Questions of culture for Geneviève Zubrzycki

Interview of Geneviève Zubrzycki, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, originally published in Section Culture. Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Vol. 29 Issue 1-2, pp 10-12.

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Last August you handed the skeptron, as Bourdieu would call it, of the Chair of the Culture Section over to Jenn Lena. Before we speak about your work can you tell us a bit about your experience heading the section?

It was such a rewarding experience! Because of the way our section is structured, the Chair serves as a “hub” and is therefore at the center of everything that’s going on in the section and in the field more broadly. Since the role of the Chair is to facilitate

discussions and exchange, I was very invested in consulting with section members when designing the program, hearing about graduate students’ work in meetings and sessions, and learning about our members’ research. I loved being involved in the many crucial steps of scholarship dissemination, from the moment people submit papers to the moment scholars receive awards for their contributions to our field. And I also very much enjoyed putting together the mentoring program for graduate students —I felt very strongly that one of our most important goals, as a section, is to provide not only a venue to showcase our scholarship but also to participate in the intellectual and professional training of the next generation of cultural sociologists.

Moving to the question of culture, can you tell us how and why did you became interested in culture as a sociologist?

Culture has always been at the center of my academic inquiry. It was in fact my starting point….  My very first questions, as a graduate student conducting fieldwork in Poland, were about culture. I was intrigued by the transformations that were occurring before my eyes during the postcommunist transition and the impact that these structural transformations were having on Polish identity. I was fascinated by how these historical transformations could impact the definition of national identity, but also how cultural understandings were behind the transformations and shaping them as well.

In that sense you are a true cultural sociologist, I mean in an Alexanderian sense of the distinction between sociology of culture and cultural sociology. And that came from an inter-cultural encounter, the Polish experience.

Yes. I am interested in the meaning of social processes and how culture motivates and permeates social action, justifies actions post facto, and provides a framework for, and a way of, seeing the world that infuses social political transformation. You are right to point out that this interest was rooted in an intercultural encounter. The “Polish encounter” came after growing up in Quebec in the 1970s and 80s, a society that had undergone a rapid secularization in the 1960s, severing ties with the Catholic Church and articulating a novel, secular, national identity. The late 70s and early 80s were animated with the prospect of Quebec’s independence, and I grew up attending large national celebrations, political rallies, and family reunions on election (and referendum) nights. I had an impressive collection of political campaign and referendum buttons that I wish I still had!  It would have been useful material for my new book… Québécois nationalism had a strong aesthetics, but it was utterly secular. When I first set foot in Poland in June 1989, two days before the first semi-democratic elections in the Eastern Bloc, what struck me most was how national aesthetics there were both similar and different than Quebec’s: while the flags, the political posters, and the euphoric crowds in full Durkheimian effervescence were familiar, the large number of priests and nuns in full habit, together with the mixing of national and Catholic symbols, and of political events with Catholic practices, was new to me. I therefore looked at Poland from Quebec’s perspective, and wondered if Poland would undergo a secularization of society and of national identity now that it had recovered an independent state. I initially wanted to write a comparative-historical thesis about Quebec and Poland, but then got engulfed in the on-going Polish transformations and focused entirely on that case. After the publication of the Crosses of Auschwitz (Chicago, 2006), I embarked on a study of French Canadian/Québécois nationalism, which resulted in Beheading the Saint; this time Poland was the lens through which I looked at Quebec. So my work is deeply comparative even if I write on single cases, because shadow comparisons guide the questions, the research, and the analysis.



Cover photo, Beheading The Saint, University of Chicago Press, 2016.


Another aspect of my work that was shaped by the intercultural encounter, as you so aptly pointed out, is the attention to national mythology—how it is expressed and transmitted in symbols and rituals, embodied in practices and performances—and how this fosters emotions that generate attachment to the abstract notion of “the nation.” Culture, we know, not only reflects harder processes but also creates and produces structure. The aesthetics of national identity therefore preoccupied me long before I developed the concept of “national sensorium.” In fact, that interest shaped my decision to become a sociologist.

Intellectually, who were your first loves in sociology

Weber and Durkheim, I’d say. Durkheim for his theory of religion and collective representations, as well as for his attention to the role of the sensory and emotional engagement of individuals in rituals that creates a powerful feeling of collective belonging– that was an important key to unlocking some of the perplexing aspects of national identity and nationalism. Weber for his interpretive, comparative-historical sociology. I’m an interpretivist; I am interested in the meaning of social action.

So you’re a cultural sociologist interested in symbols and meaningsthat’s pretty clear when thinking about your work since your very first book, The Crosses of Auschwitz. Can one talk of a material turn in your more recent work, maybe around the time you started work on what would become Beheading the Saint, published a few months ago? 

The role of materiality in fomenting nation(ist) emotions was present in The Crosses of Auschwitz, but it was not articulated as such. I was more concerned with historicizing material symbols (such as the cross) than I was interested in their actual material properties. I was working to offer a corrective to Turner’s material theory of symbols by historicizing them, by showing that symbols have historically constituted layers of meanings. So on the one hand I was critical of Turner’s over-deterministic theory of materialism, and on the other I was arguing that the ways in which specific symbols and the narratives they carry, along with their arrangement in space and in relation to each other, foster emotions that facilitate—or not—social mobilization. I developed that argument and made materiality a more central aspect of my work subsequently—first through the concept of “national sensorium” in a Qualitative Sociology article, then with the concept of “aesthetic revolt” in a Theory and Society piece. In the first article, I was specifically looking at how symbols are sensorially encountered by actors. I showed how abstract national scripts articulated by elites are experienced, performed and assimilated by “ordinary people” on the ground. I articulated in that article a theory of nationalism grounded in narratives, materiality and emotions.

