Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
Interested in consumption?
Dan Cook, an expert in childhood consumption at Rutgers, writes:
“There is 2 weeks to go to secure our membership numbers for Consumers and Consumption. Let students and colleagues know about our effort. I am confident we will also reach many new people at the next ASA in NY, but our numbers now matter.
To become an official member, you must add Consumers and Consumption to your Section membership through the ASA website. Right now it costs only $5/year—in the future, we expect the dues to remain at $5 for students and probably $12 for faculty. But right now it is $5 for everyone.
Attention Students, there are some limited funds available for ASA Student members to join Consumers and Consumption for free for 2012. Send me an email to dtcook [at] camden.rutgers.edu with “Consumption Student Membership” in the subject line. In the message, include the email that is on file with the ASA. A few are left.
Also, near the end of September or in early October, you will hear about sessions for next year, a possible reception and call for nominations for Section election of officers.”
You can read more about the section, with newsletters and an extensive list of members and their research interests, here.
In particular, this section’s pre-ASA-conferences are a great way for researchers at all stages of their careers (grad students included) to meet other like-minded scholars and “cross-fertilize” across sub-disciplines. In my case, my American Behavioral Scientist paper on how the Burning Man organization promoted a logic of artistic prosumption, in which participants simultaneously consume and produce Burning Man’s art, germinated from the literature I read and contacts I made through participating in this group.
Looking for a friendly venue to present papers? Consider the Eastern Sociological Society, or ESS. ESS meets in March 21-24, 2013 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers. The full call for papers is here. Full disclosure: I am currently serving as the ESS secretary (it seems that my ability to take excruciating, in-depth meeting notes led to my nomination).
Here are some calls that recently went out on the ESS list that may be of interest to some of our orgheads:
1. “Rosanna Hertz is organizing a session on “Productive Rule Breakers and Innovators” and would like to identify potential presenters. The panel will focus on the turning points (power, resistance and resilience against institutions and governments) that have shaped women and men’s success in becoming successful change agents in their chosen fields from NGOs to the public sector and private sectors. If you are interesting in submitting an abstract for this session or would like more information about the proposed session, please email her at rosannahertz1 [at] gmail.com”
Saxophone legend Von Freeman passed away last week. I had the pleasure to see him play the New Apartment Lounge on the South Side, and he was just great. The Chicago Tribune has a thoughtful article about his career:
That sound seduced some listeners and puzzled others, but no one could mistake it for anything but that of the great Vonski, as he was affectionately called by friends and admirers. Sharply acidic in the top register of the instrument but full and throaty down below, whinnying and squealing in some passages, whispering tenderly in others, Freeman’s tenor work utterly defied categorization. Every sweet-sour note, every intricately etched phrase, it seemed, was crafted to sound as unexpected and as intensely expressive as possible.
Once, at the Green Mill, upset at all the chatter drowning out the music, he looked up and said, “Keep on talking. It’s ok, I usually play on the South Side.” Von, keep on playing.
For many of us, it’s that time of year – updating syllabi in preparation for fall semester. Often, this involves deciding whether to add or replace readings. This semester, I am reconsidering readings for an undergrad course on workplace management and its effect on workers and society. Like Indiana Jones, I’ve been on a decades-long hunt for what I consider my Holy Grail: finding counter-examples of how to organize in ways that serve multiple interests – not just management/owners and not just workers at the expense of customers, clients, or larger society.
Contemporary organizational sociologists excel at identifying problems, such as inequality, and the unintended consequences of organizing practices for workers, such as discrimination and instability. Mainstream bschool researchers study organizing practices that benefit management/owners but usually ignore the impact on workers and other parties. Neither group of researchers is particularly focused on helping students and readers to imagine other possibilities and the challenges these organizations encounter; thus, we may inadvertently reinforce the status quo by limiting exploration of the organizing “toolkit” to conventional practices and outputs.
Lately, I’ve turned to the media to locate examples of possible alternative ways of organizing, both conventional and unconventional. In a previous post, I described game developer Valve’s preference for teams over hierarchy. When teaching about organizations that function as sweatshops, I pair that reading with a NYT article on Alta Gracia, which pays a living wage and hires unionized labor. This week’s New Yorker offers an article that might spark a great class discussion. Comparing the operations of the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain and efforts to standardize care on hospital units to improve patient outcomes and decrease waste, Atul Gawande explores a topic I’ve posed as an exam question – to what extent can a complex output like medical care be routinized and standardized?
In a few weeks, from beneath a silver cowboy hat, I should be continuing my search for the Holy Grail of organizing in a Nevada desert. But in the meantime, please put your suggestions for articles/links of interest in the comments!
That’s got to be Eric Dolphy – nobody else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker. Just put he’s a sad shhhhhhhhh, that’s all! The composition is sad. The piano player fucks it up, getting in the way so that you can’t hear how things are supposed to be accented.
