Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
Brendan Nyhan has a nice post on the sociology of scandal. He summarizes his research on presidential scandal in this way:
My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge. First, I found that new scandals are likely to emerge when the president is unpopular among opposition party identifiers. Obama’s approval ratings are quite low among Republicans (10-18% in recent Gallup surveys), which creates pressure on GOP leaders to pursue scandal allegations as well as audience demand for scandal coverage. Along those lines, John Boehner is reportedly “obsessed” with Benghazi and working closely with Darrell Issa, the House committee chair leading the investigation. You can expect even stronger pressure from the GOP base to pursue the IRS investigations given the explosive nature of the allegations and the way that they reinforce previous suspicions about Obama politicizing the federal government.
In addition, I found that media scandals are less likely to emerge as pressure from other news stories increases. Now that the Boston Marathon bombings have faded from the headlines, there are few major stories in the news, especially with gun control and immigration legislation stalled in Congress. The press is therefore likely to devote more resources and airtime/print to covering the IRS and Benghazi stories than they would in a more cluttered news environment.
I’d also add that “events” have properties. It is easier to scandalize, say, the IRS investigation issue because it is simple. In contrast, the issue of whether the attack in Libya should have been labeled terrorism is probably to esoteric for most folks. If you buy that argument, you get a nice story about the “scandal triangle.” The likelihood of scandal increases when partisan opposition, bored media, and clearly norm-broaching events come together.
In this last post, I’ll discuss why I fundamentally disagree with the argument presented in Reinventing Evidence. There are two reasons. First, I agree with Andrew Perrin that Biernacki wants us to embrace a textual holism. One of Biernacki’s major arguments is that by isolating a single word, or passage, we are losing the entire meaning of the text. Thus, interpretation is the only valid approach to text. Coding and quantification is invalid. Perrin points out that lots of things be isolated. For example, if I see the n-word, I can say that, on the average, the text is employing racist language.
Second, Biernacki does not seem to consider cultural competence. In other words, human beings are creatures that can often reliably capture the meaning of utterances made by other humans from the same cultural group. Of course, I am talking about things like every day speech or short and simple writings like newspaper articles. More complex texts, like novels, will have networks or dense layering of meaning that go beyond a human’s native capacity for communication. These probably could be coded, but it would require intense training and an elaborate theory of text, which sadly we don’t have in sociology. But my major point remains. There’s a lot of fairly simple text that can be coded. If you believe that people can accurately convey the meaning of a text or label some aspect of it because they are “native speakers” of the culture, then coding is a valid thing to do. To believe otherwise, is to assume a world of solipsistic culture where every act of utterance requires a stupendous level of interpretation on the part of the audience.
So to wrap things up. I give credit to Biernacki for making us think hard about the quality of coding which is lacking. The fact that science is presented in ritual is fair, but doesn’t address whether a particular procedure produces valid measurement or inference. And I think that the view that texts are essentially uncodable is in error.
Speaking of branding with kitties, I have enjoyed academic work that incorporates the iconic Hello Kitty. As a grad student, I attended a conference featuring presentations on kawaii (“cute”) culture. One observant panelist noted that what appeared to be Hello Kitty on the conference posters was actually her twin sister Mimmy, distinguished by a yellow rather than red bow.
Hello Kitty has also graced the covers of at least two American academic books. The book cover of an edited anthology on manners and gender in Japan features Hello Kitty and her not-often-seen boyfriend Daniel both reaching for the same piece of sushi. A fresh-off-the-press book on globalization showcases an over-sized version of Hello Kitty about to trample a metropolis.
Want to share your own favorite cultural icons analyzed from an academic perspective? Put them in the comments.
To summarize: Richard Biernacki claims that coding textual materials (books, speech, etc) is tantamount to committing gross logical errors that mislead social scientists. Overall, I think this point is wrong but I think that Reinventing Evidence does a great service to qualitative research by showing how coding of texts might be critiqued and evaluated. In other words, ironically, by critiquing prior work on text coding, Biernacki draws our attention to the fact that qualitative research can be subjected to the same standards as quantitative research.
