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Neil Smelser Bibliography Maker


Neil Smelser passed away on Monday, October 2, at the age of 87. He was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he came to Berkeley in 1958 and retired in 1994. During that time he occupied that very rare and prestigious position of University Professor. He was the author of many classic treatments in comparative history, collective behavior, economic sociology, higher education and psychoanalysis. Legions of students will remember his wise teaching and solicitous mentoring and will mourn his passing.

Contributions to the Neil J. Smelser Graduate Student Support Fund can be sent to Michael Schneider, Department of Sociology, 410 Barrows Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720. Or you can contribute online via this link:https://give.berkeley.edu/egiving/index.cfm?fund=FW606300



From Suava Zbierski-Salameh. I have been reading all these poignant tributes to Neil Smelser, thinking that as much as I wanted to pay my own respects, doubting I had anything new to add to the reflections on his exceptional qualities as a scholar, a mentor, and most of all, as a human being. These were also my memories of him as my mentor and the chair of my Qualifying Exam.

Yet, I finally decided to add here a few comments, because all the attributes others wrote about, affected me in a different way.  I was accepted to the Graduate Program in 1979, as the only foreign student in my cohort, who happened to come from behind the Iron Curtain, from the University of Poznan, in Western Poland. I came to the US not fully a year prior to the acceptance to the Berkeley Program, shortly before the dawn of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Quite a novice in the US., the welcoming sessions at the Berkeley department for the upcoming class, inadvertently, were revealing another layer of my “uniqueness“ — in contrast to my peers coming from the Ivy League Universities, I had to introduce myself as a graduate of the University of Poznan!

My first interaction with Neil Smelser compounded my axiety. The very first course I signed out for was with him. I arrived far earlier for the first class to familiarize myself with the building. While nervously waiting for my first real encounter with the famed  Berkeley Sociology—I was dreaming about during my undergraduate years in Poland—I spotted a man, casually dressed in a T-shirt, wearing a helmet, with a bike, walking towards the room where I stood. I assumed he was a maintainance person, checking the classroom before the lecture, so I asked, if I was at a correct room for a course with Prof Neil Smelser.  Wiping his sweaty forehead, he politely confirmed, asked me if I was planning to take the course, and then, with a big smile, he introduced himself:” I am Neil- welcome!”

During this seemingly simple and cordial exchange, I realized I was not just a student from another country, but a system divide was between us.  This divide can be summarized by the content of the word “to educate” in Polish (nauczać) = “to bestow knowledge”. Conversely, to acquire education in Poland  then, was to become an effective receptor of this knowledge, verified by definitive measures— passing mostly oral exams. In the country that was a  part of the socialist block, with its proclaimed egalitarianism, relations between faculty and students could not be more stratified. To address a professor, (who would dress formally), by his appropriate and full title, at every exchange, was to reinforce daily, the hierarchical structure within the academic world. This instantly was putting a student in a docile position of a follower, discouraging debate or discussion. Such educational world was an extension of a broader political system. Ironically, Neil Smelser’s great informality in dress and demeanor, as much as made me feel welcomed, confused me, running counter to my understanding of what distinguished professor should look like, and how the interaction between professor and student should be.

The content and the dynamics of my first course further challenged my assumptions.  (As I learned later, I was privileged to participate in what was even for the Berkeley Sociology department rather a unique course). The course was co-taught by Neil Smelser and Michael Burawoy and  focused on the significance of the Industrial Revolution for sociology. It was also a forum for heated debates between the department’s senior and junior Faculty members, and my future chairs of the Qualifying Exam and my dissertation, respectively; The Professors did alternate in the roles of a presenter and a discussant; their fierce debates, often also prompted long commentaries by my fellow students in the course. The course dynamics could not be further from the dynamics I was accustomed to in Poznan. It  was an exquisite presentation of distinct theoretical perspectives and an equality between debating participants. I was mesmerized and terrified by these amazing exchanges, but one particular course requirement was striking biggest terror in my heart— writing my own arguments on the successive  weeks’ extensive readings and on the classroom debates.  Beyond the difficulty of articulating a nuanced argument in not-my-native language, I struggled with a more fundamental, internalized obstacle - my believe that I am not in a position, as a beginning student, to challenge the published authors, or the  course’s Professors.

Neil Smelser always wrote elaborate comments on my assignments, not only giving me a detailed input on the structure of my answers, but with his constructive and encouraging engagements with the content of my essays, he was slowly erasing my apprehension, validating in small, yet definitive steps my intellectual voice. He could not have been more generous as the Chair in his assessment of my performance at the Qualifying Exam. I cherish it to this day. His mentorship was a powerful motivator for me to re-entered the department a few years later, having two children. He was supportive of me as a student and a mother, which, -particularly a couple of decades ago-presented a challenging combination for both faculty and for me.  He wrote very strong recommendation letters in my job search. I saw him a few years ago at a conference, decades after completing my PhD, and I was touched that he recognized me and greeted me warmly. Prof. Neil Smelser played an extraordinary role in my life —as a great human being and a brilliant scholar who patiently help me bridge the vast divide between Poznan and Berkeley —an ultimate educator to me - who inspired his students to seek new approaches instead of preserving the established ones.

From Jualynne (Norris) Dodson. I hesitated to send my comments about Neil Smelser because I felt others had captured my thoughts.  However, I’m not sure of the anyone has expressed specifics of my experiences at Berkeley. When I entered graduate school in sociology, the department had a 100% attrition rate for African American women.  I’m not sure the faculty had seen as many Black graduate students as were there when I arrived.  Neil Smelser was my “theory” professor for the first year and, though I only think our presence was new to him, my experience was with a gentle, quiet-spoken, well organized, and superiorly competent professor. I learned/acquired more ‘sociology’ with Smelser than I had ever appreciated, and much of that knowledge was not consciously acquired.  When I took an ‘oral comprehensive exam’ with Smelser, held by the way at his home, the question that continues to stand-out was: “Discuss the latent and manifest function of earrings.” I will always remember Neil Smelser though I did not work closely with him and think I wish I had.

From Michelle Williams. It was with deep sadness I learned of Neil’s passing.  But I’ve loved reading all the tributes to Neil as it’s made me realize that the special relationship I had with Neil was shared among many people across generations and around the world.  I think I was his last student, well not really his student, but the last student he mentored. He had already retired when I entered graduate school at Berkeley, but I had met him in my last year as an undergraduate.  Despite not ever having taken a class with him or having him as a supervisor, his influence on me was deep and varied.  He hired me as his research assistant throughout graduate school, which meant that I had the good fortune of seeing him (and very often Sharin) at least once a month for almost ten years.  Over this time, he became an incredibly important sounding board, sympathetic and generous ear, and most of all a friend.  He always engaged with such generosity and wisdom (which many people have mentioned), having a way to put things into perspective without making one feel belittled.  He would ask probing questions that made me think differently and often deepen my analysis, and he always gave such good advice!  On one occasion, when we were working on a project and Neil was having to deal with an especially difficult (and nasty) author, I asked him if his psychoanalytic training helped understand people better. He said ‘No, it has made me understand myself better’, which allowed him to not react emotionally to others.  I was always struck by his interpersonal skills and genuine interest in people’s well-being. He enjoyed the small things in life and always loved hearing from and learning about former students, which he would share proudly.  Since graduating in 2005, Neil and I kept in touch periodically. He never lost his kind and generous interest in developments in my life and engagements in the world. I will miss him deeply and his passing is a loss to many of us, but his legacy clearly lives on!  Hambe Kahle Neil! Go well Neil!

From Yiannis Gabriel.  With deep sadness, I learnt of the death of sociologist Neil Smelser. Neil was the chair of my doctoral committee and a good friend. He was a true scholar, a brilliant teacher and great colleague. His death leaves all of us who knew him and worked with him much poorer.

I first met Neil in October 1974 on my very first day at Berkeley. Freshly arrived from London and temporarily staying at the Berkeley YMCA, I was pleased to find an invitation for a reception at Neil's house. At the time, Neil was the Head of the Sociology Department and his hospitality was as boundless as his humility, informality and his interest in the ideas that prospective students were bringing to Berkeley. I was pleased to meet an animated group of doctoral students, some of whom were seasoned veterans keen to meet the new talent on arrival, others, like me, had just arrived and were trying to find their feet on the ground. By the end of the evening I had made several acquaintances and friendships; I had had several offers of accommodation which meant that I only stayed at the Y for a couple of nights. 

I subsequently got to know Neil very well, first as his teaching assistant and later as his doctoral student. In spite of being Head of the Department, Neil did not scorn teaching first year undergraduates and I supported him in a couple of the courses he taught. One has stayed firmly in my mind - having the rather dry title "Evaluation of evidence", it involved a close reading of half a dozen key sociological texts, each demonstrating the uses of a different type of empirical material. Neil used Durkheim's Suicide to show how even the driest statistical material can inspire dazzling social theory; he used George Rude to demonstrate how police records from a couple of centuries earlier could be used to develop a new theory of crowd behaviour; he used Schachter and Zimbardo to show that even psychological experiments could be used in imaginative ways to develop new theories. 

I gradually became aware of Neil phenomenal breadth and depth of scholarship. His knowledge of social theory was dazzling - he knew and understood even theories that he did not particularly embrace or like. For example, I think that he knew Marxism better than many of the seasoned Marxists I befriended in Berkeley. His understanding of psychoanalysis was supreme and was the product of both theoretical and practical engagement. I believe that Neil was the first non-medically trained psychoanalyst to be certified in the state of California, something that he once mentioned casually as he was never one to blow his trumpet. 

Neil was not by temperament a critic and was open about his dislike of 'shrill' voices. He was, however, able to listen and he used his sociological insights to understand arguments and views with which he disagreed. He was by nature a peace-maker and a bridge-builder. If I had to single out two of Neil's exceptional qualities as an academic they would have to be his teaching brilliance and his ability to synthesize large volumes of literature, distilling the essence and identifying connections across different traditions. Smelser was also capable of dazzlingly original insights. If I had to point out one, I would forfeit many of his well-known and highly cited works for a hidden gem in which he anticipates so much of the work of Ritzer and Sennett in his analysis of the 'myth of the good life in California'. This deserves to be a classic, even though, like so many of his best works, it is not so easy to find (Smelser, N. J. (1984). "Collective myths and fantasies: The myth of the good life in California." In J. Rabow, G. M. Platt, & M. S. Goldman (Eds.), Advances in Psychoanalytic Sociology. Malabar, Florida: Krieger).

Neil had a remarkable number of doctoral students, many of whom went on to have very successful academic careers themselves. What is more remarkable is how diverse the interests of those who earned their doctorates under his supervision. Looking at the list of contributors to the Festschrift published in Neil's honour Self, social structure and beliefs (University of California Press 2004) and edited by his students Jeff Alexander, Gary T. Marx and Christine L. Williams, I see the names  of Piotr Stompka, Arlie Hochschild, Nancy Chodorow, Robert Wuthrow, Burton R. Clark and several others including mine whose interests range far and wide and none of whom would be pigeon-holed as a 'Smelser-clone'. This could hardly be said of many scholars today.

I met Neil regularly, earlier during his visits to England which he really loved (his own PhD had been on the dramatic social changes in the cotton industry during the English industrial revolution), and later during my own bi-annual visits to Berkeley. I last saw him in the summer of 2015. I will conclude this posting with an account of my meeting Neil, as I recorded it in a message to a close friend:

"My day yesterday started with a wonderful conversation with old Smelser, who at 85 is aging gracefully both physically and mentally. We had a 90 minute chat with no reference to health issues and touching on many of the interests that have brought us together in the past – the state of sociology today, the changes in the Berkeley sociology department, some nostalgic memories of the past, the importance of the teacher (he was a great teacher and continues to teach a course at 85!) It is always a pleasure to meet him, although now accompanied with a little anxiety lest he has reached the point physically or mentally when he may be too far gone. He is still interested in ideas and was keen to know my views on Greece ... It is curious that when he was my supervisor, I didn’t see him that often, maybe half a dozen times in all, since much of my thesis was written while living in England. But we have had a very warm relation over the years which has endured ..."

Earlier this year, I emailed Neil hoping to meet him during a visit to Berkeley. Unusually for him, there was no answer. I knew ... Neil will be greatly missed.

