The Sociology of Culture

Wendy Griswold. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.

Cultural sociology’s boom began in the mid-1980s, and by the turn of the century ‘culture,’ which had been becalmed in a sociological backwater during the 1960s and 1970s, was everywhere. Research fell into two camps, close theoretically but distant empirically. First was the old ‘sociology of culture’ school, whereby culture was a dependent variable produced by and registering some social process or formation. Second was ‘cultural sociology,’ whereby culture was an independent variable shaping socially significant outcomes. Crude as it is, such a categorization helps explain why sociologists who claim to be ‘doing culture’ often seem to be talking about different things. (For brevity’s sake, I call both ‘cultural sociology’ in this chapter.)

The market for cultural sociology has expanded both inside and outside the academy. Universities and scholarly networks over the past 20 years have increased the institutional venues which promote and disseminate cultural sociology. The American Sociological Association’s Culture Section, formed in the mid-1980s, is one of its largest. The International Sociological Society Research Committee 37 claims to cover ‘The Arts’ but in fact ranges widely in its cultural concerns. In addition to the standard sociology outlets, journals as diverse as Signs, Poetics and Administrative Science Quarterly repeatedly feature cultural sociology, and the proliferation of jobs, books, centers, courses, programs and newsletters address the putative needs of cultural sociologists and their students. The parallel growth in cultural studies as a cross-disciplinary field has had a largely symbiotic institutional relationship with cultural sociology (despite persistent conflict over methods). Outside academia, the emergence of a multi-centered world with new force fields not necessarily coincident with state boundaries—for example, Islam, stateless nations, the Black Atlantic, international labor migration, global cities—has converged with a revolution in electronic media and a late-modern concern about ‘values’ to produce public interest in culture that goes well beyond the traditional fine arts or anthropological domains.

This increased demand for what cultural sociologists supply has multiplied the resources, intellectual and material, aimed at the study of culture from a sociological standpoint. It has also produced a rough set of theoretical agreements—intellectual conventions—that coalesced in the 1990s. Cultural sociology has matured in both its institutions and its intellectual conventions, and most of this chapter will discuss the zones of agreement that have formed. At the conclusion, however, I suggest that there may be something on the horizon that will overwhelm the general consensus.

Mutual Constitution

Early twentieth-century sociology drew a clear line between culture and society which was sometimes called structure. Both the Marxian and the Durkheimian traditions regarded culture as a misleading translation of social fundamentals. Religious believers are right about the existence of a powerful force which they call God, Durkheim famously argued, but they are wrong about the source of that very real force, for it emanates not from an external being but from society itself. This is not far from Marx’s reflection model whereby a cultural superstructure rests on an economic base. Weber, and Talcott Parsons after him, placed more emphasis on culture’s guiding capacities regardless of where it came from, while Simmel saw the tragedy of modernity as involving culture’s reduced ability to guide anyone, but they all saw a difference between culture and that which it reflected, guided, or obscured. Disciplinary boundaries seemed to reinforce this distinction. As structural-functionalism’s star set in the 1960s and 1970s, most sociologists were happy to leave ‘culture’ to the anthropologists, and sociology graduate students contented themselves with Lévi-Strauss, Turner and Geertz.

By the end of the twentieth century this model of separate spheres had collapsed. (It had never been as widely accepted in European sociology, where scholars like Norbert Elias and Ferdinand Braudel had maintained all along that culture and society were not analytically distinct.) Not only was the direction of influence called into question, but even the distinction between culture and social structure no longer seemed useful. There have been two types of response to this loss of confidence in the previously assumed analytic categories. In the first, sociologists take culture and society to be mutually constitutive; in the second, sociologists limit their research domains and theoretical claims to precisely specified contexts.

In an influential article setting forth the first of these positions, William Sewell (1992) contended that structure was ‘composed simultaneously of schemas, which are virtual, and of resources, which are actual.’ While his definition drew from Anthony Giddens, Sewell rejected Giddens’s concept of rules as being too formal and replaced it with cultural ‘schemas,’ the informal presuppositions behind more formal rules. Such schemas can operate at various levels, from trivial points of etiquette to deep values and unconscious binary systems. Schemas are virtual because they can be generalized and transposed to different situations. Resources involve power.