What do I mean? Well, a big problem with qualitative research is that it is very hard to verify and replicate. It is rare when ethographers go to the same field site, or informants are re-interviewed by others. A lot of the strength of quantitative research lies in the fact that other researchers can replicate prior results. For example, if I claim that party ID is correlated with gay marriage attitudes in the GSS, another researcher can download the same data and check the work. If they think the GSS made a mistake in collecting the data, a second survey can be conducted.
Biernacki, in trying to prove that coding qualitative data is pointless, follows a similar strategy by choosing a few articles of note and then he tries to reproduce the results. For example, he chooses Bearman and Stovel’s “Becoming a Nazi: A Model for Narrative Networks” which appeared in Poetics. The article creates a network out of ideas and themes mentioned from the memoir of a Nazi. Assuming that Biernacki reports his results correctly, he’s persuaded me that we need better standards for coding text. For example, he finds that Bearman and Stovel use an abbreviated version of the memoir – not the whole thing. Big problem. Another issue is how the network of text is interpreted. In traditional social network analysis, centrality is often thought to be a good measure of importance. Biernacki makes the reasonable argument that this assumption is flawed for texts. Very important ideas can become “background,” which means they are coded in a way that results in a low centrality score. This leads to substantive problems. For example, the Nazi mentions anti-semitism briefly, but in important ways. Qualitatively we know it is important, but the coding misses this issue.
Next week, I’ll get to my views on Biernacki’s attack on coding. But for now, I’ll give him credit for drawing my attention to these issues. The problems with the coding of the Nazi memoir point to me that there is more work to be done. We need to first start with a theory of text and then build techniques. If you want to use network analysis, you may have to take into consideration that standard network ideas may not be suitable. That will help us address problems like how to judge a text and the way we code data. That may not be the lesson Biernacki intended, but it’s a good one.
This Spring, our book forum will address Richard Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables. In this initial post, I’ll describe the book and give you my summary judgment. Reinventing Evidence, roughly speaking, claims that numerically coding extended texts is a very, very bad idea. How bad? It is soooo bad that sociologists should just stop coding text and abandon any hope of providing a quantitative or numerical coding of texts or speech. It’s all about interpretation. This is an argument that prevents a much needed integration of the different approaches to sociology, and it deserves a serious hearing.
In support of this point, Biernacki does a few things. He makes an argument about how coding text lacks validity (i.e., associating a number to a text does correctly measure what we want it to measure). Then he spends three chapters going back to well known studies that use content analysis and argues, at varying points, that the coding is misleading, obviously incorrect, or that there were no consistent standard for handling the text or the data.
As a proponent of mixed methods, I was rather dismayed to read this argument. I do not agree that coding of text is a hopeless task and that we should retreat into the interpretive framework of the humanities. There seem to be regularities in speech, and other text, that makes us want to group them together. If you accept that statement, then it follows that a code can be developed. So, on one level I don’t buy into the main argument of the book.
At a more surface level, I think the book does some things rather well. For example, the meat of the book is in replication, which many of us, like Jeremy Freese, have advocated. Biernacki goes back and examines a number of high profile publications that rely on coding texts and finds a lot to be desired.
Next week, we’ll get into some details of the argument. Also, please check out our little buddy blog, Scatterplot. Andrew Perrin will discussing the book and offering his own views.
As I posted earlier, I’ll be presiding over a conversation between George Ritzer and Carmen Sirianni from 3:30-5pm on Fri., March 22, 2013 at ESS in the Whittier Room (4th Flr) of the Boston Park Plaza hotel.
In the past several years, disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina have sparked growing interest in what both conventional and innovative organizations can (and cannot) do given conditions of uncertainty vs. certainty. Both featured scholars’ work cover the limits of particular organizing practices (i.e., Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization), as well as the potential of organized action (i.e., Sirianni’s work on collaborative governance). Thus, I’ve given this particular conversation the broad title “Organizations and Societal Resilience: How Organizing Practices Can Either Inhibit or Enable Sustainable Communities.”
