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The Future of Cultural Sociology - Andrew J. Perrin

On the morning of Monday, August 10, a panel of distinguished cultural sociologists gathered to discuss “The Future of Cultural Sociology.” The panel was organized by incoming section Chair Karen Cerulo and she asked me to moderate. The room was overflowing, and we had a spirited discussion featuring Karin Knorr Cetina, Joshua Gamson, Jeffrey K. Olick, Karen Cerulo, Viviana Zelizer and Ann Mische.

The panelists covered questions about what they did and did not expect to be the future of the sub-discipline and its relationship with other disciplines and other parts of sociology. Toward the end, a discussion emerged of just how much of a “big tent” cultural sociology should be vis-a-vis the sociology of culture. Another way of thinking about this dispute is to what extent the varying elements of cultural sociology—or the sociology of culture—mutually inform one another instead of existing in parallel with one another.

Unsurprisingly, we did not have time to finish the discussion in San Francisco, and so we are moving it online to the discussion area of CultureWeb, the section's website. You can join the conversation below:

To open the discussion I asked for suggestions of questions from section members via email. I received over 50 suggestions, and I distilled these into five big questions to get the ball rolling. The original questions are below, but the discussion was wide-ranging and went well beyond these areas!

1.) One member writes that “studies of communication media have become increasingly peripheral to the sociology of culture.” Several others ask how the panel sees media, particularly mass and interactive media modalities, in the future of cultural sociology. On a closely related note, what about the sociological study of language? How does, or should, it relate to cultural sociology?

2.) Another broad set of questions involves what I will call the kinds of culture, or as one questionwriter put it, “where Culture fits into culture.” One writer says that “sociology rarely gives...attention” to “the arts, literature, the mass media, especially film, fashion.” Others ask about areas for development in the sociology of music. I'd like to discuss both the frontiers for the study of these objects but also what affinities and roadblocks there are to combining the study of these cultural forms with the study of cultures as collective, unifying, or symbolic systems. As one writer asks: “What is the role of art, literature, music, etc. in other fundamental social relations, especially race, class, gender, etc.?”

3.) Two writers had similar questions that I think will be very interesting to explore. “What new areas or topics of cultural sociology aren't we likely to see in coming years? What are the barriers to doing cultural analysis on certain kinds of topics? Is the sky the limit?” “What questions do they think are likely to emerge from the field but are dead-ends, uninteresting, or otherwise hazardous?”

4.) We need to consider international comparisons. “What is the future of comparative cultural sociology, and how can we make the field more truly international?” “Is there a future for 'culture' in current approaches to globalization? Do we need a new paradigm of globalization to make room for culture?”

5.) Several writers asked about what might be called the utility of culture. Does the sociology of culture have policy relevance? What is it, and how? “What is the 'demon of our time' (Weber) and how should cultural sociologists be dealing with it?” “What is the relationship between very real and changing ecological conditions with 'environmentalism'” (or “the environment”) as social/symbolic phenomena?

The panel:

The crowd:


I've been thinking a bit lately about our conspicuous, collective silence regarding "civilizational sociology" (a la Huntington, Tiryakian, and others). I am not suggesting that civilizational sociology is dead within American sociology, but it is nearly so. And yet, if we want to develop cultural arguments and theoretical frameworks that can be used for comparative and global analysis, don't we need to address the comparative cultural sociology of our intellectual forebears? The 'practice turn' in cultural sociology has taken us in another direction entirely, but it seems to me some of the recent work on moral cultures has an implicitly civilizational bent. Then there's the matter of Samuel Huntington's international renown. If any one of us, or some of us together, want to make an intellectual impact beyond our own discipline, and one hopes beyond academia altogether, don't we need to grapple with the civilizationists?

--Gabe Ignatow

Thanks to Andy for organizing a great panel on cultural sociology at the ASA. It was quite thought-provoking. I didn't get a chance to make my comments during the session, but here is a thought that has been bugging me:

There seemed to be a real divide on the panel between the sociology of culture (represented by Josh Gamson) and cultural sociology (represented by everyone else). I understand that there are important differences between the two approaches and that the section attempts to accommodate both. I wouldn't mind this diversity in the section if I didn't feel as if the sociologists of culture are a bit marginalized.

To be provocative and somewhat selfish, I would argue that the primary focus of the section should be the sociology of culture. In fact, I really wonder if cultural sociology is any different than sociology in general. For instance, when I did my dissertation on school choice I examined how the past experiences, cultural contexts, the meanings, the "tastes", etc. of the actors helped to shape their ultimate choices. I didn't see myself as a cultural sociologist -- just a sociologist looking at the question in a way that a sociologist would and an economist, for instance, might not.

Therefore, I don't fully understand why a section on culture in the ASA should primarily be a place for folks who study how tastes, meanings, networks, contexts, etc. influence action -- that should be what we all do (perhaps this is why the section has grown so much!). For my money, I want a section for folks who study cultural production and consumption. I find this fascinating and important because in my mind it is at the intersection of production and consumption where we can see the intersection of structure and agency -- we don't just see how people "choose" one thing or another, we see how people live their lives at this intersection. We see how human experiences, meanings, and preferences influence the production of culture through consumption patterns and how the production of culture (embedded in fields of power) influences our experiences, preferences, meanings, etc...

Anyway, I've over-simplified and over-reached, but I think it's an important conversation that needs to continue (at the very least so folks like Josh and I don't feel marginalized!).

Robert C. Bulman

Dear Robert,
I don't think you've over-simplified at all. I'd even dare to be a bit blunter, and ask, what is the identity of cultural sociology when its main ideas (tastes, meanings, identities, schemas, mental models, frames, cultural codes etc.) have entered mainstream sociology? That is, the "cultural turn" has run its course. Everyone is talking about culture, most everyone recognizes its importance. So now what?

Perhaps our future contributions will be mainly in the sociology of culture per se, and in developing innovative methods of cultural analysis. Any thoughts?

Gabe Ignatow