Structures, then, are sets of mutually sustaining schemas and resources that empower and constrain social action and that tend to be reproduced by that social action. But their reproduction is never automatic. Structures are at risk, at least to some extent, in all of the social encounters they shape—because structures are multiple and intersecting, because schemas are transposable, and because resources are polysemic and accumulate unpredictably. (Sewell, 1992)

Sewell abducted the very word structure, long favored by those who viewed culture as the soft stuff resting on the hard stuff, and pressed it into the service of the mutual constitution model. Although the term ‘structure’ has not undergone the redefinition Sewell advocates, many sociologists have accepted his image of schemas and resources mutually engaged in constructing the social world.

Under earlier theories of culture, there was a separation between culture and structure. Culture was, in this view, that which expressed an underlying reality, be it society, economic relations, or the structure of the human mind. Studies of nationalism, for example, looked for the political and cultural variables (‘the nation’ as structure) that gave rise to nationalist ideologies (‘the nation’ as culture). Contemporary cultural analysis refuses to make this type of structure/culture distinction, or its consequent assumption that the former precedes the latter. Nationalism, Craig Calhoun (1997) points out, did not follow ‘the nation’ but helped bring it into being:

“Nations are in part made by nationalism. They exist only when their members understand themselves through the discursive framework of national identity, and they are commonly forged in the struggle carried out by some members of the nation-in-the-making to get others to recognize its genuine nation-ness and grant it autonomy or other rights. The crucial thing to grasp here is that nations exist only within the context of nationalism. (p. 99)

In this type of analysis the distinction between structure and culture is meaningless, for each helps constitute the other (cf. Corse, 1997; Spillman, 1997).

Culture has become as much an analytical strategy as a set of objects. In mutual construction views such as Sewell’s, everything is implicated in, and penetrated by, everything else. Therefore it follows that everything represents something else; everything is expressive or can be understood as such. Homicide detectives’ jargon, teenage girls starving themselves, spontaneous social movements protesting globalization, couples’ ways of handling money, a decline in bowling leagues—all can be (and have been) analyzed as both expressions of and participants in social reality (Bordo, 1993; Jackall, 1997; Melucci, 1989;Zelizer, 1994).

Sometimes the reading of such cultural expressions gives rise to some big story. Putnam’s (2000) decline of social capital theory or Maffesoli’s (1996) vision of emerging urban tribes are such comprehensive accounts. This was the idea Clifford Geertz (1973) held when he made his influential case for culture-as-text. But by and large social science approaches to culture have moved away from the big stories—modernization, functionalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, the role of the frontier, etc.—toward more partial, localized, contingent stories (Swidler, 1986).

This type of move constitutes the second response to the culture/structure breakdown: one that does not so much emphasize (or even believe in) mutual construction as local construction, here and now, on the ground. Instead of studying ‘Protestants’ or ‘civic religion,’ for example, many sociologists of religion study how congregations and or spiritual-therapeutic communities put together meaningful action consistent with their beliefs and circumstances (Becker, 1999; Wuthnow, 1996). This move coincides with the less systematic definition of culture that most sociologists now hold. DiMaggio has characterized the two positions as the ‘coherence’ view, whereby culture is a coherent system, a latent variable underlying multiple social processes, versus the ‘fragmentation’ view, whereby culture is disorderly, filled with internal contradictions, and different aspects get triggered or cued by different circumstances (DiMaggio, 1997). While the more systemic view is still around, and may indeed be ascendant again (see below), it seems fair to say that the fragmentation view had captured the sociological imagination at the end of the twentieth century.

Building up and Tearing Down

Since a culture is no longer assumed to have one big story, social science is listening to and for stories being told by a multiplicity of different tellers. Race and gender in particular have joined class as key sources of expressive variation (e.g. Andersen and Collins, 1998). Whether considered at the micro level of the small group to the macro level of the nation-state and beyond, people tell different stories to account for their different experiences, practices and social locations (Fine, 1996; Lamont, 1992; Pattillo-McCoy, 1999). Interestingly, disciplines within the humanities seem more inclined toward a single big story, usually one intertwining race, postcolonialism and sexual hierarchy, while sociology is currently being more theoretically modest.

