Workshop in Cultural Sociology, 2006–2007

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Workshop 9/8: Orientation

Welcome Back! This week we will meet and discuss our progress and our plans for the coming year. Please come prepared to say a few words about what you have been up to. We welcome our new Fellows: Xiaohong Xu from The University of Notre Dame and Peking University in Beijing, and John Dickson from La Trobe University and Monash University. Also with us this semester: Graduate exchange student Alexa Yesukevich from Cornell University and Visiting Fellow Ian Woodward from Griffith University. Here for September: Visiting Fellow Orlando Lentini from the University of Naples, Visiting Fellow Massimo Rosati from The University of Salerno, and Visiting Fellow Matteo Bortolini from the University of Padua.

Workshop 9/15: Jeffrey Alexander

Iconic Experience in Art and Life: Standing Before Giacometti’s “Standing Woman”

I first developed this essay for presentation at the Yale Art Museum in Fall, 2002. Since then a version has been published in a new Italian journal called Studi Culturali An English version has been accepted for publication in Theory, Culture, and Society, for which I am preparing minor revisions. The paper retains, obviously, its “spoken” form, and it is not heavily annotated nor well-connected to the large and growing literature on material culture and icon. I intend to explore some of this literature further in my undergraduate seminar on material culture next Spring. Nevertheless, this paper does mark the beginning of what might become a new research program, one that addresses what I have been thinking of as iconic consciousness. That there remains such an iconic form of consciousness questions — as do other research directions in the strong program for cultural sociology — the idea of sharp break between traditional and modern societies. Iconic consciousness looks a lot like totemism, within a more pluralistic and critical social and cultural frame. How can a discursive understanding of culture structures, and the radical separation of signifer from signified — the latter of which includes centrally material referents — be reconciled with the centrality of material forms, the significance of tactile sensations, the power of aesthetic line, shape, and color, and the growing or at least continuing centrality of non-verbal and non-written channels of meaning? That is the central theoretical question to be addressed in this research. In answering it, I hope to be able to say interesting things about the relation of life and art, of meaning to post-industrial economic life, to branding, to advertising, to celebrity and popular culture, including sports, to film, photographs, and television, and perhaps also to sex and gender.

Required Readings

Workshop 9/22: Michael Schudson

Expertise and Public Discourse in American Democracy

The paper I will present takes up the widespread assumption that the values of expertise and the values of democracy are incompatible. Since practical realities require democratic governments to depend on experts, theorists focus on how to keep experts on a short leash. In contrast, I argue that experts are of greatest value to democracy when they stand up to those in government who hire them or seek their counsel, not when they surrender professional judgment to political masters. In short, there are dangers in the “short leash” model and I offer some suggestions on how to think more wisely about the role of expertise in democracy, including some consideration of the role of the politician as a special kind of expert. Two supplementary papers offer some thoughts on how to think about journalism today. In “Autonomy From What?” I reverse field and argue that there is danger for the public if journalists are too independent of the state and the marketplace — some sort of mixed model, rather than full autonomy for journalists, will serve democracy best. “Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press” does not relate directly to the question of expertise but it does suggest that journalism may serve the public best when it is most attuned to pursuing short-term, eye-catching, breaking news that provokes chatter and astonishment and not when it is thoughtful, reflective, interpretive, analytical. I guess what all of the papers have in common is the view that we sometimes make the wrong choices on behalf of “democracy” when we try to make each of the components of a democratic society admirably open, virtuous, egalitarian, thoughtful, and nice.