Disagree on Dolphy, but he’s kind of right on the piano player…
What are your plans for retirement? Do you hope that your retirement investments will comfortably support you and your loved ones in a life of leisure? Or, do you hope to work as long as possible – work until you drop! As life expectancies expand and the cost of living increases, some will work as long as possible, either out of necessity or choice. Increasingly, workplaces seek to retain such employees, as demonstrated by efforts to redesign work processes at Germany’s BMW plants for aging workers.
Speaking of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, ILR Press), which sheds insight into the experiences of an aging workforce. This intriguing ethnography follows the workers powering the family-owned factory Vita Needle in Needham, Massachusetts. Vita Needle manufactures a wide variety of needles, including those used for medical care and industrial applications. Its workers range in age from teens through their late nineties; some have advanced degrees. Some work for the sheer pleasure or to stay active per their doctors’ orders; others work because their retirement savings were insufficient to cover expenses.
Besides life-long employees, workers include a smorgasbord of past professions, including engineering, physics, architecture, education, and accounting. The company’s owner feels that these workers are especially dependable and devoted. They are less costly since Medicare serves as their medical insurance. Furthermore, he opines that this invested and experienced workforce offers a competitive advantage over other companies.
Most of Vita’s employees work part-time. Lynch’s interviews reveal that they enjoy the flexible work schedule, camaraderie, and meaning-making. Lynch’s participant-observations describes the banana-time like games that workers play to stay alert and engaged in repetitious tasks – the most sleep-inducing machine work is rotated among employees in one hour shifts. Some workers will cover for one another; a few will gently urge laggards to resume work. Lynch also notes the benefits of violating Taylorist practices of efficiently rearranging workspace. Having to walk to get tools or materials in the tight factory space keeps workers active and connected with co-workers. In addition, Lynch devotes a chapter to employees’ responses to the flurry of media attention, as well as an analysis of how domestic and foreign media have depicted the firm. In all, this book is an informative addition to courses on the workplace, organizations, and work and occupations.
“organizing creativity” and other articles on organizations and work available in sociology compass journal
Need an overview of research on conditions that enhance or constrain creativity in organizations? Check out my just published Sociology Compass article “Organizing Creativity: Enabling Creative Output, Process, and Organizing Practices,” which pulls together findings from organizational sociology, cultural sociology, psychology, and organizational studies.
Orgheads may also be interested in other Sociology Compass articles on a variety of topics in organizations and work. These articles are ideal for undergraduates and practitioners as they quickly and comprehensively introduce classic and current research. In addition, graduate students and thesis writers may find these helpful for exploring possible topics to research. Also, seasoned researchers can keep up with the latest research under specific topics of interest.
Here are several examples from the past two years:
Have any recommendations for your own or your colleagues’ articles on organizations or work that are useful for updating syllabi or catching up on the field? Please post them in the comments.
Yesterday, Jenn posted about the findings from the SNAAP survey, which show that many arts majors do rather well. While they don’t always have careers as practicing artists, they often have arts related jobs and have satisfactory post-graduation lives. This raises a question: what is the link between college major and post-graduation life course?
My hypothesis is that the jump from college major to post-graduation life is influenced by the following factors:
- Labor market credential: Is there an industry that the major trains you for? If so, how big is that industry? What is the career trajectory of people in that industry? Note: Such majors may not give you skills, just the credential (e.g., education).
- Ability signal: Some majors are harder than others. Some majors get you a better job because the major is a signal of high IQ/cognitive ability.
- Human capital: Some majors provide concrete job skill (i.e., computer science).
- Taste: Some majors require that people have an intense taste for a subject.
- Precision: This is more ambiguous, but what I mean is that some majors require people to produce very precise outputs, which requires a very different mindset. For example, in the humanities, performing music is relatively clear cut, compared to writing an essay.
The implication of the model, controlling for other factors:
- For college majors that are credentials, we expect employment, income, and satisfaction for correlate with the financial health of the industry the major is tied to.
- The higher IQ needed for completing the major, the higher the income and lower unemployment.
- Income and employment will increase with the demand for skills that happen to provided by the major (e.g., computer science was a niche topic in the 1970s, but a money maker in 2000).
- Taste: Satisfaction with the major correlates with how much you have to love the major to pursue it.
- Majors that require precision have graduates with lower unemployment and higher incomes.
When it comes to understanding the link between major and behavior, it helps to sort through these factors. I’d say the SNAAP results definitely reflect #1. There is now a fairly healthy arts sector in America that includes schools, museums, non-profits, curators, and other venues. Even those who have no desire to be an artist, might still pursue an art major as a credential. There’s also #4. People enjoy the arts a lot.
I think the visual and performing arts are different than many other humanities and social studies majors because of #5. While it’s hard to flunk someone for writing a vague essay, you probably wouldn’t far with a similar level of musical performance or figure drawing. To be even moderately successful in a traditional arts major, you can’t fake it. That ability to actually master a skill at a level that another expert (the teacher) can recognize as progress probably carries over into the jog market.
