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(beliefs, knowledge, and customs) that

forms the basis for mutual understanding and

further interaction and action. Thus, cooks in various

classes of restaurants develop an aesthetic

language that enables them to communicate

with each other concerning the manifestly practical

problems of smell and taste.

Alternately, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, in The Moro

Morality Play (1986) and Theorizing the Standoff

(2000), has developed the concept of social drama

within the more analytic tradition of action and

its environments, so as to enable the study of

social situations where symbolic and physical violence

interact. In studying terrorist kidnappings,

standoffs between government and its discontents,

and surrenders, she develops a deep understanding

of morally loaded environments for

action. When the social fabric is breached, actors

must work within certain dramatic frameworks,

and with certain obtainable identities. Thus, in a

standoff between the Freemen of Montana and

the United States Government, it was a mediator

who had fought in Vietnam and, like some of the

leaders of the Freemen, had formed his core identity

in the crucible of that experience and its

subsequent narration who was able to bridge the

symbolic gap between the antagonists. Action was

deeply structured by the symbolic environments

of traumatic memory and the enactment of


The specificity of the kinds of meanings that

are enacted, however, points both to the possible

misinterpretations of the relationship between

action and culture, and to the way forward in

the theoretical debate. For the exclusive emphasis

on culture as it is used by actors can support the

naturalistic approach to social structure and thus

an understanding of culture as unstructured and

primarily the possession of individuals. In this

conception, it is meaningless institutions that set

the parameters of the action problem, and culture

is merely the way actors make sense of things as

they are solving it – perhaps important for filling

out an explanation, but not essential to it. The

environments to action approach is faced with a

similar danger, for, insofar as it retains vestiges of

Parsons’s action frame of reference, it can be

taken to indicate that sociology can produce, in

theory alone, a mechanistic explanation of the

interaction of norms and interests that will apply

everywhere, regardless of cultural differences.

culture culture


Perhaps most significantly, it is important that

action theory be prevented from becoming a sort

of existential meditation on the capacities (or incapacities)

of human freedom, rather than a way

to examine the social contingencies of actually

existing meaning. If the knowledgeable agent becomes

a sort of philosophical and methodological

hero, whose reflexivity about her location in structure

ultimately makes her the master of the cultural

formations in her head, then the sociological

purpose of examining cultural structures is vitiated,

as collective meaning formations melt away

in the face of agency and knowledge as developed

by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society


Thus, the way forward in the action–culture

debates lies in the development of a meaningful

account of action through a theorization of social

performance, by linking action theory to Erving

Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology and Kenneth

Burke’s literary theory, but also to Judith Butler’s

reconception of the poststructuralist tradition of

social thought. By thinking of social situations of

varying scope (from small-group interactions to

media events watched by millions) as dramas

being played out on a public stage, with certain

actors and audiences, props and social powers,

emergent scripts and cultural backgrounds, we

can conceive of the exigencies of social action in

a thoroughly cultural way that does not reduce

meaning to social structure. Action, then, involves

putting certain intended and unintended meanings

into the social scene. This is to say that the

theorization of action not only has to take into

account cultural structures, but must further

focus on how actions are themselves interpretations

of these structures, and thus respond to

logics of meaning and identity underneath the

interests and norms that were once supposed to

do the analytical work of explaining these actions;

this argument is developed in Jeffrey Alexander,

Bernhard Giesen, and Jason Mast (eds.), The Cultural

Pragmatics of Social Performance (2006).

The sociological critique of culture used to be

based almost entirely on references to the social

as existing outside of culture itself. It was thus

diametrically opposed to the sense of criticism

associated with the detailed reading of the literary

canon, and with humanistic studies more generally.

The obvious exception was Marxist literary

criticism, in particular that of Georg Luka´cs and

Raymond Williams, which entered into literary

texts themselves to find the logics of ideology in

the content and form. While their work foreshadowed

the development of Cultural studies, it

remained nonetheless within the discourse of suspicion

about culture, usually understood as bourgeois

culture (and its discontents). Increasingly,

however, sociology has brought its normative concerns

with democracy, social inclusion, and the

critique of power to the interpretation

of culture, as well as to the debunking of ideology.