From Federico D'Agostino. I like to join the family of the students of Neil Smelser who was my teacher in Berkeley.He will be always in my memory up to the last days of my life with feelings of love, gratitude and recognition of  his great generosity, his support, his friendship during my work for Ph.D . Smelser has been a giant in many areas of sociological research,but at the same time he has been a humble scholar to the point of perceiving him like a companion  of our  sociological adventure.Once I invited him to the Univ. of Naples where I was teaching, but he prefered to come to my home town in the South of Italy where the Major gave to him the honorary citizenship  that he liked to show on his desk in Berkeley.I like to think that he will be part of my family and our common friends in the next life to whom I will be in communion with my prayers. All my sympathy to his wife.

From Steven Millner. Neil Smelser's essence has been captured very accurately by many...He was both a scholar and a teacher's teacher...I too marveled at his devotion to classroom duties and his deep knowledge of this society's operations...but his willingness to extend those qualities to all...including those of us...from America's underside...students of color coming in via affirmative action, in the early 1970s were treated in Smelser's world with the same graciousness as well as prodding scrutiny as all his students. Given the sometimes harsh climate of those times I found this attribute of his...simply wonderful. He was willing to listen to our sometimes angry or infantile rants...before providing thoughtful reminders of points of view or readings we hadn't...bothered to consider...that took a certain courage of spirit by him...that too should also remain appreciated. It is by me,

From Stephen Warner. I was greatly saddened to learn of Neil Smelser’s death. He had a huge impact on my career and on my life, from 1962 on. As I’m sure was true for countless students, he instilled confidence in me, opened doors for me, went to bat for me, counseled me in times of distress, and above all, inspired me as a model of what a professor should be. He was always well-prepared for class, spoke with open-minded conviction, illuminated kernels of truth in flawed theories, challenged students to stretch themselves, gave timely and thoughtful feedback, conveyed respect and sensitivity in one-on-one consultations, and seemed unflappable in public. Although other contributors to this book of remembrances knew him better than I did (I was not comfortable calling him by his first name until he retired from Berkeley), he continued to inspire me well after his retirement (in his writings on the odyssey experience, for example). I will always be in his debt, conscious of the obligation to pay it forward.

From Jay Demerath. Sorry to be so tardy in responding to Neil's passing. The two of us arrived in Berkeley from Harvard in the same year in 1958..He came as  star professor and I was just a first year graduate student. Of course, he remained a star and I struggled to the degree in part with his help. I still remember his first question in my doctoral oral exam  "Define a tautology and illustrate its use among sociological theorists?" Somehow I recovered and we remained friends ever since. He will be greatly missed even by those who never knew him personally.

From Debra David. I echo others’ words of deep appreciation for Neil Smelser. As chair of my dissertation committee, he supported my forays into fields beyond traditional sociology – psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and philosophy. My career took me even further along interdisciplinary pathways, influenced in part by his openness and imagination. His thoughtfulness and kindness continued beyond my years at Berkeley, as he wrote several excellent letters of recommendation. It was privilege to have worked with him.

From Colin Samson.  Like the others who have contributed here, I had very positive experiences with Neil. He  was my main dissertation supervisor, and in that role he was always encouraging. He seemed to intuitively understand the substance and contexts of my intellectual concerns, and gave both creative and practical advice throughout the PhD process. At each meeting, I would receive a sheet of clearly articulated observations on my work, and these were invaluable as I exchanged ideas with him and then went on to edit and refine my dissertation. 

Neil had a worldliness about him that allowed me, like Debra, to cross into other disciplines to bring different kinds of insights to my work. This was refreshing, as at the time some other faculty were resolutely mono-disciplinary and seemed to want to confine sociology to as narrow a remit as possible. 

Above all, Neil was charitable and generous. He wrote me the recommendation letter that got me my job now of 27 years. My only regret is that I did not have continuous contact with Neil after my graduation...but I am eternally grateful to him.

From Susan Bettelheim Garfin. Where would I have been without Neil Smelser as my PhD advisor and mentor?  His ideas shaped my view of the world. His courses prepared me for those I taught in my academic career. His ease with all of us who were his students was remarkable.  I remember Neil’s UC retirement party when so many of us came to honor him and so many wrote testimonials to his powerful, positive influence on our careers.  I remember Neil’s willingness to serve as outside evaluator for my department’s WASC accreditation review and his receptiveness to hearing students express their views, positive and negative of our major and our courses.  After Neil left our campus (Sonoma State), students couldn’t stop talking about the wonderful experience they’d had with one of their academic heroes.  Thank you, Neil, for all you gave to our discipline and for all you gave to us, your students.  You are remembered and you are missed.

From Armand Mauss. Let me add a word of appreciation for Neil to all the others that have been offered here (and no doubt will continue to come in). I started my doctoral work in 1958 while already supporting a family with my employment as a public school teacher. Accordingly, I had to drop in and out of the program as my time and other circumstances might permit. I finally finished all my course work and exams in 1967 but didn't finish the dissertation and degree until 1970. I worked mainly with Charlie Glock, but Neil Smelser was only slightly less crucial to my success, both as a professor and as Dean of the Graduate School. In both of those roles, Neil did whatever he could to facilitate my progress, despite the unusual configuration of my career track. His course and his publications in collective behavior/ social movements provided the basis for one of the main preoccupations of my career as a professor at Washington State. Although I gradually abandoned the traditional functionalist theoretical framework in favor of a social constructionist one, Neil never held that against me. In fact, he put several copies of my work on library reserve for a later cohort of his students in CB/SM. That was only one of the ways that he continued to support my career even after I finished up at Berkeley. He was the epitome of the proverbial "gentleman and scholar," and I have never stopped being grateful to him.

From Faruk Birtek. Neil was St Paul to American Sociology. If our department was one of the best in the country, if not the best, it was also  in part due to Neil Smelser's presence. After Blumer, Neil smelser was one of its intellectual architects. As a person he was always most gracious, thoughtful and polite. as a teacher always most attentive to his students, no paper would come back without a well studied comment. He and Art Stinchcombe in their very different ways brought rigour to the study of sociological theory and made it into a discipline. ı personally owe them fifty years of my career,"selling my wares" in different parts of the world with success. Happy are we who experienced those glorious years of the department.

From Tom Piazza. I was in the Department the same time as Faruk — late 1960’s and 1970’s.  I also recall Neil as a pillar of the Department, a calm voice of reason in turbulent times.  Those of us who entered the Department in those years had varied expectations about what sociology could teach us about the world. Neil had something to offer all of us, and I only have fond memories of him. Even later, over the years, we would occasionally cross paths, and he was always a gracious friend and former professor.  I will truly miss him.

From Anita Weiss. Neil had a great impact on my professional career in demonstrating how important it is to truly care about students. He was not on my dissertation committee, and I only took one course with him at Berkeley. However, while I was a graduate student and in the many years following, whenever we met at professional meetings and conferences, he would always check in with me, inquire how things were going, asking specific questions about past and present research. The feeling of empowerment I took away from these interactions has influenced me greatly, and I try to have the same kind of impact on my students. HIs influence lives on!

From Ann Neel. My first encounter with Neil J. Smelser was in 1960. I had entered UC Berkeley in the fall of 1959 as a graduate student in the School of Social Welfare but at the time found their program too little sociological and too Freudian.  Checking out the Sociology department as an alternative, I visited one of their classes and was bowled over by what I experienced as the intense, “rapid-fire” delivery of a brilliant 30 year old professor Neil Smelser.   Here was intellectual engagement; here was substance; here was the analysis I craved.   So I dropped out of Social Welfare without regret. 

In order to be accepted in the graduate program in Sociology I needed to compete a full major which included Smelser’s famous undergraduate theory course.  I still have its notes, well over 50 years later.   But l wanted the full dose.  So I took Smelser’s graduate courses on Social Theory, Social Change, and Collective Behavior; he was the principal advisor of my Master’s thesis, and on my Orals committee for the Ph.D., (though my dissertation regarding internal colonialism was under Robert Blauner).

I can give no higher praise than to say that Smelser taught me how to think – systematically and creatively.  He was a consummate scholar and professor, besides being a mensch.  Gary T. Marx put it in his introduction to Mastering Ambivalence…on Smelser, "Those of us privileged to have been Neil's students and colleagues have been doubly blessed… We have benefited from his knowledge and intellect as expressed in his writings and lectures, from his incisive, but diplomatic and supportive, criticism of our work, and from his mentoring and guidance in how to be in the academic world."

From Nancy Chodorow. First of all, I am so sad.  Neil Smelser was a mentor, a friend, a constant and committed supporter.  He was unproblematically kind.  He also represented for me a sustained professional ethic, one to which I aspired but did not attain.  I draw on our professional commonality beyond sociology -- psychoanalysis -- to hypothesize that Neil was both born with and formed, through his early years in his family, generosity and integrity, and that he had a "good analysis," so he didn't impose his conflicts and ambivalence (however much he wrote professionally about these topics) on his students and younger colleagues.

I heard from Neil long before I met him.  A second year graduate student at Brandeis, I wrote a paper on Parsons' theory of internalization (the psychoanalysis-sociology bridge).  When asked by his graduate student Jeff Alexander whether Neil would read my paper, he readily agreed, and he gave me extensive written comments.  Here was a leading Parsonsian sociologist interested in the psyche, not to mention a world famous sociologist in one of the leading departments in the country, willing to read a paper by an unknown student from a non-mainstream department!  And who continued to foster me and to model our mutual psychoanalytic sociology commitments. 

I do not know when I met Neil after I moved to California in 1974, but I certainly knew him by the late 1970s, well before I moved to the Berkeley Sociology Department in 1986 (I am sure that my appointment was also largely facilitated by Neil, who would never reveal such specifics).  What I do know is that although I knew him only slightly, his support was unproblematic and unstinting.  When I submitted The Reproduction of Mothering to UC Press, Neil's enthusiasm carried the day, and, ever-interested in colleagueship and mentoring, this was not an anonymous review: Neil wanted me to know that he was there, and available for conversation and support.  Neil's ethics pervaded his professional work.

So, there's the commonality of interest.  Neil was the first sociologist to undertake full psychoanalytic training, to do clinical work, and he was entirely and enthusiastically supportive when I decided to follow that route.  Why, he asked, do our work if we do not follow our passions?  Later, I could watch and read as Neil published an entire book on The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis and gave an ASA plenary entitled "Depth Psychology and the Social Order," as he collaborated and taught with renowned psychoanalyst Bob Wallerstein.

Freud wrote many works that expressed his interest in the social and his sense that psychoanalysis could give us sociological understanding and vice versa.  Yet, for those of us who cut our teeth in the Harvard Soc Rel Department, in Neil's case as a Parsons student, it is certainly the concept of internalization, as much as the great Freudian sociological works, that makes the most everyday link to psychoanalysis.  Here, Freud's 1917 paper, "Mourning and Melancholia," is key.  Freud says that when we lose someone, we call up, one by one, memories of that person, we attend to them more intensively, and then we relinquish the person, while making the memories our own, perhaps helping to form and reshape us.  As I have been thinking of Neil, I picture his kindness, his smile, his unproblematic support, his deep integrity as a scholar, a mentor, an administrator, an ethical human being -- and I picture our now long ago yearly lunches at the Faculty Club, where we ate BLTs, or hamburgers, or tuna sandwiches, and drank (as I remember) iced tea, or lemonade, or coke.  And we talked.  And talked.

From Alessandro Ferrara. Deeply saddened by the news of Neil Smelser's passing, memories of my hours spent in conversation with him in Barrows Hall come to my mind. The enfant-prodige who already in his twenties co-authored a classic with Parsons and later left a mark on so many fields of sociology, the prominent academic, the explorer of cross-disciplinary boundaries deep down was a marvelous, warm and supportive mentor. I was a teaching assistant for his “methods” class in the early 1980's and later had him as chair of my dissertation committee in 1984. My topic – Rousseau as the inventor of the idea that self-identity can be a source of moral and political normativity and that an identity's potential for playing such a role rests on its capacity for being authentic – was not exactly his cup of tea. Yet he perfectly grasped what I was trying to do, in response to a wave of then dominant neoconservative cultural criticism. Neil promptly read and generously commented on the chapters that I would submit to him,  always offered encouragement, recognition of my efforts, constructive criticism, animated by an exemplary “generativity” – the disinterested interest for the unfolding of the creative effort of someone else. Neil's genuine supportiveness, broadness of interests and unpretentious style of supervision struck a deep chord in me. Over the years, my career developed in Europe and, after a while, in political philosophy. Our contacts became more sporadic, but the legacy of his way of inhabiting the intellectual and academic world remained an unequalled  role-model for me. I'm forever grateful to him and trust he will be missed by everyone as one of the greatest sociologists of his generation.

