Cultural Expression And Action Research Paper

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Attention to action in the sociological study of culture (and in the social sciences more generally) typically has meant taking the individual as a theoretical starting point. Max Weber (1968, p. 3) defined ‘social action’ as follows: ‘We shall speak of ‘‘action’’ insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior—be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence. Action is ‘‘social’’ insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course.’ Cultural and structural accounts of action are often contrasted, but action theorists have been interested in precisely how structural constraints and cultural meanings interact. A focus on culture and action also points toward questions of how culture affects action, rather than toward the interpretation of culture for its own sake.

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The focus on action raises a set of important questions around which this research paper is organized. (a) What kinds of meanings or cultural elements shape action? (b) How are meanings brought to bear on action? (c) What is the relation between consciously articulated symbols and implicit, unarticulated practices in guiding action? (d) What is the best way to conceptualize the relation between culture and social structure? (e) Are there cultural ‘logics’ and if so, how do they operate? (f) How is culture organized differently, such that it may have differing effects on action, at different levels of social organization?

1. Kinds Of Meanings

What kinds of meanings or cultural elements shape action? There are several candidates for the key component of culture that influences action, each with different implications for the shape that influence will take. Max Weber attempted to understand the subjective meanings that governed action, focusing on the effects of particular, historically specific ideas. Thus, he argued, the beliefs of Calvinist Protestants, or Hindu mystics, or Confucian officials had consequences for the ways they acted. Ideas are not the only influence on action, but they provide its premises: ‘not ideas, but material and ideal interests directly govern men’s conduct. Yet the ‘‘world images’’ that have been created by ‘‘ideas’’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest’ (Weber 1946 [1922–23], p. 280).

The difficulty with Weber’s formulation, however, comes in specifying how ideas actually guide action. Weber had emphasized that ideas such as religious doctrines channeled actors’ motives by defining the ends or goals of action and shaping beliefs about relevant means. Thus Western religious traditions, positing a powerful personal God who is creator and judge, conceive of individual salvation as something to be earned by active conduct in this world. Many Eastern religious traditions conceive divinity as immanent in reality, and their adherents seek to merge with the divine through contemplative or mystical practices (Weber 1993). In Weber’s most famous example, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1958), Protestant anxiety about salvation, channeled through the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, produced powerful motivations for disciplined work in a calling. Later theorists, however, noted that belief systems could and did support diverse lines of action, that people in fact hold a variety of often inconsistent or poorly-integrated beliefs, and that even civilizations Weber thought to be other-worldly and mystical develop disciplined, rational economic activity.

Ideas are rarely coherent or consensual enough to account for the paths actors take (see Wuthnow 1987, Skocpol 1985), although Swidler (1986) has argued that such consistent, intense, effective ideologies are more common in ‘unsettled’ historical periods. Indeed, even John Calvin, who for Weber epitomized rigorous submission to the logic of ideas, adapted his doctrines continuously to his vision of how the Genevan community should be ruled (see Walzer 1973). Furthermore, the Protestant ethic of anxious, disciplined self-scrutiny long outlasted Calvinist doctrine, casting doubt on the causal centrality of Calvinist ideas in themselves.

Talcott Parsons, reinterpreting Weber’s work along with that of Emile Durkheim, focused not on par-ticular, historically contingent ideas, but on broad, general values which he felt characterized whole societies. Such values as individual achievement or equality provided the core goals that motivated both individuals and societies. Parsons (1937, 1951) developed a voluntarist theory of action which described actors making choices in a situation. While he under-stood that there were many noncultural constraints on action, ranging from the biological nature of the human organism to characteristics of individual psychology, and to constraints and opportunities provided by power or wealth, he saw the distinctive contribution of sociological analysis as study of the cultural values and norms that shaped what people sought and the means they thought legitimate.

