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Culture is constitutive of classical sociology and implicit in much postwar European sociology. Postwar American sociology began to consider culture in the 1970s with a focus upon arts. In the 1980s as the work of prominent European sociologists disseminated in translation, a global cultural turn began. Three approaches to cultural analysis have evolved in the last 20 years: first, culture is a quantifiable variable and amenable to the claims of science; second, drawing inspiration from French social theory culture is a practice of boundary formation and evaluation; and third, culture is a narrative read in ritual and performance.
- The Problem of Meaning
- A Social Science of Culture
- Culture as Practice
- Culture as Ritual and Interaction
The Problem of Meaning
Culture as an analytic category is a staple of many academic disciplines such as anthropology, literature, and history. Classical sociologists, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, even Karl Marx, recognized culture as fundamental to society and social relations. Max Weber (1968) wrote about the logic of the cultural sciences and located sociology among them. Culture was implicit in mid-twentieth-century European sociology – much of which focused upon political economy in specific national contexts. In the longue duree of intellectual life, a concern with culture is relatively new to professional sociology – particularly postwar American sociology with its positivistic and scientific emphasis. Mid-century or postwar sociology, as in international politics, was, to borrow from Henry Luce, the “American Century.” It was not until the mid- 1970s and 1980s when the work of Jurgen Habermas, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu began to circulate in translation that sociology in general and American sociology in particular became more cosmopolitan and culturally oriented.
Culture was not entirely absent from mid-century sociological studies. Talcott Parsons’ work dominated this period and his ‘social system’ (1951) achieved equilibrium through the ‘glue’ of common values. Political culture formed the core of modernization studies in the 1950s and 1960s. Almond and Verba’s (1989) study of ‘civic culture’ and Banfield’s (1958) account of a southern Italian village are classic examples. These studies measured the diffusion of western values as an index of democratic dispositions. They seem quaint in the face of the massive political upheavals and cultural complexity of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Yet, Almond and Verba as well as Banfield have contemporary counterparts as the essays in Harrison and Huntington’s (2000) anthology, Culture Matters, illustrate. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) locates culture in civilizations that are based on shared religions. Though politically conservative, these studies have value in that they point in the direction of a thick conception of culture that owes more to anthropology than to political science or sociology.
Meaning, individual and collective, is constitutive of culture. The ‘cultural turn’ in social science began in anthropology and to some extent British cultural Marxism in the mid-1970s (Willis, 1981). In Keywords, a social history of concepts, British cultural critic Raymond Williams (1976) noted that culture in its original form was an agricultural term that described an action. It was a verb, not a noun. Culture, as Williams points out, became a noun, i.e., the medium in which things grow, as well as a verb in the nineteenth century. Williams’ insights are worth revisiting as they underscore the dynamic as well as the sustaining dimensions of culture. It is the tension between change and sustenance (positively referred to as modernity and tradition; negatively as progress versus reaction) that lies at the core of cultural analysis.
Clifford Geertz’s essays in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) opened a door to cultural analysis that extended beyond his home discipline of anthropology to sociology. His essay ‘Thick Description’ lays out many of the core tenets of cultural analysis. Addressing the problem of meaning, Geertz describes culture as “a web of significance that man himself has spun.” He argues that culture is a ‘template of and for reality’ – suggesting that culture is a recognizable model as well as a guide to action. He illustrates this argument with his clever analysis of a twitch and a wink. Both twitching and winking represent the same neurological phenomena – the uncontrolled movement of the muscles in the eyelid. Yet, depending on the context this movement can mean vastly different things. A wink is a playful gesture; a twitch is a sign of intense nervousness or physical disease. Mistaking the difference between a twitch and a wink could lead to awkward situations for a person who was not able to read the cultural message between the two different meanings that the muscular action conveyed. Mary Douglas (1975) in an essay on “Jokes” underscores the importance of cognition and culture. She argues that ‘jokes’ are subversions of collective norms and practices. Recognizing the ‘subversion,’ or ‘getting’ the joke suggests a deep understanding of a culture in its nonsubversive state.
