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Economics and the Sociology of Culture

There’s been a bit of chat about “Cultural Sociology and its Others”, the Culture Section one-day conference held before the ASA meetings this year. This has broadened out into a discussion of the place of cultural analysis within sociology, and the relative position of the subfield. Some people worried about the allegedly marginal status of culture within sociology. Other people pointedly said that they were rather central figures in the discipline, thank you very much.

I was asked at the last minute to participate, after another panelist dropped out, and gave a talk about the place of cultural analysis in economic sociology and economics. I wasn’t too happy with it, because I had to write it too quickly. But as the conversation continued about The Place of Culture, I began to think about the cases of Sociology of Culture (vis a vis Sociology) and Economics (vis a vis Social Science). In a funny way, the explanatory projects of economics and the sociology of culture share some core features. Not in their formal substance, their political bent, or — dare I say — in their relative degree of success and power out in the world. But the two of them remind me of comparisons between the United States and France. Comparisons between the two could easily highlight their differences from one another, and insofar as they come into contact with each other mutual contempt is the order of the day. But this antipathy springs from strong similarities in temperament, pathos and orientation. The U.S. and France are both revolutionary nations, with a strong belief that they are leading where other countries should follow, whose visions of democracy, individualism and republicanism differ sharply but are at the core of the self-image of each.

Similarly, proponents of economic analysis and cultural analysis are each convinced of the fundamental nature of their approach. Every social phenomenon displays an economic or cultural dimension, respectively; both see their chosen focus as revealing the underlying nature of the phenomenon at hand; and both insist that their perspective upends received wisdom about what is happening in any particular setting. And, indeed, in their less attractive aspects, both substitute handwaving about favorite concepts and frameworks when a more detailed analysis might lead to a story that doesn’t fit so well with the overall disciplinary vision.

The analogy extends to their orientation to other fields: as Omar remarked to me at the conference, because of the totalizing tendencies of the approaches, disciplinary Others must be subsumed as special cases, studiously ignored, or cast out as impostors. And we also see it give rise to some oddities — even as it has come to be a central field within sociology, Culture still complains about its allegedly marginal status; and even as it’s the only social science that ever gets in the New York Times, economists are happy to complain about how people cannot be brought to understand truths universally acknowledged such as mutual gains from free trade or the undesirability of minimum wages or rent control or what have you.

Written by Kieran

August 5, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Posted in economics, sociology

21 Responses

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  1. This seems like a really useful analysis. I wonder how the other culture folks will/would see it.

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    olderwoman

    August 5, 2008 at 11:04 pm

  2. I always wished I had been born French?

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    Jenn Lena

    August 5, 2008 at 11:26 pm

  3. So… is economics the United States or France?

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    mikemcbride

    August 5, 2008 at 11:41 pm

  4. The United States. Bigger, more powerful, etc, etc.

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    Kieran

    August 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

  5. An interesting analysis, yes, although I venture to say I don’t think it’s correct. With a couple of exceptions, few culturalists present much of an underlying-everything sort of claim. Most tend to stick either to the analysis of specific cultural patterns or artifacts, or to demonstrating how some cultural element matters in a particular way. BTW, Brian Steensland’s presentation at the miniconference is pretty helpful in talking along these lines, perhaps when we get the materials online we can re-link to it.

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    andrewperrin

    August 6, 2008 at 1:22 am

  6. Of, say, the plenary/keynote speakers at the culture conference, how many of them would you say argued for culture as a fundamental or strong force in the way I described here? I’m not sure you can discount the “few exceptions” if they are also the central people in the subfield.

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    Kieran

    August 6, 2008 at 1:45 am

  7. Hm. I like this analysis but I wonder about one particular part of it – the difference in audience. Culture seems to have rational choice/economistic explanations as its demons – I saw a well-argued presentation by a UCSD grad student titled something “Rational Choice as the Other of Cultural Sociology”, for example. If that’s right, then Cultural Soc can always portray itself as marginalized compared to the dominant strain of RC/Econ theorizing (even if that theorizing is not so dominant within soc).What then is Economics’ other? I agree that they both call out as being under-appreciated, but they seem to be calling to very different groups; Cultural Soc wants recognition from more dominant sciences, whereas Econ seems to be railing against the unenlightened and their folkways.
    Does that make any sense?

