Following the recent Viriginia television team murders we’re reposting Mabel Berezin’s “Chair’s Message” (excerpt) in the Spring 2014 issue of the Culture Section’s Newsletter. It suggests why it is so difficult to get gun control in America from a cultural perspective.
Sociologists of various stripes structure their research around the general question: how do we know that we know it? In contrast, cultural sociologists ask, “how do we know what it means?” Adding the question of culture–and culture and meaning are in many respects interchangeable–to sociological analysis, brings richness but it also brings methodological dilemmas that other sub-fields do not tend to encounter. In my own work, I often argue that cultural sociology is as methodologically rigorous as other forms of sociology. Cultural sociologists achieve rigor by building controls of various kinds into our research designs and acknowledging the strengths and limitations of our data.
But cultural sociology also gains nuance by paying attention to small details and events that open up wider vistas than the relatively isolated instances in which they might occur. And this brings me to the title of this short essay. What possible connection can there be between cars and guns? And if there is a connection, what can it possibly have to do with culture? At this point, I need to narrate one of those relatively isolated ethnographic moments with potentially broader meaning. I happen to drive a really old car—older than the Kerry/Edwards campaign sticker that I cannot seem to get off of the rear fender! Every year I take the car for its New York State safety inspection; and every year, I secretly hope that it will fail inspection so that I will finally buy a new car.
I live in rural upstate New York. With the exception of Cornell faculty and students, many of the cars are not much spiffier than mine—minus the Kerry/Edwards sticker. After learning that my car did pass inspection, I asked the mechanic who was taking my credit card what cars he would recommend—if I were to finally succumb and buy a new car. After the mechanic made a few suggestions, I added that safety was my primary concern because driving on the hilly icy Ithaca roads in the winter is not for the faint of heart. His response to my safety question left me temporarily speechless. He said: “Cars are like guns. There is nothing wrong with guns—it’s just the people who use them that are the problem.”
Taken aback, I quickly agreed with him and paid my bill. Why did he mention guns when I asked about car safety? Was it because I was a Cornell employee (I asked for my Cornell discount)? Was it because of my Kerry/Edwards sticker? Why did he automatically assume that I favored gun control (I do)? But more importantly, why in this context, were guns the focus of his analogy, the first thing that came to mind? On one level, it is not particularly surprising that in a rural area where hunting is a favored leisure time activity of men (and probably some women), he would be pro-NRA, if not an actual member. Nor is it particularly surprising, that a university professor might not be a fan of guns and hunting as a leisure activity. Cars can be dangerous. I know of persons who have been victims of cars; but know no one personally who has been a victim of gun violence.
What is intriguing and worth pursuing are the hierarchies of value and cultural meanings that made the car mechanic turn to guns when I mentioned car safety. This small ethnographic moment is an aperture to another mental world—a world in which cars and guns appear to inhabit the same mental space. As a cultural sociologist, I kept asking myself why this analogy. As a trained social scientist, I ask myself what type of study might I design, what methods might I use that would exploit the insights of this fleeting moment.
Is the connection between cars and guns meaningful? Is it important for social and cultural analysis? I am sure that it is. I just have not done that study yet—and probably will not. But the reason why I remember the statement made in the car shop so vividly, and why I was thinking of it while I was at the Yale conference (where the only big guns present were metaphorical), is that the car mechanic’s remark confirms my conviction that a “thick” sociology of culture begins on the ground and then aggregates upwards. On that journey, methods and meanings are inextricably linked.