Western European Culture Research Paper

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The ontological  and epistemological  status of culture has received much  attention in recent  social science literature  (Sewell 1999). This  article  assumes  a parsimonious  position  on  these  debates.  Culture   as  a concept has a cognitive and material  dimension. As a form of cognition,  culture is the realm of shared meanings  that  permits  mutually  informed  social interaction within bounded spaces. This anthropological view of culture points to culture as a medium of social life and measure it in the ‘thick description’ of shared social  practices  (Geertz  1973).  Culture   as  material object  refers to expressive forms  such as art,  music, literature, architecture—more recently,  state  institutions and legal codes. Material culture  is analytically distinct from but not unrelated  to the anthropological concept of culture. This entry traces the development of both senses of culture in post-war European Studies. While individual nation states have diverse intellectual traditions that articulate  themselves differently in cultural studies, this entry will focus on commonalties rather  than differences.

1.    Culture In The Shadows: West European Studies To The 1980s

Until  the  mid-1980s,  culture  as  either  an  analytic frame  or  causal  variable  was  conspicuously  absent from  the  social  science research  on  Europe.  Apart from Elias’ studies of court  society and the civilizing process that linked modern notions of manners to the formation of the nation  state  (Elias 1994) and  Kantorowicz’s study of the king’s ‘two bodies’ (1957) (both of whom were ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s), culture, for the  most  part,   remained   in  the  shadows  of  social science analysis. The work of British cultural historian Raymond Williams (1958) that followed in a tradition of 1930s European Marxist  cultural  analysis  was a rare exception to the general trend. Williams’ cultural and  historical  sociology  was the  precursor  to  what became known as British Cultural  Studies in the 1970s (for example, Hoggart  1961).

Two dimensions of culture’s transparency accounted for its absence in European Studies. First, intellectuals  did  not  question  Eurocentrism—the idea  that Europe  was the seat of civility and  apex of modern civilization. Weber’s ‘Introduction’ to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958) suggests the embeddedness  of Eurocentrism. The hegemonic  position  of the  European cultural  heritage  in the  West rendered it moot as an analytic category among sociologists and political scientists. European culture with  a  capital  ‘C’ was  elite culture  and  left  to  the purview of art historians  and literary critics.

Second, culture was absent, but traditions were not. There was an implicit assumption in social science that traditions, however  under  specified, played  a role in European political  life.  The  collective  mentalite  of European society—and social science—viewed culture and tradition as intrinsic to each other. Analysts rarely parsed this linkage and produced anthropological accounts that demonstrated that peasants and modern political practices were antithetical to each other. Banfield’s (1967) study  of a southern  Italian  village that   ascribed  its  political  backwardness  to  deeply rooted traditions is a classic in this genre. Customs and superstitions that  had  plagued  them for hundreds  of years  trapped   Banfield’s  Italian   peasants  in  a  premodern  and  unchanging  landscape  of political  practices. Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, (1974) a kinder study  in  a  similar  vein  portrayed French   peasants whiling away their time at boules and drinking at local cafes while high politics  was conducted  in a distant Parisian  capital.

The assumptions that  undergrid  Eurocentrism and traditionalism rendered  culture  so transparent as to make it invisible. Moreover,  these assumptions were fundamentally conservative.   In  the  late  1970s  and early  1980s, social  history  engaged  the  attention of first historians and later sociologists—usually influenced by Marxism  (see the introductory summary  in Bonnell  and   Hunt   1999).  At  first,  the  politically engaged  scholars  who  emerged  in the  1970s viewed culture  as  suspect—a  position  that  changed  as  the decade progressed. In the new historical anthropology of Europe,  peasants were subversive (Ginzberg 1980); religious events were riotous  (Davis 1975); oppressed apprentices murdered cats to get control of their work situation  (Darnton 1985); and  communist  comrades could also be Christian  (Kertzer  1980).

The  combination of  cultural   conservativism   and Socialist politics were not the only entities that contributed to the lack of attention to culture  as an analytic  frame.  Social scientists working  in the positivist mode favored in the 1950s and 1960s considered culture  as too imprecise a concept  to operationalize. As a variable,  culture  appeared  to lack explanatory power. Where culture was taken into account we have the classic studies of Almond  and Verba (1989), who measured political culture in sharply defined variables all pointing  to  the  fact  that  the  more  Protestant a group was, the more democratic  they were likely to be (for summaries,  see Berezin 1994, 1997b).

