Fine and Fields "Culture and Microsociology"

Culture and Microsociology: 
The Anthill and the Veldt


The authors argue that sociologists must use the inves- tigation of interpersonal situations as a strategy through which “culture” can be understood in practice. Culture includes a broad range of social processes, institutions, and value systems. In contrast to perspectives that treat groups and individuals as units to be shaped by power- ful cultural forces, the authors contend that culture is established, manipulated, and promoted by individuals and groups. Microsituations serve as arenas of action in their own right, locations where culture is both pro- duced and experienced. Drawing examples from five areas of microsociology—groups, cognition, identity/ self, performance, and emotion—the authors demon- strate how a distinctively microsociological perspective allows sociologists to examine how culture, across its various conceptions, has an effect on actors and, in turn, is affected by actors. By exposing the workings of culture in situ, microsociology forces us to theorize the connections between meaning, behavior, and structure.

culture; microsociology; social psychology; small groups; identity; cognition; interaction; emotion

The sociologist is an explorer who observes anthills or the veldt. Trekking through the wild, you are a camera, but how should your attention focus? There is so much to observe. The world is, in the words of William James (1911, 50), a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” James was referring to infant perception, but
Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He received his PhD from Harvard University in social psychology, examining the creation of small group cultures. He is the author of numerous ethnographies of microcultures, including studies of Little League baseball, restaurant kitchens, and meteorological offices. He is currently working on a book examining the role of “tiny publics” in the cre- ation of civil society.

Corey D. Fields is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. His interests include culture, identity, and politics. His dissertation research uses African American Republicans to explore the link between racial identity and political behavior.

DOI: 10.1177/0002716208320138
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the phrase applies to anyone in a domain that is characterized by cognitive over- load. It is not only that there are many scenes to see, but also any scene can be appreciated anew by changing choices of breadth and depth. One can view a landscape from afar, spying the major features of the sweeping veldt, considering how they shape the totality of the scene, or one can inspect that world in exquis- ite, microscopic detail. Rather than survey the vista, one can inspect anthills. Both viewers appreciate the terrain, but they rely upon different lenses.
Examining anthills—their architecture, their routine, and their culture—is the task of the microsociologist, the social psychologist.1 Few constructs reveal bet- ter than culture how both broad and focused analyses can productively coexist. Given the stretch, even looseness, of the culture concept, we should not be sur- prised that culture can be described through multiple layers. Culture is both a landscape and an anthill: the microsociologist privileges entomology over geol- ogy, microcultures over national culture, self over demography. Less poetically, the microsociologist emphasizes performance over norms and practices over cul- tural logics. In this, the focus is upon the doing of culture as opposed to external constraints that channel, promote, or discourage action. Emphasizing perfor- mance and practice, culture for the microsociologist is a matter of circumscribed agency. Agency is always shaped by externalities (such as norms and logics), but the creation of cultures results from choices by parties to action.

Sociologists are skilled in emphasizing the power of structure in top-down models, but they are less concerned with the ways actors shape structure from the bottom up. Up and down, top and bottom, sociology depends on analytic incorporation of multiple levels.

As microsociologists, we operate from the stance of “sociological miniaturism” (Stolte, Fine, and Cook 2001). This approach interprets social processes, institu- tions, and cultural systems through a perspective that is fundamentally microsocio- logical, analyzing large-scale social forces by means of the systematic investigation of small-scale interactional domains. Sociologists must use the investigation of inter- personal situations as a strategy through which broader social forces, properties, and processes can be understood as constituted in practice. Sociologists are skilled in emphasizing the power of structure in top-down models, but they are less con- cerned with the ways actors shape structure from the bottom up. Up and down, top and bottom, sociology depends on analytic incorporation of multiple levels. As Randall Collins (1981) pointed out, microsituations provide the foundations for and simulate the dynamics of larger social units. Equally important, microsituations are arenas of action in their own right, where culture is produced and experienced.

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Sociological miniaturism asserts that cultural processes transcend levels of analysis in several ways. First, a cultural phenomenon that is observable at one level of analysis (for instance, the interpersonal) will routinely be found on other levels (for instance, the institutional or interorganizational) (Harrington and Fine 2000). Culture can be conceptualized as a local or a societal phenomenon. Alternatively, culture is also a set of available meanings embedded within mass society. Within the realm of emotions, altruism or aggression can be defined as tied to individual actors or to normative social systems. Second, the action of indi- vidual actors can be treated, at least at certain critical moments, as representing larger entities. The individual stands for the group and, more significantly, is taken by others as representing that group. This is the theory of the representa- tive who embodies the culture of an organization: the museum director, politi- cian, or social movement spokesperson. In this sense, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Steve Jobs is not merely an individual but represents an organization. The failure or success of this representative is treated not only as emblematic of the failure or success of the employing organization but also as constituting the success or failure. Although individuals need not always represent the organizations to which they belong, nor need they always be taken as such, the operating assump- tion is that such a linkage is present. This behavioral synecdoche is grounded in commonsense interpretations about the relationship of actors and organizations. And while we must be cautious when extending these commonsense interpreta- tions, this is an insight that social analysts cannot lightly dismiss. Third, we argue that local situations and settings can be meaningfully generalized. This assump- tion is essential for justifying a methodological stance that often depends on the close investigation of a particular scene, whether that scene is observed through controlled laboratory experimentation, detailed conversation analysis, or ethno- graphic observation. An account of the actions of a Little League baseball team on one warm June afternoon stands for many gatherings in many communities on many days. While care must be taken when extrapolating from individuals/ microsituations to collectives/macrosituations, sociology would have little predic- tive or analytic power, and would be limited to descriptions, if cases only stood for themselves. Finally, sociological miniaturism allows for an understanding of microsituations as the locations where the recursive nature of culture is most vis- ible. At the microlevel, it is possible to analyze how cultural objects, traditions, and beliefs affect individuals and groups, as well as how actors’ use of culture spreads outward from their local group to larger social segments. For instance, if one is interested in musical taste creating an auditory culture, one might begin with bands or orchestras in which music is created, discussed, and evaluated but then examine how those performances are diffused to larger populations where they may be repeated, recalled, and again evaluated.

This miniaturist perspective avoids the ghettoization of social psychology as a dis- tant, idiosyncratic specialty field within sociology. Social psychology has often been treated as being reductionist, rather than constituting a genuinely sociological per- spective. A standard line is that social psychology involves the examination of indi- viduals, allergic to larger entities, even while recognizing that individuals and their

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social relations constitute these entities. While social psychology has long been part of sociology in institutional terms (the first sociological social psychology textbook, that of former American Sociological Association president Edward A. Ross [1908], was published a century ago), its level of analysis has contributed to its being seen as marginal to the disciplinary mandate, composed of distinct practitioners, similar per- haps to demography or criminology. In this image, microsociology might be taken as standing apart from the sociology of culture, which, in contrast, is now seen as intel- lectually central to the sociological enterprise.

The development of the sociology of culture has had several consequences for social psychology. When examining individual action, one might reasonably argue that everything is culture. All human action—including political and economic decisions—has been socialized through a system of norms, traditions, rituals, values, and customs. Culture can be taken as the means by which individuals are “civilized”— not in the sense of a hierarchy of culture—but in the recognition that individuals can knowingly and effectively participate in civil society (Alexander 2006). If one takes culture in the broadest sense—a conceit that will appeal to the imperialist designs of sociologists of culture—all social psychology is cultural sociology, even if not all cultural sociology is social psychology. Social psychological analysis is also well suited to less expansive approaches to culture that focus on the movement of specific cul- tural objects or cultural forms. With emphasis on detailed observation of the social world, microsociological perspectives are well positioned to see culture—treated as a domain of content—as it is developed and put into action.

