Cultures and Societies in a Changing World


Wendy Griswold

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  • Other Titles in the Series

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    Sociology for a New Century offers the best of current sociological thinking to today's students. The goal of the series is to prepare students, and—in the long run—the informed public, for a world that has changed dramatically in the last three decades and one that continues to astonish. These goals reflect important changes that have taken place in sociology. The discipline has become broader in orientation, with an ever-growing interest in research that is comparative, historical, or transnational in orientation. Sociologists are less focused on ‘American’ society as the pinnacle of human achievement and more sensitive to global processes and trends. They also have become less insulated from surrounding social forces. In the 1970s and 1980s sociologists were so obsessed with constructing a science of society that they saw impenetrability as a sign of success. Today, there is a greater effort to connect sociology to the ongoing concerns and experiences of the informed public. Each book in this series offers a comparative, historical, transnational, or global perspective in some way, to help broaden students' vision. Students need to be sensitized to diversity in today's world and to the sources of diversity. Knowledge of diversity challenges the limitations of conventional ways of thinking about social life. At the same time, students need to be sensitized to the fact that issues that may seem specifically ‘American’ (for example, struggles over gender equality, an aging population bringing a strained social security and health care system, racial conflict, national chauvinism, the interplay of religion and politics, and so on) are shared by many other countries. Awareness of commonalities undercuts the tendency to view social issues and questions in narrowly American terms and encourages students to seek out the experiences of others for the lessons they offer. Finally, students also need to be sensitized to phenomena that transcend national boundaries—trends and processes that are supranational (for example, environmental degradation). Recognition of global processes stimulates student awareness of causal forces that transcend national boundaries, economies, and politics. Using classical and contemporary sociological theory to analyze both traditional topics—such as culture and stratification, culture and identity, sociological approaches to arts and literature—and newer ones including global cultural flows, religious terrorism, and the profound impact of the Internet, Cultures and Societies in a Changing World explores the complex interplay between cultures—idea systems, artworks, popular culture, religious beliefs, common sense—and social structures. Within the framework of the ‘cultural diamond’ this book uses a comparative analysis of cultural objects and practices in Nigeria, China, the United States, and other locations around the world to demonstrate how cultural producers and consumers express a changing world through culture and how culture itself contributes to social changes. Chapter-long examinations of the culture construction of social problems and organizational transactions reveal how the application of a culturally informed approach can illuminate seemingly non-cultural issues ranging from those involving social justice to those entailed in practical business operations.


    Culture fascinates sociologists nowadays, but this was not always the case. When I began teaching, in the early 1980s, material outcomes and structural explanations for social phenomena—such things as income, education, fertility changes, and economic pressures—were under the sociological big top; culture and cultural explanations were a sideshow. True, there were always sociologists who studied religion, values, arts, and the like, and there were always anthropologists whose study of culture influenced sociological thinking. But as a whole, sociology did not pay much attention to culture. As any teacher or student of sociology will know, times have changed. The past several years have witnessed an explosion of cultural studies in sociology, as well as in the adjacent social sciences of political science, psychology, and even economics. This rise of cultural sociology has a number of causes, most generally the inherent limitations of strictly material factors to explain human behavior or to capture human experience. Therefore, most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people's meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. Although all of this is very satisfying to cultural sociologists who no longer have to think of themselves as laboring in the wilderness, problems bedevil teachers and students in the classroom. Everyone wants to talk about symbols, discourse, meaning, and cultural practices, but systematic guides to such discussions are rare. Needed are concise introductions to cultural sociology to help students (1) explore the concept of culture and the nature of its linkages with the social world, (2) enhance their understanding of seemingly structural issues such as poverty or ethnicity by applying cultural analysis to these issues, and (3) broaden their cultural and social horizons so that they may operate effectively in the global economy and international culture of the twenty-first century. These are the goals of this book.

    The Cultural Diamond

    Cultures and Societies in a Changing World will enable students taking broad-ranging courses in sociology or social problems and students taking specialized courses in cultural sociology to think more clearly about the role culture plays in shaping our social world. The book introduces the sociology of culture, the branch of sociology that looks at cultural phenomena—including stories, beliefs, media, ideas, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge, and common sense—from a sociological perspective. At the same time, it suggests how such cultural phenomena operate in more general social processes. Finally, looking at the culture-society relationship from the other direction, it shows how social forces influence culture. In the book, I use the device of the “cultural diamond” to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects—symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. We examine these elements and connections in Chapters 1 through 4. Then, in Chapters 5 and 6, we discuss how the cultural diamond operates in two specific cases: social problems and business transactions. In Chapter 7, we look at culture and community in the dawning age of global electronic culture. In Chapter 8, we tackle the ever-more-pressing subject of power—political, social, domestic—and examine the role culture plays in exerting or resisting regimes of dominance.

