Sociology On Culture

RN07 - Sociology of Culture
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Again, this biographical fact is interesting, I think, not for its own sake, but because of what it says about the organization of disciplines in Britain and the United States, and about the study of culture in the late twentieth century. There are a number of issues here. First, given my background and training in European sociology and my involvement in interdisciplinary work, I don't think many departments of sociology in this country would have been prepared to give me a home. The discipline here has remained resolutely intra disciplinary as a collective project; moreover, it has manifested a strong attachment in some cases a growing one to positivistic scholarship, including quantitative and mathematical methods.

For the most part, this has also been largely true of that sub-specialization called the sociology of culture, most of whose practitioners continue to operate with untheorized and unexamined categories of social analysis. Second, new emphases have emerged in the humanities, which have invited certain sociological perspectives: new historicism, the new art history, post-colonial and feminist approaches to literature and culture, and so on. And thirdly, the success and proliferation of cultural studies in the U. Given my alienation from American sociology, my life-long interest in the study of culture, and the hospitality of the humanities, my current situation makes plenty of sense.

Nor is my own change of disciplinary home unique. Simon Frith, delivering his inaugural lecture as Professor of English at the University of Strathclyde, opened his talk in this way:.


The sociology of culture, and the related cultural sociology, concerns the systematic analysis of culture, usually understood as the ensemble of symbolic codes. Everything about a chain restaurant reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every.

I ought to begin by saying that I am honoured to be giving this lecture, and indeed I am, but I have to confess that my dominant emotion is surprise. I haven't studied English formally since I did O levels, and I still find it a peculiar turn of events that I should now be a professor of English. My academic training was in sociology, and I'm tempted to treat this lecture as a sociological case study: what does it tell us about the present state of English studies that a sociologist can chair an English department?

Sociology of culture

Nevertheless, I suppose I have felt since coming to Rochester that my "mission" was to encourage a "sociological imagination" 2 among students in the graduate program in Rochester, a program, after all, initially founded by the collaboration of colleagues in art history, film studies, and comparative literature, only more recently including the participation of colleagues from anthropology and history. There is no longer a department of sociology at the University. I have wanted to direct them to the texts and methods of sociology and social history, and to urge them to supplement their interpretative and critical readings of visual texts with attention to the institutional and social processes of cultural production and consumption.

It was a very pleasant moment for me recently when a graduate student, who came to discuss his search for a useful concept of "style," told me that he had been reading Max Weber, and said without any prompting before he left my office "I suppose I should look at Simmel's work. Despite my strong reservations about this work, I wanted students to recognize the importance of paying attention to institutional processes and structures in the study of culture.

Some members of the class including him complained that this work was boring which, actually, much of it is. Moreover, given my own criticisms of the work, which I explained, they wondered why we were spending time on it. I did not have a very good answer, except to say that nobody else was doing this kind of work well, and that I had hoped that we could read it critically in order to consider how we might indeed investigate what sociologists call "the production of culture.

In this essay, I want to suggest that cultural studies can benefit from a stronger connection with sociology. A good deal of what I have to say consists of a critical review of recent developments in sociology, a discipline which for the most part has still not come to terms with the fact that, as Avery Gordon has put it, "the real itself and its ethnographic or sociological representations are. I should point out here, though, that there are other branches of sociology, less visible and less influential, that offer more promising approaches to the field, especially work influenced by the Frankfurt School.

You don't, of course, have to be a sociologist to pay attention to these analytic dimensions, and there are certainly cultural studies scholars who do just this kind of work. Let me give an example from my own work that illustrates how it has happened that I have been led back to my old discipline, sometimes against my own expectations. This relates to an exhibition I had planned to curate a couple of years ago. The fact that the exhibition didn't take place in the end was, for me, as interesting as the material I explored in researching my proposal.