With emphasis on detailed observation of the social world, microsociological perspectives are well positioned to see culture—treated as a domain of content—as it is developed and put into action.

The mid-1970s proved to be a critical moment for the development of a soci- ology of culture and was marked by the influential publication of two related arti- cles in the pages of the American Sociological Review: one by Howard Becker (1974; see also H. Becker 1982) on “Art as Collective Action” and one by Richard Peterson and David Berger (1975) on “Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music.” Both articles helped to create what came to be known as the “Production of Culture” approach, an orientation that suggested that the creation

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of cultural products should be viewed as comparable to the production of all material objects. However, these papers differed in important ways. Becker, operating within the symbolic interactionist tradition, approached the analysis of cultural productions as a microsociological problem, examining how culture was created in practice, through linked interactions and negotiated conventions. Put broadly, art is the outcome of behavioral choices, set within the standards and expectations of a community. Peterson and Berger, in contrast, focused on how institutions, notably for-profit corporations, created cultural products in the face of uncertain markets and variable competition, an approach linked to organiza- tional and economic sociology, operating on the macro level. We examine a set of research traditions that follow from the Becker impetus, although not limiting ourselves to the sociology of art or the production of culture approach. Not all of these studies are directly linked to Becker’s collective action (“art worlds”) approach, but each emphasizes the importance of cognition, self, interaction are- nas, and group dynamics as integral to a sociological model of culture.

At the core of the microsociological approach to culture are a few constructs that orient the research tradition(s). These concepts are drawn from microsoci- ology more generally but have particular relevance for examining culture as object and as action. To demonstrate the relevance of microsociology to the examination of culture, we discuss five domains of research that demonstrate how culture and microsociology are linked, although in practice there is consid- erable variability in each as well as much overlap. To organize our discussion, we point to research in small groups, identity/self, cognition/boundaries, interaction/ performance, and emotion. Embedded in each is the problem of the construc- tion of shared meaning. In providing a microsociological guide to the culture con- cept, we argue that the microsociologist provides a crucial interpretation of the linkage between meaning, action, and structure. When strategies within the sociology of culture erase attention to microsociology, they do so at a cost to the validity of culture as lived experience.

Microcultures and Their Groups

Perhaps the most direct connection between culture and microsociology involves the question of how cultural forms—the practices and products of culture—become linked to small groups. This approach was reflected in Fine’s (1979; see also McFeat 1974) article on “Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams” and subsequent studies that applied the “idioculture” model to other social domains, such as mental health organizations (e.g., Wiley 1991), congregations (P. Becker 1999), or social move- ments (Polletta 2006). This approach suggests that culture is established through the creation of tradition, shared references, and customs within ongoing perfor- mances that organize and routinize interaction. The metaphorical linkage of local creativity to the societal production of culture is readily apparent, merely magnified and transformed by more extensive institutional influences. The backgrounds of

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participants, coupled with the needs and expectations that stem from group interaction, contribute to the group’s ongoing meaning system when a triggering event occurs—an event that sparks the shared recognition of collective experi- ence. Once established, cultural forms provide a means through which individu- als recognize their group as a salient unit and build affiliation with fellow participants. Any group has access to a combination of background culture (the known culture of the group), the moral standards of discourse (the usable cul- ture), the instrumental goals that culture is to achieve—intentionally or not— (the functional culture), and the status hierarchy (the appropriate culture). This pool of potential cultural items is selected through immediate interaction needs. Of course, whether one accepts the details of this model of microcultures, the focus of a group approach is to understand the creation of culture through processes embedded in interactional arenas, emphasizing a sociology of localism. A sociology of localism requires mapping the creation and the spread of culture, rather than examining cultural products as divorced from social actors who pro- duce and communicate traditions or by treating culture as a set of ideas that tran- scend time and space. The sociology of culture must analyze how traditions bind groups together, providing a cultural grounding of trust, affiliation, and cohesion that subsequently generates shared action and the creation of collective identity (Farrell 2003). Tight-knit groups create culture, and culture facilitates the estab- lishment of tight-knit groups.

Idiocultures operate in groups in all institutional domains. The examination of family cultures, gangs, sociometric cliques, workgroups, sports teams, cults, and fraternal organizations provides instances of the effects of local cultures. The cul- ture of the group provides a cognitive and emotional structure through which individuals can understand their collective pasts and plan for their shared futures (Katovich and Couch 1992). By recognizing a small group culture, participants recognize that they share traditions and that these traditions can be referred to with the expectation that they will be understood by other members and can be used to address challenges to the group.


During the 1990s, as a consequence of the influential work of scholars such as Eviatar Zerubavel (1997), Paul DiMaggio (1997), Jeffrey Olick (Olick and Robbins 1998) and Michèle Lamont (1992), sociologists came to recognize that how individuals think relies on collective regularities, acquired through socializa- tion. Cognition, traditionally one of the building blocks of social psychology, is socially organized, not merely idiosyncratic or biologically fixed, a recognition that has long been part of the sociology of knowledge (Mannheim 1966). As that list suggests, cognition is not the exclusive domain of self-defined social psychologists, even if the question of how meaning is recalled and transformed is inevitably tied to the “thinker” and the “thought.” Mind, self, and society merge. Even if cognition is no longer located within a pulsating brain, most authors recognize

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cognition as having a personal locus, even when shaped by social forces. While these authors vary in their disciplinary identities, much of this work is in debt to Freud, Mead, Cooley, and others who see the nexus of mind and society as shaped within interactional arenas.

Microsociologists treat cognition as essential to social organization and com- munity affiliation, and their work has been featured prominently in the “cul- tural turn” in cognition. The central tenet of the cultural turn is that cognition is organized through cultures—thought communities (Zerubavel 1997)—and not only through biological brains. A sociology of thinking differs from cogni- tive universalism (which suggests that all humans think in fundamentally simi- lar ways) and cognitive particularism (which suggests that each individual, as a result of distinctive experiences, thinks in a unique fashion) (Zerubavel 1997). A sociology of thinking posits that culture organizes thinking by providing the frames and schemas that individuals and their groups use to process and translate their environment.

Research finds that cognitive categories are cultural in their origins and effects (Lamont and Fournier 1992). Microsociological analysis exposes how the process of categorization bears on meaning structures, and it highlights how mental cat- egories structure perceptions of the social world. Research, attuned to the vagaries of particular interaction contexts, challenges the assumption that the influence of culture on cognition is consistent and constant, again emphasizing the importance of local conditions. For instance, in examining the dynamics of meaning activation, Hong et al. (2000) posited a “dynamic constructivist” approach to explain variation in meaning attribution. Conceiving of culture as loosely structured, domain-specific knowledge structures, they used experimen- tal methods to activate a “frame shift” in bicultural, Westernized Chinese stu- dents that affects the meanings they attribute to a range of social behaviors. Their findings suggest that individuals have access to a toolkit composed of multiple “cultures” and that subtle priming activates particular cultural frames at particu- lar times. Verkuyten and Pouliasi (2006) found similar effects of priming in the frame switching among bicultural Greek respondents living in the Netherlands but found that group identification mediates the relationship between framing and perception. Such a cognitive effect that recognizes the importance of code- switching has also been discovered for African Americans (Wofford 1979; Garner and Rubin 1986; Billings 2005).