Parsons’ formulation raised numerous questions among them are: to what degree cultural values are shared; what values are and where they are located (how they can be observed); how they are internalized in individuals; and how they constrain individual thought and action. Some critics argued that ‘values’ had no independent standing as causal elements in human action, since the only evidence for the existence of values that purportedly guided action was the action itself (Cancian 1975). Others objected to an overly deterministic theory which, despite the meta-theoretical commitment to ‘voluntarism’ saw individuals as constrained by socially imposed norms and values such that no real choice was possible (Wrong 1961).

Other theorists question the image of individuals as choosing their actions one at a time in order to attain their ultimate ends, in favor of broader but looser conceptions of how culture shapes human action. Geertz (1973) emphasizes the ethos of a people, especially the mood or tone of their collective life, the emotional attitudes engendered by their ritual practices, and the experience of the world encouraged by their artistic styles, their everyday practices, and their sacred symbols. He still sees a role for ‘world view,’ but he does not seek to draw direct links between cultural beliefs and action, nor to trace social choices to shared, overarching values. Swidler (1986) argues that not values but styles, skills, and habits (culturally cultivated capacities) are the most direct cultural influences on action. She argues that individual actors do not usually start with culturally defined goals or values (as Weber and Parsons had assumed) and then build lines of action around them. Rather, actors are constrained by their culturally learned styles, skills, and habits, and they tend to adopt goals or values which are compatible with those cultured capacities. By locating cultural influence in skills and habits rather than in ultimate values or ideas, Swidler allows for the possibility that cultures contain many diverse elements, some of which may be contradictory, so that culture should be thought of as a ‘tool kit’ upon which actors draw, rather than a coherent set of ends or values.

New ways of thinking about culture have become important since the 1980s as concepts of discourse and practice have replaced the older interest in ideas and values. The term discourse, although it sometimes designates symbolic communication as opposed to embodied practices, usually means a transpersonal ordering of symbols and meanings which sets the terms within which particular things may be said. In this usage the term points away from action theory and actors altogether. A discursive system does not exist in the mind of any particular actor and does not depend on any one user (see Wuthnow 1987). Nonetheless it presumably constrains what actors can think, say, and do, although the precise nature of these constraints is not made clear. The emphasis on practice (Bourdieu) or practices (Foucault), as Ortner (1984) suggests, envisions culture as both deeper (embodied in unconscious habits rather than in consciously held ideas and values) and more fraught with power and conflict than earlier approaches had recognized. Practice theorists have stressed the active, strategic agency of social actors (their ‘resistance’) while also emphasizing their subjection to dominant discourses and practices.

A more recent challenge to action theory comes from a revitalized social constructionist perspective (see Berger and Luckmann 1967) which reintroduces culture as a general set of cognitive rules and recipes in terms of which agents, institutions, and structures are constituted. John Meyer and his collaborators (Meyer 1983, 1986, 1987, Meyer et al. 1997) locate culture in the ‘environment’ of cognitive rules and recipes that define the world, rather than in the consciousness of individual actors. They argue that the major effects of culture are to define institutional structures (such as nation states, organizations, or such institutions as schooling) rather than to guide individual action directly. (On the contrasts between Parsonian under-standings and Meyer’s ‘new institutionalism’ see DiMaggio and Powell 1991.) Thus, in the examples favored by Meyer and his collaborators, nation states are constituted according to global rules imbedded in the international system; organizations are created according to schemas constituted within nation states; and individuals themselves are constituted according to rules imbedded in a global culture of ‘human rights,’ citizenship, and the rationalized Western ac-count of the sources and purposes of economic growth and progress. Rather than offering an alternative explanation of how culture affects action, such neo-institutionalist approaches dismiss the explanation of individual and collective action as uninteresting. Neo-institutionalist theory has offered a broad description of changes in the contemporary world system, while remaining vague about the mechanisms by which institutional rules and recipes emerge, change, or decline, or the concrete processes involved in their adoption, alteration, or rejection by particular groups or actors.

