Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 3.
Dustin Stoltz: How did you become interested in sociology and the study of culture?
Orlando Patterson: I came to sociology from history and literature, and from fiction writing. My first books were novels, but I did my dissertation in historical sociology. It was a sociology of slavery in Jamaica. My interest in culture was first through literature and from that I naturally moved toward culture in a more sociological sense. It was a natural development because where I come from, in Jamaica, we view history and culture as the fundamental forces of understanding the problems that our little society faced. As for my early influences, I admired people who were strongly cultural in their orientation. Both my undergraduate work and my graduate work involved a lot of social anthropologists, like the eminent social anthropologists Raymond Smith (1925-2015), who was later a professor of Anthropology at Chicago, and M. G. Smith (1921-1993), who was later professor of anthropology at Yale. Then, at the London School of Economics (LSE)—this was a genuine interdisciplinary school when I was there—I interacted freely with not only my fellow sociologists but very eminent anthropologists, like Lucy Mair, as well as economists. That is, my background is a very social science one, with a historical-cultural orientation. And so, the significance of culture has always been a central preoccupation of mine, throughout my career.
My approach is to see how culture works interactively with structural forces and sometimes it is less important, sometimes more important. I’ve never been reluctant to see how culture matters in understanding the plight of black people along with the problems of ghettoization and poverty and racism. That has gotten me into a lot of pickles. My work is viewed with great suspicion. The irony of this is, I come out of a tradition in Britain, a very much a Marxian one, a sort of postcolonial and decolonizing neo-Marxian tradition. That’s my Caribbean background. I was one of the founders of the Caribbean version of dependency theory, and during my LSE days I was involved in radical groups and on the editorial board of New Left Review. In Britain, you get a book like Willis’s Learning to Labor, and that was the tradition from which I came. Nobody would accuse Willis of being a conservative, of blaming the victim. But when I took that attitude over to America, people said “Patterson’s is a conservative. He’s blaming the victim!” This is so ironic, outside of America I’m viewed as a neo-Marxist radical because for eight years of my life I was special advisor to—other than Fidel Castro—the most radical prime minister in the hemisphere, Michael Manley. We tried to start a revolution! So I had this strange double life where I’d be in Jamaica and the middle classes there were screaming at me for being a communist, pro-Castro, radical maniac. I’d fly back from Jamaica and I’d find people saying “You’re blaming the victim. You’re a conservative. You and Moynihan and Lewis are one.” So, that is the life I’ve lived with culture, which is kind of bizarre.
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?
OP: When I came to America, in the 1970s, I was coming from the British system where culture was seen as a critical component in sociological narratives. Now when I came to America, we were in the throes of a massive reaction against the previous Parsonian deterministic view of culture, which had been the reigning paradigm in sociology up to that time. I came right in the midst of this, the overthrow of culture in sociology with the overthrow of Parsons. I have never been a fan of Parsons, because in the British London School of Economics tradition, we never really did take too seriously Parsonian determinism. So I was a little confounded by the strength of the reaction, and the unwillingness, in fact, to consider any other approach to culture for a very long time. Culture was in the doghouse in sociology right up to the 80s—so a good 15 to 20 years—until the arrival of interest with the rise of the Culture Section of the ASA. Culture was brought back in, with several articles and books talking about bringing culture back and cultural turns. I found that all very puzzling since there is no turn for me to turn back to because I’ve always taken culture seriously, but among Americans this was a big deal.
But then the way that culture was brought back in was for me quite unsatisfactory. People were extremely cautious, always paranoid about not being misunderstood because by the mid-80s culture was seen not just to be associated with the determinism of Parsons, but also with right-wing social science and commentary. It was a knee-jerk, almost automatic view. If you measured culture with a word association metric, almost like Pavlov’s dog, if you said “culture,” they’d spit out “Moynihan, Moynihan, Moynihan” and after that you’d have “Lewis, Lewis, Lewis,” and then “blaming the victim” and “reactionary.” It was Pavlovian. And, it still exists.
