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Message from the Chair: Global Differences in Conceptualizing Culture

Why should US sociologists learn to speak or read other languages, when English is the world language? Aren’t the sociologies of non-English language communities transposed seamlessly into English? How does the path from French (post-)structuralism lead forward to American-style pragmatism? And if it does, why is it so difficult for US and French sociologists to collaborate in studying “culture”? Why do Brazilians read Gramsci differently than Europeans tend to? Why in Japan do sociologists have less purchase on the study of culture than scholars from other disciplines and from outside the academy altogether? More generally, how do scholarly conceptions of culture differ, intersect, and travel (or not) across national and regional borders?

These questions and others arise from an invited session at last year’s ASA meetings on “Global Differences in Conceptualizing Culture” that I co-organized with Paul Lichterman and Ann Mische. The session was co-sponsored by the Culture and Theory sections, with modest financial support from a “Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline”grant from the National Science Foundation and the ASA. We were honored by the participation of Daniel Cefai, Institut Marcel Mauss, EHESS-Paris, France; Evelina Dagnino, University of Campinas, Brazil; Thomas Eberle, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland; and Eiko Ikegami, New School for Social Research, USA. Paul Lichterman introduced the session, and Michele Lamont served as discussant. In addition to their appearance here, the papers from this session will also appear in the inaugural issue of the newsletter of the Research Network on Culture of the European Sociological Association (which Thomas Eberle chairs), and possibly in other venues as a way of fostering the widest possible dialogue about the questions they raise. (There is only space, in the print edition of Culture, for extracts of these papers. Needless to say, the extracts cannot begin to convey the full force of the arguments. Full versions of the papers are readily available on the Section’s website: )

The global differences that the session was intended to explore were never imagined to be “essentialistic” ones, although in decades past they might have been imagined that way. Up until the period of the world wars, it was (as Don Levine [1995] has demonstrated) fruitful to conceive national sociological traditions in essentialistic terms, since those traditions developed in relative isolation from each other, within distinguishing frameworks of characteristically different sets of basic methodological, ontological, and normative postulates (e. g., methodological individualism v. methodological collectivism). Theoretical variations among the different traditions were far greater than the theoretical variations within them, due to general consensus within each tradition about such basic postulates. No longer, however, is that the case. Indeed as these papers indicate, national traditions are fundamentally divided against themselves (in ways that vary from tradition to tradition).

The authors’ readings of their national traditions reflect their personal research projects and passions: Eiko, reflecting on her own “commuting identity”as a Japanese-raised US scholar studying Japan; Evelina, a political scientist-activist studying the struggles and contradictions of Brazilian social movements; Daniel, collaborating with Paul Lichterman and others across idiomatic differences in a comparative study of agencies for the homeless in Paris and elsewhere; Thomas, reviving and complementing our understanding of lifeworlds with a new emphasis on pragmatics.

Comparing their four papers indicates the ways that global historical and institutional processes help shape conceptions of culture. In both Japan and Brazil, the study of culture falls more within the purview of cultural studies than sociology, partly in opposition to US and western hegemony. In Japan, the postwar transformation of academic institutions--at once following and resisting the US model--created culture-studying “publics” (spheres of communicative action as sites of cultural production and identity-formation) in interdisciplinary fields and outside the academy. There is thus no Japanese equivalent to the ASA’s Culture Section. In Brazil, the theory of culture developed in conjunction with the emergence of social movements combating poverty, exclusion, and authoritarian regimes. In this context, culture was conceptualized as “a simultaneous production of meanings and power relations,” in Evelina’s terms, informed above all by a revision of reductionist marxist readings of Gramsci, so that not only is culture inflected by power, but power is constituted by culture. This focus on culture’s generative tensions and possibilities dislodges statist assumptions and broadens the very conceptions of politics and democracy.