From Gary T. Marx. When learning of the unexpected death of a mentor, words of sorrow can never adequately communicate the sense of loss. But written memories can offer trace elements of the specialness and love the person inspired. These remarks are offered in that spirit and in the good fortune to have had Neil as a teacher and friend for 57 years.

If we are among the very fortunate, sometime in life we are inspired and gently guided by a person of extraordinary insight, character, competence and kindness. Neil Smelser was such a person for legions of students and colleagues in higher education. His unselfish dedication to individuals and hallowed institutions set the bar as high, and at times it seemed even higher, than was humanely possible.

Such persons by their deeds and the simple act of being, help others find their own path, uplift the human spirit and create and sustain our highest civilizational ideals. While I profited intellectually from other mentors, their lessons were largely practical, professional and impersonal. Not so with Neil, who was a role model both personally and professionally.

Neil was the engineer on a very long train whose antecedents are deep in Greek history. The train continually evolves with each new crop of engineers. Georg Simmel has written of the "irredeemable gratitude" felt toward the gift giver. This applies to what one feels toward the mentor who offers his or her intellectually and morally powerful sensibilities and insights to guide a career and a life.

Awareness that such gifts cannot be directly reciprocated, deepens the indebtedness. Yet reciprocation is possible by doing for our students (whether those in the class room or those reached through writing) what Neil did with such skill and grace --passing on the values, sentiments, style, method, substance and even love of what he was given, enhanced by his own experiences and creativity. The giver is paid back in knowing that what he or she offers is a gift that keeps on giving, as links are added to the chain.

Wordsworth tells us that we should not grieve for the splendor in the grass, nor for the glory of the flower, but rather seek strength in what remains behind. Yet we can also gain strength in what lies ahead that we will never know.

We pay back those who have given us so much by passing it on. As teachers we are rewarded in knowing that through our students and their students ad infinitum some of what we give seeps into the culture and geometrically trickles across generations --whether in direct interaction or to those we don’t know who encounter our work.

From J. Herman Blake. Although he was my professor and also chaired my dissertation committee, my most compelling memories of Neil Smelser are as a friend and unequivocal supporter of my administrative career.  My first encounter with him was in a graduate course in contemporary sociological theory in 1961. To increase my understanding I visited with him during office hours to discuss every aspect of the course—his lectures, the readings and the small group discussions he led. The academic and intellectual perspectives opened me to a world beyond my imagination.  They continue to guide me—more than 5 decades later.

In 1966 I was appointed to the faculty of the new University of California campus in Santa Cruz.  As a friend and mentor Neil helped me critically analyze the multiple opportunities that quickly opened. The University presented me with a unique opportunity—create a new academic institution with the monumental challenge of infusing new content and a broader range of students into the traditional academic values and goals of liberal education.

Neil’s piercing questions and astute observations were clarifying because of their intuitive insights.  His comments led me to accept the offer to lead Oakes College at the Santa Cruz campus of the University. 

Neil was the first social scientist appointed University Professor.  This extraordinary position meant he could teach on any of the nine campuses of the University of California with full support from the Office of the President.  In one of our conversations he made an amazing offer. He proposed to spend a term at Oakes College with a dual responsibility.  Primarily he would counsel and advise individual faculty of the College—regardless of their discipline—critiquing their scholarship and research.  Secondly he would join me in co-teaching an undergraduate course on social change and collective behavior.  We would combine social theories with my research in grassroots communities and inner cities in California.  It was an exceptional statement of confidence and respect for the new college.

Faculty were inspired by his individual consultations with them—his advice on their research and scholarship, as well as recommendations about publishing.  Students became engaged in our course realizing the approach placed significant emphasis on their active involvement in the learning process.  Neil Smelser exemplified how a great university can substantively change without compromising its intellectual and academic values.

In my current research in isolated and rural communities of Gullah and Geechee people in the islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia I still sense the presence of Neil Smelser. In a recent conference presentation on social organization and sustainability of Gullah Geechee communities in post-Reconstruction years, I found my observations guided by intuitive understandings of the “pattern variables.” 

“Neil was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth” (Michael Burawoy).  It cannot be said any better.


From Jeffrey Alexander. My respect for Neil as a thinker was enormous, my gratitude to him as a teacher and mentor great, and my personal affection real and strong. He was a model for me throughout my career -- how an academic should comport himself, and, at some distance, a father figure and friend. As I watched him grow older, I got a lot of satisfaction from knowing that he had lived a wonderful life, the one he wanted, filled with personal achievements and untold contributions to people he nurtured and institutions he loved.

From Tina Smelser (originally written for Neil's retirement from Berkeley in 1994)

As we honor the distinguished career of my dad,                                                                              

I feel very proud, but I also feel sad

In my mind, he and Berkeley have been one and the same;

University of California was like his middle name!

His career here and my life cover the same exact span-

Nine months after he started was when my life began!

Indeed an era is approaching a close,

so I pay this brief tribute to him as he goes

His success in the world of his work is quite clear,

I’d rather speak of some things that to me are more dear

As I started composing the memories came flowing,

of different stages of life from when up I was growing

Like Sundays in Golden Gate Park when we rented old bikes,

or summers in the Grand Canyon taking long, dusty hikes

Night games at Candlestick could get mighty cold,

and I didn’t much appreciate them when I wasn’t that old

He’d laugh when I’d say, “Dad, I hope they don’t tie”,

but I’m a Giants fan now ‘til the day that I die!

I remember sitting in the living room, following the librettos,

Of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas

He liked the word games-French and English- that I liked to play

On Wednesdays and Sundays as we drove ‘cross the bay

He once gave me a T-shirt which made me feel I was bright,

it said on it, “Punsters of the World Unite!”

Country music wasn’t “cool” among peers that I had,

but I loved it, and still do, ‘cause it’s part of my dad

His culinary talents are not to be missed,

with mashed potatoes at Christmas on top of the list

He gave me roots in America, and at the same time the chance,

to spend some vacations in England and France

Vicarious fame I sometimes can feel,      

when someone says, “Smelser? Are you related to Neil”?

Of course it’s not always easy having a father so great

That sense of “having to live up to” can be a burdensome weight

Still, with him and Sharin in Berkeley, it’s like everything’s OK,

And like something is missing when they go away…

Life just isn’t the same with Dad being gone

But through his family and students, his spirit lives on


From Claude Fischer. I will add another angle to Neil Smelser, the scholar, teacher, and leader of the discipline. He was a consummate political actor--in the best sense of the term. In the midst of conflict and tension, Neil would sense the common ground and direct the the deliberations, gently, calmly, and thoughtfully, to that common ground. He was a masterful diplomat and negotiator who used his skills for the common good. Would that the world had more such like him.

From Mark Peterson. Neil was indeed a great friend of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program, a scholarly superstar who simply reveled in spending time and working with Scholars from all three disciplines.  And he just kept on working, writing, and publishing with a sense of intellectual passion that rivaled anyone in the academy.  Neil was also a close personal friend of my in-laws (my late father-in-law, Julius Margolis, had been a colleague at Berkeley many years ago)--I am thankful to the Scholars program for giving me the opportunity to get to know him as well, and the opportunity to rekindle stories from those times.

From Ben Handel. I interacted with Neil as an RWJF Scholar at Berkeley during my two years in the program. Neil was always so much fun to interact with, and really gave the seminar series we had together a lot of enthusiasm. Neil had an amazingly broad perspective on issues related to health care, and helped me understand many important concepts, which was not simple, since he was a sociologist and I am an economist. He was such an incredible scholar and person, and really lit up any room he was in. It was a great privilege to get to know Neil and spend so much time with him.

From William Dow. I had the privilege of co-teaching with Neil the Health and Social Science Research seminar for the last several years of the RWJF postdoc program.  I learned more and more every year that we taught it together.  He turned it into that unicorn seminar that many of us thought we would have in graduate school but rarely happens -- deep, interdisciplinary discussions about research, policy, and life.  What a contribution to so many cohorts of scholars.

From Mary Waters: I have known Neil for 38 years and he was a wonderful teacher, advisor and friend.  I took a class from him, worked as his RA, and he was a terrific advisor on my dissertation committee.  I think he was most pleased with me in grad school when he found out that one of my summer jobs was teaching computer programming to little kids at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and his daughter Sarah was in my class.  He always went back to that experience as a special bond between us. It was in the years after Berkeley that I got to know Neil as a good friend.  We overlapped on many committees at various institutions, especially at Russell Sage and Guggenheim.  I watched him lead scholars across many disciplines with his characteristic low key, kind, yet firm style. I learned so much from him.  Neil was a true intellectual, with a quick and wide ranging mind.  I enjoyed spending time with him and Sharin over the years and enjoyed his sense of humor and warm good cheer.  I will miss him very much.

From Alberto Martinelli. I was deeply moved by the news of Neil Smelser’s death. I knew him well. He was the chair of my Ph.D. Committee in 1975 and later on a wise colleague and a gentle friend. We collaborated on various grounds, the Economy and Society reader, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Handbook of Economic Sociology and in the activities of the International Sociological Association.

Neil has been a great intellectual figure, with a broad spectrum of research interests, truly innovative ideas, keen sociological imagination. He was also a special educator and as mentor for many, an active institution builder and defender of sociology as a science and of the sociological community of scholars, a sincere liberal in his staunch defense of the freedom of thought and speech. His contribution to sociology, social science and contemporary culture in general will last for long time.

From Lyn Spillman. From our first casual conversation about my dissertation, in the Stephens Hall courtyard, to our last face-to-face meeting in the lobby of a San Francisco ASA, with professional chat and news of his travels and grandchildren,  Neil’s stalwart and kind presence in my life over thirty years was a happy gift.  He was a lovely man, and I’ll miss him.

Thirty years of support and friendship leaves a lot of memories. Amazingly, there’s not one upsetting memory among them. As a dissertation advisor, Neil may not have realized how much it meant to find his long letters of careful reflections in my mail so promptly after I’d given him something to read.  He was balanced, undogmatic, open, interested, and supportive. Never unduly directive, he didn’t create “Smelser students,” but rather helped us become scholars in ourselves. Yet years later I would be surprised to realize– sometimes embarrassingly late–  that Neil had pioneered the scholarship generating some new idea of mine.

But that was the least of it. I also remember the years of advice and reassurance about early-career insecurities, when I could always turn to him with my latest worry about navigating the system, or my latest request for letters. (Now, it looks to me like a lot of hand-holding; but back then, it was sustaining, and I know it might well have made the difference between swimming and sinking).  And later, as he plunged into his active retirement, I always enjoyed hearing the latest enthusiastic accounts of his next book, his keen travels, and the grandchildren who delighted him.

To me, Neil seemed amazingly unpretentious. If it had been left to him, I would never have known what a significant figure he is in twentieth century sociology.  Yet, looking back at all he did, he must have been a professional virtuoso. Occasionally, he might mention some obligation to travel– on the program committee for ISA, or to Berlin to give the Georg Simmel Lectures,  or to a National Academy of Sciences meeting. Or he might mention an acquaintance from his long tenure in the rarefied circles of Guggenheim or SSRI, or directorship of CASBS. Or he might mention a project he was particularly engaged in– like a national report on terrorism, or a plan for the UC system in the coming century. The Toronto meeting concluding his presidency of the ASA was a high point for both of us. Yet all this was a tiny fraction of all he contributed to the academy, mostly behind the scenes.

He was similarly unpretentious about his scholarship. But ultimately, it is his scholarship we should remember most;  the fact that he treated his retirement as a happy opportunity to write more books reminds us how important it was to him.  His contributions covered a vast terrain, because he was always pleased to puzzle over a new problem, or rethink an earlier position. We could talk about favorites for a long time, and we all have our particular interests. But Neil wrote a lot that any sociologist can profit from, whatever their interests. I remember his particular delight in The Odyssey Experience, about transformation in daily life. I think every sociologist should read “The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences” (ASR 1998). I think every student should read Problematics of Sociology, for a lucid and balanced map of our field. Neil’s wise reflections on the scope and inherent tensions of the discipline, and the forces that shape it, are explored in more depth in  Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections, which includes the classic “Sociology as Science, Humanism and Art”– another required reading. I’m grateful, not only for his support and friendship through the years, but also for the distinctive voice he offers sociology.