Examples of exhibitions in the series include Edward Hopper in Paris, Gorky's Betrothals paintings, works from the year , and the history of the Museum itself, in its various architectural homes. My proposal was to show the work of women who were active in the circle around Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the twenty years leading up to the founding of the Museum in , women who, though for the most part their names are now not well-known, were rather high-profile in that period and indeed up to about They had several group and one-person shows in the Whitney Studio Club, which preceded the Museum, and much of their work was owned by the Whitney on its opening, was shown in the opening exhibition, and was still prominent in a exhibition which served as a memorial to Juliana Force, Gertrude Whitney's assistant and the first director of the Museum.

It turned out that a sociology of cultural production served me much better than this s feminist model in understanding both the contemporary success and the consequent disappearance from view of these women artists. About a third of all the work shown and bought by Force and Whitney was by women, and there is little evidence that women artists fared worse than men in terms of exhibition. Access to this exposure was, above all else, a function of a particular realist and figurative aesthetic, and membership of particular social groups and networks.

These two factors were related, most of the artists having trained with the same teachers at the Art Students League in New York, and being products of some version of Ashcan-style training. Schmidt worked as assistant to Juliana Force for several years. Peggy Bacon was married to the artist, Alexander Brook, who was also assistant for a while to Force. And Nan Watson was married to the critic Forbes Watson, who was Juliana Force's lover for twelve years; she also had the largest number of one-person exhibitions at the Whitney four , and the largest number of works owned by the Museum at its opening eight.

Although there is, of course, a lot more to say about the social relations of production and exhibition, the point is that I was inevitably led to explore those social relations as I considered the incidence of work by women, and the preference for a particular aesthetic. The ultimate demise of that aesthetic, and the eventual decision mine and the Whitney's not to proceed with the show, were also best understood in terms of a sociology of aesthetics.

As is well known, for example from debates and confrontations in the s, the Whitney since then has operated centrally within a modernist aesthetic and, more recently, a postmodernist one. It was, finally, an "aesthetic" judgement that undermined the possibility of the exhibition, since it was deemed that the work I planned to exhibit was not "good" enough to show.

Looking back on that decision, I can now see that my acquiescence in that assessment was as much a product of my own modernist prejudices as anything. My summary of this historical movement has been necessarily rather sketchy, but I hope that the point is clear.

Culture Versus Biology

In the case of the Whitney, the rise and decline and possible revival of a particular aesthetic has everything to do with institutional practices and social relations. It also has everything to do with how one might read competing visual representations, which I have not addressed in this brief summary.

I am suggesting that the sociological perspective is invaluable in directing attention to certain critical aspects in the production of culture. As I said earlier, I am well aware that it is not only sociologists who are equipped to undertake this kind of work. For example, the focus on the ideology and practices of the museum has been prominent in some important work in recent years in what is usually called "museology" or "museum studies," most of it done by people who are not trained in sociology. But my concern to see sociology figure more centrally in visual studies, and in cultural studies more generally, is expressed in a context in which institutional and social issues are too often ignored, and in which, as Steven Seidman has put it, the social is often "textualized.

Others, noting that the proliferation of cultural studies scholarship and teaching through the s and s has been largely though not solely in humanities departments, especially departments of English and Comparative Literature, identify an abandonment of the more sociological approach that understands culture in terms of axes of stratification and inequality primarily class relations in the early years of the Birmingham Centre, but later also relations of gender and race. She "reads" the African Hall, its taxidermy and its dioramas, in terms of its genesis in the s, focusing on the key role of its designer, the taxidermist Carl Akeley, whose activities as explorer, hunter, and designer of museum "habitat groups" are discussed at some length.

She also notes that the Second International Congress of Eugenics was held at the Museum in though Akeley was not present at the time. Her interpretation of the African Hall, and of the Museum itself, is in terms of race, sex and class in New York City. Of course I cannot do justice to her long and complex discussion here. Schudson attacks the piece on a number of grounds.

Second, he takes issue with the logic of her paper, especially her use of conversion by synecdoche to link display, ideology, and politics. The logic, briefly, is that African Hall stands for the Museum; the meaning of the Hall lies in the original plans for it; and the African Hall in or represents the unaltered meaning of the Hall.

