Conference Report: How Does Culture Work?

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 3.

How Does Culture Work?

Theresa Hice Johnson,
UC, Santa Cruz

Image result for Theresa Hice Johnson,At Claudio Ezequiel Benzecry’s (Northwestern) session, “How Does Culture Work?”, Erika Summers-Effler (Univ. of Notre Dame), Chandra Mukerji (UC, San Diego), Clayton Childress (Univ. of Toronto), and Laura Grindstaff (UC, Davis) presented engaging original work related to the session’s goal of demonstrating how theories of culture are developed and practiced in contemporary sociological research.  

Erika Summers-Effler’s presentation of her paper, “Attention, Speed, and Culture: Patterned Perception and the Reproduction of Inequality,” argued that emotions and time influence perception and provide the boundaries for meaning-making processes. Summers-Effler conducted an ethnographic study of two non-profit organizations—a Catholic Workers group and STOP, an anti-death penalty organization.  Summers-Effler was able to evaluate the long-term evolution of the orgs and determine how group histories and various goals and challenges influenced perceptions which reproduced racial and gender inequalities. Summers-Effler concluded with four findings: 1) Speed is more foundational than frame, 2) Immediate uncertainties overrule project length and hinder the development of clear courses of action, 3) The members of both organizations presented unintentional bias which was then reproduced within the organization, and 4) Preoccupation with outside issues, led members to have difficulty articulating organizational goals.

Chandra Mukerji presented a fascinating theoretical piece, which she acknowledges was a “reflection of [her] own life” in conversation with her physicist husband. Her paper, “Cultural Imaginaries and Institutional Identities,” wove together concepts from quantum physics and cultural sociology to develop the term “cultural braiding,” intended to capture the unfixed configuration of cultural meanings and explain the functionality of “weak” cultural forces such as cultural imaginaries. To explain how weak cultural forces can have greater effects, she used an example from quantum physics: the Newtonian objects and electrons that shouldn’t interact with them actually do get together, creating surfaces and transforming the environment around them. Mukerji compared this phenomenon to the weak force of toxic masculinity, exemplified by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, which created a professional surface of masculine aggression within the company. She also gave the example of the cultural imaginary of the Sun King as an expression of sovereignty and power in the court of King Louis XIV. The image of the Sun King produced what Foucault calls a “prophetic truth” which, although a weak cultural form, allowed for a nondescript, unchallengeable dream—a cultural imaginary—to be shared by the French people. This imaginary was then reproduced through French artwork, further transforming the surroundings (France) with its ability to maintain a surface of support for the king’s court.

Clayton Childress presented a paper co-authored with Craig Rawlings (Duke) entitled, “Emergent Meanings: Homophily, Interaction and the Segregation of Attitudes Toward Cultural Objects”. With a goal of building on Childress’ research on reading groups and their interpretations of texts, the authors began with an initial question, “Where does meaning come from?” This initiated an investigation of three theories: dispositional-scaffolding, situational-channeling, and homophilous-catalyst. While dispositional scaffolding refers to the production of perception by way of the internalization of habitus, situational channeling suggests that meaning is unstable, evolving and created through interactions. Childress proposed a catalyst theory surmising that meanings are activated through “homophilous” interaction with an object whose properties resonate with some identity markers and not others. Childress and Rawlings theorized that global meanings converge within demographic and taste-based groups and individuals with identities that resonate with the cultural object will converge on similar meanings. To test this hypothesis, the authors distributed copies of an unknown novel to 21 previously established book groups. Book group participants were surveyed prior to and immediately following group discussion about their understanding of the book. They found that 1) Demographic interpretive meanings are not as ingrained as previously thought; 2) In-group based focus groups may be reflecting the meaning-making they wish to document; 3) Cultural objects aren’t just free-floating signifiers; and 4) Mixed methods designs are necessary for distinguishing meaning-making processes.

Finally, Laura Grindstaff presented a paper co-authored with David Orzechowicz (UC, Davis) entitled, “Working the Frame and Framing the Work: Performance Economies in the Culture Industries”. The fun and informative presentation summarized recent the results of recent ethnography conducted by Grindstaff and Orzechowicz. The authors immersed themselves in their two chosen cultural sites—theme parks and reality television—in order to investigate how these performance economies successfully achieve apparent authenticity. By drawing from Ernest Stenberg, Grindstaff and Orzechowicz sought to connect the critiques of a “phantasmagoric” late capitalism which favors iconicity with empirical research to discover the meso-level practices which enable profitable performances. The authors found that while theme parks must manage unpredictable cast members (the park goers themselves), reality television producers must manage the behavior of the show’s stars. They do so by shifting the burden of performance to the scaffolding, otherwise known as the show’s setting, location, and action (competition!). Currently, online information and virtual training provides potential reality stars (“real” people) with insights on how to be reality tv material, thus undermining the authenticity the shows seek to present. Therefore, Grindstaff concluded that the scale of the infrastructure that reality television worked to build now threatens its own undoing.

By studying cultural reproduction in relation to time; the production of “strong” cultural imaginaries by way of “weak” cultural forces; small groups to further understand meaning-making processes; and the meso-level practices of theme parks and reality TV, each author demonstrated how culture is reproduced, influenced, or influencing in the “real world”. While “How does culture work?” seems like a simple question, these presentations demonstrate that there is plenty of room for additional theoretical and empirical inquiry in cultural sociology.