Sociology being sociology, class continues to be sine qua non in cultural analysis. Here the work of the late Pierre Bourdieu has been the dominant influence in the past 25 years. Beginning with his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Bourdieu set forth the idea of the habitus as a set of dispositions that generate practices—innovations, adaptations, tastes—that roughly coincide with those of others sharing the same habitus, these typically being members of the same social class. He worked out the consequences of this insight in Distinction (1984), where he mapped the tastes of the wealthy and the poor (for example, rich people favor lean meat, poor people enjoy fatty cuts) and the cultured and less cultured (cultured people chose white wine, less cultured prefer hard liquor). The point, beyond the pleasure of drawing taste maps, is that such tastes constitute cultural capital, a way of signaling social background and aspirations to potential employers, friends, and mates. In a number of institutional fields (and Bourdieu uses the term field in the military sense as a bounded arena for social struggles) Bourdieu and his colleagues worked out the multiple layers of social-via-cultural reproduction. For example, his study of the mid-nineteenth-century literary field showed that Flaubert was torn by a ‘double refusal,’ trying to avoid the seductions both of the market and literary bohemia, and that this same structure of distanced engagement organized his fiction, notably A Sentimental Education (1869). To this day this classic offers students a sentimental education about the desirable social position for the man or woman of letters.

Motivated by, yet challenging, Bourdieu, scholars have shown how symbolic boundaries take different forms. Michèle Lamont demonstrated how middle class men set boundaries and hierarchies by assessing cultural refinement, moral integrity and economic clout. Comparing French and Americans, metropolitans and provincials, Lamont (1992) showed that people employ more principles of discrimination than Bourdieu’s emphasis on tastes would suggest. For the French, whether or not someone was ‘refined’ in their cultural appreciation really mattered, while the Americans were oblivious of this domain but cared a lot about honesty and being a team player. Lamont later showed (2000) that French and American working class men—black and white, immigrant and native—want the world to be ‘in order’ and have little tolerance for ambiguity, but the order they look for is organized along different dimensions. Sometimes American blacks and whites think along similar lines as ‘working class men,’ while other times symbolic boundaries mark racial distinctions. Both blacks and whites share a commitment to family and a belief in upward mobility; in this they differ sharply from their French counterparts, who see class boundaries to be more impermeable. On the other hand, American whites feel superior to people who ‘want something for nothing’ (read, blacks), while African Americans scorn people who ‘don’t have any compassion for others’ (read, whites). Values are important to these people. American whites favor immigrants over black Americans because they believe the former share their values (hard work) more than the latter do. French whites favor black Frenchmen over immigrants because of shared values as well, the value here being participation in French culture.

Race above all, but also gender, sexual orientation, cohort, religion, ethnicity, neighborhood and even commitment have achieved either new or rediscovered stature as cultural pivots. Outsiders are in (cf. Zolberg and Cherbo, 1997). This is less a case of different Weberian status groups sticking together (although some groups—gays in times of low tolerance, underground youth—look like this) and more a matter of different dimensions of membership being activated by different contexts and triggers. Social movement research has felt the impact of this way of thinking. Alberto Melucci (1989), to cite one influential example, has studied the protean urban youth groups that episodically emerge to protest global capitalism’s environmental and social degradation, then seem to evaporate. Melucci argues that the collective identity behind social action is not something that can be categorically assumed, for example union members or women, but the first object of explanation. ‘Only if individual actors can recognize their coherence and continuity as actors will they be able to write their own script of social reality and compare expectations and outcomes’ (p. 32). This being the case, Melucci asks how collective identity can be woven together, emerging as action or lying latent as potential.

Collective identity is an interactive and shared definition produced by several interacting individuals who are concerned with the orientations of their action as well as the field of opportunities and constraints in which their action takes place. The process of constructing, maintaining, and altering a collective identity provides the basis for actors to shape their expectations and calculate the costs and benefits of their action. Collective identity formation is a delicate process and requires continual investments. As it comes to resemble more institutionalized forms of social action, collective identity may crystallize into organizational forms … In less institutionalized forms of action its character more closely resembles a process which must be continually activated in order for action to be possible. (pp. 34-35; emphasis in original)

The so-called New Social Movements, wherein collective identity is not prefixed, involve submerged networks of mobile actors whose membership is on the one hand limited and occasional, but on the other hand multi-polar and global. Movements operate not as characters or actors, but as signs.

Social movements maybe a specific example of how culture works more generally. In a series of influential writings, Swidler (1986, 1995,2001) has argued that culture should not be thought of as some master blueprint but as a set of piecemeal orientations available to organize action. These possibilities, to which she has given the memorable image of a cultural toolkit, are neither mutually coherent nor invariably mobilized. Indeed, Swidler points out that people commonly espouse a value’ while their actual practice contradicts that value; the kid who wants to be a doctor but cuts school, or the husband who asserts that love is a matter of give-and-take yet remains committed to his dying wife unable to give anything, are examples.

