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.
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?