Four Questions for Patricia A. Banks

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

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

Patricia A. Banks: I became interested in the study of culture in graduate school at Harvard University. In my first few years of graduate training in sociology, I was focused on race and class. After reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, I became curious about the interconnections between culture, race, and class. Traditionally, sociological scholarship on cultural participation has centered on class. Alternatively, a central goal of my research agenda is to cast light on the ways that racial boundaries are also shaped, and shaped by, cultural engagement. By moving beyond class and accounting for race and ethnicity, my research provides a more nuanced understanding of the role of cultural participation in shaping inequality. One especially important insight from this line of research is that it highlights how cultural participation reproduces racial and ethnic boundaries within the middle and upper class. Or, whereas the dominant approach to cultural participation emphasizes how it contributes to class boundaries between the middle and working class, my research demonstrates how cultural consumption contributes to racial and ethnic distinctions within the middle and upper class itself.  Moreover, my research highlights how it is class resources, such as economic and cultural capital, that allow racial and ethnic minority elites to use activities such as art collecting and museum patronage to draw racial and ethnic boundaries.

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

PB: I have examined these dynamics in a range of contexts. For example, in Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper Middle-Class and “Black Cultural Advancement: Racial Identity and Participation in the Arts Among the Black Middle Class,” I draw on ethnographic data such as in-depth interviews with art collectors and photographs of the art in their homes, to elaborate how upper-middle class blacks use arts participation to articulate and nurture their racial identity. In “High Culture, Black Culture: Strategic Assimilation and Cultural Steering in Museum Patronage,” (forthcoming Journal of Consumer Culture), I use ethnographic and archival data on museum patronage to develop the concepts of strategic acculturation and cultural steering. I show how the distinctive pattern of cultural consumption among the black middle and upper-class can be partly explained by the interplay of racial identity construction and cultivation by cultural intermediaries. I turn the lens to black middle-class voluntary organizations in “Money, Museums, and Memory: Cultural Patronage by Black Voluntary Associations” to show how they use museum patronage to reshape public narratives about African Americans. Using archival and ethnographic data, I illustrate how black elite organizations use donations to black museums as a tool to challenge narratives of national life where African Americans are marginalized. An important class dimension of this practice is that they also seek to position their organizations, and members of their organizations, as central protagonists in these counter-memories.

In a new line of research, I am examining corporate support of black art. Using data such as in-depth interviews with executives and public relations and advertising texts about corporate philanthropy and sponsorship in the arts, I am investigating how corporate patronage of black culture benefits businesses. I am finding that black cultural patronage, as well as other forms of “ethnic” cultural patronage, serve as forms of what I term diversity capital. I define diversity capital as cultural practices and values that allow organizations to solve problems and leverage opportunities related to race and ethnicity and other social differences. For example, in “Diversity Capital and Corporate Cultural Patronage,” I note how corporations use donations to cultural initiatives such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial to project the image that they are diverse and inclusive. Given the growing call for scholarship on organizations to address race and ethnicity in more depth, it is especially important to develop theory about how the cultural dimensions of organizations, such as ethnic philanthropy and sponsorships, are mobilized in various organizational processes like the projection of racial images.

Each of these research projects has been motivated by gaps in knowledge about race and culture as well as by new questions that emerged in the course of my research. For example, several of the art collectors who I interviewed in Represent are also supporters of African American museums. After talking with them I became curious about why individuals give to black museums. I help to answer this question in Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums where I use black museum patronage as a case to elaborate how the cultural values of the upper-middle and upper class diverge along such lines as race and ethnicity, profession, generation, and lifestyle. In the course of doing this research, I noticed that individuals weren’t the only important donor pool for black museums. Corporate gifts and sponsorships are also critical to their survival and sustenance. This insight put me on the path to studying black cultural patronage by corporations.

 My in-depth interviews with collectors for Represent also inspired a new strand of research on inequality in cultural markets. Drawing on a range of sources, including a unique database of auction records, I am examining how and why the market for artists of African descent has shifted over time. For example, in “The Rise of Africa in the Contemporary Auction Market: Myth or Reality?”, I use the complete history of works offered for sale at the main contemporary sales at Christie’s New York to examine the integration of contemporary African art into the art market. Similarly, in “Black Artists and Elite Taste Culture,” I use auction records to investigate the integration of black artists in contemporary art sales. This line of research is aimed at casting light on the factors that instantiate and destabilize racial and other forms of inequality in cultural markets. 

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

PB: Moving forward, I am especially excited about the new scholarship that centers race in the analysis of culture, taste, and inequality in places outside of the United States. While my research has mainly examined these dynamics in the United States, there is a growing body of literature that explores these issues in other national contexts such as the UK. With my investigation of artists of African descent in the global art market, my research is taking an international turn. Also, in the final chapter of Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums I outline a research agenda for examining cultural participation and diversity in a global context. 

Screenshot from 2019-06-27 09-42-38Patricia A. Banks is Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College and currently a Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. She studies culture, consumption, markets, and race, with a focus on the African Diaspora, philanthropy at African American museums, corporate support for the arts, and the global market for contemporary African art. She completed her undergraduate studies at Spelman College in sociology, where she was particularly influenced by Barbara Carter, Harry Lefever, Mona Phillips, Cynthia Spence, Bruce Wade, and Darryl White, who she says  “first ignited my sociological imagination.” She then attended Harvard (‘06),  where she completed her doctorate under the direction of Lawrence D. Bobo (advisor), William Julius Wilson, and Michèle Lamont. Prudence L. Carter who served on her orals committee (“Race, Class, and Cultural Consumption”), also influenced her approach to culture. Her dissertation (“Art, Identity, and the New Black Middle-Class: How Elite Blacks Construct their Identity Through the Consumption of Visual Art”) ultimately became her first book Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class (Routledge 2010). She is currently working on a new book Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View (Under Contract Routledge). Banks also created the African American Museums Database, a digital archive for over 300 African American museums and related organizations in the United States.