What is “the relative autonomy of culture”?

Authored by: Jeffrey K. Olick

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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Among the myths one could tell about culture in recent American sociology is the following:

In the 1950s, the work of Talcott Parsons placed culture at the center of sociology. Culture, which Parsons discussed largely in terms of values, was for him the major integrative force of social life, the answer to sociology’s foundational question—the Hobbesian problem of order. As critics in the 1960s and 1970s rejected Parsonsian theory, however, Parsons’s version of culture often stood as a surrogate for culture analysis per se. In these years, cultural sociology thus went into a period of relative hibernation; although many continued to investigate culture sociologically in various circumscribed arenas (such as religion or the arts), culture was no longer easily accepted as an overarching or even significant force by the leading disciplinary figures of the time.

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, American sociology began returning to culture. In the early moments of this new cultural turn, the sociology of culture was largely a revival of the sociology of art, literature, popular culture, and knowledge. But since these early days, culture has recaptured center stage in the United States. In part, this was due to the exhaustion of the mono-causal or partial strategies (e.g. rational-choice theory and Marxist political economy, or phenomenology and interactionism) that many sociologists had pursued in reaction to, or merely instead of, Parsons’s “grand” program. And in part it was due to the growing influence of European approaches—neo-Marxist, structuralist, and others—that had never faced the Parsonsian bugaboo. Moreover, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries in this period led to the importation of alternative culture concepts from fields like anthropology and literary theory, as well as from the linguistic turns in philosophy and historiography.

The current interest in culture—and its institutional expressions like the American Sociological Association’s culture section, now the Association’s second largest—thus began as a return of the sociology of culture, explaining cultural artifacts and ideologies in terms of their social backgrounds. But sociological interest in culture has in the meantime become something larger, a call for a cultural sociology, a sociology that sees anything and everything as including a cultural dimension, arguing that all social phenomena are structured by culture.

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