Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Subject: social science classes at GC

Date: June 13, 2000

Hello, my name is George P. Burdell. I am an incoming General College freshman, and I am interested in taking a social science class during my first semester. The last time I had a social science class was during my junior year of high school, and it was pretty basic. I remember that I liked the unit on popular culture best, but I can’t recall if that fell under the anthropology or sociology sections. I would like to learn more about popular culture, especially issues about music. Should I sign up for the introduction to sociology course or the introduction to anthropology course? Thank you.




Subject: RE: social science classes at GC

Date: June 14, 2000

Dear George,

Your note comes at an interesting moment. We have been asking similar questions as we rethink the curriculum to meet the needs and interests of General College (GC) students. Forgive us if we provide a fairly long-winded, yet indefinite answer to your question. We have used the occasion of your query to begin a dialogue among ourselves concerning the benefits and limitations of our disciplines as well as potential ways to improve and integrate the sociology and anthropology curriculum. Given your direct interest in the issue, we decided to let you in on the discussion. We’d love to hear what you think after reading our responses!

Walt will be able to tell you more about the People and Problems (Introduction to Sociology) course. I will begin by explaining the benefits of anthropology in regard to your interest in popular culture and music.

The major strength of anthropology is that it is comparative. By that I mean anthropologists have studied thousands of cultures, and therefore make an attempt to understand behavior by comparing different cultural lifeways. For example, rather than study popular culture in the United States alone, an anthropologist would tend to think about those familiar cultural forms as part of the larger human cultural experience. Anthropologists have studied rock and roll music as ritual (Hämeri, 1993), in Australian aboriginal culture (Dunbar-Hall, 1997), Papua New Guinea (Gewertz & Errington, 1996), Western Canada (Johnston, 1980), and throughout the world.

One of the advantages of our comparative methodology is that by studying others’ cultural realities we can begin to realize that we, too, have constructed our world. In other words, we begin to see that the interpretive realities we mistake for objective or natural reality are instead specific cultural interpretations of the world. These cultural interpretations of the world are developed partly through “enculturation,” the process through which individuals are taught the symbolic patterns shared by others around them. For example, what people in a capitalist society refer to as human nature is instead a reflection of capitalist culture. Similarly, the folk category of race as defined in the United States is a cultural concept, a way of (very poorly) categorizing human phenotypic (i.e., physical) diversity according to cultural beliefs, rather than a set of biologically significant categories (Fish, 2000).

The work of Margaret Mead serves as a third example. Freudian theory, as a manifestation of the Western cultural belief system, holds that human beings experience a major and traumatic break between childhood and adulthood, resulting in adolescent rebellion against the parents. By studying adolescence in other cultures, however, many anthropologists, including Margaret Mead (Mead & Boas, 1928), have demonstrated that adolescence is not this way in all societies. In some societies, for example, the age-period we have defined as adolescence is considered to be full adulthood. Conversely, for other societies, this period is marked by uninhibited social and sexual experimentation, without the extreme personal and intergenerational traumas associated with “coming of age” in Western societies.

It is quite common for us to mistake culture for nature. That is one of the issues we study in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Therefore, the study of cultural anthropology is partly a process of discovering the cultural matrices (i.e., webs of meaning) we inhabit. That process of discovery can often be a liberating experience.

Marcus and Fischer (1986) call the comparative aspect of anthropology “defamiliarization by cross-cultural juxtaposition” (p.157), which is just another way of saying that we anthropologists hold up other ways of life as a critical mirror to our own. We do that so we might better understand our own cultural patterns. As a result of such critical exploration, we might find better, more humane ways to construct our cultural realities and conduct our social lives.

In discussing the comparative element of anthropology, I have indicated another major emphasis of the discipline. Anthropologists believe that in order to understand any given behavior or belief of another society, you must first try to understand it within its surrounding cultural context. This is called cultural relativism, and it is the opposite of ethnocentrism. The ethnocentric person tends to judge other cultural behaviors and beliefs based on his or her own cultural value and belief system. Conversely, the researcher practicing cultural relativism tries to understand other cultures on their own terms.

Cultural relativism requires that we understand the internal logic of another cultural behavior or belief, rather than judging others according to our own cultural values. For example, White people in North America have often referred to American Indians as unfriendly or distant, based on the cultural tendency in many Native American cultures to be very reserved with strangers. In many Native American societies, the cultural rules for getting to know another person require significant time and silence, not to mention the fact that interactions with strangers have had, on the whole, extremely negative consequences for Indian peoples. Conversely, the White tendency is to aggressively shake hands to begin an encounter with strangers, and one is supposed to engage in conversation in order to get to know them. These two cultural modes are often in conflict, and the resulting misunderstandings have had negative repercussions in political, educational, and business settings. White teachers working with Indian students, for example, have often misunderstood the meaning of silence in the classroom.

