Four Questions For Jennifer Lena

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

Dustin Stoltz (Univ. of Notre Dame) interviews Jennifer Lena (Columbia) on the past, present, and future of cultural analysis and sociology.

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

Jennifer Lena: My family, actually. My mother’s sister’s husband—my uncle that married into the family—was a very successful artist, and my aunt was an artist as well. I spent summers and holidays as a kid in New York City visiting them. Both my parents are educators and my dad is a sociologist, and they were busy during summer teaching SAT courses and the kind of side-hustles that educators have to do to get by. My uncle was African-American and largely painted about African-American topics and was the co-creator of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. This was the group that famously protested the “Harlem on My Mind” show in New York City. They were advocates for greater representation of African-American artists and topics. This was a deeply imprinting experience and certainly has some relationship to why I studied African-American musical culture when I got older. 

My father trained my sociological habitus when I was young.  The games that I would play with my dad were essentially sociology games. My favorite one was walking down this street next to a hospital where the nurses and doctors were parked. We would look inside the cars, and my dad would ask me to tell a story based on the contents of a car. It was training me to be a sociologist and engage in deductive reasoning and observation.

When I was in graduate school and even in my first job, I would have described myself as somebody who was interested in cultural products and the circumstances that give rise to them and their consequences once they are in the world. This is the “production of culture” sense of my identity. That very much came from being interested in occupations and stratification but also networks and relationality, the latter of which was a big emphasis in my graduate training with Peter Bearman and Harrison White.

I did take courses in the sociology of culture, but they were kind of eccentric. The first one I took was Harrison White’s sociology of language class, which was as hallucinogenic as a sociology class could possibly be. More importantly, Harrison was a super smart person who thought that culture was a legitimate arena of study and encouraged that in his students. Then a couple of my classmates and I arranged an independent study of culture with Lynn Chancer, who had just finished her Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. It was an incredible course—if you can imagine the very best sociology course you could have taken in 1998, this was it!

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?

JL: I’m part of the Measuring Culture group, and being a part of these conversations has revealed to me that I’m a bad cultural sociologist because I’m not only not interested in “meaning,” I’m not convinced it is a sociological concept. I think it is a folk concept, but analytically it is not a sharp tool. 

My perspective on culture is fundamentally relational. Simmel made this point about poverty: you’re not poor, you are relationally poor. As soon as I take a step back from viewing people as collections of attributes, and start to think about how flows of resources produce social life, it just makes more sense to me as someone who studies classifications.

DS: How​ ​ do you choose your research​ ​ topics​, ​settings, and/or methods? 

JL: On some level I always knew I wanted to study the relationship between a racial classification system and a prestige system. That has continued to be a core interest of mine.

When I was in graduate school I remember a moment in Peter Bearman’s office. He was teaching me to use 2×2 tables for case selection. I think the two dimensions were “high art” and “low art” and “modern” and “post-modern.” Then he had me fill them in with research I was aware of, and the cell that was least populated by research was post-modern and low. Rap music fell into that cell and I was already thinking about studying work from the 1970s—the kind of work my uncle was doing. In my case, I was interested in the ways in which rap artists produced status orders while operating in a racist industry that systematically sought to deny them rights, money, and power—not unlike the art system that my uncle fought against.

Now, my work is focused on how different art forms, many of which are racialized or demarcated by class, have transformed from being seen as vernacular, folk culture into being seen as art in the 20th century. Again, I’m looking at classification in the context of exclusion based on race and class. 

I guess, more broadly, I am interested in arguments. Arguments are where different systems are bumping up against each other—I’m using arguments to cover a lot of territory, because you could talk about classifications or claims to identity. Because it covers such a large territory, though, this means I can’t be a methodological specialist. As I go on in my career this is going to make me more dependent on methodological specialists. This also means I seek truly interdisciplinary contexts for study and I try not to pick projects solely based on my own skill-set, but rather on the constellation of experts in my networks. A deeply relational strategy.

When it comes to picking topics, there is just so many things to study that it’s important to have good judgement when opportunities arise. You also need to watch how people are responding to your work, and be interested in their responses to aspects of your prior work as a launching point for the next project. Since Entitled was published last month, I’m keeping a watchful eye on how readers will respond to that argument, as I develop my next project.

DS: What excites you about the future of sociology? What would say to future sociologists?

JL: What makes me most excited is when I read work that has personality. I’m drawn to work that is eccentric. I think one of the natural, but perverse, things that has happened as sociology has professionalized is a focus on tightening methods, tightening topic choices, and strategies to become more influential in scholarly and public life. These are important, but I think we have failed to invest in systems that promote individuality and creativity. Teaching undergraduate sociology like physics is not the ideal way to populate the field with mavericks and innovators. Similarly, we have allowed grantors, public and private, to place a lot of emphasis on normal science. This, of course, is important. But, we don’t have, for example, Innovator Awards that might spark creative work at an early stage in a career. 

When I agreed to do this interview—and thank you Dustin for the invitation!—I hoped to say the following: some of us are fighting for things we haven’t seen before. I hope that sociologists of culture with wacky ideas know there are mentors who can help them just as there are mentors for more conventional scholars. A second thing I wanted to say is: there are a lot of us waiting for students coming out of non-traditional contexts to join the field, and I hope that they know they have advocates. We are waiting for those people to make their mark. Sociology needs different voices and different perspectives than the ones we’ve disproportionately relied on for the last century. 

I’d tell future sociologists that the work is fun. That a sociological perspective can be an avenue to self-discovery, to developing empathy, to making real changes to the world. Both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are potentially huge, and you should fight for them.

jen_lenaJennifer C. Lena is Associate Professor of Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University and has a courtesy appointment in the Department of Sociology. She completed her Bachelor’s at Colgate University (‘96) in Sociology and English, and completed her Doctorate at Columbia University (‘03). Her advisors there were Peter Bearman (sponsor), Harrison White (chair), Priscilla Ferguson, and Sudhir Venkatesh. Lena had already started working at Vanderbilt when she defended, and so Richard “Pete” Peterson, recently retired as professor at Vanderbilt, was the outside reader for her dissertation. Her most recent book, Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts (Princeton Univ. Press), explores how elites in the US changed the meaning of art, and in particular how social hierarchies were maintained while opening up the arts to less affluent populations and transforming vernacular or popular culture into art. Her first book, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, which presents a general sociological theory of the rise and fall of genres, was among Choice Magazine’s “Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012”. Lena is also the co-author of the forthcoming Measuring Culture (Columbia Univ. Press), along with John Mohr, Christopher Bail, Margaret Frye, Omar Lizardo, Terence McDonnell, Ann Mische, Iddo Tavory and Frederick Wherry. This joint-project by leading figures in the sociological study of culture is an attempt to establish common ground around the perennial problems of cultural measurement. Lena is also co-editor (Tally Katz-Gerro, Vaughn Schmutz, and Marc Verboord) of Poetics, one of the leading journals for the social scientific study of culture, co-editor (with Frederick Wherry and Greta Hsu) of the Culture and Economic Life book series, published by Stanford University Press. She is also a past Chair of the ASA Culture Section.

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