What would you be interested in hearing Ritzer and Sirianni discuss about organizations and society? Please put your qs or comments in the discussion thread.
For those unfamiliar with Ritzer and Sirianni, here is some background about their work:
George Ritzer is best known for his work on McDonaldization and more recently, the spread of prosumption in which people are both producers and consumers.
J. Mike Ryan‘s interview of Ritzer about his McDonaldization work:
J. Mike Ryan’s interview of Ritzer about why we should learn about McDonaldization (corrected link):
Carmen Sirianni is known for his work on democratic governance.
A brief video of Sirianni arguing that citizens should be “co-producers” in building society.
A more extensive video of Sirianni presenting on his book Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Press, 2009).
We live in a golden age of papal betting. Within my own lifetime, I will have had at least three opportunities to wager on papal elections (’78, ’05, ’13). Better than bingo. If you need a primer on the possible leaders, click here. Intrade is trading 47% for an Italian pope. For individual cardinal odds, click here. For sociology of Vatican II, check out Melissa Wilde’s ASR article on the topic. Consider this an open thread on the social science (and gaming) of the papacy and/or information markets.
Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by Amy Binder and Kate Wood, is the latest entry into the growing scholarship on conservative politics in America. They ask a simple question: how do campus environments shape conservative political styles? This is an important question for two reasons. First, there is relatively little research on conservative students. Second, culture depends on organizational environment. How ideas are expressed is affected by where ideas are expressed. Definitely a worthy question for a sociologists.
So what do Binder and Wood discover? They focus on two campuses for their case study – big public West Coast and fancy private East Coast. They choose these campuses because thay have similar high achieving student bodies but the environments are way, way different. West Coast is a huge “multiversity” to use Clark Kerr’s terminology. East Coast is smaller and more intimate. The same type of students tend to be attracted to campus conservative politics (mainly white, fairly comfortable folks) but the environments encourage different expressions.
You might say that there are two habituses at work – the provocateur and the intellectual. In a big impersonal campus, it is very, very hard to project your voice except in a confrontational manner. Thus, West Coast conservative students rely on sensational tactics, like the affirmative action bake sale. Also, West Coast students feel little attachment to the community. Little is lost by being aggressive. In contrast, East Coast encourages all students to feel as if they have a place, even if they admit that most professors are fairly liberal. They don’t feel alienated or embattled, so they feel little hostility toward the campus. Thus, they resort to more intellectual forms of expression that don’t rely on shocking people. The book also has a nice discussion of the larger field of conservative politics and how that affects campus protest.
Overall, a solid book and one that’s essential to studies of campus politics. If I were to criticize the book, I think I’d think a little more about the differences between conservative students and the broader field of conservative intellectuals. This does get mentioned in a few passages that allude to Steve Teles’ book on conservarive legal academia, which we discussed in detail on this blog. The issue is that the world of conservative intellectuals that have influence is more defined by the East Coast intellectual types than the affirmative action shock jocks at West Coast. The consequences are important as we’ve seen with the Tea Party mobilization. Conservative grass roots politics is now dominated by shock jocks, not the well coiffed policy wonks of the Heritage Foundation. More needs to be said about the boundary and links between campus conservatives and this broader network of think thanks, interest groups, and electoral organizations.
The last comment I’ll make is about the inherent irony of much of this stuff. It can be argued that conservative politics at its best is incremental, stodgy, and resistant to radicalism – that it is essentially bourgeois. It retains the hard won lessons of tradition and skepticism of utopia. Then there is some irony that the cultural style of contemporary conservatives is at odds with this ideal. It is loud and obnoxious. It mocks one of society’s most ancient and enduring institutions, the university system, which has nurtured Western culture since the end of the Middle ages. It is skeptical and hostile toward those who are cultured and knowledge. It can’t disentangle potentially insightful criticisms of specific intellectual currents from a loathing of the academic system itself. Perhaps the ultimat lesson is that beneath the talk of tradition and values, there is a rank populism that leaves one ultimately disappointed.
