Four Questions for Omar Lizardo

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

Dustin Stoltz (Univ. of Notre Dame) interviews Omar Lizardo (UCLA), the new Culture Section chair, on the past, present, and future of cultural analysis and sociology.

Dustin Stoltz: How did you become interested in the study of culture?

Omar Lizardo: I came to grad school with interests in theory and with working knowledge of what gets called “theory” more broadly (namely, so-called French and critical theory, Habermas, Foucault, structuralism, Althusser, and so on). So I guess I was interested in what was called “cultural studies” in the late 1990s, but I knew that I wanted to be a sociologist, so I was interested in that intersection. I was not very familiar with more conventional “sociological” theory, but I knew about Bourdieu’s work in connection to my self-taught French theory background, and had even read Jeff Alexander‘s extensive critique of Bourdieu’s approach in Fin De Siècle Social Theory (1995, Verso) by the time I applied to grad school. So I had a sense that “culture” was a somewhat “theoretical” area in sociology in which a lot of the background knowledge I had was applicable.

My first grad school classroom experience at Arizona cemented that. This was a sociology of culture graduate seminar taught by Lis Clemens. The course was great, mostly because it was a traditional Chicago-style “great books” class, and Lis is a good curator of what more empirically oriented people would call “culture” related work. Because it was Chicago-style, the course wasn’t just purely sociology, but empirical work on culture was understood in a more interdisciplinary way. Thus, we read such broadly influential books as Scott’s Seeing Like a State and Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Baxandall’s monograph on the Quattrocento eye (which I later found out was critical for Bourdieu’s theoretical development), and Hebdige’s Meaning of Style. We also read more disciplinary stuff such as Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus (which I hadn’t read), Griswold’s Sociological Methodology piece on the cultural diamond, Sewell’s duality of structure paper, Peterson’s 1979 Annual Review piece on culture, Hirsch’s 1972 AJS piece on cultural industry systems, Gottdiener’s 1985 AJS piece on mass culture and hegemony, Brubaker’s 1985 Theory and Society piece on Bourdieu and the classics, and a bunch of other key pieces, as well as things that I had already read like the Frankfurt School and Habermas (and I did end up writing a final paper on mass culture as distorted communication!). In all, it was a great intro to empirical work on culture in sociology and “traditions” of work in social science oriented “cultural studies.”

At the same time, I was taking the required Theory class with Ron Breiger, in which he introduced Bourdieu as this great empirical methodologist. So Bourdieu was a bridge between my “French theory” background and empirical sociology of culture. And that created my “template” of what work should look like, a sort of “normal science” (very Arizona) version of Bourdieu (essentially the Princeton-style stuff that would come to populate Poetics) of which there were a bunch of Arizona-approved examples to pick from such as early DiMaggio on cultural capital, some of Noah Mark’s work on networks and taste, and the foundational 1996 ASR papers on cultural taste—Peterson and Kern and Bryson—published while Paula England edited the journal in Tucson. Later when I discovered that John Martin was also doing stuff like this (also via readings assigned in Breiger classes), I added his approach as another model to follow.


DS: What work does culture do in your thinking,  and what do you see as the benefits and limitations of your approach as compared to alternatives?

OL: As with most people, culture plays a dual role for me as both a “topic of” and “resource for” analysis. As already noted, Bourdieu’s Distinction and the resurgent interest in studying empirical patterns of taste and culture consumption solved the topic problem for me. There was data on cultural tastes and consumption (GSS culture module, SPPA) and I was learning quantitative methods, and I was going study that using those methods; problem solved (I also needed to write an MA thesis). This was a Petersonian resolution to the “culture” issue because it doesn’t require delving on vexing definitions. Culture is patterns of choice (in my case, on the consumption side) with regards to the stuff that the folk also call culture such as music, books, paintings, etc. I feel like the people who study production also have their problems solved by Peterson in this way because you go to just study the thing that’s being made by particular people (e.g. rap, or country, or food, or whatever) rather than delving on analytical issues as to what culture “is” (or is not).

