a provocative claim: the sociology of culture is nearly always at least implicitly a sociology of morality – a guest post by jeff guhin
Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia. In Fall 2016, he will be an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.
That’s wrong of course, or at least it’s not precisely right. There are two important exceptions right away: the first in the sociological work on cultural production (think Paul DiMaggio, Gabriel Rossman, Jennifer Lena) and the second in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, which is certainly about culture but generally unconcerned with moral life (that’s actually the basis of Jeffrey Alexander’s criticism).
Yet for much of the rest of cultural sociology, moral life really matters. Think about some of the biggest stateside names in culture: Robert Wuthnow, Michele Lamont, Ann Swidler, Jeffrey Alexander, Orlando Patterson. These thinkers are all quite different, but there remains a sense within each of them that what it means to be a good person and what it means to have a good life are centrally important to understanding how culture works.
There’s a genealogical explanation here that goes all the way back to Weber and Durkheim asking very similar questions, mediated through Parsons and, at least for Swidler, Wuthnow, and Alexander, through Bellah and Shils at Berkeley. But there’s also a much simpler explanation, which is that most sociology of culture is about meaning making, and the most important meanings tend to be moral ones in the sense that they evoke strong emotional responses about the relative rightness and wrongness of particular behaviors. Now there are different ways to think about those meanings and their relationships to structures, and there are ways to do culture without worrying too much about meaning at all (and those, for what it’s worth, tend to be the kinds of cultural sociology that aren’t implicitly about moral life, yet I would argue they’re in the minority).
So while there might well be important analytic or organizations reasons to distinguish the sociology of morality from the sociology of culture, I’m not sure I buy that there’s anything new there. More importantly, I’m not sure I buy that, to the extent sociologist have recognized once again that culture matters, they were ever at risk of forgetting that morality matters too.