Quick reaction: The Academy loves well crafted films that are about actors or acting, especially when actors save the day. These films often beat other films. Example: Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan; the Kings Speech beats Black Swan, Inception and Social Network. Bonus: Argo had old Hollywood guys saving the day. I still liked it.
A few weeks ago, I argued that the era of overt racism is over. One commenter felt that I needed to operationalize the idea. There is no simple way to measure such a complex idea, but we can offer measurements of very specific processes. For example, I could hypothesize that it is no longer to legitimate to use in public words that have a clearly derogatory meaning, such as n—— or sp–.*
We can test that idea with word frequency data. Google has scanned over 4 million books from 1500 to the present and you can search that database. Above, I plotted the appearance of n—– and sp—, two words which are unambiguously slurs for two large American ethnic groups. I did not plot slurs like “bean,” which are homophones for other neutral non-racial words. Then, I plotted the appearance of the more neutral or positive words for those groups. The first graph shows the relative frequencies for African American and Latino slurs vs. other ethnic terms. Since the frequency for Asian American slurs and other words is much lower, they get a separate graph. Thus, we can now test hypotheses about printed text in the post-racial society:
- The elimination thesis: Slurs drop drastically in use.
- The eclipse thesis: Non-slur words now overwhelm racist slurs, but racist slurs remain.
- Co-evolution: The frequency of neutral and slur words move together. People talk about group X and the haters just use the slur.
- Escalation: Slurs are increasing.
This rough data indicates that #2 is correct. The dominant racial terms are neutral or positive. Most slurs that I looked up seem to maintain some base level of usage, even in the post-civil rights era. The slur use level is non-zero, but it is small in comparison to other words so it looks as if it is zero. Some slure use may be derogatory, while some of it may be artistic or “reclaiming the term.” I can’t prove it, but I think Quentin Tarantino accounts for for 50% or more of post-civil rights use of the n-word.
Bottom line: Society has changed and we can measure the change. This doesn’t mean that racial status is no longer important, but it does mean that one very important aspect of pre-Civil Rights racist culture has receded in relative importance. Some people just love racial slurs, but that its likely not the modal way of talking about people. Is that progress? I think so.
* Geez, Fabio, must you censor? Well, it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary. I just don’t want this blog to be picked up for slurs. Even my book on 1970s Black Power, when people used the n-word a bit, only uses it once, in a footnote when referring to the title of H. Rap Brown’s first book.
This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.
The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.
Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.
What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:
Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.
The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).
One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”
These are not the same sort of statement. Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that
…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).
So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”
Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,
…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).
Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects. Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.
The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument. That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly. She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).
This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said). There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.
More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.
This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).
Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.
If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.
Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
One of my fondest earliest memories of starting my research was accepting an invitation to hear a band perform in Oakland, CA. I asked my host, “What kind of music is it?” My host, a Berklee College of Music grad, paused and then gave an intriguing answer, “Well…it’s noise.” That description ushered in a crash course introduction to Burning Man and its art scene, a memorable immersion depicted in the first paragraph of Appendix I of my book.
Since then, participating at Burning Man has provided many introductions to cultural trends, some of which have become mainstream. (Other art forms, like the Aesthetic Meat Foundation, have not yet become mainstream.) Each year, a fellow campmate likes to ruminate about what’s in and what’s out at Burning Man based on our mutual observations. This past year, we agreed that dub step seemed to be on its way out. For those readers who haven’t tried dancing or listening to dub step, here’s Key & Peele’s take on this musical genre (warning: squeamish viewers may want to pause around 2:23 or so):
Carmina Burana music chaser after the jump.
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Q. You are interested in factors that determine whether particular musical styles, genres, etc., will gain mass appeal — or remain circumscribed to a small niche. Have you discovered something about the process of “influence” or “contagion” that the social network scholars have ignored or underemphasized? What does your work tell us about the role of networks in shaping popular tastes?
