The Formation of Aesthetic Criteria Through Social Structures and Social Institutions

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - Theories about social structures and social institutions can be used to explain the process by which criteria are established for evaluating aesthetic objects. In particular, theories about reference groups, gatekeepers, the diffusion of innovations, and modernity are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf (1980) ,"The Formation of Aesthetic Criteria Through Social Structures and Social Institutions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 3-6.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980      Pages 3-6


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Michigan


Theories about social structures and social institutions can be used to explain the process by which criteria are established for evaluating aesthetic objects. In particular, theories about reference groups, gatekeepers, the diffusion of innovations, and modernity are discussed.


There is perhaps no concern more pervasive yet so infrequently discussed in marketing as that of aesthetics. This is not to say that theories of aesthetics are new; rather, many have discussed these previously in the fields of art, literature, and sociology. However, few have done so in the context of marketing. Perhaps this is because most people in the field of marketing consider themselves to be either scientists or practitioners, and not artists. The author also makes no claims of being either an artist or an art critic.

Yet aesthetic criteria remain centrally relevant to many marketing decisions. Products inherently have aesthetic components, most often by conscious design. In fact, many products are differentiated from others only on the basis of aesthetic criteria (e.g. yellow as opposed to blue toothbrushes made under the same brand name). This implies that aesthetic elements form important dimensions for information processing and attitude formation.

Therefore, this paper will discuss how the aesthetic criteria of the individual are established. That is, what are the processes and experiences which shape and reinforce these criteria? In particular, the paper will examine how social structures and social institutions affect the establishment of these criteria. One contention of this paper is that aesthetic criteria or preferences of the individual are not genetically determined, or even rigidly formed as a result of early childhood experiences. Instead, the formation of aesthetic criteria is seen as an ongoing process which is psychological and sociological in nature. This paper will examine the sociological or across individual phenomena which shape these criteria, rather than within individual phenomena. The purpose here is not to explain individual idiosyncrasies, but rather to explain the way in which shared consensus about aesthetic criteria is established in a group of people.


It is in an area such as aesthetics that definitions of terms are extremely important. The terms to be used here are everyday words, and therein lies the danger. They will be explicitly defined here so the intended denotations and connotations will be shared. There is considerable debate within the fields of art and literature as to what the words mean and what these meanings imply philosophically. The definitions used here are not intended as a way of indicating the right or correct linguistic or philosophical meanings. Rather, they are given as a way of establishing consensus regarding the shorthand use of the terms in this paper.

An aesthetic here refers to particular kinds of standards for judging things (Becker, 1978). More formally, aesthetics has been "taken to refer to the entire realm in which people feel interest, pleasure, and emotion at the presence or absence of beauty" (Levy and Czepiel, 1974, p. 387). Within the area of aesthetics, the terms fashion or style, in fashion or in style, art, and craft are frequently used.

A fashion or a style is a particular combination of attributes possessed by an aesthetic object. Rosenblum (1978, p. 424) states that "style consists of particular mannerisms or conventions that are frequently associated together." That is, the combination of attributes comes to be seen as a whole (e.g. impressionistic painting, Greek revival architecture). However. for something to be in style or in fashion is slightly different. For a style to be in fashion is to say that its particular combination of attributes is currently positively evaluated by a particular reference group. Thus in this case, the importance lies in the process of assigning meaning and a particular evaluation to the combination of attributes rather than the attributes themselves. This is reflected in Levy and Czepiel's (1974, p. 388) statement that [being in] fashion reflects "contemporary and imminent preferences for product aesthetics." Thus a fashion is always a fashion, although it may not currently be in fashion.

The final definitional point to be raised is the difference between art and craft. The point is raised here not for judging the relative merits of aesthetic objects, but rather to categorize them on a dimension which is important in explaining the organizational structure within which aesthetic objects are produced and marketed.

Becker (1978) discusses this distinction. He says function is the primary aesthetic criterion upon which craft objects are evaluated. For example, a ceramic teapot is expected to be able to hold and be used for pouring hot liquid and a suit is expected to be wearable. The secondary aesthetic criterion for evaluating craft objects is the "virtuoso skill" and "extraordinary control of materials and techniques" of the craftsperson. The example of a ceramic piece with unusually thin, but still functioning edges is given. Beauty is the tertiary aesthetic criterion. This typology seems to hold for a number of consumer products.

Becker indicates, however, that the standards for evaluating art objects are different. These evaluations are based on the objects' "usefulness as objects of aesthetic contemplation, of collection and ostentatious display, and as items of investment and pecuniary gain" (p. 868). The same medium can be used in both art and craft, but the production and organizational structure will be different due to differences in the aesthetic criteria used. For example, ceramic sculptures, not intended for use in holding or pouring liquids, may be considered art objects. Art is expected to be unique and not a set of identical objects. Within craftwork however, the skill of the craftsman may be more positively evaluated to the extent that the four teacups "match" or are equivalent in size, shape, color, and texture. [This distinction is readily seen in many specialty mail order catalogues which may indicate in the description of an object, "these items are individually handcrafted by skilled artists, and therefore no no two are exactly alike" (emphasis mine). The confusion of terms thus continues. ] The organizational structure of art and craft will be discussed later in this paper.


