Four Questions for Karen A. Cerulo

Man Yao (The Ohio State University) interviews Karen A. Cerulo (Rutgers University) about her works on culture and cognition and the vision of a jargon-free sociology.

Karen A. Cerulo (Rutgers University)

How did you become interested in sociology and the study of culture?

I started out working in the sociology of music. I have a music background and I wanted to try to combine two interests: music and sociology. My very first publication was about classical music composers who were writing music about war during World War II. I wanted to compare composers who were working in combat zones versus those who were removed from combat zones to see how one’s contextual environment influences creativity. I then went on to do a dissertation, several articles and a book that looked at national anthems and other national symbols. I wanted to see how social elements such as cultural heterogeneity, political or social stability, existing power structures, dominant systems of economic exchange, professional norms of expression, the nature of social ties, or levels of “collective focus” might be associated with certain variants of symbolic structure. My work was very different at that time because I saw it more as the sociology of culture. I really thought of music and other art objects as cultural products, and I was interested in the way different facets of social structure might cause variations in those products.

I don’t think of my work that way anymore. But when I was doing my graduate work, when the culture section began, the sociology of culture perspective was much more dominant. Pete Peterson was the first section chair and was working in the production of culture perspective. That was a very dominant approach at that period. As time went on, cultural sociology expanded and so did my own work.  I began thinking more in terms of cultural sociology and aspects of meaning. For me, at least, that meant refraining from thinking about structure and culture as two different things, but rather thinking about them as symbiotic entities that form a whole.

[Yao: How did the transition process happen, from the production of culture perspective to the cultural sociology perspective?]

For me, three things were key.  One was that people who worked in music and the arts did think about cultural objects as having meanings that could be conveyed both semantically and syntactically, and I was very drawn to that. That wasn’t the mainstream view within sociology at that time.

I was also very active in the International Communications Association and was very influenced by publications and people who were exploring message meanings. So, I began to look at the meaning of objects, as opposed to structural causes of the shape of objects or the sound of objects. I would say I made that transition fairly early in my career.

A final thing was that I wanted to develop quantitative measures to capture musical structure, graphic structure, and things like that. People who were working in culture were very anti-quantitative. I went through a lot to get published. I was getting regularly blackballed at the journals, as my work was quantitative. It took a long time for me to figure out how to balance things in my work so that it would have both quantitative and qualitative aspects and make my arguments about meaning and measurement more effective. I got some good advice from some of my senior colleagues (Paul DiMaggio, Ann Swidler, and Judith Blau in particular) who helped me work through that difficult period, the first two or three years of being a faculty member. Ultimately, I was able to make my way through.

As for the field, I feel like Ann Swindler’s article in the ASR, “Culture in Action,” was a real turning point for cultural sociology. Ann was very interested in looking at meaning and its connection to action. She was also open to the measurement of meaning, either quantitatively or qualitatively. I really felt that her ASR article had so much impact on the field. Up until then, I think the production of culture perspective was really at the center of the study of culture. But I felt those folks were more interested in organizations and careers. I wanted to look at the objects themselves, and so I think of Ann’s article as being a kind of turning point that influenced a lot of people and really brought the study of meaning into the field in a much more powerful way.

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?

I’ve come to see culture as integral to all of the elements that we think about in sociology, so I no longer feel that it’s fruitful to make a culture vs. structure distinction. I no longer feel that it’s fruitful to make a culture vs. cognition distinction. I think that these three things work together symbiotically. If we want to fully understand any issue in sociology, we have to think about the way culture, structure, and cognition work together. I think it took a very long time for people to stop asking the question: is it culture, or is it structure? I think it took a very long time for people to say it’s both, in fact they may be one united thing. And I think we’re going through that struggle now with culture and cognition. There are some cognitive sociologists who think that, to deal with cognition in the way a cognitive scientist might, means we are focusing too much on the individual.

