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do cultural sociologists need to get out more often?

I have often read papers that address a standard sociological topic – like voting, or education, or health – and they immediately jump to “culture” as an explanation. Sometimes they take the time to take a swipe at a strong rational choice argument, but they rarely take the time to really engage standard non-cultural explanations. It’s as if saying “culture” three times and clicking your heels will magically transport you to a special place where culture is the only variable that matters.

Turns out that I am not the only one who has noticed this. Brian Steensland, my colleague at Indiana, wrote an article in Sociological Forum making this claim:

I suggest that the sociological literature on culture and politics has largely, and perhaps necessarily, been operating in a restricted fashion. It has developed a rich arsenal of concepts and propositions, but it has also addressed an audience already disposed to believe that ‘‘culture matters.’’ Cultural analysts are now well positioned to move more fully toward an elaborated mode of analysis that takes skepticism about culture in some quarters more seriously by directly engaging noncultural approaches to politics.

Steensland also approvingly cites Perrin, who suggests that cultural sociologists should use more standard techniques. I love you guys, but maybe it’s time to come in from the cold. Let me show you my non-cultural theory and we can make beautiful post-post-post-Parsons sociology together.

Stocking stuffers for the nerds in your life: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

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Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio, sociology

12 Responses

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  1. I would think cultural sociologists get out *too often* (metaphorically) …

    When I talk to non-academics, nothing seems quite as appealing as cultural explanations — so in the lay world the most appealing explanations for a variety of things– institutions or the lack of them, beliefs, values, and behaviors — can all apparently be explained by “culture”.

    Part of me also wonders if the lay appeal of “culture” as an explanation creates a fairly adverse incentive to connect with a student audience (undergrads, mba’s) by invoking culture as a closure-inducing but often illusory explanation for social phenomena… placing us in what seems to me a sad non-explanatory cycle.

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    sd

    November 26, 2012 at 1:48 am

  2. In Contempt, Jack Palance, playing a boorish American film producer, complains to director Fritz Lang, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I bring out my checkbook.” On one level, this is par for the course for Goddard, drawing parallels between the “fascism” of the market and the all too real fascism that Lang fled thirty years earlier (see Hans Johst). However, the knife cuts both ways. As with many other manifestations of “culture” (see some of the films of Goddard), cultural sociology often situates itself outside the main currents of social science, with the elitism and arrogance that implies, making extraordinary claims on its audience, lest they, too, wish to be cast in the Jack Palance role. In the end, many social scientists are happy to call the bluff and ignore such work. Should we rehash the whole “cultural sociology as boutique” thing of a few years ago? Has anything changed since then? Should the philistine Chair no longer think of a checkbook when s/he hears the words “cultural sociologist?”

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    LJE

    November 26, 2012 at 2:14 am

  3. Seems like there’s some animus toward cultural sociology in these parts… boutique specialty, limited intellectual range, weird methods… a lot of fighting words…

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    fabiorojas

    November 26, 2012 at 4:57 am

  4. My dissertation has taken a surprisingly cultural turn which has been really tough for me since I’m a political sociologist doing culture (as opposed to a cultural sociologist doing politics). Steensland’s discussion of the particular mechanisms through which culture can play a role has been helpful for placing it within and engaging with political sociology (i.e. making it testable) but its still an uphill battle as Phil Smiith’s response to Steensland’s article demonstrates. I think everyone cheers you on when you say you’re going to show how culture has an effect but they don’t hold their breath that you’re actually going to pull it off.

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    Josh Mccabe

    November 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm

  5. Rule of thumb: if “Culture” is claimed as a cause, it’s probably wrong. If cultural elements, or facets of culture, or differences across cultures, are claimed, keep reading. One of Steensland’s (and my) points is that causality is no different for cultural matters than for “non-cultural” ones (whatever that means). So analytical logics need to work the same way, or at a minimum a plausible explanation for treating them differently needs to be offered.

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    andrewperrin

    November 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  6. Steensland’s work deserves a better thread than this.

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    Jenn Lena

    November 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

  7. Steensland for orgtheory guest blogger 2012!

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    Josh Mccabe

    November 26, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  8. WWBSD?

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    fabiorojas

    November 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm

  9. Funny, but when I hear the word “culture,” I think of Jenn Lena. Then I think of pistols and checkbooks…but in a good way! While we’re picking at old wounds, can we bring Omar out of retirement? WWOLD?

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    chris

    November 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm

  10. Omar left the Shire for the Grey Havens … he is now legend…

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    fabiorojas

    November 26, 2012 at 8:32 pm

  11. I agree with Andy. “Culture” doesn’t do anything because it doesn’t exist. But lots of things that we lump under culture — schemas, scripts, tastes, “evaluative dispositions” (the artist formerly known as values), beliefs, etc. — do exist and often have effects.

    And though there are “boutique” elements of cultural sociology, I would say that the subfield is more mainstream than ever and that this is a good thing.

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    Steve Vaisey

    November 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  12. […] It has been accused of being insular […]

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