I’ve worn many hats during my four years in graduate school at UVa – gender scholar, quantitative scholar, survey researcher, and now (while I haven’t abandoned the others) culture scholar. Wrapping my mind around the literature on the sociology of culture (or cultural sociology – there’s a difference, or so I’ve learned) as I prepare for a comprehensive exam has been a challenge. But the usual process of identifying the key figures in the school and what their contributions are has been accompanied by a meta-reckoning with the question of why the sociology of culture is understood in the way that it is – very abstractly, very theoretically, and several degrees removed (in many cases) from direct engagement with the lived experience of ordinary people. This assessment, it must be emphasized, does not ring true for the entirety of the field. But it does seem applicable in quite a few cases. For every Annette Lareau conducting an ethnography of parenting practices (even daring to examine parents in neighborhoods where there may not be at least two coffee shops and wine bars on every block), there is a hyper-theoretical treatise on the tension between structure and agency.
Now don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a good hyper-theoretical treatise as much as the next person. I’m not wondering why they are considered legitimate scholarly enterprises; rather, I’m wondering why they seem so prominent in the sociology of culture as opposed to so many other branches of the discipline. To the extent that such a question can be answered, I imagine it has something to do with the vagueness and contestation that surround the term “culture.” Sociologists of culture have to start many of their works by grappling with the question of just what sort of understanding of culture they are working with. In comparison, how often do you see a sociologist of education open a piece with an extended remark on the way in which he or she understands education amidst the many competing definitions? This is not to say that “education” as a concept is not open to just as much contestation and variation as “culture.” It’s just that, for whatever reason, there is, at least implicitly, widespread agreement among contemporary sociologists of education that what kids are taught and how much they learn in primary school is – and should be – the focus of more attention than, for instance, how we come to “learn” that the planet Saturn exists without being able to see it in person or hold it in our hands. The sociologists of education largely leave these questions to philosophers and sociologists of knowledge.
So why doesn’t something similar happen in the sociology of culture? Perhaps it’s because, as much as “education” is a social construction, it’s just quantitatively not as contested a construction as “culture.” But beyond that, I think the all-encompassing nature of many prominent sociological understandings of culture has a lot to do with it. Culture doesn’t just consist of some clay pots in the ground like those anthropologists say – it’s literally all around us, and even inside our own heads. What’s more, culture is how we understand all those other prominent institutions. The economy, education, family – they’d be nothing without culture to help us make sense of them! So how can we be expected to waste time on mundane empiricism when we, and only we, have the ability and responsibility to show how the world works? I’m being facetious, of course, but I would imagine that the all-encompassing nature of the cultural conversation is a big part of what makes it so attractive. It certainly was in my case. So in the final analysis, I suppose my entire perspective on the makeup of the sociology of culture could be described much the same way as I so often used to describe things I’d say to my parents – “Don’t interpret this as a whine; it’s merely an observation.”