    A Global Approach

    An international or global outlook is indispensable to any sociological study in today's world, and cultural studies are no exception. This study of culture is global in at least three ways.

    Cross-National Cases

    First, we consider examples of cultural phenomena and processes from a wide variety of countries and periods. The world has always contained a bewildering assortment of cultures, of course, but lately Americans have become increasingly concerned with the implications of this fact for their internal social policies and external economic and political relationships. Although we examine aspects of the Western cultural tradition in general and American culture in particular, we draw on materials from different traditions and cultures as well, including numerous examples from cultures of special interest to Americans, such as Israel and Japan. Four places—Nigeria, China, the Middle East, and the United States—serve repeatedly to demonstrate problems and issues in cultural analysis, because they constitute dramatically different starting points for societies entering the twenty-first century. Nigeria contains an extraordinary mixture of languages, ethnicities, and religions, with no one group in the majority. Under British colonial rule for more than half of the twentieth century, Nigeria struggles to reconcile political unity and cultural diversity while achieving greater economic development. China has had an advanced culture and centralized political control for millennia, but revolutionary political change in the mid-twentieth century has brought about massive social and cultural dislocations. Now China has embarked on an experiment with hitherto unheard of dimensions: to see whether economic freedom can flourish while tight political and cultural controls remain. The Middle East has dominated the headlines, hopes, and fears of the twenty-first century as pressures for social and cultural change collide with authoritarian regimes and strongly held traditions. Finally, the United States, along with its Western European allies, dominated the bipolar Cold War era of the mid-twentieth century. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of advanced, industrial society, complete with a modern culture, toward which all societies presumably were converging. Now the fracturing of former political alliances and the new complexity of international relations, along with the increasingly undeniable claims made by culturally diverse groups internally, challenge the validity of a specifically American culture and the applicability of American values in a troubled and rapidly changing world. For these reasons, Nigeria, China, and the United States offer thought-provoking running examples of some of the most perplexing culture problems facing the new century.

    Global Culture

    The second way in which this book is global in scope is that we consider how globalization processes themselves are affecting culture and cultures. From transnational media to tourist art to the immigration of peoples to international production of manufactured goods, processes taking place at the global level have all but obliterated pockets of cultural purity and have made parochialism increasingly costly as well as naive. Technological advances in communications have leaped cultural boundaries, just as global markets have transcended national differences; indeed, these two factors are closely related. The Internet seems to be both fostering a world culture without boundaries and encouraging a renewed sense of cultural particularism—new boundaries, rooted in ethnicity, religion, and geography. The point is neither to celebrate nor to bemoan these inexorable processes of globalization and differentiation but to understand them.

    Cultural Conflicts

    Third, many of the most intractable conflicts taking place in the post–Cold War era involve culture. Struggles over ethnic homogeneity and religious fundamentalism, to take just two examples particularly costly in human blood, clearly involve meanings and passions that go far beyond the merely economic or political. Similarly, negotiations between international business partners or heads of state, and more generally relations among people from different cultural backgrounds, can be smoother and more productive if the parties recognize the influences of different cultures. Understanding the cultural bases of past and current struggles and misunderstandings may help avoid repetition of costly mistakes. Such understanding will equip students to live their professional and personal lives as effective and wise citizens of a world where both cultures and societies are changing more quickly than ever before in human history.

    About the Author

    Wendy Griswold has a background in both social science and the humanities. She received her doctorate in sociology from Harvard University in 1980 and has a master's degree in English from Duke University. She taught at the University of Chicago from 1981 to 1997. She is the Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. She has been associate editor and book review editor of the American Journal of Sociology and has been on the editorial boards of Contexts, Poetics, and Acta Sociologica. She is on the Advisory Board for the Centro per lo Studio della Moda e della Produzione Culturale, Universit' Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan and she is associate editor for Contexts and Poetics. She has received research support from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, support from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and the European University Institute in Florence. Her research on culture has been international in scope. Her most recent book is Regionalism and the Reading Class (2008); she is currently completing a book on the WPA Federal Writers' Project and its impact on American culture. Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria (2000) won the “Best Book” award for the Sociology of Culture section of the American Sociological Association. Her first book was on the English theater (Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre 1576–1980 [1986]). In addition, she coedited a book on the sociology of literature (Literature and Social Practice [1989]) and has written on the sociology of religion, specifically on conflict within churches. Her current research explores cultural regionalism; she is also studying the relationship between the Internet and reading in Africa. She has written an influential paper on sociological methods for cultural analysis (“A Methodological Framework for the Sociology of Culture,” Sociological Methodology 17 [1987]:1–35); much of her methodological thinking is incorporated in the present book.

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