2. How Culture Is Internalized

The second major question for any theory of action is how cultural elements come to govern action. Do they become internalized, and if so how? Weber assumed that cultural ideas operate by channeling human motives (for health, wealth, salvation from suffering) along lines suggested by a world view. Weber assumed that world views were offered by religious and ideological entrepreneurs, but that once the ideas had become established they constrained people by shaping what they thought was real, what they thought was possible, and what they thought desirable. Parsons (along with collaborators such as Freed Bales) developed a complex Freudian theory of family dynamics to explain how values are internalized in individuals through socialization. The most innovative contribution along these lines has been that of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984). Bourdieu sees human actors as active strategists, not following cultural rules, but manipulating rules to their own advantage. Nonetheless, the skills needed to manipulate a cultural code, according to Bourdieu, require a deep process of internalization during which people in essence internalize their own position in the social structure. Thus the conditions for agency—a fluid mastery of a system of social meanings—are the conditions for being dominated by its criteria of evaluation. Bourdieu sees culture not as values but as cultural skills and capacities, particularly the skills that allow innovative performances within established cultural patterns. Bourdieu incorporates a notion of social constraint into the heart of his model of the actor as active, strategic, and innovative, by arguing that culture becomes deeply internalized, not in the mind as values, but in the body (or rather ‘bodily schemas’) as habitus: as a system of ‘transposable dispositions’ which make ‘possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks, thanks to analogical transfers of schemes permitting the solution of similarly shaped problems’ (1977, p. 83). For Bourdieu the habitus marks one both because the whole set of internalized bodily dispositions, tastes, and habits are particular to one’s social location, but also because learning to manipulate the social world means internalizing it and its standards.

Randall Collins (1981, 1988) has also sought to understand how relations of power and status in- equality are reproduced at the micro level of personal interaction. His model, however, depends less on internalization and more on exchange. Collins argues that every interaction leaves actors either enhanced or diminished emotionally, so that those in powerful or high-status roles dominate interactions and find that each interaction increases their emotional reserves, while those in subordinate positions lose out and experience themselves as less vital or powerful. Bourdieu and Collins thus both show how elements of social structure (particularly power and inequality) are incorporated directly into the person at a visceral or bodily rather than an intellectual level.

Hans Joas’ The Creativity of Action (1996) offers a rich description of action that does not require the presumption of an autonomous, goal oriented actor who chooses actions in a situation that is somehow external to his or her action. Joas reconstructs pragmatist social theory to show how sociality, physicality, and intentionality are inherent in human action: ‘vague dispositions toward goals which are constantly at work even when we have not set ourselves any immediate goals, are located in the personal body of the human being … Situations do not trigger our actions, but nor do they merely provide the terrain on which we carry out our intentions. Our perception of the situation is predefined in our capacities for action and our current dispositions for action’ (p. 161).

3. Discourse And Practice

What is the relation between articulated discursive elements and implicit, unarticulated practices in guiding action? Are the meanings that shape action primarily ideas and symbols, or are they embodied practices—habitual ways of acting not necessarily guided by conscious thought? Michel Foucault (1965, 1978, 1983) has argued that discourse and practice reinforce each other. New institutional practices, such as asylums that separate the sane from the mad, make plausible the associated discourses and their ways of categorizing human beings. Practices, such as that of confession in the church or the segregation of lepers in the Middle Ages, persist to form the basis of related practices (psychoanalysis; the insane asylum) and their associated discourses in later historical eras. At the same time, new kinds of knowledge—what Foucault (1980) calls ‘power knowledge’—such as the academic disciplines that study, analyze, and categorize human behavior, the biological organism, or social formations—provide the bases for new practices, which in turn make the categories plausible. John Mohr and Vincent Duquenne (1997) have mapped the mutual constitution of categories and practices, showing how categories of the poor are constituted by welfare agencies’ practices, and agencies’ practices are defined by the categories of the poor they treat. Mohr and Duquenne also demonstrate how this structure of mutually constituted practices and categories changes over time.