Since the classic writing of Thomas and Thomas (1928; see also Bateson 1955; Goffman 1974) on “definitions of the situation,” sociologists have emphasized how actors instigate and organize framings of social reality, particularly as it relates to social movement rhetoric (Snow and Benford 1992; Gamson, Fireman, and Rytina 1982). Research in this vein shows how the framing process can be subtly invoked to produce culturally determined interpretations of the social world. Building off a similar insight in the realm of politics, Tali Mendelberg (2001) demonstrated how political advertising primes cognitive boundaries by encouraging voters to think in terms of racial categories without being stigma- tized for promoting explicit racial messages.

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Although this approach to cognition initially appeared as a novel and brazen attempt by sociologists to extend their intellectual dominion, it has influential roots in the work of Emile Durkheim and his students, notably Marcel Mauss (1990) and Maurice Halbwachs (1992), who emphasized the importance of col- lective representations as a means of creating social order. Those scholars who follow from Durkheim, such as Eliasoph and Lichterman (2003) or Magnuson (2005), treat these collective representations as a means of organizing ongoing interaction arenas, treating group affiliation as operating through cognitive filters that shape the boundaries of group belonging. But in so doing, they sometimes downplay the reality that these cultural logics are situated within a Goffmanian frame of strategic action.

This model emphasizes the salience of boundaries, exemplified through shared representations, as constituting the cognitive limits of belonging. In this view, boundaries exist in the mind but also have a powerful reality in shaping social intercourse (Lamont and Fournier 1992). As Garot (2007) suggested, the labeling of participants as inside or outside groups (in this case, gangs) con- tributes to boundary work through collective identity. Shared category systems are essential to social life (Rosch 1978). Through individual and collective action, we map and then imprint our cognitive categories onto the social world.

These cognitive categories are so powerful that on occasion they can cause us to think in ways that run counter to obdurate realities. Our categories can become more important than lived experience. Freeman (1992) illustrated how perceptions are categorized even when the world we perceive does not fit into easily categorical patterns. Freeman confronted two empirical regularities: (1) when people observe interaction, they see its patterning as partitioning individu- als into groups, and (2) though interaction is patterned, it is not structured in such a way that interacting individuals can be placed directly into groups. The process of categorization allows people to “see” groups or collective identities where none exist. He hypothesized that individuals use a variety of cultural cues, only one of which is actual interaction, to “fill in the blanks” of missing informa- tion necessary to partition their social world into meaningful groupings. This research suggests that internal mapping of the social world is not entirely depen- dent on empirical reality. Furthermore, the mapping of social spaces and ideational concepts provides a critical linkage between mental processes and organizational distinctions (Freeman 1992; Carley 1994; Grant 2001). The microsociologist recognizes that how individuals and groups think about the world—and the divisions of that world—provides an opening to understanding societal divisions that contribute to a macro sociology.


How can one’s identity—one’s sense of self—be anything but cultural? Of course, as sociologists have used it over the decades, “identity” has many different

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meanings. We take identity to represent the individual’s thoughts and feelings about herself or himself. Identity in this sense encompasses “one’s sense of who one is, of one’s social location, and of how (given the first two) one is prepared to act” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, 17). Others have called this aspect of identity “self-identity” (Giddens 1991), “self-understanding” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000), “senspratique” (Bourdieu 1990), “self-concept” (Rosenberg 1979; Gecas 1982), or the “real self” (Turner 1976). Whichever term we rely on, who we are is grounded in what it is possible to be within a social context. This depends upon a reading of our cultural environment. The self is a cultural and reflexive con- struction (Markus and Kitayama 1991) in which changes in culture can affect self-images (Callero 2003). These claims can be disputed, especially by those who argue that a sense of self is natural and biological, part of our human equipment. Rampant biologism has appeal, but it does little to explain the sophisticated dif- ferentiation and individuation that is an outcome of self-work.

The construct of identity develops from that of self. For some, identity is self as performed to others (Snow and Anderson 1987). Identity is the means by which persons connect the self into social organization by treating and enacting their selves (to themselves and as public markers) as the kind of individual soci- ety demands that they be. Because identities are presented, selves are never iso- lated from the communities in which they reside—selves belong to groups—and, as such, social psychologists recognize that cultures—both macro and micro— influence how individuals will see their selves and how they will reveal those selves to those around them. Both the internal introspection and the external per- formance of the self depend on culture. Issues of values, norms, practices, ritu- als, and customs—the bulwarks of a sociology of culture—come to play an essential role in understanding selves. Persons transform local cultures into selves—as Charles Horton Cooley (1902) suggested in understanding the looking- glass self—and then take those selves and display them to others in appropriate behavioral, organizational, and institutional domains.

Culture also provides markers of identity. Cultural objects (Griswold 1994) fea- ture prominently in the identity construction process. Microsociological examina- tion of this process affords cultural sociologists the opportunity to recognize how individuals rely upon culture to provide building blocks of the self. A central task of the identity construction process is connecting the self to a series of meaning structures that are culturally grounded. Glaeser (2000), in his ethnography of German police officers, argued that identities are produced by connecting the self

with itself at other points in time; with other persons; with beliefs, ideas, and values; with the world in the widest sense. . . . If identifications are repeated and reconfirmed by others and thus stabilized, they congeal into parts of identities. (Pp. 9-10)

Cultural objects (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981)—like fashion (Crane 2000), music (Bennett 2006; Williams 2006), consumer brands (Aaker, Benet-Martinez, and Garolera 2001), or physical space (Glaeser 2000)—often serve as elements of identity. Silver (1996) argued that new college students

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make considered decisions about which objects to leave at home and which objects to bring to school. The objects left at home anchor old identities, and the objects brought to college mark new, more independent identities. As a result, the consumables that individuals display are critical in assessing who they are and who they wish to be (Veblen 1899; Chapin 1935; Laumann and House 1970).
Cultural objects that we use to construct identity are not always tangible. Indeed, we often draw from more abstract cultural elements in performing iden- tity, in part because the abstract nature of these concepts provides more flexibil- ity for social actors. Narratives are often the means through which individuals engage in the self-reflexive process of identity construction. The stories people tell about themselves reflect on the self, and those stories are cultural in their content, structure, and mode of presentation. How people locate themselves in space, time, and social networks generates identity for self and others. The oppo- site is also true—the way individuals or groups are situated in others’ narrative also works to impose identity from the outside.

Mason-Schrock (1996) highlighted the constitutive power of narrative in the process of transsexuals’ construction of their “true self.” He demonstrated that narrative is particularly important to transsexuals because they must look beyond their biological bodies for signs of their “true” gender. To construct a self, trans- sexuals use cultural tropes to construct self-narratives that invoke a differently gendered body. This process is also cultural in that it often occurs in group set- tings, dependent on the interactional affirmation of others. Somers (1992, 1994) likewise stressed the importance of narrative to social life while showing how nar- ratives both represent and constitute social actors and worlds in which they live. It is “narrative location [that] endows social actors with identities—however multiple, ambiguous, ephemeral, or conflicting they may be” (Somers 1992, 618).