The folks who decided to bring culture back in were acutely sensitive about that. The way they were able to gain respectability or avoid condemnation was to make sure you never, never, use culture to explain anything. The cultural turn meant, in fact, treating culture as something to be explained or as a meaning system to be understood hermeneutically. The person who gave permission to sociologists to talk about culture again, was actually not a sociologist but an anthropologist. It was Clifford Geertz. Sociologists rode piggyback on his famous book, Interpretation of Culture. Here culture was interpretive, culture was hermeneutic, culture is something to be explained. Never, never, never to explain anything. Geertz’s Interpretation of Culture is the fundamental dogma of the cultural turn in sociology. In it, Geertz explicitly rejects any causal role for culture (Go read it on page 12). Culture never explains anything. Culture is sort of like a book that needs to be read, like a text, which became the new mantra. “Meaning” became the central stuff, and “meaning-making” became a standard trope. This oversensitivity and this dread, this sheer terror of ever being accused of using culture to explain anything accompanied the cultural turn in sociology. This cultural turn was really just a sociological piggybacking on Clifford Geertz.
Now, Geertz was a brilliant man. I spent a year with him. He invited me to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. I was happy to be there. It was the year in which they focused on symbolic anthropology. This was ‘75. A wonderful year for me. I met several very good friends. One of them, who really influenced my own work—we talked a lot and had many wonderful long walks in the woods around the Institute for Advanced Study—was Victor Turner. But Victor Turner’s work was literally loathed by Geertz. I don’t know why he invited him. I guess he had to invite him because Turner was very much one of the leaders of symbolic anthropology. But, Geertz very much hated the kind of symbolic anthropology that Turner was engaged in. I loved it. We got along very well. We were both drinking men then. I introduced him to good rum and he introduced me to good scotch–he was a scotch man. I remember once Victor getting tipsy, late in the night, having one too many, and he turned to me and said, “Orlando, I want to ask you a question: why does Geertz hate me so much?” I said, “Well, you don’t view culture as just a text, you take culture seriously as having consequences.” And, he said “But it does, Orlando, it does!” I said, “Yeah, I know it does, but Geertz thinks that’s an abomination.”
I view, of course, culture in interpretive terms, coming out of literature. But I also saw culture as very important for explaining. This goes back to my days in the London School of Economics. Culture was important but interactively so. That is, how it interacts with structural forces. Any explanation has to involve the ways culture interacts with structural, economic, political, and environmental sources.
DS: How does your approach to culture shape your choice of research topics, settings, and methods?
OP: In my historical sociology, of course, culture again, is important. Slavery and Social Death can be seen as an extended sociocultural interpretation of slavery in which I drew heavily on symbolic anthropology to understand the dynamics of manumission. The whole notion of social death as a symbolic trope used by slaveholders in their domination and oppression of the enslaved. The whole idea of the social dead, the idea of social rebirth, and manumission as a symbolic process in which the socially dead slave is reborn into the life of freedom, is of course for me cultural. And, my work on freedom is pure cultural analysis. Freedom is a deeply eminent Western construct, maybe the longest lasting cultural construct there is for the West. To understand it, is to understand what is a supreme cultural value, or cultural trope, in the West.
That also ties to another more deeper theoretical preoccupation of mine, which also places me against the grain. Sociologists are obsessed with change. I’ve been obsessed with change. I was a socialist, you know, and I want to see change. I was part of the decolonization movement and so on. But for me, what is even more fascinating than change is why things persist. Partially because I wanted change, I am frustrated often that things persist, even when everything would seem to suggest that they should change. The problem of continuity has always been a very central preoccupation. Why does the past influence the present as much as it does? In practical terms, I was preoccupied with the persisting lineaments of slavery on modern life.
I’m fairly catholic in my methodological approaches. In my research on social death, I draw methods from symbolic anthropological studies, but also I use quantitative approaches to understanding cultural issues. Slavery and Social Death, in addition to using interpretive approaches and drawing on a wide range of theoretical approaches, I use—and this is where my approach differed from what was then the emerging approach in historical sociology—large N and quantitative methods. Just about when Slavery and Social Death first came out, historical sociology was on the rise, but it took a turn that was completely out of sync— or I should say, I was completely out of sync with the way it was going. It was emphasizing small N, macro-sociological studies of collective subjects, like the bourgeoisie and so on.
My approach, instead of at the most macro level, it considers operations at the micro and meso level. The micro level of slavery as a relation of domination. Understanding that relation of domination between slaveholder and enslaved, and their interaction. But also at the meso level of slavery as an institution and the way in which manumission operates to maintain the system, and how, at the meso level, it is a very conserving system. Along the way, methodologically I’ve used a combination of interpretative methods and techniques from classical scholars, as well as anthropologists, but also using quantitative approaches in the sense that Slavery and Social Death is not based on few small N, but in fact sixty-six societies. I then took a sub-sample of that to look in-depth at what I call the advanced slave societies. The analysis of the 66 societies where all coded using Murdock’s cross-cultural studies, and their methodology of using statistical methods to analyze across cultures. That was anathema to a lot of anthropology and sociology at the time. So, I was moving in a completely different direction. The historical sociologists were hyper-structural and macro, mine was cultural and meso and micro. Mine was comparative in the sense of looking at large number of societies and largely quantitative and then selecting a smaller number and analyzing interpretatively but drawing on the tools of symbolic anthropology. So again, I was against the grain. That has been my fate.