This is to say that the project of hermeneutics,

once associated with the conservative aesthetic

hierarchies of the German philosophical tradition,

can now be seen as a rich source of critique in

a post-positivist and post-orthodox-Marxist age,

as exemplified by the work of Michael Walzer,

Luc Boltanksi, and Laurent Thevenot. The epistemological

implication of their work is that

sociological critique must abandon its pseudoscientific

assumption of an exterior stance or

view from nowhere, and develop critical distance

through extensive engagement, dialogue, and interpretation.

They develop critical perspectives

on contemporary societies that share some of

the empirical purchase of cultural sociology, but

have as their ultimate goal the articulation of

new normative understandings of justice and

equality. More generally, in so far as sociological

critique is no longer beholden to scientific certainty,

revolutionary upheaval, and the genre of

debunking, its normative repertoire of critical

tropes, subtle ironies, and imagined ideals can be


That culture has become a central theoretical

term in sociology means that it has had significant

effects on the sociological imagination as a

whole, extending beyond the study of culture as a

set of socially produced artifacts. “Culture,” in

sociology, indicates a perspective as well as an

object of study, and as such has addressed itself

to nearly all of the classic and varied problems of

sociological research. We cannot do the wide variety

of cultural research in sociology full justice

here, rather we will point to a few particularly

telling examples.

Sociology’s ongoing occupation with modernity,

and the history of state formation, has led to a

focus on the constitution of nations as collective

identities. In explaining economic takeoff in western

Europe, the consolidation of the power of

states, and the emergence and importance of

democratic publics and the free press, sociologists

have increasingly focused on the construction of

nations as “imagined communities,” or “discursive

fields,” and nationalism as “a unique form

of social consciousness,” for example in Benedict

Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), Lyn Spillman

and Russell Faeges, “Nations,” in Julia

culture culture


Adams, Elisabeth S. Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff

(eds.), Remaking Modernity (2005), and Liah

Greenfeld’s Nationalism (1992).

The sociology of sex and gender has likewise

experienced a cultural overhaul. While feminist

and queer theory have questioned the naturalness

of the sex/gender distinction, sociological research

has examined the effects of actually existing cultural

schemas of gender and sex for social outcomes,

including family structure, women’s

tendency to join or opt out of the workforce, and

the ongoing existence of sexism in wage levels and

status attainment. These studies examine both

gender as a highly rigid structure of meaning,

and its varying enactment by women and men

who attempt to negotiate the political and economic

contradictions of modern society, for instance

in Judith Stacey, Brave New Families (1990);

Sharon Hays, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood

(1996); and Mary Blair-Loy, Competing Devotions


Finally, sociology’s longstanding normative concern

with democracy and its incipient populism

has also taken a cultural turn. For example, analyses

of American political participation and activism

have investigated how certain meanings

either enable or discourage civic participation.

The results have often been counterintuitive:

doctrines of individual empowerment encourage

activity and public responsibility, while norms of

civility and politeness discourage political conversation

and involvement, a theme which is developed

in Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics (1998),

and Paul Lichterman, The Search for Political Community


Culture has thus moved towards the center of

sociological discourse, as both a topic of study and

a perspective from which to view the social. As reinterpretation

is a primary form of theoretical

advance, the perhaps predictable result of this is

that, simultaneously, the classics of social theory

have come to be seen in a new light. New readings

of Karl Marx, Weber, and E´mile Durkheim have


While all twentieth-century Marxisms have

given more importance to culture and ideology

than did the crude economic Marxist orthodoxy

that followed Marx’s death, the turn to culture in

the 1960s and 1970s is evident in the increasing

attention given to Marx’s analysis of commodity

fetishism in Capital, as well as to the importance of

the early, humanist, and perhaps even idealist-

Hegelian Marx. Either way, Marx is read as attentive

to the capacity of meaning as a social force.

One important result of this has been the way

structuralist and poststructuralist theories of language

have merged with Marxist historiography

to produce a central thesis concerning postmodernism,

namely that the postmodern age is one

in which the workings of capitalism are increasingly

dependent on signifiers as well as signifieds,

that is, on the relational field of social symbolism.