2.    Analysis Follows History: The ‘Cultural Turn’ In European Studies

No matter  what ideological position  one espouses or analytic method one favors, content always defines culture,  whereas  trajectory defines history.  By 1990, social history became the ‘new cultural history’ (Hunt 1989). Europe  was in many  instances  the site of the emerging ‘cultural turn’ (Bonnell and Hunt 1999). Specific historical  changes  in the last quarter of the twentieth  century  contributed to the new salience of culture in analyses of European society.

Political scientists and historians  frequently refer to the  period  between  roughly  1950  and  1970  as  the period  of the ‘post-war  settlement.’  That  period  was characterized on the political  front  by the consensus supported by  the  US  of  the  containment of  communism and on the economic front by the corporatist bargain  that  kept  labor  and  business in accord.  The European welfare state contained  class conflict while valorizing class politics. European parties represented genuine ideological differences. A spirit of prosperity prevailed.

This bargained equilibrium with its cultural and ideological concomitants began to break down in the 1970s. The student  revolts  of the late 1960s and  the period of terrorism, ‘iron years’ as the Italians labeled them, pointed to an emerging ‘end of ideology’ politics (Lumley 1990). By the 1980s, social science followed history. New Social Movements (NSMs) emerged that prioritized  values over interests  (i.e., peace, environment) and identity politics (i.e., gender, ethnicity) superceded   class  politics   as  traditional  European parties began to fractionate (Cohen 1985).

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism  in 1989 coupled with the commitment to European union signaled the end of the ‘old’ Europe. In academia,  Eurocentrism gave way to multiculturalism  (Joppke  and  Lukes  1999),  nationalism to postnationalism. Postmodernity replaced  modernity and  the Enlightenment, the cornerstone of Eurocentricism, came into question (Wagner 1994). Inglehardt (1977) following in the research style of Almond  and Verba,  documented  ‘postmaterialist’ values.  Social scientists turned to culture in an attempt to make sense of  a  society  and  politics  that  traditional modes  of analysis could neither explain nor comprehend.

Transformation was not  merely cultural  and  conceptual. Political and economic shifts fueled the retreat to identity and post-materialism. The 1970s and economic recession in Europe  was the death  knell of class collaboration. In  the wake of European  recessions, socialist technocratic parties emerged as well as out and out conservative parties such as Margaret Thatcher’s  neoliberalism.   Traditional left  and  right parties  began  to  lose their  constituencies.  Kertzer’s (1996) analysis of the re-reorganization of the Italian Communist Party  underscores  the  schizophrenia of changing  European values.  Formerly   the  strongest Communist  Party   in  Western   Europe,   the   party needed an infusion of new ideas in the early 1990s. But it could not decide upon its new name or the design of its flag. The Italian Communist Party finally agreed to change its name to the Democratic Party  of the Left. Its flag incorporated ‘postmaterialist’ values by superimposing an environmentally correct tree over its traditional hammer and sickle—thus wedding green to red, new to old.

3.    Analytic Transformation

Social and political change brought culture out of the shadows and into the full light of social scientific analysis. Identifiable  analytic shifts occurred  between 1980 and  2000. Among  the multiple  possibilities  for categorizing  these trends,  this entry identifies four as salient: first, the move from class to identity; second, the  move  from  connoisseurship to  material  culture; third,  the new focus on culture  and  institutions; and lastly, an emerging interest in democracy, civil society and  political  culture.  These shifts, presented  here as discrete categories of analysis, in practice often shade into each other.

3.1    Class To Identity

Class was the initial venue that wed culture to political mobilization  and  social  closure.  Influenced  by  the early, more culturalist  and consciousness-based writing of Karl  Marx,  scholars  tried  to understand  why and  how  working  class culture  became  a vehicle of class based political action.  The seminal study in this vein was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working  Class (1963). Influenced  by this work, other social historians  began to focus on class cultures. Stedman-Jones (1983) focused on British languages of class; Sewell (1980) examined how a corporate idiom shaped  the  political  culture  of French  artisans;  and Calhoun (1982) argued that established traditions forged solidaristic social ties within local communities that  generated  class cohesion  among  eighteenth-century British workers. Hebdige (1979) showed how British youth culture was a form of class identity and social rebellion.