Required Readings

Workshop 9/29: Jonathan Hyman and Carolyn Marvin

Rites of the Wall: Street Murals Talk to the Neighborhood After 9/11

On September 11, 2001 people began hanging store-bought and handmade flags to decorate their property. Others left spontaneous memorials and heartfelt artwork and displays in public gathering places or on the side of the road. From the beginning, the reaction to the September 11th attacks was an overwhelming and powerful vernacular response. However, it only became clear to me after shooting about fifty or so rolls of film that I was looking at a rare and dramatic intersection of private emotion and public expression. Americans were talking to each other. They were speaking out loud to one another freely, openly, and sometimes profanely in public — on their cars, houses, places of business, bodies, and on any other place they could find. My collection of photographs depicts a nation coming to grips with a horrifying attack while at the same time trying to adjust to and understand its new sense of vulnerability. Although the works express different emotions and opinions, the language expressed is universal and comprehensible. Americans have drawn upon their history of folk art and memorial making and have woven these elements together to make a unique statement derived from, and in many ways about, our contemporary popular culture. A new Americana has been created around the 9/11 attacks. (J. Hyman, 2006.)

Required Readings

Workshop 10/6: Ian Woodward

Cosmopolitanism and Culture: Representations, Practices and Performances

My research to date has been within the field of material culture studies and sociological approaches to consumption. Here, I have been interested in many facets of people-object relations, but especially the ‘accomplished’ or performed nature of personal taste, the narrativisation of relations with objects, and various dilemmas around consumerism and materialism. The work I present to the workshop this week is part of an effort to develop a second major strand of research. In the last couple of years, I have been working with a small group of colleagues on cosmopolitanism. Struck — and sometimes aghast — by the recent proliferation of work in the field we decided to apply our diverse interests to this topic. Our first effort is a theoretical piece which was published in late 2004. This is available for you to read. The piece manages to condense our diverse approaches — a transnationalism scholar, a Foucault-inspired writer on various questions of governance, and someone interested in matters of cultural consumption (myself) — into a comprehensive, critical and strong piece. If you’re not familiar with the field, this will serve a useful background reading. The next two pieces are drafts. They are only two thirds complete, I would say. They are our first empirical attempts to understand cosmopolitanism. One of the papers is qualitative, the other quantitative. I am interested to hear your ideas, and to see how I can improve these papers before sending them off for review.

Required Readings

Workshop 10/13: Radim Marada

Homo Interpretans: On the Use of Cultural Representations in Sociological Analysis

The text attempts to demonstrate the analytical range and reach of the concept of cultural representations for current sociology in general, and cultural sociology in particular. It especially aspires to show how such analytical strategy may contribute to a sociological understanding of social action in its very empirical dimensions. That is, the text pursues substantial rather than conceptual questions, and the argument is developed by looking for allied sociological positions, rather than through a critique or polemic. It consistently draws on Georg Simmel’s psychological account of coquetry, and most of the given examples and illustrations make use of this cultural form and behavioral mode as an empirical point of reference, albeit sometimes in a rather speculative or hypothetical way. The point remains theoretical in kind: the text attempts to present a complex picture of general attributes of cultural forms and cultural representations as sources of meaningful social action, that is, their historicity, social embeddedness, supra-individual character, and especially their active intervention in guiding social action and shaping or structuring social world.

Required Readings

Workshop 10/20: Rui Gao

The Anti-Japanese Protest in China: A Case Study of Cultural Performance

A continuous ripple of anti-Japanese protests broke out in China in April 2005. It is a major happening in contemporary Chinese society and has drawn attention from journalists and scholar alike in the international community. However, few research has been done on this topic ever since. This paper aims at offering an empirical account, perhaps the first of its kind, of these protest events. Taking these events as cultural performance, I would try to analyze the protests from the perspective of cultural pragmatics (Alexander & Mast 2003; Alexander 2004), i.e. to understand them through the six basic elements: systems of collective representation, actors, observers/audience, means of symbolic production, mise-en-scene, and social power (Alexander 2004). I would also try to integrate into my analysis concepts and theories borrowed from social movement literature. Owing to the typical complexity of such cultural performance, I would define the actors in this case as the Chinese protestors that actually took to the street and participated in the demonstration, and focus on how they project their meanings by the creation of a foreground script through the identification of an antagonist, the construction of a collective identity and a narrative of grievance and redress that rings true to the background representation. I would draw special attention to a hidden script that has been encoded within this foreground script by the actors which conveys message of opposition and challenge that is to be recognized by part of the audience yet missed by the others. I would then elaborate on the meaning interpretation that different sections of the audience, including the Chinese people in general, the government and the “objective” third-party observers, the Western media (what Rauer (2004) would have identified as the second-order audience), made of these protests, arguing that the ambiguity and ambivalence of the hidden script has played a key role in determining the different readings of these different audience. My conclusion is that success of a cultural performance, or whether it could produce what Alexander calls the “psychological identification and cultural extension” (Alexander 2004), is contingent on all the elements that are involved and its effects would differ dramatically for different audience who may or may not share the collective background representation with the actors.

