Skip to content

A Message from the Chair

A Message from the Chair


Rick Fantasia

In the past, section chairs have tended to use this space in the newsletter to push cultural analysis forward in one way or another, either by introducing (and sometimes sanctifying) their own perspective or by identifying a new direction they consider promising and then plotting a course toward it. That seems completely reasonable and appropriate and I had intended to do much the same thing. My plan was to lay out the reasons why I think Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical method is so useful for doing cultural analysis, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I am going to go in the other direction, backwards. I don’t know how edifying it will be to others, but I really have no other choice. For just as I was sitting down to this essay and fretting about what I might write about Bourdieu that would be interesting and instructive to others, I received the very sad news that Lewis M. Killian had passed away at the age of 91. I doubt that many younger scholars know who he was, but many older ones will. Killian was a highly regarded sociologist, known for important work on race relations and on collective behavior. He also happened to have been a mentor of mine who, in addition to supervising my Ph.D. thesis, allowed me to be his intellectual jousting partner during a formative period in my training as a sociologist and I have always felt indebted to him in the ways that students do toward their mentors. I don’t intend to present anything approaching an intellectual obituary of Lewis Killian here (ASA Footnotes will undoubtedly do that), but his passing occurs just as I am thinking through the trajectory of my relationship to cultural analysis for this newsletter. Being able to reflect on the ways that I have been influenced to think about culture may help me to figure out what I actually do think about it, and perhaps will offer something to younger sociologists trying to situate themselves in relation to cultural analysis.

I got to know Lewis Killian in the late 1970’s as a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I had gone to grad school to make sociological sense of previous experiences I had had as a worker and labor activist, sorting out the relationship between worker consciousness and collective action. From the beginning, Killian and I clashed over these issues. His was a symbolic interactionist perspective that had been cultivated studying with Herbert Blumer at the University of Chicago after the war. His conception was expressed most clearly through the “emergent norm” approach to collective behavior, developed in collaboration with Ralph Turner. My initial reaction was that it was overly social-psychologistic and “under-structural” and I was not prepared to discard the idea of class power as the motor for industrial action in favor of an interactionist approach that seemed to run without any motor at all.

I now see that our intellectual differences were as much generational and semantic as ideological (if these can ever be fully separated). The emergent norm approach had been conceptualized as a corrective to two traditional tendencies in the study of collective behavior. In the one, “contagion theories” viewed The Crowd as irrational, excitable, and easily swayed by its fragile emotional state; while the other, “convergence theories”, tended to take collective action for granted as an automatic response to the nature of the situation that precipitated it (a response assumed to be equally self-evident to all participants). This was essentially where Marxism fit in for Turner and Killian. But whereas their generation of scholars had been essentially compelled to avoid Marxism like the Plague, my generation had been increasingly drawn to it, both in reaction to the “abstracted empiricism” of mainstream sociological practice, and to the theoretical hegemony of a Structural-Functionalism that cast shared norms and values as the essence of contemporary societies (seemingly oblivious to the social and political upheaval still swirling through just about everything).

To the ears of political radicals of the “disobedient generation” the language of emergent norms echoed with the sound of consensus and constraint, resembling too closely the structural functionalism that we were in battle against. It wasn’t only that our generation’s jargon differed from the their generation’s jargon, but that academic discourse always represents a more or less distinctive set of sign languages that furnish the passwords for entrance into one club of cognoscenti or another (and this is no less true today). For our generation the very rubric of “collective behavior” was suspect for allowing into its purview not only the study of natural disasters, but what many of us considered trivial cultural phenomena (fads, fashions, and crazes), thereby threatening to devalue, by association, what we regarded as the only legitimate analytical objects: political protest and revolutionary action.

It was through long and intensive debate and discussion with Killian that I began to lessen my grip and recognize the limits that certain political commitments were imposing on my thinking, for while Marxism provided an invaluable political-economic critique of the social order, it also carried perceptual limitations. The symbolic interactionist lens allowed for a focus on the complexities and contradictions in the formation of collective action and group consciousness, allowing one to steer clear of the methodological individualism of survey research. Through that lens collective action came into view as an uneven and fluctuating inter-subjective process within which group consciousness is shaped in the moment and in opposition. Killian pushed me to see that the unity and unanimity of workers was not some natural state to be revealed in collective action, but the product of an intricate series of symbolic negotiations within and between groups engaged in a collective sense-making process. It became increasingly apparent that it would be intellectually negligent to gloss over process and to minimize or disregard the uneven and differential nature of participation in group formation. To do so could produce only the mirage of solidarity, making it hard to perceive emergent meanings, practices, and organizational forms in working-class culture. Ignoring this complexity would have made for a much weaker sociological analysis and would also have been of little use to workers, labor organizers, or their organizations.