I feel that if you can’t think about the internal workings of the brain, then you really can’t think about how culture works. Because culture is both outside and inside of us, you have to study how the brain works to understand, first of all, how culture gets inside us, and how it gets maintained inside us. Also, you have to understand the brain in order to understand how we select things that are outside of us. You also have to understand that how the brain works and how what’s stored in our brains is so heavily influenced by our social locations.

I’ve been doing a lot of podcast interviews and media interviews for my latest book Dreams of a Lifetime that I wrote with Janet M. Ruane. I think about where you’re standing in social space, whether it be your class, race, gender, whether it be where you are in the life course or the events that are influencing you. Those things have an impact on the culture that you see in the world around you, on what you include and what you don’t include in your thinking. It also impacts what you store in your brain. To me, all three of those things have to be considered to get a full picture of whatever issue you’re studying. I began to feel that way when I wrote my second book Deciphering Violence. I went even more in that direction when I wrote Never Saw It Coming. I’m both feet into it when you look at my articles on apologies or the meaning of scents, or when you look at my current book on dreaming, and some of the articles that have come out of it.

[Yao: What are some unique contributions sociologists can make for better understanding of the cognitive mechanism of culture?]

Not too long ago, maybe a year ago, I published an article called Rethinking Culture and Cognition with my former graduate student Vanina Leschziner, who is our new section chair, and Hana Shepherd, who is my current colleague. My worry was always this: at some point, I understood what the cognitive scientists were going to say. “Hey, the brain does not work in isolation. It’s socially situated.” What I started to see is that they were trying to do the sociology of that, and they were doing a pretty poor job of it. That’s part of why I started the culture and cognition network within the culture section, and why I ran a number of national conferences and sessions at both ASA and ESS. I didn’t want to let the cognitive scientists speculate on what sociologists are thinking. What we did in the last annual review article is to say: here’s what cognitive scientists tell us about, mirror neurons or automatic and deliberate cognition, etc. But here are the qualifications that they’re not considering; here’s what sociologists can add to the story. I really see that article as saying: this is what sociology brings to the table that cognitive scientists can’t really begin to understand because it’s outside their purview. We tried very hard to not only talk about what sociology can offer in that article, but to suggest future research questions. Sociologists should take up those questions in a way that would embellish what cognitive scientists are telling us about the brain and allow us to think of cognition in more social and cultural terms.

Not too long ago, maybe a year ago, I published an article called Rethinking Culture and Cognition with my former graduate student Vanina Leschziner, who is our new section chair, and Hana Shepherd, who is my current colleague. My worry was always this: at some point, I understood what the cognitive scientists were going to say. “Hey, the brain does not work in isolation. It’s socially situated.” What I started to see is that they were trying to do the sociology of that, and they were doing a pretty poor job of it. That’s part of why I started the culture and cognition network within the culture section, and why I ran a number of national conferences and sessions at both ASA and ESS. I didn’t want to let the cognitive scientists speculate on what sociologists are thinking. What we did in the last annual review article is to say: here’s what cognitive scientists tell us about, mirror neurons or automatic and deliberate cognition, etc. But here are the qualifications that they’re not considering; here’s what sociologists can add to the story. I really see that article as saying: this is what sociology brings to the table that cognitive scientists can’t really begin to understand because it’s outside their purview. We tried very hard to not only talk about what sociology can offer in that article, but to suggest future research questions. Sociologists should take up those questions in a way that would embellish what cognitive scientists are telling us about the brain and allow us to think of cognition in more social and cultural terms.

For example, sociologists care about variations. I don’t think, as sociologists, we can think of anything as uniform or universal right? Variation is what we’re all about here. Even in what appear to be things grounded in universal characteristics like genetics, emotions, and cognitions. I think it’s our duty to probe that, so that we don’t get drowned out by the cognitive scientist’s voices. There is still, I’m afraid, bias, not just in American society but globally, that hard scientists somehow have a greater truth than social scientists. And within social sciences, I think that people say economists and psychologists have greater truths than sociologists. I talk about this often with colleagues. We have become a very jargon-laden discipline. I think we have to find a better way to communicate what we do, what our findings are, and why they’re important. I think we have to find a way to translate our work. In my most recent book, I worked very hard on this so that someone could pick up that book and not be discouraged by the amount of jargon. Our jargonistic ways make sociology often feel so very esoteric. I think that is a big mistake that we need to address as sociologists. We have to learn how to communicate what we do in a much better and forceful way.

