honey, we need to talk about the cultural sociologists

When I was in graduate school, cultural sociology was simply a branch of sociology. But later, I found out that it has an usual place in the discipline:

So does cultural sociology have a Prada Bag problem? Is it a specialty that sounds cool but is really a luxury for fancy departments? Consider this an open thread on the place of cultural sociology and its position in the discipline.

Better than fruitcake: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

December 4, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio, sociology

17 Responses

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  1. At the ASA meeting this year, I attended the meeting about the state of the job market for sociologists. They had data on which specialties had the most and least hires. I specifically remember cultural sociology being in the bottom five, meaning that not many departments were looking for or hiring cultural sociologists. The presenters suggested that cultural sociologists brand themselves as something else (I study inequality from a cultural perspective, etc.) ASA probably has that presentation somewhere.



    December 4, 2012 at 12:25 am

  2. Wow, Fabio, you just blew my mind. When I referenced the “cultural sociology as boutique specialty” debate in the earlier kulcha-bashing thread, I was thinking of the “Prada Bag Problem!” And, wow, that wasn’t “a few years ago,” that was way back in 2006! Interesting that some significant faction of the “culture people” were then calling themselves “comparative and historical sociologists” and now it is more often simply repackaged/rebranded “social theory.” I have no opinion on the current dimensions of the Prada Bag Problem, but job listing/section size n’ listed member interest mismatch is scary.



    December 4, 2012 at 1:10 am

  3. I don’t know if there are any jobs for Australian social theorists in Australia, but it was interesting to me at the TASA conference last week that the social theory sessions had been subsumed by cultural sociology.


    Mark Bahnisch

    December 4, 2012 at 1:17 am

  4. I don’t know anyone who abjures the title of “cultural sociologist” who studies contemporary popular culture and yet cultural sociology is seen as insular? A luxury? Wonders will never cease.


    Jenn Lena

    December 4, 2012 at 4:33 pm

  5. I think to understand cultural sociology as a specialty is probably wrong, for the reasons you outlined in the original post. Because culture is poorly bounded and because it comprises both independent and dependent variables, many cultural sociologists fit fine into other job categories, from work and occupations to sex and sexuality to economic soc to theory and more. As a section of the ASA it is more like a brand: come to Culture, this is where the cool kids hang out.

    It’s ironic that you use a cultural metaphor — the Prada Bag problem — to describe the apparent weakness of cultural sociology.

    FWIW, I think the problem of pigeonholing culturalists is just one instance of the broader reality that the section/subfield system of ASA is deeply broken.



    December 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm

  6. No fair lobbing culture bombs during the busy last week of classes. (Why not post a few nice saxophone solo videos until we catch our breath?)

    A few quick comments:

    1) Insularity (if that’s the right term) varies across subfields. In the article of mine you link to, I’m writing specifically about political sociology and I stand by the points I made. However, if we distinguish between political sociology and the study of social movements, “culture” (frames, identities, narratives) is part of the established canon in the latter. The Amy Binder et al. (2008) special issue, Cultural Sociology and its Diversity, illustrates how well integrated cultural approaches have become in some subfields.

    2) I don’t have the data on job descriptions, but “sociology of culture” means a number of different things, two of which are “sociology of Culture” (the arts, cultural institutions, cultural production) and cultural analysis (culture as analytic perspective). Sociological theory, to the degree it’s migrated, has gone to the latter and I doubt there are many jobs explicitly advertising for cultural analysts. (I can’t speak to the market for the former.) But that doesn’t mean that cultural analysts do not fit or cannot get advertised jobs. It just means that their substantive questions should be compelling (and match job descriptions) and the theory/data/claims connections solid. In other words, good social science.

    3) The sociology of culture isn’t an elite good, but it does go by various names. What’s more common on the undergrad curriculum at all types of institutions than the study of “social problems”? Odds are good that the main theoretical perspective in such classes is constructivist and thus fundamentally cultural. But for interesting boundary-drawing reasons (not altogether flattering), this genre of research is often seen as distinct from “sociology of culture.”