These approaches are illustrated by Frederic

Jameson, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1992),

and Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political

Economy of the Sign (1972) [trans. 1981]).

Likewise, since the mid-1960s, we have seen a

recovery of Weber’s sociology of art, as well as

continuing debate on the Protestant Ethic thesis.

However, most significantly, the concern with

culture has also entered into Weberian debates

about the consolidation of state power and the

institutionalization of rational bureaucracy. Here,

sociologists have increasingly read Weber as a

hermeneutic student of rationality as a cultural

form specific to western history. In doing so,

Weber’s concerns are read as not so different

from Foucault’s, and bureaucracy as less a mechanism

to be uncovered than a form of symbolic

action to be interpreted. This interpretation is

developed in Philip Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution


Finally, the cultural turn in sociology has seen

a renaissance and reconsideration of Durkheim’s

later works, and, in particular, of The Elementary

Forms of Religious Life (1912 [trans. 2001]). This work

has come to be seen as a key prolegomena to the

symbolic study of society as a general project, as

well as to the study of the role of culture in

modern, industrial societies. Durkheim is thus

read as uncomfortable with the materialist interpretations

given to The Division of Labor in Society

and as having made a key epistemic break in the

years between the publication of Suicide (1897

[trans. 1951]) and that of Elementary Forms, an

argument developed by Jeffrey Alexander in “Rethinking

Durkheim’s Intellectual Development II”

(1986). As a result, Durkheim can be seen as a

precursor to cultural structuralism in his emphasis

on the autonomy of symbolic forms, and

the importance of belief and ritual for the organization

of society.

If culture has become central to sociology

(though some may not hold this opinion, or at

least be unhappy with this development), it has

also remained a controversial subject. And as empirical

research on culture has exploded, the theoretical

presuppositions of this work, which often

does not fit the model of positivist or scientificrealist

sociology, have been left relatively

culture culture


unexplored. This is to say that, in the future, social

theory must address not only culture, but its accompanying

methodological and epistemological

term: interpretation. This can be done by

returning to the fundamental questions of the

philosophy of social science, as well as by articulating

the immanent epistemological selfconsciousness

of cultural research in sociology.

There are two fundamental concerns central to

the question of sociological interpretation,

broadly understood.

The first regards the role of the investigator in

social analysis. Though most cultural sociologists

accept neither scientific norms nor postmodern

normlessness as the parameters for their truth

claims, what norms they do accept is an important

issue to discuss in the abstract. In particular, it

seems clear that sociologists want the meanings

they reconstruct to be translatable, so that cultural

comparison is possible, not so much so as

to determine active and latent mechanisms, but

so as to perceive more clearly the varied relationships

of meaning in action. Thus, even single case

studies or ethnographies implicitly contain a

comparison, at least to the investigator’s own

meaningful social contexts, and this comparative

consciousness forms an important basis for the

development of theory and research in cultural


The second question concerns how much the

methods and modes of explanation common to

cultural sociology may apply outside the domain

of what is analytically or concretely called culture.

A lot of work within poststructuralist theory has

examined the symbolic and discursive basis for

what sociologists are more likely to call social

structure, namely, institutional formations, social

sanction and exclusion, and even violence, as

argued in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1989).

But the extent to which these aspects of social

life can actually be explored empirically remains

to be verified by an epistemology more comfortable

with the possibility of truth claims that are

relatively autonomous from power. Thus, for

example, we need to ask how even the reconstruction

of political strategies and economic exigencies

involves the interpretation of highly reified

and strictly executed meaning.

Ultimately, then, the advent of culture in sociology

and the study of its subtleties and social

contestations leads to fundamental questions

about sociology itself. If culture is a perspective

from which to examine society, it is also a perspective

from which to examine the meaningformation

called sociology. As such, its most

important effect will be to push the central concepts

of sociology (structure, action, critique),

empirical research topics, and the readings of

sociological classics towards the interpretation


culture industry

– see Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno.

culture of poverty

– see poverty.


– see norm(s).


