Social Theory Now

Social Theory Now

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ISBN-13: 9780226475318
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/14/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 682 KB

About the Author

Claudio E. Benzecry is associate professor of communication studies and sociology (by courtesy) at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Monika Krause teaches sociology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Isaac Ariail Reed is associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the Use of Theory in the Human Sciences, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Social Theory Now

By Claudio E. Benzecry

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-47531-8


On the Very Idea of Cultural Sociology


When it comes to the study of culture in sociology, we have a series of overlapping definitions of the object of study; another set of methodological debates about how to collect and interpret evidence about it; and, finally, a set of theoretical arguments about what it does or does not do to, for, or with actors, people, organizations, nation-states, laboratories, scallops, and so on. It can be extremely frustrating for initiates to the subdiscipline of cultural sociology, initiates to the zones of the human sciences concerned with culture in some vaguely similar sense, and old hands at both that we still do not have agreement on definition, method, or theory. Some kind of sad story about a preparadigmatic science appears to threaten the whole enterprise, and academic barbs about studying "culture" are a dime a dozen if you want them, mostly concerning the sheer multitude of subjects studied under the moniker of cultural sociology or cultural studies (some of them, inevitably, inane) and the repetitive instabilities of theoretical debates (some of them, inevitably, unnecessary). And indeed, research in cultural sociology approximates neither the fantastical progress of physics since Newton (imagined or real) nor the esteemed refinement or sophisticated radicalism of literary theory. Instead, cultural sociology exists at the center of a large set of crisscrossing arguments both logical and analogical, based simultaneously on the experience of ethnography and the formalisms of computational text analysis, and ultimately focused on the relationship between meaning and society. This can feel like a mess, and it feels that way because, in many regards, it is a mess. What, then, can be done?

I propose to ask, what is not culture? and from this question derive some insight about the premises of our own queries and definitional difficulties. I do not mean, "what is not culture?" in a set-theoretic sense (a frequently tried and frequently failed strategy for answering "what is culture?"). That is, I do not ask for the set of objects, processes, beings-in-the-world, or areas of study that fall outside of the set of things we label culture. Instead, I mean to ask the question in the Saussurean sense of to what terms and their meanings is the meaning of culture opposed? The oppositions that help give the term culture its meaning in academic discourse exist for actual people, some of whom are addressed by this essay — a community of somewhat likeminded researchers working in and around sociology on culture. This community, such as it is, uses a language game derived from both the concerns of American academic sociology and the broader, more global discourse of social theory. For these folks, then, what is culture not?

The question is itself a bootstrapping move; to some, it will appear problematic precisely because it presumes a (relational) theory of meaning derived from semiotics (and from Clifford Geertz). But the theory of meaning required here is not very particular at all ("long" has some of its meaning in contrast to "short"; "dog" in contrast to "cat"), and the argument that follows does not depend upon the truth of a specific theory of the causal influence of culture on action or of this or that theory of human language. Furthermore, such bootstrapping may be necessary in response to the interminability of definitional debates. So, let us ask the following questions: to what terms is culture opposed (and by implication, associated with) in our given community of inquiry? And then, what are the differences and similarities between how we understand culture and how we understand its opposites or counterpoints? And thus, finally, what questions do we expect to answer by mentioning culture, by making a cultural argument, or by pursuing a cultural sociology in lieu of other sociologies? This will reveal, I believe, not so much a new definition of culture or an approach that solves the problems of years of debate, but rather what is at stake in the very idea of cultural sociology.


Culture is not economy. This would appear to be the sine qua non of the whole beautiful debacle that is social theory, beginning with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology. Something about ideas, beliefs, signified-signifier-referent, theme, genre, symbol, philosophy, religion — something to do with culture — is different, in a yet-to-be-defined way, from the agglomeration of many different instances of two practical actions in the world: making something and exchanging something for something else. The difference between culture and economy, once set out, can be elided, conflated, exaggerated, explained historically, accounted for functionally, referenced obliquely, attacked endlessly, or secretly relied upon to make explanations look good to materialists, but a difference it is. Why is this difference important to us? What does it reflect about the world that we wish to grasp conceptually and highlight in our sociological explanations? And why does it reappear in every generation's debate about social action?

