Department Profile: University of Minnesota

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

The Cultures of Cultural Sociology at Minnesota

   Yagmur Karakaya and Jacqui Frost

When we got the news that we had both received awards for the ASA Culture Section’s 2019 best graduate student paper, we knew that it was not a coincidence. We have both been trained at the Univ. of Minnesota, where cultural sociology is vibrant, diverse, and well-supported.   

Our department has a long history of cultural analysis that goes back to the 1960s when Gregory Stone and others began to emphasize symbolic interactionism in their work. Scholars like Sheldon Stryker and, later, Gary Alan Fine were core contributors to this tradition. Today, cultural sociology is central to Minnesota sociology, though its applications are topically, theoretically, and methodologically broad. As Joe Gerteis puts it, “We are not a department with firm or clear boundaries between different camps. Most of our students and faculty study culture at some level, whether through macro-level cultural discourses, institutional cultures, or grounded interactions.” At Minnesota, cultural sociology is seen as constitutive of the discipline, and there is a genuine appreciation among all of the faculty for the ways that cultural sociology can enrich understandings of a broad array of social phenomena, including law, family, religion, cities, transitions to adulthood, sports, race, crime, food, finance, globalization, and sports. As Kathy Hull explained, “Even my colleagues who might not themselves identify as cultural sociologists recognize and value the ways that cultural approaches deepen our understanding of the world.”

This appreciation for cultural sociology has led to what department chair Doug Hartmann called “a broad and eclectic mix of scholars, subject matter, and orientations to culture and its study at Minnesota.” Below, we describe these “cultures” of cultural sociology at Minnesota where different theoretical and methodological approaches are combined to explain the social world.

Talking About Social Controversies

Kathy Hull and Penny Edgell run the NSF-funded Talking About Social Controversies (TASC) project that uses focus groups to investigate the cultural schemas informing people’s understandings of religion, science, and law. This project has produced research on narrative and argumentation, humor and group identity formation, how racialization of crime contributes to punitiveness, and the ways moral understandings of the body are used to “push back” against the marketization of medicine. Alumni Kyle Green and Dan Winchester worked extensively with this project, which they draw on in their recent article that investigates how narrative accounts motivate people’s actions. This article won ASA’s 2019 Junior Theorist Award. TASC builds from the PIs’ broader interests in cultural sociology. Hull’s primary research focuses on the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement and how social movements create meaningful goals and strategies in response to a range of social forces. And for Edgell, cultural sociology has been foundational to her research on American religion. Edgell explores how religious cultures create symbolic boundaries, how rhetoric and practice intertwine in interactional settings like churches, and how rituals and embodiment motivate people to engage with communities and movements.

Boundaries in the American Mosaic

The NSF-funded Boundaries in the American Mosaic (AMP) survey project is another space in the department where the cultural takes center stage. Under the guidance of principal investigators Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann, this project is centrally concerned with the study of solidarity and difference, with a special focus on race and religion. The project combines Gerteis’s expertise in political culture, nationalism, and diversity, Hartmann’s critical approach to the study of race and ethnicity, and Edgell’s work on religious subcultures, gender, and family. AMP has been a major hub for graduate students interested in racial and religious identities, social boundaries, symbolic exclusion, and discrimination, including alumni Joyce Bell and Paul Croll who used the survey to investigate racial boundaries and Jack Delehanty and Evan Stewart who created new measures to better understand religious boundaries. This project is a great example of the collaborative and mixed-methods approach to cultural sociology that is characteristic at Minnesota. Research coming out of AMP emphasizes the importance of both qualitative and quantitative data when investigating big questions about inclusion and exclusion in American society.


The KIDS project, co-directed by Hartmann and Teresa Swartz, documents and assesses the role of out-of-school activities, particularly sports, in youth development, family culture, and community building. With ethnography and interviews, this undertaking produces a deep, rich understanding of how parents and kids experience and understand these activities in relation to both popular images circulating the public sphere and the more material, stratification-focused analyses that tend to dominate in the field. This project has been widely influenced by Hartmann’s sensibility in seeing sport as a unique field of social practice where racial ideas, ideals, and ideologies circulate. His cultural approach to race and sports has drawn students of sport to the department, including alumni Kyle Green who studied masculinity and mixed martial arts and Alex Manning who investigated the contested terrain of youth soccer. 

Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

The Holocaust and Genocide Center (CHGS) provides the critical foundation and analytical tools to understand and address the causes, impacts, and legacies of the Holocaust, genocides, and incidents of mass violence. As Joachim Savelsberg said, “Faculty and students working in the area of genocide and mass violence, a subset of our cultural sociology emphasis, have been developing a shared understanding of their task and cultivating quite intense network ties, collaborations, and collective activities.” Run by Alejandro Baer, CHGS houses studies on the memories of violence in post-authoritarian or post-conflict societies. Baer approaches this question from a cultural lens and unearths stories in post-conflict societies. He asks how these stories condition social relations in societies emerging from violence. Work done at CHGS is very much informed by cultural trauma theory, as well the historical sociology of mnemonic practices. Another core area of research at CHGS is on human rights as culture, which affect subjectivities, victim identities, and provide opportunities for carrier groups for framing and claim making. There are always exciting collaborations happening at the CHGS, which currently include a group of students who are examining representations of the US-Dakota War in Minnesota newspapers, and an upcoming collaboration with Colombian sociologist Carlo Tognato on Civil Courage in the Context of Mass Violence. Alumni include J. Siguru Wahutu whose research is on global media patterns in covering genocide in Africa

Collaborative Cultures and Innovative Graduate Work

Discussions across these various projects occur in department workshops, graduate courses, and working groups. The department offers an array of seminars in the study of culture, including Sociology of Culture, Sociology of Knowledge, Ethnographic Methods, and Visual Data Analysis. Seminars become collaborative spaces where students learn to “justify and celebrate methodologies centered in cultural analysis” (Gowan) and “get the tools they need to grapple with their own empirical and theoretical questions in what has become a quite large literature” (Edgell). However, one of the department’s real strengths is the collaborative working groups that graduate students interested in cultural sociology can participate in.

Edgell and Hull began an informal reading group for students studying cultural sociology in 2007 that came to be known as “Culture Club.” Edgell and Hull both teach the department’s graduate seminar in cultural sociology and formed the group to foster community and rigorous research among their graduate students. The group meetings center around one student’s work in progress or discussions about a set of readings in cultural sociology. This group is still run today by Edgell, who explained, “Students interested in culture have opportunities to take a formal seminar, but also to engage regularly in conversation about their work with other students, and I think this helps students both engage more broadly in the subfield of culture but also practice linking cultural theory and analysis to questions or debates in a broader set of sociological literatures.”

Another collaborative space in the department for cultural sociologists is Teresa Gowan’s ethnography group, where graduate students in the field meet to debrief and learn how to analyze their data. Gowan explained, “I see all qualitative methods as working in the realm of culture. Whatever theoretical schools inform your work, all ethnographers share an assumption about the explanatory power of rich descriptions of local culture.” Gowan also teaches a graduate course in ethnographic methods, but her working group allows students from across cohorts and topical interests to come together and get feedback on their projects. Gowan spends focused time training students how to make connections between the analytical and empirical tracks of their research, always emphasizing her motto – “Be bold, be wrong!”

Graduate students in the department draw from these various projects and perspectives to form their dissertation research, and numerous graduate students in the department are working on projects with a cultural lens. These projects span a variety of topics, including parenting practices, religious subcultures, populism, sporting subcultures, violence and reconciliation, diversity discourse, plasma donation, and Black Twitter. And these projects are as geographically diverse as they are topically, with graduate students conducting cultural analyses in countries across the globe, including Colombia, Turkey, Egypt, Rwanda, Serbia, and Mexico.  

Cultural Sociology at Minnesota

The study of culture at Minnesota is diverse in empirical subject matter, theoretical approach, and methodology, but filled with spaces of collaboration in team-based projects, courses, and mentoring groups that enrich both the faculty research and graduate training. Sociologists at Minnesota are brought together by a shared appreciation for cultural approaches, and a need for collective effervescence in sub-zero temperatures!