Cultural Sociology’s Rare Diamond: An Interview with Wendy Griswold

Wendy Griswold has been an important figure in the ASA Culture Section from the very beginning. She organized a session on the sociology of the arts when the section was created in 1986; she served as a council member in the 1990s; she won the book prize in 2000 for Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria (Princeton University Press); and she has remained a guiding light throughout. Lisa McCormick recently spoke with her about her intellectual trajectory, her plans for retirement, and her thoughts on the future of the field.

Photo Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

Lisa McCormick: How did you become interested in sociology?

Wendy Griswold: When you look back at your career, you realize an awful lot happens by chance. I went to college for no particular reason except that everybody went to college. And then I went to graduate school at Duke because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I loved my seminars, but I had no calling, no career aspirations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women were starting to think in terms of careers as opposed to getting a job until you got married, and then working if you have to. I was in that transition.

In the early ’70s, Boston was the place to be. This was post-Pill and pre-AIDS. Everything was free and easy. So, after a year at Duke, I decided to stop the PhD and move there. I got a job with the telephone company, which was actually very satisfying. I was in management, and I rose up with the wave of women that were being promoted. By the middle of the ’70s, I thought that maybe I did want to go into an academic career now that I had seen the pleasures of the non-academic world.

When I was applying to graduate schools, I applied to English departments for the most part. I was interested in what was then called Commonwealth Literature, particularly West Indian literature. But I had taken a nighttime Harvard Extension course with Orlando Patterson, and he told me that the sort of thing I was interested in I could do in sociology.

I had never taken a sociology course and thought that it was the study of juvenile delinquents. Patterson told me no, actually there’s more to it than that, so I applied to a number of places and got into Harvard. My ignorance was vast. I knew Harvard was good, but my main reason for going there was that I didn’t have to move. I thought, “I’ll stay here, and I’ll do sociology, whatever that is.” Obviously, that has turned out very well.

Lisa McCormick: Did you work in the sociology of culture from the beginning of your PhD studies?

Wendy Griswold: No. Here’s another case where things happen, and you don’t realize at the time how lucky you are. I assumed that my field would be organizational sociology, because I had worked for the phone company in management and understood the corporate world to some degree. At the time, organizational sociology was a big deal and there was no such thing as cultural sociology. There was a kind of sociology of literature—[Lucien] Goldmann’s Marxian analyses of how classes are represented in literary works. That was around. But I had assumed I would study organizations, and I did.

At Harvard, we did oral exams after course work to show competence in a field. I did mine in organizations. I remember walking across the Harvard campus shortly after that with Ann Swidler, and she asked, “Well, what are you thinking about for your dissertation?” I answered, “I’ll do some-thing in organizations; although, you know what I’d really like to do is something in literature.” And she said, “You should do what you really want to do, because you’ll be better at it.” It was a practical point: you will do better work if you do this quirky thing that you want to do as opposed to something that you think is going to fit the field or the market—not that I was thinking about that at the time. So, I said, “Fine, I’m interested in the revivals of Renaissance plays and why they get revived at certain times. Let’s see if I can get some money to go over to England and study that.” And I did.

I owe a great deal to Ann for that very specific advice, as well as for generally modelling what could be done in the culture area, and just how you could be a decent, wonderful human being and a hard-hitting professor.

Lisa McCormick: By choosing an unusual topic, did you have any trouble getting a dissertation committee together?

Wendy Griswold: This brings up Harrison White, who is the third member of the holy trinity [key figures who influenced my interests]. He is the smartest person I have ever met. He has a capaciousness of mind that is very rare. He used to teach a seminar on organizational theory, and he would walk in with a pile of 12 books and scatter them around the table. One would be on Anglo-Saxon law in the 9th century, another would be on the caste system in Northern India. Everybody would get one. And he would say, “Okay, all of you go read these, and next week we’ll talk about the organizational structure.” To this day I’ve never seen anyone else teach like that. It was such an expansive way of looking at the world as opposed to the standard way of starting with the literature on a topic. That influenced me enormously.