From Lois West. Thank you, Dr. Smelser.  I never called him by his first name nor would I have.  He was the quintessential mentor and professional who genuinely liked and encouraged women students (too rare a quality in academia I found).  For my Reagan-era cohort he was our first research methods professor.  I have always been grateful to him for having us read and critique a breadth of classical sociologists, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, as well as sharing his struggles and blocks with his own higher education work.  His comments on our analyses were trenchant, thorough and always typewritten which I appreciated over others frequent brevity of handwritten marginalia.  After my orals exam, he awarded me a white Styrofoam cup that he had decorated with ink drawings he created while we all spoke.  I wish I had kept it.  He gave me more typewritten pages for my dissertation and advised me on navigating university politics—“Raise your voice. Yell and slam your fist to get their attention.”  That surprised me but I got the message.  He wrote me positive, supportive and much needed letters of recommendation for a sociology professor job and for tenure, and I followed his work as ASA president and always appreciated it.  He was irreplaceable and I will miss him.  Thank you, Dr. Smelser.

From Jeffrey Prager. I am saddened to learn of the death of Neil Smelser, an important mentor and significant influence on my life and career.  Learning this news has prompted many memories of my time with Neil that I would like to share.

Neil was my first instructor, offering the Introductory Sociological Theory to in-coming graduate students.  This was in 1969.  Many of us were drawn to Sociology largely because of its close intellectual connections with the contemporary politics of the time.  Few, I believe, entered graduate school to become professional Sociologists; in fact, as hard as the idea may now sound, most of us had not even considered the professional consequences of graduate training.  It was not surprising, then, when Neil introduced us to sociological theory, he being a student of Talcott Parsons and his action theory, not only were Neil’s presentations nearly impossible to understand but most of us were convinced of their irrelevance.  I think I really understood almost nothing of the class because I was so preoccupied with the political struggles at the time. [I date my arrival at Berkeley as post-People's Park and pre-Cambodia]  One distinct memory was when one of my classmates prefaced his question to Neil with “As a Marxist revolutionary.....,” and many of us took great pleasure in our comrade’s audacity.  That year, Neil decided to require oral examinations with each of us rather than to have a written assessment.  Not only was I at a loss at how to study for such an exam but, though I passed the class respectably, I think my oral performance left much to be desired.  Neil asked me about my understanding of the dialectic.  Even on my own terms, I probably should have understood it better but he was searching for the idea of an ever-changing dynamic in which as one side of the dialectic becomes stronger, the other becomes weaker.  Almost 50 years after being confronted with his question, I still find myself often pondering it.  It is certainly ironic or, in psychoanalytic terms, perhaps over-determined that, as an instructor myself, sociological theory has been my deepest professional commitment for the past thirty years or so.  I routinely teach Sociological Theory and Contemporary Theory to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Partly because of that confidence-shattering experience of the first year, I kept my distance from Neil as a graduate student. Some years later, I finally screwed up my courage to invite him to be a member of my dissertation committee to which he readily agreed.  William Kornhauser was my Chair because the dissertation fell squarely under the purview of political sociology, though Neil’s work on historical sociology also made him an appropriate choice.  My progress on the thesis was slow, as I think nearly everybody else’s was as well, but during the course of that time, I met with Neil only a few times.  His obligations were intensifying both in terms of his professional visibility and also because of his administrative acumen.  He was the only person I have met who used his time as Chair of the Department to collect data on the Departmental search for an Assistant Professor and use it to publish a book on Affirmative Action at the University.  Instead of regular meetings with him, I would submit to him a completed chapter.  He told me he preferred not to meet to discuss the chapter but he would provide me with written comments.  Before too much time passed, I would receive back from him a paragraph or two of comments on his thoughts on the chapter.  Though more impersonal than I would have liked, it was a model both of impressive efficiency on his part and also an extremely useful teaching technique.  I was able to read over and over his comments and, in time, absorb their import.  They were always extremely useful.

The most memorable moment, however, was when, after several years of my teaching at UCLA, I returned to the Department to meet with him.  I told him then that I had decided to enter into a full psychoanalytic training program in Los Angeles to better learn the field for my academic research.  In a genuinely spontaneous outburst of support, Neil said “Finally!, I am a role model for someone.”  He was genuinely pleased by my decision and extremely supportive. From then on, when talking to me, or talking of me to others, he would say he was the Chair of my dissertation committee.  I never had the courage to correct him on his misimpression.  He read my Ph.D. Thesis from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute with great enthusiasm.  When I published a version of that as my second book, Presenting the Past, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering, he provided a blurb for its publication which was wonderful if not excessive in its praise.  I felt I was rewarded both by letters he would write on my behalf and also his invitation to contribute to his Handbook of the Social and Behavioral Sciences an entry on The Psychology of Collective Memory.  I think I rightly concluded that the category itself was created with me in mind as its author.

Still, Neil forever remains my teacher.  One article in particular, written with his own San Francisco analyst Robert Wallerstein, a leading intellectual light in the field of psychoanalysis and an important figure in the psychoanalytic movement, has continued to haunt me.  It is a brilliant article—whose title right now escapes me but for which I am committed now to re-read—written as a cautionary theoretical tale of the dangers of using psychoanalytic theory and ideas for sociological analysis.  They carefully dissect the basic epistemological presumptions of each to show only the narrowest of possibilities for integration between the two fields.  The essay illustrated, first, how different Neil’s way of thinking was from mine—he was far more dispassionate and analytical than me in a philosophy of social science kind of way—and how muchit constrained me from trying to achieve the kind of integration I aspired to.  There came a point, many years after reading it, that I almost consciously decided to defy the article's warnings and to begin to develop a kind of psychoanalytic sociology that, to this day, I’m not sure he would approve of.  My article “Healing from History,” I think marks my rebellion, however limited it was, against my teacher.  But I continue often to be reminded of his importance in shaping my thought and career when, with nearly every new publication of mine and with every comment of praise for my work, Neil and this article comes to mind.  He now has been firmly lodged within me in the form of my own self-criticism, a super-egoist warning not to be too pleased because the flaws in my own research are known to me and could easily be discovered by others. 

So, with his death, the question I now ask is whether I will be personally emancipated from his constant authoritative presence.  Will I experience his death as a kind of an Oedipal victory? Will my inchoate albeit unfounded concerns about retaliation lessen?  Of course, I would like to think so.  But, in fact, I think he will always remain firmly lodged within me as an example of an extraordinarily powerful intellect who sets a standard for my own scholarship that I will never achieve.  I will miss knowing of Neil’s presence on this earth.  However, I don’t worry about the memory of his example disappearing because, since I began teaching, I have passed that on to my students.  It is impossible to imagine that changing now.  

From Gail Kligman. Neil chaired my dissertation committee. As a graduate student, his support was steadfast, even when he pushed me in unanticipated directions. I am indebted to him for his consistent encouragement to be receptive to new ideas as well as interdisciplinary perspectives, and to embrace the challenges that so often accompany them. He urged me to approach research with an open mind, but with an equally open critical eye. His influence on my own approach to pedagogy in general,  to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, has been unparalleled. Neil has left a towering legacy not only to the department to which he dedicated most of his academic career, but to the University of California more broadly, to sociology across the globe, and to the promotion of scholarship as well as the practice of psychoanalysis.

From Victoria Bonnell. Neil Smelser was a much admired colleague and friend. He had a brilliant mind and a big heart. Watch Harry Kreisler's interview with Neil in 2005 to grasp his intellectual range and depth as well as his humanity (https://conversations.berkeley.edu/content/neil-smelser).

Neil’s modesty and unpretentiousness belied his prodigious accomplishments.  A Harvard undergraduate and Rhodes scholar (1952-1954), he returned to Harvard for graduate school and by 1956 had coauthored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons.  He came to the Berkeley sociology department in 1958 where he remained for thirty-six years until he left to direct the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a position he held until 2001.

The author of a vast number of books and articles, Neil had at his command multiple fields of inquiry.  His erudition brought him preeminence in many different subfields of sociology, and he made original contributions to a great many subjects, ranging from economic sociology to social theory and a lot in between.  It would be fair to say that most trained sociologists over the past sixty years have at some point encountered and engaged with his ideas.  And to add to the miracle of it all, Neil had a dual career as both a sociologist and a psychoanalyst.

Neil formed deep and lasting personal relationships with colleagues, students, and staff.  I know because he took me under his wing when I came to Berkeley.  He was chairing the department when I was hired, and after I joined the faculty, he brought me into his inner circle.  We were not an obvious match. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Berkeley sociology department in the mid and late 1970s, Neil and I had found ourselves at odds over a number of scholarly and other issues. Yet he invited me to be part of his intellectual world and he opened doors for me that changed my life.

Not long after my arrival at Berkeley in 1976, he invited me to join an inter-departmental faculty group designed to explore new theoretical perspectives.  The group, which assembled monthly for dinner at the Faculty Club, was established by Neil in the 1960s under the auspices of the Institute of International Studies.  When I first joined, all the participants were tenured and the anthropologist Elizabeth Colson was the sole female member of the group.  The composition grew more diverse in the years to come but the departments of history and anthropology continued to supply most of the participants.  Discussions were exuberant, sometimes passionate but always cordial and without rancor. (I recall a thrilling and contentious conversation about Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.)  This was academia as I had never experienced it before and haven’t since.  Neil was the catalyst for the group and its inspiration—he selected the participants, the menus, and the topics, and he presided over the meetings.  At some point in the late 1980s, he invited me to co-chair and when he retired, I took over.  But the seminar survived only for a few more years.  Neil’s departure and changing academic agendas dispersed the group.

Neil believed in the mission of the university and its inclusiveness. In the Berkeley sociology department, Arlie Hochschild, Nancy Chodorow, Ann Swidler, and I—among others—were beneficiaries of his tremendous support for women scholars at a time when there were relatively few of us on the faculty.  Many honors and distinctions flowed to Neil over his long career. He richly deserved the recognition and carried it with grace.  He will be remembered as much for his kindness and generosity of spirit as for his stunning intellect and devotion to the academy.  A great man has passed away.

From Arlie Hochschild. Neil Smelser died October 2, 2017, at 87, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy.  He created an astonishing career in sociology, became a major pillar of sociology, and great contributor to sociology, and a truly great mentor, as I came to know.  A Harvard and Oxford-trained wunderkind, Neil was ultimately the author of twenty books and  thirty edited volumes.   At his death, he was about to be awarded the 38th Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, offered by the U.C. system.  Neil left “active UC employment in 1994, ” Marjorie Caserio writes: "But after he retired, he  went on to write seven more books, all on vastly different topics—the odyssey, terrorism, the use of sociology to private enterprise, for example -- and twenty major research articles.  Throughout his life, Neil also held many administrative  roles—including Chair of the Sociology Department, Assistant to the President of UC, and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

Until a person like Neil Smelser has passed from life, it is hard to appreciate the enormity of the intellectual and emotional space a person inhabits in a discipline, an institution, and  the lives of many students. For all these other great accomplishments, I know I am one of many graduate students whom he took time to mentor.  This he did through his even-tempered positive attitude, his ecumenicalism and his reassuring sense of forward motion.   “Helped” is too weak a word for what Neil did for me as a mentor. Without his support, I would have dropped out of sociology.   What  I felt was “rescued.”   Neil read my feeble papers with lightning speed and  helpful, encouraging comments.  I would disappear, not see him for months and reappear with another paper.  Again, he responded within the week and with many comments. Had he actually read so quickly something I’d struggled months to write? I wondered. Yes. He’d written two single-spaced pages of comments adding an encouraging final remark.    I remember bringing in yet another research paper on a rather minor topic — the invisible work done by the wives of foreign service officers, who represented their husbands and country in whom they saw, what they could say, how they should seem to feel and nearly everything they did.  I had shown the paper to another male professor, now deceased, who had written me “Fine, if you want to write for the Ladies Home Journal…”    Neil, on the other hand, suggested I revise the paper and send it to the Journal of Marriage and the Family which he said “had improved in recent years.”  He made this latter remark in such an off-hand way, as if he were on the journal’s side as it was improving, and as if I, like the journal, might  also be  improving, might one day have an opinion, and join the tribe.  At least I took the remark that way.  My topic didn’t fall within Neil’s areas of interest. It didn’t reflect  his conceptual approach. But Neil was far bigger than that; he never asked similarity of his students; he cared about helping us grow in the ways we seemed to need to grow.  That paper became the first I ever published. I think of it as my Neil Smelser paper, the one that got me going.  Neil had legions of students and mentees whom I’m sure have the same kind of story to tell.   So I know I speak for many former students and colleagues, when I say, “Thank you so much, Neil.  We will miss you very much and remember you always."  