Whether material or abstract, culture provides the constituent components of self-identity, and microsociological analysis is required to see how those compo- nents are put to use. In an influential article Spencer Cahill (1998, 131) pointed to what he labeled as “A Sociology of the Person,” examining the “socially defined, publicly visible beings of intersubjective experience.” Cahill argued that identities are “produced”—and then revealed—through a set of cultural strate- gies. This extends Cooley’s model of the production of selves, by incorporating intersubjective meanings, linking selves and cognitions. Cahill’s argument trans- forms the idea of the self from something that is alternatively perceived as an obdurate brain function—a biological feature of homo sapiens—or an idiosyn- cratic outcome of life experiences. In contrast, Cahill suggested that the person is linked to collective meanings, which are historically situated, as described by Ralph Turner (1976) in asserting the change in attitudes toward the self from being grounded institutional forces to operating from impulsive needs. Individuals, relying on the moral standards of their culture, can persuade them- selves that their selves are real or authentic (Turner 1976; Mason-Schrock 1996; Williams 2006): as they feel, so are they truly. Unlike other, less cultural scholars of self, Cahill recognized that the person is an achievement that depends upon shared values. Selves can only exist within social systems that provide meaning.

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This argument parallels that suggested by Zerubavel (1997) in his claims for a sociology of cognition: the self, like thinking, is neither universal nor individual but is situated within a community of identities.


While the examination of interactional regimes has long been a critical com- ponent of the microsociological approach to social organization, essential to the development of symbolic interaction (Blumer 1969), and has been part of the philosophical tradition since Plato, the systematic linkage of interaction to per- formance was a decisive contribution of Erving Goffman (1959; but see Evreinov 1927). The idea of a performance suggests the centrality of cultural scripts and the intersection of actor and audience, and so links this approach into group cul- tures and to a sociology of thinking. That we comfortably refer to a cultural script suggests that consensual agreement exists on behavioral expectations. The dra- maturgical perspective in sociology (Messinger, Sampson, and Towne 1962; Brissett and Edgley 1990) establishes cultural understandings as central to action. Recent theoretical advances in the examination of public displays and commemorations (e.g., Alexander, Giesen, and Mast 2006) have incorporated performance, ritual, and commemoration into Alexander’s (2006) “Strong Program” of cultural sociology to bridge the division between individual action and social forces. Although performance can be viewed as separate from the choices of individuals to act (or not) in particular fashions, this approach grows out of the argument of Randall Collins (1981, 2004) that macrosociology has a microsociological foundation, a foundation that depends upon shared attention, expectations, and emotional entrainment. Collins provided an important bridge for treating sociology as a seamless whole, but it requires that performance should not only be theorized but also observed in situ in teams, families, congre- gations, clubs, bars, and other “stages.”

Magnuson’s (2007; Schwalbe 1996) treatment of the mythopoetic men’s move- ment illustrates how social interaction and performance are guided by cultural scripts, transmitting shared and validated meanings. Magnuson demonstrated that small group leaders draw from the authority embedded in the role of leader to structure the identity of the group and create the conditions of socialization by which group culture is conveyed to participants. Interaction occasions, whether sponsoring rituals or sanctioning breaches, are the means through which cultural meanings about masculinity are transferred and reproduced. The definition of masculinity results from negotiations and contingency within a local system of norms, values, and expectations. Interaction links the understanding of how broader structures, like the meaning of masculinity, emerge from the situated social relations. Studying interaction as a domain in itself provides cultural soci- ologists with tools for understanding how meaning structures are reproduced through microlevel performance.

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Not only does the performance metaphor borrow from the image of the theater, but it is also, significantly, a perspective that depends upon institu- tions that have cultural authority. The metaphor of performance implies the presence of performers, technicians, and audience (Goffman 1959; Messinger, Sampson, and Towne 1962), and along with this a means by which lines of action (Blumer 1969) are coordinated. Such an image of dra- maturgy builds on both culture with a capital C and culture with a small c. In examining performance, the process of negotiation becomes centrally rel- evant. It is not only that “interaction happens” as if on a stage, but also that inter- action is ritualized in such a way that it becomes predictable, replicable, and part of the cultural DNA of society. Microsociology, with its focus on how actors shape behavior while adjusting to their immediate context, empha- sizes how social actors negotiate to produce common alignment (Strauss 1978; Stokes and Hewitt 1976). As actors negotiate, context both liberates and constrains their performances. This happens through the cultural logics that their communities permit, but also in how actors use the cultural tools available to them to act in (and on) the world. With the attempts of social theorists—haute cultural theorists (Amy Binder, personal communication, 2007)—to establish a macro-micro link (Giddens 1984; Sewell 1992), the recognition that cultural structures are both liberating and constraining (facilitating and limiting agency) has become widely acknowledged. As soci- ologists recognized once they began using cultural domains as their case, the intersection of the person and institution is essential to appreciating how a malleable and yet real social order is possible. This owes much to the now fashionable emphasis on meaning as crucial to how societies are simultane- ously situated and structured.

A study of gang identity, Garot (2007), exposed this dual role of culture in everyday performance. Interaction rituals related to claiming gang identity are tense performance venues where gang members are constrained by the cultural scripts that structure interactions. Cultural rules dictate that once asked, “Where you from?” a response is required. This demands the announcement of a situated identity. If not enacted properly, the response can lead to an ini- tiation of violence. While culture—through shared scripts—demands a response, it also provides “props” within that interactional environment through which actors can present protective and appropriate performances. “Knowing how to work these alternatives in the appropriate circumstances comprises tools for molding identity,” and this becomes an important skill in navigating the landscape of gang territory (Garot 2007, 77). This recog- nition of the importance of an integration of a structural grounding for interaction and agentic choice provides the basis for an interaction order (Goffman 1983; Rawls 1987): structural, but always linked to micro-sociological concerns.

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When sociologists first began to colonize emotion in the late 1970s (Hochschild 1979; Shott 1979) the dominion of sociology appeared complete. For if a phenomenon seemingly so internal, so psychological, so biological as emotion could be tamed by the social, the human was sociological in its warp and woof, in anger and in love. As a response of individual actors the examination of emotion comfortably belongs to microsociology. As Arlie Hochschild noted in her influential 1983 volume, The Managed Heart, emotion must be understood as a generated and constrained cultural system: in her case, the culture of work orga- nizations, such as airlines and collection agencies. Emotion constitutes a form of labor that is required as part of being a competent and moral worker (Domagalski 1999; Ashforth and Humphrey 1993).

Extensions of the emotion management approach continue to feature promi- nently in sociological research on emotions. Much research uses the workplace context to explore how specific social worlds, and their attendant social rules, structure displays and responses to emotion (Sanders 2004; Francis, Monahan, and Berger 1999; Saavedera and Van Dyne 1999; Ashford and Humphrey 1993). However, the relevance of an emotion management approach extends beyond work contexts. Across domains, attention must be paid to the actors, setting, and timing of emotion within any cultural context. For instance, Greer (2002) exam- ined how inmates in a women’s prison manage emotions within both the institu- tional order of the prison and the rules of interpersonal interaction among fellow inmates. An environment with such restricted emotional expression inhibits “emotional achievement” (Yang 2000) and leads to a “vicious interaction cycle, one that limits the development of individual resources for coping with emo- tional experiences and discourages formulation of . . . supportive social rela- tionships” (Greer 2002, 134). Status distinctions within an organization also dictate the emotional responses expected, displayed, and reciprocated, with the more powerful able to set the standards of emotional display (Stein 1989). Emotion is a part of the expressive (hence, cultural) repertoire of a social sys- tem. Affect can be socialized and rewarded or sanctioned and stigmatized, but emotional display is inevitably a mechanism through which a culture is given form and expression.