In 1977, Pierre Bourdieu (1977) took a structuralist approach to culture when he introduced the concept of habitus in his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Habitus defined a structured mental space that a collective inhabited that shaped its behavior, beliefs, and practices. The cultural space of a habitus could be thick or thin. However, habitus had a steel-trap quality that made it hard for an individual or a collectivity to transcend its limitations and definitions. Sewell (1992) in a seminal article attempted to insert ‘agency’ into the concept of habitus. Arguing that habitus was too rigid a concept, Sewell theorized cultural structures that he labeled ‘schemas.’ Transposition among schemas was the key to cultural knowledge and flexibility. Schemas were the deep structures of cognition and practice. The ability to ‘transpose’ a schema or to engage with different schemas suggested a deep cultural knowledge and is somewhat reflective of Douglas’ point vis-a-vis the ‘joke.’ Sewell compares transposability of a schema to language. To really know a language well and the deep culture that it links to, it is necessary to speak as well as read the language. Spoken language transposes deep cultural structures into everyday knowledge.
In sum, the theorizing of these four seminal scholars converges in ways large and small. Cultural analysis, whatever method a scholar deploys, reveals several core assumptions: first, culture is contingent, context dependent, and not fixed either in time or in space; second, culture is manifested in practice – the things that people do together from speaking the same language to common behaviors and repertoires of evaluation; and third, culture is embedded in symbols or material objects or ritualized behaviors all of which provide grist for the sociological mill that form different media of communication.
This research paper will trace these three analytics through different sociological groups that have developed around them. Each of these groups has had widespread influence and generated voluminous amounts of research and published work. Space constraints dictate that this research paper will only cover the leaders in each area.
A Social Science of Culture
The production of culture approach (Peterson, 1976), a subset of organizational sociology that focused principally on the arts, dominated the subfield of cultural sociology in the mid-1970s. While this strain began to diminish in the early 1980s, there remains a sophisticated subset of sociologists who still engage with the arts (for example, Grazian, 2003; Roy and Dowd, 2010; Lena, 2012). In the 1980s, cultural sociologists began to broaden their horizons and to think about ways to contribute to the discussion of meaning while maintaining scientific integrity as sociologists. Cultural sociologists thought long and hard about the relation between methods and meanings, and were acutely aware of positioning themselves via quantitative sociologists.
An emerging generation of cultural sociologists wrote about methods and meaning broadly conceived (Berezin, 2014). Ann Swidler’s (1986) article, ‘Culture in Action’ was a first step in the direction of extending cultural sociology beyond the arts. Her article engaged both Max Weber and Talcott Parsons on the subject of values. How, she asks, do values or culture shape an individual’s choice of actions. Swidler develops the concept of a cultural repertoire or ‘tool kit’ that individuals, or collectivities, turn to pursue courses of action. The culturally competent individual or collectivity understands what repertoire or tool kit to draw upon – depending upon the situation. Contingency enters Swidler’s analysis with her distinction between ‘unsettled’ and ‘settled’ lives. During periods of stability, it is difficult to entangle culture from action since there is general societal agreement as to what actions to take in any given situation. When societies become unstable due to contingent events and new paths need to be taken, the ties of culture become clearer as what is cultural becomes disentangled from purely structural elements.
Wendy Griswold’s (1987a) article “A Methodological Framework for the Study of Culture” is a relevant and compelling exegesis of how cultural sociologists should address method and design. Griswold’s discussion of ‘parsimony, amplitude, and plenitude’ as criteria for validity suggests that her goal was to push cultural sociology in the direction of scientific method. Her insistence on the necessity of comparison embedded in research design remains an important feature of rigorous cultural analysis. Her careful parsing of the elements of cultural production – intention, reception, comprehension, and explanation – still reflected a concern with artistic production. Griswold’s own work focused upon the sociology of literature (for example, Griswold, 1987b).
Yet, her article on methodology opens the door to a broader array of subject matter by defining cultural objects as ‘significance embodied in form.’ Both of these studies reinforced the anthropological point that culture was not fixed and it varied widely by context. Tapping into those various contexts, whether temporal or spatial, was one way of doing a cultural analysis that could be both interpretive and explanatory. The influence of this approach which is broadly Weberian can be found in an array of articles that varied widely as to subject matter – for example, Alexander’s work on the Holocaust (2003b) and Jensen’s work on commemoration in Central America (2007).