From Ann Swidler. From my first days in graduate school, where Neil taught the introductory theory course, to long after I had left Berkeley and then returned, Neil was a generous, inspiring, steadying presence. I still remember much of what he taught us about theory--the difference between a strong theory that took the risk of being wrong and a weak theory that aspired to account for everything, for example. His great intellectual contributions as well as his many kindnesses have stayed with me. I remain grateful for all he gave to the discipline, the Department, and the University he loved.

From Earl Babbie.  I was saddened to learn of Neil’s passing. I had him as a professor during my graduate schooling at Berkeley. Then, I was on ASA’s EOB during Neil’s term as president. I held him in the very highest regard in both situations. He was a great sociologist and a great human being.

Here’s something I bet few people knew. Sitting around with coffee in stereofoam cups, Neil would decorate his cup with a ballpoint, turning it into a true work of art.  At one EOB (Executive Office and Budget) meeting, we auctioned off his cup with the winning bid going to ASA. Anyone who crossed paths with Neil was blessed by that and will miss him deeply now.

From Magali Sarfatti-Larson. So many will praise Neil Smelser for his work as a sociologist, unparalleled in its diversity and its breadth that I don’t know what I could write. From the first masterpiece, Social Change in the Industrial Revolution to the classic works on the sociology of economic life and the sociology of culture, to the Simmel lectures and The Faces of Terrorism and Getting Sociology Right and the amazing Odyssey Experience, I can repeat, as others undoubtedly will say, that everything Neil wrote was fundamental in any of the various fields he approached –incontournable, as the French say, which means unavoidable and indispensable.  His works were like his teaching: clear, lucid, critical, removing and resetting boundaries, daring us to go where we thought we needed to go, but with rigor, with discipline, with reason and humility, guided by painstaking research.

In times of turmoil, Neil was always the voice of reason, and he was listened to and heard. He was a great teacher and a necessary mentor, one who asked the right questions and helped us see where we were wrong, or just superficial, which is something he was not. I think of him, above all, as one of the kindest, gentlest and calmest men I have ever met. His integrity and depth as a human being and as an intellectual always reminded us of what universities are or should be, starting with Berkeley which we all loved and to which he gave so much. We all owe him so much that there is no goodbye to say, only living love and gratitude.

From Richard Weisman. Neil was Professor Smelser to me when I was a graduate student in the 1960’s. It wasn’t until some forty years later when I wrote him a note acknowledging his impact on me in my own career as an academic that he became Neil to me. I was not surprised when he wrote back that he was “still at it” seven years after his retirement.  What I said then I still believe even now that I too am retired. As a teaching assistant in his introductory course in sociology, I learned what it meant to prepare lectures that were rigorous, challenging, and yet totally captivating for their engagement with core sociological issues.  As a student in his seminar on Talcott Parsons, I learned what it was to be a committed scholar who was nevertheless open to perspectives that might challenge those commitments. Neil was someone who had much to give to his students but was never too proud to learn from them as well. When I look back at the intellectual ferment of the 1960’s, I think of Neil as one of the few scholars during that period whose vision of scholarship and embrace of teaching as a vocation never faltered.  Neil inspired me as I know he inspired others to try to live up to his high ideals in their own careers.

From Simon Frith.  When I joined the graduate school in the Sociology Department at Berkeley in 1967, fresh from doing PPE at Oxford, I knew little about sociology and nothing about the US university system.  Neil Smelser became my mentor by default.  One of the requirements of my scholarship was to be someone’s research assistant, and because of my interest in historical sociology, I chose to be Neil’s.  Not knowing any better I began by thinking I was doing him a favour and ended up, under his guidance (and inspired by Social Change in the Industrial Revolution), choosing as my PhD topic the history of working class education in 19th century Leeds.

Neil was my supervisor, initially in regular meetings, later, when I was doing the archive research, by letter (this was long before the digital age).  It’s only in retrospect that I realise his exceptional patience, grace and generosity in dealing with a student who took for granted so much of what actually made him an exceptional teacher.  My thesis was written from a Marxist perspective, and although I was influenced by Neil’s work I also wanted to challenge it.  He never showed anything but enthusiasm for this project and, indeed, always seemed to enjoy being challenged.  In teaching terms, what I learnt from him, what I have tried to apply in my own career, is the pedagogical importance of tolerance, argument and the ability to change one’s mind. 

Neil was never what is labelled a ‘charismatic’ teacher but he was an exceptionally good one.  For me he was always both genial and demanding, calm and passionate.  I was extremely lucky that he was my teacher when I was deciding what sociological scholarship could and should be.  

From Michael Kimmel. Neil chaired my dissertation committee.  (My dissertation was on tax policies in 17th century France and England.)  He actually read it and found ways to support my archival research in Paris and London.  Over beers in London, he told me that he now understood what etatisme meant in practice.  But I was never able to convince him that popular uprisings and revolutions were more rational than spasmodic emotional collective outbursts.  

From Christine Williams. I was a socialist feminist interested in psychoanalytic theory when I asked Neil to be my advisor.  People are often surprised by this.  But more than any other person, Neil taught me how to be a sociologist.  He was open-minded and fair and never dogmatic.  He encouraged me to be adventurous in my thinking.  Knowing he had my back, I developed confidence in my abilities.  My career owes everything to him.  I miss him very much.

From Miki Kashtan. I was perhaps the last student that Neil accepted as a dissertation chair, after he already retired, and I experience my years of working with him until I produced the final version of my thesis an extraordinary privilege I will never forget.

In my work, I ventured into the holy of holies: social theory. I pursued a path of critique and challenge of the foundations of sociological theory. Neil demonstrated his big spirit every step of the way. He never once asked me to say anything different from what I was trying to say, nor did he have any agenda for me about my ideas. His entire focus was on supporting me to say what I wanted to say in the best possible way. His reading of my work was generous, thorough, and affirming. His suggestions for further reading and his questions for deeper reflection exactly on target to get the most out of me that anyone could. We had extensive conversations about our similarities and differences in terms of social theory. He always engaged with care and grace, challenging me and supporting me without ever making it too clear what his own political and existential commitments were. And he also made himself open to learning from my explorations such that I was surprised one day to see one of the core ideas I engaged with and about which we had many discussions informing his annual address of the American Sociological Association, as he so openly acknowledged.

A few years ago, quite some time after I graduated, Neil and I had one final meeting in a coffee shop in Berkeley, where we shared with each other as two caring, aware, committed individuals. I sensed then that this was my last time with him, and I took in deeply his lingering sense of humor and exquisite capacity to focus on being with another person. I feel blessed with every moment of knowing him, from my first social theory class in 1990 to that very last smile and hug we shared as we parted.

From Nicolas Vaca. In 1963 I took Sociology 101, Introduction to Sociology, a class then taught by Neil Smelser.  During the final class  of the semester, two days before our final examination, Neil told the following story:  A student was preparing for a final examination and as he reviewed his extensive notes he concluded that if he worked hard enough he could reduce the voluminous notes to ten pages.  After more thought he concluded that even harder work would allow him to reduce his notes to five pages.  After more arduous work he was convinced that he could reduce them to one page.  And even more dedicated work he thought he could reduce them further to one paragraph.  The night before the final examination, he was knew he could reduce it to one word.  The following morning he walked into class, opened his blue book and began to write; but he forgot the word. For all the wonderful and positive things that Neil did for sociology, for the Department itself, for his colleagues and for his innumerable students, including me, it is not that I cannot remember the word to express it all, it is that I cannot find it.

From Howard Greenwald. Smelser's great contribution to my thinking was a sophisticated understanding of "functionalism."  The understanding I attribute to him is that in a collectivity a practice may be functional for some people (such as managers) and dysfunctional for others (such as workers).  Moreover, even for an individual, a practice may be functional on one level and not another.  For example, for a workoholic, the practice may be functional financially or creatively, but dysfunctional for her/his personal relationships.  Thanks, Neil!

From Robert Kaffer. One of the most intellectually stimulating evenings of my life was Neil Smelser's clear, uncluttered explanation of structural functionalism in Herbert Blumer's theory class and then the dialogue between the two about functionalism and symbolic interaction.  Two brilliant, gracious and down-to-earth people whose explanations were so eminently cogent and understandable. Never have three hours gone by so fast.



Preferred Citation: Munch, Richard, and Neil J. Smelser, editors Theory of Culture. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8q2nb667/

Theory of Culture

Edited By Richard Münch and Neil J. Smelser

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1993 The Regents of the University of California

Dedicated, by his colleagues,
to the memory of Hans Haferkamp

Preferred Citation: Munch, Richard, and Neil J. Smelser, editors Theory of Culture. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8q2nb667/

Dedicated, by his colleagues,
to the memory of Hans Haferkamp


Richard Münch and Neil J. Smelser

This volume is the intellectual product of a conference on the theory of culture held in Bremen on 23–25 July 1988. It was sponsored by the Theory Sections of the American Sociological Association and the German Sociological Association and made possible by a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation.

The Bremen conference was the third such event. An initial conference was held in Giessen in June 1984 and resulted in the publication of The Micro-Macro Link (Alexander, Giesen, Münch, and Smelser 1987). The second was held in Berkeley on 26–28 August 1986 and resulted in the publication of Social Change and Modernity (Haferkamp and Smelser 1991). Those primarily involved in planning the Bremen conference were Jeffrey Alexander, Bernard Giesen, Hans Haferkamp, Richard Münch, and Neil Smelser. Haferkamp and Smelser agreed to be the principal organizers for the conference. This arrangement was interrupted by Haferkamp's tragic death in a drowning accident in the summer of 1987. Münch subsequently took up the collaboration with Smelser. The choice of Bremen—Haferkamp's home institution—and the dedication of this volume reflect the collective appreciation of both the work and the person of Hans Haferkamp on the part of German and American social theorists.

When the planners of the Bremen conference met originally to plan its theme, there appeared almost a spontaneous consensus: it should be on the theory of culture. That consensus was based on an appreciation, reached more or less independently by each planner, that the sociology

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of culture is one of those intellectual areas that has experienced a striking revitalization in both Europe and America over the past fifteen years or so.

That this vitality continues to this moment and promises to endure makes publication of this volume timely. The origins of the revitalization of the sociology of culture are complex, and we do not intend to analyze that episode of recent intellectual history in this volume. We might mention, however, a few of the threads:

—The rise of "movements" of cultural analysis, especially deconstructionism and semiotics, that penetrated many of the disciplines of social-scientific and humanistic study.

—The premium placed on the analysis of "meaning" that accompanied the phenomenological impulse in the "microsociological revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s.

—The decline of the materialist impulse in general and the classical Marxian emphasis in particular, especially in contemporary European scholarship.

—The simultaneous resuscitation of Marxian scholars such as Gramsci (1971), who insisted on the independence of the cultural factor in the historical process.

—The work of such individuals as Clifford Geertz (1973), Raymond Williams (1958, 1965, 1977), and Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1990), and groups of scholars they influenced.

Some of these threads find expression in the essays composing this volume. In chapter 6, for example, Wuthnow reviews the efforts of several neo-Marxist scholars who have attempted to reconcile the Marxist stress on "external" (that is, economic and social-structural) determinants of cultural life with the "autonomous" status of culture as revealed by the "inner logic" of its texts. In chapter 11, Alexander enters the polemic over the centrality of "meaning" as a defining characteristic of culture. At the same time, a number of long-standing issues in cultural analysis appear as well, for example, Kalberg's and Eder's examinations (from different standpoints) of the relevance of Weber's thesis on Protestantism and the work ethic in contemporary Western German society.

Consistent with the theme of theory of culture that framed the Bremen conference, almost half of this volume contains contributions that are essentially theoretical. These chapters constitute part one. Smelser's introductory chapter picks up the theme of cultural coherence

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and incoherence, reviews its status in anthropological and sociological writings, and offers a theoretical critique of and suggestions for reformulation. Chapters 2 and 3 offer discussions of classical issues in the social-scientific study of culture. Halton calls for a resuscitation of the biological linkages of culture, using the human dream as a peculiarly apt avenue of access to those linkages. Eisenstadt addresses the long-standing issue of the stabilizing and order-maintaining functions of culture (rooted especially in Durkheim's sociology of religion) and its changing and transformative functions (rooted especially in Weber's sociology of religion). Chapters 4 through 6 are expository and critical of historical figures and traditions of the analysis of culture. Schmid details the changing conceptions of culture in the work of Parsons and subjects these changes to a critical review. Weiss takes up the theme—derived mainly from the writings of Jacob Burckhardt—of how culture comes to be represented in its special carrying agents (charismatic figures, geniuses, political leaders) and how these leaders represent it. And Wuthnow subjects the works of Eagleton, Jameson, and Bakhtin—all neo-Marxist in orientation—to an analysis of how they deal with the enduring and controversial issues of materialism, domination, and the degree of independence and autonomy of culture in society.