In Fabio’s November 2011 post about the profit-motivations of college students, he wrote about “why people choose useless majors”:
In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it’s about 70%. Similarly, modern college students are more interested in financial stability, not philosophical issues. I haven’t been able to find more recent data, but I’d be surprised if that trend reversed.
As responsible social scientists, we want to measure the merits of higher education in part on how well it fulfills the expectations of the clientele: students, possibly their parents/guardians, and employers. If students enter college hoping to gain financial stability, and a college degree in some major fails to provide this, we might reasonably decide students need to be warned, and majors need to be redesigned. However, while Fabio cites research indicating students increasingly value financial stability, research on arts majors suggests they may be the exception to the rule.
On-going research on double majors and creativity, done by our colleague Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper, provides an illustrative contrast between art majors and others: while only 35% of art majors describe income as “very important” or “essential” to their careers, a full 64% of engineering majors describe income in this fashion [as I understand it, this data is from their Surdna-funded study (see "Double Majors and Creativity")].
Respondents don’t complete our SNAAP survey until after they graduate from a participating program, and we don’t ask them to tell us what they thought they wanted (financial stability/high income, or something else) when they entered college. However, we do have some information on how debt impacted the job choices of arts graduates, and how income impacts their level of job and program satisfaction. Read the rest of this entry »
I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.
We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.
I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other. Read the rest of this entry »
Jenn Lena is well known to readers around here. She’s a guest blogger emeritus, has her own blog (What is the What) and it the author of Banding Together, an innovative book on music production. She’s recently been working with Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann on another groundbreaking study of cultural industries – the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (http://snaap.indiana.edu/) . It’s an annual survey designed to track the lives of people who graduate with degrees in the arts.The team has agreed to write a few posts there fascinating work.
Hello fellow orgtheory readers! Orgtheory was kind enough to invite me back for another stint of guest blogging. For those of you who missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography.
Those of you are familiar with my research know that I have studied an organization that mixed democratic or collectivist practices with bureaucratic practices. Here’s a puzzle: although we operate in a democracy, most of our organizations, including voluntary associations, rely upon topdown bureaucracy. However, this doesn’t mean that alternative ways of organizing can’t thrive.
Valve, the game developer behind Portal, has attracted much buzz (for example, see this article in the WSJ and various tech blogs entries, such as here and here) about its self-managing processes. The company prides itself on having no bosses, and their employee handbook details their unusual workplace practices. For example, instead of waiting for orders from above, workers literally vote with their feet by moving their desks to join projects that they deem worthy of their time and effort. Similarly, anthropologist Thomas Malaby describes how Linden Lab workers, who developed the virtual reality Second Life, vote how to allocate efforts among projects proposed by workers. Sociologist David Stark has described how workers mixed socialist and capitalist practices in a factory in post-Communist Hungary to get work jobs done, dubbing these heterarchies.
Interestingly, several of the conditions specified by Joyce Rothschild and J. Allen Whitt as allowing collectivist organizations to survive may also apply to these workplace organizations – for example, recruiting those like existing members and staying small in size. However, my research on Burning Man suggests that these are not always necessary or desirable conditions, particularly if members value diversity.
Although these self-managing practices may seem revolutionary to contemporary workers, orgtheory readers might recall that prior to the rise of management and managerial theories such as Taylor’s scientific management, workers could self-determine the pacing of projects. Could we make a full circle?
Any thoughts? Know of other interesting organizations or have recommendations for research that we can learn from? Put them in the comments.
Guest blogger emeritus and burning lady Katherine Chen has a new article out in Qualitative Sociology on the issue of charisma in organizations: “Charismatizing the Routine: Storytelling for Meaning and Agency in the Burning Man Organization.” The idea is simple – story telling is a mechanism in organizations for sustaining interest:
Expanding organizations face the routinization of charisma dilemma in which rationalization, or everyday organizing activities, drains meaning and depresses agency. Using an ethnographic study of the organization behind the annual Burning Man event, I show how storytelling can combat disenchantment by promoting consideration of agency and meaning-making. This research demonstrates how storytelling infuses organizational rationality with meaning and agency, thereby “charismatizing the routine.” Through storytelling, people can derive meaning from even the most mundane routines and inspire listeners to imagine possibilities not covered by rules or conventions. Stories also stave off bureaucratic ritualism by clarifying the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate activities, encouraging a range of actions over coercive restrictions.
More on Katherine’s Burning Man project can be read here – and buy her book!
Guest blogger emerita Hilary Levey Friedman has a nice article in Slate today about beauty contest winners who go into politics. The take home point? The pageants now focus on scholarship, which attracts a very different type of contestant:
Navigating the reign of reality television, the female athlete-turned-superstar, televised Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, and the soaring rates of women in higher education, Miss America has increasingly become more serious, emphasizing scholarship money and advocacy (though, yes, to win, a woman still needs to wear a bathing suit on national television). In 2012 the broadcast enjoyed its best ratings in eight years. As the Miss America brand evolves, the American political system/media circus continues to devolve. One world gets more serious, one gets less, and the two collide somewhere in the middle: The time seems right for the beauty-queen politician.