The conceptual opposition between culture and economy is important, first, because it encodes centuries of thought about the tension between rhetoric and motive, especially when the latter is pecuniary. The capacity to convince someone to do something via speech and ideation, without physical coercion — fight in a war, buy a specific brand of beer, and so forth — does not always track directly with who benefits in the doing (however we define or ill-define benefits). The inclination to come up with creative ways to theorize this fact has led to many innovations in sociological theory. Meanwhile, empirical discoveries of complex transitions in how groups of people value goods and actions and act accordingly are some of the most important foci in the field of cultural sociology. Thus, one of the central contributions of cultural sociology has been to render theories of domination and explanations of durable inequalities more intellectually powerful via reference to ideology, hegemony, and symbolic violence. And this requires a difference between professed allegiance (variably believed) and accrued benefit (intended or unintended).

Beyond sociologists' ongoing interests in the utility of culture to the powers and the interests, the distinction between culture and economy is important for a second reason. To say that culture is not economy suggests that although talking may be part of work, working may underwrite one's power to be heard, and making art is surely work, there is, nonetheless, a distinction to be made between mental and manual labor in human societies. To meet the biological needs of human animals, certain material things have to be made and produced; societies have arranged themselves differently to meet or not meet these needs for their members. The study of these arrangements is central to the human sciences. However, recognizing the existence of material imperatives and incentives and cataloguing their manifest forms has turned out to be insufficient for explaining the variation in the sinews of production, distribution, and consumption that it is important to examine and explain in social life. To get to better explanations of the vast variation in how human social groups arrange to arrange material resources, one has to go out to the movie theater, study how music is composed, read about how gods are worshipped, and much more besides. Then, after immersing oneself in King Lear, the Super Bowl halftime show, and so forth, when one returns to economy, one inevitably views it differently. For if we are forced to come to terms with the intersection between signifiers, subjectivities, and the inherently mental work of giving the world and our actions within it meaning, we will also be forced to contextualize the act of exchange.

This leap to the mental world of signification and the vast uncharted territories of subjective fantasy is what lends cultural sociology its distinctiveness over and against the occasional invocations of culture that dot economics, political science, and those areas of sociology unconcerned with signification and unmotivated by understanding. It is also the primary reason cultural sociology draws so many concepts and so much energy from the humanities. Finally, the engagement with subjectivity is perhaps the reason why certain egregious misunderstandings of the enterprise emanate from other arenas of social science, whose members routinely accuse cultural sociology of idealism, relativism, and so on.

Cultural sociology does not decide a priori that cultural values will explain some economic outcome. Nor does it insist on viewing economy as the cause of social life in last instance (mediated, between now and infinity, by culture). But cultural sociology does insist on the necessity of examining the relationship between signification and trade, between ideology and interest. Indeed, examining this nexus anew appears, in retrospect, as a tremendous source of creativity for the sociological mind, and each sociological generation revisits the problem. This revisiting is possible because of the meaningful theoretical difference between culture and economy.


Culture is not a person. Rather people — individual humans — exist in cultural context. What this means is that a person or any aggregate of persons acts or act in a world that is not a Cartesian function of his, her, or their own brains. Rather, the language they speak, the food they eat, or the masculinity they aspire to or detest comes from a meaningful world around them, constituted by other people — both alive and dead — and their communications — present and past. Human action takes place within a semiotic sea, and to explain what I do, you should say something about the water I swim in.

This rather metaphorically stated point is another theoretical locus of debate because it is at the root of the notion that culture mediates. What is mediation? If we locate something in an individual person, within many individual persons, or within persons generally — a drive for power, a need for recognition, a desire to sleep with his or her mother or father — we can then say that this rather inchoate something which is not culture and is part of an individual is, in turn, mediated by culture. It comes to expression via culture, we might say. Thus to understand what occurs in the human world, we must understand that which is within individuals (intentions, unconscious drives, etc.) to take form via culture, in the old Aristotelean sense of a sculptor giving "form" to a statue.

The mediation of projects, desires, and intentions by cultural context is a very common trope in cultural sociology. Underneath this way of talking is an endemic question of how — and how much — people are made by cultural context. Those researchers who are spellbound by Michel Foucault sense that the individual "essences" that manifest and express themselves through culture are, in fact, also made by it, constituted by it, or come from it. From this perspective, to say culture "mediates" is too weak. For the true Foucauldian, the essential characteristics of the subject do not precede (logically, ontologically, or otherwise) that which mediates him, her, or them. So, for example, one might argue that at a given historical conjuncture, not only do sexual desires manifest through a strict and punitive heteronormative culture but also that those desires themselves come about in persons in the first place because of the mesh of (heteronormative) culture. However, it is worth pointing out that the claim that culture forms persons into certain kinds of subjects and that tracing that process is key to understanding the historical transformation of the West still relies on a distinction between discourse and persons, for it is persons who are formed by discourse into subjects.