It has been firmly established, therefore, that a wide variety of human variation must be included in any analysis of, or statements about, ‘culture.’ Some have interpreted the results of such variation as constituting a cultural mosaic, for example, America as salad bowl not melting pot: but more persuasive is the image of a cultural swirl of mutual influence, with multiple flows, no impermeable boundaries and few fundamentalists (Hannerz, 1992). Within such a swirl, there is not a culture,’ but a dynamic circulation of objects, ideas and practices, much of which is taking place on a global scale. Such global circulation produces entirely new cultural formations (Appadurai, 1990; Bhabha, 1994). Sociologists have paid particular attention to the resultant class formations (e.g. Lash and Urry, 1994; Sassen, 1991). Some surprising new class/cultures have emerged. It used to be assumed, for example, that cosmopolitans were people having means, education and generally high social status. Rhacel Parreñas (2001) shows that maids and nannies may be as worldly as corporate road warriors. Filipina domestic servants in Rome and in Los Angeles share common grievances, are marginal in the same ways, and communicate via media and e-mail, thus forming a virtual (and sophisticated) community of outsiders.

Sociologists now take for granted that organizations, industries and individuals interacting with one another produce cultural objects and distribute them through various types of channels and markets (Peterson, 1997). This breakthrough first came in the arts, where sociologists began teasing out the economic and organizational underpinnings to artistic achievement, which most people had associated with individual genius ever since the Romantic period. In the 1970s and early 1980s this collective-production-of-culture was the big news (Becker, 1982; Crane, 1987; Moulin, 1987; Peterson, 1976), and by the 1990s it was taken for granted. Then the big news was the message from the new institutionalism in organization studies, which directed attention to institutional structuring principles—something like an organizational habitus, unconscious but determinative of practice—that shape outcomes in ways that sheer efficiency cannot predict. Comparative studies of similar industries in different contexts, such as Dobbin’s (1994) study of how railroad development followed different cultural logics in France, Britain and the United States, Saxenian’s (1994) comparison of entrepreneurial cultures in New England and Silicon Valley, and Biernacki’s (1995) look at the consequences of the UK and Germany having different conceptions of labor as a commodity (embodied in a product vs. measured in time) is one type of neoin-stitutionalist application. Another is the consideration of world culture (common, near inescapable structuring properties disseminated globally) by John Meyer and his colleagues (Meyer et al., 1997).

Although neoinstitutionalism locates structural homologies, it pays little attention to the source of the structuring principles in the first place. However a complementary school of research asks this prior question: how and when do ideas get institutionalized. Robert Wuthnow’s research has shown that distinctly different dynamics come into play in the appearance, the ascendance and the institutionalization of revolutionary ideologies (1987,1989). New ideas proliferate when there is a breakdown in the moral order. They compete for resources in good Darwinian fashion, with a few winners and many losers. However, only when they become absorbed into the handful of social institutions that matter—the state, the educational system, the labor market—can they be said to be securely fixed as schemas in Sewell’s sense, that is, integral to the structure of society.

The Death and Rebirth of Meaning

The idea that cultural objects have a fixed but buried meaning, which can be unearthed through analysis, has been declared dead—had a stake driven through its heart—but keeps clawing its way back. Just as casual discourse in the new millennium continues to feature talk about meaningful relationship’ or work that means something, so sociologists have by and large persisted with the idea established by Weber that cultural objects and practices are meaning-full, that they both register and influence thought and behavior. The reluctance of many sociologists to move ‘beyond meaning,’ as Robert Wuthnow (1987) once urged, parallels the reluctance of human beings to live in a world of dancing surfaces, a reluctance that the same Robert Wuthnow has closely studied (1996).

