omnivores are trying to appear distinct from – or superior to – other groups. They were not especially class-conscious or status-conscious.

Cultural omnivores were more likely to come from groups with social advantages. But even then, they are still a minority. For example, only a quarter of graduates – the ones who are extravert and open to new experiences – are cultural omnivores.

What this tells us

People with wide-ranging tastes in art, music and other culture are more likely to be pro-European. I think this gives us an interesting new perspective on the Brexit debate. There is an assumption that people in poor or deprived areas voted Leave, while those with more advantages voted Remain – but a majority of people in the Home Counties voted Leave, too.

In fact, the strongest associations with Remain are cultural values and education, which suggests that something which defines UK society and dominates political debate at the moment is not primarily about money or class, but to do with our basic outlook on life: are we cosmopolitan or insular?


Professor Tak Wing Chan

Tak Wing Chan is a Professor of Quantitative Social Science at UCL Institute of Education