The reports from Switzerland and France suggest a less ambivalent embrace of US sociology, which after all is largely sprung from European roots. Daniel Cefai and his colleagues are rediscovering and revitalizing symbolic interactionism and other approaches to the study of meaning-making. Daniel’s paper can be read as a revisionist version of Homo Academicus; while US sociologists are still striving to decipher the oracular pronouncements about symbol systems of French structuralism and post-structuralism, many French sociologists are refining “pragmatist sociology,” by studying inter-objectivity as well as inter-subjectivity; identifying the conventions that enable joint action; and specifying the grounds of justification. The French, in Daniel’s account, have come up against some of the same puzzling impasses as have such US sociologists as Eliasoph and Licherman: “How do we grasp ‘cultural patterns’ beyond the contextual description of meaning-making activities? . . . What is the connection between symbols and action?” But as Paul Lichterman noted (in a comment at the 2007 ASA meetings that provided one impetus for this 2008 session), the French do not use the term “culture” the way that US sociologists do. Thus Daniel has to tease out the points of articulation between the two sociologies.

Thomas emphasizes the limitations of such translations. Language, after all, is the foundation of the lifeworld. German sociology has traditionally opposed “culture” to “civilization”—but what Germans denote by “culture” is closer to the English word “civilization.” Having been acculturated to the multi-lingual society of Switzerland, Thomas argues that “you cannot really understand another culture if you do not understand its language!” German sociology places greater emphasis on phenomenology than US sociology; German sociologists are revisiting the legacy of Alfred Schutz (as it happens, a refugee from Austria-Germany to the US in 1938, which is especially relevant to this session because his corpus includes works in both German and English). The complete (and critically re-edited) version, in process, of Schutz’s works reveals (among other promising openings) a previously overlooked pragmatic orientation to that work that has dramatic significance for the sociology of culture.

An obvious important benefit to US cultural sociologists of bringing together diverse global perspectives , as Michele Lamont noted in her closing comments at the ASA session, is to alert us to distinctive properties of our own practice that we would otherwise take for granted. She noted in particular the pressure applied by funders and evaluators towards systematic research designs and scientistic rhetoric. Eiko complements that observation by pointing out how the “competitive professionalization” of US academics differs from the traditional Japanese models of scholars as sources of wisdom or as public intellectuals. As a result of US academic hegemony, however, she expects the US model to become more influential. Michele noted that the Bologna process (aimed at creating a European Higher Education Area) similarly brought to Europe such US-style concerns as peer-review, H-scores, and the impact index of publication outlets.

Another benefit of surveying diverse global perspectives is to deepen the heuristics of cultural inquiry. The four papers printed here incorporate a range of methods—reflexive, dialectical, and agonistic. Their versions of culture also encompass the different “modes of language” that Andy Abbott (2004) borrows from Charles Morris: semantic (we might say, meaning-making), pragmatic (action-oriented), and syntagmatic (relating parts within a larger structure). Indeed, the very absence of satisfactory translations for “culture” within and among the varied traditions generates elaboration of the primitive set of heuristic possibilities. Daniel and Thomas, for example, are both working to join semantic and pragmatic conceptions of culture. Evelina’s attempt to join the pragmatic and semantic extends over into syntagmatics—leading to a recasting of relations among culture, politics, and economics. Eiko and Thomas even provide specific “methods of discovery” for amplifying conceptions of culture. Eiko provides a meso-level “trick of the trade”: investigate the field that embeds the networked “public” within which cultures emerge. Thomas, ever the sociologist erudite about language, enjoins us to focus on untranslatables, and suggests a strategy for doing so: analyze semantic fields both synchronically and diachronically, as well as both semasiologically and onomasiologically (that is, exploring all meanings of a given term as well as all designations of a given object). By becoming more cosmopolitan—and multi-lingual—we can amplify the conception of culture as we learn to inquire in new ways about relations of lifeworlds, interaction patterns, meaning, power, institutions, publics, and history.


Abbott, Andrew. 2004. Patterns of Discovery. New York: Norton.

Levine, Donald N. 1995. Visions of the Sociological Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.