By the 1990s, cultural sociology was becoming a mature subfield – meaning that it was established part of the discipline. What constituted culture widened as the 1980s turned into the 1990s. Cultural sociology expanded to include different subfields and distinctive conceptual approaches to the sociological study of culture began to consolidate. For example, we can identify Lamont’s emphasis upon boundaries (Lamont and Molnar, 2002) and national cultural repertoires (Lamont and Thevenot, 2000); Jeffrey Alexander’s (2003a) ‘strong program’ with its emphasis upon cultural performance; the interactional approach of Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman (2003) and a new entry Stephen Vaisey’s (2009) ‘dual-process model.’
Culture as Practice
Michele Lamont in a series of books consolidated the role of cross-national research in cultural analysis. Lamont’s work speaks to the role of culture in the process of social inequality. Emile Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu broadly influence the theoretical form of Lamont’s work. The work has three distinct dimensions; first, the issue of boundaries – how persons draw distinctions among themselves; second, national repertoires of collective practice; and third, rituals of moral evaluation and worth. The drawing of boundaries was the focus of Lamont’s initial work (1992). In a series of interviews, Lamont interviewed a random sample of middle-class men in four locations – two in France and two in the United States, one a cosmopolitan center, and a second a smaller peripheral city, and asked them how they drew distinctions between themselves and others. In America, she found that money and achievement were core values whereas in France style and bearing in the world carried more weight.
She repeated the study with a shift in focus to the working classes (Lamont, 2000). In her later study, she found that while race was salient in the American case, French workers drew heavily upon the Republican values of inclusion that formed the basis of their national political culture. Individualism was the basis of the American discourse even among working-class men. So that if a person was morally responsible, they were valued members of society independently of their race.
From these two initial studies, Lamont joined in collaboration with Laurent Thevenot (Lamont and Thevenot, 2000) and with a group of collaborators developed the concept of a “national cultural repertoire.” What they found in this work was that a clearly identifiable repertoire of ideas, meanings, and practices in response to public and private events can be identified across national spaces. Thevenot in collaboration with Luc Boltanski developed another strand of this work that focused upon evaluation and justification (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1999, 2006). The argument is that the modes in which individuals and collectivities evaluate ideas, people, and events are based upon evaluations of worth. These evaluations of worth are embedded in languages of justification which can be identified depending upon the situation that is being evaluated. The language of justification forms the basis of the “normative principles which underlie the critical activity of ordinary persons” (Boltanski and Thevenot 1999: 364).
This foundation work that brings practice and agency to the field of cultural sociology has generated a corpus of work in social inequality as well as national schemes of evaluation. Annette Lareau, a collaborator of Lamont (Lamont and Lareau, 1988), used these ideas in a seminal work on the different ways that working-class and upper-middle-class children are socialized in the United States (Lareau, 2011). As Lareau demonstrates parenting styles ‘concerted cultivation’ versus ‘natural growth’ create the different interpretive scheme that children learn from an early age determines their outcomes in later life. In short, upper-middle-class children learn that the world is there for them to manage; whereas working-class children learn that they are largely victims of circumstances and their best solution is avoidance. Marion Fourcade (2011) has recently drawn out the issue of evaluation in an extended study of natural disaster in France and the United States. Focusing upon two oil spills, she demonstrates that Americans cared more about financial adjudication; whereas the French were more concerned with the destruction of the landscape.
In the early 1990s, comparative historical sociologists and political sociologists (for example, the essays in State/Culture (Steinmetz, 1999)) began to incorporate culture in their analyses. Multiple influences drove the political turn in cultural sociology. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe reinvigorated an interest in the cultural underpinnings of democracy (Somers, 1993). Anderson’s (2006) work on the nation as an ‘imagined community’ sparked a renewed interest in nationalism. The English translation of Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and the publication of Calhoun’s (1992) anthology on Habermas opened new possibilities in the study of culture and politics. A series of review articles (Berezin, 1994; 1997a) written when the linking of politics and culture was novel among political sociologists identified nodal works and mapped the contours and possible trajectory of the field. Politics and culture is no longer a novel coupling. Wide-ranging empirical studies populate the field. My own work on fascist Italy (Berezin, 1997b) and European populism (Berezin, 2009) serves as one example. It represents the tip of a huge iceberg that includes work on family capitalism (Adams, 2005), nationalism (Brubaker, 1992; Kumar 2003), colonialism (Steinmetz, 2007), religion (Gorski, 2003; Zubrzycki, 2006; Lichterman, 2005), social movements (McAdam and Sewell, 2001), memory and identity (Glaeser, 2000; Olick, 2005; Spillman, 1997), as well as ethnographic accounts of American politics (Perrin, 2006; Lichterman, 1996; Eliasoph, 1998).