While subjects are “nationed” through the national sensorium, they can actually revolt against the specific national narratives and ideologies carried in, and transmitted by, that national sensorium. By reworking and/or rejecting the national they can create new identities. This is what I capture through my concept of aesthetic revolt, first in the TS article and now in Beheading the Saint.  Most recently, I returned to the study of nationalism in Poland, examining how liberal secular social actors attempt to redefine and expand symbolic boundaries of Polishness away from Catholicism through their support of an ongoing Jewish revival in that society, and their creation of a Jewish sensorium.  That’s what I explore in my empirical chapter in National Matters: Materiality, Nationalism, and Culture, a volume I edited and which just appeared with Stanford University Press.  It has amazing chapters by many section members!!

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What is it that materiality does, theoretically, to the theory of nationalism?

Materiality brings an additional element to the table.  The “material turn” is important in sociology more broadly because it brings back an aspect in sociological inquiry that has been overlooked with the linguistic turn and its emphasis on discourse and narrative. It’s not that materiality trumps everything else, or is more consequential than anything.. What I propose is an approach to nationalism that pays equal attention to the ways in which  the ideological and material are imbricated, and how together they become involved in institutional arrangements and identity formation and transformation. As a cultural sociologist, I attend to chains of significations that link historical narratives, symbolic structures, and institutional and political arrangements, of which materiality is an integral component.

So it’s about providing a better account of change also.


Looking at the abundance of the materiality literature right now in sociology (see Vol. 28 #3  of this newsletter), where, in your sense, does this focus come from? Because US sociology is a bit of a late comer to the “material culture” concept here. You mentioned Turner, so it seems to be from anthropology for you. Is there anyone else in anthropology or other disciplines that matter more particularly as a source of methodological and theoretical inspiration for us sociologists?

Sociology is indeed taking that material turn rather late. Chandra Mukerji was a pioneer and a “loner” for a long time in US sociology; we’re just now finally catching up to her. Her work on the state and political pedagogy has had a tremendous influence on mine. In anthropology, Turner, yes, has been important in my thinking, but I’d say the theoretical writings of Webb Keane, my colleague here at the University of Michigan, and of Gell were key. Now, for sociologists the real challenge is to show what we have to add to what anthropologists and STS scholars have been doing very well for about 20 years.

So what does sociology do better than anthropology?

I’m not sure that’s the right question. What the recent sociological production around materiality contributes is a rich and diverse set of tools around concepts and theories such as iconicity, national sensorium, aesthetic revolt, or cultural entropy. I’d be careful and remain modest in our claims; we’re mostly building on an established field here.  But that is not nothing!

You’re not a sociologist only, you’re also a specialist of Poland and EE. Now you’re heading the Weiser Center on Europe and Eurasia and the Copernicus Program in Polish Studies at the University of Michigan. What is good to think with and about concerning Poland that is of broader relevance sociologically to the global context?

I find Poland especially interesting because of it has no contested borders, no significant minorities, no potential irredentist lurking like in Hungary/Romania or Ukraine/Russia. It is also one of the most ethnoculturally homogeneous state in the world (it is about 95% Polish and Catholic). And yet, debates about what constitutes Polishness are pervasive.  It’s a very interesting case to think about identity and symbolic boundaries.

The recent turn to the right in Poland and Hungary—the two success stories of the postcommunist transition—is highlighting a very problematic social, generational and cultural polarization. The rise of populism in East Central Europe has similar roots to Brexit, or to Trumpania in the US. All those cases show the appeal of nationalism to mobilize dissatisfied voters. National myths and symbols are skillfully used to provide a filter through which social and economic problems, and even personal experiences, are interpreted.  And so the solution appears to be to “make American great again,” or to “protect the [Hungarian] nation from refugees and other foreigners,” or to “keep Poland Polish (i.e. Catholic)”. But that right turn is also creating a significant backlash against those government, and counter-mobilization: massive crowds march every month in Poland; in Hungary, the popular support for CEU against the government’s plan to shut down the university, has mobilized tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Hungarians; the women’s march here, and the march for science, and important political events.

Are you looking forward to ASA 2017?

Yes! I will be on a presidential plenary Michèle Lamont organized on “The Pursuit of Inclusion through Law, Policies, and Narratives.” The global/international focus in Michèle’s theme is very relevant to my work and interests, so it will be a special ASA for me. And Montreal is almost home for me—I’m from Quebec City, 300 km away, but graduated from McGill (B.Sc) and got an MA at the Universite de Montreal before moving to Chicago for the PhD.  So Montreal is a special place, and at the center Beheading the Saint, so it’s exciting. I always like the Montreal ASAs because more Quebec sociologists participate and they are connected to French and American sociology, in addition to having their own schools.  I find they bring have lot to bring to the sociological table.