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cultural economy of media, and globalization.

American Cultural studies has followed the

same general course. Here too a turn to culture

within literary studies and social theory combined,

in the context of post-1960s intellectual

radicalism, with a turn to (European) theory. This

is exemplified in the work of Fredric Jameson,

who moved from a Lukacsian examination of modernist

literature to a multi-dimensional (though

still Marxist) interest in language, painting, and

architecture. The work of Jameson and others

was also important in fashioning an analysis of

postmodernism (as an aesthetic and intellectual

style) in relation to “the cultural logic of capital.”

Cultural studies in the United States, however,

was less social-science oriented than in Britain,

and more an outgrowth of developments in literary

studies, philosophy, and art history. Hence

an emphasis on reading cultural phenomena, as

in the title of the influential journal Social Text. It

was in the United States too that there first developed

a characteristic emphasis on the social

construction of race and gender, and on the marginalization

and silencing of various types of oppressed

other. While some work in this vein has

been linked to identity politics and has tended

to be experiential and anti-theoretical, an interest

in otherness has also connected to high theory

through the ethical phenomenology of Levinas

and through the linguistically and philosophically

self-conscious spirit of Derridean deconstruction.

Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles (1989) drew antiessentialist

implications for understanding gendered

bodies and helped to initiate queer theory.

Donna J. Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in

Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1991), developed and

celebrated a general notion of hybridity. Also related

has been the development of postcolonial

studies, with Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1978)

as a paradigm, to which are linked such further

developments as subaltern studies in India (spearheaded

by Gayatri Spivak) and the growth of aboriginal

studies in Australasia, Canada, and Latin


A further ingredient in the formation of Cultural

studies has been the rise of media theory,

especially as influenced by the Toronto School of

communications, with its sensory grammar of

media and its civilizationally attuned interest in

media, culture, and technology. This influence

has been felt mainly through Marshall McLuhan,

though the Cultural studies mainstream has been

largely dismissive of McLuhan’s work both because

of its apparent technological reductionism

cultural studies cultural studies


and because of its crypto-theology (the “global

village” of “the electric age” has echoes of Teilhard

de Chardin’s “noosphere”). Chardin (1881–1955)

defined “noosphere” as the stage of evolutionary

development characterized by the emergence of

consciousness, the mind, and interpersonal relationships.

In Canada, the work of McLuhan’s

mentor, Harold Innis, has also received renewed

attention, while a more Baudrillardian version of

the culture and technology approach is evident

in the work of Arthur Kroker and the journal



Traditionally the province of either anthropology

or the humanities, culture has become increasingly

central to sociology, both as a subject of

study, and as a theoretical challenge to sociology’s

self-conception. The sociological definition of and

approach to culture, which refers to the form,

content, and effects of the symbolic aspect of

social life, has emerged out of a critical encounter

with the two more traditional definitions.

In the definition of the humanities, culture

refers to intellectual and artistic activity and the

artifacts produced thereby, to what Matthew

Arnold (1822–88) called “the best that has been

thought and said.” Culture is taken as the highest

moral and aesthetic achievements of civilization.

The sociology of culture has always provided critical

distance from the pretensions of culture so

understood and its ensuing enshrinement in the

literary, dramatic, and musical canon. By showing

the links between social status maintenance and

taste, but also by carefully examining the aesthetics

of both popular cultural artifacts, and the

creative cultural activities of social classes, races,

and genders traditionally excluded from the

realm of high arts production, the sociology of

culture has been essential to the deconstruction

of the high/middle/lowbrow culture typology. In

approaching culture as a social object of study,

the sociology of culture forms a subfield alongside

the sociology of religion and the sociology of

science, and takes within its purview both high

literature and pulp fiction, Fellini films and

Hollywood schlock, art music and rock ’n’ roll.

With the advent of the production of culture perspective

in the 1970s, centered around the work of

Richard Peterson, and the concepts of field and

cultural capital, drawn from the work of Pierre

Bourdieu, this subfield has gained both empirical

purchase and theoretical sophistication.

