In the middle 1980s, in the lunch line at the UCLA Faculty Center, I was engaging three sociology colleagues in a heated debate. An assistant professor was struggling for tenure, and the faculty were lining up pro and con. Those skeptical of the appointment objected that the candidate’s work could not even be called sociology. Why not, I asked? He was not sociological, they answered: He paid more attention to the subjective framing and interpreting of social structures than to the nature of those social structures themselves. Because he had abandoned social-structural causality, he had given up on explanation, and thus on sociology itself. I countered: While his work was indeed different, it remained distinctly sociological. I suggested that it might possibly be seen as a kind of “cultural” sociology.
Culture and Sociology Could Not be Combined
This remark did not succeed in its intended effect. Instead it generated a kind of incredulity—at first mild snickers, then guffaws, and then real belly laughs. Cultural sociology? my colleagues scoffed. This idea struck them not only as deeply offensive to their disciplinary sense but intellectually absurd. The very phrase “cultural sociology” seemed an oxymoron. Culture and sociology could not be combined as adjective and noun. If there were a sociological approach to culture, it should be a sociology of culture. There certainly could not be a cultural approach to sociology.
My colleagues were right about the present and the past of our discipline, but events did not prove them prescient about its future. In the last fifteen years, a new and specifically cultural approach to sociology has come into existence. It never existed before—not in the discipline’s first hundred and fifty years. Nor has such a cultural approach been present in the other social sciences that have concerned themselves with modern or contemporary life.John Pantau
Sociologists of Culture did not Concern Themselves Primarily
In the history of the social sciences there has always been a sociology of culture. Whether it had been called the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of art, the sociology of religion, or the sociology of ideology, many sociologists paid respect to the significant effects of collective meanings. However, these sociologists of culture did not concern themselves primarily with Tooltip words here meanings, much less with tracing the moral textures and delicate emotional pathways by which individuals and groups come to be influenced by them. Instead, the sociology-of approach sought to explain what created meanings; it aimed to expose how the ideal structures of culture are formed by other structures—of a more material, less ephemeral kind.
By the mid-1980s, an increasing if still small number of social scientists had come to reject this sociology-of approach. As an enthusiastic participant in this rejection, I, too, accused sociology of basic misunderstanding, one that continues to hobble much of the sociological investigation into culture today. To recognize the immense impact of ideals, beliefs, and emotions is not to surrender to an (unsociological) voluntarism. It is not to believe that people are free to do as they will. It is not to lapse into the idealism against which sociology should indeed define itself, nor the wish-fulfilling moralism to which it is a welcome antidote.
Fantasy and Reality are So Hopelessly Intertwined
Cultural sociology can be as hardheaded and critical as materialistic sociology. Cultural sociology makes collective emotions and ideas central to its methods and theories precisely because it is such subjective and internal feelings that so often seem to rule the world. Socially constructed subjectivity forms the will of collectivities; shapes the rules of organizations; defines the moral substance of law; and provides the meaning and motivation for technologies, economies, and military machines.
But if idealism must be avoided, the facts of collective idealization must not be. In our postmodern world, factual statements and fictional narratives are densely interwoven. The binaries of symbolic codes and true/false statements are implanted one on the other. Fantasy and reality are so hopelessly intertwined that we can separate them only in a posthoc way. It was the same in modern society. In this respect, little has changed since traditional life. Classical and modern sociologists did not believe this to be true. They saw the break from the “irrationalities” of traditional society as radical and dichotomous. One needs to develop an alternative, more cultural sociology because reality is not nearly as transparent and rational as our sociological forefathers believed.