A Matter of Taste

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How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change

Stanley Lieberson

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What accounts for our tastes? Why and how do they change over time? In this innovative book Stanley Lieberson analyzes children’s first names to develop an original theory of fashion. Children’s names provide an opportunity to view the pure mechanisms of fashion, unaffected by commercial interests that influence many fashions and tastes, says Lieberson. He disputes the commonly held notion that tastes in names (and other fashions) simply reflect societal shifts. There exist also “internal taste mechanisms” that drive changes in fashion even in the absence of social change, Lieberson contends. He explores the intricate and subtle ways in which internal mechanisms operate in concert with social forces to determine our choices of names. And he applies these conclusions to classical music, the decline of the fedora, women’s garments, and other examples of change in fashion.

Examining extensive data on names over long periods of time, Lieberson discovers an orderly regularity to the process of change. He considers an array of naming practices—how Rebecca became a popular name, why the names of certain important and attractive biblical characters are rarely chosen, and the influence of movie stars and characters in movies and novels. The book also inquires into name selection by specific ethnic and racial groups—Mexicans’ choices of names for their sons and daughters, African-American naming tastes from the time of slavery, changing names among American Jews throughout the twentieth century, and ethnic influences on naming in assimilated white groups. Lieberson concludes with a discussion of broader applications of internal mechanisms, suggesting that they operate widely in culture, across the entire “cultural surface.”

Stanley Lieberson is Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.

"Lieberson approaches fashions in first names with a powerful understanding of complexity and with the inventive playfulness and humor that embroider his conversation. This is great fun, and great sociology."—Bonnie Erickson, University of Toronto

"It’s a wonderful book. Lieberson has a distinctive style of thinking and writing. Any topic he turns his attention to will produce a result that is idiosyncratic, and unique, and absolutely worth attention."—Howard S. Becker

"An empirical tour de force with powerful implications for the study of fashion, popular culture, and beyond."—John R. Sutton, University of California, Santa Barbara

"This study of changes in choice of first names is the occasion for a clever analysis of changes in fashion, and of causal explanation more generally. With his usual theoretical sophistication, Lieberson marshals a remarkably wide range of evidence to provide us with a very interesting read. A major achievement by a major scholar."—Michèle Lamont, Princeton University

“There are certain books in cultural sociology that accumulate so much evidence and subject it to such painstaking scrutiny that one cannot help but be convinced by them; the thesis is not so much argued as established. Such books are written by full professors with lots of resources, immense patience, and high standards. . . . Lieberson has produced another of these rarities. . . . Books like A Matter of Taste set the benchmark for sociological practice and remind us of how often we fall short.”—Wendy Griswold, American Journal of Sociology

“The book provides valuable insights that should stimulate new research on cultural change. . . . It will, . . . provide stimulating supplementary reading in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on the sociology of culture, popular culture, and the media.”—Contemporary Sociology

“Lieberson has written a subtle and technically sophisticated analysis of changes in taste by examining the cultural patterns influencing the first names given to children in the past two centuries. . . . This carefully reasoned study should be of interest to sociologists, historians, and students of cultural studies.”—Library Journal

Winner of the 2001 Mirra Komarovsky Book Award given by the Eastern Sociological Society

Winner of the 2001 Book Award given by the Culture Section of the American Sociological Association
ISBN: 9780300173871
Publication Date: October 31, 2010
352 pages, 6 x 9
62 b/w illus.