Some scholars have tried to disentangle the causal role of discourses and practices. Richard Biernacki (1995) has argued that the differing ways labor was constituted as a commodity in Germany and England (in Germany employers purchased labor time, while in England they purchased the labor embedded in commodities) had profound effects on both thought and action. The cultural constitution of labor shaped the design of factories, the ways foremen behaved, and the ways workers went out on strike, as well as the contrasting intellectual perspectives of Marx vs. the British political economists. Yet, he argues, this profound difference in the nature of labor as a commodity was not a matter of differing ideas or discourses about labor, but of the ‘silent practices’ which reproduced the differing ways labor was constituted as a commodity, independently of how men and women tried to think about their experience. In particular, the ways factory owners and workers negotiated wages, with German workers and managers contending over compensation for workers’ labor time, while British workers and owners fought over the price of cloth of different qualities, reproduced differing understandings of the nature of labor. These patterns emerged in turn out of the practices for mobilizing labor that were available to owners at the start of the industrial era. These different under-standings of labor as a commodity ended when, during World War I, governments suspended wage negotiations and thus interrupted the arena of practice in which these differing forms of labor had been reproduced.

Dobbin (1994) also privileges practice over dis-course in arguing that nations base their industrial policies on cognitive models of the sources of order and progress. These models in turn are based on understandings of national sources of political order. While neither study resolves the question of the relationship of practice and discourse, they suggest additional ways of thinking about how culture constitutes patterns that in turn constrain social action.

4. Culture And Structure

What is the relation between culture and social structure? The fourth problem raised by any theory of action is that of the relation between the cultural influences on action and the influence of what are sometimes called ‘structural’ or ‘material’ factors. This problem is an old one in the social sciences, from Marx’s insistence that ideas were the product not the determinant of material realities to Max Weber’s discussion, quoted above, of the ways ‘material and ideal interests’ govern men’s conduct. For many decades, sociological debate revolved around how to weigh ‘material’ vs. ‘ideal’ influences on action, or somewhat later, the relationship of ‘culture’ and ‘social structure.’ Talcott Parsons developed the most sophisticated solution of this problem in its original Weberian form in his ‘cybernetic’ model of action (see Alexander 1983 for a fuller discussion). Parsons proposed paired hierarchies of factors that ‘condition’ vs. ‘control’ action. Conditioning factors are necessary but not sufficient conditions for action, such as being alive or having the material capacity to act—high in ‘energy’ but low in ‘information.’ Controlling factors, like ideas, culture, or the genetic code, are high in information but low in energy. High-energy factors determine the capacity for action, but the high information factors—a person’s ideas, an architect’s plans, or a chromosome’s genetic structure—convey the information necessary actually to guide action.

Recent theories have sought to re-examine or eliminate altogether the distinction between culture and structure in theories of action. The most important effort along these lines is that of William Sewell Jr. (1992), drawing on Bourdieu (1971) and Anthony Giddens (1984). Bourdieu noted that structure itself has to be reproduced, and argued that culture plays a role in that reproduction. Giddens introduced the idea that structures are ‘dual,’ constituted simultaneously by ‘schemas’ which are ‘virtual’ and material resources which are actual. This formulation maintains the distinction between material and ideal, but instead of seeing them as separate factors in action, sees them as something like matter and form in the ancient Greek sense, in which entities do not acquire their properties unless matter is given form through cultural meanings. In this formulation, structures themselves become cultural artifacts whose creation, reproduction, and meanings are constituted by cultural schemas. At the same time, schemas are instantiated only when they structure some set of material resources, if only print on a page or sound waves in air.

Sewell (1992) advances Giddens’ discussion in several ways. First, he follows Giddens in noting that schemas are transposable from one context or situation to another, but he makes this one of the crucial foundations for an argument about human agency. Each transposition of a schema to a new context (even the reproduction of a structure in a new time or place) is a creative adaptation in new circumstances. Second, cultural schemas are ‘polysemic’ or ‘multivocal’ so that each time a schema is abstracted from its current embodiment and reproduced, there is human agency involved in interpreting or reading the schema-bearing structure. Indeed, Sewell’s most powerful idea may be that structures themselves are ‘read’ like texts for the schemas they encode, and that such readings may vary. Third, any instantiation of a schema may produce unpredictable material outcomes, and those outcomes themselves may then be read as embodying an altered schema. Fourth, unlike material resources, human resources always involve some element of agency since human beings attribute meaning to their action and retain some measure of control over their capacities and commitments.

