the sociology of culture versus cultural sociology


At this year’s ASAs Jeff and I were at the same session on “Culture, Political Engagement, and Social Movements” (to which I sneaked in late). After the session Jeff turns to me and says something of the order of “those papers were kind of strange, is that what most work in the sociology of culture looks like?” And I told him, oh no, no, that was cultural sociology, not sociology of culture. Like many things I tell Jeff, I was flying seat of the pants there, but I had an intuitive sense that that division was correct (the paper presented by Steve, which I missed and which was the only one that I wanted to hear, but which I am reading right now, is definitely not cultural sociology but sociology of culture according to this ad hoc definition, and given the fact that it was the only paper that drew questions from the audience, it was definitely the best one at the session). I am sure this was some sort of preconscious apprehension of divisions in the field that are not quite institutionalized.

Suffice to say that I was somewhat relieved to have my sense of that divide confirmed by none other than Wendy Griswold. In her excellent short textbook (which I assigned for my class) Culture and Societies in a Changing World, she notes,

A recent trend has been toward cutting the culture concept down to size and making distinctions about exactly what the object of analysis is. Wuthnow and Witten (1988) for example, suggest that sociologists should distinguish between implicity and explicit culture…(Sometimes, the former is seen as the domain of the “sociology of culture,” whereas the latter falls under “cultural sociology,” but this terminological distinction is not uniformly adopted.) (p. 9)

So there you have it. Cultural sociology and the sociology of culture; don’t confuse the two at cocktail parties (you can always preface your statement with the caveat “while this division is not uniformly adopted…”) or you’ll get funny stares from you interlocutor.

Written by Omar

August 27, 2006 at 12:25 am

3 Responses

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  1. I fear that a similar division is happening in social movements.



    August 28, 2006 at 3:26 pm

  2. I’ll have to check this out more. I still don’t see how this is a helpful distinction though.

    And if it exists in social movement studies then I’m all ears!

    Liked by 1 person


    August 30, 2006 at 10:12 pm

  3. Hi…I randomly happened upon this. not sure if you even check this blog any more, but in case…

    ‘sociology of’ approach “sought to explain what created meanings it aimed to expose how the ideal structure of culture are formed by other structures – of a more material, less ephemeral kind” (5).

    Cultural sociology, to be distinct from a sociology of culture “makes collective emotions and ideas central to its methods and theories precisely because it is such subjective and internal feelings that so often seem to rule the world.” (5).

    those are from Jeff Alexanders’ meanings of social life.
    in addition Ann Swidler has some nice chapters here and there that flesh it out as well.



    May 3, 2007 at 1:07 am

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