why cultural sociology doesn’t feel so good

The soc blogs have been kicking around the following issue: Is cultural sociology/ soc of culture marginal? Is it actually triumphant? Can it be both at once? That’s my take. Let’s start with a few positive observations:

  • By nearly any measure, cultural sociology is popular. It’s easily one of the biggest ASA sections.
  • Cultural sociology is a well regarded specialty, however you define it. Leading journals routinely publish in this area. People in leading departments have earned tenure writing in that area.
  • Of course, these two facts are based on the fact that cultural sociology yields highly informative scholarship. In other words, it’s an intellectual and institutional success.

If that’s the case, why might people feel marginal?

  • Cultural sociology usually doesn’t bring big grants, unless it’s tied to money makers like criminology, population, or health.
  • Cultural sociology is not in demand by undergrads, at least not on the level that say deviance is popular, or gender.
  • Given weak funding and soft demand, culture is not usually considered a #1 hiring priority by many departments.
  • Culture is often low tech, which means a low barrier to entry. The average practitioner does not need a whole lot of fancy math to do culture. So you can’t impress people with technique.
  • There are no outside buyers for culture, the way b-schools buy orgs/work scholars, or ed schools buy soc of ed, etc.
  • Too close of an association/similarity with the humanities, which is regarded as the lowest prestige in the humanitites/social science/hard science triad.

Perhaps culture is a specialty that’s like an English department. It’s a cool area that lots of talented people flock to, and it’s a big tent. Most of the success happens at the top and there are relatively few resources for the rest. In contrast, even a modestly talented demographer can still have a good career through the system of pop centers and grants. Kulturkids, is this a decent explanation of the conflicting feelings about culture’s status in the profession?

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2008 at 1:27 am

10 Responses

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  1. Alternative option: Cultural sociology began as a reaction to dominant paradigms in the social sciences; now that it is on the verge of becoming a cultural paradigm itself, practitioners are reluctant to shed the outsider image that provided so much legitimacy in its infancy.



    September 8, 2008 at 1:32 pm

  2. Er, dominant paradigm is what I meant to say there.



    September 8, 2008 at 2:33 pm

  3. I think social movements is sort of the same. Outsider research at first, but very central in sociology now.



    September 8, 2008 at 3:14 pm

  4. Another reason cultural sociologists feel marginalized: many of us do work that is ethnographic, interpretative, very qualitative. While the big journals do seem to be publishing more work in this vein, it seems to me that the majority of articles published in major journals are quantitative. And qualitative articles often mean survey or interview research (though these are also methods used by cultural sociologists), rather than ethnographic or historical work. So, there is a feeling that it is hard to publish cultural sociology in major journals. And, perhaps this is just more subjective on my part, but I often feel like the bar is set higher for cultural sociology articles: they really have to contribute to major high theory debates to be considered for publication.



    September 8, 2008 at 5:24 pm

  5. bedhaya: Whether or not big journals publish mostly quantitative work is an empirical question.



    September 8, 2008 at 5:45 pm

  6. […] the worst outlook? Respected section or not, my interest in cultural sociology apparently makes me less desireable as a job candidate. […]


  7. I think of myself, in part, as a cultural sociologist, but I really don’t feel marginal. However, I wanted to respond to some of the items in your “why might people feel marginal?” list, Fabio.

    The first claim, that cultural sociology doesn’t bring big grants (without sponsors) is an empirical one for which I’d love to see evidence. I am able to think of many folks with multi-million dollar grants, from the major agencies, but I both don’t have a sense of the comparison group’s performance (social movements scholars?) nor any idea if I’m biased from exposure to the top end of the field.

    The second claim, that cult soc is not “in demand” by undergrads needs similar data, made difficult to gather by the fact that your third claim (it is not on offer in many big departments) could be the root cause of demand. I believe that someone on the crazk team over at socrumormill hiremedotcom has been gathering data on job ads, so perhaps we might find out an answer to that part of the question. I would add, and you know, that grant funding levels (relative to unstated disciplinary peers) and undergraduate demand are not the only…perhaps not even the main…rationales for hiring in many departments.

    The “culture is low tech” argument admittedly hits a nerve. I work across multiple methods–networks, some “normal” quant stuff, interviews, content analysis, GIS mapping, etc.–and in my experience there is no simple comparison between them viz “difficulty”. (Perhaps it is my nerves, or your language, but I feel this claim actually naturalizes the very stratification system your post seeks to understand.) Content analysis or interviews are not low tech, they’re differently teched. There is no low barrier to entry, rather, the skills are analogical & social, not quantitative. You most certainly CAN impress people with your technique when using purely qualitative analysis methods…witness the wild usefulness, but irreplicability of many classic ethnographies.

    Moving on.

    There are a kazillion “outside buyers for culture” including the culture industries, non-profit organizations, and, to stay within your education-based examples, professional schools of art performance & theory. I would hasten to add that we know several “cultural sociologists” who work at org schools, and ed schools.

    I will wholeheartedly agree with the final claim–that culture is associated strongly with the humanities, and that these are low prestige for most social and hard scientists.

    I’m sorry that I can’t also do the work of throwing out more ideas for why the perceived marginality persists. I’m glad to see some hypotheses. I’m also glad to try to poke holes in them!


    Jenn Lena

    September 8, 2008 at 11:50 pm

  8. Hi, everyone – and thanks for the comments. A few responses to Jenn Lena:

    I’d note that these are my subjective impressions. I’d love to see data prove or disprove any of them. For example, if there’s a grand stream of grant money for studies of habitus or cultural toolkits, I’d love to see it. Also, if you can show me that armies of undergrads are *not* demanding criminology and yearn for Harbermas, please show me! I want to meet these people.

    On a more serious note, let me address the “tech” issue. I’d agree that qualitative research requires skill, because I’ve done it and published it myself. However, that’s different than the perception that things that require math or stats are more “high tech.” All around academia, outside the humanities, “high tech” is not defined by skill, but by hard to understand things, like math. Any speciality that does not have fancy gizmos built into it likely suffers in the American academic system.

    You also mention the massive list of buyers for culture PhD’s. I would certainly agree that *some* firms have hired soc of culture PhD’s but is that really the average outcome? Also, with regard to b-schools, I think they hire “whatever is good in sociology,” they don’t hire culture PhD’s specifically. So if culture is now a strong specialty in soc and people in that area approach org/work, then they get hired. But if attention shifts elsewhere, I doubt that b-schools would demand a “return to culture.” They’ll just go with whatever specialty produces good work/org/market scholars.

    Another problem with this is that it is hard to define what counts as “culture” so we can choose example that support/poke holes in various ideas…. maybe this is a good topic for some enterprising professions grad student.



    September 9, 2008 at 1:08 am

  9. Well, there have been some very big Australian Research Council Grants to “cultural sociological” projects – two that spring to mind are Australian Media/Public Sphere and another on bottled water.

    By the powers vested in me by the Ghost of Karl Popper, I deem this to disprove your first thesis.

    “Another problem with this is that it is hard to define what counts as “culture”…”
    May I humbly suggest you start with Terry Eagleton’s The Idea of Culture.


    September 9, 2008 at 5:25 am

  10. A few thoughts:
    1.) I’m with Jenn Lena – I think the marginalization is more a taste (in the economic sense) than a reality.
    2.) The ethnographic-survey distinction is definitely not the same as the culture-not culture distinction. Granted the major journals don’t publish much ethnography, but the major book presses do; and frankly most of the best cultural soc these days isn’t ethnographic.
    3.) thanks for noting the remarkably US-centric discussion we’ve been having.



    September 9, 2008 at 11:42 am

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