Posts Tagged Robert M. Parker

What is Sociology of wine?

 

Debating society s

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Sociology is not that easy to define, so a sociology of wine could mean many things.  This is, from my perspective, goodness. It presents opportunities. I want to share those opportunities. I would like lots of people to contribute. Let me  know what topics are most interesting.

First and foremost, sociology is about society. This might seem a bit simplistic, but it is in fact not. There is one problem. As I wrote in my Ph.D on What the Net can’t do (2002, p. 10):

Today, many others are ready to throw society out of the discussion. It seems like society is out of fashion.

That was eight years ago. I was talking about sociologists. Their problems were related to some observations regarding networks possibly replacing societies. That was slightly overblown.

I now have come to believe that there is a resurgence of faith in society among regular folks who would be the audience of this new effort. The effort of writing a good sociology of wine that makes sense to everybody regardless of background or preparation.

Networks are fine. They exist. Societies are fine. They exist. Communities are fine. They exist. We are not all bowling alone, as Robert D. Putnam wrote. End of story. Now, to the more interesting starting point: how to investigate wine, networks, communities, and society. But, since there might be doubters out there, I will take one more stab at explaining what society is all about.

Traditionally, sociology, starts with society. However, as the reluctant science it is, all notions are questioned. Let’s say for arguments sake, that there is such a thing as a ‘we” in all cultures. Let’s moreover assume that this “we” is some sort of community that in some way goes beyond the individual.

If we assume that what those “we” sentiments are, how strong they are, how they evolve and change becomes he subject matter of sociology. Surely, that is interesting. Also, it can provide a mountain of wisdom to the question of what role wine plays in our lives, how it became that way, and how it may change in the future.

Collectively, I would say, a group of citizens, consumers, vintners, or critics can change the way we understand wine. When has this happened? What are some social movements in wine? The Garagistes of Bordeaux come to mind. Occasionally, individuals come into play, inspiring a whole generation of thinking. For instance, what were the consequences of Robert M. Parker‘s decision to become a “consumer advocate” for wine in the 1970s? How long will it last? What are the alternatives?

In many types of sociological arguments, society denotes a relational, dynamic product of the continuing production of sense, purpose, unity, and meaning. If that sounds pretty academic, it is, since it was written by one. Nowadays, I would simply say: Society, community, family or friendship gives meaning to your life. This is a fact. Reflecting upon how each got its place in your life, how it evolved, is not only interesting, but essential.

Astonishingly, a beverage like wine plays into this in interesting ways. Let me give the example of socialization. Traditional sociological perspectives include describing the process of socialization into societies, groups and organizations.

In the case of wine, one could imagine investigating sub-groups within existing societal boundaries, such as Hispanics in America, and check how their relationship to wine has evolved. The focus would be on how wine is understood among this group. I would look into the cultural and historical context. I would look into families and the way wine is talked about. I would look at recent trends. I would look at the marketing of wine to Hispanics, or lack thereof.

As I previously have written about in my Color Magazine wine column, things are rapidly changing (see Becoming Rolando Herrera), as Hispanics are rapidly embracing wine both as producers and consumers. The question is why. If you are in the wine industry, you might also want to know how far it will go. These are issues that need to be looked into.

Studying demographic trends alone will not give you the answer. You need to ask people how they feel, look at purchasing decisions, marketing practices, industry developments. In short, this is a research topic in its own right.

However, as a sociologist of wine, one might equally well look into the creation of wine specific sub cultures, such as wine connoisseurs, wine critics, wine buyers, sommeliers, vintners, wine conglomerates, or even specific consumer groups as defined by lifestyle, geographical location, social aspirations, social status or otherwise.

Which of these approaches are the most interesting? Where will I find research is already carried out?

Sociology typically quite quickly turns to looking at the negative aspects of society, such as crime and deviance, social stratification (more so at the bottom than at the top), inequality and discrimination on the grounds of variables such as age, gender, status, race and ethnicity. With wine, one could imagine there are all kinds of problems. Indeed, lots of media attention, research and policy has this focus. In this vein, one might look at alcohol abuse among disadvantaged groups (or among elites for that matter) or gender or ethnicity stereotypes in wine marketing.

However, sociology may also be concerned with social systems at the macro level (family, polity, religion, economy and markets), or social change and social movements. In short, the choice is wide, and a sociology of wine must at least consider most of these aspects, but cannot be exhaustive on all.

What will I focus on? Where is there most data to work with? What is the most interesting issue to delve into? Where can I mobilize the wine community to help?

All of these questions remain open at the moment. How exciting. How rare of an opportunity. But also, what challenge, the most important of which being that sociologists who have looked into wine or wine culture are few and far between. As an example, one of the few web references to wine sociology include a study into the wine industry in North Carolina (see WFU sociologists track North Carolina wine industry).  Very exciting stuff, and I will use their data, but hardly representative of what goes on in the world of wine, right? Or, maybe not, just listen to this:

Their survey of 14 North Carolina winemakers in 2003 covered topics such as why they decided to make wine, how they learned to grow grapes, the size of their vineyards and the amount of wine bottled and sold.

These are all crucial questions that need to be asked of many communities around the world. One thing is certain, I will get many different answers.

I will start assembling a list of wine sociologists and works under a forthcoming “resources” menu bar.

  • Let me know if I should add something.
  • Let me know if you yourself should be listed.

Any input is useful at this stage. As of 5 October 2010, there are only 1,300,000 Google results for “wine” and “sociology” and only 1,160 results for “wine sociology”, of which few are relevant to our concern. Therefore, any emerging work on the topic is necessarily tentative. There are, of course, other data sources, and better searches yet to do. Lots of relevant stuff will not be labeled wine sociology. I have already started to look into it and will be posting references to bloggers, wineries, wine critics and more in the resources section.

The exciting part with pioneering a young field such as sociology of wine, is that there are fewer rules to follow, fewer vested interests to take into account, and fewer schools of thought to navigate. At least, it would seem so as I see it today. The naive investigator reveals his ignorance. Typically, lots of things will appear between the cracks. I would not be surprised to find dozens, maybe hundreds of wine sociologists, if I apply a broad definition. I would not be surprised to find dozens of books that fit the term. For sure, there are thousands of books that are relevant to look at. Let’s see.

For now, I would say that investigating issues surrounding the identity construction of people, places and their passions seems to be the most interesting approach to take.

Let’s see if there is enough data out there to support such an approach. For instance, one way of looking at is would be to say that there is the tension between globalization, localization and branding. The reason is, it is not as simple as to say that large, global conglomerates are bad and small, local producers are good. Both are involved in the production of identity, and both use their different cards (money, spin, terroir, market power, brand) differently.

Having gone through some examples of what a sociology of wine might be, I would now like to turn it over to you, the reader. In a forthcoming blog I will simply list a few topics and ask you to give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Fair? I think so.

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