So where does sociological thinking about/research on meaning now stand? We might divide the thinking between two ideal types: the realists (hard-nosed and pessimistic) and the idealists (flexible and optimistic), bearing in mind that some individuals have taken both positions. Realists stick to the guns offered by Sewell et al.: if the social and the cultural are mutually constructive, with culture part of an ongoing interaction, then pursuing meaning in the Weberian sense of reading a cultural text for the underlying structure is chasing an illusion. Meanings exist in bits and pieces (for example, schemas), but the realists doubt if there is some cultural code that pumps out the values and norms by which people guide their lives. Much study of social problems starts from this assumption: social problems are not issues that resonate with the collective conscience (let alone concerns at the top of some hierarchy of suffering) but issues that have been inserted into the public agenda by savvy operators (Hilgartner and Bosc, 1988). In this type of analysis to talk of meaningfulness would be beside the point. Indeed, some have suggested that not just sociologists but people in general work hard to avoid saying or doing anything meaningful. Eliasoph (1998) shows, for example, how voluntary and social groups maintain themselves by ‘avoiding politics,’ that is, by not talking about anything that might be divisive. Even activists use humor to paper over their conviction that any consideration of how the object of their activism connects to larger issues—any concern with the big picture, larger meanings—will keep them from getting the job done.

The idealists contend that although meanings may not be holistic or fixed, they still orient social action. Requiring more guidance than their genes provide, human beings use culture to answer, perhaps inconsistently, the ‘what shall we do and how shall we live’ question (Weber). This happens in at least two ways. The first is when a social group agrees that a certain cultural practice or object is meaningful to them and works at communicating through and about that practice. Ingrid Banks (2000) has shown, for example, how African American women construct a detailed social mapping around the meaning of good and bad hair. Eyerman and Jamison (1998) argue that music doesn’t just express and entertain social movement participants but constitutes a meaningful rallying point that can actually create the movement itself. Some such meaning clusters may be short-lived, as with Little League baseball teams that last for only a few months, or may last generations, but in either case they can be very intense (Fine, 1987).

The second way meaning orients is when one set of meanings is privileged over others, and resorted to ‘when the chips are down.’ Religion, the nation and the family are three of the most potent sources of these ‘fundamental meanings,’ what we mean when we clear the ideological decks and say, ‘It all comes down to this.’ Sometimes these sources combine to form a core idea cluster, for example, the ‘Russian idea depicted by McDaniel (1996), against which people measure political regimes and social institutions. Meanings maybe available but ignored, drawn upon under some circumstances but not always; some meaning clusters are more available and robust than others (for example, those sheltered by educational institutions or organized religion). Meaning happens when there is an engagement between the properties of an idea set embodied in an expressive form (cultural object as solution) and a social collectivities’ interests (problem); such an engagement is facilitated by shared schemas (Bijker, 1995; Espeland, 1998).

For meaning to have been resuscitated, there needed to be a reconfiguration of subjectivity. Part of the reaction to structural-functionalism was a repudiation of the idea that sociologists with surveys and interviews could get inside of people’s minds. All must be behavior, observable, reliable; psychology was out. This argument was widely accepted, but the nature of the subject itself changed. Cultural sociology came to see people not as possessing a smaller or greater part of their culture, but as occupying different positions in a differential distribution of knowledge and cultural resources. Their subjectivities come from their positions, and are characterized by the possession of specific cognitive schemas (DiMaggio, 1997). They participate in different ‘social minds’ and to different extents (Zerubavel, 1997).

DiMaggio suggests that we think of the connection between culture and mind as a three-way interaction among the differential distribution of information, different schemas, and available sets of symbolic expressions. Say, for example, that Coca-Cola settles a lawsuit on discrimination, and part of the settlement involves emphasis on affirmative action in hiring. This information will be available to most Americans, but not to those who have no access to media, who are inattentive to media messages, who are unable to process such messages (non-English speakers). Those who receive the information will attend to it insofar as it engages pre-existing schemas. A young African American woman about to graduate from high school has schemas about how one gets jobs and about her possible future trajectories, that will make the information relevant; a young Inuit man may have schemas that make it irrelevant. Meanwhile there are a variety of symbolic clusters—what Coke represents; what working in business represents; what affirmative action represents—that engage and organize the information. This three-way combination may produce action, both in terms of information processing and job-seeking.