Culture as Ritual and Interaction
Sociologists such as Collins (2004) and Eliasoph and Lichterman (2003) have introduced the concept of ritual as they analyzed the cultural meaning of social interaction on a microlevel. Collins argues for a microfoundational account of culture based upon the microrituals of ordinary situations. Based upon extensive field work and ethnographic observation of local political groups, Eliasoph and Lichterman have developed a concept of ‘group style’ that governs collective political action. Alexander (2003a) offers an extended theoretical engagement with ritual in his concept of the ‘strong program’ in cultural sociology.
Working in the tradition of Emile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz, Alexander argued that a cultural sociology that adequately captures the complexity of social life must establish the ‘autonomy’ of culture. In contrast to the ‘weak program’ that Alexander (2003a) sees as dominating American versions of a sociology of culture, he argues, “What is needed here is a Geertzian ‘thick description’ of the codes, narratives, and symbols that create the textured webs of social meaning. The contrast here is to the ‘thin description’ that typically characterizes studies inspired by the weak program, in which meaning is either simply read off from social structure or reduced to abstracted descriptions of reified values, norms, ideology, or fetishism” (p. 13). According to Alexander, culture is a dynamic “.text that is underpinned by signs and symbols that are in patterned relationships to each other” (24).
Alexander operationalized the ‘strong program’ in a series of empirical studies ranging from the Holocaust (2003b) to the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign (2010). Alexander’s study of the Holocaust provides an apt example of his method. The Holocaust became the term used to describe the mass murder of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps across Europe during World War II. Over time, the Holocaust has come to represent a category of ‘ontological evil.’ Cultural traumas such as the organized genocide of World War II need to be publicly constructed as evil in order to be collectively recognized as such. In the public’s mind, the evil of Nazism ended with World War II and the Nuremburg war trials. The significance of the genocide emerged in a series of cultural events in the postwar period, and it was during this period that the term Holocaust gained public resonance as a bridging metaphor for evil in particular and even in general. It also became a justification for universal human rights.
In a later essay, Alexander (2004) further developed the ‘strong program’ by explicitly adding ‘social performance’ to a developing theory of ‘cultural pragmatics.’ Borrowing from performance theory, Alexander incorporates meaning structures, contingency, power, and materiality into cultural action. He specifies that cultural performances both ‘fuse’ and ‘re-fuse’ – highlighting the malleability of meaning depending upon context. Cultural performance identifies collective representations, actors, audiences, means of symbolic production, mise-en-scene, and social power. These elements act in dynamic interaction with each other to produce an ongoing and changing cultural narrative that includes cultural producers and their audience.
Cultural analysis is decidedly more global today than when it first captured the imagination of sociologists in the 1980s. In addition to being represented in all of the major journals of sociology, there are two new journals The American Journal of Cultural Sociology (2013–) based at Yale and the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology (2014–) based in Europe that have institutionalized the study of culture as a subfield in global sociology. Cultural sociology is reflecting upon its methods (see essays in Berezin, 2014) and pondering its future.
We have now moved to a stage where ‘big data’ is making inroads in cultural analysis. Mohr and his contributors in a recent special issue of Poetics (2013) illustrate the utility of ‘big data’ to a range of cultural questions. Christopher Bail (2012) used ‘big data’ to good effect in a recent ASR article on how extraordinary terrorist threats, many of which never occur, end up due to media selection as defining the global Islamic community.
The future of cultural sociology is wide open – with a plurality of methods and a multiplicity of venues. Patterson (2014) reminds us that there is still ‘sense’ to be made of culture. As cultural anthropologists recognized in the postwar period, culture points to differences and similarities among groups in near and far places. The ontological status of culture is global. In sum, cultural sociology is the future.
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