In the anthropological definition, culture is expected

to do the comparative work of differentiating

the peoples of the world, and thus also to unify

their study; it forms the counterpoint to physical

anthropology’s theories of human nature. Historical

sociology, however, has shown the connections

between the anthropological imagination

and various nationalist and colonialist projects

of nineteenth-century Europe, whereby the totalizing

concept of culture was complicit in the exoticization

and simultaneous subordination and

colonization (and sometimes extermination) of

native populations. Extensive debates about the

political valences and historical guilt of the concept

of culture have ensued. But perhaps more

importantly for ongoing empirical research, sociologists

have found the anthropological concept

of culture to be underspecified; for sociology, differentiating

culture from nature is not enough.

Rather, culture must be defined in relation to

society, history, and individual psychology, and,

furthermore, the differentiation between culture

and nature must itself be examined historically

with an eye towards its varying social effects

(many anthropologists have also come to this conclusion).

Thus, while sociology has drawn extensively

on symbolic, structuralist, and linguistic

anthropology for its own studies of culture, it

has resisted the temptation to conflate culture

directly with the social as such, and the culture/

society distinction has been a productively unstable

one. And it would be fair to say that social

constructionist forms of cultural research have

distanced themselves significantly from the

“essentializing” concepts of an earlier era.

However, both the sociology of culture and the

critique of culture inside and outside of anthropology

beg fundamental questions. Why are social

actors so interested in cultural artifacts in the

first place, as opposed to other, functionally

equivalent, status markers? If cultural difference

cannot be grasped inside scientific anthropological

theory, does that mean that it cannot

be grasped at all? What is the role of meaning

and symbolic structures in modern and late capitalist

societies? To answer these questions outside

of the confines of the humanist tradition and

postcolonial anthropology has been the central

task for cultural sociologists, who since the 1960s

have developed a set of increasingly subtle and

nuanced approaches to this contested term of


For sociology, then, culture refers to the symbolic

element of social life, which has been

variously conceptualized, identified, and studied:

signifiers and their signifieds, gestures and their

interpretation, intended and unintended

culture culture


meanings, written discourse and effective speech,

situational framing and scientific paradigms, and

moral and political ideals. Concretely, culture

refers to those social objects and activities which

are primarily or exclusively symbolic in their

intent or social function, such as art, music, and

sports. Analytically, culture refers to the symbolic

and ideational element of any social action, social

relationship, or historical pattern. In modern and

postmodern societies, these two senses of culture

are increasingly intertwined in ways that must

be studied empirically: people may learn how to

conduct intimate relationships from poetry or

romantic movies, and rock stars may endorse


The methodologies for studying culture so

conceived range widely, and include surveys of

attitudes and beliefs, participant observation,

ethnography, structured and unstructured interviews,

textual analysis of written and visual

media, and conversational analysis. Ultimately,

however, all of these methods involve the interpretation

of meaning, and thus cannot be mapped

directly from the methods of the natural sciences,

though the extent to which scientific methods can

be adapted to the study of culture is a matter of

significant dispute. Furthermore, culture not only

requires interpretation, but the meanings of symbols

have to be understood in a holistic manner,

which is to say that any given sign or symbol takes

its meaning in relation to those with which it is

contrasted and figuratively related. The meaning

of the term culture is not an exception to this,

and as culture has become central to sociology, its

meaning has emerged in relation to three central

concepts, namely social structure, action theory,

and critical theory. After discussing these, we will

briefly discuss the ways in which the consideration

of culture has affected other aspects of the

sociological field.

The distinction between culture and society is,

like culture itself, contested and controversial,

and, since it often conflates the analytic and concrete

dimensions of culture, it is perhaps better to

discuss the relationship of culture to social structure.

Talcott Parsons distinguished the cultural

from the social system in a strictly analytic fashion

(his student Niklas Luhmann would later

claim that this should in fact be a concrete distinction).

And Parsons suggested that the study of

culture in all its symbolic elaborations could be

left to anthropology, and that sociology could

focus on the place where culture and social structure

met, namely, on the institutionalization

of values and norms. Structural-functionalism

suggested that culture, through the normative interpenetration

of society, could perform an

integrative function in the service of social equilibrium,

and thus that social change came with a

breakdown in value consensus (as in Chalmers

Johnson’s (1931– ) theory of social revolution).