Makes sense: free publicity + social skill + strong intellect = political career. I’d also add that in other parts of the world, the beauty queen politician is already common. Imelda Marcos was a pageant winner and model, before going into politics.
This Fall’s book forum will be dedicated to Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism, Andreas Glaeser’s recent book on the collapse of the East German communist state. We will start on October 1. It’s a long time a away because this is, like, a totally long book. It reads well, so it will be worth it. I promise.
The next time your Dean starts giving you a hard time because you’ve never given a TEDx talk, just have them watch this.
To be honest, I think this talk justifies and redeems the entire TED brand.
Boston Review has a new article by sociologist Claude Fischer on the topic of poverty research. He covers a lot of ground in a few pages. For example, I didn’t know the following:
Critically, understand that the long-term poor are a small minority of a minority. Most of those counted as poor in a given year are poor temporarily because of setbacks such as layoffs, family break-ups, car breakdowns, or medical emergencies. (Note, too, that we are not talking about the severely physically or mentally disabled; the controversy is about the able-bodied.) Social welfare scholar Mark Rank estimates that about half of all Americans will be poor sometime between the ages of 25 and 75, and perhaps a fifth will go through both poverty and affluence. Only about 2 percent, perhaps even less, will be poor most of their lives from 25 to 60 years of age.
This by itself has an important policy implication. The lion’s share of poverty policy should be about helping people protect themselves from temporary income drops or helping people get satisfactory job/income levels after a recession.
Fischer then approaches poverty from a cultural toolkit perspective. If you are middle class, you demand things. If you are poor, you know your place and keep your head down:
In their [poor people's] worlds, staying humble is usually the best way to keep their jobs or their kids in school. Sharing what money they have rather than saving it, or risking a job to drive a friend, increases the odds that they will be helped when the inevitable crisis hits. And where there are many predators, it makes sense to be distrustful or even predatory in turn.
In other words, being middle class involves a balance of professional cooperation and conflict. Being poor is about avoiding workplace conflict and inefficient handling of personal relationships.
Performing at Euclid Records in Chicago this April.
A few years ago, we discussed Chicago alt-marching/punk band Mucca Pazza. They continue to make music and were recently featured on NPR’s blog “All Songs Considered.” Congratulations!
What is it about the Bay Area? I lived there for eight years and I’ve continued to maintain ties for another fifteen. Yet, it wasn’t until last Thursday, when I was visiting with my former student Rashawn Ray, that I was bluntly asked “what’s the deal with Bay Area people?” It’s not just an urban place, it’s not just a diverse place, and it’s not just a liberal place. There’s something more to it than that.
Let’s start with the Bay Area’s unique geography. It’s a ring shaped community that stretches from Silicon Valley, up through Richmond, around Marin, into San Francisco and then down into the peninsula. Each area represents a different type of community. In Silicon Valley, you are at the commanding heights of the world economy, while in Richmond you have the remnants of the Black working class. In Berkeley and Stanford, you have intellect and high culture. San Francisco is a petri dish of grungy subcultures. There’s also the Bay Area’s place in the global economy. It’s a compact metropolitan area perched between the American West and the Pacific.
This helps us flesh out the Bay Area ethos. It’s intellectual, multicultural, and highly liberal. It’s ambitious and extremely competitive, while being precious and a bit snooty. It’s also grungy and alternative. Appearing effete from the outside, but up close, it’s a culture based on hard work. As my spouse likes to say, Danville is where you live if you’ve earned your money. You’ll see a lot of Asian engineers and managers in Danville.
There’s one aspect of the Bay Area ethos that deserves mention – its heterogeneous pragmatism. People will bring together all kinds of different skills and life experiences in their work. For example, I recently met a man who was in the army, studies circus art, like juggling, and now does traditional healing like shiatsu. This man exposed his son to many of these skills, which helped the son excel in high school athletics and earn a scholarship at a leading university.
It’s this ability to successfully bring together seemingly unrelated skills is very Bay Area. Perhaps the most remarkable example is Steve Jobs, who brought a love of calligraphy and design to the staid hobby of home computing. It’s not surprising that Jobs grew up in the Bay Area. In contrast, most of the other Silicon Valley moguls built their fortunes by exploiting a single idea (e.g., DOS or social networking), often hatched in other places.
The Bay Area ethos is a rare conglomerate of things that don’t normally go together. It should be enjoyed.
One of the themes of Jenn Lena’s Banding Together is that genres organize the entire music industry, from the way that musicians create their art to the way that producers find and market it to the way that consumers form their own identities around music choices. Chapter 5 in Banding Together discusses the consequences of genres more in depth.