The creation of a new fashion and attempts to encourage the positive evaluation of aesthetic objects based on preferences for objects meeting certain aesthetic criteria can be viewed as the diffusion of a particular kind of innovation. Keen attention to certain aesthetic criteria spreads through the institutions comprising the channels of distribution for the aesthetic objects. There are several check points in the distribution channel which must adopt these criteria and the object for it to have the possibility of being adopted by ultimate consumers.

Given this structure, the attributes of innovations which promote their adoption and diffusion (Zaltman, Duncan, and Holbek, 1973) should apply here. In particular, the greater the communicability of an aesthetic criterion, the more readily it should be adopted. Some fashions are considered new by virtue of their possession of an attribute whose dimension has been previously used in evaluating other such aesthetic objects, but whose value or category on that dimension has not been used. For example, in clothing fashions, skirt length has always been a dimension on which skirts were evaluated. Yet a fashion innovation can be created by varying how the aesthetic object is categorized on that dimension (e.g., mini-skirt, maxi-skirt). On the other hand, a fashion or style innovation can create a new dimension on which such aesthetic objects are evaluated. The most obvious example is the introduction of color choices in linens and telephones. Another more recent example is the introduction of track lighting. This product added the feature of separation of light source and electrical source permitting movability of ceiling fixtures (the new aesthetic attribute).

Thus one way of creating or establishing the use of an aesthetic criterion is to introduce an aesthetic object which creates a new evaluative dimension. This is not to say of course that such an introduction will guarantee positive evaluation or preferences for the object. Those objects which introduce a dramatically new evaluative dimension will be less communicable and less understandable, and therefore more difficult for the individual to adopt. In these instances, interpersonal contact will be needed to explain the new dimension. This makes the process of establishing aesthetic criteria from new aesthetic objects a social one.


It was indicated earlier that evaluations concerning what is in fashion are done within the context of reference groups. The reference group is therefore another source of aesthetic criteria. Clearly social class is one such group. Levy and Czepiel (1974) have pointed out that the upper middle class has a preference for aesthetic objects with angularity and texture, while lower status persons prefer smoothness and curves.

Yet ideas of what is in fashion do not just trickle down a hierarchical class structure. Instead it appears that they trickle outward into other groups. For example, Afro hairstyles trickled outward from blacks focusing on their own uniqueness and not on attempts to resemble whites. Interestingly, this style trickled outward into the white population. Peterson (1978) has discussed this phenomenon as the cooptation of the symbols of an ethnic or minority group by the larger group. This serves to provide more social integration and fewer bases of uniqueness for the ethnic or minority group.

Another interesting example of the trickling outward of an aesthetic criterion is the clothing style of tennis or jogging clothes. This style originated with the group for whom the style was most appropriate -- people playing tennis and jogging. Yet these same styles have trickled outward into other groups and settings in which these individuals participate which have nothing to do with tennis or jogging. The conclusion to be drawn is that aesthetic criteria can trickle outward into a group from other reference groups as well as outward into other roles or situations in which the individual participates.


It must be recognized that individuals and reference groups do not have the opportunity to evaluate all aesthetic objects because of the existence of gatekeepers. As a result of a gatekeeper's decision, it is possible that other people will not come in contact with the object of the decision. For example, if a pop music record is not played on the radio, it is extremely unlikely that individual consumers will purchase the record. Gatekeepers operate as agents of the public and try to anticipate what the public will want (Levy and Czepiel, 1974). Such gatekeepers exist in the market structures of almost all aesthetic objects (e.g. clothing design, paintings, sculpture, book publishing, music recording, movies, etc.). Therefore two necessary conditions for gatekeepers to exist are supply which by far exceeds demand, and variety within the available set.

It is very important to understand the organizational structure of these industries in order to explain how aesthetic criteria for these products are established. Hirsch (1972) has explained the stages the aesthetic object goes through in the channel of distribution. The aesthetic objects are produced by essentially free lance producers (craftspeople, artists, etc.) and then are submitted to potential sponsors (e.g. publishing houses, movie producers) for potential selection and management of distribution. At this point the management system acts as a gatekeeper which, by its decisions, determines which aesthetic objects the public will be able to come into contact with. This is unlike objects whose initial production is controlled by the management system (as with most consumer products). The producer of the aesthetic object usually has no long term ties to the management organization, as evidenced by a royalty rather than a salary payment system. For these reasons Hirsch has termed this a craft rather than a bureaucratic organization.