This claim is applied to a range of emotions, both positive and negative, and sociologists debate the extent to which emotions are internal or learned as a part of culture (Kemper 1978). Discussing sympathy biography and sympathy margins, Candace Clark (1987) forcefully argued that emotion can only be under- stood as situated within interactional regimes. Clark concluded that sympathy— and, by implication, other emotions—are embedded in local situations; sympathy becomes meaningful as part of a cultural repertoire, learned and used within local contexts. This view of emotion is congruent with studies of embarrassment that reveal the importance of role distance to avoid stigma (Gross and Stone 1964; Modigliani 1968; Goffman 1961) and of humor and laughter as strategies

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of social control (Fine and DeSoucey 2005; Mulkay 1988; Billig 2006). While these displays contain considerable affect, not always fully under conscious con- trol, the situations that produce them and their responses are linked to cultural and institutional demands.

The relationship between culture and emotion is not unidirectional, with culture shaping the management and display of emotion. Emotion also shapes culture. Garot (2004) illustrated how client’s emotional displays at a Section 8 housing office motivate social workers to move beyond their role as detached, neutral bureau- crats. Vince (2006) showed how managers’ efforts at controlling emotions produce additional, unintended emotional dynamics within an organization during a com- pany takeover. Both pieces illuminate the reciprocal relationship between emotions and culture and, in doing so, push microsociologists to examine how emotions can change rules as well as how “feeling rules” manage emotions.

Emotion is now a central research node in which culture and microsociology have been integrated. Culture channels emotion, and emotion channels cultural performance. The literature on emotion in work, in social action, in family dynamics, and at play is now extensive, but in each instance actors display emo- tions because of their propriety and suitability, and this recognition of the strate- gic deployment of emotions—both cognitive and behavioral—suggests that our heat and coldness derive from cultural training, scripts, and interpretations.


Some domains of sociology treat groups and individuals as merely units to be shaped by a powerful, robust, if invisible, societal culture. At times, this has char- acterized elements of the sociology of culture, not necessarily explicitly, but implicitly because the focus has been on what is described as “the big picture.” Such an approach—emphasizing “social fact”—is part of the Durkheimian birthright of the discipline. This view reflects what we might describe as a pas- sive sociology: a world in which things happen—happen systematically, of course—but without strategic and heedful actors making them happen. Erasing the actor from the process of cultural creation, diffusion, and consequences requires that one turn away from the interactional and performative moment.

Such a reading, although understandable, excises humanity, as well as many recent developments in cultural theory. Our approach examines how personal or group choices shape institutional meaning, while simultaneously understanding how these choices depend upon the powerful constraints under which individu- als and groups operate: what Hallett and Ventresca (2006) spoke of as “inhab- ited institutions” (see also Binder 2007). Ideas do not just appear and spread; they are established, manipulated, and promoted by individuals and groups. Yes, we ride on steel tracks laid down by others, but at critical moments we may become switchmen. A strong program of cultural sociology depends both on action and limits.

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The contribution of a microsociological analysis is to illuminate agency in cul- tural theory. We recognize agency in the development, diffusion, and deployment of cultural forms and objects. Admittedly the process is recursive. Interactional arenas have been shaped and channeled by larger forces, but these forces are themselves created through the remarkable cloaked power of agency. Microsociology offers students of culture an opportunity to examine the workings of this recursive relationship. The methodological tools of microsociology— ethnographic observation, experiments, interviews—are well suited to deliver the fine-grained analysis necessary to reveal how individuals and groups build culture and how culture builds individuals and groups. Although microsociological approaches offer this characteristic way of seeing the world, their usefulness to cultural scholars extends beyond the empirical. By exposing the workings of cul- ture, microsociology encourages us to theorize the connections between mean- ing, behavior, and structure.

Ideas do not just appear and spread; they are established, manipulated, and promoted by individuals and groups.

The five core concepts that we have presented in this article—groups, cogni- tion, identity, performance, and emotion—blend into one another. There is no separating them, as all rely upon behavioral demands, dramaturgical preferences, communities of thought, and conceptualizations of personhood. This is as it should be. Everything is bound to everything else—groups, individuals, behavior, cognition, and affect—yet together they provide a distinctive way in which soci- ologists can examine how culture, across its various conceptions, has an effect and is effected. In the end, the sweep of broad savannahs may be appealing for a pho- tographer with a wide-angle lens, but if one wishes to observe life in motion, one must look just beneath the surface where action lies. The task of the social psy- chological culturalist is to use the sociological microscope to reveal that bustling domain in its local glory.


1. The labels of microsociology and social psychology refer to overlapping, but not identical, domains within sociology. As a general rule, all social psychology—with its focus upon individual action, self, per- ception, cognition, attitudes, interaction, and groups—can be defined as falling within the rubric of microsociology. Some forms of microsociology, however, do not presume internal states but constitute a microstructural sociology that focuses on the analysis of relations or situations, rather than individual selves or motivations. The writings of Simmel (or, later, Goffman or Sacks) are microsociological, but they are

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distinct from traditional sociological social psychology since they ignore characteristics of individual actors and rather, emphasize situated or structural relations. Still, the overlap is large. In this article that focuses on individuals, groups, and cultures, we use the two labels interchangeably when we refer to the entire approach that examines culture in light of individuals and groups.