The notion that culture ‘constitutes’ social structure has become something of a truism, but Sewell has begun to explore the sense in which it is true. His conception of structure still covers an extraordinarily wide range of phenomena, from handshakes, to capitalism, to nation states, but he is right to point to the cultural schemas that organize and order each of these structures, and which at least potentially make possible their transformation. If existing structures are read for the cultural schemas they instantiate, this also suggests how material transformations, whatever their source, can constitute a new cultural text.

The most creative use of this framework is Sewell’s (1996) paper on the transformation of structures during the French Revolution. By analyzing the ‘event’ of the fall of the Bastille as it unfolded over a period of weeks, Sewell shows how an intense collective crisis transformed social meanings. This transformation was made possible by the possibilities of existing patterns of symbolic meaning (the fact that the ‘people’ [‘le peuple’] could mean both the crowd or rabble and the legitimating foundation of the nation), but the new meanings emerged only in an intense, public ritual where new symbolic meanings could be validated by public enactment. Sewell also shows the role of material resources in establishing a new schema. He argues that the popular violence at the Bastille was retrospectively redefined as legitimate revolutionary fervor only when the National Assembly, in the days following July 14, 1789, recognized that the people had saved the Assembly from the King’s National Guard. Thus the revolutionary transformation of structure resulted from the agency of actors caught up in an intense, fraught, consequential public ritual, but the reproduction of those transformed meanings also depended on their material consequences.

5. Coherence And Cultural ‘Logics’

There is wide disagreement about how coherent cultural systems are. Are they ‘systems’ at all, and if so, in what sense? One challenge for those who argue that cultural systems have their own logic is to specify what a cultural logic is, how it operates, and how it constrains thought and action. Alexander (Alexander and Smith 1993), along with anthropologists such as Schneider (1976) and LeVine (1984), have insisted on cultural coherence, while Swidler (2001), DiMaggio (1997), and others have seen culture as being more disorderly and unsystematic. Sewell (1999) has argued that culture is necessarily a system in the analytic sense of semiotic codes whose meanings are inter-related. Any concrete culture, however, is made up of many different codes which may be inconsistent, partial, or conflicting.

Theorists who insist on culture’s coherence rely on the notion of a ‘cultural logic’ as the link between culture and action. But sociologists who use the idea of a cultural logic have done little to define, or even to examine explicitly, what cultural logics are, and how they constrain action. Weber (1946) argued that world views had greater influence on action as they became more rationalized and thus had stronger, more in-escapable logical implications. Bellah (1964) developed powerfully this idea in his analysis of ‘Religious Evolution,’ arguing that as symbol systems became more differentiated and coherent, and as specialized institutions for generating and transmitting religious meanings emerged, those meanings had greater in-dependent leverage over action. But logical-deductive coherence is not the only, nor the most plausible, candidate for describing how cultural meanings might actually be organized. Levi-Strauss and his followers have described binary oppositions as the fundamental organizing principle of all cultures, while Clifford Geertz has insisted that each culture’s logic is distinctive. Such a notion of unique logics might seem to vitiate the notion of a ‘logic’ altogether, except that Geertz (1973, pp. 133, 399, 405–8) frequently describes a kind of existential logic in which some ways of experiencing the world are compatible with, or even require, others.