Meaning therefore is cognitive, but this does not suggest that it is strictly private or internal. It can be observed in action, without either imputing universal signification or getting inside anyone’s head, by examining group practices. The meaning of a piece of technology, to take Bijker’s (1995) research as an example, does not reside in the system or artifact itself; technologies acquire their meanings through social interactions. Something ‘works’ not by solving a pre-existing problem but by achieving a match with a social group in a position to stabilize its meaning. For example the high-wheeled ‘Ordinary’ bicycle did not work for women, older men and anyone concerned about safety or ease of use, but it worked beautifully for the macho young Edwardians who liked to ride around the parks impressing the girls. We know this not by inferring their psychological make-up but by looking at their buying patterns. These men had money to spend and prestige to lend, so the vehicle lasted despite its unsafe and awkward design. When the safety bike, equipped with air tires came along, it was not adopted because of its superior safety or comfort, though these were undeniable to any engineer or rider. Only when it was shown to be faster, however, did the new technology ‘work’ in the social sense. Along quite different lines, Ogasawara (1998) has shown that a trivial practice like giving Valentines to co-workers can work, that is, become meaningful, when Japanese ‘office ladies’ deploy them to critique gender conventions. Powerful cultural objects work by addressing powerful concerns in ways that provide the satisfactions of both engagement and closure (Griswold, 1987,2000).

If meaning is socially contingent, then across cultural genres there can be no universally rational basis for hierarchies of value. People evaluate specimens of any particular genre, based on criteria such as complexity or the masterful rendition of conventions (or cleverness at defying them), but distinctions across genres—for example, jazz is better than hip-hop—cannot be justified. Boundaries between high and popular, mass and restricted, decent and indecent are social configurations, positions in a social field to use Bourdieu’s imagery, and not properties of the cultural objects. Drawing on Bourdieu, whom he helped introduce to English-speaking academics, Paul DiMaggio established this point to the satisfaction of most sociologists in the early 1980s, and it has been hammered home in a variety of contexts ever since (DiMaggio, 1982; Levine, 1988; Beisel, 1997). Some theorists push this to an extreme position, offering a postmodern imagery of multiple, parallel, interpenetrating, coexisting, flowing in-and-out-of-one-another cultures—jazz flows into hip-hop and vice versa—that reinforces the instability of cultural meanings and the indefensibility of cultural hierarchies. As Manuel Castells memorably expressed it, ‘Social meaning evaporates from places … People live in places, power rules through flows’(1989: 349).

Except that life is not always lived in a flow. The same sociologists who suggest a non-systematic or fragmented view of culture have also pointed out that under some conditions meanings get locked in. There are two forms of lock-in: crisis and routine institutionalization. During times of personal or collective instability—Wuthnow’s ‘disturbances in the moral order,’ Swidler’s ‘unsettled times’—cultural bits and pieces take on a more coherent form, for example via ideological utterances. Meanings are demanded, and are produced upon demand. At this point institutions may lock in certain meanings and forms, thus giving them an advantage in entering and enduring the ongoing cultural swirl. Formal education, law and legal definitions, state-sanctioned discourse and elections offer clear cases of such lock-ins (Lee, 2000; Swidler, 1995, 2001).

So does art: the themes and conventions of highly esteemed literary or artistic works set audience expectations and become the target at which other artists aim, via emulation or defiance (Becker, 1982). A talented writer in late colonial Nigeria, for example, depicts how ‘things fell apart’ when the traditional African village encountered colonialism (Achebe, 1958, as discussed in Griswold, 2000). Taken up by British intellectuals and readers, Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart set the standard for African fiction for the next 40 years. The meaning-fullness of the colonial encounter became more deeply institutionalized in the West—in publishing, in courses on African fiction—than it did in Nigeria, however. Nigerians honor Achebe for being a superb writer, and for being known throughout the world, but his themes have not guided younger writers at home; there, fiction concentrates more on contemporary social problems than on the past. Things Fall Apart is meaningful both in Nigeria and in the West, but its themes are locked into the West to a greater extent. In the West, African fiction ‘means’ village life and social change, while in Nigeria it ‘means’ urban life and social problems. Both meaning statements are valid.