Required Readings

Workshop 10/27: Ron Eyerman

The Drama of Integration: The Netherlands and Islamic Radicalism

An essay by Paul Scheffer in the NRC Handelsblad, the prominent evening newspaper, in January 2000 unexpectedly crystallized a growing uneasiness in the Netherlands concerning the immigrant population in its midst. Carrying the portentous title “The Multicultural Drama,” the article warned that current immigration policy, or rather lack of one, had created an underclass whose assimilation into Dutch society was unlikely. Scheffer pointed to a recent government report where it was predicted that by 2015 there would be more than 2 million “allochton” in the Netherlands, or about 12% of the population and that they would soon compose about 50% of the inhabitants of the four largest cities. These immigrants, he stressed, would not come from the United States or Sweden, but from Turkey, Morocco, Suriname and the Antilles. While Scheffer’s intention was probably not to arouse the fears of an anxious Dutch populace, to the contrary he mentioned the anxiety felt by alienated Moroccan youth in Dutch cities, his article spurred a furious debate on immigration policy which has yet to abide…

Required Readings

Workshop 11/3: Inge Brooke Schmidt

When Good Ballots Go Bad: A Material Cultural Sociology of Voting

In literature on political participation in the United States, there is a latent understanding of failure. Be it structural or human, something is not working. Yet this issue has been drastically under theorized. What exactly is failing? What would success look like? While the contested 2000 Presidential Election went largely unnoticed by the sociological imagination to date, it brought to this notion of failure to the surface in a tangible way. In this paper, I investigate this notion of failure. This failure, I argue, is neither structural nor human, but ritual. The ballot is the totemic symbol of voting ritual. Taking what I call a material cultural sociology, I consider voting ritual through the lens of the ballot. Tracing the material history of the ballot, I ask how does the ballot embody and represent the sacred and profane? With an understanding of what the ritual should be, we can then better understand when the ritual fails. In the 2000 Election, the ballot was repeatedly polluted and profaned, and thus required repair and re-definition to voting ritual in the aftermath.

Required Readings

Workshop 11/10: Jeffrey Goldfarb

The Politics of Small Things and the Sociology of Culture

This presentation is part of a larger project, a comparative and historical study of what I call “the politics of small things.” The first phase of the project is now complete, having led to the publication of my new book, The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times. Today I would like to tell you about this phase, and talk to you, as well, about where I am going.

Required Readings

Workshop 11/17: Eyal Rabinovitch

We Are All Stakeholders Now: A Cultural Approach to the Rise of Global Governance

At the 1998 meeting of the International Committee on Large Dams (ICOLD), the head of the World Bank’s powerful Operations Evaluations Department explained that nowadays when development planners build Third World dams, the people displaced by them are treated differently than they used to be. “In the old days,” said John Briscoe, “resettlement used to be dealt with by saying to the affected people: ‘The water is rising.’ That’s how it was done.” Since then, however, planners had grown more enlightened… Somehow, by the mid-90s, global water developers learned that when they flood people’s homes in the name of giving them a better life, talking with them beforehand “really does matter.” Considering that the Bank and ICOLD had collaborated on thousands of dams that displaced tens of millions of people since the 1950s, often by violent force, one has to wonder how this lesson was learned, and why it happened when it did…

