Cultural Sociology at the University of California, San Diego written by Professor Amy Binder for the American Sociological Association’s Winter Newsletter 2012
If the members of the Department of Sociology at UC San Diego subscribed to a single rallying cry it might sound something like this: “All sociology must concern itself with meaning.” Granted, this is not the kind of thing that gets people mobilized into the streets, nor is it an intellectual commitment at the individual level that would surprise readers of this newsletter. But as a sensitizing epistemological concern shared by virtually all faculty and graduate students in a single department, it is a phenomenon worth noting. Perhaps only Northwestern, Princeton, and Berkeley could (almost) be described similarly. And although the 25 faculty and 75 graduate students currently in the department have multiple core areas of interest—political sociology, gender/race/class inequalities, comparative-historical analysis, science studies, among them—there is a common sensibility, shared by virtually all of us here, that sociological inquiry without attention to culture is incomplete sociology at best. Such a shared orientation makes this a great place to study and learn, both for those who have been around the department a long time, and for those new to this “very air we breathe.”
We come by our shared concerns with culture honestly. As in most formal communities where there is a strong “organizational saga” (as Burton Clark might have labeled it), our department has a particular origin story. Called upon in 1968 to put together a sociology department on the new campus of UCSD, the founder and first chairperson of our department, Joseph Gusfield, decided to focus on only a few areas, and the sociology of culture was one of them. In an interview he gave in 2006, Gusfield said that what he was reading at the time influenced how he decided to build the department. His reading list had included Claude Levi-Strauss, Harold Garfinkel, and Jack Douglas. This assorted group reflected a varied approach to culture that shaped how the department ultimately developed. As testament to its eclecticism, through time the department served as home to many who took their approach to cultural analysis very seriously indeed, including Aaron Cicourel, Randall Collins, Michael Schudson, Chandra Mukerji, Bennett Berger, Jack Douglas, Tim McDaniel, and Bud Mehan. Our storied past includes, if not fist fights, then at least spectacularly heated disagreements between symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists!
The initial eclectic approach to culture continues strongly today. Those among us who participate actively in the ASA Culture Section—as one example of culture’s centrality to our work—include Rick Biernacki, Mary Blair-Loy, John Evans, Tom Medvetz, Kwai Ng, John Skrentny, Amy Binder, and Dick Madsen. We study language, law, media, religion, science, education, organizations, occupations, gender, social movements and politics. None of us, therefore, would be called “only” a cultural sociologist–but rather would refer to ourselves as “culture and…,” where the ellipsis signifies other subfield concerns. Our perspectives range from the more micro to the more macro, from qualitative to quantitative, and from the more hermeneutic to the more structuralist.
Others in the department whose work may not be quite as visible to members of the Culture Section but who nevertheless have a culture profile include Jeff Haydu, Isaac Martin, April Linton, Akos Rona Tas, Rebecca Klatch, Martha Lampland, Christena Turner, and Charlie Thorpe. Former colleagues, including Steve Epstein, Maria Charles, and Andy Lakoff, among others—also contributed enormously to the culture environment at UCSD during their years with us.
Our current graduate students and recently minted PhDs are also central to the culture life force at UCSD. Michael Haedicke, now an assistant professor at Drake University, uses a cultural-institutional field analysis to understand the work of people in organic foods who find themselves needing to construct alternative identities at the intersection of movements and market logics; Erin Cech, this year a post-doc at Stanford, studies many aspects of women’s professional identities and career trajectories in the sciences; Jeff Kidder, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, has recently published his book (Cornell University Press) on urban bike messengers; Angela Garcia investigates the cultural experience of “assimilation,” or lack thereof, in different neighborhoods; Stephen Meyers researches the disability rights movement in Nicaragua as a phenomenon melding both global discourses and Sandinista logics of citizenship rights; Kate Wood is conducting a comparative case study of undergraduates’ constructions of what makes for a “typical college experience.” I will stop the list there, but will refer readers to our graduate student website for proof that most all of us at UCSD make culture a central part of our research.
To continually invigorate our conversations about culture and sociology, the department organizes a number of activities that are centrally “culture.” For many years we have had a Culture + Society workshop that sponsors about 10 talks per year, with presenters evenly divided between UCSD insiders (faculty and graduate students) and outside speakers. Using a workshop format, presenters distribute their papers in advance and then speak formally for just 10 minutes in order to situate the project. For the remaining 90 minutes or so, the entire group engages in discussion of the paper. This format is ideally suited for graduate student participation (it is easier for many graduate students to actively engage with outside speakers when they have already read the work), as well as for presenters, who get sustained comments on their work. We have had several presenters leave campus stating that they now knew (or remembered) what it was like to be in “a culture department.” Recent visitors to the workshop have included Wendy Griswold, Nina Bandelj, Neil Gross, Ann Mische, Steve Vaisey, among many others. The Culture + Society Workshop frequently co-sponsors events with other workshops in the department, including the Inequalities workshop and the Workshop for the Study of Conservative Movements and Conservatism.
An additional venue for discussing culture in our department has been the four one-day culture conferences that we have hosted—primarily for a Southern California audience (including participants and speakers from UCLA, USC, UC Santa Barbara), but with some representation from further geographic reaches. These conferences have showcased keynote talks about current work given by some of the most prominent cultural scholars in the field today—including Michele Lamont, Ann Swidler, Michael Schudson, Randall Collins, Chandra Mukerji, Craig Calhoun, Paul Lichterman, and Katherine Newman—but have also featured an innovative “middle section” of the day during which four sociologists (per conference), who are not necessarily cultural sociologists, have discussed the ways in which culture concepts have permeated and/or are currently changing their empirical subfields. Some of the presentations in this section of the conference were delivered by Cal Morrill on culture and organizations, Francesca Polletta on culture and movements, Mitchell Stevens on culture and education, John Skrentny on culture and the study of race/ethnicity, Steve Epstein on culture and science studies, and Abby Saguy on culture and law. Realizing the treasure trove of ideas we had uncovered in this part of the conferences, the organizers commissioned written pieces from all of the presenters and co-edited a special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science with the title “Cultural Sociology and Its Diversity (September 2007, Volume 619).
In sum, cultural sociology is alive and well at UCSD, kept vibrant through all manner of practice, ideology, schemas, scripts, institutional routines, repertoires, discourses, and organizational logics. If I forgot anything, it’s probably kept alive by that cultural mechanism too!