Parts 2 to 4 examine the themes of culture's relations with the polity, the stratification system, and the economic order. These chapters are also theoretical in orientation, but for the most part they incorporate systematic empirical data. In chapter 7, Swanson, using aggregative/correlational techniques on a large sample of societies, takes as his major "dependent variable" the degree to which cultures envision a collective purpose for their societies and relates this purpose to a variety of social-structural features of those societies that are conducive or nonconducive to the presence of that vision. In chapter 8, Renate Mayntz presents an empirical analysis—based on interviews with legislators—of the kinds of norms that govern the public and private behavior of legislators in the Federal Republic of Germany and thus contributes to the ongoing dialogue about political culture.

Chapter 9, by Richard Münch, begins with the theoretical formulations of Parsons. Münch isolates several hypotheses from Parsons's theory of action and subjects them to an empirical examination in light of patterns of social inequality in the Federal Republic of Germany. The work of Featherstone, appearing in chapter 10, is a valuable assessment and extension of the German critical school and the British cultural studies traditions. It deals especially with the idea of the production and

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consumption of culture (the "culture industry") and presses the argument that the organization of cultural consumption lies in the dynamics of maintaining and striving for status.

Jeffrey Alexander's essay (chapter 11) comments on a number of recent formulations of culture, but his main empirical issue is the significance of the recent "computer revolution" in advanced industrial countries. Alexander is constrained to show the balance between the rational/magical and the apocalyptic themes that have arisen as the computer has established itself as a regular feature of organized life. The concluding chapters deal with a contemporary issue in West German society, namely the de-coupling of the work ethic from definitions of prestige and self-worth. Both Kalberg and Eder attack the problems of the apparent decline of work and the work ethic and the rise of leisure in the Federal Republic of Germany. They approach those phenomena, however, from different directions. Kalberg, in chapter 12, analyzes the decoupling as an emerging result of the convergence of a diversity of economic, social, and political changes over the past century or more. In chapter 13, Eder, working more in the context of the neo-Marxian theory of crises of capitalism, treats the "de-coupling" as a kind of contradiction between the social-structural level (where work appears to be more central and essential) and the cultural level (where it appears to be decreasing). Eder's chapter is not so much an analysis of cultural change as it is an account of a crisis of class, especially the working class. Both Kalberg's and Eder's accounts of the culture of work in West Germany promise to be vastly complicated by the absorption of the East German labor force into the context of a unified Germany.


Alexander, J., Giesen, B., Münch, R., and Smelser, N. J., eds. 1987. The Micro-Macro Link. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers.

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Haferkamp, H. and Smelser, N. J. 1991. Social Change and Modernity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Williams, R. 1958. Culture and Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1965. The Long Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

———. 1977. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.


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Culture: Coherent or Incoherent

Neil J. Smelser

My objectives in this introductory chapter are the following:

—to examine some of the dimensions of the concept of culture, focusing on the issue of its degree of coherence or incoherence;

—to identify some methodological problems in the description and employment of the concept of culture, including a major methodological fallacy in the characterization of its coherence and incoherence;

—to review some imputed causes of cultural coherence;

—to suggest several resolutions of the problems revealed.

Major Dimensions of Cultural Analysis

Whatever the range of differences in the conceptualization of culture, the idea remains an essential one in the behavioral and social sciences. For decades it has been regarded as the central organizing base for social anthropology (sometimes, indeed, called cultural anthropology ) and is one of the several major objects of study and tools for explanation in sociology and political science (Smelser 1968), as the terms subculture, counterculture, organizational culture, civic culture, and political culture indicate. Conspicuous exceptions to this generalization are sociobiology and its forebears, which tend to link culture to genetic

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or other biological factors, materialism in its Marxist and other guises, which tends to reduce culture to other forces, and rational-choice theory and its utilitarian forebears, which tend to freeze culture into simplified assumptions about tastes and preferences. These exceptions noted, the centrality of the concept must be affirmed.

Before the end of the nineteenth century, many social philosophers and historians tended to treat culture—it was not always called that—as a kind of idea, or spirit, or Geist that provided a basis for characterizing a society, denoting its advancement and distinctiveness, and capturing its integrity. Needless to say, such an approach almost dictated the corollary assumption that each civilization's culture possessed a coherent unity, or pattern, that encompassed its religious, philosophical, or aesthetic underpinnings. By further implication, the distinctive culture of society was something of an elitist conception, communicating that it was carried by the literate, urbane, self-conscious (and, by assumption, prestigious and powerful) classes in society; a society's culture was its "high" culture, only later to be distinguished from its "folk," or "popular," culture. This idea of culture continued to find expression in the twentieth century, for example in T. S. Eliot's ideas on culture and Christian civilization (1939, 1944).

The history of the idea of culture is multifaceted and includes a chapter on how its actual differentiation into "high" and "folk," or "culture" and "mass culture," was a part of the fabric of stratification and domination in various European societies.[1] A second theme, important for this essay, is the evolution of the term in anthropology in the late nineteenth century. Intellectual leaders in anthropology made the concept more inclusive than simply that of a coherent set of values and ideas. Tylor (1920), for example, expanded the notion to encompass "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (1). Lowie's definition was similar and excluded only "those numerous traits acquired otherwise, mainly by biological heredity" (1934, 3). Another feature of classical anthropological usage was that culture tended to be regarded as undifferentiated along class or other principles of social division; it was a concept that applied to whole societies. That formulation is perhaps understandable given that anthropology was then concentrating on simple, undifferentiated societies. It was certainly not consistent, however, with the growing differentiation and diversification of Western societies, which were then experiencing the decline of orthodox religions, cultural

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mixing through migration, and internal class divisions associated with urbanization and industrialization.

In any event, the intellectual development in classical anthropology toward a conceptualization of culture as inclusive and common—as contrasted with exclusive and carried by elite cultural agents—set the stage for two questions that have shaped (or perhaps beset) thinking and debates about culture by social scientists for a century. First, how unified or coherent are cultures? And second, to what degree does a society's population share, or have consensus of, values and other ingredients of culture? (The two questions, while interrelated, are distinguishable from one another. The first concerns the issue of the integrity or integration of elements; the second concerns their degree of sharedness. A given cultural system may be tightly organized and coherent and either shared or not shared. The same may be true of a cultural system that is vague and inchoate. The dimensions of coherence and consensus thus can be conceptualized as constituting marginals for a fourfold table, and there are feasible entries for all four cells.)

Anthropologists and others began early to disagree on the question of coherence. At one extreme was Tylor's characterization of culture as a thing of "shreds and patches," which suggested a miscellaneous congeries of religion, philosophy, technology, customs, and artifacts held together by no principle whatsoever. (In a way it seemed "natural" that Tylor, opting for such an inclusive definition of culture, would be pushed in the direction of regarding it as incoherent.) Another, more active, form of incoherence was found in Durkheim's work on anomie (1951 [1897]), conceived as a state of "normlessness," whereby society did not set any limits to the desires of individuals by providing any kind of systematic expectations to regulate them. Under anomic conditions there appeared to be no basis for cultural order, and, according to Durkheim, the results of anomie were likely to be social and individual pathology.

Another group of thinkers could be found at the "coherence" end of the spectrum. Evolutionists like Morgan (1963 [1877]) and Engels (1964)—who adapted his thought—found a definite principle of cultural unity in the ingredients of a culture at each of several developmental stages of civilization (savagery, barbarism, and so on). The principle, consistent with materialist principles, was that a given level of technology called for a certain kind of religion, family structure, stratification, and other customs and mores. Each stage and substage thus manifested a coherent cultural "package." In another formulation Durkheim (1956

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[1925]) found a unified cultural principle in every civilization, perpetrated through its educational system: "[in] the cities of Greece and Rome, education trained the individual to subordinate himself blindly to the collectivity, to become the creature of society . . . [in] the Middle Ages education was above all Christian; in the Renaissance it assumes a more lay and literary character." Perhaps the most extreme formulation of cultural unity appeared in the work of Sorokin (1937), who grouped all the major facets of a culture under a single organizing principle. For example, in a "sensate" culture, which emphasizes the external senses as contrasted with the internal spirit, the principles of secularism, empiricism, science, philosophical realism, utilitarianism, and hedonism all fell together in one logico-meaningful whole.

Benedict (1934), often regarded above all as the advocate of a position of cultural integration, actually manifested an intermediate position on this question. On the one hand, she found any given culture to be "permeated by . . . one dominating idea" (3); examples were the Dionysian and the Apollonian. This integration was achieved through a complex process of selection and exclusion: "Gothic architecture, beginning in what was hardly more than a preference for attitude and light, became, by the operation of some canon of taste that developed within its technique, the unique and homogeneous art of the thirteenth century. It discarded elements that were incongruous, modified others to its purposes, and invented others that accorded with its taste" (47). At the same time, Benedict found extreme incoherence in some cultures: "Like certain individuals, certain social orders do not subordinate activities to a ruling motivation. They scatter. If at one moment they appear to be pursuing certain ends, at another they are off on some tangent apparently inconsistent with all that had gone before, which gives no clue to activity that will come after" (223). The contrast between coherent and incoherent was associated in Benedict's mind with the contrast between simple cultures, such as the Zuñi and Kwakiuitl, and modern Western cultures. In particular, she described "our own society" as "an extreme example of lack of integration" (229).

Such were some of the divergences in early twentieth-century anthropology on the issue of cultural coherence and incoherence. That issue survives today, although not always in the same terms. For example, in his discussion of "common sense," Geertz (1983) argued that one could not demonstrate that it was a culture by cataloging its content because it was not formally organized—it was "antiheap wisdom." He added,

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science, art, ideology, law, religion, technology, mathematics, even nowadays ethics and epistemology, seem genuine enough genres of cultural expression to ask . . . to what degree other peoples possess them, and to the degree that they do possess them what form they take, and given the form they take what light has that to shed on our own versions of them. But this is still not true of common sense. Common sense seems to us what is left over when all these more articulated sorts of symbol systems have exhausted their tasks, what remains of reason when its more sophisticated achievements are set aside (92).

In an even more recent formulation, Merelman (1984) regarded the degree of cultural coherence as the important element of American culture in explaining much about its class and political life. Modern American culture, he argued, is a "loosely bounded fabric", ill-organized, permeable, inconsistent, and tolerant of ambiguity. He regarded it as having arisen in part from the decline of three visions of American culture—puritan, democratic, and class-based—and from several distinctive historical experiences such as individualism, minimal age-grading, and immigration. The schools and the media are major agents in perpetrating loose-boundedness in culture. As his main thesis, Merelman argued that a loosely bounded culture obfuscates the stark division of labor, hierarchy, and fixity of the American social structure—in fact, a "gap between American social structure and American culture" (204). In addition, a loosely bounded culture made political mobilization for collective goals difficult and posed special difficulties for political regimes to legitimize themselves. In this formulation, the actual cultural content seems to take second place to its mode of organization as a determinant of sociopolitical life.

Two other theoretical issues, closely related to coherence, concern how perfectly cultures are realized or reproduced in the individual and in the social structure. With respect to the individual, some theorists regarded culture as manifesting itself in the individual in more or less complete form, mainly through the process of socialization. Durkheim (1956 [1925]) described the institutions of education and pedagogy as the main mechanisms involved in internalizing the ingredients of culture and in making conformity to them a matter of individual will. Freud (1930) formulated the process as the incorporation of the cultural prohibitions and renunciations of instinctual forces that culture had accumulated over the ages. Parsons (1955) treated socialization through the family as the main mechanism for internalizing and reproducing society's common culture.