Required Readings

Workshop 12/1: Scott Lash

Intensive Culture: The Problem of Value

[1] There is a certain lineage from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Walter Benjamin. Benjamin does notably use the idea of the monad. There is a section on Monadology in his Origin of German Tragic Drama (Trauerspiel) fairly universally hailed as Benjamin’s most sustained and original work. Further in the Passagenwerk he treated the arcades as a monad to the extent that they were closed, and to which there were no windows or doors for anything to get in (Gunn 2003)… [2] Contemporary capitalism is becoming increasingly metaphysical. This paper contrasts a “physical” capitalism — of the national and manufacturing age — with a “metaphysical capitalism” of the global information society… [3] This paper presents a case for the revaluation of vitalism in sociological theory. It argues for the relevance of such a Lebenssoziologie in the global information age. The body of the paper addresses what a vitalist sociology might be through a consideration of Georg Simmel.

Required Readings

Workshop 12/8: Andreas Hess

Reluctant Modernization: Plebeian Culture and Moral Economy in the Basque Country

In the Basque Country cooking and eating together in gastronomic societies (in Basque: txokos, in Spanish: sociedades gastronomicas) are highly popular activities. They represent a form of social bonding that has, maybe surprisingly, not been given much sociological attention. This article tries to remedy this situation. It recalls and describes the history, development and geographical distribution of the txoko; it looks into its formal organisation, its unique social and culinary environment and its social functions. It concludes by suggesting that the txoko is a phenomenon that may best be studied and discussed in the context of plebeian cultures and related moral economies.

Required Readings

Workshop 1/19: Mark Jacobs

Scandal and the Negation of Accountability

“The Spirit of Enron and the Capitalist Ethic” is a paper I originally presented at a thematic session of last summer’s ASA and am revising for submission to Cultural Sociology. Based on my reading of the transcript of last year’s Lay-Skilling trial, I claim that Enron was not (as the government claimed) an unusually crooked corporation run by rogue executives, but rather a vanguard corporation operating at the edge of legality in ways that were “normalized” throughout the “new economy.” The ruthless competition at the heart of capitalism drives innovative and successful entrepreneurs to operate on that edge. This is not to defend the legality or morality of Enron’s chief executives, but to emphasize more general problems of social control amidst the increasing complexity and risk of American corporate practice.

Required Readings

Workshop 1/26: Wendy Griswold

Glamour and Honor: Going Online and Reading in West African Culture

In the fragile reading cultures of the developing world, will people abandon print as they embrace the Internet? Whether media compete or collaborate depends on place-specific factors. West Africans insert online practices into a local context of material circumstances, social roles, and cultural values. In Nigeria and Ghana these include, (1) unreliable electricity and execrable telephone service; (2) overworked women, jobless young men, scammers, and ambitious teenagers; and (3) a reading culture of limited penetration but enormous prestige. Internet access via cybercafés has intensified personal communications, reinforced gender inequality, and allowed petty crooks to go global. However it has not encroached on reading’s all-but-sacred status. Both net-savvy youth and the adult “reading class” protect reading practices through spatial and temporal separation, time management, and functional differentiation. These preserve the honored position of reading despite West Africans’ enthusiasm for the glamour of going online.

Required Readings

Workshop 2/2: Michael Yarbrough

The Grip of “Legal Consciousness:” Theoretical and Methodological Elaboration of the Law-Culture-Society Nexus