Not just intellectual interest but sheer market performance can achieve a comparable stability; meaning can lock in just by being successful enough to define the field. Richard A. Peterson shows this in his analysis of ‘authentic’ country music (1997). Having helped define the production-of-culture approach, Peterson assumed that industrial arrangements and markets shape culture, even where the members of the art world take pains to hide their commercial origins. Starting from 1923, with an Atlanta furniture salesman who tried to sell phonographs by producing some fiddle music recordings, and ending in 1953, when Hank Williams, an Alabama boy dressed up like a dandified cow puncher, became the apotheosis of the country singer, ‘authentic’ country stabilized. Despite multiple disadvantages—for example, the musicians’ union refused to admit country musicians because they couldn’t read music—performers responded to mass culture’s demand for variety through recordings, radio, touring, song publishing, song writing and singing-cowboy films. Country music, in other words, was commercial from the start. Its claim of authenticity relied on convincing an audience that the performers were the genuine article. This was a challenge because what was ‘authentic’ was constantly changing, as in the 1930s, see-sawing between wholesome barn dance radio programs and the bawdy honky-tonk of the southwestern roadhouses. Likewise it took decades to settle on an ‘authentic’ costume: early performers dressed like farmers going to church and it wasn’t until the postwar era that cowboy outfits, a honky-tonk fantasy established through cowboy movies, took hold. Market success stabilized country by the 1950s, so now a glittery cowboy outfit ‘means’ country singer and country music itself ‘means’ a limited set of emotions and situations drawn from rural working class life.

So the current thinking might be summed up as follows: some sociologists avoid meaning because (1) past claims have been too grandiose and have faltered empirically, and (2) there are plenty of ways to investigate culture without making any assumptions about meaning at all. Others feel that if cultural sociologists do not address meaning, they will miss the key to what culture is and how it works. Meaning is not some sacred umbrella over, or fundamental structure under, social behavior, but it is also not just a grab-bag of justifications or a fig leaf for power. People think and act through drawing analogies, and cultural meanings are analogies that are widely shared. Sometimes these are fleeting, but other times they become institutionalized, and stand like Stonehenge, obdurate structures by which people navigate. While sociologists debate over how the navigation system actually works, it seems difficult to theorize it out of existence.

Measuring Culture

Earlier in this discussion I alluded to the methodological skirmishes that sometimes break out between sociology and cultural studies. Such disagreements point to a vexing problem for cultural sociology: that of measurement. Sociology is a discipline rooted in positivist social science, and although some cultural sociologists have taken the interpretive turn on two wheels, others want to slow down. These latter point out that the discipline’s advantage over humanistic and anthropological approaches to culture is its capacity to subject theory to rigorous testing. But if that is the case, the ‘culture is everywhere’ approach fits awkwardly with the sociological self-definition of people who measure and compare.

This is less trouble for those whose work falls into traditional sociology of culture. It is possible to trace the rise and fall of a type of country music, a genre of fiction, or a taste preference, for these lend themselves to strict definition. Measuring a schema or a discursive formation is more problematic, and is very much on the agenda of cultural sociology at the present.

Most of the solutions that have been offered start with some sort of texts, produced through surveys, interviews, or bureaucratic routines. Using both turn-of-the-centry charity files and later a University of California program directory, John Mohr has constructed relational mapping of discourse structures that show ideological continuities and changes (Mohr, 1994; Mohr and Lee, 2000). Kathleen Carley has drawn on student interviews about comedy and science fiction books about robots to explore techniques of ‘mental model extraction’ that seek paired concepts (Carley, 1994). Robert Wuthnow has redefined survey responses to be not indicators of values, but behaviors through which discursive communities maybe inferred (Wuthnow, 1987,1996). Lamont and Griswold compare texts (interviews and print, respectively) across communities, contending that systematic textual differences indicate reliable cultural differences regardless of just what is being measured (Lamont, 1992, 2000; Griswold, 1987, 2000). Swidler has interviewed people to see what they have to say about love (2001). Uncovering or putting together some sort of text seems necessary for cultural measurement and comparison. Culture is neither in the air nor in the head; it is on the transcript, the survey sheet, the printed word. While a text may not be the best metaphor for culture (as Clifford Geertz once advocated), it remains methodologically indispensable.

Beyond this, many cultural researchers deny that there is anything peculiarly problematic, methodologically speaking, about culture. Given careful and self-aware methodological practice, they say that surveys do give some ideas about values, self-aware ethnographies do capture what people are thinking about (Putnam, 2000; Patillo-McCoy, 1999). Jepperson and Swidler (1994) reject any complacency in this area, cautioning that knowing minds, even if it were possible through such methods, is not the same thing as understanding culture; the level of analysis is different, they remind us, and sociologists should always resist the temptation to proceed via aggregation. Figuring out the connection among levels of cultural analysis is the challenge.

