Tue Aug 5, 2008

Economics and the Sociology of Culture

There’s been a bit of chat about “Cultural Sociology and its Others”, the Culture Section one-day conference held before the ASA meetings this year. This has broadened out into a discussion of the place of cultural analysis within sociology, and the relative position of the subfield. Some people worried about the allegedly marginal status of culture within sociology. Other people pointedly said that they were rather central figures in the discipline, thank you very much.

I was asked at the last minute to participate, after another panelist dropped out, and gave a talk about the place of cultural analysis in economic sociology and economics. I wasn’t too happy with it, because I had to write it too quickly. But as the conversation continued about The Place of Culture, I began to think about the cases of Sociology of Culture (vis a vis Sociology) and Economics (vis a vis Social Science). In a funny way, the explanatory projects of economics and the sociology of culture share some core features. Not in their formal substance, their political bent, or—dare I say—in their relative degree of success and power out in the world. But the two of them remind me of comparisons between the United States and France. Comparisons between the two could easily highlight their differences from one another, and insofar as they come into contact with each other mutual contempt is the order of the day. But this antipathy springs from strong similarities in temperament, pathos and orientation. The U.S. and France are both revolutionary nations, with a strong belief that they are leading where other countries should follow, whose visions of democracy, individualism and republicanism differ sharply but are at the core of the self-image of each.

Similarly, proponents of economic analysis and cultural analysis are each convinced of the fundamental nature of their approach. Every social phenomenon displays an economic or cultural dimension, respectively; both see their chosen focus as revealing the underlying nature of the phenomenon at hand; and both insist that their perspective upends received wisdom about what is happening in any particular setting. And, indeed, in their less attractive aspects, both substitute handwaving about favorite concepts and frameworks when a more detailed analysis might lead to a story that doesn’t fit so well with the overall disciplinary vision.

The analogy extends to their orientation to other fields: as Omar remarked to me at the conference, because of the totalizing tendencies of the approaches, disciplinary Others must be subsumed as special cases, studiously ignored, or cast out as impostors. And we also see it give rise to some oddities—even as it has come to be a central field within sociology, Culture still complains about its allegedly marginal status; and even as it’s the only social science that ever gets in the New York Times, economists are happy to complain about how people cannot be brought to understand truths universally acknowledged such as mutual gains from free trade or the undesirability of minimum wages or rent control or what have you.