Thinking of culture as a “resource” for analysis (e.g., cultural analysis or cultural theory) took a bit longer for me, and that’s still a developing project. This probably started with me grappling with Bourdieu’s theory of practice and the status of the “cognitive element” in his overall approach, from the 2004 JTSB piece on the cognitive origins of habitus to some of the stuff on Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul and the neural basis of habitus, onwards to the 2011 piece in the special issue of Cultural Sociology edited by Marco Santoro on Bourdieu as a “post-cultural” theorist. However, the main piece that began to develop a more encompassing argument was the 2010 Poetics with Mike Strand for the special issue on cognition edited by Karen Cerulo, in which we kind of forced ourselves to bring Bourdieu’s concern with embodiment and practice in dialogue with Swidler’s “outside in” perspective, which was an approach that was broadly influential in American sociology, interest in which had been revived by Vaisey’s 2009 dual process piece. Clearly, you can trace a direct line between the 2010 Poetics paper and the 2017 ASR on the declarative/non-declarative distinction since the intent of both papers was synthetic rather than critical and the ASR piece developed arguments that existed in embryo in the earlier one. So, my approach tends to be more focused on bringing in insights from cognitive social science into cultural analysis, without being dismissive of native traditions of cultural theory in sociology. So those are the benefits; regarding limitations, time will tell.

So all of this work on culture as a resource for analysis has been more theoretical than empirical for me (although I’m glad that some people have taken up the empirical challenge as given by the citations I’ve seen to both papers). The underlying message in both of those pieces is that the cognitive dimension of the cultural needs to be theorized explicitly, and also expressly linked to the public aspects that American sociologists tend to be more comfortable bringing in empirically and theoretically. I do believe the recent interest in thinking of patterns of cultural taste as partially driven by underlying schemas that could be retrieved from surveys (e.g., the line of work opened up by Amir Goldberg‘s 2011 AJS) bring the two strands of work I’ve done on culture kind of full circle. I hope to do more stuff in that vein (on schemas and cultural taste) in the near future.

DS: How does your approach to culture shape your choice of research topics, settings, and methods?

OL: As noted earlier, I don’t think that there was a direct relationship between an overall “approach” and the choice of topic. I guess there would be if you call Petersonian pragmatism in defining culture as “expressive symbols,” and delineating strategies to deal with the consumption and production side that tied it closely to existing sources of data, an “approach.” So the imagery of “patterns of cultural choice” always stuck with me, because that’s literally what you see when you load survey data on cultural tastes into your favorite statistical software. People in the rows and a vector of numbers across the columns (where each entry may indicate whether a person likes, dislikes, or engages a given arts activity or musical genre). Each vector is a “pattern,” and most of our techniques consist of trying to reduce the data into even tinier and more manageable clumps where the patterns that are most alike end up in the same clump. This is usually done by trying to come up with classifications that lump the columns based on the correlation (e.g., factor analysis) or work with the n-way table formed by the response patterns (like latent class analysis) to clump the people. Bourdieu, of course, worked with eigenvalue decomposition techniques in which the patterns of cultural choice are modeled directly (multiple correspondence analysis), so that gives you a simultaneous classification of people and genres. I was taught simple CA and MCA (as well as latent class analysis and log-linear modeling) by Breiger and have always been interested in the many ways in which different methods realize the Petersonian “patterns” imagery in different ways.