Other theorists have proposed narratives as organizing cultural logics (see Turner 1974, Ortner 1989); still others have seen cultural logics as arising from institutional patterns (Friedland and Alford 1991, Swidler 2001). The anthropologist Bradd Shore (1996) has argued that cultures contain multiple, intersecting logics (see also Friedland and Alford); Pierre Bourdieu (1990) has argued that when people seek to solve urgent problems, the logic of practice brings to bear all sorts of contradictory schemas. If there are many overlapping or intersecting cultural logics, do actors just pick and choose among them? Are some more compelling than others? Or do ‘external factors’ determine when and how cultural logics are constraining? Some notion of a cultural logic or logics seems essential for understanding how culture influences action. But existing approaches leave un-resolved problems of how cultural logics operate and how or when they are brought to bear on action.

6. Levels Of Analysis

For those who accent the multiplex, incoherent, and conflicting aspects of culture, one challenge is to specify the contexts that organize meanings and sometimes bring them to bear in a consistent way on action. Swidler (2001) points to the incoherence of actual cultures, both the variety of cultural resources available (the opposing adages of conventional wisdom; platitudes vs. the cynical knowledge of insiders; competing voices in the political arena; contradictory messages in the media) and the confused, often contradictory aspirations and understandings of individuals. She argues that to explain when and how cultural meanings constrain action, one needs to specify the contexts or institutions that sometimes bring culture to bear in a consistent way on action, even when it remains incoherent or incomplete in the minds of individuals.

The key to analyzing problems of culture and action is to differentiate levels of analysis—to see that culture may be organized differently at different levels of social organization. On the one hand, individual actors draw on repertoires of cultural meanings to construct lines of action which allow them to navigate the wider social space. At the same time, contexts external to actors (such as public arenas, institutional demands, or even publicized social codes) may structure meanings and thus influence action, independently of whether culture is deeply incorporated into the actor. Swidler (1995) offers the example of polarized public meetings as contexts in which cultural meanings may become organized coherently, so that voicing an opinion one held yesterday may ‘mean’ something very different today; public debate may reorganize ideas around new ‘logics’; and actors may find them-selves constrained by the public ordering of ideas they personally do not hold.

Some social meanings may be anchored in established social practices, without those practices them-selves being linked to larger cultural logics. Asking what anchors cultural meanings raises the question of why culture is sometimes much more fluid, negotiable, and transformable than at other times. Biernacki (1995) has shown that practices such as those of wage negotiations between owners and workers in England vs. Germany were enduring and were capable of organizing wide domains of thought and action, yet had no necessary logical tie to other social patterns. Sewell (1999) has suggested that the state is in the business of imposing order on cultural meanings, attempting to produce a more unified cultural logic in the public arena.

7. Collective Action Schemas

The basic paradigms that describe logics of collective action (that is, the mobilization of a community outside institutionalized channels) may have a distinctive logic that is not necessarily homologous, and does not necessarily change in rhythm with more institutionalized patterns of culture and action. In essence, the schemas that guide collective action are a kind of social ‘default option’—what everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone knows. Such schemas of collective action may endure through many institutional transformations because they are not created by routine social experience and they always depend on simultaneous, public knowledge to establish new patterns. Dramatic public ritual events, like those Sewell (1996) has analyzed, may redefine paradigms for collective action, while the culture that undergirds ordinary strategies of action may remain largely unaffected (see Swidler 1992).

The Weberian theory of action saw culture as shaping social life by shaping the ideas and thus channeling the motives of individual actors. Later theorists of action have attempted to find a tighter linkage between the individual and the social—some-times, like Parsons, seeing the individual as a carrier of consensual social values; sometimes, like Sewell and Swidler, emphasizing again the autonomy of individual actors. Practice theory attempted to solve the relation of actors to social structure by seeing social structure itself as deeply, unconsciously internalized. But understanding how culture is organized in actors’ minds, bodies, and experiences is not sufficient for a full theory of culture and action.

Recognizing that culture is organized, and/organized differently, at multiple levels may help to specify the autonomous causal role of culture, taking account of the agency of actors while acknowledging separate processes through which external contexts bring culture to bear on action. Such an approach would take cultural meanings seriously while analyzing the con-texts that bring culture to bear on action, the situations that organize or reorganize meanings, the schemas that encode logics of collective action, and the institutional demands that reproduce cultural supports for action.


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