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    Dan Hirschman

    August 6, 2008 at 2:05 am

  8. Kieran, let’s see, going back to my program here:

    – Chandra Mukerji: argued for a kind of aesthetic analysis of social events, but not particularly for privileging cultural analysis over other dimensions;
    – Karen Cerulo: provided a very nice discussion of cognitive science (with a shout out to Omar) and its link to culture;
    – Gary Alan Fine: analyzed the interactive styles of pre-teen boys;
    – Diana Crane: discussed the inter-discipline influences of various ways of studying culture (as object, not as explanatory framework);
    – Nicola Beisel: argued more for a historical than a cultural, per se, take on changing attitudes and interdisciplinarity;
    – Mark Jacobs: outlined differences between cultural studies and cultural sociology;
    – Jeffrey Alexander: well, was Jeffrey Alexander and talked about how cool Obama is;
    – Michele Lamont: talked about interdisciplinary work and funding streams for the study of culture.

    So, I think the answer to your question is that only 1 of 8 plenary or keynote speakers made a specific plea for culture as a way of understanding the social world vis-a-vis other approaches. (Not that I wouldn’t have liked more, but that’s a different story.)

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    andrewperrin

    August 6, 2008 at 2:44 am

  9. I found Mukerji’s talk difficult to understand. I missed Crane’s. I’ll give you Beisel and Fine. (Though the former was the one who first talked — in the morning — about the marginality of the field. I liked her afternoon talk a lot. The latter explicitly argued for the “puny program” in the soc of culture.) Cerulo argued that cog-sci usefully provided a missing neuro-mechanism for strong cultural explanations already current in the field. Jacobs did rather more than “outline differences” between the cult studs and cultural soc — IMO he was arguing that cultural studies had taken a disastrously wrong turn, and the only good stuff in it had been rejected by the fashionable cult studs. Lamont had been planning to talk about how the Sociology of Culture has done an end run around the discipline of Anthropology, mostly by ignoring it, but instead changed her talk — because she said it overlapped with Crane’s — and gave a summary of her recent projects instead.

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    Kieran

    August 6, 2008 at 3:56 am

  10. Good points Dan; makes plenty of sense to me!

    I, too, do not believe that these are in any way opposed approaches. Isn’t scarcity a “cultural” phenomenon? Am I mistaken for believing that the division of labor is an exemplary social structure?

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    Brian Pitt

    August 6, 2008 at 5:57 am

  11. I, too, do not believe that these are in any way opposed approaches. Isn’t scarcity a “cultural” phenomenon? Am I mistaken for believing that the division of labor is an exemplary social structure?

    Again, the point of the analogy was not to claim that the two fields themselves were opposed to one another as a matter of substantive necessity, nor to say there aren’t people working away using tools from both areas or whatever. Rather, the idea was just to highlight what I see as a key similarity in intellectual style, one that was visible from the beginning of the conference as Lyn Spillman jokingly noted how cultural sociology could explain the circumstances of the conference, just like it could explain everything else. Within Sociology, most sections are topically oriented and this means that areas like Medical Soc, Work & Occupations, Social Movements, Aging, Religion, etc, are not going to be home to people looking to produce general theories of society that subsume other approaches (or claim to provide the basic vocabulary for them). Culture, on the other hand, is home to a bunch of people with that sort of ambition — just like other, smaller, outfits like Marxist Soc, Evolution, etc. (Gender seems like the most interesting case in the middle, btw.) It’s primarily oriented towards a class of explantions rather than some set of particular social institutions or settings. Toward particular independent rather than dependent variables, if you like.

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    Kieran

    August 6, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  12. Organizations is another strange one. I can imagine a situation where organizational scholars spent most of their time devising theories about how organizations affect the world (i.e. explain everything) but instead the section has taken the less intrusive route of making organizations the dependent variable. If you consider offering theories-of-everything to be a more high status project, then it appears that organizational scholars have, in some ways, subordinated themselves within the discipline to culture and network analysis. Theories that take organizations more seriously as independent variables tend to be scattered across the other sections, in places like social movements, medical soc, and gender.

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    brayden

    August 6, 2008 at 4:07 pm

  13. Sorry, but I think both the perceived marginality of the sociology of culture (to the discipline) and it’s proponents’ ambition to provide a strong program in sociology are red herrings if one wishes to understand substantive, intellectual trends among us. I am just guestimating here, but I bet I read about 10 times more sociology of culture drawn from the “what I noticed while on tour with my boyfriend’s band” than I do Jeff Alexander-esque…well, whatever it is that he does. (Strong programming?) Moreover, the only time I’m aware of who/what “counts” as cultural sociology is when we convention with one another, and then I spend most of my energy feeling: 1. confused about what is being said; 2. like some group of people should be in the room, but are not; and, 3. like I’m mis-categorized as I am actually a Sociologist of Organizations/Economics/Social Networks/Music/… I know this comment suffers from the impulse to generalize from one’s personal experience…but doesn’t this whole conversation have that problem?