A number of anthropologists, particularly anthropological linguists, have studied such cultural misunderstandings in depth (Basso, 1970). The goal of such study is to increase people’s understanding of others’ behavioral tendencies, so that intercultural relations can be based on communication, understanding, knowledge, and respect.

Given your interest in popular culture, the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course would work well for you. Culture is the main focus of anthropology. Although I cannot speak for sociology (I’ll let Walt do that), the historical tendency of sociology has been to emphasize social structure (i.e., society), whereas anthropologists tend to examine the symbolic world (i.e., culture). In other words, sociologists tend to be more interested in social organization, whereas anthropologists tend to emphasize belief systems, ritual life, and the symbolic patterns that the members of a given society share. Therefore, although sociologists certainly are interested in culture, and some are dedicated almost exclusively to such studies, the historical tradition of the field has been to study social institutions and behavior in modern, Western nations. Conversely, although there are certainly anthropologists who study social structures particularly in small scale societies and subcultures, the main emphasis of the field has been cultural life in the non-Western world. Although neither Walt nor I represent these tendencies in our own research and courses, our respective disciplines are largely differentiated according to geographic (First vs. Third World) and topical (Society vs. Culture) foci.

This difference between the disciplines is represented in methodology as well. Sociology, as a field, has tended to emphasize large-scale, quantitative study, emphasizing survey, interview and census techniques. The study of large-scale social structures often requires such methods.

Conversely, anthropologists tend to use “ethnographic” methodology. Ethnography involves long-term study from within a culture. One must spend a great deal of time to learn some of the basic ways of thinking in another culture. In other words, the ethnographer essentially becomes a child again. Just as a child learns largely through trial and error, an anthropologist becomes a student of another culture, learning how to behave by being taught how to, and how not to, behave in that society.

Anthropologists are mainly interested in the “emic” point of view, which is the cultural insider’s interpretation of the world. That is as opposed to the “etic” point of view, the interpretation of an outsider. Granted, we always remain outsiders, and will therefore always maintain and express etic perspectives as well, but the goal is to immerse ourselves in the other culture.

Whereas other disciplines will use broad, yet shallow, quantitative methodologies to gain an outline of mass behavior, we live in and amongst a culture for long periods of time, a narrow and deep strategy. Sociologists often work with populations in the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. We tend to focus on small collectives of less than 100 people. For example, a sociologist studying the question of illegal drugs might conduct a survey of thousands of respondents in order to answer a very specific research question, such as relationships between drug use, ethnicity, age, gender, education, occupation, employment, income, marital status, household composition, and other variables. Conversely, an anthropologist would be more likely to live in and among a group of drug sellers or consumers for a long period of time in order to find out why people sell and buy drugs (Bourgois, 1996). As a result, anthropologists attempt to create a more complete and in-depth picture of an actual cultural world. Doing so, however, requires that one study a relatively small social group. The results are generally deeper in terms of cultural meaning and understanding, but not as broad and generalizable as data derived through traditional sociological methods. Each perspective and methodology has its place and purpose.

Whereas interviews might be considered a deep investigative method in other fields, for us the formal interview might be just day one of a year or two period of living with those in another culture. Thereafter, we emphasize participant observation, which simply means taking part in some of the essential cultural activities of others so that we might understand them better. Rather than talking to them once, we keep a dialogue going for long periods of time, as one would with a friend or family member.

So, getting back to the point, what might this mean in terms of your interest in popular culture and music? Well, that happens to be my area of interest as well. I have been studying the popular culture of Mexico for several years now. In order to do so, I have conducted interviews, observed hundreds of musical rituals from neo-Aztec drumming to Mexican rock and roll, learned to sing boleros, and to dance the danzón (poorly, like a Gringo). I have been studying musical ritual in Mexico City as a form of public pedagogy, examining the ways in which the state, church, and other social organizations attempt to instruct people through musical ritual. I am now writing about that research, primarily for a U.S. audience, because I think people in the U.S. should know more about our “Distant Neighbors” (Riding, 1986).

I bring issues of popular culture and music into my class. The course is based on a workshop format, emphasizing “hands on” student research projects. Therefore, if you were interested in Irish folk music and culture, for example, you might plan and conduct an ethnographic study of an Irish folk music group here in Minneapolis. In class you would study some of the basic theories, concepts, and methods of anthropology, and then apply them in your research project.

