What is missing, however, is a theory of culture that has autonomy built into the very fabric of meaning as well as a more robust understanding of social structure and institutional dynamics. We suggest, following Saussure, that a more structural approach towards culture helps with the first point.
In addition, it initiates the movement towards general theory that Geertz avoids. In short, it can recognize the autonomy and the centrality of meaning, but does not develop a hermeneutics of the particular at the expense of a hermeneutics of the universal. We return to the promise of such a structural hermeneutics below. This strand of work, with its developing strong program characteristics, offers the best hope for a truly cultural sociology finally to emerge as a major research tradition.
One thinks in particular of studies of the production, consumption and distribution of culture which as we have seen focus on organizational and institutional contexts rather than content and meanings e. Blau ; Peterson One also thinks of work inspired by the western Marxist tradition that attempts to link cultural change to the workings of capital, especially in the context of urban form e.
Davis ; Gottdeiner The neo-institutionalists see DiMaggio and Powell see culture as significant, but only as a legitimating constraint, only as an external environment of action, not as a lived text as Geertz might see Friedland and Alford And of, course, there are numerous U. Fiske ; Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler , who combine virtuoso hermeneutic readings with thin, stratification-oriented forms of quasi-materialist reduction.
Yet, it is equally important to recognize that there has emerged a current of work that gives to meaning-full and autonomous texts a much more central place for a sample see Smith b. Alexander and Sherwood forthcoming , Turner and Sahlins l foremost among them — who wrote against the grain of sixties and seventies reductionism and attempted to demonstrate the textuality of social life and the necessary autonomy of cultural forms. In contemporary scholarship, we are seeing efforts to align these two axioms of a strong program with the third imperative of identifying concrete mechanisms through which culture does its work.
Responses to the question of transmission mechanisms have been decisively shaped, in a positive direction, by the American pragmatist and empiricist traditions. Simultaneously, the philosophical formation of writers like Althusser and Foucault permitted a dense and tortured kind of writing, where issues of causality and autonomy could be circled around in endless, elusive spirals of words. By contrast, American pragmatism has provided the seedbed for a discourse where clarity is rewarded; where it is believed that complex language games can be reduced to simpler statements; where it is argued that actors have to play some role in translating cultural structures into concrete actions and institutions.
While the influence of pragmatism has reached American cultural sociologists in a diffuse way, its most direct inheritance can be seen in the work of Ann Swidler , William Sewell , Mustafa Emirbayer and his collaborators e. Other forces have also played a role in shaping the emerging strong program in American cultural sociology. Because these are more closely related than the pragmatists to our argument that a structuralist hermeneutics is the best way forward, we will expand on them here.
Writing in the first decades of the 20th century, Durkheim and his students such as Hertz and Mauss understood that culture was a classification system consisting of binary oppositions.
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At the same time Saussure was developing his structural linguistics, arguing that meanings were generated by means of patterned relationships between concepts and sounds. The great virtue of this synthesis was that it provided a powerful way for understanding the autonomy of culture.
Because meanings are arbitrary and are generated from within the sign system, they enjoy a certain autonomy from social determination — just as the language of a country cannot be predicted from the knowledge that it is capitalist or socialist, industrial or agrarian. Culture now becomes a structure as objective as any more material social fact. Emerging from this tradition has been a focus on the binary opposition as a key tool for asserting the autonomy of cultural forms see Alexander and Smith , Smith l, Edles l, Magnuson l Further inspirations for structural hermeneutics within a strong program for cultural theory have come from anthropology.
The new breed of symbolic anthropologists — in addition to Geertz, most notably Mary Douglas l , Victor Turner l and Marshall Sahlins l, l — took on board the message of structuralism, but tried to move it in new directions. Postmodernisms and post-structuralisms have also played their role, but in an optimistic guise. The knot between power and knowledge that has stunted European weak programs has been loosened by American postmodern theorists like Steven Seidman For postmodern pragmatistic philosophers like Richard Rorty e.
As a result, discourses and actors are provided with greater autonomy from power in the construction of identities.
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These trends are well known. But there is also an interdisciplinary dark horse to which we wish to draw attention. In philosophy and literary studies, there has been growing interest in narrative and genre theory. Lara l The appeal of this theory lies partially in its affinity for a textual understanding of social life. The emphasis on teleology carries with it some of the interpretive power of the classical hermeneutic model.
This impulse towards reading culture as a text is complemented, in such narrative work, by an interest in developing formal models that can be applied across different comparative and historical cases. The morality play, for example, does not seem to be conducive to compromise Wagner-Pacifici , l Tragedy can give rise to fatalism Jacobs and withdrawal from civic engagement, but it can also promote moral responsibility Alexander forthcoming, Eyerman forthcoming.
Comedy and romance, by contrast, generate optimism and social inclusion Jacobs and Smith , Smith Irony provides a potent tool for the critique of authority and reflexivity about dominant cultural codes, opening space for difference and cultural innovation Jacobs and Smith , Smith A further bonus for this narrative approach is that cultural autonomy is assured e. If one takes a structuralist approach to narrative Barthes l , textual forms are seen as interwoven repertoires of characters, plot lines and moral evaluations whose relationships can be specified in terms of formal models.
Narrative theory, like semiotics, thus operates as a bridge between the kind of hermeneutic inquiry advocated by Geertz and the impulse towards general cultural theory.
As Northrop Frye recognized, when approached in a structural way narrative allows for the construction of models that can be applied across cases and contexts but at the same time provides a tool for interrogating particularities. It is important to emphasize that while meaning-full texts are central in this American strand of a strong program, wider social contexts are not by any means necessarily ignored. In fact, the objective structures and visceral struggles that characterize the real social world are every bit as important as in work from the weak programs.
Notable contributions have been made to areas such as censorship and exclusion Beisel , race Jacobs , sexuality Seidman , violence Gibson ; Smith , ; Wagner-Pacifici , and failed socio-historical projects for radical transformation Alexander l, forthcoming.
These contexts are treated, however, not as forces unto themselves that ultimately determine the content and significance of cultural texts. Rather, they are seen as institutions and processes that refract cultural texts in a meaning-full way. They are arenas in which cultural forces combine or clash with material conditions and rational interests to produce particular outcomes Ku l, Smith l And beyond this they are seen as cultural metatexts themselves, as concrete embodiments of wider ideal currents.
We have suggested here that structuralism and hermeneutics can be made into fine bedfellows. The former offers possibilities for general theory construction, prediction and assertions of the autonomy of culture. The latter allows analysis to capture the texture and temper of social life. When complemented by attention to institutions and actors as causal intermediaries, we have the foundations of a robust cultural sociology.
The argument we have made here for an emerging strong program has been slightly polemical in tone. This does not mean we disparage efforts to look at culture in other ways. If sociology is to remain healthy as a discipline, it should be able to support a theoretical pluralism and lively debate. There are important research questions, in fields from demography to stratification to economic and political life, to which weak programs can be expected make significant contributions.
But it is equally important to make room for a genuinely cultural sociology. A first step toward this end is to speak out against false idols, to avoid the mistake of confusing reductionist sociology of culture approaches with a genuine strong program. Only in this way can the full promise of a cultural sociology be realized during the coming century.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. Theoretical Logic on Sociology Volume Two.
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