Conference Report: History in Cultural Explanation

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 10-11.

Michael Lee Wood,
University of Notre Dame


When I saw that Lyn Spillman’s (Univ. of Notre Dame) session, “History in Cultural Explanation,” was to feature no less than five papers, I wondered how on earth everyone would be able to give due diligence to their rich historical work within the allotted time. This might have been a problem with less capable presenters, but not with this group, whose presentations were all richly detailed and cogent and together demonstrated a useful array of concepts (cultural imaginaries, micro-practices, artefacts, continuity) and methods (corpus linguistics) for historical analysis, and convincingly demonstrated the irreplaceable role of historical analysis in the study of culture.

Chandra Mukerji (UC, San Diego)  led the session with her work on racial imaginaries, investigating their historical origins and their role in organizing contemporary discourse. Mukerji traced racial imaginaries to the racial categories that she said were an early feature of modern culture (“modern” here referring to the period following the plague that devastated Europe). According to Mukerji, racial categories during this time developed around two distinct poles: one Christian and the other classical, or natural. On the Christian pole, observations of racial diversity were understood in terms of distance from God, and social hierarchies were justified in terms of moral capacity for order. On the classical pole, by contrast, racial diversity was understood as a function of breeding, and social hierarchies were justified as natural differences in the ability to reason and govern. Mukerji then argued that in the contemporary world, although the logic of neoliberalism undermines the old racial categories, the same racial imaginaries persist. Hence, for example, we see Trump evoke both moral and classical distinctions to understand social hierarchies, describing inner cities as “hell” or referring to categories of “winners” and “losers.”

Richard Biernacki (UC, San Diego) presented on the importance of investigating “micro-practices” in the production of culture and of going beyond macro-level “national traditions.” Specifically, Biernacki argued that differences in the ways that German and British authors conveyed their work to publishers in the eighteenth century created different “universes of experience” which influenced the particular directions of German and British literature and philosophy during this time period. In Great Britain, publishing required alienation from the product of one’s labor. Biernacki suggested that this corresponded with the development of the idea of the self as a proprietor, seen in Hume’s understanding of the self as the possessor of or by sensations and Austen’s idea that feelings are owned by the self and not simply had. In Germany, by contrast, the publishing industry was such that authors were paid by the page and delivered their work in segments, entailing the estrangement in production rather than estrangement from the product. For Biernacki, this condition influenced Hegel’s idea of the expression of the self as a transitory moment, exemplified in Novalis’s project of the “making of a self” and Goethe’s declaration in Faust that “in the beginning was the act.”

Pertti Alasuutari, Marjaana Rautalin, and Jukka Tyrkkö (University of Tampere), demonstrated the value of computational methods for historical sociology in their study of national policy-making in the British Parliament from 1803-2005. By using corpus linguistics to analyze a leviathan historical dataset (“all records of the British Parliament from… 1803-2005”), Alasuutari, Rautalin, and Tyrkkö were able to evaluate the claim that there was a significant shift in national policy-making post-WWII characterized by increased interdependence and diffusion of policy models. Their empirical findings qualified the previous narrative in two ways: first, they found that decision-making had been interdependent for at least the last 200 years, and did not suddenly enter the scene after WWII. However, they also found that instances of the term “model” appearing near the name of a foreign country (e.g. “the German model”) and instances of the 2-gram “policy model” spiked in the early 1950s and increased over time. Alasuutari, Rautalin, and Tyrkkö argued that this indicates the time that the idea of transferable models, exported from 1930’s science, began to catch on among policy-makers.

Laura J. Miller (Brandeis) and Emilie Hardman (Harvard) articulated the importance of material objects in understanding the long trajectories of cultural movements through their investigation of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks in the United States. Cookbooks, they argued, are artefacts that embody a historically-situated cultural legacy. As such, they carry meanings that connect people across time and space and thereby allow a cultural movement to survive even without popular support. Thus, although successive instantiations of vegetarianism and veganism responded to contemporary political concerns, they were not wholly disconnected from previous generations of the movement because their directions and concerns were influenced by the meanings found in previous cookbooks.

Pepper Glass (Weber State University) concluded the session by highlighting the benefit of articulating the particular mechanisms by which “the past” leads to current realities, which he demonstrated through his historical investigation of immigration in Ogden, Utah. Glass began by noting that according to extant theories of immigrant destinations, Ogden’s status as a “new immigrant destination” and its high proportion of Latino residents is unexpected. He argued that Ogden became an immigrant destination initially because of its geographic location, being near the Golden Spike ceremony which marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad and being roughly equidistant from Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This brought economic opportunities, a diverse population, and a considerable amount of debauchery that earned the city a bad reputation in the predominantly Mormon state. Though the particular things that gave Ogden this vilified status eventually moved on, the negative reputation stuck (as a native Utahn myself, I can verify this fact). This ensured the continued segregation of the city, discouraged gentrification, and allowed immigrants to fashion downtown Ogden to their own wants and needs.