The keynote speaker at this spring’s South-by-Southwest festival, the Boss himself Bruce Springsteen, challenged the idea that genres should be an essential element to the way musicians create music. In his incredibly thoughtful remarks, Springsteen suggested that we live in an era in which musicians can be free to be themselves simply by creating the music that is inside them without feeling constrained by the conventions of genre.
I’d like to talk about the one thing that’s been consistent over the years, the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter, or let’s say, composer, or just creator. So whether you’re making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you are putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.
We live in a post–authentic world. And today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters (emphasis added).
It’s not as if Springsteen isn’t aware of the genres that form the backbone of the music industry. A few minutes earlier in his talk, Springsteen jokingly went through a short list of the various genres that categorized the bands wandering the streets of Austin that week, stopping to note that he had no idea what “Nintendo core” is. He added, “Just add neo– and post– to everything I said, and mention them all again.”
I think Springsteen’s main point is that it’s no longer necessary for artists to play by the rules of a specific genre to make music that resonates with a crowd. You don’t need to strive for authenticity in the same way that artists of a previous generation did because the rules for what it means to be authentic don’t apply anymore. The proliferation of new genres has, in a sense, freed musicians to do whatever the hell they want. An artist doing his version of classic blues on a synthesizer is just as authentic as is a folk artist doing an an acoustic cover of “Robot Rock.” What counts more than one’s inclusion in a genre subcategory is an artist’s workmanship and basic creative impulse.
Of course Springsteen can say this because he is The Boss. He sells out stadiums night after night. He no longer plays by the rules or conventions because of his success and popularity. But is there an element of truth to it? Do genres matter as much as they once did? I see a couple of reasons to give his argument merit. The first is that the Internet really does seem to have freed artists to “remix” and hybridize musical genres more than was done in the past. The Internet has become its own scene, reducing the importance of old geographic-based scenes, which in turn makes it more likely that people working in different genres or subgenres will be aware of and influence each other. And I also think there is some truth to the idea that precisely subdividing subgenres has the ironic effect of making those subgenres less meaningful and less constraining. Sub-subgenres are usually just hybrids of two or more genres anyway, and so what difference does it make to layer on a third or fourth genre? Melding together 4-5 new genres subsequently decreases the social distance between you and every other artist working in the space of popular music and simultaneously opens the possibility of bringing in old genres in your next creative moment. Suddenly the idea that Texas polka has real combinatorial potential for rap seems possible. I think this is what it means to say we live in a post-authentic world.
Bill Roy gave me permission to post this comment and illustration: ” Trajectories, of course, apply to individuals as well as genres. The comparison of musical trajectories to other artistic trajectories is very promising. I have played around with trajectories of musical careers in the 78 rpm era (before 1950). Career trajectories also include output—how many songs a performer records. If you examine the number of songs performers record relative to their first recording, the overall picture is one of decline. The great majority of musicians record only once. Year 1=2 (A and B sides of a record), and all subsequent years=0. Artists who record more than once peak early, then decline. What is especially interesting is that those who eventually record many songs (hundreds) look no different in their second or third year. They peak later, then decline at a slower rate. If you compare groups with different levels of life-time productivity, the initial curves are nearly identical. This is illustrated in this figure: The x axis is the number of years relative to an artist’s first record. The y axis is the average number of songs in that year (a different metric should be used because the distribution approximates a pareto distribution, but I’m just beginning the analysis). The different lines are different levels of life time productivity. Of course, there is right censoring.”
The big contribution of Jenn’s book , Banding Together, is a classification of musical communities into a handful of archetypes. This leads to a logical follow up question: do musical communities have some sort of trajectory? Is there a “natural” course of development to musical scenes?
Jenn’s answer is a qualified yes. She doesn’t get into an argument about necessary and sufficient conditions, but she does note that a lot of genres tend to move from an avant-garde form of organization, to mass distribution, then to a scene based culture. In other words, a lot of music starts out in the grungy garage band mode. A few hit it big, which transforms the music, and then the music will sooner or later devolve into a sort of traditionalist style of organization, which is only for die hard fans.
In the next post, I’ll quibble with this argument and some of the examples, but I like the overall argument and it seems right to me. Let me take a few moments to ask: how might model apply to other forms of culture? Would novel writing or blogging fit the model?
I think the answer is messy. The nice thing about music is that there is a simple distinction between the avant-garde phase and the industrial phase. You hit it big with a corporate entity distributes than increases mass consciousness of the music. This isn’t always the case in other forms of art. For example, in visual arts such as painting, “hitting it big” may mean high prices through a handful of rich collectors who are funneled through prestigious galleries. Mass industry isn’t always a player in “converting” an avant-garde format for a mass audience. In fact, some artists have hit it big with art forms that are extremely restricted,
E-media is another interesting case. Blogging definitely has an avant-garde phase and a mass industry phase, but sometimes they seem to co-exist. For example, Andrew Sullivan’s blog was originally a one person operation, which then was absorbed into some really big media outlets, yet retained much of its original style.