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University Press.ger stream of essays (Haraway,
1988, 1989, 1991), it helped lay the foundations for Haraway’s feminist
critique of modern biology, anthropology and sociobiology. Schudson mocks and ridicules the essay, claiming that it exhibits moral excess, has
itshistorywrong,andfailsto beadequatelysociologicalbecauseittellsus nothing about lived experience, and ’what meaning actual visitors take
from African Hall’ (Schudson, 1997a: 53). Finally, he is disturbed because Haraway’s essay received little criticism from the cultural studies
scholarly community (1997b: 392-3).8
Schudson’s criticisms are launched from a so-called sociological
perspective, a perspective that he associates (in passing) with the right. Carey observes of such a strategy, that ’conservatives are in the political
saddle virtually everywhere, forcing all political positions to contest on terrain they have defined’ (1997b: 1). Hence Schudson’s comments are
meant to locate CS within a space defined solely by his mainstream
sociological perspective.
this is not enough for Schudson. Invoking (1997b) the value of a
canonical mid-century version of American sociology, he argues,
What I claim to be the superiority of conventional sociology’s (and conventional history’s) attention to lived social experience is then a claim for a modest sociology. With the fall of not only Marx but of Freud, and Weber and Durkheim, with the fall of ’grand narrative analysis,’ what may best endure of sociology...are its more modest forays or its ambitions to what Robert Merton famously called ’theories of the middle range’. (Schudson, 1997b: 395)
Sweeping aside three decades of interpretive criticisms of official
statistics and demographic accounts (see Alasuutari, 1996), Schudson goes o n to extoll the virtues of demography and epidemiological studies because they provide ’real and useful information about what people there are in the world, how often they are born, how they die, when and
122 whereandwhytheymovefromoneplacetoanother’(Schudson,1997b:
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395). He continues, noting that even ethnographies provide, ’with all theirfaults,some lastinginsightintowhatitmayhavebeenliketo live
in Muncie in the 1920s or Newburyport in the 1940s’ ( 1997b: 395).
It is as if time stood still. Sociology’s so-called classic, mid-century
theories methods remain immune to contemporary reproach.
Lamont’s (1997) recent criticisms of cultural studies extend Schudson’scelebrationofa 1950sversionofstandardempiricalAmerican
Sociology. In contrast to cultural studies, her brand of cultural sociology is marked by its resistance to poststructuralism’s fascination with intertextuality and its refusal to privilege the notion of bounded or diffuseidentitiesbasedonthe’&dquo;race,class,andgender&dquo;triad’(Lamont, 1997: 275). Unlike CS, her approach is resolutely inductive. It does not define in advance its categories of evaluation (except those it rejects!),
and’contrarytoalargeportionoftheliteratureonidentitypolitics,it drawson systematicallygatheredempiricaldata’(1997:276).
Her middle range, empirical sociology rejects the CS criticisms of essentialism and instead of ’positing identities that are unstable or
fragmented...this approach can, with appropriate data, establish empirically the extent to which specific identities are fluid across a
variety of contexts, and identify factors that might explain variation’ (1997: 276). She does not show how this is done. But she ends with a prescription, ’If the theoretical goal of cultural studies is truly to further
our understandings of the intermingling of meaning and inequality, it would benefit from infusion from this approach’ (1997: 276).
Lived experience
Schudson and Lamont work from a perspective that privileges the
empirical world, data, and lived experience as the places where culture
and social structure c o m e together. Sociologists study real people in the real world. They gather data. The task is clear. It was phrased by
Malinowski, a founding father, in the following way: ’Find out the
typical ways of thinking and feeling, corresponding to the institutions and culture of a given community and formulate the results in the most
convincing way’ (Malinowski, 1961 [1922]: 3). This injunction dictates that the analyst show how culture and social structure are mapped into the mental structures of the persons studied. A cultural transmission model is directly translated into realist ethnography, and standard
sociological demography. Sociologists connect meanings (culture) to action in the real world. Observable action occurs at the site of lived
the point of view of cultural studies, this is a flawed and
inadequate model (see Gray, 1997: 98). C. Wright Mills (1963), and Stuart Hall (1992) remind us that humans live in a second-hand world of
meanings.Humanshavenodirectaccesstoreality.Realityasitisknown 123
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is mediated by symbolic representations, by narrative texts, cinematic and televisual structures which stand between the person and the so- called real world. In critically reading these texts, cultural sudies scholars radicallysubverttherealistsociologicalagenda,fortherealworldisno
longer the referent for analysis.
Lived experience is a discursive category (see Gubrium and Holstein,
1997: 101). It does not reference something unyieldmg and concrete in the so-called real world. Ethnographies of group life are n o w directed to this world of televisual and cinematic narrativity, and its place in the dreams, fantasies and interactions of everyday people. The standard sociologicaltransmission model which moves from structure, to culture, to individuals and lived experience, is n o longer viable.
Tosummarize Reversingthetables,littleofpositivevaluehasfollowed
from the incursions of standard American sociology into the domains of
cultural studies. More often than not, sociological poachers simplify
complex terms, arguments, and meanings. This allows them to create caricatures of canonical CS work, as in Schudson’s criticisms of Haraway,
and Lamont’s empirical prescriptions for CS researchers. The textbook, functionalist, materialist, and empirical, middle-range theory socio- logical approaches to culture and its study have very little to offer culturalstudies.Aparadoxmustbenoted.Carey(1997b:8)observesthat his version of American cultural studies arose in critical response to
behaviorism, positivism and Parsonian, functional sociology. Not suprisingly, the major resistances to CS in America come from these selfsame sources.
Cultural studies in America
Theforegoingobservationsreferencethemultiplediscursivespacesnow occupied by cultural studies in America. I turn n o w to a performance- based, cultural studies approach to the media and everyday life, and to those narratives and stories people tell one another as they attempt to makesense oftheexistentialturningpointsintheirlives.
Modifying Richard Johnson (1986/7, 1997), this perspective is defined by the intersection of three interrelated processes: the production,
distribution, consumption and exchange of media texts as commodities; the critical analysis of these texts and commodities, their meanings and the practices that surround them; and ethnographies of communication practices, including the study of lived cultures and the lived, existential
experienceswhichare shapedbythesetextsandtheirmeanings.
Narrative sites and the textual study of meaning
124 Interpretive attention is first directed to the political economy of
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narrative sites and the information technologies (ITs) connected to these sites. The researcher locates and examines those intersecting places and sitesinsocietywherenarrative,existentialtalesare produced,distributed and consumed. In these sites various narrative tales are sought, tales of murder, rape, incest, alcoholism, identity formation, drug addiction, familyviolence,terrorism,mass famine,genocide,accidentaldeaths,cult murders, AIDS-related deaths. The sites and narratives are connected to the media, and information technologies, news groups on the Internet, Hollywood and mainstream cinema, television, mass market magazines, the national, regional and local press (New York Times, USA Today), comic books, fanzines, advertisements.
The textual analysis of these meanings moves outward from the understanding that this second-hand world is filled with cultural narratives which are performed in the commercial marketplace and communicated daily through the various mass media. The electronic media and the new information technologiesturn everydaylife into a theatrical spectacle where the dramas that surround the decisive per- formances of existential crises are enacted. This creates a n e w existential ’videocy’, a language of crisis coded in electronic, media terms. This
media logic brings a victim vocabulary to the person, and simultaneously connects them to a larger media and meaning system which says ’This
could happen to anybody’.
simple formula organizes these stories of self. An attractive white
and middle class individual, blessed with positive social characteristics, is either confronted with a sudden (at times drawn-out) crisis, or problem- atic event, or seduced into a series of actions which produce a crisis. Con-
fronted with the crisis the person experiences shame, violence, illness,
