Ketchup on a steak?

In an early article dating back to the early 1970s, James Duncan addresses landscape and taste in his ‘Landscape Taste as a Symbol of Group Identity: A Westchester County Village’. As indicated in the title, Duncan focuses on a rural landscape, a village located in the town of Bedford, in Westchester County, New York. He (335) points out from the start that people in the area take great pride in village’s “‘unspoilt’ colonial look” and describes it as a New England village.

Duncan (336-338) provides background information on the village. He (336) characterizes it as culturally, socioeconomically and ethnically largely homogenous with a high real estate value. He (337) clarifies that with improvements made in transportation after the invention of the railroad in the mid-1800s the modest looking rural area was transformed into country estates by wealthy families. He (337-338) adds that as the American population grew in the early 1900s, the wealthy Bedford dwellers sought to protect the rural atmosphere by instituting a zoning code that set requirements to plot sizes and establishing a zoning committee that oversaw any possible changes proposed to the code. Without going too much into detail, I mean you can take a look yourselves, he (338) summarizes that, judging by the records kept, proposed changes “were met with great hostility” with repeated objections made on the grounds of “’the rural character of the town,’ ‘to protect our heritage,’ and ‘the colonial atmosphere of the village[.]’” As anyone familiar with zoning might expect, this resulted in preventing change (338).

The author (338-347) moves to characterize the area, finding four distinct landscapes. The first landscape (338-339), the village center with its small number of shops on one street, two churches, one Catholic, the other Presbyterian, a graveyard and a small number of large old houses. The characterization itself is not particularly interesting, despite appearing to be a New England prototype. What is interesting is the residents landscape tastes, people reacting negatively to new(er) buildings, even if their exterior matches the old(er) buildings. Older is just better, even if shabby. The second landscape (338), the tradesmen’s area, is marked by housing with “gardens, usually enclosed by a low fence”, “meticulously landscaped and often abundant with flowers, both in beds and climbing fences.”

The third landscape is the ‘alpha landscape’ (343-344), the oldest of the residential areas in the village. It is marked by narrow and crooked lanes and roads with maple and oak trees and drystacks on the sides. The lack of paved roads is a sign of prestige rather than the other way around. So, everything deemed ‘natural’ is held in high esteem. You could say that there is a curious admiration of ‘nature’, which is, in Duncan’s (343) characterization, harmonious and elegant. The buildings conform to certain criteria, as I guess one might expect by now, yet, he (343) notes that they “exhibit considerable individuality[.]” Farms in the area are appreciated not because they yield crops, but because when kept in use they keep the area from being rezoned, you know, preventing new people from moving into the area and ruining it. In other words, farmers are tolerated for the function they happen to provide rather than their presence. He (343) finds a fitting description of this landscape in an article by none other than David Lowenthal and Hugh Prince titled ‘English Landscape Tastes’ (193): “a series of happy accidents[.]” The irony of that is almost palpable as Duncan (343-344) states that “[t]he area boasts more than a hundred miles of bridle paths, along which individuals and families ride, properly attired, observing the landscape and in turn becoming part of it.”

In contrast to the third landcape, the fourth landscape (344-346), the ‘beta landscape’, features more recently built houses. Duncan (344) characterizes the houses in the area as “nearly perfect reproductions of old New England colonial houses.” Otherwise, the landscape is less seemingly natural and more open with its straight paved roads and lack of tall fences and trees. While still appearing rather upscale and manorial to me in the photos (345), Duncan (344) notes that the beta landscape is marked by buildings built closer to one another, people preferring to be able to see and to be seen. In more contemporary terms, the residents of this landscape could be referred to as wannabes in the eyes of the residents of the ‘alpha landscape’, attempting to be alphas without really succeeding in it. As Duncan (353) later on points out, the difference is that “[h]igh socioeconomic groups try to appear as though they always have had money and no longer have to display it.”

The following should be of interest to linguistic landscape and semiotic landscape researchers. Turning his focus on items, Duncan (347) discusses the tastes and interests of the landscape residents. Highlighting the difference between the ‘alpha’ and the ‘beta landscapes’, he (347) notes that the betas go for the Americana, the “eagle ornaments on houses, colonial-style lampposts, rustic signs, and ornate mailboxes”, whereas the alphas consider such items dubious, awful, overdone and cheap, or as I would say, just kitsch. Remember that earlier on Duncan (343) already noted the importance of individuality. Buying something from a store for “$4.98” (347) is hardly going to cut it for the alphas. The same applies to boasting with wealth in the form of ornaments (347). It’s just poor judgment and bad taste. As Duncan (353) points out, if you have money, you should appear that you’ve always had it, there is no need to display it.

What else is there? Well, Duncan (348) makes note of the social networks. People quite literally mingle in the same congregations, meaning that the ‘alphas’ hang out together, identifying with, for example, “the Episcopal Church, the golf club, and the private school.” One might call such an old boy network. He (349) adds that in order to have a voice requires one to be held in high esteem, belonging to the right crowd, being the member of some prestigious and highly selective club, which itself takes forever to get into unless you are in the right circles already. With regards to landscape and taste, the reasoning behind these practices is, surprise surprise, good taste. In stark contrast, he (348-349) states that the ‘betas’ are more associated with the Catholic Church. Marking the gap between the ‘alphas’ and the ‘betas’, he (351) notes that one club is clearly associated with the ‘betas’: “The Bedford Village Newcomers Club”. At this stage it’s perhaps not surprising anymore that this divide, or rather segregation, in the community extends to the school system, the ‘alphas’ attending private school and the rest attending public schools (352).

I chose to address Duncan’s early work because it focuses primarily on judgments of taste and makes good use of interviews. In Henri Lefebvre’s terms, it also steers my focus away from examining representations of space, such as arts works as discussed by Denis Cosgrove, to the space of representation, the lived space. So, in part, the point was to exemplify how landscape matters in an everyday sense. It is also noteworthy that the article was published before Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘La Distinction, Critique sociale du jugement’, which was later translated into English as ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’. This study is also of particular interest as James Duncan and Nancy Duncan have revisited it a number of times later on, including added reflection on Bourdieu’s work on taste. Those who are interested can, for example, take a look at their article titled ‘The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation’ or their book titled ‘Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb’. The subsequent studies indicate how times may have changed, but people still hold on to notions of ‘good’ ‘personal’ taste, which, in fact is rather social or collective, as we may gather from the already mentioned Bourdieu, as well as from Terry Eagleton in his ‘The Ideology of the Aesthetic’.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1979). La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement. Paris, France: Les Éditions de Minuit.
  • Bourdieu, P. ([1979] 1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10 (1), 45–62.
  • Duncan, J. S. (1973). Landscape Taste as a Symbol of Group Identity: A Westchester County Village. Geographical Review, 63 (3), 334–355.
  • Duncan, J. S., and N. G. Duncan (2001). The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91 (2), 387-409.
  • Duncan, J. S., and N. G. Duncan (2004). Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Eagleton, T. (1990). The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell.
  • Lefebvre, H. ([1974/1984] 1991). The Production of Space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell.
  • Lowenthal, D., and H. C. Prince (1965). English Landscape Tastes. American Geographical Society, 55 (2), 186–222.