A.The most common way for music to blow up from a small scene into global pop is for a controversy to erupt. Music history is littered with examples of “moral panics”: be-bop jazz was blamed for white-on-black race riots in the mid-1940s, just as rap music was blamed when riots erupted in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial. In both cases, sensationalized news reports and especially a focus on the “dangerous” elements in the music attracted young people in droves. Moral panics, like magnets, repel and attract. This is also true when disputes involve dueling scenes, like the fights between “mods” and “rockers” in the U.K. in the early 1960s or the battles between fans of heavy metal and punk that played out on the pages of Creem magazine in the early 1980s. It is equally true when outsiders attack: the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s efforts to ban heavy metal and rap music resulted in those Parental Advisory stickers. When rock fans staged the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park they may have kept disco in the limelight for an extra year.
The interview is filled with lots of other insights. Self-recommending!
Harvard Magazine has an article from literary scholar Helen Vendler. She’s on the Harvard undegraduate admissions committee and she wonders if current standards would make it hard for tomorrow’s literary leaders to gain admission. A representative clip:
The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader?
I’ve long given up on a purely idealistic view of college admissions. For example, if you read Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, perhaps the most important book ever written on elite undergraduate education in America, you quickly learn that college admissions reflect an economic and political equilibrium. A college, even one as wealthy as Harvard, serves many masters and that means you admit legacies and athletes and you have affirmative action. It also means that you create standards that students then strive to achieve, like the ideal type of the straight A student who is the newspaper editor as well.
You may think I’m a pessimist but I’m not. Rather, I’m amazed at the diversity of higher education. There’s more than one college, way more. There’s 2,000+ universities and liberal arts colleges. So yes, some of the future greats will end up at Harvard. But others won’t. Look at recent Pulitzer Prize winners. Many are Ivy League grads (Jennifer Egan – 2011 prize) and some are not (Paul Harding – 2010 prize). Some go to modest schools (Junot Diaz – 2009, went to Kean College). The bottom line is that literature doesn’t need Harvard. The motley crew that will become the next generation of Capotes and Rowling will come from all kinds of places.
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When I was in graduate school, cultural sociology was simply a branch of sociology. But later, I found out that it has an usual place in the discipline:
- It’s a large specialty, but jobs are scarce. That’s my own observation – any one have data?
- It seems to have absorbed the social theorists
- It has been accused of being insular
- It has been accused of being too idiosyncratic with regard to method (See Perrin’s article)
So does cultural sociology have a Prada Bag problem? Is it a specialty that sounds cool but is really a luxury for fancy departments? Consider this an open thread on the place of cultural sociology and its position in the discipline.
I have often read papers that address a standard sociological topic – like voting, or education, or health – and they immediately jump to “culture” as an explanation. Sometimes they take the time to take a swipe at a strong rational choice argument, but they rarely take the time to really engage standard non-cultural explanations. It’s as if saying “culture” three times and clicking your heels will magically transport you to a special place where culture is the only variable that matters.
Turns out that I am not the only one who has noticed this. Brian Steensland, my colleague at Indiana, wrote an article in Sociological Forum making this claim:
I suggest that the sociological literature on culture and politics has largely, and perhaps necessarily, been operating in a restricted fashion. It has developed a rich arsenal of concepts and propositions, but it has also addressed an audience already disposed to believe that ‘‘culture matters.’’ Cultural analysts are now well positioned to move more fully toward an elaborated mode of analysis that takes skepticism about culture in some quarters more seriously by directly engaging noncultural approaches to politics.
Steensland also approvingly cites Perrin, who suggests that cultural sociologists should use more standard techniques. I love you guys, but maybe it’s time to come in from the cold. Let me show you my non-cultural theory and we can make beautiful post-post-post-Parsons sociology together.