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These theorists, however, each added a qualification or twist to this more or less mechanical concept of the internalization of culture. Freud never regarded the victory of civilization (culture) as complete; he saw the erotic and aggressive side of humanity in constant struggle with and reassertion against culture. Durkheim, in his discussion of egoism (1951 [1897]), envisioned how the internalization of a coherent value and normative situation could produce conformity and freedom simultaneously. This internalization occurred in the culture of Protestantism and individualism, which, while itself coherent and passed from generation to generation, resulted in a most heterogeneous set of individual choices and styles traceable to a central cultural ingredient of individualism—freedom. Parsons regarded the process of socialization to values and norms as incomplete. This incomplete process could result in the phenomenon of deviance, when individuals take on behaviors and outlooks that are at odds with the dominant cultural orientations of society. At this point, however, the culture reasserts itself by bringing the deviant individuals "back into line" through processes of social control, such as resocialization, rehabilitation, and psychotherapy (Parsons 1951). One debate emerging from Parson's formulation was whether societal reaction to deviance was primarily a matter of reincorporation of deviants through social control or a matter of relegating them to a position "outside" the dominant culture, incorrigible or incapable of being reintegrated into society and thereby given a special "labeled" or "stigmatized" status in it (Becker 1963; Goffman 1963).

With respect to the institutionalization of culture into the social structure, we also witness a range of theoretical possibilities. At the one extreme we turn again to Durkheim (1950 [1895]) as a model. For him, "collective conscience" was a representation of all that was common in society. It stood above the individuals in society as a fact sui generis and constituted a set of organizing principles on the basis of it. The idea of collective conscience also carried the notion of consensus. People could not understand one another or communicate with one another if they did not have a common grasp of language, rules of interaction, and other cultural ingredients.

There is a tendency toward a "consensus" view of society in the Marxian tradition as well. In the high days of dominance of any kind of society—the most developed example was bourgeois society—there is a tendency for the dominant culture to become a common culture because the dominant classes can enforce it on the subordinate classes, as false consciousness, through the instruments of social control. (That

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solution was unstable, for, in Marx's theory of development, class and revolutionary consciousness on the part of the subordinated classes arose in the later stages of capitalist development.) The same theme of consensus is found in neo-Marxist critical sociologists (for example, Marcuse 1964 and Habermas 1975). Those theories stress the ability of the technical-administrative-state apparatus to lull the masses into a state of acceptance of postcapitalist values and expectations through the manipulation of the mass media and through the soporific powers of the welfare state.

At the other extreme are formulations that depict a very imperfect reproduction of any common culture in the social structure. This "no common consensus" variant is found in versions of "cultural pluralism," in which different cultural systems—organized along religious, political, ethnic, and linguistic lines—constitute the culture, bound together, perhaps, by only a consensus on procedural rules of the game regarding conflict management and conflict resolution. One "culture conflict" variant is found in the idea of countercultures, which defy the dominant cultures. Another variant is found in the Marxian tradition, which considers the true class consciousness as, in one sense, a revolutionary "counterculture" in relation to the culture of the dominant classes; this variant is closely related to those that regarded the subordinated as "making" their own culture, which is independent of and largely antagonistic to that of the ruling classes (for example, Thompson 1963).

So much for a number of selected formulations of culture during the past hundred years. These formulations themselves, ironically, manifest a high degree of both incoherence and lack of consensus on the status of those very issues in the subject—societies—under study.

Imputed Sources of Cultural Coherence

In a recent essay on the concept of social structure (Smelser 1988), I noted a fundamental distinction made by most theorists who have used the concept. That distinction is between:

1. The designation and empirical description of structures of (a) activities (commonly called institutions ) that appear to be regularly and systematically related to one another and (b) the relations among collectivities (commonly groups, parties, or classes); this is social structure proper.

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2. The reasons, causes , or explanations for these regularities; among the most common are ideas of survival or adaptive advantage provided by structure, meeting of functional requirements, economic domination, and the like; furthermore, these would constitute what we generally refer to as theories of social structure.

One conclusion I reached in the essay was that at the definitional and descriptive level most scholars revealed some consensus, despite serious methodological difficulties in measuring social structure. At the level of reasons, causes, and explanations, however, one could discover most of the major polemics in sociology—polemics that could be traced, moreover, to the major disputes over first premises and fundamental paradigms in the field.

A similar, but not identical, distinction can be made with respect to the issue of cultural coherence and incoherence. (The difference lies in the fact that the definition of culture is a subject of much uncertainty and ambiguity.) On the one hand, ethnographers and other empirical investigators have uncovered repeated patterns of beliefs, customs, values, and rituals that seem to persist over time. On the other, the reasons adduced for such patterning are multiple, and they are the subject for a great deal of theoretical difference and debate.

What follows is a sample of theoretical presuppositions about the reasons for a presumed cultural coherence that are found in the sociological and anthropological literature. These are not exhaustive, nor are all the subvarieties of each identified. This recitation, however, will cover a significant range of recent theorizing about culture.

An Expression of Psychological Conditions or Processes

Wuthnow (1987) described the emphasis on cultural coherence as an expression of psychological conditions or processes as the "subjective approach" to culture. Here I underscore not so much the contents, "ideas, moods, motivations and goals" (11), as the bases on which those contents are organized. One example of this approach is the "culture and personality" school that dominated post-World War II cultural anthropology. Its informing psychological perspective was the psychoanalytic. The integration of any particular cultural system (mythological or religious systems were commonly studied) was generally traced to some special feature of childhood socialization, some

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developmental trauma, or a "cultural neurosis." An instance is found in the work of Whiting and Child (1953), who attributed cross-cultural differences in popular explanations of disease to the relative severity of child discipline at various phases of psychosexual development. Malinowski's (1948) treatment of magic and, to a large extent, religion was psychologically—but not psychoanalytically—derived, for it treated beliefs and practices as addressing practical and existential uncertainties. The same might be said for Weber's (1968) comparative treatment of world religions as, in part, different resolutions of the uncertainties and anxieties associated with the universal "problem of theodicy."

A Mode of Simplifying and Giving Meaning to the Complexity of Experience

The formulations of Geertz (1973) regard culture as simultaneously a product of and a guide to actors searching for organized categories and interpretations that provide a meaningful experiential link to their rounds of social life. As such, culture is both a simplifying and an ordering device. In a similar formulation, Berger and Luckmann (1967) found both cultural and social order arising from the processes of typification and reification that extend from situations of action and interaction—situations that are, without ordering, so uncertain and ambiguous that they could not be tolerated. The result of these processes is a system of patterned values, meanings, and beliefs that give cognitive structure to the world, provide a basis for coordinating and controlling human interactions, and constitute a link as the system is transmitted from one generation to the next. These formulations, like the psychoanalytic ones cited previously, are ultimately psychological, but rest more on cognitive, rather than motivational, bases.

A Reflection of Structural Pressure for Consistency

This emphasis is not unlike that just mentioned, but it contains elements of social-structural as well as cognitive consistency. An example is the phenomenon of the strain toward consistency among institutions and ideas in society, which is posited as a means of achieving cultural and social harmony among diverse and possibly contradic-

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tory sociocultural elements. Another example is found in Weber's (1968) notion of elective affinity , which is invoked to explain why certain groups (for example, peasants and merchants) are drawn to one or another religious belief. Finally, Parsons (1951) depicts ideology (an ingredient of culture) as a system of elaborated and rationalized statements (including empirical assertions) that attempt to make "compatible" those potential normative conflicts and discrepancies between expectations and reality that actors confront. The logic by which such cultural integration is achieved is variable; it may rest on a general sense of appropriateness, on distortion in the interests of minimizing contradiction or conflict, or on some special stylistic motif (Levine 1968).

A Logico-Meaningful Working Out of First Premises

This line of analysis seeks to find consistency or coherence in logical or aesthetic tendencies in cultural organization. A prime example is the work of Sorokin, already mentioned, in which the first principles of the sensate mentality ramify and work themselves out in the realms of epistemology, philosophy, religion, the arts, and so on, and thus lend a consistent organization to sensate culture as a whole. A second example is the formulations of Kroeber (1944), who regarded cultural dynamics as involving first the selection of a few core cultural premises from the myriad of possibilities; second, the systematic differentiation, cultural specialization, cultural play, and elaboration of those premises; and, finally, the exhaustion and cultural decline of the premises.

The sociology-of-science approach of Kuhn (1962) bears a close formal relation to that of Kroeber; his notion of a scientific paradigm is that of cultural first principles, wherein permutations and combinations are gradually elaborated and played out through the work of "normal science." Scientific innovation—that is, the development of a new paradigm—arises as existing paradigms fail in their efforts to solve problems or exhaust their possibilities. Weber's theory of cultural rationalization is another example; in his sociology of music, Weber (1958b) tells the story of the development of first principles such as musical scale, harmony, and sequence into elaborated styles (baroque, Classical, and so on) as expressions of the possibilities of the basic parameters. The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss must also be placed in the tradition of assigning cultural coherence through the logico-meaningful working out of first principles; many of his analyses (1963) take the principle of

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"paired opposites"—a universal principle rooted in the nature of the mind (if not the brain)—and its cultural elaboration. This type of structuralism derived in part from the work of Durkheim (1951 [1913]) and Durkheim and Mauss (1963), who, however, tended to treat cultural categories as "projections" of social-structural realities.

In a general formulation of this principle, Benedict (1934) asserted that all the cultures she identified were "permeated . . . by one dominating idea." Parsons (1953) posited a "paramount value system" that characterizes the cultural system of any given society (for example, universalistic achievement in the United States) and works its way through a diversity of social and political systems, including stratification. In all these examples there does not appear to be any special basis for selecting the cultural first principles—though in some cases universal, existential features of the human condition are specified—but a logic of symbolic consistency governs the process by which cultural coherence develops. (These bases for coherence reviewed thus far all meld, but, viewed generally, they correspond to the tripartite specification of analytic levels depicted by Sorokin (1947) and Parsons and Shils (1951) among personality, society, and culture itself.

An Expression of Domination

The main intellectual roots of this tradition of cultural analysis are found in the work of Karl Marx. In The German Ideology , he and Engels expressed the classic version:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance (1965, 62).

The twin themes of this formulation are cultural domination as such and, within that, the economic or class basis of domination. Examples of such domination, cited by Marxian analysts, are the imposition of salvationist religious ideas as soporific counters to workers' misery and the Malthusian theories of population and poverty as justifications for repressive poor laws (Engels 1987 [1845]). The meaning and coher-

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ence of these cultural ideas are made intelligible by their reference to the situation of class domination in classical capitalism.

Much of the history of one tradition of cultural analysis can be read as a working out of themes and variations on the notion of culture as an instrument of domination. In fact, a certain line of theory on culture in the past decades is a variation on the theme of class domination. This theoretical tradition is marked by efforts to retain the fundamental notion of domination or repression, but it rejects or alters other ingredients of the Marx-Engels formula, such as the idea of economic determination and the reduction of culture to material considerations. Without pretense of exhaustiveness, I close this section of the essay by noting some of the threads in this tradition.

The first is the explicit challenge to the emphasis on economic/class domination by those who still explicitly define themselves within the Marxist perspective. Gramsci's (1971) rejection of strict economic reductionism and assertion of the independence of superstructures, especially the political superstructure, is the most evident example. His notion of hegemony, with a cultural component, retains the idea of domination, however, and thus could be regarded (as he saw it) as faithful to the Marxist tradition. The formulations of both Marcuse (1964) and Habermas (1970, 1975) depart from the vision (early capitalist) of bourgeoisie cultural domination of the proletariat. For them both classes and class consciousness have become fragmented and diffused in late capitalism. For this phase Marcuse stressed a form of cultural domination through which the ruling classes imposed a false consciousness of consumerism on the masses, especially by employing technology and the media. Habermas also deemphasized traditional class domination and stressed, instead, the capacity of the state/administrative apparatus in late capitalism to impose technical/rational ideologies on the masses and thus intrude on their culture and life-world. The formulations of Althusser (1970, 1971), while also critical of the determinative structure-superstructure relation, nevertheless retained the idea of a dominant class that reproduces itself, in large part through the control of ideology and culture. His concept of the ideological state apparatus as an instrument of reproducing the relations of production indicates the central role of culture in his formulations. Williams (1958) treated the idea of culture in transitional societies as "the product of the old leisured classes who seek now to defend it against new and destructive forces" (319). Despite these qualifications and reformulations, Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner (1980) argue that a

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key notion of a "dominant ideology" still survives, a notion that implies "benefit" for the dominant classes and quiescence of the subordinated classes as a result of concealing the major contradictions in society.

A second thread of culture-as-domination is found in analyses of the media as culture industry. The notion was developed in the early work of critical theory, especially in Adorno (1973), Horkheimer and Adorno (1972), and Lowenthal (1967), as one strand of the British school of "cultural studies" (see Featherstone in chapter 10 and Hall 1986), and in American studies on the media and advertising (for example, Gitlin 1983; Schudson 1984; Tuchman 1978, 1988). In this tradition, culture itself is regarded as an economic institution, with the processes of production, distribution, and consumption treated as a market, political, and class phenomenon. The culture industry thread can be regarded as a specialized strand of the Marxist/critical traditions, in which the particulars of a dominant economic class recede but the ideas of domination and hegemony persist.