When I wrote Never Saw it Coming, and look back on it, I find it too jargonistic. There were a limited number of people, other sociologists, who heard what that book had to say. I often think if I could go back and rewrite it, I would write it in a very different way. At that time, I promised myself, I was going to start working very hard on translating my work to make it more accessible. Little by little, I think I’m getting there. But I think it’s something the field has to think about. Because when you look at it, you rarely see a sociologist quoted in the New York Times or in the Atlantic. When people want a social scientific perspective, they are going to economists and political scientists and psychologists. I’ve always been troubled by this fact. Certainly, economists are not dealing with uncomplicated issues. But they have found a way to explain what they’re doing, and the same for political scientists and psychologists. But largely we are still failing at making our work understandable. I think we can do it. I really think we can do it. Even if we can’t give the full breadth of an idea, we can give enough of it to make people pay attention to the sociological aspects of life. I can’t underscore how important it is. This is critical about the future of not just cultural sociology but sociology in general. We have to learn how to translate our craft.

[Yao: Were there any negative opinions about the culture and cognition approach in the beginning? How did you and other sociologists handle them?]

In the very beginning, when I started down this path, there were people who said that we don’t need to link to cognitive sciences. That’s demeaning for sociologists, they said, and we need to be our own discipline. But I felt strongly that this kind of crosstalk between disciplines was advantageous for everyone. As I said to you earlier, I felt if we didn’t get involved, we were going to find cognitive scientists speaking for us. I started trying to get together a group of people who felt that way. Among them, Omar Lizardo, Stephen Vaisey, Gabe Ignatow, Vanina Leschziner, Hana Shepherd, Karen Danna and many others. We did several journal special issues and panel, trying to get that intersection of disciplines out there and more visible. Once we did that, people began to be much more accepting, and in fact, excited about these kinds of alliances.

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

I think the overarching umbrella for me is that I’m interested in popular culture and media. A lot of the things I write about are, in some way, connected to those two topics. That has been a tough road, because many people think those topics are unimportant. I have always felt that all we need to do is look around, especially now. As I’m watching the hearings, for example, on January 6th, I’m saying how could anyone think that popular culture and social media or the media in general are any less important than something like religion, economics, or politics—things we think of as being more suitable for us to study. Clearly, popular culture, what’s available to us, and media, both old media and new media, influence what we are thinking, influence how we go about establishing agency. And I feel it guides action. People ask why are you studying apologies? Why are you studying perfumes? Why are you studying dreams of the future? I’m doing it because those things are very, very powerful avenues into our understanding of equality and inequality, how it’s established, and how people internalize those meanings. These topics offer unexpected ways of getting at what people’s biases are and they let us see how deeply people’s biases are entrenched.  How you apologize to someone, or what you think when you smell something, or how you fantasize about the future, those things are influenced by whether you feel you are unequal in a society, or you judge someone else to be unequal in a society. I think these kinds of popular culture or media topics are very important ways to help us understand hierarchies and biases in societies.

[Yao: Can you talk a little bit about how you consume or get exposed to popular culture in daily life?]

I like to read newspapers and a lot of websites that are dealing with cultural issues, and really, all sorts of topics. I like to watch TV. I’m a Netflix addict. For some reason I have gotten in a groove where I’m watching a lot of shows made in South Korea and I’ve become fascinated with Korean culture and shows that talk about both historical, ancient culture and current culture. I find myself now thinking about bringing Korean culture into, for example, the study of dreams. My co-author and I want to choose some other countries in which to study dreams and what I’ve seen in shows about Korean culture fascinates me so much. One of my favorites was Mr. Sunshine, which was about the revolutions in the late 1800s with Japan invading Korea and so forth. I just watched Crash Landing on You and I very much enjoyed that one. I liked The Rookie Historian too.