Next week: arguing over bebop.
The newspapers recently reported that Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka died. She was an avant-garde designer who specialized in very radical costume designs, for film, theater, and advertising. My favorite is The Cell, whose costumes represented the twisted dreamworld of a murderous criminal. This review of Ishioka’s work goes into more depth. W magazine has a great profile. Recommended.
Bill Roy has given me permission to post his comments on Jenn Lena’s Banding Together. These comments were delivered at an Author Meets Critics session last fall. From the notes:
This is the best book yet for developing a sociology of genres and connecting the sociology of genres to the broader sociology of classification and boundaries. It synthesizes an awesome amount of material and develops a coherent, systematic model of popular music genres. It not only shows keen insight into particular genres, as most of the work on genres aspires to do, but more impressively analyzes the entire terrain of genres, laying out what they have in common and developing a fertile topology of genres. Perhaps most fruitful for general sociological understanding of classificatory systems is an ideal-typical trajectory of genre development, though being an empirically sensitive scholar, she examines, and more importantly, seeks to explain, why some genres fit the trajectory or deviate from it.
Click here, to read Roy’s entire comments on Banding Together.
The European Art Foundation released a report that estimates the total volume of the global fine arts trade. They surveyed auction houses, consultants, and deals to get an estimate. Doesn’t sound like they focused on crafts and low status art. Total? $60.8 billion. Roughly speaking every person on earth chips in about $10 for fine art. Obviously, some chip in more than others.
- global art commerce ($60bn) is a less than 10% of the total US defense budget ($739bn)
- there’s a ton of auctioneers dealing in the super hot Chinese art market
- the average high art item is sold for about $1,2000
- London and New York account for 60% of the total.
Jenn Lena’s new book, Banding Together, takes on a major issue in the sociology of culture – how people organize so that they can make culture. In other words, music, or painting, or poetry, just doesn’t appear out of nowhere. There’s usually a community of people who create the music.
Of course, Jenn Lena isn’t the first to make this observation. Howard Becker has a well known book called “Art Worlds,” which describes the world of visual arts, with its gate keepers and taste makers. However, the sociology of cultural production wasn’t terribly well developed in the years after Becker’s work. During the 1980s and 1990s, “culture” took on a different meaning in sociology. It didn’t mean cultural artifacts, it meant the cognitive aspects of behavior, the shared understandings that guide action and provide meaning to the world.
Still, a number of sociologists did continue plugging away at the question of how people came together to actually make stuff that was artistic or “cultural.” Richard Peterson wrote a highly influential book on the social construction of country music. More recently, we have studies of how artistic organizations persist (see Victoria Johnson’s book on operas) and how networks facilitate artistic work (see Gabriel Rossman’s work).
A follower and co-author of Petersen, Jenn Lena brings this literature to a new point. She asks a very simple, yet surprisingly neglected, question. What are the different ways that people get together to make music?
Here answer is intuitive and important. Music communities tend to take on one of four forms – traditional (e.g., think folk music); commercial; avant-garde; and scene based. These forms can mutate into one another and Jenn spends a lot of time describing how that happens. Each type of music community (“genre” in her words) has it’s own type of organizations and networks.
It’s a rich book that pushes the study of markets and culture in the right direction and I think its models can be extended. Next week, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of music production and talk about how the model might be applied to other examples of cultural production.
I picked up Jenn Lena’s book, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, with unabashed enthusiasm. The book combines two of my passions: sociology and music. Like the music nerd that I am, I’ve read a lot of books written by journalists and insiders of the music industry. I’ve subscribed to Rolling Stone since I was an undergrad, and I’m a regular reader of Pitchfork. I watch Austin City Limits. I collect mp3s of obscure bands like my 12 year old son collects baseball cards. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to finally get my hands on this book – a sociological examination of music genres.
I haven’t been disappointed. The book, front to back, is full of interesting details about diverse music genres. Not surprisingly, Lena walks us through the evolution of a conventionally fascinating genre like funk, but we also get to learn about the equally interesting (but lesser known) genre of the Texas polka. She moves between genres easily, in part, because her theoretical framework gives her a lens through which you can analyze genres with very different musical sensibilities and technical distinctions. And of course, it is this lens that makes this book different from a musicological treatment of music genres. The book is less interested in the content of genres than it is in the structure of genre forms. That’s not to say that she ignores content, but the important insight she brings is that all music genres, regardless of their musical qualities, appear to have stable characteristics associated with different forms of development. If you want to understand how a music genre comes to be and how it becomes popularized as part of a canon, you need to understand the social elements that make up these genre forms.