Some recent work on the “formal” approaches to culture tradition that John Mohr started departs from yet a different way of realizing the “patterns” imagery, which works by drawing on Breiger’s duality conception and treats the data table as a “network” of people by genres (something that networks people such as Steve Borgatti say should be done, but few actually do) and directly applies network techniques to detect cultural choice patterns. Mohr and Achim Edelmann bring a lot of this stuff together in their recent introduction to a special issue of Poetics on formal approaches to modeling culture, and I really think that there’s a coherent line linking the Petersonian idea of cultural choice patterns and “the matrix” of data containing such patterns via the unifying notion of the mutual constitution and definition of people and the objects they choose (this can be kicked up a notch by thinking about the mutual constitution of the relations among the relations in what Monica Lee with John Martin have recently referred to as the “Dharma of Duality”). This was, of course, foundational to Bourdieu’s own use of MCA and why Distinction was such a revelatory work both theoretically and empirically. I think the next step here, in addition to achieving duality enlightenment, is toward tighter integration with the techniques we are familiar with (both correlation and network-based) and more “exploratory” tools from the data science/mining/network science tradition in computer science such as cluster analysis or community detection. This is something I hope to broach in some ongoing work. A forthcoming paper with Jeff Larson in Social Forces on eliciting social movement logics (combining MCA and divisive clustering) from “the matrix” of events by protest-even characteristics implements a bit of this vision.

DS: What most excites you about the future of cultural theory and analysis in sociology?

OL: What excites me is the diversity. Both regarding culture as “topic” and and “resource,” as well as the methodological diversity, which ranges from ethnography to interviews, to past surveys to novel, computational, natural language processing and automated text coding techniques. After values, and morality were brought back to the fold in the aughts, and practice theory became an established tradition of cultural analysis, there really are no “cultural things” that are off limits to study today. So the initial Petersonian restriction to expressive symbols and the defocusing of the stuff that sounded too Parsonian was the right pragmatic move for the sociology of culture when it needed to establish and legitimize itself but now is no longer needed. I think accepting “dappled” nature of culture (some of us study “taste,” others “beliefs,” others “practices,” others “discourses,” others “values,” etc.) is the comparative strength in the field. Restrictive definitions may be logically pretty, but they are pragmatically disastrous. Accepting the dappledness, then the hard work analytically is to try to theorize how the various pieces of the cultural puzzle fit together and play (or grind against) with one another, and here you are seeing lots of great work theorizing both processes (e.g., “resonance”) and underlying entities (e.g., frames, schemas, etc.). So in this respect, cultural theory is in a good place in the sense that people are open to and working on new ideas and creative syntheses, especially now that disciplinary anxieties about sociology being “conquered” by other fields have died down. So I’m excited about the continuing diversification of the area, both conceptually and methodologically.

Omar Lizardo is Professor and LeRoy Neiman Term Chair at UCLA. He completed his undergraduate studies in psychology at Brooklyn College. As a young man living in Brooklyn, he  had a lot of content-based and general theoretical questions that went beyond generic behavioral propensities; his growing curiosities were not sated by his psychology coursework. Then he took his first sociology elective: an ‘intro’ class taught by a then graduate-student from the CUNY grad center (now Prof. George Cavalletto) who assigned graduate-level reading. In particular, Wilson’s Truly Disadvantaged, Hochschild’s Second Shift, and Chodorow’s Reproduction of Mothering introduced Lizardo to rigorous sociological explanations. At Univ of Arizona, he worked with Al Bergesen, who took him to his first conference, Political Economy of World-Systems at UC, Riverside, and introduced him to the “business side” of the profession. From Bergesen he learned, “First, no idea is a crazy idea; and second, you never turn down a publishing opportunity; it doesn’t matter when, where, or how. If somebody gives you the faintest invitation to publish something, you say yes.” Through his other adviser at Arizona, Ron Breiger, he was introduced to the work of Bourdieu “as methodologically rigorous work and not as a pie-in-the-sky ‘French theorist.’” He also learned from Breiger to “stop worrying about the battle of the methods” because the more interesting methods (like correspondence analysis and network analysis) were combining both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Outside of his doctoral program, Lizardo was influenced by Paul DiMaggio’s work—specifically learning the right way write a sociology paper from DiMaggio’s articles. John Levi Martin also influenced him in a more general sense by providing a model of “how to be a sociologist,” specifically a “generalist” sociologist. This was  “liberating,” according to Lizardo, “because ‘that’ meant that I did not need to sacrifice my interest in a wide variety of theoretical and substantive areas to get my degree.”

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