These assertions were then subjected to relentless

ideological attack for suppressing the role of

strife and domination in society (and in the use of

culture). However, it is perhaps more instructive,

now, to notice a deeper problem with structuralfunctionalism,

namely its interpretive deafness.

By approaching culture as “norms and values,”

structural-functionalism not only projected certain

liberal ideals onto its model of society, but

more significantly, evacuated meaning from culture,

robbing its analysis of nuance and empirical

specificity. For an engagement with the multiple

layers of the symbolic immediately reveals that

culture in modern societies is neither homogenous

nor consensual. Rather, the size and makeup

of collectivities that share certain symbolic articulations

vary significantly (from small religious

cults to large voting populations), and these symbolic

articulations are contested both within and

without collectivities.

Mid-century Marxism and post-1960s conflict

theory insisted that culture was more of a guarantor

of hierarchy, exploitation, and inequality, and

thus saw culture as ideology. And though the political

commitments and theoretical presuppositions

of conflict theory were fundamentally at

odds with those of Parsonian functionalism, one

can discern in the studies of the objective basis

of systematically distorted communication, and

in references to the political and economic functions

of ideology, very similar problems to those

that plagued the structural-functional approach.

Here too, culture is assumed to be relatively uniform,

at least in its social effects, and its study is

guided by theoretical intuitions about the workings

of the social system, in particular the exploitation

of labor, and for a contemporary example

see David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity

(1989). Thus Marxist repudiations of culture as

ideology also suffered from a lack of musicality,

and inattention to the empirical details of

culture’s varied production, performance, and


In both cases, these problems were exacerbated

by imagining social structures as hard, real, and

external to the actor, in opposition to culture as a

more pliable and less efficacious possession of

individual minds. Furthermore, both structuralfunctionalism

and Marxism were embedded in

culture culture


teleological philosophies of history and social

evolution that enabled them to locate the appropriate

relations between social structure and culture

in an a priori theoretical manner. As these

teleologies came to be seen as more the meaningful,

ideational constructions of sociologists’ own

cultures than ontological certainties about actual

societies, the strict scientific distinction between

social structure and culture began to break down,

as did the various conceptions of their relationship.

This breakdown created an opening for sociology

to develop the tools necessary for a more

sensitive and empirically sophisticated approach

to culture in its collective forms. This has been

accomplished by studying culture as a structure

in its own right, a theoretical development that

has taken three main forms.

First, the study of symbolic boundaries, associated

with the work of Michele Lamont (Money,

Morals and Manners, 1994) and her students, has

shown how actors construct and maintain meanings

as a mode of ordering, including, and excluding

their fellow humans, over and against the

exigencies of social structure. Thus, the economic

basis for class is overwritten by an attribution of

certain moral qualities to certain humans, based

on criteria (including religion, race, and so forth)

that may crosscut the expectations of more reductively

minded sociologists that would map class

consciousness directly onto economic position,

and so on.

Second, the study of discourse and its relationship

to power, based on the pioneering work of

Michel Foucault, has enabled sociologists to examine

not only articulated boundaries, but also

unstated exclusions, and more generally the cultural

construction of certain taken-for-granted

“positivities” of modern life. Thus one can examine

from a reflexive historical perspective how

certain kinds of human subjects (for example,

insane people and medical patients) and social

problems (for example, homosexuality) came to

be of such great concern, and how their meaningful

construction effected the way they were dealt

with, inside and outside mainstream society.

Though Foucault’s work has been largely appropriated

in the humanities as a set of theorems

concerning power and knowledge more appropriate

to critical theory than to empirical sociology,

his early studies of madness, medicine, and the

episteme of the classical and modern ages are in

fact rich historical reconstructions of landscapes

of meaning, and their essential role in the social

processes of treatment, exclusion, and philosophical

understanding. These issues are developed

in Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1961 [trans.

1971]) and Chandra Mukerji, A Fragile Power: Scientists

and the State (1990).