    4) Sociology of culture, 25 years after the formation of the section, is arguably a victim of some success. Did any readers get a job as a sociologist of structure?



    December 4, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  7. And what Andy said.



    December 4, 2012 at 6:40 pm

  8. ASA job market data on “large specialty, but job are scarce”: (subfield data is on page 7) This data doesn’t deal with “culture being rebranded as something else” or a difference between “sociology of culture” and “cultural analysis” or anything like that. But it’s a good indication that it’s overrepresented among candidates on the job market (#3 most popular subfield) and underrepresented job listings (#14 most listed subfield).

    There’s also the slightly more recent but less useful survey (subfield mentioned on page 9); the data isn’t as good for answering the question because it does not include any data on student identification.



    December 4, 2012 at 8:09 pm

  9. @andrewperrin: I think the problem of pigeonholing culturalists is just one instance of the broader reality that the section/subfield system of ASA is deeply broken.

    Andy, genuine question because I don’t follow: What is broken about the section system and how is “pigeonholing culturalists” symptomatic of this? I regularly hear complaints about the sections, but they are nearly always rooted in a peculiar reactionary monism of the left or right (e.g., Sociology Liberation Movement-types still upset that they didn’t get their five minutes of silence for Ho Chi Minh when they stormed the stage at ASA Presidential Address in ’69 or the sociobiologists and their progeny). You don’t fall into either category, so what’s your beef with the section/subfield system?



    December 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm

  10. Andrew and Jenn: If you want to know specifically why I use the word insular is that I review papers in a number of areas where the cultural turn has had varied impact. What I often find is that culture is invoked as an explanation (via values, habitus, toolkits, etc) without a serious engagement with what other social scientists believe are reasonable alternative explanations.

    For example, let’s say that I wrote a paper on returns to education and claimed that employer’s framings of applicants affected hiring. Fair enough. That’s a good hypothesis to pursue and it has been pursued in the job psychology and strat literature. But you would also expect that I test other well established hypotheses such as human capital theory. Then, the standard approach is to try to assess how much “culture” matters in comparison with other factors. I have just read too many papers that invoke culture and then fail to consider other hypotheses. It’s annoying.



    December 4, 2012 at 10:10 pm

  11. Ironically, we seem to be pretty well represented in business schools, thinking about e.g. Damon Phillips, Elizabeth Pontikes, with music, then all of those gastronomy and high culture categories studies. No doubt part of this is the acceptance of economic sociology in business schools and perhaps a bit of overlap with the cultural economists.

    I can’t speak for all areas of culture, but it seems that a sociologist with a cultures and markets project would be foolish not to apply for jobs across the lawn, as it were, to widen the opportunity set. Admittedly, this is perhaps a post-hoc rationalization on my part, given that I’m now in a management department…

    I should also say that I’m rather impressed by the awesomeness of the qualitative and cultural projects done by my marketing colleagues, who in some ways work more with social theory than I ever will.



    December 5, 2012 at 3:22 am

  12. @fabio: sounds like you’re reviewing some crummy papers.



    December 5, 2012 at 4:03 am

  13. @Liz: the problem with the section system is that it privileges silos over cross-cutting work. There are strong, perverse incentives to create new sections and sign up more members for them (in the form of additional section sessions at the meetings), which adds to the proliferation of distinct sections. The decentralization of the meetings and of governance then means more small groups doing more different things without talking to one another.

    Add to this that there’s no firm idea of what constitutes a subfield. Some are organized loosely around dependent or independent variables (e.g., sex and gender, population), some around institutions (economic soc, education), some around approaches (social psyc, theory), some around favored theories (Marxist, rationality and society), some around the pet interests of a few sociologists (animals and soc, body and embodiment). Culture falls into all of the above categories. And my impression is that more sociologists are belonging to a larger number of sections.