The symbolic interactionist approach provided three valuable elements: contingency of outcome (as against determinism); an emphasis on process (the emergence and dynamics of collective action); and symbolic communication (both within the group and in the bodily comportment of the group). By attending to the immediacy of events, symbolic interactionism generated a certain analytical vitality that added to its allure. At the same time, by condensing so much of what matters in social life to its unfolding it tended to leave structural circumstances and institutional forms in obscurity, and this seemed a serious intellectual shortcoming. This was enough to prevent me from going all the way with symbolic interactionism, but it led me directly into the arms of E.P.Thompson, Raymond Williams, and their cohort of British social historians, many with experience as active anti-fascists, disillusioned “fellow-travelers” of the British Communist Party, and as teachers in working class adult education centers who had made a break with the British CP after 1956 to form a “New Left” (literally). In intellectual terms they sought to free their work from the determining pressures and stultifying economism of classical Marxism, restoring the dimension of meaning to social action, while keeping working class life and culture at the center of their focus. Together, they had a remarkable intellectual presence that gave life to the field of social history and gave birth to what would later become known as “cultural studies”. From their institutional outpost at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University they deployed a broad range of theoretical and methodological tools from historical studies, literary criticism, philosophy and sociology (including, reputedly, the work of Mead, Blumer, and symbolic interactionism!).

For my part I found a particularly compelling set of analytical instruments in the work of E.P. Thompson, whose radically relational (and contingent) conceptualization of class as a “lived” cultural experience appeared as a thoroughly refreshing departure from both the arid “stratificationism” of US sociology and the overwrought theoreticism of structuralist marxism. Indeed, Thompson’s cultural Marxism (or Marxist culturalism) bore a striking resemblance to the most attractive elements of symbolic interactionism, to the extent that it put a processual dynamic at the center of class analysis; that it emphasized the contingent nature of historical outcomes; and with its focus on symbolic expression in working class life and politics. Although I probably thought so at the time, I was hardly the first to discover theoretical affinities between interactionism and a culturally-inflected Marxism (and cultural studies), for other scholars have associated Marx and Mead and interactionism and cultural studies. Moreover, the links between cultural analysis and Marxism have at times been drawn through the notion of “praxis”, a concept that rests fairly comfortably in both theoretical domains.

I know that Lewis Killian read through some of Thompson’s work during this period and that he reacted quite positively to it. Through my reading of Thompson I was prompted to redirect the object of my analysis in a way that framed the workplace as a site of cultural production. By forcing social actors (workers and employers) outside the round of their everyday routines and institutional channels, industrial action served as a medium for the construction of new practices, valuations, relationships, and organizational forms, an emergent cultural expression. These situations were not produced randomly, but were generated by the structural logic of industrial capitalism, providing the context for forms of collective action that could easily be disregarded by the symbolic interactionist approach. At the same time, without it I would have understood little by neglecting the construction and dynamics of collective interaction and the process of cultural production.

The point is that I don’t know that I would have made it to that crucial analytical intersection without the help of Lewis M. Killian and I thought you should know that.

Ralph H. Turner and Lewis M. Killian, Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1957 (revised editions published in 1972 and 1987).

See Turner and Killian (1972) pp. 21-25.

Alan Sica and Stephen Turner (eds). A Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties

While Thompson’s masterwork, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth UK:Penguin Books, 1963) was well known and hugely influential, his articles on the socially contested nature of time, and land, and markets, and ritual in the context of capitalist transformation were equally remarkable. The best of these articles have been collected in E.P. Thompson, Customs In Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (NY: The New Press, 1991); while his extraordinary polemic against of Althusser and structural Marxism, published in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1978), must stand among the most incisive works of cultural criticism in the English language.

Tom W. Goff, Marx and Mead (London: Routdledge & Kegan Paul, 1980); and see Howard S. Becker and Michal M. McCall (Eds.) Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1990), and especially the Introduction by the editors and chapter 2, “History” by John R. Hall. And more recently, Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman, “Culture in Interaction”, American Journal of Sociology Vol. 108 No. 4(January 2003): 735-94.

See, for example, Shlomo Avineri, The Social & Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge UK: Cambridge U. Press, 1968); and Richard J. Bernstein, Praxis and Action (Philadelphia PA: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1971); and Zygmunt Bauman’s Culture As Praxis (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).

This became the analytical approach that I took in my book, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1988).