In this installment of our Fall book forum, I’ll discuss how Glaeser applies the “sociology of understanding.” Based on interviews, he presents us with an account of how some East Germans (in Berlin) saw the world. His account of peace activists would be familiar to those who study movements. Peace activists saw their faith in German socialism challenged when authority figures were perceived to act in hypocritical ways. Thus, the personal attachment to communist institutions was challenged and eventually severed.
What is much, much more interesting is his account of the internal life of the Communist party and the lives of Stasi officers. Glaeser’s account relies on a description of the folk cosmology of Communist leaders. Essentially, there are two components to this “lifeworld.” One is a worldview derived from Leninist interpretations of Marxist theory. It was all about the Party and how the Party sets the course for the nation as a whole. Thus, the mental lives of Stasi officers is filled with thinking about how any action or policy reflects the Party’s agenda and mission as the guide of the people. Political Epistemics is filled with lots of thick description on how Stasi officers sat around and try to create an interpretation of the world that properly squared with how the understood Marxist-Leninist theory. I found the obsession with “left” and “right” deviations to be informative, if amusing as well.
Second (which I find more interesting) is a Manichean worldview that pits us (the Communist movement) against an evil outsider. Abstractly, the evil outsider was capitalism in general. More concretely, the enemy, the nightmare that haunted the socialist imagination was fascism, seen as the most perverse manifestation of counter revolutionary forces. The implication is that the people who had the most status were those who had somehow participated in anti-fascist actions in WWII, as partisans, prisoners, or soldiers. This biographical experience created a sort of authenticity from which the elite of the East German communist state could be built.
This is important from the perspective of political sociology because it indicates how socialist systems were often built on very real historical traumas and the authenticity that could be constructed from these experiences. While I find it hard to see how someone could abstractly accept a political philosophy that ceded all power to state committees, I do find it easy to believe how anti-fascist sentiment could be assimilated into a socialist party’s agenda. The Party became the “us” in a literal life and death battle with “them” (fascists).
This biographical approach to the East German state also explains, to some extent, the endurance of European socialist states, which survived starvation (USSR in the 20s), mass political murder (USSR in the 30s), warfare and mass death (USSR in the 40s), and open revolt (Prague ’56/Czech Republic ’68). The elites of the system had gotten to the point where there own internal sense of self was thoroughly integrated with the Party’s interests. Thus, social change entailed a thorough rejection of the self as it had been shaped by wars.
Ironically, this merging of Party ideology, history, and personal identity contained its own internal contradictions. Since Stasi officers were justifying their actions in terms of the inevtiable evolution toward communism, they hesitated to support the GDR when things started going bad in 1989. They simply couldn’t keep repressing dissent and still believe that the Party was really standing against fascism and moving in a progressive direction. This corrosive doubt, rooted in the tensions between individual experience and party ideology, and the confrontation with a now wealthy West Germany, enabled one important group, the Stasi, to hesitate when it came time to either fight anti-communist activists or simply give up on the East German socialist project.
Next week, we’ll wrap this up with a discussion of how this historical analysis fits into a broader social scientific discussion of revolutions.
This Fall’s book forum will address Political Epistemics, a new book by Chicago sociologist Andreas Glaeser. The book investigates life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious book that has three main aims. First, it’s a political sociology argument. Glaeser argues that social change occurs when there is a break, or shift, in how people develop their identities and have them affirmed by various people and institutions. He calls this the “sociology of understandings.” Second, Glaeser offers a historical account of two groups of people with very different understandings of East German socialism – Stasi officers and Berlin peace activists. Third, Glaeser claims that his sociology of understandings provides a better explanation of the dissolution of East German communism than other theories.
As you might guess from this thumbnail sketch, the book is epic. It synthesizes a deep knowledge of Western cultural sociology with Glaeser’s own reading of East European history and Communist ideology. There is also a lot of thick description, where Glaeser tracks down former Stasi officers, dissident intellectuals, and works through East German archives. Yet, the book hangs together remarkably well. Though Glaeser is erudite, the text is easy to follow and rich with interesting insights. It’s a wonderful example of how a book can be very sophisticated, yet accessible to most readers.