From Persons to Actors

The next leap is both controversial and common: the cultural sociologist replaces actual, concrete individual persons with a more generalized definition of actors and opposes these actors to culture as well. The actors can be nongovernmental organizations, corporations, nation-states, churches, and so on. These, too, are then shown to be subject to their cultural context, discursive formation, illusio, and so forth. The degree to which a shift from persons to a more general notion of actors means a fundamental change in the dynamics that obtain between cultural context and actors is the essence of the debate on the generalizability of certain models of culture and institutions (e.g., field theory). It is also possible to consider, as actors, subaspects of individual persons — bodies and psychic drives being the classic examples. Finally, if you really want to put everything in context, and you are really intent on being agnostic about what causes matter to you as a human scientist, you can place material objects in context as well and treat them as actants. But what is retained in all of this is a distinction between culture and that which acts within it and through it — on the one hand, an actant, a person, or an organization and on the other hand, the sociocultural space in which it does its acting.

Note that many of the oppositions and arguments that obtain between culture and actor also obtain when we relate actor to economy. For we also argue, in sociology, that economic context mediates certain individual intentions, projects, or drives. Thus, an unquenchable lust for power may express itself as the push to be a top producer at a Hollywood studio in the context of postmodern American capitalism rather than a top samurai, as it would have in the context of Japanese feudalism. Furthermore, we know quite well how different individual traits are rewarded differently in different economic systems; this parallels how in different cultural contexts different actions or traits are esteemed or despised. (For example, being neurotic and obsessive about textual meaning can either be prized or scorned, a source of honor and authority or a cause for exclusion.)

These similarities suggest that underneath it all, the root logic of thinking about culture in sociology is really a triangle that obtains between economy, persons, and culture. One can see this triptych repeat itself across the many variations of social theory: structure/action/culture; political economy, interest, ideology; social, subjective, symbolic; external environment, action, internal environment.


The proposal is thus that the meaningful differences between culture and economy, and culture and persons or actors are theoretically foundational for the very idea of cultural sociology. The next step, then, is to ask: given that culture is not economy and not individual persons (or with modification, not actors), how does it compare to those entities? What are we willing to attribute to culture, and what are we hesitant to attribute to it?

We are far more willing to talk about economy as a system than we are willing to talk about culture as a system. Even more, we are more comfortable saying two people "share" an economy (even if it is not a "sharing economy") than we are that they share a culture. So, if we begin with a very basic set of theoretical meanings so as to eventually construct more complex explanations and more powerful explanations — an ontology of economy, person, and culture — and we examine habits of thought, we will quickly come to the conclusion that these days, sociologists like to think of economies as things that are a bit machine- or systems-like in their properties and furthermore as wholes that people "share" (or that somehow affect them in their wholeness). On the other hand, while we would admit quite readily that a certain number of concrete people share a language (e.g., French), and we are happy to use language as a model for culture, we nonetheless struggle mightily with the notion that they "share French culture." For "what is French culture?" is a question sociologists of culture are inclined to study the battle over rather than answer directly themselves.


Excerpted from Social Theory Now by Claudio E. Benzecry. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Theory Now Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, and Isaac Ariail Reed
1 On the Very Idea of Cultural Sociology Isaac Ariail Reed
2 Varieties of Microsociology Claudio E. Benzecry and Daniel Winchester
3 Globalizing Gender Dorit Geva
4 World Capitalism, World Hegemony, World Empires Ho-Fung Hung
5 Postcolonial Thought as Social Theory Julian Go
6 On the Frontiers of Rational Choice Ivan Ermakoff
7 Systems in Social Theory Dirk Baecker
8 The Patterns in Between: “Field” as a Conceptual Variable Monika Krause
9 Poststructuralism Today Claire Laurier Decoteau
10 Networks and Network Theory: Possible Directions for Unification Emily Erikson
11 Actor-Network Theory Javier Lezaun
12 The Sociology of Conventions and Testing Jörg Potthast
13 Norms and Mental Imagery Neil Gross and Zachary Hyde
List of Contributors

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