However, I am certain that you would also be able to learn a great deal about popular culture and music in People and Problems. Walt’s research and teaching also emphasize these issues. He’s writing an e-mail to you, too; it should arrive soon. Good luck.

Mark Pedelty




Subject: RE: social science classes at GC

Date: June 15, 2000


I received your note a couple of days ago and am thrilled that you are coming to the General College and have an interest in the social sciences. We have a lot of opportunities here and hope that you use them to the fullest extent. Once you arrive on campus, feel free to stop by my office at any time to chat.

I see that Mark (Dr. Pedelty) has already answered your e-mail, and he did a great job of describing his course and his discipline of anthropology. He also did a very good job of describing some of the main ideas of my field of sociology as well! So, I won’t repeat what he said, but let me go into a little more detail about how sociologists view culture. I do this because (a) this concept is central to all of us here in GC’s social science division, and (b) it’ll give you a foundation to better understand your interest in popular culture.

One of the things that you’ll discover about most academic disciplines is that they have a specialized vocabulary to describe terms and concepts. Sociology is no exception. It may be useful, then, for me to provide a glossary of terms here at the beginning of the e-mail so that you can better understand the ideas I explain later.


autonomous individualism: belief that a person can obtain any goal with enough effort; other forces are irrelevant

beliefs: ideas about reality

binary opposition: a concept that has two parts, and each part is the exact opposite of the other, e.g., good and bad, night and day, male and female

cultural capital: set of symbolic elements valued by the dominant class, such as etiquette, artistic tastes, speech patterns

culture (summary): group way of life that is simultaneously constrained and enabled by both historical memory and contemporary stratification

culture as map of behavior: culture is understood as a force for order and stability

culture as map for behavior: culture is understood as scene of debate and struggle

dominant class: those with high-level positions in government, business corporations, or the military

doxa: that state where a person’s subjective beliefs closely approximates his or her objective social positions

expressive symbols: representations of ideas and things

hegemony: process by which groups with power maintain power by combination of coercion and consent of other groups

heterogeneous social contexts: situations where people have many different traditions and values

homogeneous social contexts: situations where people are more or less the same

ideology: distortion of reality

mentality: state of mind

norms: rules for behavior

sociological imagination: process of connecting personal experiences with larger structural issues

stratification: unequal distribution of resources and rewards based on social group membership

structuralists: a group of social theorists who believe that humans understand the world in terms of binary oppositions

symbolic interactionists: a group of social theorists who believe that culture is a set of common meanings generated in face-to-face interaction

thick description: detailed, multi-layered, analytical narrative about social group structures and experiences

values: attitudes about what is good and bad

In Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary (Mish, 1985), there are two broad classifications of culture. On one hand, culture refers to aesthetics: a cultured person has excellent tastes, moral facilities, training, and so on. On the other hand, culture refers to a patterned way of life of a group of individuals. Sociologists are more interested in the second usage. Within this definition, however, many different approaches to the study of culture can be categorized. Peterson (1979), for example, discusses four broad perspectives on culture: as norms, values, beliefs, and expressive symbols. Wuthnow and Witten (1988), alternatively, lump norms and values into one perspective, and compare that orientation with two others: culture as beliefs and as mentality. Additionally, there are several other ways to classify culture, such as discussed by Griswold (1994), Mukerji and Schudson (1986), and Swidler (1986). Which are we to use?

I believe that an instructive categorization is one that compares approaches of “culture as a map of behavior” with “culture as a map for behavior” (Peterson, 1979). Indeed, each perspective leads one to ask very different questions and construct disparate answers: the former sees culture as a force for order and stability while the latter views culture as a process of contentious production and change. I will review these two perspectives in turn, providing examples and discussing their strengths and weaknesses. I will then conclude with a brief discussion of my own orientation to the concept of culture and how it’s used in the People and Problems (Introduction to Sociology) course.

Culture as Map of Behavior

In this paradigm, culture is theorized as a force for order and stability: values, traditions, norms, beliefs, and attitudes are seen as regulating the conduct of everyday life. Furthermore, these forces are usually theorized as working implicitly; it is the task of the analyst to discover them and probe their inner workings in relation to larger social structures. For example, you may think that it’s “natural” to change classes when the bell rings, or go to your locker at the end of the day, but these things are determined by the set-up of your school; in an alternative school you may not have bells at the end of periods (or class “periods” at all!) or lockers, because the administrators have a very different view of how the school should be run than those of public schools.

