Associate Professor of Sociology; Associate Dean of the Graduate Division, UC Santa Barbara
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From “The Cultural Turn in American Sociology—A Report from the Field”, Culture, 17, Nos. 2-3 (Spring 2003):
The following is excerpted from a short essay I wrote for a professional newsletter during my tenure as chair of American Sociological Association Section on Cultural Sociology (“The Cultural Turn in American Sociology—A Report from the Field”). It is a short and somewhat polemical summary of one of the major arguments that runs through my research:
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3. Can’t we all just get along?
My third point will require more exegesis. If the second assertion is true, it does not imply that all sociologists are on their way to becoming ethnographers or qualitative scholars (in the traditional sense of that term). There is, after all, as much value added by scientific inquiry as there is by hermeneutic analysis. Both are valid (though different) ways to advance a field of knowledge. We should throw no one overboard. Besides, it wouldn’t really make sense to leave the tools of formal analysis behind. They are extremely powerful tools. So, my third point is that the cultural turn will necessarily involve a kind of rapprochement between the hermeneutic and the scientific. To use C.P. Snow’s (1959) metaphor, the two cultures will have to learn how to get along and share meaning. This is less idealistic (and less painful) than it sounds. Indeed the biennial “Cultural Turn” conferences (http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct4) that Roger Friedland and I have hosted at UCSB (since 1997) have demonstrated time and again the profitability of such an exchange.
4. Against Truth and Method:
My fourth point is just a refinement of the third but it takes us to the heart of the matter. There is no inherent contradiction between the hermeneutic and the scientific. There are those like Gadamer (1996) who assert that interpretation is an art form and science is something altogether different. I don’t agree with this formulation. I think that humanists and scientists do pretty much the same thing, they generate knowledge. They do so by producing systems of discourse that are essentially forms of talk (and dually, forms of practice) shared by groups of people, following certain norms of collective behavior. The difference between the two cultures concerns their relationship to technology, their style of social organization, and the character of their rhetorical forms (on the latter see Chuck Bazerman’s comments on Cultural Turn 4, elsewhere in this newsletter).
5. You Can Count on it:
My fifth point is that science can also be of use in the interpretation of meanings. I say this because I think science is a pretty neutral endeavor at its core (though of course every particular incarnation is necessarily loaded to the gills with assumptions) and thus has the capacity to be applied to all manner of things. The part of science that interests me the most is the aggressive use of technology. Think of astronomers; they use signal detection equipment to measure wave particles that the human senses are incapable of perceiving. Analyses of these data (and of the statistical systems that underlie them) are then used to build knowledge systems. No technology, no knowledge. My suggestion is that cultural sociology should also invite technology in. Like the astronomers, we should use what tools we have available to help sift through streams of data taken from the textual universe. Doing this will enable us perceive the meaningfulness of the world in ways that our embodied senses are incapable of achieving on their own. Of course to do this is a big job. You need to load all of these assumptions into the machinery and then you need to try it out, time and time again. This works best as a community activity, with lots of like-minded others to bounce ideas off of. This community is beginning to find its feet. Look, for example, at Bernard Harcourt’s (2002) fascinating analysis of the meaning of guns in gang culture, Vedres and Csigó’s (2002) study of political discourse in post-socialist Hungary, Stanley Lieberson’s (2000) trend analysis of first name choices, John Martin’s (2000a) mathematical deconstruction of Richard Scarry’s children’s books, Bearman and Stovel’s (2000) use of network analysis to study the autobiographical narratives of members of the German Nazi party, Mische and Pattison’s (2000) tripartite lattice analysis of the relationship between social movement discourse and collective action, Breiger ‘s (2000) duality analysis of power and discourse among Supreme Court justices, my own essays on analyzing welfare discourse (e.g., Mohr, forthcoming-a), or any of a number of other intriguing projects (including a whole sub-genre of work by a new generation of organizational scholars—see Ventresca and Mohr, 2002, for a review).
6. The Raw and the Cooked:
My sixth point is that all this stuff is still pretty new. It is true that there have been a number of important antecedents. Think of Lévi-Strauss’s (1955, etc.) work on the structural analysis of myth, Charles Osgood and his colleagues’ (1971) studies on the semantic differential, Roy D’Andrade (1995) and company’s research in cognitive anthropology or Pierre Bourdieu’s (e.g., 1984) empirical analyses of cultural fields (see Mohr, 1998, for a review). However, the new quantitative work that I just cited (point 5 above) has all come about within the last decade. And while I think that this work is extremely good, it is admittedly primitive and clumsy, primarily because the science has yet to coalesce. In any case, it surely doesn’t stack up well against the wealth of interpretative work by humanists and qualitative sociologists. By this comparison, skepticism about the potential contributions of meaning and measurement is surely justified. But I think that this reflects more about the state of the art than about the state of the world (see point 4 above)…
7. The Long and Winding Road:
It is hard to understand what is new about this work without seeing the context from which it emerged. And so my next point is just to say that this new science of meaning analysis represents a break with what went before, even as it contains continuities from earlier projects. I would tell this story by noting that modern American sociology emerged out of a Faustian bargain that was struck with the natural sciences some 40 years ago. It was around that time that quantitative sociologists began to turn away from the formal analysis of meaning and the broader project of cultural interpretation, splitting subject from object like atoms in the new nuclear age. This happened in part as a reaction to the hollowness that characterized early attempts to model “national values” and the surprising discovery that attitudes did not predict behavior (see Smith, 1998). But, as the early history of network analysis demonstrates, it was also the result of an effort to scale research problems down to a manageable size (Mohr, forthcoming-b). The effort to tie meaning to measurement persisted in sub-fields such as political sociology where public opinion matters have continued to be of interest, but with rare exceptions (e.g., Martin, 2000b), these studies have not found their way back into an explanatory science of social institutions…This is now changing. Today’s cultural scientists study the meanings themselves—their shapes, their logical forms, their underlying structures—as well as their effects.
8. Don’t worry, be happy!:
My eighth point is that these changes will not deprive us of our humanity (or our humanists). The melding of technology and interpretation is nothing new. Language was the first interpretative technology. Writing was another, as was the invention of the library, the printing press, the broadsheet, the fountain pen, the typewriter, the paperback book, the Dewey decimal system, the Xerox machine, the word processor, and the world wide web (to name just a few). One could also speak of literary technologies—the epic poem, the novel, iambic pentameter, the refereed journal, deconstruction, the tenure report. All of these are tools we deploy in the service of interpreting, sharing, and analyzing meaning. My point is that the pursuit of knowledge is never as pure and unmediated as we might imagine and thus the use of formal analysis is less of a radical break in this trajectory than it is another evolutionary step. I expect that within a few decades we’ll see literary scholars making regular use of statistical analyses in their readings of Milton and Melville, if only because the technology of reading itself is rapidly moving down this path. In fact, the field of literary computing is already off to a healthy start (e.g., Potter, 1989). But does this mean that there will no longer be a place for the solitary scholar sitting alone in her study reflecting on the state of the world? I have no doubt that that place will always be honored. I also think that the merger of science and hermeneutics is not going to lead to the de-skilling of humanist scholars. On the contrary, as Paul Attewell (1987) demonstrated, the introduction of new technology into the work place can also lead to an upgrading of skills. Interpretative work may well be facilitated by technology, but it will never be replaced by it.
[Full text of article: http://www.ibiblio.org/culture/newsletter/cult172and3.pdf]