That is how Lena’s view of genre classification differs from students of music. But what intrigued me most about her book is how Lena’s view of music genres differs from other sociological accounts of genre and form. You see, the study of classification systems, including genres, has suddenly become a huge thing in the world of sociology and organizational theory. Organizational ecologists, cultural scholars, and social psychologists have all begun to focus on how classification systems organize human experience, shape evaluation, and influence organizational outcomes. Naturally, her perspective will be compared to these related research streams. But Lena is doing something very different here, which I think sets her apart from the majority of scholars studying classification systems.
Through the first part of the book, I experienced this little mental itch that kept bugging me (not in a bad way, of course). I knew that there was something really unconventional about Lena’s take on genre but I couldn’t put it in words. Somewhere in the middle of chapter 3, I started to get a handle on it. Read the rest of this entry »
In a previous post, I suggested that a useful way of (re)specyfying the agency problematic, requires us to understand that most of the time, talk of agency has nothing to do with “freedom to act” but actually pertains to the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is indeterminate in relation to objective reality: that is, agency usually means freedom to think (about the world in a way that is not determined or unilaterally constrained). I noted that an advantage of specifying the concept of agency in this way is that it allows us to understand a bunch of quirks in the history of social and cultural theory, in particular the Parsonian conflation of “voluntarism” with the Weberian problematic of “ideas” and the subsequent projection of essentially the same debate in anthropological theory to the “cultural autonomy (from biology and conditions).” Here I would like to go into greater depth into the reasons why it is useful to think of the agency problematic in this way, with an emphasis on implications for contemporary cultural sociology.
One objection that you might have is that thinking of agency as “freedom of conceptualization” seems like a counter-intuitive, overly-convoluted, obscure or simply unhelpful way of specifying and dis-aggregating what we mean by agency. If that’s what you think, I think you are wrong. This way of thinking about the agency problematic makes a bunch of sense. First, as I mentioned before, it makes sense of the way that Parsons thought about it. Why should we care about making sense of Parsons? Because a lot of the debates that we are having today are still Parsonian debate in code, this helps us get clearer about what we are talking about. To crack the code, all that you need to do is change the words. As we saw, for Parsons the battle was between “idealism” and “positivism”; change “idealism” to “culture” and change “positivism” to either “materialism” or “structure/structuralism” and you have the modern version of the debate. That’s why when we set up culture to structure, or agency to structure, culture to materiality, agency to social structure, or ideas to the objective world, in an oppositional contrast, the corresponding terms of these interlinked dichotomies match. Second, this way of thinking about culture and agency accounts for why is it that there will always be a conflation between agency and the mental and why is it that theories that deny that the mental (or the cognitive) matter are ipso facto theories that “deny agency.” Third, this way of thinking about it explains the curious contemporary fate of cultural sociology. This is a field that has actually been built on the ruins of the original debate that was had at the level of individual agency.
Culture versus structure.- For instance, cultural sociologists sometimes get made fun of by “structuralists” (let’s say in the study of inequality) because what they are peddling (the mental) seems like fluff in comparison to non-negotiable realities, especially when it comes to the big stuff (large, structured inequalities). That’s why in the agency/structure debate cultural sociologists have to be on the side of (some) agency. The reason for this is that, as I noted before, the “group” version of the debate is no different from the individual version. Culture is just socially patterned conceptualization (or shared ideas). So if we can ascertain that the “mental” matters because different people can conceive of the same “objective” situation in different ways, then when we aggregate individual cognition into the group cognition that we usually refer to as culture, a similar set of inferences follows (see any book by Zerubavel). This is also why in the “culture and poverty” debate there is conflation between culture/agency and judgments of responsibility. In our folk (Western) model, if you had agency, then you are responsible. When the cultural sociologist then brings “culture” into the study of poverty, he or she is ipso facto saying that the poor were somehow (at least partially) “responsible” for their plight. This creates the odd situation in which only the pure structuralist who removes all agency from the poor can claim that he or she is not blaming them for their condition.
The autonomy of culture(s).- In the anthropological version of the agency=freedom of conceptualization formulation, culture is not reducible to (group) biology (e.g. genetic heritage) in the same way that the individual mental process is not driven by biology, culture is not reducible to the (physical) environment or to ecology in the same way that the mental is not reducible to the environmental; finally culture is not reducible to some sort of “rational” calculus, because if the neo-classical presumption was true, there would not be “cultures” in the plural. Instead all cultures would have the same set of beliefs about the world, and cultural variation would simply be a function of variation in the objective features of the world (e.g. the situation of “same worlds different culture” would not arise). Note that I have essentially described the program of “cultural anthropology” initiated by Boas and sustained by such people as Sapir, Whorf, Mead, Kroeber, etc. during the early and mid-twentieth centuries. The inference that agency is the “freedom to think differently” is extended to the group level in the form of cultural relativism: culture is not determined by non-cultural forces, therefore groups have the freedom to think differently in forging distinct cultures. The “autonomy” of culture (from whatever) is formally identical to the autonomy of cognition from conditions. That’s why it is so easy to navigate without conceptual loss, from a position of “voluntarism” at the level of the individual to a position of “autonomism” at the level of cultural analysis (see Wikipedia entry for Alexander, Jeffrey). The reason for that is because they are the same substantive position, and even the bogey-men that Parsons cursed as positivism re-appear in aggregate form: environmental determinism, biologism and neo-classical rationalism. That’s why cultural anthropology fought valiantly against all three. The first two were vanquished pretty early on, but the battle of cultural anthropology against the rationalist conception of the actor continues to this day (this usually happens under the heading of the “cognitive unity of mankind” or the “multiple rationalities” debates in economic and cultural anthropology).