On the Horizon

By the late 1990s cultural sociology had stabilized around a general set of agreements:

  • Culture and society are mutually constitutive (though they can be conceptualized for research as if they were not).
  • Everything is expressive, or can be analyzed as such.
  • The search for big stories is likely to be less fruitful than the search for more partial cultural accounts.
  • Gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity are as important as class in producing cultural stories.
  • Cultural forms participate in a global circulation not successfully dominated by any single center.
  • Organizations and industries, often structurally homologous in given settings, organize the distribution of cultural objects.
  • People hold different positions in a distribution of knowledge and cultural resources. Subjectivity comes, in part, from positions; people in groups of any size or complexity share cognitive schemas.
  • Meaning is not fixed but occurs whenever a number of people apply a cultural solution to a problem question relevant to that social group.
  • Cultural hierarchies are produced by and reproduce social hierarchies; they are not based on cultural properties.
  • Although meanings are contingent, institutions may lock in certain meanings.

In spite of the high level of agreement around these points, change is on the horizon. Two sources of a disturbance in the intellectual order may converge. First, as far back as the ‘resistance through rituals’ accounts of the Birmingham School and Raymond Williams’s opening up of Marxist cultural theory in the 1970s, there was the idea of alternative’ cultures, cultural bases from which to critique the mainstream (Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Hebdige, 1979; Willis, 1977). Today the mainstream has become a multicultural delta, and nowhere more so than in cultural sociology. The problem is, for an alternative to have any position from which to critique, it has to be alternative to something. There has to be a main stream, a dominant position. The highly fragmented views currently in place deny this, and to the extent that they do, we lose critique as well as hegemony.

This may be why there has been such a vigorous reaction to works like Paul Gilroy’s Against Race (2000). An established theorist of racial oppression, in this book Gilroy accepted the assumptions just listed and drew the consequence that race (schema) and racism (uneven distribution of resources) are mutually constructed, not given. Racial meanings have been established through institutionalization. It follows, Gilroy argued, that dismantling the conceptual schema—race should be dismissed as the fiction it clearly is—can open up new possibilities for reconsidering the bases for the distribution of social goods. Although this indeed seems to be a logical extension of the current synthesis, Gilroy’s book raised a chorus of protest that has echoed W.I. Thomas: race matters, if only because people believe that it represents something real. Deconstruct race, and you deconstruct the politics that attends it. Cultural sociology will need to acknowledge and address this shift in the terrain more than it has done.

The second source of change is in contradiction to the first, and it is from something that the agreed-upon theories predicted: a shake-up (unsettled times; disturbance in the moral order) that has promoted ideological coalescence. Ever since the partial, fragmented view of culture took hold, there has been in the shadows its logical alternative: the old-fashioned idea of a more systematic, coherent view. Some efforts to promote this image of a not-altogether-fragmented cultural world—visions of a ‘culture wars’ dichotomy in the United States, or splitting the world into a post/premodern divide, McWorld vs. Jihad—have met with great skepticism (Barber, 1996). Most vehement has been cultural sociology’s rejection of Samuel Huntingtons (1996) ‘clash of civilizations’ hypothesis, which posited that the struggle between the West and the rest was less economic than cultural, a contest between world-views (Western and Islamic especially, but also Eastern Orthodox, Latin American, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu and African). Sociologists found Huntingtons analysis to be simplistic, jingoistic, and lacking discrimination, and they rejected it for reasons both political (it seems ethnocentric) and theoretical (it assumes a cultural coherence that sociologists don’t believe exists).

Nevertheless, ‘clash of civilizations’ discourse is everywhere outside the academy. Chinese insistence on its non-Western version of capitalism without democracy, Islamicist views of a war between true religion and the heathen, European Union definitions of human rights pitted against much of the world’s practices—all such formations sound quite at home with a culture wars idea. Cultural sociology needs to be able to evaluate these claims or risk irrelevance. ‘Culture matters!’ assert those promoting the idea of global cultural dichotomies and the impact of values (Harrison and Huntington, 2000). Cultural sociology needs to respond to this ordering of the popular imagination. It may also need to be open to the theoretical possibility that values can indeed steer human behavior, an assumption that most people take for granted. This does not mean that cultural sociologists will or should embrace the populist (and often demagogic) view of us against them, West vs. the rest, or submit to simplistic theories of how and when culture matters. But acknowledging the possibility of some cultural patterns, some systemic tendencies—for example, cultures where tolerance is a value, institutionally embedded, symbolically elaborated, versus cultures where it is not—seems a step that is both appropriate and, at this point, inevitable.