rest in peace pete

Richard “Pete” Peterson, one of the original founders of the ASA section on Culture died yesterday.  It is a strange feeling, since I actually never knew him very well, yet it seems like somebody I actually was close to is now gone.  Two great culture scholars who actually did know him closely have more personal reflections here and here.  My only major interaction with him was at Boston ASA where I actually felt useful for once:  he needed to go to an ASA session that was way across one of those weird tubes that connect the various buildings and I was going to that same session (Paul DiMaggio was presenting a paper).  When we got there, Pete said to Paul: “Hey Paul, Lizardo helped me get here.” Score!

Peterson (1979) wrote one of the two–the other one being of course Swidler (1986)–key theoretical articles that helped shake the study of culture in sociology out its Parsonian hangover.  Peterson was clear that they key was to get away from culture and values and towards the empirical study of culture as “expressive symbols.”  Although a healthy return to studying values empirically has been enacted of late, a lot of us wouldn’t be making a living without this reorientation of the field.  One of Peterson’s major contributions was in taking a good dose of Columbia-style organizational sociology (via Gouldner) and some non-negligible industrial economics to bring empirical specificity to the study of what Hirsch referred to as culture industry systems.  This came packaged as the “production” approach to the study of culture.  His famous distillation of the production approach as “6-step” model is still one of the greatest things to teach undergrads (Peterson 1985; see also Peterson 1990 on Rock and Roll).

Today, after hundreds of articles and enough books to fill out a couple of shelves, we have learned more about the production side of culture than seemed possible a mere 30 years ago (see Peterson and Anand 2004 for the latest review, and see DiMaggio 2000 for a retrospective). It is important to underscore however, that for Peterson the production perspective was a general perspective on the study of all forms of culture, including, science and religion in addition to the arts (the classic ABS special issue that he edited in 1976 is still a must read).

Yet, it was in studying the consumption side (it should be noted that very few scholars, this side of Pierre Bourdieu have actually been able to make theoretical contributions on both sides of the production/consumption divide), that Peterson would make what may in the end be remembered as his most enduring contribution.  First, in re-defining measures of cultural behavior away from the loaded terms inherited from mass culture approaches as “patterns of cultural choice” (Peterson 1983). Then in a series of now classic papers in the early and mid-1990s (Peterson 1992; Peterson and Simkus 1993; Peterson and Kern 1996) revolutionizing the study of arts participation with his proposal that the best way to describe the cultural stratification system of the United States was not as an “elite-mass” division but one premised on the division between omnivores and univores. We are still digesting and exploring the wide-ranging implications of this Kuhnian gestalt shift, as omnivores and univores appear to show up everywhere we look (Peterson 2005).

So maybe that’s why I feel like I knew Pete so well even if I really didn’t: those citations (Peterson 1992, Peterson and Kern 1996, Peterson 2005) roll out of my keyboard and into almost every paper that I write almost automatically.  I think they will continue to do so for a long time to come.


Written by Omar

February 6, 2010 at 1:45 am

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this, Omar. I was halfway through writing something similar, but this is much better. Jenn Lena and Gabriel Rossman also have remembrances.



    February 6, 2010 at 2:05 am

  2. Sad news. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Peterson. I admired his work from afar.



    February 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm

  3. Thank you for the news and for the insightful write up. He will be missed, but warmly remembered, by many.



    February 7, 2010 at 5:13 am

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