A group of theorists called the structuralists help us understand culture when theorized this way. They believe that values and traditions are the result of the human mind ordering experience into categories of binary oppositions (see Mukerji & Schudson, 1986; Williams, 1981). The major problem with this approach, however, has been a tendency to focus on “high” and “low” forms of cultural expression. Such a conceptualization is highly problematic in a society as complex and fluid as the U.S. (Gans, 1974).

Clifford Geertz’s (1973) interpretative approach, on the other hand, was instrumental in a shift towards efforts to study popular forms of culture (Mukerji & Schudson. 1988). Emphasizing “thick description” as the means of discovering everyday understandings and cultural practices, Geertz argues that symbolic expression is the defining feature of the human species. Geertz, along with other anthropologists influenced by sociologist Emile Durkheim (like Sahlins, 1976, and Turner, 1967) argue that humans are primarily meaning-making animals instead of profit-making animals, and that symbolic expression is the necessary basis of practical activity. At this point you may be wondering, “just how is shared meaning reached?” Although thick description is very useful within tightly bound homogeneous social contexts, it is of reduced utility when investigating the production and expression of culture in expansive heterogeneous social contexts.

Here the work of Bourdieu (1977, 1990) is useful. His “cultural capital” is a set of symbolic elements that are valued by the dominant class. Individuals, families, and groups are believed to spend resources to gain cultural capital, which is in turn reinvested to gain more valued resources. Note that the focus is on obtaining the perspectives of the dominant class, not the other way around.

A weakness with Bourdieu’s work specifically, and the culture as map of behavior camp in general is its reductionism. Social class is the most important force for Bourdieu; he pays little attention to ways in which locations such as age race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation affect things like doxa. For example, Bourdieu would not consider that even if you are from an upper-class family, as someone who is under 21 you can not yet fully participate in American culture: you can’t legally purchase alcohol. It seems that culture as map of behavior theorists are too focused on the one or two key elements that hold the entire cultural world together.

Sometimes, however, a few elements can be effectively isolated to form powerful insights about implicit cultural understandings. When reading Habits of the Heart (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), for instance, I initially thought that interviews with 200 White, middle-class Americans unduly excluded large segments of the population (recall Mark’s point that sociologists usually study people in very large numbers). Their resulting discovery, however, of an isolating language of autonomous individualism does seem to be a reality applicable to other groups. Perhaps a major task of culture as map for behavior theorists is to investigate how culture in a homogeneous context operates very differently in another, heterogeneous context: it shifts from a relatively harmonious process of discovering a shared sense of values and norms to a blueprint for never-ending contentious debate and struggle. I now turn to that orientation.

Culture as Map for Behavior

This revised imagery—culture as “tool kit” for constructing “strategies of action,” rather than as switchman directing an engine propelled by interests—turns our attention toward different causal issues than do traditional perspectives [of culture as model of behavior]. (Swidler, 1986, p. 277)

When reviewing Bourdieu’s work, it is not entirely clear as to which of our two perspectives he belongs. The notion of cultural capital, after all, does stress that some groups strive to produce and consume symbolic content valued by the dominant class; in a sense, culture as the possession of cultural capital is a resource that individuals can use flexibly to guide behavior. Swidler’s concept of culture as “tool kit,” however, theorizes culture as an active process, where groups explicitly articulate interests and strive to realize them. Cultural capital, on the other hand, is theorized as passively achieved, through such vehicles as socialization through educational institutions (Peterson, 1979); cultural capital is a “switchman” governed by the interests of powerful elites that direct the masses onto certain tracks. Bourdieu, then, belongs in the culture as map of behavior camp.

Staying in the realm of education, the investigations of critical literacy scholars more clearly illustrate the culture as map for behavior perspective (Giroux, 1994; McLaren, 1995). These analysts theorize educational institutions as places where groups bring conflicting understandings of the world to bear on learning. Although the interests of elites are privileged, other groups can—and do—resist the imposition of elite understandings; culture is theorized as the process of setting up alternative perspectives, and expressing these understandings symbolically. There is not one culture that everyone participates in, but numerous cultures that are not uniformly spread through the social system. Individuals face a variety of pressures (from both within and without the various groups involved) as they negotiate in and between various cultures.

Let me give you an example that contrasts Bourdieu’s map of behavior with the critical literacy people’s map for behavior. If you came to GC and excelled (as we know that you will!), Bourdieu would say that this is because you learned rules by watching and listening to the professors, and then followed the rules without question. The critical literacy people, on the other hand, would say that some type of negotiation took place: you learned some rules of GC but at the same time adapted these rules to take advantage of your ideas and experiences, such as specifically scheduling classes that were taught in a style that uses your strengths.

