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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2016 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. Yeah, I agree. Country music in morally wrong. As is Vegan “cuisine” and Airstream tourism…..



    April 19, 2016 at 12:47 am

  2. The term, ‘culture,’ connotes collective actions or tendencies, as with Geist, but it also may refer to a guiding spirit within the person. The term, ‘culture,’ needs some specificity and concreteness. Culture can be quite regional, or perhaps linguistic/religious/artistic/etc… but it can also refer to a particular or behavioral orientation. The question of morality involves a judgment of a form of life, or even a particular behavior, or even a particular thought. We can understand social movements and non-governmental organizations pressing governments to enact ‘rights-oriented’ legal forms, like anti-discrimination laws, as morally-based efforts to change a culture via the government. On the one hand there are questions of how to live, what should we do with our lives, what is right thinking and right action; on the other hand, there are causal questions about how to improve living conditions, the moral awareness of people, and the problem of moralizing. Perhaps, an antique dealer is not pressing any moral claims whereas an investor’s hope of maximizing profits through particular actions related to price-setting and motivation of workers does seem to involve a moral issue, but from a cultural standpoint, both the profiting from the art of antiques and the attitude or motivation for capitalist exchanges are causal sequences related to moral standpoints. Does any cultural practice stand up to a moral criticism? Where does moral criticism have the power to make an effective bite?

    I doubt that moral criticism that turn or away a culture. Moral criticism works most effectively on individuals through legal implementation and enforcement, but morality can also work through unofficial and private pressures. Here is another example of the causal problem of how does morality work, how does morality change a culture? Is morality simply disagreement and emotional/linguistic demands and rejections of others who are not appreciated?

    In the sociology of morality, Gabriel Abend, the old chestnuts of fact-value, value-freedom, and is/ought distinctions are raised. Abend indicates that the fact-value difference is about the subject matter of statements – what the statements are about. Although mahy statements indicate what the world is like, only ethical statements meaningfully addresses the question of what one should do. Abend moves from here to discuss the problem of ethos and techniques of living or rules. When we consider what gives the upper class or leaders of society their ‘character,’ the problem is whether it is something like a technique or rules: talk like this with this accent, be seen doing these kinds of things and not those kinds of things, etc. Wittgenstein cryptically stated that ‘WE ARE NOT SIMPLY FOLLOWING RULES,’ so what exactly is culture? Is culture something that connects people internally like the Weberian ‘ethos’ or Geist, or is it just a set of rules, techniques for living? Breaking a rule is immoral?? for whom?? Where are the rules? in writing??

    The sociology of morality attempts to dispel the notion that morality is really a power game or a mysterious mystical masking of reality. If we define our terms carefully, implement moral norms, enforce the laws, the question comes back to whether culture is about morality, even if morality is about culture.


    Fredrick Welfare

    April 19, 2016 at 6:22 pm

  3. This is Jeff Guhin: a small correction. I should have been more clear that even though Shils had an effect on reproducing a Parsonian focus on morality, he was not at Berkeley (obviously) but at Chicago. I regret the error. I think the argument still stands though.


    Jeff Guhin

    April 20, 2016 at 6:31 pm

  4. I don’t think you are addressing the main problem: are moral claims TRUTH claims? Since they usually are not, there is a problem. The moral claim or judgment should align with empirical description (naturalistic fallacy flies out the window) AND with moral actions. Shils ‘traditional’ emphasis is not exactly the same as Parsons adaptive or maintenance functions of the social system.


    Fred Welfare

    April 20, 2016 at 7:42 pm

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