What is a cultural explanation of something–an economic phenomena, a family, an organization, or an industry? It seems to me that there’s less consensus on the answer to this question than there was 15 (AHEM) years ago when I was starting my graduate training in the sociology of culture.

I can imagine many causes of what we might think of as the “mission creep” of cultural sociology, or, alternatively, as the “capture” of culture by my neighbor colleagues. Or, maybe it’s just ‘cool’ to be in my tribe?

Side thought: Or am I imagining that ‘culture’ is cool? Our section has been either the largest or second largest in the ASAs for the last 5 years, at least; on the other hand, there are a very, very small number of departments that recruit culture specialists (although–anecdotally–it seems like many job listings are willing to put culture in a list of secondary areas) and an equally small (relative to other areas, again, anecdotally) number of chairs that go to senior culture experts.

The creep/capture explanations may not be your favorite account of why culture appears in such varied manifestations within our science, but I think it’s uncontroversial to say that we’ve lost whatever conceptual coherence might have existed in the early 1990s when it seemed like every major mid-career scholar was publishing a review essay or a reader with an agenda-setting editor’s introduction.

The fuzzy edges of cultural explanations are a focal concern in Ezra Zuckerman’s forthcoming AJS review of Lyn Spillman’s award-winning book, Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xiv+517. $30.00 (paper)). Spillman presents the book as “an argument for a cultural, rather than an economic interest-based, account of TAs [Trade Associations] in particular and the capitalist economy in general” (quoting Zuckerman). However, Zuckerman concludes that Spillman’s account leaves us with no conceptual clarity around what constitutes a cultural (and a non-cultural) explanation. Here’s the key passage to that point:

just as rational-choice theory reaches its absurdist limit when it asserts that choice is exercised even by mugging-victims who yield their money rather than their life, the cultural turn in economic sociology reaches its absurdist limit when all it takes to conclude that TAs “are best understood as an institution of cultural production for economic action (p.110)” is to observe (as Spillman repeatedly does) that TA activities rely on the construction of shared meaning. Spillman’s argument seems to be the following: All TA activities require coordination, all coordination requires shared meaning, and meaning cannot be shared without cultural production. But by this logic, every institution is “best understood” as a cultural producer– and yet we have understood little by so labeling them. Similar doubts pertain to Spillman’s unsubstantiated claims that TAs “constitute” members’ economic interests and that they have a free hand in constructing industry boundaries. Such assertions allow her to raise the flag of culture high and proud; but this flag-waving blocks light that might have more clearly illuminated the workings of TAs and their effects.

Zuckerman concludes:

this book should serve as a wake-up call to cultural and economic sociologists, signaling the need to “conspire” a bit to develop clearer, more demanding standards for determining what counts as a cultural explanation of economic phenomena.

So, let’s do that. Let’s conspire. What counts as a cultural explanation of economic phenomena (or any other domain)? And does anyone have a different take on how well Spillman addresses this definitional issue in the text?




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3 responses to “edges

  1. Bill Roy

    I think the problem is that this debate is framed in terms of additive models of causation–that social life can be explained in terms of “things” like culture, structure, etc. Culture is not a “thing” that causes anything. Rather than seeking cultural explanations (explaining more variation with cultural independent variables than other independent variables), I think it makes more sense to treat culture and structure as analogous to anatomy and physiology. Biologists don’t debate anatomical vs physiological explanations. Rather anatomy and physiology are treated as ways of seeing or dimensions of life forms. And you can’t have one without the other. We could better spend our time deepening our understanding of how culture and structure work, including how they are interdependent, than endless debates about cultural vs structural explanations.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Jenn! And very compelling response, Bill. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I take you as agreeing with me in doubting Spillman’s approach, which is to find culture everywhere and then declare victory for culture and defeat for interest-based approaches. As you say, it is like finding anatomy everywhere in the body and concluding that it’s all we need to understand the body is anatomy and physiology is unimportant. This is both specious (the fact that culture is everywhere and that it can be described as constituting interests doesn’t mean that interests aren’t everywhere and that they constitute culture) and unproductive (what is gained by raising the flag of culture on the planet of the economy?) And meanwhile, given the limitations of her method, there is reason to regard her picture of the anatomy as incomplete. The question is whether our colleagues in soc of culture and econ soc agree with your sense that this is not a productive approach. I fear not.

  3. Hi Janko, not all of your readers may get past the headline down to the final few paharrapgs, and so may take away an incorrect impression of what those tests show.tia, jd/adobe

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