These links, he argues, are ultimately quite arbitrary. And this is related to his third objection, which is that Haraway's essay is a study in interpretation whose superficial use of sociology allows her to ignore "how real people read museums" and "what meaning actual visitors take from African Hall or the museum generally. Schudson's general point is that contemporary cultural studies is "sociologically impoverished," to its detriment. Although he is not himself particularly devoted to the Birmingham tradition in his own work, which is in the field of media studies, he concludes with the prediction that "the works of cultural studies that will last will be the sort that follow Williams and Hoggart and Thompson, in close attention to lived experience.

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Let me be clear, though, that I am emphatically not recommending a return to origins, or an uncritical resumption of a pre-critical sociology. The critique of the early Birmingham model from the point of view of poststructuralist theory, first made, famously, by Rosalind Coward in an article in Screen in , has been definitive. As Coward shows, cultural studies must address questions of representation, signification, and the nature of the subject if it is to deal adequately with its chosen field. Once we acknowledge that those social categories class, race, gender, and so on are themselves discursive constructs, historically changing articulations, and, ultimately, no more than heuristic devices in analysis and, of course, in political mobilization then where is that solidity of the social world on which a cultural studies that is not "purely textual" can depend?

In my view, this necessary re-thinking of the sociological project does not translate into license for "wild interpretation. Some of the papers were informed by contemporary cultural and poststructuralist theory, and although this inevitably meant a dialogue of incomprehension sometimes hostility from time to time the very possibility of such a debate at a sociology conference was something new. A conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, organized in February by two sociologists, was designed explicitly to address the impact of cultural studies and theory in the humanities on "cultural sociology.

The editor's introduction reviews developments in British and American cultural studies and in critical theory in the humanities, as well as in the sociology of culture, and asserts her intention, with this volume, of facilitating the dialogue across these fields. Sociologist Steven Seidman proposes the "relativization" of sociology by its encounter with cultural studies for him, primarily the Birmingham tradition, and including its own "semiotic turn" and its turn to psychoanalysis. Such a relativized sociology would, in his opinion, have a theory of the subject and of subjectivity, a critical-moral role that rejects the traditional sociological standpoint of value-neutrality, and, as a result, "more productive ways of handling problems or concerns which are considered important by some American sociologists, e.

Michael Schudson's critique of Haraway, which I referred to earlier, and which appears in the book, is one example of this. Richard Johnson makes the same point, in his article on "reinventing cultural studies. These developments, though, are occurring on the margins of the discipline of sociology Long's book remains atypical in the field, and I am not especially optimistic about either a more extensive re-evaluation of the field or a more widespread enthusiasm among sociologists to engage in cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Watson, James ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Zelizer, Viviana A. There are no specific prerequisites, but an acquaintance with some basic sociological terms and concepts is assumed. HKU Sociology. Course description Cultural Sociology is one of the fast-growing and fuzzily-bounded fields in sociology.

Culture and Sociology

Course learning outcomes Comprehend the basic sociological concepts of culture. Engage in the sociological debates over the role of culture in social inequalities and everyday lives across different societal contexts. Acquire analytical and research skills by developing empirical research projects to demonstrate a sociological understanding of the key theoretical debates over culture.

Required reading Bourdieu, Pierre. Hochschild A.

The Time Bind. Whether or not one is sympathetic to such trends, it is undoubtedly the case that in Britain, and elsewhere, the word 'culture' today denotes more firmly than ever issues and concerns that are difficult for the sociologist to ignore.

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While 'culture' has, as outlined above, become a central aspect of sociological inquiry in the present day, it is remarkable that hitherto no journal has been developed to cater fully for the needs of those authors and teachers working in the area of empirically-oriented cultural sociology and sociology of culture. While there do exist a number of high quality journals specialising in 'cultural studies' and 'cultural theory', there has not been a journal which takes as its central remit the publication of excellent empirically-informed work on culture from explicitly 'sociological' angles.

Cultural Sociology is intended to fill that gap in the intellectual market, providing we believe the first choice port-of-call for those wishing to publish and to read about ongoing researches in the sociological study of cultural processes. The key aims of the journal include:.

If you have any questions about any aspect of the journal, please do not hesitate to contact the Editorial Team.