Four Questions For Steven Lukes

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Dustin S. Stoltz (Univ. of Notre Dame) interviews Steven Lukes (New York University) 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?

Steven Lukes: Originally, I studied sociology in a place where there wasn’t any graduate work in sociology. I was at Oxford in the 1960s, and there were one or two sociologists, but no formal courses. There was the famous British sociologist of education, A. H. ‘Chelly’ Halsey, and an American political sociologist, Norman Birnbaum. There, I became very interested in Marxism, French Marxism in particular, and I ended up interested in late nineteenth century intellectual thought. I was advised to go read some Durkheim, and that was the turning point. Edward Evans-Pritchard, the great anthropologist, became my dissertation advisor—and that was my greatest stroke of luck. And, I learned sociology along the way, by going to the London School of Economics and attending courses by Tom Bottomore. Eventually, I got a job at Oxford in the mid 60s and, by then, graduate courses in sociology were developing.

I wrote a dissertation on Durkheim, which became my book on Durkheim, and you couldn’t really get deep into Durkheim without what we call “culture” becoming a central preoccupation. He wasn’t a materialist, and he didn’t have a lot to say about “economy,” but he had a lot to say about what we call culture. Especially, and above all, in  his great work on religion.

DS: What work does “culture” as a concept do in your thinking?

SL: I don’t know if I actually use the concept of culture particularly, but it defines a large area of what interests me. You said so yourself, before we started this interview, that you thought what I called the “third dimension of power” is part of the sphere of culture. The third dimension of power certainly has to do with the ways people are framing their experience. It’s about how language shapes beliefs and desires, and therefore we could think of it as central to the sociology of culture. 

Apart form Durkheim and power, a lot of what I’ve written is about morality, and morality also has to be thought of as part of culture. Sociologists and anthropologists are getting more and more interested in a “sociology of morals” dealing with the diversity of beliefs, ethics, experience, norms, rules — all of which is strongly associated with the culture concept. 

The danger of the culture concept, though, comes from the early anthropologists’ notion that there are “cultures.” In other words, the contention these “cultures” are somehow holistic, integrated, ways of thought, ways of acting, which can characterize an entire society or community. That’s always been an obstacle to understanding “cultural” things. There is a philosopher called Mary Midgley who argued that we should think of culture more like a weather system; there is of course something that characterizes the weather in a particular time and place, but it’s the result of everything that’s going on around it, and so you can’t ever understand the weather in a particular place unless you understand how it relates to everything around it.

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

SL: Topics and works kind of grow out of another. One thing leads to another. I don’t know if I’ve ever been particularly moved by the conceptual vocabulary that goes with culture—moved to study a particular topic. Culture, of course, was a central idea in anthropology going back to the 19th century, but the early anthropologists tended to think about culture holistically, as “the tribe”—like Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. I don’t know exactly when culture started to become a topic in sociology. Perhaps it was a response to Marxism, or materialism, or economic sociology that was influenced by Marxism. But, more importantly, I think a methodological hole that these later anthropologists and sociologists fall into—which I think was very much encouraged by Clifford Geertz—is the notion that the task of cultural analysis is to develop a plausible interpretation. This leads you to a kind of perilous work in which you end up telling convincing stories about cultural and social things and you lose the sense of “how would you know if  this wasn’t true?”

In terms of methods, we can’t just stop with producing more elaborate stories, there has to be a way of trying to do explanations that are supported by evidence and refutable. Although Geertz, whom I knew and liked a lot, was perfectly aware of that, I think his work and influence was unfortunate in that it led people to ignore this.  

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

SL: I’m excited by the whole sphere of culture and cognition (not that I’m an expert in it). Cognition is very interesting, and the way sociologists are studying, for example, cultural schemas, seems to be a compelling area of research. Which, I think this area relates to my work on power. Not just perception, but how aspects of experience are not perceived by the actors. Or, the study of stereotypes and the ways of conceiving of groups of people at work in unconscious ways. So, this notion of cultural schemas is exciting. As well as new ways of investigating it, for example, through the ways in which words are associated—Paul DiMaggio’s work with topic modeling, for instance. It relates to the third dimension of power, it seems to me, because we can see the actual behavior of people, in interaction with others, being influenced by what they are unaware of. 

I’m also excited that the study of the “diversity of morals,” and how to think about morality sociologically, has become central in sociology, or rather has re-entered sociology. It used to be central, at the time of Durkheim and Simmel, and indeed Weber—think about the Protestant Ethic! Early sociologists talked about ethics and morality as essential to social life. Today, there is very interesting work by a range of people. In particular, I’m thinking of my colleague, Gabriel Abend’s The Moral Background.

This whole set of questions about morality doesn’t have to be just the domain of sociologists. For example, there is a new development in anthropology called “ordinary ethics.” In philosophy, you have the work of Alistair Macintyre at Notre Dame; he developed an interesting history of morals and the idea that there are different moralities, which philosophers tend to investigate “what is moral” without considering the diversity of morals. Also, Owen Flanagan who has written a Geography of Morals, and Webb Keane has a wonderful book called Ethical Life, both philosophers. I’d like to see more sociologists working in this area and drawing on fields outside of sociology.

stevenlukesSteven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at New York University. Lukes completed his bachelor’s degree in 1962 at Balliol College, Oxford. He completed his dissertation at Oxford in 1968 under the direction of the renowned anthropologist Sir E.E. Evans-Pritchard, which became Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, the definitive intellectual history of the man. Aside from his work on Durkheim, Lukes is perhaps best known for Power: A Radical View, first published in 1974, in which he lays out the three dimensions of power: the overt, the covert, and the shaping of thoughts and desires. In addition to being an advocate and example of interdisciplinary work, bridging philosophy and sociology in particular, his recent work advances the sociology of morality, exemplified by Moral Relativism. Prior to his appointment at New York University, he was a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, a professor at the European University Institute and the Univ. of Siena. He has been a fellow of the British Academy since 1989, was awarded an honorary D. Litt by the Univ. of East Anglia in 2009, and was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 2011-2012.