This book succeeds on a number of levels, though I do have some reservations, especially when Glaeser goes beyond his interview evidence and extrapolates to the broader issue of why Communism ended. We’ll discuss these strong and weak points in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll end this introductory post with a discussion of why I chose this specific book.
First, Political Epistemics has many sociological virtues. The topic – the fall of European Communism – is important and deserves serious attention. The transition away from Communism is a topic I wish that more graduate students would address. As late as the 1980s, much of the world’s population lived under state socialism. Even today, we have a number of nations that have traditional Leninist/Maoist states (e.g., Cuba, North Korea), have leaders who are trying to push in that direction (e.g., Venezuela), hybrid state forms, such as modern China, or nationalist-socialist systems such as the Baath regimes of Hussein era Iraq, Kaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Syria. Another virtue is that the book is grounded in daily experience. Rather than rely on “grand history,” Glaeser takes the time to uncover the meaning of these political systems by interviewing the people who made these systems a reality.
Second, I chose this book for personal reasons – Glaeser was an instructor of mine in graduate school. The first time I met Glaeser was when he gave a job talk at the University of Chicago, where I was a young and very annoying graduate student. I was struck by his talk (a precis for Divided in Unity) because it combined fancy schmancy hermeneutics and ethnography. Later, I took a course in cultural sociology with him. It didn’t resemble any of the “American sociology” courses. He yelled at us once – “What? You don’t know who de Certeau is? What do they teach you around here?”* He also admitted that he doesn’t watch cable TV. But still, he was always very generous when helping students get through the rather imposing corpus of European social theory. He even indulged me in a weird argument about whether the label “critical theory” could be applied to rational choice theories.** So I was quite happy to see that his second book was out. When I read Political Epistemics, I recognize our culture theory syllabus embedded in it. It’s always a pleasure to see how the ideas of the past form the books of the present.
Next week: How to Understand the Sociology of Understanding
* Answer: Circa 1999, a lot of Park and Burgess, with a healthy dose of Simmel. And a lot of event history models.
** My view was that critical theory was not really an important theoretical distinction. Rather it’s a normative term in disguise, or simply a term for second generation Marxist theory. I asked, “For example, couldn’t, say, bounded rationality be critical theory in some sense if it lead to some level of reflexivity (as implied by Calhoun’s definition of critical theory)?” Hilarity ensued.
We are clearly living in a golden age of sociology of culture. We have the works of Richard Petersen. We have the works of Jenn Lena, whose book we discussed in detail last Spring. Now, we have Climbing the Charts is a new book by guest blogger and UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman. What these books have in common is a very careful examination of how cultural industries are created and how they change.
Rossman’s book is a study of how some songs become hits on the radio. The problem is that there are lots of nice stories about how this happens, but it’s hard to prove if any of them are true. For example, you might think that the dominant firm, Clear Channel, just chooses hits and then everyone follows them. You might also think that songs diffuse through a network of stations or promoters. The third option is simply that radio stations do what the record industry tells them. These are nice stories, but how do you tell which one is true?
Rossman has a simple, but powerful, idea. The different stories imply different diffusion curves (graphs that map market saturation vs. time). Each story comes with a different curve. The “lightning in a bottle” story (hot songs diffuse through market networks) has a classical S-shaped curve. Promotion by the record industry has a discontinuous step function.
Using new data on play time, Rossman shows there’s a lot of evidence that pop music is built by the record industry. You may say, “duh!” But remember, there are other equally obvious hypothesis that have conflicting predictions. It’s a real testament to Rossman that he was able to test these different stories with this great data set.
This book is a great example of bread and butter social science. The ideas are simple, the hypotheses sound obvious. But they can’t all be true. It’s hard to find data to test different ideas. Thus, the social scientist is a sort of Sherlock Holmes who roles up her sleeves and does the messy work of assembling the relevant facts to find an answer. This book is a testament to empirical social science and is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the economics and politics of cultural markets.