disgrace or death. After a period of prolonged suffering, shame is over- come. Thepersonfindsredemptioninthecrisisthatproducedthefallin
the first place. As recovery from the crisis occurs, the person seeks out and
finds personal, popular, and scholarly systems of discourse which account forthecrisisandexplainhowrecoveryfromitcan beaccomplished.
The everyday existential world
In the everyday world existential crises are staged. These crises are
anchored in three sites, first, in the worlds of family, sexuality, and work, secondly in the everyday world itself, right outside the front door. Thirdly these crises, their resolutions and meanings are produced inside the formal and informal institutional apparatuses of the culture which take everyday, personal troubles as their subject matter. The places are
many: police stations, police cars, ambulances, emergency rooms, substance abuse centers, hotlines for rape and incest victims, the Internet, shelters for abused women, and recovery groups for all of the above.
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The media help structure these crises and their meanings. A 38-year- old male alcoholic standing outside the door to where Alcoholics
Anonymousmeetingsare held:
How to get in to one of those A.A. meetings? What do I say? I seen them in the movies. That Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober. He went to one of them. He just stood up and said he was an alcoholic. Do I have to do that? I ain’teven sure Iam one,butIdranka fifthofBlackJacklastnightandI started up agin this mornin’. I’m scared.
This is a story waiting to be heard, already partially told through the figure of Michael Keaton, himself a n actor, playing a fictional character
(Daryl), who went to a fictional AA meeting in a Hollywood film. Texts withintexts,movies,everydaylife,a man downandouton hisluck,AA,
a door into a building where meetings are held, anxiety, fear. The everyday existential world connects to the cinematic apparatus, and our drunk o n the street hopes to begin a story that will have a happy ending, like Michael Keaton’s.
And so, as we screen our dreams and our crises throughthe canvases and lenses that the cinematic and electronic society makes available to us, w e become storied versions of somebody else’s version of who w e should be.
Thenarrativehistorieswe liveare handeddownto us bythecelluloid, electronic shadows from the past. These stories instantiate crises and their resolutions. The very stuff of our souls has become a commodity. Ourchallengeistobackthatwhichwasgiven.Toseekelsewherestories and accounts which will escape, if only momentarily, the grasp of the culture machine.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers9
For the last eight years I have been working with small groups of
African-American, Asian-American and Chicano/a undergraduates at theUniversityofIllinoisinasummerresearchprogramfocusedonrace, ethnicityandtheAmericancinema.Eachsummerwecompilelistsofthe films made by white and non-white film directors, actors and actresses. We then watch a select number of these films, and the students, using Stuart Hall’s framework, write criticisms of them.
After a Mexican lunch with Gloria and Manual, in mid-September of
1994, I asked Manual, a smallish, muscular, soft-spoken, nattily dressed,
20-year-old Chicano male with coal-black hair, to go with m e to Oliver
Stone’s n e w film, Natural Born Killers. I had previously seen the film
with Allen, my step-son. Allan is medium height, also 20 years old, brown-haired,lean,andstilldeeplytannedfromhissummeronVashon
Island. On this early evening he is dressed in jeans, hiking boots, a black 126 tee-shirtwith’Crow’onthefront,aSeattleSonic’shatturnedbackwards.
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Allanandhisfriends,Matt,Mike,andBillhadseen thefilmthreetimes. They loved it. Allan and I left the film and went to dinner at the White HorseInn.Allanwas effusive.
It’s so cool. It really takes off on MTV It mocks violence. It speaks to my generation. We’ve been raised on TV The film is like a comic book, larger than life heroes. The editing was great. You know Tarantino was involved with it. Remember Reservoir Dogs? He did that. We’ve gotta go to Pulp Fiction ! And did you get the Native American sequence. Powerful. Nature. Earth. It’s a violent film that is anti-violence. I’m afraid people m my age- group will miss the meanings. He uses violence to make anti-violent points.
Werodeour bicyclesbackhome,talkingintotheearlyeveningdarkness about the film and what it meant to Allan and his friends. ’Man, he even used film noir, like in s o m e of those experimental comic books I showed you!’
Manual said he didn’t want to go to the movie.
It’s not about my people. We don’t do that kind of stuff. Now I haven’t seen it so I better be careful. Do you remember Zoot Suit and 4merican Me, those two filmsbyOlmos?Theyare aboutChicano/ahistory,aboutviolenceinour culture, those riots in Los Angeles in 1942, Chicanos in prison, gangs fighting each other.
Gloria,a speechcommunicationmajor,whoorganizedthelunch,agreed. ’I don’t like movies that are violent. I don’t want to see that movie. I didn’t like Zoot Suit.’ A petite, bronze-skinned junior, shoulder-length blackhair,she’sseen enoughviolence.
The three of us had just finished lunch at the Land of Mexico, a favoriterestaurantforChicano/astudentsintown. Itisone blockdown the street from the White Horse Inn. The two eating places could be in different countries. As w e walked back to campus Manual talked about buying a zoot suit to wear when he drives his reconditioned 1952 Thunderbirdaroundtown. Gloria,a sly,gentlegrinon herface,teased him about his suit and his car. ’Man, its too classy for you!’
Coors Corporation designated the 1980s as the ’Decade of the Hispanic’(Fregoso,1993:22).ZootSuitwas one ofa seriesof’gangfilms’ financed by Coors (BoulevardNights, Defiance, walk Proud). These films
were criticizedbytheLosAngelesChicano/acollegestudentcommunity. Boycotts were organized and the films failed at the box office. Holly- wood’s attempt to break into the ’Hispanic market’ was not a success (Fregoso, 1993: 23-4).
Manualdiscoveredthefilminthesummer of1994andhelovedit.
Ittellsmyculture’shistory.Thishistoryisnotm thehistorybooks.Ididnot
learn about the Zoot Suit
riots in high school. My father never told me, but
he does have
a zoot suit. That’s why I want one. To be part of my culture’s 127
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history.Iwanttowriteaboutthishistoryso mypeopledon’tforgetwherewe came from. It’s like what Olmos does m American Me. He challenges our
community to get beyond violence.
A string of names: Oliver Stone, Luis Valdez, Edward James Olmos,
Allan, Gloria, Manual. Three movies: Natural Born Killers, Zoot Suit,
American Me. Snippets from three conversations, three readings of Stone’snewmovie.AshortdiscussionofZootSuitandAmericanMe.Two key speakers, Allan and Manual.
My conversation with Allan occurred two weeks before I had lunch with Gloria and Manual. But here I co-mingle these representations, contrasting the admiration Allan and I shared for Stone’s film, to Manual
(and Gloria’s) negative opinions of the movie. Manual based his rejection o n the meanings he had generated in his o w n interactions with Zoot Suit
and American Me. These films placed him in his ethmc group which has itsownhistoryofviolence,anditsculturalhistoryintheUnitedStates. HisresearchonZootSuittookhimtoElPaso,Texas,wheremembersof his family might have first settled when they left Mexico. He learned that the gangs described in flmerican Me had started in El Paso, and that the Mexican men who wore zoot suits in Los Angles in the 1940s be- longed to gangs that had started in El Paso. The violence Olmos described in American Me could be hypotheticallylocated in his family’stree.
Manual did not know that the Coors Corporation had designated the 1980s as the decade of the Hispanic. He did not know that Chicana/os students in Los Angeles rejected Zoot Suit when it first appeared. He discovered the film in the summer of 1994 and found a new place for himself in a previously unavailable cultural history and with his o w n self-consciously formulated ethnic identity. This history intersects with his reading of Stone’s movie, that is his decision not to see the film.
Allan is not part of Manual’s cultural and ethnic history. He
approaches the film from the standpoint of his place in a masculine, white youth culture which fights with the label Generation X. This is a culture that is increasingly hostile to the media, yet drawn to cultural myths that honor courage, strength, Eastern religion, mythology, nature and self-reflection. Allan’s interpretation connects back to Fantasy Realm, the comic book store where he works, and his circle of friends who study film. Stone’s film, for Allan and his friends, reflectively attacks the values they don’t like about the mass media and American culture. But the film, in their subversive reading, celebrates the importance of nature, the environment, and Native American culture. These are important values to them.
I cannot describe all of the meanings that give significance to this moment when Manual connects Stone’s film to Zoot Suit and American Me. We had just eaten at a restaurant where he ordered in his native
128 language,andfreelyconversedinthislanguagewiththefriendshemet
