Letter From the Chair, Fall 2017

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 1-2.

Ron Jacobs,
University at Albany, SUNY

It has now been several months since our annual conference. The semester is well underway, and we are all very busy with our teaching and research. But I look back fondly at the five days we had in Montreal, thinking about culture in one of North America’s most beautiful cities. I enjoyed my walk down the hill every morning to the Palais des Congres, and I enjoyed my excursions into the city. Above all, though, I enjoyed my time inside the conference venue, talking with my colleagues and listening to dozens of fascinating papers.

We had a very active group of culture sessions for this year’s conference. In total, we were able to organize or co-organize nine sessions. This included a graduate professional workshop, which preceded the section business meeting; and a full-length roundtable session, with 15 concurrent panels. Two of the sessions were co-sponsored, one with the section on the Sociology of Religion and the other with the section on Global and Transnational Sociology.  All of the sessions were well-attended, with a few of them standing-room only.

Two sessions stood out to me as being particularly timely and exciting. The first was an invited session on the 2016 Presidential election. Despite all that has been written about the election and its aftermath, these four paper showed what a distinctive, original, and important perspective cultural sociology can bring to pressing social issues. Phil Gorski talked about why white evangelicals were drawn to Trump, despite the fact that he was not religiously observant and despite the fact that much of his behavior violated their normative expectations. The attraction, Gorski argued, was located in the deeply apocalyptic structure of Trumpian political rhetoric, which recalled an earlier version of religious nationalism while stripping that discourse of any explicit scriptural references.

Mabel Berezin asked how Trump could manage to declare that he “loved the poorly educated” in a way that increased their attraction to him without appearing condescending. For Berezin, Trump’s political attractiveness was connected to specific cultural elements of his biographical self- presentation: his connection to Queens, his celebrity, his emphasis on doing and building, and his emphasis on physicality and materiality. Robin Wagner-Pacifici and Iddo Tavory emphasized the “event-ness” of the electoral campaign. Showing how the Trump campaign was designed to continually create a rupture from the ordinary, they argued that the temporality that Trump evoked had the effect of creating a series of charismatic moments for a segment of the population desperately searching for meaning and transcendence.

In the last paper, Francesca Polletta and Jessica Callahan showed how the dynamics of collective storytelling do not have to be connected to tests of plausibility, and how this was connected to Trump’s victory. In a digital world dominated by user-generated Internet forums, they argued, the very act of sharing stories becomes the thing that reinforces the identity and the solidarity of the group. The truth of the story is beside the point, when sharing a new rumor becomes a piece of “conversational capital.” All four of these papers appear in a special issue on the Presidential election, published in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology.

The second session that stood out to me was an invited session that David Smilde organized, on the topic of “public cultural sociology”. Five panelists – Abigail Saguy, Mary Blair-Loy, Fred Wherry, Orlando Patterson, and David Smilde – told stories about their experiences doing public cultural sociology in a variety of public settings, including newspaper op-ed columns, interviews with journalists, television appearances, blogs, and testimony before Congressional committees. The panelists made a case for why (and when) it was a good idea to invest energy and resources trying to reach a wider public. They told stories about the special insight that cultural sociology can provide for public debate and public policy discussions. And they offered suggestions about how to be effective in the attempt to do more public work.

Culture is entering an important moment within the discipline of sociology. The days are mostly gone where we need to spend large portions of our articles and books making the case for why culture matters. We seem to have convinced most of our colleagues from other specialty areas. And besides, any glance at the newspaper or the television drives this point home on a daily basis. We can now go about the business of honing our craft, pursuing our research, and sharing our results with the scholarly community and the larger public. The ensemble of papers presented in our nine sessions showed clearly that there is a lot of fantastic work being done by members of our section. We look forward to continuing to share and publicize this work, in our newsletter as well as our future conference programs. I am excited to lend my voice to this effort.

I would like to end by thanking our outgoing chair, Jennifer Lena, who has been a source of continual help and inspiration in her leadership of the section. I am gratified to know that she is so generous with her time, and it is a source of great reassurance to know that she is just a quick email away. I have already had the pleasure to begin working with our chair-elect, Omar Lizardo, and I look forward to the program that he is planning for our meetings next year in Philadelphia. I would like once again to thank the people who helped me to organize the panels for our Montreal meetings: David Smilde, Matthias Revers, Peggy Somers, Lyn Spillman, Andrea Press, Gemma Mangione, Hannah Wohl, and Jeff Guhin. Special thanks to Brian McKernan and Hannah Wohl, who organized the roundtables for the section. I would also like to thank the editors of Cultural Sociology, who sponsored our reception at the Montreal meetings. And I thank all the members of the Culture Section, who have made this such an inviting and inspirational intellectual home for me in the twenty-five years I have been a member.