Culture Essay

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Cultural sociologists treat ”culture” as all socially located forms and processes of human meaning-making, whether or not they occur in specialized institutions, and whether or not they are confined to one clearly bounded group.

Cultural sociology is an area of social inquiry into meaning-making, defined by its analytic perspective, rather than a particular empirical topic or institutional domain. Cultural sociologists investigate how meaning-making happens, why meanings vary, how meanings influence human action, and the ways meaning-making is important in generating solidarity and conflict. This analytic perspective applies to a wide range of substantive topics and social domains, contributing to the understanding of key sociological topics such as stratification, political institutions, social movements, and economic action, as well as to specialized domains of cultural production such as the arts, media, science, and religion. As a perspective, cultural sociology contrasts with sociological perspectives which focus on analyzing social structures regardless of the meanings attached to them, and with investigations which, although they might include information about norms, attitudes, and values, do not examine the contingent processes of their formation and change.

Sociological research on culture demonstrated significant intellectual and institutional growth as a well-recognized area of inquiry only in the last decades of the twentieth century. From the 1970s there were increasingly frequent calls for new sociological approaches to culture which avoided over-generalized assumptions about consensus or ideology, which avoided both idealism and reductionism, and which did not confine themselves either to the study of subcultures or to the study of expressive artifacts like art. Cultural theorists working from a variety of different starting points all rejected the contrasting alternatives which had previously shaped sociological approaches to culture, and introduced a variety of conceptual innovations which generated more particular accounts of meaning-making processes. These developments loosened old assumptions and shifted old debates, encouraging an unprecedented growth in sociological analyses of meaning-making processes and the institutionalization of cultural sociology.

Three mid-range reconceptualizations of ”culture” then emerged in cultural sociology, although different approaches were often productively combined. First, drawing on the sociology of organizations, and on the sociology of knowledge, some scholars argued for a focus on specific contexts of cultural production, an examination of the ways particular meanings, values, and artifacts are generated in particular organizations, institutions, and networks, and how those social contexts influence emergent meanings. This approach challenged over-generalizations about cultural ”reflection” of societies as wholes, drawing on theoretical resources from the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of organizations. Although many ”production of culture” studies focused on specialized realms of mass media, the arts, and sciences, attention to particular institutional circumstances and constraints affecting meaning-making processes is also crucial for the study of more diffuse cultural phenomena such as national identity, social movements, collective memory, or religion.

Another mid-range approach to culture, influenced sometimes by pragmatism and sometimes by practice theory, focused attention on how interactions and social practices are themselves meaning-making processes, and on the context-dependent ways in which individuals and groups endow actions with meanings. Like production-of-culture approaches, this focus on meaning-making in action and interaction challenged overly general reflection models of the relation between culture and society; it also relaxed the assumption that meanings and values are entirely shared, coherent, or consistent for a given group or even an individual, providing a better understanding of diverse interpretations of common norms, values, and cognitive frames and analyzing how individuals and groups draw fluidly on different elements in symbolic repertoires (”toolkits”) according to context. Culture, here, is a contingent and variable element of the ways action is framed. Applicable to understanding any sites of action and interaction, this approach has been applied to such diverse topics as corporate culture, the formation of racial and class identities, audience interpretations of mass media and artistic forms, and everyday engagement with politics.

Third, other sociologists, building on Durkheimian insights, have emphasized the importance of the deep formal structure of discourses for meaning-making. Analyses of culture-structures have built on two distinct traditions. First, discourse analysts have drawn on theories and concepts of textual structure derived from work in the humanities to analyze meaning-making. They investigate the deep internal structure of discourses in terms of their categories, codes, genre, and narrative, showing how signifiers derive meaning from their relations in systems of signs. Such analyses of culture as structured discourse introduce to sociology a previously neglected set of influences in processes of meaning-making, which provide a basis for constituting culture as a distinct object of inquiry that is analytically independent of, and sometimes causally efficacious for, both institutional and interactional dimensions of meaning-making.  Second, other cultural sociologists explore links between meaning-making and social psychological processes of cognition, especially categorization. Analysts of cultural structures in sociology have investigated such topics as political discourse, media texts, and gender, but this approach may be adopted whenever the underlying cultural forms which are contingently mobilized in organized cultural production and informal interaction are of interest.

The idea of culture has long been both capacious and ambiguous, due to its complex historical origins and intellectual development, and cultural analysis was not generally considered central to sociological inquiry for much of the twentieth century. However, sociologists now think of culture as human processes of meaning-making generating artifacts, categories, norms, values, practices, rituals, symbols, worldviews, ideas, ideologies, and discourses. They currently identify and analyze three different types of influence on meaning-making: institutional production, interactional process, and textual structure, emphasizing each dimension to different degrees according to empirical topic and theoretical perspective, and often debating their relative importance. These analytic tools have helped avoid over-generalization about cultural processes – for instance, about consensus or conflict, about idealism or materialism, about macro- or micro-levels of analysis, or about structure and agency. In turn, this has encouraged an efflorescence of sociological studies of culture on such topics as identity and difference, group boundaries, political institutions and practices, and the mass media and arts and their audiences. Cultural perspectives are also frequently integrated into research on such standard sociological issues as stratification, religion, immigration, and social movements. Since new empirical topics and theoretical issues in the sociological study of meaning-making continue to emerge rapidly, the likelihood is that culture will become much more central to sociological analysis.


  1. Alexander, J. (2004) The Meanings of Social Life. Oxford University Press, New York.
  2. Friedland, R. & Mohr, J. (eds.) (2004) Matters of Culture: Cultural Sociology in Practice. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  3. Jacobs, M. D. & Hanrahan, N. W. (eds.) (2005) The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture. Blackwell, Oxford.
  4. Spillman, L. (ed.) (2002) Cultural Sociology. Blackwell, Oxford.

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