What we talk about when we talk about culture: a multi-facet approach.

Simko, Christina/Olick, Jeffrey K. (2020)

In: American Journal of Cultural Sociology. Online first, pp. 1-29.


“Though the cultural turn is well behind us, sociologists of culture have yet to agree upon a clear definition of their subject. Recent efforts in this direction have characterized culture as a meta-concept, identifying and disentangling its constituent parts. Building on the two- and three-dimensional models that have emerged of late, while also taking stock of the longer history of sociology’s struggle to reconceptualize culture after Parsons, we argue that culture is best understood via a four-facet model. Culture, we argue, consists of discourse, which is oriented toward meaning, and practice, which is oriented toward action. But both discourse and practice have implicit and explicit dimensions: they consist of underlying generative structures and concrete manifestations. To demonstrate the four-facet model’s value for empirical analysis, we use it to address the high-profile methodological debates that have recently roiled the field, pitting ethnography, interviewing, and survey research against one another as the ideal mode of accessing culture writ large. Rather than arbitrating among methods, we show, the four-facet model specifies how each approach contributes to cultural analysis, facilitating conversation in places where disagreements currently appear intractable and underwriting methodological pluralism.”


“Rather than establishing the ends we pursue, Swidler (1986, p. 277) argued, culture instead provides the means for action in the form of a cultural ‘toolkit’: a set of habits, repertoires, and skills that actors arrange to form ‘strategies of action,’ sets of ‘pre-fabricated links’ that orient our behavior. For instance, among middle-class Americans, decisions about love and marriage are not guided by a coherent overarching value system; instead, people draw upon a wide, and often contradictory, array of cultural materials in order to justify their actions (Swidler 2001). Kindred perspectives include work by Michèle Lamont, Laurent Thévenot, and Luc Boltanski on ‘repertoires’ and ‘modes of justification’ or ‘evaluation,’ which may be used to repair or avert breakdowns in social interaction (Boltanski and Thévenot 1999), to draw boundaries around race, class, and gender (Lamont 1992, 2000; Lamont and Thévenot 2000), or to evaluate art and literature (Lamont and Thévenot 2000), among other issues. […] Practices take explicit form when actors reflect consciously on the reasons and motivations for their behavior. Explicit-practical culture includes accounts and justifications (Boltanski and Thévenot 1999; […].” (pp. 5-6/12)