Four Questions for Ann Mische

[The content of this post was initially published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Section CULTURE newsletter]

 Ann Mische Pic

Ann Mische, University of Notre Dame

Section CULTURE: How did you become interested in the study of culture?

Ann Mische: It’s always hard to track the beginnings of something (as beginnings themselves are cultural constructions), but perhaps I can date it to my undergraduate studies at Yale. I was a philosophy major with a particular interest in phenomenology and hermeneutics. I read a lot of Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and Ricoeur. I also did a senior project on “The Learner as Phenomenologist,” in which I looked at how young people construct their worlds and reflect on their own experiences while they are learning. This was connected with a teaching project I was involved in at Yale that worked with low-income children and youth from the New Haven area. So the paper was very sociological – perhaps a bit too sociological for Yale’s very analytic philosophy department at the time. I was fascinated by questions about subjectivity, interpretation, and reflection about self and world, particularly in situations of exclusion and disadvantage.

After graduating from Yale, I spent the next three years in Brazil, on a journalistic fellowship to study youth, education, and social movements. This was a period of strong popular contestation around issues of democracy, labor rights, and social and economic injustice.   During this period I found myself thinking and writing about the reconfiguration of subjectivities – and imagined futures – as a component of social protest and projects of transformation.

When I started my doctoral studies at the New School in 1990, I began working as an intern at an organization called the “Center for a Science of Hope,” for which I reviewed writings from various disciplines on how people construct hopes for the future. I got involved with a project run by Terry Williams called the Harlem Writer’s Project, in which I interviewed young people from the East Harlem housing projects about their hopes and their changing sense of possibility. I took a Sociology course on theories of cultural change (in which we read Elias, Sahlins, De Certeau and the Annales school), and an Anthropology course on the politics of cultural struggle (In which we read Bourdieu and Gramsci), and I was hooked.

As a grad student in the mid-90s, I found the ASA culture section a very welcoming and exciting place.   I attended a culture mini-conference at George Mason (organized by Michele Lamont and Ann Swidler) that was really formative for me – I met so many culture scholars (including fellow grad students and young junior faculty) who have become close friends and inspirational colleagues over the years. I’m sure that this was important for my self-identification as a cultural (and not just political) sociologist.

Section CULTURE: What kind of work does culture do in your thinking, past and current?

Ann Mische: There are two main ways in which I think about culture in my work. First, I think about culture as a means of mapping – and often steering — action. I was highly influenced by Ricoeur’s book From Text to Action, especially his discussion of ideology and utopia as contending kinds of narrative mappings involving interpretations of the past and possibilities for the future. My work on projectivity and future-oriented discourse – developed in my 1998 AJS article with Mustafa Emirbayer, “What is Agency?” as well as in several articles since then – explicitly looks at the discursive construction of the future. In a 2009 Sociological Forum essay I propose nine dimensions of projectivity that are amenable to cultural analysis, including what I call reach, breadth, clarity, contingency, expandability, volition, sociality, connectivity, and genre. I’m now addressing this empirically in my study of future-oriented grammars in the Rio+20 debates about environmental sustainability. In the future I would like to apply this approach to the study of how contending actors debate and map possible futures as they engage in post-conflict reconstruction efforts after armed violence and civil war.

Second, I think about culture in as means by which people construct not only futures, but also relations. In some of my work I have developed a conception of networks themselves as cultural constructions, building on work by Harrison White, Charles Tilly, Paul McLean and others. Through talk – and via our continually updated reporting efforts, story-telling and self-presentations – we construct a sense of “identity in relation,” which in turn becomes the building blocks of social networks. Social ties themselves should be understood as narrative and performative constructions. This links with my work on future projections – for example, when various NGOs, social movements, policy think thanks, business groups and state actors mapped out desired and feared futures for the Rio+20 conference, they were also building relationships (i.e., alignments and oppositions) in a contentious political field. These relational mappings can translate into future actions and relation-building efforts – e.g., who you collaborate with (or oppose) in future actions or events, and as a result, what kinds of policies, protests, or projects of social change are advanced in the public arena.

 Gay Kids Cropped

Photo: Peter Stamatov

Section CULTURE: What are some of the benefits and limitations of using culture in this way?

Ann Mische: I would say that one of the principal benefits of my approach is that it puts culture in motion. When I say that culture “steers” action, I don’t mean that people necessarily always follow their maps of the future, or that their predictions come true. But the fact that they have imagined the future in a particular way helps to steer the choices they make and the relations that they build moving forward, even if they find their pathways blocked by unjust social conditions, or if the complexity of the world takes them in unexpected directions. This is a dynamic and pragmatist understanding of culture, which takes into account the structuring effects of narrative, power relations and social context, along with the transformative potential we have to challenge predominant framings of possibility and redirect or recompose pathways of action.


One of the difficulties of studying culture in this way is that it’s often hard to see “culture looking forward.” Many of our sources of cultural narratives depend on retrospective accounts of events that have happened in the past, rather than prospective accounts of what might happen (or should happen, or would happen if…). I’m looking for a way of understanding narrative that preserves this subjunctive sense of multi-strandedness and potentiality, or what Schutz calls the “polythetic” structure of future reflections, as opposed to the “monothetic” mode of reflection on actions as unified wholes, which is what we do in retrospective accounting practices. My goal is to find a way of capturing the polythetic structure of future projections in situations in which people are reflecting on things that have not happened yet.


Section CULTURE: How does culture shape your choice of research topics and settings?

Ann Mische : To study culture in this way, my current strategy is to look for what I call “sites of hyperprojectivity,” that is, sites of heightened reflection and debate on possible future directions, pathways or outcomes.   I’m particularly interested in sites of collective debate about the future – such as community forums about proposed changes in local policies or relations, internal social movement deliberations over visions and strategies, or discussions in the policy world about institutional planning and reform. Other potential sites – which I suspect adhere to quite distinct grammars and genres of future projection – might be the ways in which military or corporate actors engage in what they call “strategic planning” or technologically supported simulations of future contingencies. I am incorporating several of these sites into my current book project (for which the analysis of the Rio+20 debates is the pilot, as described in my 2014 Theory and Society article). I’m looking forward to seeing how this work connects with other recent work on cognition, deliberation, political talk, areas that compose a vibrant sub-area of cultural sociology.


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