Bourdieu (1984) redirected the focus of class studies from Karl Marx to Max Weber by incorporating the idea of status. His insight that capital could be cultural and social as well as purely economic launched a genre of studies on social boundary making. Bourdieu (1977) argued that habitus shaped the perceptions  of a group to include  and  exclude based  on cultural  and  social cues. Lamont (1992) built  on this work  by studying middle  class,  and  later  working  class,  men  in  the United  States  and  in France  to test empirically  how boundaries and  the  conception  of  ‘one of  us’ were formed.

Sexuality, gender, race and nationality have become the basis of identity studies on Europe. Foucault’s (1990) three-volume  work on the history  of sexuality that  questioned  the entire concept paved the way for studies  of  the  body  (Laqueur   1990). Hunt’s  (1992) monograph on  the  ‘family romance’  of  the  French Revolution linked  Freudian analysis  of sexuality  to issues of gender and politics. Borneman’s (1992) study of kinship in the former East and West Berlin linked issues of gender and national  identity. Soysal’s (1994) discussion of post-nationalism argued that citizenship, a category of nationality, is a malleable identity category that transcends  the materiality  of space.

With the exception of British media studies, the European ideology of connoisseurship relegated studies of art,  music, film, architecture, and  literature  to the  relevant  humanities   disciplines.  Since  the  mid-1980s, social scientists have reinvented art as material culture  and  produced  a broad  range  of studies.  For example,  Griswold  (1986) studied  Renaissance  revivals on the British stage. Biernacki (1995) studied the cultural   significance   of  divergent   factory   regimes among   woolen  workers   in  Britain   and   Germany. Politics and cultural production is an emerging area of interest. Mukerji (1997) wrote on the relation between formal gardens and French  state building.

Consumption as an economic process that intersects with cultural  production has informed  a whole genre of  studies  of  Americanization and  globalization  in European studies. DeGrazia (1989) studied how American  film culture  defined and  penetrated European films in the 1920s and 1930s. French gastronomy (Ferguson   1998)  and   furniture   design  (Auslander 1996) were intimately connected to issues of class autonomy and national  identity and citizenship. Consumption   is now  global  and  studies  document   the invasion  of foreign  capital  and  cultural  products  on European soil.  McDonalds and  the  culture  of  fast food are a frequent  target.  A recent special edition of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled ‘L’Amerique dans les Tetes’ (‘America in the Head’) provides an example of the  concern  with  the  Americanization globalization of European culture.

3.2    Institutional Studies Of Culture

Institutional studies  of culture  that  focus upon  how the state mobilizes cultural  and political institutions, such as schools, the military, language consolidation, nationality codes, as well as symbolic entities such as art,  music,  and  architecture to  create  identities  has arguably  the longest  trajectory in European cultural studies. Weber’s (1976) Peasants Into Frenchman is an early work in this genre that provides a history of how the French  state  mobilized  local cultural  institutions to  create  a  state  centered  French  national   culture. Mosse (1991) looked  at the phenomenon of what  he termed the ‘nationalization of the masses’ to document how territories  that had become nation  states became bounded cultural political spaces in the early twentieth century. In 1983, Hobsbawm’s  and Ranger’s influential  anthology   Inventing  Traditions  emphasized  the fact  that  all national  cultures  were the  products  of carefully designed state rituals and symbolic practices—beginning with the British monarchy.

The  intersection  of state  institutions and  cultural practices dominated European political cultural  studies from the mid-1980s to the present (Steinmetz 1999). In  the  wake  of  Ozouf’s  (1988) influential  book  on rituals   and   the   French   Revolution,  Hunt   (1984) explored  the link between the ‘poetics of power’ and the ‘sociology of politics’ to describe the ‘unexpected invention  of  [French]  revolutionary politics’  (p.  3). Scholars  followed  Hunt’s  lead—turning to,  for  example,  Nazi  Germany   (Fritzsche  1998)  and  fascist Italy  (Berezin 1997a). Scholars  who focus on  membership issues in nation states demonstrated how states institutionalized political culture in diverse approaches to  citizenship  law  (Brubaker   1992).  In  a  series  of articles,  Laitin  (1989)  and  Laitin  and  Sole  (1994) argued   that   language   consolidation  in  European nation states was analogous to a tipping game where it was rational to learn a national language if one wished to participate in consolidated national  language markets.