Earlier this year I had the great honor to have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the meeting for this year’s class, I was asked to describe myself and I said I’m an amateur in the sense that I love and get interested in a lot of different things. I think I got that from Harrison. I find that, in the United States, sociology has become quite narrow, both in terms of the sort of political concerns that get expressed through the research and in terms of a careerist orientation. I try to encourage students to go and read that weird book that’s interesting even though it might not fit into your program. I do this because I had the gift of people like Harrison doing that for me.

Lisa McCormick: Would you say that you took an interdisciplinary approach in your work because of your background in the humanities?

Wendy Griswold: I never really thought much about what I was doing, but I suppose I did bring something from my literary studies. When I would write about Renaissance plays or Nigerian novels, I paid attention to the literature itself. One of the things I don’t like about some of the trends in English departments in the last 30 years or so is that a lot of people don’t seem to like literature. They’re combing it for homophobia, or colonialist thinking. Yes, that’s there. But why spend your life with something that you deeply disapprove of? I want to look at the cultural thing, not just use it as a variable.

Lisa McCormick: One of your best-known contributions is the “cultural diamond.” How did this idea come about?

Wendy Griswold: When I began in sociology, it was clear to me that if you wanted to say something about literature and the social world, you had to bring in human beings. I’ve always said that in the Marxist model, the social world gets “down” into the cultural object, whereas the Weberian model goes “upwards,” with the cultural object influencing the social world. But you’ve got to have people doing things! With literature, writers and readers are the obvious people, but then also editors, and publishers, and so forth.

The cultural diamond is like a checklist. It isn’t a theory. If you put heads on the arrows [connecting the four corners of the diamond], you could make it a theory. But the diamond isn’t a theory. It is a laundry list of what you need to pay attention to if you’re going to talk about a cultural object: who’s producing it, who’s receiving it, the social context, and how that might change over time. The first piece of research on that wasn’t my dissertation. It was some-thing on George Lamming, the West Indian author, and how his novels written in the ’50s and early ’60s had been interpreted differently by reviewers in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Caribbean. It turned out that the West Indians would say, “This is a novel about identity,” and the British would say, “This is a novel about growing up,” and the Americans would say, “This is a novel about race.” It became very clear that people are differently placed in the social world, and that different lenses were used in how they responded to the same work.

I took that idea to my dissertation, but I didn’t publish that paper until much later. I set it aside to do my dissertation on Renaissance plays, but the thinking was very much the same. I started with a play that’s written in 1610, or so, that is performed in 1750 and then in 1830, and again in 1850. And I asked: How is the play understood in these different times?

Lisa McCormick: Would you agree that the cultural diamond was a major conceptual innovation that propelled the ascent of the production of culture perspective? Did you see yourself, and your work on literature, as part of that approach?

Wendy Griswold: Initially I think it was because the production perspective was what was happening. I was very aware of Peterson’s work. Actually, the first time I met Pete Peterson, we got together at Harvard in 1979 or 1980 with Paul Dimaggio and some other people and we were talking about the production of culture. And I suppose everyone was very familiar with Paul Hirsch’s article of a few years earlier on how mass-produced cultural objects move through this organizational chain.

So that was very much in the air, and I suppose that I felt that was necessary, that I was a part of it. But also, it was in-sufficient, because I was interested in the objects themselves, not just in what I sometimes call the “plumbing,” you know, where you’re looking at how things flow through a system.

Lisa McCormick: Congratulations on your retirement! While some academics pursue other passions after retiring, others, like Norbert Elias, continue to publish. Indeed, the late Zygmunt Bauman used to advise academics to retire from active university service as soon as possible to make more time for thinking and writing. What are your plans?

Wendy Griswold: Like most academics I know, I’m not just going to stop working. It’s not like working for a company where once you’ve cleared out your desk, there’s no role for you. So, yes, I’ll continue to work on regionalism. I have bits and pieces of a third book that is looking at episodes of regionalism in the US.

But what I’ve been spending most of my time on is a project that has been on the back burner for years. I’ve been putting together a database of images—mostly painting, some sculpture—of a single historical figure from about 800 to the 21st century. And the figure is Saint Jerome. When I started doing this, I knew nothing about saints. But I was looking for a figure that could be depicted in art in multiple ways, and it turns out that Saint Jerome was a perfect candidate for that. I’m looking at the changes in depictions, and how that relates to what was going on in church history, kind of like my project on Renaissance revivals. I have about 1,000 images, and I’m cleaning the data.

