Monday, September 20, 2010

The Production of Culture

Since we are interested in the idea of how culture shapes economic outcomes it seemed natural to ask the questions, "How is culture produced?" and "Why is some culture consumed, while other culture is not?" Because I lead the Economics and Moral Sentiments group I felt tasked to dig up two papers that might help answer these questions and found two articles by the late Richard Peterson who was a prominent sociologist at Vanderbilt. On Tuesday our group will discuss

"Revitalizing the Culture Concept" (1979) and "Patterns of Cultural Choice" (1983).The former is the focus of this blog post: How is culture produced? (I will compose a post on the latter before the group on Tuesday) Peterson suggests that his approach to answering this question will be somewhat different. He writes,

"Many social scientists have insisted that the elements of culture fit together in patterns, so that a certain set of norms are compatible with a given set of values, beliefs, and expressive symbols. The exception and variation to this rule have been so numerous, however, that . . . the four perspectives reviewed here take a different tack by not starting with norms or values but with expressive symbols."

Peterson views that expressive symbols hold more promise in explaining the production of culture because they serve as visible focal points for the various elements of culture: values, beliefs, and customs. This has an interesting connection with economics because economists desire to understand individual preferences but can only do so by observing choice. Thus, the material like visible action attempts to reveal something we can’t see. The four major perspectives Peterson reviews follow (with brief description and examples):

CULTURE MIRRORS SOCIAL STRUCTURE - Sociologists holding this view utilize expressive symbols as gateways to deeper and less visible aspects of culture. For example, a person studying how culture mirrors society would ask questions about how the special powers of comic book characters have might reflect what our society values. Another example given in the text is how different musical styles in a culture reflect other traits about the society.

HOMO PICTOR - Sociologists holding this view maintain that a key feature of our humanity is our ability to create symbols. These symbols represent greater ideas and have some hidden code that creates and could re-create society from generation to generation. Something like the crucifix does indeed transmit all kinds of information about a story, my own nature, and my aspirations. And, we know that the symbol for the early church for the resurrection was the empty tomb. If the symbol had been the empty tomb rather than the cross, would our faith be different? Perhaps, our focus would be different. But, honestly, this notion of master hidden symbols sounds somewhat odd to me.

MANIPULATED CODE - This idea follows from HOMO PICTOR in the sense that expressive symbols represent ideas and hidden code. However, this view focuses more upon how those expressive symbols are used to perpetuate the place of the dominant culture over other cultures. This makes more intuitive sense that if a symbol is meaningful to people and represents an ideal, then it can be used to persuade people towards certain action. In the paper Peterson cites a situation in which RCA was facing investigation for monopolistic practices in the Justice Department and RCA started holding a special orchestral program directed by Toscanini. Apparently this increased the overall prestige and status of RCA and people viewed them as providing a cultural public good rather than as a greedy monopolist.

CULTURE PRODUCED – Peterson seems to be the foremost champion of this view. He does not view symbols as spontaneous processes, but, rather they are produced by someone with intent. Which culture is produced is based on certain contingencies he outlines. For example, he discusses how competition influences musical culture. He notes, “In periods of intense competition musical styles are diverse, while in periods of oligopoly the music is much more nearly homogenous. What is more, they show that changes in market structure precede changes in musical style.”

Reading this paper was extremely difficult. I felt stuck in a whirlwind of jargon and a frail understanding of how sociologists rigorously acquire knowledge and subject that knowledge to the scientific process. However, the importance of trying to understand how culture is produced is clear when we consider the quality of life in developing countries. The World Bank has spent multi-millions in various economic strategies; however, if culture is not amenable, various "good" economic reforms may not stick. Is there a way that culture might become more receptive to different economic reforms that would likely prove helpful?

There are a couple questions I have in reading this paper:

1.) Peterson and other sociologists often discuss this idea of someone "setting the norms" or manipulating the codes of a culture through expressive symbols. But, isn't this somewhat neglectful of the demand-side? Really what these symbol entrepreneurs are doing is "attempting to set the norms". Peterson does outline "contingencies" which seem to hint at the demand-side of culture. He suggests factors such as reward, evaluation, organizational dynamics, market structure, and technology shape the likelihood that any cultural product will hit the mark.

2.) Peterson writes, "That process of symbol-generation and change in each of the areas can be described using the same model, whose parameters may vary from situation to situation." How would we even begin the parameterization of such models? Would we start with trying to model the contingencies?

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