There is also a selection and gatekeeping process in moving the aesthetic object out of the management system and into the realm of the mass media and the ultimate consumer. Here selection is made concerning which aesthetic objects will receive coverage and visibility. This selection is quite strict. A top 40 radio station may have a very small playlist for the week (about 15-24 songs for a large top 40 AM station) and will not even air most of the records it receives. Of the over 15,000 new book titles published each year, the probability of a particular one being available in a particular bookstore is about 10% (Hirsch, 1972). Mass media gatekeepers (disc jockeys, movie reviewers, book reviewers, etc.) serve as institutionalized opinion leaders.

Given this structure of a series of filter funnels (see Figure 1), the managerial system spends considerable amounts of its resources at its boundaries since these are the checkpoints in the selection process.



The importance of this organizational structure is very important in determining how aesthetic criteria are established. The aesthetic criteria of the individuals at one step in the series determine the set of aesthetic objects available to those at the next step. The question is then raised as to how these institutionalized opinion leaders or tastemakers choose which aesthetic objects for continuance through the series.


Institutionalized gatekeepers have a sense of the culture and its tones. From this they develop criteria for evaluating aesthetic objects.

Clearly, institutionalized gatekeepers show a convergence of aesthetic criteria, although they may not be able to articulate these. This is most dynamically described by Blumer (1969, pp. 278-279):

"At a seasonal opening of a major Parisian fashion house there may be presented a hundred or more designs of women's evening wear before an audience of from one to two hundred buyers. The managerial corps of the fashion house is able to indicate a group of about thirty designs ... inside of which fall...about six to eight designs that are chosen by the buyers, but the managerial staff is typically unable to predict this small number on which the choices converge. Now, these choices are made by the buyers --a highly competitive and secretive lot --independently of each other and without knowledge of each other's selections. Why should their choices converge on a few designs as they do? When the buyers were asked why they chose one dress in preference to another...the typical, honest, yet largely uninformative answer was that the dress was ' stunning'."

Another indication that there is some underlying causal agent to explain these collective aesthetic choices is the tandem nature of music and clothing styles (Levy and Czepiel, 1974).

These authors discuss the close relationship between music and clothing styles by pointing to examples (1950's: leather jackets and Elvis Presley; early 1970's: Western shirts and country music crossover into rock; mid-1970's: glitter clothes and clear plastic clunky shoes and glitter rock).

Fashion is an expression of modernity. That is, there is a reciprocal causal relationship between fashion and attitudes. When disco dancing was seen as an activity like others for an evening out with a date or a spouse, regular evening apparel was in fashion. As it began to become a more physically demanding activity, clothing resembling jogging or running clothes were in fashion. As the required skill level has increased, the wearing of standard dance attire (e.g. leotards) has become frequent. And this, of course, has produced more intricately choreographed performance.

Fashion is not solely a leader or a follower of cultural change, but rather is both. Those styles which are truly innovative or aesthetically interesting complement the culture. People from India bringing what will be aesthetically pleasing to friends and family in the U.S. bring handcrafted batiks, sandalwood carvings, inlay boxes, and silk scarves. Ail of these objects are comprised of high quality natural resources shaped by craftspeople and artists. When those in the U.S. bring what will be aesthetically pleasing to friends and family in Indian, they bring mass produced, ingenious devices and gadgets. Each is taking to the other that which complements the range of objects available to the receiver of the gift. Items are expected to be viewed as aesthetically pleasing to the recipient if they fill an unoccupied, but still desired niche.

Institutionalized gatekeepers select those items with a high probability of economic success. For example, radio stations are much more likely to play new songs by already-popular recording artists than to play new songs by new artists. Of course this derives from the basic reason why institutionalized gatekeepers exist, which is to select items which will be popular with their target market. For example, the task of a radio station is to play those songs which will enable it to get a substantial chunk of a certain market in order to draw and maintain large advertisers. Once a particular type of aesthetic object has been selected by a set of institutionalized gatekeepers, it will be imitated by other producers and managerial systems since that combination of attributes may be a short term key to getting coverage. These then, are several ways that institutionalized gatekeepers establish their own aesthetic criteria by following their sense of the culture.


This paper has examined the mechanisms by which aesthetic criteria are formed: through the introduction of aesthetic objects which create new evaluative dimensions, through trickle outward of these criteria from a reference group to other groups or other roles, and through gatekeepers in the channels of distribution for aesthetic objects. Ail of these mechanisms can be and are affected by the marketing system.


Becker, Howard S. (January 1978), "Arts and Crafts," American Journal of Sociology 83, 862-889.

Blumer, Herbert (Summer 1969), "Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection," Sociological Quarterly, 10, 275-291.

Hirsch, Paul M. (January 1972), "Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems," American Journal of Sociology, 77, 639-659.

Levy, Sidney J. and John Czepiel, "Marketing and Aesthetics," Proceedings of the American Marketing Association Educator's Conference, 1974, 386-391.

Petersen, William (1978), "International Migration," Annual Review of Sociology 4, 533-575.

Rosenblum, Barbara (June 1978), "Style as Social Process," American Sociological Review, 43, 422-438.

Zaltman, Gerald, Robert Duncan, and Jonny Holbek, (1973), Innovations and Organizations, NY: Wiley-Interscience.