Culture versus Rationality.- This explains an otherwise weird mystery: rational action theories (see e.g. Hedstrom, Goldthorpe) take ideas and beliefs seriously, but they seem oddly “a-cultural.” The reason why RAT has an a-cultural flavor, is because it has trouble accounting for structured variation in beliefs and ideas that is not traceable to objective conditions; by implication this also makes it a theory that denies agency. Thus, you can believe that “ideal” stuff matters and still deny that “agency” (or the cultural) matters (that’s why Parsons understood neo-classical economics to be an incoherent mixture of idealism and positivism). That’s also why rational-choice philosophers (like Elster) have to get into the belief formation problematic and in fact have been the only ones who have advanced the normative problematic of belief justification. Finally, this is why people like Coleman simply don’t make any sense when they think that by bringing action, back-in they are in fact bringing agency. Insofar as they subscribe to a deterministic model of cognition (e.g. the constrained optimization calculus), then you can have all of the action in the world, without having an iota of agency.
The oddness of normativity in cognition.- It is astounding how much not a problem (or how bizarre) the notion that we can have a normative theory of the mental (essentially that we can pass judgment on ideas by looking at their causal history) is for cultural sociologists. Cultural sociology inherits the core irrationalism of German Idealism and Boasian anthropology. This is not a “bad” thing; it is just the thing: agency entails a loose-coupling between the world and beliefs about the world, and since the only way to get a “normative” theory of belief is to suggest an unacceptable strong coupling, cultural sociologists are happy to give up on this. In fact, I think that most cultural sociologists don’t even think that this normative question (vis a vis a belief: is it rational or not? is it justified or not?) makes any sense. In this respect the rational action people and the cultural sociologist might as well from different planets. This is also one of the main ways in which we haven’t made much progress since Parsons.
Where do we stand?.- So we come full circle. A lot of agency talk is really talk about the mental. What we really mean by agency is really the capacity to conceptualize the world in different ways irrespective of objective reality and what other people mean by structure is really some sort of non-mental or non-cognitive thing that constrains your capacity to conceptualize the world in this or that way, so that in the limiting case a structuralist can predict what you think without looking into the black box that is your head. So you don’t have agency because you don’t have the freedom to impose your own construal on objective situations (or in the group sense, cultures are not autonomous because they are linked to non-cultural features of the world).
Does this mean that the world does not constrain conceptualization in any way? The answer to this question is more complex, but I would say that the weight of the evidence points to no. So the unrestricted version of social constructionism goes out the window. The best work on comparative and typological linguistics, metaphor theory and cross-cultural studies of categorization overwhelmingly shows that there are objective constraints on conceptualization and cognition although these constraints show up at the level of structure and seldom at the level of content (except when it comes to the so-called basic level). One hypothesis that can certainly be rejected is the unitary constraint hypothesis (e.g. naive reflection, “realist”, of truth-conditional theories of semantics). There are very few features of the world that have a monolithic effect on conceptualization. No domain (space, society, time, etc.) has been found that imposes a non-negotiable structure on our conceptualizations, although there are domains that leave less degrees of freedom than others.
But the job of “ranking” domains in this sense has only begun. The more important point is that the obsession of cultural sociologists with simply making the case for social construction (and leaving the impression that they subscribe to the unrestricted—and ultimately irrationalist—account even though most don’t really) has resulted in a lack of attention to the “limits” of social construction. Here limits should not be interpreted in terms of the traditional bogey-men (what about biology?) but instead in terms of the relation between agents and the world at a level that abstracts from this. We know there have to be limits simply because we are embodied and embedded beings, and it is unlikely for instance that we can use conceptual resources that are not “grounded” in that fact. However, the relationship between embodiment, cognition and action is still something that makes cultural sociologists squirm a bit (because the body is kind of, well, biological), but it is clear that this is where these questions will be asked (and hopefully answered).
Spring is almost here – and it is time to announce our next book forum. We’ll be discussing Jenn Lena’s new book, Banding Together: How Communities Create genres in Popular Music. The book explains how musical genres are built from cultural boundaries, networks, and local scenes. It’s an honor to discuss Jenn’s book because she’s a former guest blogger and a leading sociologist of culture. So, please buy a copy (or two!) and we’ll get started in the first week of April.