Finally, the conception of culture as a structure

in its own right has enabled the sociological

transformation of a set of tools from literary

theory and semiotics. Culture can be studied as

a social text, replete with codes, narratives,

genres, and metaphors. Then, culture can be

examined in both its concrete and its analytic

autonomy from social structure, which enables

us to isolate and make clear its effects (and its

varying political valences) from a sociological

point of view. So, for example, the long struggle

for women’s rights in the United States can be

seen as a discursive battle for civil inclusion,

according to which a new set of actors came to

be coded in a democratic and morally positive

way (Jeffrey Alexander, “The Long and Winding

Road: Civil Repair of Intimate Injustice,” 2001).

This conception of culture suggests, moreover,

that social structures themselves are interpreted

variably by social actors, and thus must be

attended to hermeneutically by cultural sociologists,

with an eye to their meaningful aspects,

their locality, and their historical specificity

(see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures,

1973, and Jeffrey Alexander, The Meanings of Social

Life, 2003).

If culture was often contrasted to social structure,

and furthermore associated with subjectivity,

then it should not be surprising that it has

often been erroneously conflated with action and

its related terms: agency, reflexivity, and consciousness.

However, as culture has become recognized

as a structure in its own right, the

relationship of culture to action has become a

key component both of sociological action theory

and of sociological research more generally. The

ongoing debate about culture and action has its

roots in two different sociological traditions, both

of which contribute to the contemporary understanding

of culture within sociology.

On the one hand, the analytic tradition, descending

from Parsons’s formalization of Max

Weber’s means–ends approach to action, approached

culture in terms of the ways culture

sets the ends of action. Action is thus structured

not only by interests, but by norms as well. Originally

opposed to economistic accounts of social

action, the strictly analytic approach to purposive

action has been revived in contemporary sociological

debates about agency and rationality. But

a deeper understanding of the role of culture

for action has been developed from within this

culture culture


tradition by recognizing culture as an internal

environment for action, arguing thus that culture

orients action by structuring subjectivity. Social

actors respond to sets of internal typifications of

the social world and thus are dependent upon

meaningful symbolization in setting their goals,

and in imagining how they can go about meeting

them. By reintroducing the symbolic as an environment

of action full of rich narratives and morally

and emotionally loaded oppositions, this

approach integrates the expanded approach to

culture-as-structure elaborated above.

On the other hand, the pragmatic tradition,

descending from George Herbert Mead and

Herbert Blumer, rejects the means–ends characterization

of action outright, and suggests instead

that actors constantly negotiate situations in an

improvisatory way, attempting to make sense of

and solve both social and physical problems as

they arise. Originally, because of its distance

from the analytic abstractions of the Parsonian

tradition, and its tendency towards methodological

individualism, this tradition was not really

oriented towards culture per se, though it had a

conception of the use of symbols and framing on

the micro level. Increasingly, however, the descendants

of this tradition have developed a conception

of culture-as-use that conceives of the

knowledgeable agent as the link between culture

and society. It is actors, in social situations, who

draw on culture when institutional consistency

breaks down.

Thus the contemporary debate is structured by

two positions, that of culture-in-action which is

illustrated by Ann Swidler in “Culture in Action:

Symbols and Strategies” (1986), and that of culture

as thick environment for action by Jeffrey Alexander

in Action and Its Environments: Toward a New

Synthesis (1988). Both approaches have significant

insights to offer. The first emphasizes that actors

continually work to render coherent and solvable

discursive and institutional problems that arise in

the flow of social life. The second emphasizes the

way in which the social world is constructed for

the actor by previous interpretations and collective

languages. In either case, these approaches

suggest the importance of culture for the study

of social life. For example, we should perhaps

discuss the discursive repertoires of politicians,

and the resonance of these repertoires with the

shared codes of their audience–electorates, as opposed

to the “revealed preferences” of either. The

contrasts between the two approaches have, however,

produced significantly different forms of

theory and research.

One important manifestation of the symbolic

interactionist tradition has been Gary Fine’s development

of the concept of idiocultures, whereby

small groups develop an idiosyncratic set of meanings

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