3.3    Democracy, Civil Society And Political Culture

The studies of democracy and culture, a relatively new preoccupation, divide into two groups: first, scholars influenced by Jurgen Habermas’ theories of the public sphere  and  those  influenced  by the  theory  of social capital.  Habermas’  The Structural  Transformation  of the Public Sphere  (1989) posited  that  the  origins  of democratic   civil society  lay  in  the  exchange  of  information and ideas in public space from eighteenth-century coffee houses to modern newspapers. Multiple groups of citizens could meet and discuss and arrive at democratic  consensus.

This  new version  of political  culture  was heavily dependent  on the valorization of public discourse and was  particularly appealing  to  social  scientists  contemplating  the  reconstruction of civil society  in the former  Eastern  Europe.  In an influential  article that rethought T. H. Marshall’s  (1964) conception  of citizenship, Somers (1993) argues that  citizenship  rights rather  than  attributes of individuals  are  deeply embedded in a set of institutional practices that are highly dependent   upon   the  permeability   of  local  public spheres. In contrast  to much of the theoretical  literature that  Habermas’  notion  of the public sphere has generated,  Zaret  (2000) provides  the  first  extended empirical study that examines the modes of communication available to a public in early modern England.

Putnam’s Making Democracy Work (1992) building on Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory of democratic association  introduced social capital to studies of political  culture.  Putnam studied  the  success of the Italian  regional  governments  in Italy  over a 20-year period.  He attributed the more efficient governments found  in  the  north,   in  contrast   to  the  south,  to  a political  culture  of association  that  produced  a high level of trust  and  cooperation among  participants in governments.   He  terms  this  talent  for  government ‘social capital’—meaning  that a citizenry that participated in multiple networks  of associations  developed an  elevated  capacity  for  acting  democratically. To date,  Putnam’s  work  has  generated  volumes  of  research  on  American  democracy,  but  little empirical work on Europe  itself. This will likely change as the results  of  trans-European  collaborative studies  on social capital become available.

4.    New Turns

The analytic trends that I have outlined are in progress and  will continue  to occupy  researchers  for years to come. They raise questions  for which the answers are decidedly not in yet. But what is new on the horizon? In addition to the areas I have outlined, four additional themes  are just beginning  to occupy  scholars.  First, European identity  will begin  to  supersede  national identities  as  a  focus  of  research.  In  part,  this  will emerge as a response to the European Commission’s push to create not only a European market  but also a European space  (Kastoryano 1998). Some  of  these attempts,  as  the  search  for  a  common   European history  that  does not  focus on war, will be strained. But  the  temporal  effects of transborder life will no doubt   contribute to  the  formation of  a  European consciousness.  The  second  area  of  interest  will no doubt be the new technologies of communication, particularly the  internet.  At  the  time  of writing,  all political parties in Europe have websites. The ramifications and efficacy of a virtual public sphere is a whole terrain  that  has not been explored and will no doubt take  off as the internet  had  done.  A third  emerging area is the field of Europe/America comparisons. This is relatively novel, as in the past America was viewed as ‘exceptional.’ As Europe  becomes more consumer oriented,   and  as  it  continues   to  deal  with  the  in-corporation of immigrant  groups, America becomes a more likely comparative venue than it has been in the past.

The last area is the paradoxically growing importance of ‘memory’ studies (Nora  1996–8). The European absorption with  its past,  particularly the period  of  Nazism,  genocide,  fascism  and  collaboration,   has  taken   on  a  surprising   urgency   as  the continent  struggles to shape a vision of and program for its future. The tendency began in 1985 in Germany with the public controversy  known  as the historians’ conflict (Historikerstreit) (Baldwin 1990). The concern with  memory  has  continued  as scholars  attempt  to come to terms with Vichy France  (Rousso  1991) and Nazi Germany  (Maier 1988). An offshoot of the obsession  with the past  has been the emergence of a field of ‘compensation’  studies that examines whether nation  states  can come to terms  with the horrors  of state sponsored  genocide in monetary terms.

In short,  to write about  Europe  in the year 2001, is to write about a continent in the midst of vast political, social, and technological  transformation. Underneath this truism,  lies the observation that  cultural  studies thrive in times of upheaval  and uncertainty. The last 20 years of European studies suggest that political and social problems  that  standard notions  of modernity and  rationality cannot  explain  forces culture  to  the forefront  of everyone’s research agenda. There are no signs that this trend is likely to reverse itself at any time in the near future.


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