DS: What most excites you about the future of cultural theory and analysis in sociology?
OP: In recent years, people are kind of tiptoeing around and saying maybe culture has some relevance for understanding problems, such as poverty. My dear friend and colleague, William Julius — of course previously the ultimate structuralist—in his More Than Just Race, acknowledges culture, but emphasizing that structure is always more important. A few other people have brought out a more recent studies looking at the cultural dimension of poverty, like my colleagues and friend, Mario Small and others.
I want sociologists to be less dogmatic, not to be terrified of approaching culture as something that operates interactively with structural forces to influence important outcomes such as poverty. To know that culture matters. That the past matters. Part of the way in which the immiseration of people is perpetuated is in how past systems of oppression lead people to adjust by developing strategies and beliefs and suspicions and so on, which can persist even after the structural forces that occasion them are gone and continue to influence their behavior. Sociologists recognize this, of course, when they talk about the most famous cause of an historical determined cultural pattern: it’s called racism.
In my most recent work, The Cultural Matrix, I laid out my own view of culture. It was largely an extension of my Annual Review, but adapted for understanding poverty, especially of black youth. The central idea being we should move away from talking about culture in the macro-sense and back to the micro and meso level. In fact, I emphasize “cultural configurations.” There is in broad sense culture, attributes which are distinctive for certain groups, but I’d rather move away from that notion of culture to what I call cultural configurations. We live and move within a wide range of sometimes overlapping, sometimes separate cultural configurations and our identities sort of move in these these micro configurations of culture, and the way in which structural opportunities and situations determine which of these configurations we choose to emphasize or to activate at any given time.
Some of the younger generation of cultural sociologists are doing this. Omar Lizardo’s work I like—he takes culture seriously—and Steve Vaisey at Duke, I like his work a lot. And, the tools being developed to analyze big data, and textual analysis being used to look at broad cultural patterns. Ethan Fosse, who I edited The Cultural Matrix with, he’s working at the cutting edge of textual analysis. We’ve done text regressions on my work on freedom, on American belief systems about freedom. This kind of work is beginning to take off. We just had a conference at Harvard organized by Bart Bonikowski, one of my young colleagues. Quite a few other people are doing this kind of work, Chris Bail at Duke, and I see Paul DiMaggio is very much moving in this direction too. I’m excited about those developments.
|Orlando Patterson is the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard and a cultural and historical sociologist. He completed his undergraduate studies in economics at the Univ. of the West Indies (‘62), and his doctoral work in sociology at the London School of Economics (‘65) during the “heyday of the anthropologists” at LSE. Prior to arriving in London in the fall of 1962, he was drawn to Harold Laski’s work, and later completed his doctoral work under the supervision of the demographer David Glass. Patterson’s dissertation, The Sociology of Slavery: Jamaica, 1655-1838, was published in 1967 and since then his empirical work has revolved around three primary registers: slavery, freedom, and development in Jamaica and surrounding nations. He is the author of several fiction books and five additional academic books: Slavery and Social Death (1982); Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991); The Ordeal of Integration (1997); and most recently an edited volume, The Cultural Matrix (2015). While in graduate school in London, Patterson was a member of the influential Caribbean Artists Movement (along with Edward Kamau Brathwaite) and wrote for the New Left Review. As an undergraduate, he was influenced by the anthropologists Raymond Smith, M. G. Smith, Lloyd Braithwaite, and Lloyd Best. As a graduate student he enjoyed the strongly interdisciplinary environment at the London School of Economics of the late 1960s where he interacted freely with sociologists, economists, and anthropologists—notably among the latter was Firth, Lucy Mair, and Isaac Shapiro. After his PhD, he taught at the London School of Economics and the Univ. of the West Indies. Invited by Talcott Parsons, Patterson visited Harvard while on sabbatical in early 1970, around the same time the famous Department of Social Relations was dissolved into component disciplines. Later the next year Patterson was offered a tenured professorship in the newly formed Department of Sociology. He received the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award of the ASA in 1983.|