Social systems: Against the tide with a tailwind

IIn contemporary diagnoses, the individualism of modern society is often rediscovered. Some use it as an argument to deny the usefulness of sociological concepts such as class and class, while others locate it primarily in certain milieus. But individualization is neither a milieu-specific concern nor does it take place in a social vacuum. Georg Simmel already noted the observation that modern individualism is so widespread because it combines both: belonging to and demarcation from collective categories. He illustrated this using the example of fashion, in which individuality is expressed through the “compromise” of imitation and distinction: those who orientate themselves towards fashion imitate others, but at the same time, due to the rapid change and the various reference groups, they set themselves apart – from others again – away.

Especially in public exchanges about questions of taste, it is inevitable to choose the self-portrayal associated with each judgment with a view to social approval. When it comes to consumer decisions, but also, for example, to political elections, there are so-called “bandwagon” effects: those who want to be among the winners jump on the moving bandwagon and join the majority opinion. Conversely, such dynamics can also make it attractive to stand out from the crowd. Achieving an “optimal” distinction in the face of these conflicting tendencies is the key to success in cultural markets: a chart hit recombines familiar elements in a way that confirms listening habits without being a copy. However, the unpredictability of success shows that finding the right mix is ​​by no means trivial.

Good ratings bring complainers to the scene

In a recent study, two American sociologists analyze how quality assessments between imitation and deviation arise. As an object of investigation, they choose an evaluation platform for a product that is as widespread as it is diverse: beer. Using more than 1.6 million reviews from the website, they examine whether the observed rating careers can be explained by a model of “craftmanship within legitimate limits”. They suspect that the decision between imitation and differentiation depends on which judgments are considered legitimate in a certain context and what distinguishes one as a “connoisseur” in this context. From this they derive two factors that encourage one to set oneself apart from others with one’s own judgment of taste: On the one hand, the tendency to negation increases if an object is rated particularly well by others, since one can then present oneself as particularly picky due to the differing opinion . The general evaluation criteria are reaffirmed, only interpreted more sharply. On the other hand, contradiction is stimulated by the fact that an object is evaluated by many others – because this increases the potential audience for one’s own differing opinion.

The ratings of beer lovers are not only suitable for testing these assumptions because of their large number, but also because they reflect the different popularity of individual beers. The most frequently reviewed beers are not necessarily the ones with the best ratings, because the pearls – in the language of the experts: the “whales” – of the beer range are often difficult to obtain. It shows that although there is initially a tendency to confirm positive quality assessments, this decreases as the number of assessments increases. The more popular a beer becomes, the more the tide turns towards negative reviews. In the case of particularly well-rated beers, just a few reviews are enough to get the complainers on the scene. Apparently, popularity and encouragement are perceived as opportunities to communicate one’s own connoisseurship through contradiction.

However, the judgment is by no means idiosyncratic, but with reference to legitimate quality criteria. This can be seen in the preferred objects of skilfully placed distinction: A devaluation dynamic can be observed in particular with beers that come from mass production and are therefore considered “philistine” beers anyway. In contrast, a positive review by the platform’s editorial staff, which is only given to selected products, largely makes it immune to criticism. If you want to show that you have sophisticated but socially acceptable taste with little risk, it is better to let others dictate the objects of criticism – and in doing so not only demonstrate artistry, but also an understanding of the social conditions of individuality.

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