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    Jenn Lena

    August 6, 2008 at 4:33 pm

  14. Kieran: not to belabor the point, but how is any of the plenary talks you mentioned a strong-program type talk?

    Jenn: this comment suffers from the impulse to generalize from one’s personal experience. Isn’t that the point of the blog?

    I would, at some point, like us (the culture section) to have some sort of structured conversation about this problematic. I used to think there were three nearly independent “kinds” of culture thrown together essentially by nomenclature: culture-as-consumption/taste; culture-as-national-style; and culture-as-social-idea-space. I no longer think these three are as distinct as I once did, perhaps largely because I am doing so much work on the aesthetics and tastes of politics.

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    andrewperrin

    August 6, 2008 at 5:33 pm

  15. how is any of the plenary talks you mentioned a strong-program type talk?

    The strong-program shtick is only one — not widely subscribed-to — expression of the attitude or style I’m talking about. Though the other main presentations varied a lot in substance, I think that style was clearly evident in several of them, notably Jacobs, Lamont, and Cerulo.

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    Kieran

    August 6, 2008 at 5:40 pm

  16. […] trickling back from Boston. What were the best panels this year? Cool events? Complaints? Here is Kieran on the culture miniconference. Tina on enjoying ASA, post job & pubs. Andrew just eats it up! Other ASA 2008 links? Your […]

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  17. Well, I guess I disagree. It’s not surprising that the presentations at a culture miniconference dealt with culture, is it?

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    andrewperrin

    August 8, 2008 at 1:27 am

  18. I’m willing to bet that I’m missing something in the discussion, but it seems to me that we have stalled out almost exactly where we began…that is, we haven’t moved off the question that the Mini-Conference program asked: what is the Sociology of Culture, and what falls within its exclusive domain?

    Although I was only a lowly panelist, I tried to offer up an alternative conception to what I expected, and was correct in thinking, would be offered by others at the Mini-Conference. I’m not confident in my answer or my approach, but I do beg someone, anyone, to consider my ideas.

    Basically (and a longer, and more eloquent (? or not) version can be found here), I argue that the kind of Soc of Culture that asks this question in this way is akin to the kind of music journalism that has been dubbed Rockist. The question asked in the conference invitation, I argue, is better suited to our field as it was 15 or 10 years ago when we, as disciplinary babies (at least, institutionally-speaking), felt unsure of our place in the world, and forever fearful of attrition and erasure. I argue that now we must be like anti-rockists, critical of rockism’s blindspots, but not defined by them. I suggest that we turn toward aesthetics–one potential “exclusive domain” for culture, much maligned and/or ignored by other sociologists, but with great potential to enliven disciplinary and public conversation.

    Some scholars will criticize the “interpretative” impulse, and will draw an opposition between the analytic procedures demanded in any aesthetic science and those of “real science”…as if statistics were natural laws, and taste the invention of fairy creatures. This is silly, and should be ignored. It is a far greater danger to lapse into the prissy navel-gazing that emerges from most groups of intellectuals, a danger I think we can avoid if we stay anchored firmly in the social world and oriented toward generating a better understanding of it, at both the micro- and macro-levels.

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    Jenn Lena

    August 8, 2008 at 2:36 am

  19. I wasn’t at the conference, I’m not a cultural sociologist and am generally clueless about popular culture, so I probably have no standing in this discussion, but I’m pretty sure that worrying about what the “exclusive domain” is for ANY field is a bad idea. Knowing what you are interested in studying or understanding and what tools you bring to the table (i.e. aesthetics) gives energy. So does seeing the connections between what you are doing and what others are doing. Policing boundaries does not. I think that is what your rockism essay says, but the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph could be read as endorsing aesthetics as an exclusive domain of cultural sociology. If what you meant by that is lifting up aesthetics as a topic that others are paying too little attention to, I’d say “go for it.” If, however, you meant that all of cultural sociology should be about aesthetics, or that only cultural sociologists should study or use aesthetics in their work, I’d say that’s a trap. Given the whole essay, I feel pretty sure that we agree about this.

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    olderwoman

    August 10, 2008 at 1:00 am

  20. Jenn, I was trying to refrain from responding until I’d actually read your presentation notes but I can’t help it. I really agree, and I think the idea of taking aesthetics seriously is both crucial and far too rare. While I take OW’s concern seriously too — about seeking “exclusive domains” — it does seem to me that culturalists are perhaps best equipped to think aesthetically and empirically at the same time. (BTW I think your work on rap is a great example of this.)

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    andrewperrin

    August 11, 2008 at 2:22 pm

  21. […] representatives of this volume assure us that culture is no longer marginalized in sociology; it has taken the spotlight. Cultural sociology seems to have hit its stride and has […]

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