I’m a little obsessive about doing the empirical work before announcing the great new theory. But there was a period in the early 16th century where there was an expansion of the conception of the social. It’s an image of the social world that includes the divine and the natural world, organic and inorganic, human and non-human animals, and how the different narratives are interwoven. It didn’t last because the counter-Reformation came along and said, “Okay, we’ve got to close that down!”

There’s this subset of sociologists and biologists that show that the line between human and non-human creatures is not what we once thought it was, and even religious thought of that era was not making this sharp division between the animal world, the plant world, the human world, and the spiritual world. I find it fascinating, because if I can show empirically that this really did happen in this period, I would then suggest that sociology might broaden its thinking in some new ways.

Lisa McCormick: What are you reading these days?

Wendy Griswold: I’m glad you asked, because it gives me a chance to plug a book that would be wonderful for sociologists to read or use in a variety of courses. If you’re teaching about community, STS and medicine, race and culture—this book has it all! It’s called Carville’s Cure, and it’s by Pam Fessler. It’s about the hospital for lepers that was established in Louisiana in the late 19th century and that remained in use until the 1990s.

One of the reasons it’s interesting is that, at the time, many doctors realized that leprosy is not particularly contagious, nor is it a particularly prevalent disease like tuberculosis or syphilis. But leprosy had this incredible stigma attached to it. If someone was known to have leprosy, they would be walled up in their homes (kind of like lockdown), thrown out of the city, or in some cases, killed. There was a doctor in New Orleans who was aware of a plantation up on the Mississippi River that was falling apart and he thought that lepers could be sent there to stop the city worrying about it so much. The plantation is established, and people give some money for renovations. Eventually the Federal government starts supporting this because in other cities—New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco—public authorities wanted to get rid of their lepers. So, they send them all to Louisiana, to Carville.

People were imprisoned in this hospital. There was barbed wire on the outside. The disease was criminalized. People would often escape, and when they were found they would be hauled back. There were hundreds of people who spent their whole lives there. There were children who were brought up there and literally lived 80 to 90 years there. And they developed all of the institutions that you would have in any community, such as recreational institutions and singing societies. And because it was Louisiana, they celebrated Mardi Gras and made costumes. They built a social world where leprosy was the master identity, overriding Black and white, wealthy and non-wealthy.

Lisa McCormick: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing cultural sociologists today?

Wendy Griswold: Culture is such a broad term, and it lends itself to a lot of mis-behavior, and by that I mean assertions with very little evidence. I’ve always thought that this was the difference between cultural studies and cultural sociology. Sociology is actually supposed to be a science, and we actually need evidence and comparisons. If you work in a quantitative field, or even historical sociology, the comparisons are built in, whereas cultural sociology can too often look like cultural studies where you have an idea, and you put together a little evidence, and you run with it rather than actually testing the validity of your theory, showing data that support your take, and considering alternative explanations.

I don’t think it’s a new problem. The rapid growth of the section in the late 1980s and 1990s was because of the capaciousness of “culture.” If you say anybody can do it using any method and any theoretical orientation, you get this sort of mushrooming thing. There’s nothing wrong with it. Let a hundred flowers bloom! But a lot of those flowers are not doing the sort of scientific thinking that I favor.

Lisa McCormick: What excites you most about the future of cultural sociology?

Wendy Griswold: The new development that I think is both an opportunity and a danger for cultural sociologists is big data and data scraping. This is the new shiny object of the past 5 or 10 years. It is exciting because it allows for all sort of opportunities, including researching the cultural world. The temptation is for the method to drive the research questions. Also, the social world is very imperfectly captured by social media platforms. If you were to look at Twitter, you would think that politically people were at each other’s throats! But if you go out there in the world, you’ll find that actually most people get along most of the time. I hope cultural sociology will use the techniques opening up in the digital world in ways that advance knowledge rather than just getting excited about how many data points can be thrown together.