A Note on the Concept of Culture

I have been silent on the concept of culture, not purposely but because I have made it my project for a while to address and redress sociology’s neglect of that of structure. Culture, like agency, I have suggested is structured but not structurally determined. And that’s just about the extent of my recent contribution.

I’m sure that it didn’t help that I was for many years in the same UCL Department (Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, then – believe it or not – Medicine) as Roland Littlewood, Sushrut Jadhav and Simon Dein, psychiatrists and medical anthropologists; and culture was for them the core notion. So I have some catching up to do, and this blog is a first stab.

By chance, en route to examining a Ph.D in Liverpool, I had with me a copy of Late Modernity, edited by Maggie Archer, and had reached her own chapter (‘The Generative Mechanisms Re-configuring Late Modernity’). Not for the first time I found her stance convincing. I draw liberally on it here.

Culture, according to an earlier incarnation of Maggie, captures ‘all intelligibilia, that is, any item that has the dispositional capacity of being understood by someone’. ‘Intelligibilia’ here are not dependent on a ‘current knowing subject’: they are lodged in a ‘universal archive’. Structural components of society are primarily material, while cultural are primarily ideational.

Cultures comprise beliefs, theories, value systems, theorems of mathematics, scientific theories, novels, poems and such, each of which causally influences socio-cultural action and its outcomes. This is because ‘by taking up a body of ideas and asserting them a group defines its ideal interests’. This does not mean that a group’s ideal interests are reducible to its material interests. Weber’s ‘switchman simile’:

‘Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamics of interest.’

Ideal interests do not reduce to material interests, but they are certainly related to them. Archer: ‘structural factors play a significant role in what is adopted from the cultural system and the ends to which it is put.’

People who sign up to a particular body of ideas (an ‘ideational corpus’), Archer maintains, become embroiled in a particular ‘situational logic of action’. Let’s run with her historical précis for a bit.

In contexts in which there is a high level of coherence among the ideas, she avers, as in early or ‘ancient’ social formations, the situational logic is that of protection. Ideational innovations were fought off and, in her terminology, cultural morphostasis (e.g. the prevailing social order) was reinforced. In ‘early modernity’ (modernity mark I we might say) the situational logic is one of correction, ‘namely reconciling logical inconsistencies through syncretic refinement in order to enhance the coherence and viability of the ideas supported (as in the historically elaborated doctrines of liberal economic philosophy).’ In ‘later modernity’ (modernity mark II) different materially based interest groups ‘drew selectively upon the cultural system to legitimate and advance their ends, unleashing the situational logic of elimination between their ideas and those of subordinate groups …’ This for Archer was the ‘great age of ideology’ and class conflict. Finally, in ‘late modernity’ (modernity mark III):

‘the rarest historical form of situational logic comes to prevail because of the exponential addition of new items and novel sources of ideational variety, vastly exceeding the pool of ideas available in any of the preceding forms. Precisely because of the newness of these ideas, existing material interest groups have no (defensive or promotive) ‘position prises’ towards them. This results in the loosest ‘situational logic of opportunity’ where socio-cultural action is concerned and, for the first time on history, it is becoming predominant. The prizes go to those who will explore an dcan manipulate novel contingent ‘cultural compatibilities’ to their advantage. Which agents and actors do so, the interests they seek to serve, and their relations with other groups that are similarly involved are what shapes the precise nature of the outcome. Thus, the ‘contingent complementarity’ alone is the form of cultural system uncompromisingly related to morphogenesis.’  

As far as I can see, this is consistent with my own thinking with a couple of points of clarification. Maybe it comes down to choice of terminology. I would insist that what I have here called Archer’s modernity mark III is characterized above all else by the class conflict she associates with modernity mark II. Modernity mark III, the post-1970s phase of capitalism I call financial capitalism, for me represents a ‘deepening’ of class conflict: objective class relations have more, not less, causal bite as a generative mechanism now than then. BUT, and here lies a confusion or six, they undoubtedly have less subjective salience. And this is a cultural issue. I should briefly explain how I would prefer to ‘re-tilt’ Archer’s analysis.

The (‘postmodern’, relativised) culture of financial capitalism has for me taken a convenient/expedient form for Britain’s governing oligarchy (namely, the small hard-core of the capitalist executive plus the power elite of the state), for all that the explanation for this cannot be ‘reduced’ to (structural or objective) class relations. The culture of financial capitalism now comprises Lyotard’s up-for-grabs petit (no longer rationally compelling grand) narratives (here Archer is right). But it would be a massive error to (and huge accomplishment on the part of the governing oligarchy) to infer that ‘class is dead’!

Obviously I am indebted to Maggie here.

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