Over the last two and a half decades, theoretical and empirical work on law and culture in society has increasingly deployed the vocabulary of “legal consciousness.” This paper argues that the vocabulary first appeared in the legal academic work of Critical Legal Studies, and was then appropriated by sociolegal scholars to address perceived deficiencies in the “gap studies” of mid-century sociologies of law. In the process, legal consciousness contributed to the development of a more mutually constitutive view of the relationship between law and society. For all these benefits, however, this paper argues that by imperceptible degrees legal consciousness work began to lose its way. Most particularly, by the late 1990s it often became difficult to discern just what was legal about legal consciousness. Legal consciousness research since then has begun to address this problem, almost inadvertently, by delimiting its focus to specific doctrinal areas presumed to correspond to specific domains of social life. While this move has better helped to ground legal consciousness work, it sidesteps the real problem: Scholars of law, culture, and society need a workable, robust definition of “law.” Such a definition itself requires a more fully developed theory of the law-culture-society nexus. This paper concludes by suggesting some of the work such a theory, along with its corresponding definition of “law,” should do in order to be methodologically useful.

Required Readings

Workshop 2/9: Nadya Jaworsky

Moving from Diverse to Divided: Stirring up the Melting Pot in a Multicultural Mecca

This study examines the “boundaries of belonging” in a small U.S. city where large numbers of immigrants have radically transformed its ethnic and racial makeup over the past decade. For most of its history, Danbury, Connecticut has welcomed “white ethnic” groups, but today most migrants arrive from non-European, non-“white” nations, especially Latin America. With somewhere between 12,000-15,000 undocumented residents, municipal officials estimate that the foreign-born represent nearly 40% of the city’s population. Like other “new immigrant gateways,” Danbury’s civil sphere is a hotbed of debate concerning “illegal immigration.” Data collected from fourteen months of participant observation focused on three sites in Danbury, one-on-one qualitative interviews, and written and electronic texts point to the significance of three particular categories – “immigrant,” “alien,” and “American.” A cultural sociological analysis of the structures of meaning associated with these categories reveals how individuals draw symbolic boundaries between U.S. and foreign-born city residents. Although they draw upon similar symbolic representations, some invoke formal and procedural criteria for inclusion or exclusion within the privileged (pure) categories of “American” or “immigrant” (in other words, legal boundaries), while others embrace a more substantive, humanistic standard (moral boundaries). Most often, they call upon both. But even when similar criteria are invoked, the foreign-born end up on different sides of the boundary for different people. The legal term “alien,” transforms into a signifier for the polluted, those not worthy of inclusion – neither as “Americans” nor as “immigrants.” It is not a simple dichotomy that posits “Americans” against “foreigners” or U.S. citizens and legal residents against “illegals.” Rather, the civil codes for inclusion and exclusion traverse a contested terrain of belonging, with the boundaries of who really belongs in Danbury (or in the country, for that matter) constantly shifting.

Required Readings

Workshop 2/16: Matthew Norton

A Structural Hermeneutics of the O’Reilly Factor

Since it began in 1996, The O’Reilly Factor has become the most popular programme on American cable news. Explanations for this popularity relying on a “transmission view” of the media, or ideological compatibility alone are insufficient because they posit a highly reductive concept of the audience, and they fail to attend to the specificities of the media text itself. The paper develops a “structural hermeneutics” of the show that examines it from the perspective of meaning-making and symbolic systems. The O’Reilly Factor is a highly structured media performance that creates a distinctive symbolic space for interpretation and debate over the news. The paper concludes that a failure to attend to the meaning structures of the show fails to grasp its most salient, interesting, and distinctive components.

Required Readings

Workshop 2/23: Farhad Khosrokhavar

Suicide Bombers: Allah’s New Martyrs

In the West, the suicide bomber has become a familiar image in newspapers and on television. In Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere, the results of suicide bombing have been devastating. What drives young men and women to become suicide bombers? This is not a question that is often addressed. This remarkable book provides some of the answers, and explores how the suicide bomber relates to the concept of the martyr in fundamentalist Islam. Farhad Khosrokhavar contrasts it with the idea of the martyr in Christianity. Most importantly, he offers a clear insight into the different ways in which the concept is viewed within Islam, including divisions within Islamic fundamentalist groups, which change according to the political situation of the country in which they are based.

Required Readings

Workshop 3/9: Jeffrey Alexander

Military and Performative Power: The Iraq War Between the Sacred and Profane.