A field of scientific inquiry devoted to self-regulating

information systems, cybernetics, derived

from the Greek word meaning helmsman or governor.

Developed alongside computing in the later

years of World War II, the reference to governors

attaches the term to the regulatory mechanisms

first used on nineteenth-century steam engines.

The first phase of cybernetic science was mathematical,

an attempt to quantify the amount of

information in a given system. A critical breakthrough

came with the information theory proposed

in The Mathematical Theory of Information

(1949) by C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver, employees

of Bell Labs, the leading commercial research laboratory

of the time. Bell needed to find engineering

solutions for massive increases in telephone

use in the later 1940s. Shannon and Weaver proposed

a probabilistic model in which the information

content of a message could be calculated as

the ratio of signal – meaningful communication –

to noise. “Noise” they defined as anything insignificant,

from static hiss to repetitions and redundancies.

Mathematically, the highest probability

was for randomness in communication. In the

Cold War period, early cyberneticians identified

randomness with entropy, the tendency of

systems to cool down, to move to less ordered

states. In complex systems such as living beings

or social organizations, increasing entropy dissipates

the information content or patterned relationships.

The task of cybernetic technologies was

to maintain homeostasis: the state of a system

with a high degree of predictable structure, or


As the term suggests, however, homeostasis is

negative entropy in the sense that it resists

change. This was the tenet of two Chilean researchers,

H. R. Maturana and F. J. Varela, in

Autopoesis and Cognition (1980); they proposed the

culture cybernetics


term that ushered in cybernetics’ second phase:

autopoesis. Consonant with the ambitions of the

Macy conferences which, through the 1950s,

extended the scope of cybernetics to embrace

fields as diverse as economics and meteorology,

the concept of autopoetic machines is a general

model of any self-sustaining system: a unity composed

of processes which produce components

which in turn realize the processes and constitute,

continually reconstituting, the machine or organization

as a unity. This internal circuit depends,

more explicitly than earlier models, on the interaction

of the autopoetic machine – technological,

organic, or human – with its environment. This

variant of cybernetics provided Niklas Luhmann

with the foundations for his influential conception

of society as a network of discrete functional

systems (law, education, science, and so

on), each of which replicates itself according to

its own processes, but does so by treating neighboring

systems as environmental inputs. For

Luhmann, society’s internal differentiation debars

it from acting as a single unified entity, a capacity

restricted to its internal systems. It can and

indeed must, however, embody the mutual

feedback mechanisms between its distinct


The third phase of cybernetics abandoned the

centrality of homeostasis in favor of theories

capable of explaining change. Variously known

as chaos or complexity theory, contemporary cybernetics

uses dynamic models like hydrodynamics

to model complex boundary states between

order and chaos, with a special interest in the

emergence of new ordered states from apparently

chaotic forebears. Importantly, the term chaos

does not signify randomness but rather a system

whose subsequent states are not entirely predictable

from its original state. The model is closely

allied with the development of network communications,

and may be related to Ulrich Beck’s concept

of risk society, but is also widely used to

justify free-market economics. SEAN CUB ITT


This term is used to refer to electronic communications

networks and was first used by sciencefiction

author William Gibson in his 1986 novel

Neuromancer to describe a fictional parallel universe

created by computers and inhabited by information

(including the “avatars” or data

representations of human characters). With the

arrival of the worldwide web in 1993, the term

took on a practical application, describing the

online world, the interactions and networks of

persons, groups, and information connected

electronically through the worldwide web. In

some usages, for example that of the Electronic

Frontier Foundation, the term describes an open

terrain which may be occupied or homesteaded on

the model of the westward expansion of the

United States during the 1870s, and is in this

conception a liberated and liberating geography,

parallel to reality – physically copresent social

transactions – but potentially far larger. The ambiguity

of the term cyberspace and the juxtaposition

to real, social life – does it describe an actual

or a metaphorical geography? – derives from the

unprecedented social relations which the worldwide

web enabled.

For some, cyberspace denotes a field of open

opportunities distinguished from the real world

by its freedom from constraint. For others, it denotes

a new market in information and services –

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