    Some sections have sought to remedy this through collaborative sessions (culture and social movements, social psyc and gender, etc.), but that’s really only a partial solution. Personally I’d rather see fewer, larger sections, and each with fewer section sessions at the meeting and more discipline-wide sessions to encourage cross-subfield dialogue. I’d also rather see real selectivity in choosing the papers, but that’s a peeve for a different time.



    December 5, 2012 at 4:15 am

  14. Yes, and they are legion.



    December 5, 2012 at 4:15 am

  15. The reader is asked to “consider this an open thread on the place of cultural sociology and its position in the discipline,” wherein the implicit argument is that cultural sociology is “a luxury for fancy departments,” and the stated rationale for this argument is a “legion” of “crummy papers” he reviews for publication.

    As an outsider to sociology whose deepest knowledge is of Giddens, Bourdieu, Habermas, Alexander, and Foucault, a little bit of political sociology, and some methods, I wonder is not the response to the argument above simply to reel off a list of the well-done, well-argued empirical papers using cultural analytical tools and methods? Don’t these exist? Are not many of the American sociologists who people like me come to know — say, Burawoy, Hochschild, Alexander, even Gross — broadly speaking “culturalists” in the way you are now debating? In terms of Giddens, Bourdieu, Habermas, Alexander, and Foucualt, culture and cognition clearly have won out. I am less confident in knowing American sociology as a whole, but my cursory look is that culture has largely won there, too. So, no doubt there are “crummy papers” in cultural sociology, but my thought is that a debate on culture’s role in American sociology should start with engaging Alexander, not the crummy papers of failed grad students like me.



    December 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm

  16. A suggestion was made in one of the comments (Erica, Dec 5) that people with a cultural focus seem to be well represented in business disciplines. I wonder about that, coming from the business school side (as a student, not a faculty or hiring committee member). I wonder if you’d be able to get data related to socio-cultural positions in business schools (I’m thinking here about positions in fields like Marketing, OB, etc.)?

    A debate similar to the one expressed in the blog post continues in the marketing subfield of consumer culture theory (CCT) – where most of the socio-cultural work is done with respect to Marketing – and the conclusions reached to date are eerily similar to what you have above. In particular, the first comment from Aaron (Dec 4) highlighted what I have heard as a successful tactic for “marketing” cultural research for business schools, specifically that people try to position themselves as “investigating ______ with a cultural perspective,” or something like that. In part, this is because very few academic postings in Marketing openly state an interest in candidates pursuing socio-cultural research, so there is this need to frame the candidates qualifications for the specific position in such a way that culturally-informed theory and investigation is appropriate, etc etc. Even still, the perspective amongst CCT researchers is that jobs are very scarce, and candidates must be very much open to, “have degree, will travel … anywhere.”



    December 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm

  17. Good point Alex.

    I could have been more nuanced about the business schools point – much of the economic sociology research there is on high/popular culture, rather than using cultural approaches. Well, there are a few people who also use cultural tools, e.g. Abolafia (now in a policy school), and then I was going to say Diane Vaughn, although now she’s back in a sociology department. Hm…. Well that suggests an interesting question about who is using cultural approaches and where, a question that perhaps someone else could answer with data.

    But you’re right, most of my marketing colleagues using specific cultural approaches come from the CCT camp. And I should probably add that I already had a really favorable view of the CCT people after presenting at the Chicago C4 workshop. So while I take the point that these cultural approaches are also scarce in marketing, if we want to talk about jobs, if you were able to credibly position yourself to apply in both marketing and cultural sociology, I would imagine that it still increases the odds of getting a job, simply from the increased base rate. (Key caveats being “credibly” and “odds” meaning, on average.)

    To come back a bit from the jobs tangent though, I’m curious as to who will end up populating the new consumption section.



    December 6, 2012 at 1:01 am

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