[Yao: How did you connect topics you are interested in with issues the mainstream sociology cares about?]

One of the things that I’ve tried to do more of in the past five or seven years is to play up themes of inequality and bias and to be more explicit about those topics in my work.  I think those things were there implicitly, but I’ve tried to be more explicit about how the kinds of things I study are important and give us a different kind of insight into how people develop biases, how inequality gets sustained, if and how inequality can be overcome, etc. I think it’s important to understand that these cultural messages are all around us. If we can’t understand popular culture fully, then we also lose a way of understanding how biases and inequalities get deeply entrenched in people’s minds and hearts, such that they will storm a national capital or go on shooting sprees. This is something that they are internalizing, something that is enculturated. We have to understand that process. I hope more and more people are taking popular culture more seriously, particularly social media—how important social media are in terms of the amount of time people are spending with it and how it mobilizes people. I hope we’re getting to a point where people are seeing this as an avenue to understanding collective mobilization, social movements, inequality, etc.

What excited you most about the future of sociology and cultural analysis in sociology? What would you say to future sociologists?

What excites me most is the prospect of people thinking about culture, structure, and cognition as equally important parts of understanding and explaining social phenomena, and having people deal with all three simultaneously. What excites me is seeing people who are trying to translate very complicated and intricate ideas into the public sphere, and I hope that we continue to do more of that.

One thing I hope that’s in the future of cultural sociology is that we will take a step back and de-jargonize our field a bit. We are not alone in this problem. People who are studying race and gender have also over jargonized their work and made their work less accessible to someone who might otherwise be interested. I hope we’ll take a step back and de-jargonize, so that we can make our ideas and our findings accessible, and they will have the impact that they deserve to have.

[Yao: Did you have any suggestions about how to do it?]

One of the things that has helped me is that I’ve tried to envision, when I’m writing, someone I know who I think is an intelligent person, but is not a sociologist. Then I think, if I write to that audience, how would I explain some of the very complicated concepts? Are there any of those concepts that I could rename in a way that might have more intuitive meaning for someone. So, I’ve tried to change, in my mind, who I’m writing to. I don’t think that’s hurting sociology. I think what it’s done is to give me a broader audience, not just outside of sociology but even within sociology so that someone doing medical sociology might be more interested in the cultural sociology work I’m doing, or someone doing economic sociology might be more interested because they’re not overwhelmed with jargon that they don’t want to take the time to understand.  We’ve tried very hard to do that in our most recent book, Dreams of a Lifetime. We’ve really tried to make it readable by anybody. A sociologist will not feel cheated when they read it, but people beyond sociology will be able to read it, and perhaps learn something sociological from it.

The other thing is that in Never Saw It Coming, in the apology study, in the perfume study, I did a lot of media interviewing, and so I had to think about how to convey what my work meant in everyday language. It’s a real challenge. I tell all my graduate students that when they’re writing dissertations, when they finish every chapter, they should write a page or two about how they would explain what they did in that chapter to a non-sociologist. They can start getting practice in making their work accessible. I just think it’s very important. Partly because I think right now sociology has so much to offer to help us understand the problems that are going on right now, politically, globally, environmentally, and economically. Sociologists have so much to offer in these areas, but we have to find a way to make ourselves clear.

[Yao: what would you say to future sociologists?]

In addition to the above, the other thing I would say to future sociologists would be to study what you love, even if you feel it’s not valued in the field. Find a way to link your love to something that is valued. If you’re interested in television, try to look at aspects of television messages and themes that are linked to inequality or bias or labor or power. That will make your work interesting to those beyond television researchers. There is always something that you can link your work to that is important in mainstream sociology.