What we talk about when we talk about culture: a multi-facet approach

Abstract

Though the cultural turn is well behind us, sociologists of culture have yet to agree upon a clear definition of their subject. Recent efforts in this direction have characterized culture as a meta-concept, identifying and disentangling its constituent parts. Building on the two- and three-dimensional models that have emerged of late, while also taking stock of the longer history of sociology’s struggle to reconceptualize culture after Parsons, we argue that culture is best understood via a four-facet model. Culture, we argue, consists of discourse, which is oriented toward meaning, and practice, which is oriented toward action. But both discourse and practice have implicit and explicit dimensions: they consist of underlying generative structures and concrete manifestations. To demonstrate the four-facet model’s value for empirical analysis, we use it to address the high-profile methodological debates that have recently roiled the field, pitting ethnography, interviewing, and survey research against one another as the ideal mode of accessing culture writ large. Rather than arbitrating among methods, we show, the four-facet model specifies how each approach contributes to cultural analysis, facilitating conversation in places where disagreements currently appear intractable and underwriting methodological pluralism.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Our concepts of practice and discourse map roughly onto Lizardo’s terminology of personal and public culture. As the ensuing discussion makes clear, however, the language of “practice” and “discourse” retains a tighter connection to the longer disciplinary histories out of which our fourfold model emerges. In the next sections, we retrace those histories not just for their own sake, but also as a way of recovering crucial insights that we then integrate into a more synthetic approach.

  2. 2.

    Our argument, like any other in the human sciences, proceeds from an historically specific set of understandings. In particular, the model we develop emerges out of debates about the place of meaning in human social life as they have unfolded in American sociology from about 1980 to the present, giving way to the subfield of cultural sociology. The terms we use and the meanings attached to them—practice, discourse, even culture itself—are necessarily contingent. Our intention is not to be parochial but humble: to acknowledge the coexistence of other paradigms for thinking about culture and meaning while also attempting to advance the tradition that has most centrally informed our own understandings of social life. As the German theorist Reckwitz argues in his own typological account, cultural theories “are vocabularies necessarily underdetermined by empirical ‘facts.’” In evaluating competing accounts, then, we should ask not whether a theory is true or false, but instead: “Where does a certain vocabulary lead us? What are its effects?” (2002, p. 257). In our view, the effect of the four-facet model is to enable pluralism where there has been division by articulating a basis for scholars who have been working in opposition, or at least in relative isolation, to understand their efforts as complementary instead.

  3. 3.

    One interpretation of sociological theory after Parsons (e.g., Alexander 1987) has been that the Parsonsian synthesis was more premature than wrong, and that theorizing needed a period of progress along separate tracks before a new synthesis could be proposed. Perhaps the best-known new “grand theories” (Skinner 1988) following this period of separate development include Bourdieu (1972), Habermas (1981), and Giddens (1984), though it is a matter of narrative choice rather than strict empirical fact to say that “grand theory” went away and then returned.

  4. 4.

    Cognition, along with cathexis and evaluation, of course, was an essential feature of the orientation of action in Parsons’s account.

  5. 5.

    In synthesizing each position, we are not accepting the self-understandings of any particular author or paradigm, but attempting to do justice to them, and, moreover, to draw out the conceptual insights that most clearly contribute to a multi-facet approach to culture.

  6. 6.

    For an earlier use of this term, see Tilly (1986).

  7. 7.

    The practice turn in anthropology, including that of Bourdieu and others, is discussed at length in Ortner (1984).

  8. 8.

    While our conceptualization of practice draws on Giddens and Bourdieu, whose work has figured significantly in the development of American cultural sociology, we also recognize that the discourse of practice in European sociology is somewhat distinct (see Reckwitz 2002), as is the notion of practice in American pragmatism (see Gross 2018). As we underscore in note 2 above, our typology emerges out of a particular tradition, though we gesture toward parallel lines of inquiry in the spirit of dialogue.

  9. 9.

    Both Bellah and Geertz, as well as Garfinkel had studied with Parsons.

  10. 10.

    In the mid-twentieth century, social psychologists studied what they called “attitude-behavior consistency.” See Gross and Niman (1975) for a review.

  11. 11.

    Using classical political texts such as Augustine’s City of God and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Boltanski and Thévenot identify six “common worlds” that actors mobilize to restore order when social interaction begins to break down. Classical political texts, in this view, provide a window onto the foundational codes (implicit-discursive culture) that are mobilized situationally (explicit-practical culture).

  12. 12.

    Think of a knight versus a queen in chess.

  13. 13.

    Elucidating the specific relationships between each facet of culture and other dimensions of social life is, of course, a topic for another paper.

  14. 14.

    Indeed, the three forms of the six relations described above do not necessarily exhaust the complexity, for we can imagine further specifications. Is a tight fit between the implicit and explicit facets of discourse, for instance, better understood through concepts like homology, mimesis, instantiation, or reproduction? Are tight cultural constraints better understood as prohibitions or taboos (Olick and Levy 1997)? Such analytical choices depend on the empirical materials. The multi-facet model nevertheless provides a way to organize descriptions of such relations, both after the empirical work has been done in order to construct a comprehensive theory of culture and when facing new empirical materials.

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Simko, C., Olick, J.K. What we talk about when we talk about culture: a multi-facet approach. Am J Cult Sociol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-019-00094-7

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Keywords

  • Culture
  • Discourse
  • Practice
  • Methods