Four Questions for Paul DiMaggio

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?

Paul DiMaggio: Two things really got me excited about sociology to the extent of wanting to go to graduate school. I practiced teaching to become a high school teacher at a local school. It was an interesting school because it was a fusion of two districts, one of which was the most upscale district in Pennsylvania and the other one was almost entirely a blue collar district. Initially, I sort of coded who was smart and who wasn’t in the class. Then I got to know the students and I realized that my initial coding corresponded very heavily to what town they were from, and it was actually inaccurate in terms of who seemed to be smarter. So, I began thinking about what was it that made me perceive intelligence one way or the other. Obviously, I was ready prey for Bourdieu when I got to graduate school.

The second thing was just luck. I found out about a NSF grant to do summer research at Vanderbilt through a Swarthmore faculty member and I applied for it.  I had a roommate from Tennessee who made it sound very romantic and I’d never been in the south. I asked another roommate, “You know, if I want to spend the summer doing research in Nashville at Vanderbilt, what should I say I’m interested in?” And she said “It’s Nashville, country music.” I wrote a little proposal which was like a baby version of what Pete Peterson was doing and he immediately called up and said, “Come work with me.” That was a really an extraordinary experience. 

Harvard was the only place I applied for graduate school. I was working in Boston for a publishing company and I walked by the Harvard Graduate School office every day on the way to the subway. There, I worked with Mike Useem, and then later Harrison White and Ann Swidler. Mike left Harvard by the time I was dissertating, so Sandy Jencks was the third person on my committee. Harrison was the director of it. I think you know he had a big influence on me, but my dissertation was actually not a very Harrison-like dissertation at all. Really all four of them were big influences, and Pete Peterson as well. Mike Useem introduced me to Bourdieu before he was even published in the US. Harrison is one of the greatest intellectuals I’ve ever met, It’s hard not to be influenced by him. Sandy Jencks is a really great model for rigor in terms of doing quantitative work, and from the right place intellectually. Ann Swidler came later, but in some ways, was more of an influence on me than anybody. She was writing her 1986 paper and I got to read an early draft. In it, she basically described all these ideas about culture that I intuitively felt but couldn’t express.

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?

PD: When I teach the sociology of culture, I tell my students that over the course of the semester we should try not to use the word culture at all, but instead we should talk about what we actually mean. By that I mean, we don’t talk about the sociology of social structure in strictly general terms, we talk about stratification, networks, or forms of power. Culture is the same thing. It is a convenient indexical term that refers to everything from rituals to subjective phenomena, to patterns of text, to  musical notes. There is no reason that there should be one theory or theoretical framework that addresses all these things.

So, I think there are a number of ways of looking at culture that are productive. Culture both plays a supporting role and it’s also a focal topic in its own right. In the study of inequality, for example, culture has been really important as a mechanism through which inequality is reinforced. In the study of popular culture, such the arts, it is more of a dependent variable. Increasingly I’m thinking of culture in terms of representations and systems of classification that people use to interpret reality. 

One of the problems with the way the sociologists have traditionally looked at culture is the expectation (a) that culture is integrated, and (b) the assumption that people actually have one set of beliefs and one set of cultural understandings. I think there’s a lot of evidence that people know more culture then they use, as Ann Swidler has said, and they also have multiple identities. The matching of identity to cultural schemas is a major mechanism through which collective action occurs and through which people may behave unpredictably. For example, how is it that the people who seem perfectly normal one year can all become supporters of an authoritarian next year, or how (as in the former Yugoslavia) people who used to intermarry and celebrate rituals together suddenly start killing each other. Obviously the explanation is not all culture, but we have to understand how culture permits that, given the external factors that militate towards it. 

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

PD: My recent work is trying to understand how it is that the same people will use culture in different ways from moment to moment, and I find the work on code switching for example, really helpful. And so, I should probably be doing ethnography, which I’m not doing, but I find myself drawing on ethnography and having conversations with ethnographers a lot. 

What I’ve been doing instead is getting into more kinds of quantitative methodologies, for example, topic modeling and computational text analysis. With these methods one might potentially look at transitions between voices within texts and use them to understand the circumstances within the text where a communicator will shift from one code to another. 

I am also working with Amir Goldberg on the problem of how to understand heterogeneity in survey data, building on Amir’s AJS paper on relational class analysis. Specifically, I’m interested in methods that understand people’s attitudes based on the way they are connected to other attitudes. This allows us to get away from the idea that the same attitude means the same thing across people. 

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

PD: One of the really exciting things happening is the integration of research in cognitive science with the sociology of culture. Going back as far as Parsons there’s always been a psychology behind cultural theory and in the past it wasn’t made very explicit. Also in the past, since the psychologists were behaviorists, there wasn’t much to draw on. Now there is. 

There’s also lot of interesting work in the area of culture and politics—both people studying collective action and people coming out of political science who are thinking seriously about where do political opinions come from. Political science and political sociology at one point saw voters as having ideologies. Now, people are understanding that political perceptions are based on a lot of things other than ideology, including identity or more primitive emotions, and drawing on cultural theory. 

Increasingly ethnographic work is using cultural sociology to interpret particular context or situations, but in doing so is also contributing to the development of cultural ideas. In addition to this ethnographic work, there’s also this methodological explosion around computational analysis which is getting people who don’t usually study culture to study it. For example, text analysis is increasingly informed by the sociology of culture.

Broadly, I think the field is doing really well in the sense that there are a lot of young people who are doing incredibly good work and not bothering to fight about the things that people used to waste time on.

Screenshot from 2019-06-26 14-37-54Paul DiMaggio is Professor of Sociology at New York University and A. Barton Hepburn Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He completed his undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College, where he conducted research on hitchiking for his honor’s thesis which became his first book, The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual (1973, Macmillan). His next book was the edited volume Nonprofit Enterprise in the Arts (1986, Oxford). DiMaggio’s dissertation was “Culture, Stratification, and Organization: Exploratory Papers” and directed by Harrison White (chair) and Ann Swidler, and  Christopher “Sandy” Jencks. Encouraged by Mike Useem, DiMaggio was also an early importer of Bourdieu to American sociology. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Richard “Pete” Peterson, who was reviving the culture concept and laying the foundation for the “production of culture perspective” through his empirical work on country music. DiMaggio’s earliest publications came out of this work, such as “From Region to Class, the Changing Locus of Country Music” (Social Forces, 1975). Based on his work on small nonprofit arts organizations, and Walter “Woody” Powell’s work on small book publishers, the two were struck by the extent of homogeneity between different organizations. This became the key idea that motivated one of the most widely cited papers in the social sciences: “The Iron Cage Revisited” (ASR, 1983).