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there. He and Gloria chatted back and forth in Spanish, and I took in the Mexican murals on the walls. It was no accident that we ate at Land of Mexico. He wanted to treat me to an ’authentic’ Mexican meal. This is a familyrestaurant. The owners could have come from the Mexican town which is home for Manual’s family. Thus a cultural continuity exists for him,hehastakenmetoMexicoforlunch.AswediscussStone’sfilm,on the way back to campus, this cultural experience hangs in the air over our interaction.
Mickey and Mallory, Manual, Gloria and Allan
Multiple meanings of Stone’s film, two distinct systems of cultural criticism. Allan uses Stone’s film and the violence of Mickey and Mallory to critically read the hyperreal, mass-mediated society w e all inhabit. Allan deplores the violence Stone mocks. Stone lets him get outside of andon topofthiscultureandsee itina wayhehadnot seen itbefore.
The film becomes a minor epiphany, a media event in his circle of friends. From the film they write their o w n stories of what Mickey and Mallory, Stone, and Tarantino, m e a n to them. In the natural scenes of
Natural Born Killers, they find a peaceful starting point for the on-going construction and revision of their o w n cultural identities.
Stone’s film also functions as a minor media epiphany for Gloria and Manual. They too abhor violence. They use Stone’s film, and their decision not to see it as a way of positioning themselves against the selfsame culture that Allan and his friends criticize. They use Stone’s senseless killing as an occasion for criticizing the personal and social violence that is everywhere present in their cultural history. Allan and his friends do the same, just different cultural histories.
Three young people reading American media culture from the inside out. Each connecting their biographies and cultural histories to an epiphanal media text, and to an information technology, mainstream
Hollywood cinema. Each passing judgement on a moment in everyday cultural life. In these judgements Gloria, Manual, and Allan solidify
their o w n self-understandings. These understandings circulate in their talk, their interactions and the stories they tell themselves and their
friends. And here, at the everyday level, cultural criticism operates. And so Allan, Gloria and Manual struggle to define their lives, within and against these media texts. Here at the end, which is only the place for a new beginning, each of our speakers find their lives connecting and intersecting with media texts and information technologies which offer stories to be fitted to their lives.
These are the discourses critical interpretive cultural studies opens up
for discussion. While these readings would surely be disallowed by Schudson and Lamont, here, if w e listen, the everyday, existential (and electronic) world is speaking its mind. 129
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A performance-based cultural studies
But here at the end, a post-pragmatist’s project in the contemporary period confronts an epistemological crisis. Firm claims about truth,
knowledge, consequences, causes and effects can no longer be made. A new epistemological framework is sought, a pragmatism fitted to the globalizing cyberspaces of the cinematic, television age.
Cultural studies interrogates the processes that perform culture and bring it alive in the worlds of interacting individuals (Turner and Bruner,
1986). The recent performance turn in ethnography is becoming central to the CS project (Bruner, 1986; Conquergood, 1991; Denzin 1997). Performance texts turn epiphanic tales of suffering, loss, pain and victory into performances which have the potential of moving audiences to action.
In the moment of performance, these texts have the possibility of
overcoming the biases of a n ocular, visual epistemology. They undo the
voyeuristic, gazing eye of the ethnographer, bringing audiences and performers into a jointly felt and shared field of experience. These works unsettle the writer’s place in the text, freeing the text and the writer to become interactional productions.
The performance text is perhaps the most strategic way for CS to
recover lived experience. The performed text is a lived experience, and this in two senses. The performance doubles back on the experiences
previously represented in the ethnographer’s text. It then represents those experiences as embodied performance to the audience. It thus
privileges experience, the evocative moment when another’s experiences come alivefortheself.
Return to the words of Allan, Gloria and Manual. Each of these speakers presented a reading of a cultural text, Stone’s movie. In their words, gestures, and actions, each of them offered, through a
performance,withmeasco-performerandaudience,theirinterpretation of Natural Born Killers. I, in turn, have attempted to bring a version of these performance texts into this text, allowing you as reader to bear witness to these moral meanings.
And, as Conquergood reminds us, ethnographic stagings, as per- formances are always ’enmeshed in moral matters... [they] enact a moral
stance’ (1985: 2, 4), asking the audience to take a stand on the
performance and its meanings. In these productions, the performer becomes a cultural critic (Bowman, 1988: 4). If culture is an on-going
performance, then performers like Allan, Gloria, and Manual critically bring the spaces, meanings, ambiguities and contradictions of culture alive in their performances. The performed text, like Victor Turner’s (1986: 25) liminal space, is a new, but old border for CS to cross (see Diawara, 1996: 306). Of course this is the kind of border Manual and
130 Gloriacrosseveryday.
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In conclusion: the calling of cultural studies
Back to the beginning, hemmed in from all sides, in America cultural studiesfacessomeofitsgreatestthreatsfromthedisciplinesofsociology
and anthropology (see Dominquez, 1996; Gray, 1996). Critics like LamontandSchudsontreatCSas ifitwere an unrulyandundisciplined
illegitimate child. It has faulty theoretical assumptions, a dubious
scientific method, and offers very little of value to existing scholarly
fields of inquiry. If this child wishes to stay around and become part of
the academic family, it must be properly disciplined, trained in the
methods and theories of standard, conventional, empirical sociology. As I
have argued, the appeal of these charges for the sociological critic are
transparent.IfCSisnotscholarship,thenithasno placeintheacademy. But of course CS is a discursive category, its meanings are established
in and through rhetorical and material practices. Nonetheless, the sine qua non of CS is irrefutable, and it cannot be diminished through rhetorical maneuvers. A core belief defines the project, the under- standing that those in the human disciplines have a commitment and a
responsibility to record and analyze, and register the meanings of ’the great events of our time for the benefit of future generations’ (Nelson
and Gaonkar, 1996: 2).
is the calling of cultural studies, an understanding that cuts
across disciplines and fields of study. This is a calling that will not be hemmed in, diminished, or re-contained by the standard forces of conventional sociology. And paradoxically, in this moment of refusal lies
a kernel of hope for sociology. Surely C. Wright Mills’s sociological imagination helps define the critical nature of this sprawling
transnational project called cultural studies; surely this project can reinvigorate that branch of sociology committed to Mills’s vision.
  1. I borrow part of my title from Long (1997).
  2. Elsewhere (Denzin, 1989: 17) I distinguish four types of epiphanies, or
    turningpointmoments inpeople’slives:themajor(anexperienceshatters a life), cumulative (a series of events build up to a crisis), minor (underlying problemsare revealed in a small event),and relived (aperson relives a
    major, turning point moment).
  3. ForGrossberg(1997a:248-61)thesepractices,or interpretiveprinciples
    involve a self-reflexive, interdisciplinary project which always detours through theory. This version of CS maintains a commitment to political
    praxis and radical contextualization, including anti-reductionist, anti-
    essentialist ontologies.
  4. As indicated, the interpretive interactionist version of CS joins the concerns
    justoutlinedinthetextwithan existentialconcern forthosemoments,
  5. An analogy may help. In discourse analysis ’no utterance is representative 131
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of other utterances, though it shares structural features with them; a discourse analyst studies utterances in order to understand how the potentialofthelinguisticsystemcan beactivatedwhenitintersectsatits moment ofuse witha socialsystem’(Fiske,1994: 195).
  1. Here the analyst guards against what Meaghan Morris (1990) calls the banality in cultural studies, a certain tendency which allows the researcher to produce circular subversive readings of any and all cultural texts.
  2. Portions of the following two paragraphs draw from Denzin (1992: 76-7).
  3. This is so, he contends, because CS exhibits the self-isolating characteristics of a social movement, like psychoanalysis did in earlier decades. This allows
    him to argue in advance that any CS disagreements with his criticisms will
    exhibit the defense mechanism called resistance (Schudson, 1997a: 55).
  4. Portions of the following section draws from Denzin (1995b: 257-62).
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