If we want to understand “September 11th,” we must begin with background representations. For more than a millennium, Christians and Muslims have engaged in extravagant misunderstandings of one another. The reasons for this tragic history of conflict cannot concern us here. It is recorded in and projected by thousands of stories, written tracts, and, in modern times, by television and film. It is the cultural reality, the set of signifiers — the stereotyped constructions that constitute social imaginaries — that underlies what millions in the West and the East think they “observe” today. Actual occurrences in the conflict between East and West become events insofar as they are typified (Mast 2006). Contingent events become the signifieds of these background signifiers. Specifications and refractions of barely changing structures, they form the speech acts of the social languages that mark out the politics of the sacred and profane…

Required Readings

Workshop 3/30: Ann Swidler

“Teach a Man to Fish:” Sustainability and the Social Imaginary in AIDS NGOs

This paper asks what, if any, social impacts the torrent of humanitarian assistance that has deluged sub-Saharan Africa in the wake of the AIDS crisis is having on the ground. The paper is motivated by our sharply contrasting impressions of the world of AIDS non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Malawi, where we have worked for several years. In the capital, Lilongwe, we saw a constant buzz of activity. NGO staff—capable, energetic Malawian professionals—were working on AIDS plans and projects: there were continual seminars and conferences at the big hotels, bringing international experts together with local professionals and government ministers to build local “capacity,” to coordinate among Malawian agencies, and to mobilize local communities to define their problems and how these could be solved. In contrast, in the rural villages of Malawi where we were working (120 villages in three regions for a decade) we saw almost no evidence of local NGO activity…This paper is an attempt to analyze the sources and impacts of these contrasting realities…

Required Reading

Supplemental Readings

Workshop 4/6: Margaret Somers

Genealogies of Citizenship: Narrating Knowledge, Markets, and the Right to Have Rights

This book is about citizenship — what it is, how it has developed, why it is currently in peril. Through a mix of empirical/historical, conceptual, and epistemological lenses, I explore these questions by developing multiple genealogies of citizenship — genealogies of its origins and making, and those of its current erosion and unmaking. These numerous and sprawling genealogies add up to long-term patterns of conflict over the balance of power among states, markets, and civil societies — between periods dominated first by institutional redistributive citizenship regimes, then by market fundamentalist regimes, then again by more egalitarian citizenship regimes, then again by market fundamentalist ones, and so on. Global society today, with the U.S. in the vanguard, is currently in a cycle in which market fundamentalism — the effort to subject all of social life to market mechanisms, including governance, law, civil society, public narratives, and social knowledge — has moved from the margins of power to become today’s dominant citizenship regime…

Required Reading

Supplemental Readings

Workshop 4/20: John Carroll

Towards A Theory Of Culture–Based In Mythos Not Morals

‘What is culture?’ is, by definition, a central question for Cultural Sociology. Much of the sociological tradition, influenced by Durkheim, has assumed that the core of any culture is a set of incontrovertible moral laws or interdicts–they underpin the ‘collective conscience’. I shall argue, more in the tradition of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, that the ethical forms a middle order of any culture. The highest order is mythos-based…

Required Reading

Supplemental Readings

Workshop 4/27: Dominik Bartmanski

Staging Intellectual Production: Towards a Cultural Theory of Social Scientific Representations of Reality

This paper is about social theorizing as symbolic drama. The point of departure is marked by two interconnected assertions. First, I treat social theory as a meaning formation which reveals interesting structural characteristics when analyzed through the lens of theatrical metaphor. Second, I posit a thesis that the how of social theorizing is at least as significant as its what. The what is viewed not merely as an object of inquiry dealt with by means of a fixed epistemology but also as a hermeneutically pre-constituted universe. It is people’s meaningful actions. The how is a dynamic representational character of the accounts of these actions. The goal of this paper is not only a new rediscription of social theory but also a critical evaluation of its broader social functionality…

Required Reading