The tradition of symbolic interactionism can also be said to operate in the culture as map for behavior perspective (Becker & McCall, 1990; Denzin, 1992). Culture, for symbolic interactionists, is understood as the set of common meanings generated in face-to-face interaction, which are open for flexible interpretation. A weakness with this approach, however, is that too little attention is paid to larger structures that affect local interactions, which is a vitally important consideration in our increasingly non-face-to-face mediated worlds (Gottdiener, 1995).

Analysts operating within the paradigm of cultural studies explicitly examine the importance of mediated communication in symbolic expression and experience. Kellner (1995), for instance, argues that the media have become the dominant influences on subjectivity: both our sense of who we are and how we act are deeply influenced by exposure to mediated information. Furthermore, the individual’s position in social groups creates certain forms of symbolic expression that are continually negotiated in hegemonic space (see also Grossberg, 1992; Lury, 1996; Rose, 1994). Culture, in sum, is theorized as a group’s response to its social experiences, in an effort to increase its ability to articulate its interests and maximize access to valued resources.

A weakness of the culture as map for behavior perspective is that it often approximates the notion of “ideology” as a distortion of reality, only without negative permutations and connotations; in some cases, ideology can be substituted for “culture.” In many cases, however, symbolic expression operates above and beyond mere ideological motivation. For instance, the elaborate expressive styles of many rap music artists and their fans surround desires to make lots of money, more so than they support aspirations of uplifting the community or engaging anti-hegemonic struggle (Rose, 1994). Furthermore, when we expand the scope of analysis, the strength of the perspective becomes its applicability for a large and extremely heterogeneous society like the United States, with its history of conflicting norms and values: groups have and will explicitly express interests and mobilize symbolic expression to achieve ends in other social spheres. Culture as map of behavior, in this context, is quite a powerful construct.

As is probably clear by now, my own orientation to the concept of culture lies squarely within the culture as map for behavior camp. I personally define culture as a group way of life that’s simultaneously constrained and enabled by both historical memory and contemporary social stratification. I see this way of life as increasingly mediated: members of social groups use symbolic content, especially in electronic form, to guide the construction of visions of who they were, are, and should be, and how they should interact with other groups. This process, further, is inherently flexible and dynamic, as groups constantly use material and symbolic objects in public- and popular- sphere efforts to define and articulate themselves and their interests in never-ending hegemonic struggle:

Hegemony always involves a struggle to rearticulate the popular. There can be no assurance ahead of time what the results will be, for it depends upon the concrete contexts and practices of struggle and resistance. Speaking in the vocabulary of popular ideologies, using the logics by which people attempt to calculate their most advantageous position, celebrating the pleasures of popular culture, appropriating the practices of daily life – this is where hegemony is fought and what is fought over. (Grossberg, 1992, p. 247)

Through a combination of force and free will, they persuade other people that the ruling group’s interests are really the interests of all the other groups; culture is the ground on which much of this process is done. My People and Problems course, essentially, is a semester-long exploration of how hegemony works in the United States. From time to time I will discuss processes in other parts of the globe, but the focus is on how we can use these understandings to better understand our situation here at home. Eventually, of course, one should know a little about the cultures of other countries in their own right as well as the ins and outs of United States cultures, so I’d recommend taking courses in both anthropology and sociology.

In People and Problems I help students develop their “sociological imaginations” (Mills, 1959), the process of connecting personal experiences with larger structural issues. I use popular culture throughout the course to help students do this: we look at both processes of production (e.g., how things like movies and TV shows are created and marketed) as well as consumption (i.e., how people receive these products and the meanings they construct about them). So frequently we watch clips from TV shows or music videos, or look at print ads, and then have class discussions about them. My class is primarily oriented towards visual media so I don’t explore music in as much depth as Mark does, but if you’re into music videos you can be sure that we’ll analyze a few during the semester!

Overall, because I use the culture as a map for behavior perspective, I’m very interested in working with what students bring to the classroom, so I always build in plenty of time to explore interests that I cannot anticipate ahead of time. Last year, for instance, students were very interested in the Y2K computer problem so we spent an extra day on it. In the future, I expect to devote additional time to hot topics built into the syllabus as well as to explore subjects that students initiate. Who knows, maybe you’ll bring up an issue that students will get excited about? I can hardly wait to find out…

–Walt Jacobs

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