Two figures in contemporary French sociology also retain the thread of domination in their sociologies of culture. Foucault's essays on punishment (1977) and sexuality (1981) are clearly studies of cultural domination, although he is vague about the precise agencies or apparatus that exercise power (and thus moves away from more specific theories of domination such as those of Marx or Habermas) and concentrates, rather, on the mechanisms and processes by which surveillance, discipline, and cultural repression are carried out. Bourdieu also takes the notion of hierarchy, class, and domination as his point of intellectual departure. He focuses, however, on how individuals and classes accumulate the "cultural capital"—language, education, cultivation, and so on—that constitutes a central mechanism in the reproduction of inequality and domination. This cultural capital is generated particularly in the educational system (Bourdieu 1974). The complex processes of socialization generate, for each relevant class in society, a distinctive habitus , or cultural outlook, that serves to shape their knowledge, aspirations, and attitudes toward society and their place in it (1977).

In the recent history of writings on culture, the various threads of culture-as-domination have been central. Interestingly, recent developments in this tradition have tended to diminish cultural content —and by direct implication, the degree of cultural coherence or incoherence—and to concentrate, instead, on processes and mechanisms by which culture is generated and used. In their review of the strands of analysis in the "dominant ideology thesis," for example, Abercrombie, Hill, and

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Turner observe that "the precise content of [a dominant ideology] is not always carefully specified" (1980, 29). Similarly, for Bourdieu, the specific contents of a given habitus are less important than its significance and use as cultural capital in the domination process. In a recent study influenced by both Goffman and Foucault, de Certeau (1984) showed little interest in the content of culture but concentrated on the strategies and tactics of using, making , and consuming culture. Kertzer's (1988) study of ritual and symbolism in politics likewise concentrates on use rather than content:

How political ritual works; how ritual helps build political organizations; how ritual is employed to create political legitimacy; how ritual helps create political solidarity in the absence of political consensus; and how ritual molds people's understandings of the political universe . . . how political competitors struggle for power through ritual, how ritual is employed in both defusing and inciting political conflict, and how ritual serves revolution and revolutionary regimes (14).

Other recent formulations not associated with the culture-as-domination tradition also focus on the use and deployment of culture rather than on its content. For example, Swidler (1986) develops a notion of culture as a reservoir, or a tool kit of values, ideas, beliefs, symbols, and arguments, to be activated selectively according to the different interests of actors and according to different situations. Such a formulation virtually defies characterization according to specific content and even suggests that too much coherence of culture would likely constitute a liability from a strategic point of view.

As a conclusion to this selective survey, I would propose that the historical preoccupation with the degree of coherence and incoherence of culture has diminished as the motifs of domination, strategy, usage, politics, and practice have infused social-scientific thinking about culture.

A Positivist Fallacy in the Analysis of Cultural Coherence

The historical array of divergent opinions on cultural coherence and consensus should not conceal a certain thread of commonality that characterizes that array. Throughout, culture is treated as an object of study and its coherence or incoherence can be established empirically. The philosophical and methodological origins of this ten-

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dency are found in the tradition of sociological positivism, as voiced mainly in the traditions of Comte and Durkheim. This positivistic view carries with it the notion that culture, as an object, has distinctive characteristics that can be described, and a major task of the ethnographer is to describe them. Among those characteristics is the degree of coherence, integration, unity, structure, or system—whatever term is preferred—that a given culture, or culture in general, manifests. The question of coherence thus becomes a matter of empirical determination. Even the conclusion that culture is a thing of shreds and patches—that is, lacks coherence—is a descriptive empirical statement.

This view of cultural coherence, however, ignores the fact that cultural unity or disunity is in large part a function of the vocabulary and the theoretical presuppositions of the investigator . Much of what is thought to be empirical coherence or incoherence is, in fact, endowed or assigned. The conceptual framework of the investigator is thus a crucial "variable" in determining the degree and kind of coherence presented, and, as a result, these will vary with the framework employed. To acknowledge that, moreover, is to change the theoretical and methodological agenda for approaching the issues of cultural coherence and incoherence.

The phenomenon of "interpreter effect" can be appreciated vividly by considering a different but related subject: human dreams. Before the late nineteenth century the dominant explanations of dreams regarded them as the bizarre mental work of the night, gave them credence by referring to some supernatural or divine intervention, or dismissed them as some kind of distorted precipitate from the more conscious and rational psychic experiences of daily life (Freud 1953 [1900], 1–6). In all these explanations dreams certainly had meanings, but they were not thought to be very organized (coherent) productions. It was not until the great discoveries of Freud that dreams were given both a great measure of logical coherence and a closer link with the general processes of psychic life.

The coherence of dreams Freud "discovered" was not based on new empirical materials or crucial experiments. Freud linked the known and familiar subject with a new set of psychological principles: the ideas of instinct and their psychic representation in the human mind, the derived idea of the wish and its fulfillment, the idea of resistance of defense, and the idea of specific modes of distortion arising from defensive work (condensation, displacement, and other symbolic distortions). Further coherence was lent by the notion that certain symbols had universal psychological or anatomical significance (snake = penis, water = child-

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birth, oven = womb), which gave further meaning and organization to dreams. Freud employed precisely the same logic in his parallel interpretation of slips of the tongue and pen (1960 [1901]) and of jokes (1976 [1905]), and he gave both of these phenomena new meaning and organization as well. What was different about the psychoanalytic theory of dreams, slips, and jokes was a new way of looking at and explaining them. The same point applies to Schorske's (1980) effort to add coherence to Freud's own dreams by interpreting them according to Freud's career and to the circumstances of Viennese political life at the end of the nineteenth century. This observation about the nature of scientific discovery is not original. Toulmin (1967) showed that many such discoveries in the physical sciences have resulted from new ways of conceptualizing known experimental results or naturally observed regularities.

In returning to the arena of culture, we may note that Freud attempted to bring a similar kind of coherence into the world of collective productions as well. He regarded them (as he did dreams) as reflections of the dynamics of private neuroses and defenses; they were the "creation[s] of the popular mind in religion, myths and fairy tales as manifesting the same forces in mental life" (Freud 1959a [1907], 252). In one instance he referred to myths as "distorted vestiges of the wishful phantasies of whole nations" (1959b [1908], 152). And in a perhaps overzealous moment, he characterized mythology as "nothing but psychology projected into the external world" (1960 [1901], 258).

More specifically, Freud lent coherence to the content of totemic systems and symbols in primitive religions by treating them as derivatives of the culturally transmitted dread of incest in kinship groups (1953 [1913]). Another great, and competing, theory of primitive religions is found in Durkheim (1951 [1913]). In contrast to Freud, he found coherence in these religious systems by interpreting them as symbolic reflections of the social structures of the primitive societies that generated them. In a similar vein, Malinowski (1971 [1877]) regarded collective myths mainly in terms of their social significance: they express, enhance, and codify cultural beliefs; they safeguard and enforce morality; and they vouch for the efficiency of ritual and contain practical rules for the guidance of social behavior. But while the reasons for assigning coherence to cultural products differ greatly among the three theorists mentioned, their interpretations did not emerge from the discovery of any new material in the myths and religious systems they analyzed; most of their "data" were taken from secondary summaries produced by ethnographers and historians. The new "coherence" of

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culture was to be found in some view of human nature, social organization, or social control. Other interpretations generated within frameworks would portray different kinds and degrees of coherence or, perhaps, lack of coherence.

The tension between two methodological options reviewed—the empirical recording and description of cultural coherence versus a coherence derived from an imposed conceptual framework—has not been absent from theories of culture. Two of the great students of culture, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963), took an uneasy approach to the issue of whether cultural coherence is identifiable or whether it is the creative abstraction of an investigator. On the one hand, they defined culture as a kind of abstraction gleaned from a complicated array of empirical observations: "[Culture] is the name given to [the] abstracted, intercorrelated customs of a social group." That is to say, culture is an empirically derived construct. Furthermore, they insisted that the degree of integration of a culture should be considered an empirical variable to be investigated. With this definition Kroeber and Kluckhohn placed themselves in the positivist tradition.

They did not settle finally on this solution, however. Their ambivalence toward it appeared in the discussion of explicit versus implicit culture. The former consists of those patterns that were reportable and available to members of the culture and readily recordable on the basis of accounts given by those members. However, cultures manifest other patterns that must be teased out by anthropological investigators; these constitute implicit culture, which appears to demand a methodology different from that used in describing explicit culture:

When we turn to those unconscious (i.e., unverbalized) predispositions toward the definitions of the situation which members of a certain society traditionally exhibit, we have to deal with second-order analytic abstractions. The patterns of the implicit culture are not inductive, generalizing abstractions. . . . They are thematic elements which the investigator introduces to explain connections among the wide range of culture content that are not obvious from the world of observation. The patterns of the implicit culture start, of course, from a consideration of data, and they must be validated by a return to the data, but they undoubtedly rest upon systematic extrapolation. When describing implicit culture, the anthropologist cannot hope to become a relatively passive, objective instrument. His role is more active; he necessarily puts something into the data, whereas the trustworthiness of an anthropologist's portrayal of explicit culture depends on his receptivity, his completeness, his detachment, and upon the skill and care with which he makes his inductive generalizations. The validity of his conceptual model of the implicit culture stands or falls with the balance

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achieved between sensitivity, scientific imagination, and comparative freedom from preconception (1963, 334).

Kroeber and Kluckhohn seemed both to have and to eat their methodological cake—empiricism for explicit culture and investigator-generated "sensitivity and scientific imagination" for implicit culture. I find their dualistic solution methodologically unsatisfactory, largely because the description of "explicit culture" also involves an active investigator espousing explicit or implicit conceptual frameworks. Kroeber and Kluckhohn appeared to recognize this when they said that "[even] the culture trait is an abstraction. A trait is an 'ideal type' because no two pots are identical nor are two marriage ceremonies held in the same way" (334). The decision of what specific empirical items should be categorized as belonging to an ideal "trait" is in large part a function of an independent, framework-informed decision on the part of the investigator. For this reason both the distinction between explicit and implicit culture and the methodological distinction between the different understandings of the two tend to break down.

If this revision of the positivistic view of culture is correct, it also changes our approach to cultural coherence, leading us to treat it in large part as a product of how we as interpreters think about it. Such a conclusion may, moreover, appear to convey a somewhat pessimistic message to those with scientific aspirations about the study of culture. To regard cultural coherence as generated by its various students appears to lend a measure of arbitrariness to its study ("it all depends on how you look at it") and appears to undermine a scientific faith in the reality, observability, and measurability of the phenomena of culture. I do not share that pessimistic conclusion; at the end of the chapter, I will suggest a reformulation of the idea of culture that retains its place in social-scientific study. Before presenting that, however, I will note a few additional methodological problems in the use of culture as an explanatory category.

Several More Methodological Problems

As the idea of culture has evolved in the social and behavioral sciences, it has encountered a number of methodological problems that have limited its usefulness as a social-scientific concept. I list this interconnected set of problems in no particular order of gravity.

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Evaluative and Ideological Connotations

Part of the problem of the concept's evaluative and ideological connotations and the accompanying difficulty in escaping them derives from the fact that, historically, culture has meant something higher on the part of those individuals, groups, or societies that possess it (note the evaluative connotations of cultured and uncultured ). In addition, the concept itself has been used historically as a demeaning and controlling ideology of stratification and class (Williams 1958). This means that dialogues about culture tend to be about values and preferences and that questions such as "Do African Americans have a distinctive culture?" almost invariably become the stuff of ideological, rather than intellectual or scientific, debates.


In their review several decades ago, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) listed scores of identifiable, if somewhat overlapping meanings, and the parade of accumulation has continued at an unknown rate. In the early pages of chapter 3, Eisenstadt traces various shifts in emphasis over time, and Wuthnow (1987, 6–7) elsewhere has noted some difficulties, mainly in communication and replication, associated with the proliferation of meanings. With respect to using the concept in social-science analysis, the multiplicity of meanings makes it an entity difficult to treat as a variable , either dependent or independent. Vagueness and multiple meanings means that a concept is, in fact, many variables, not all of which are explicit.


Historically, inclusiveness reflects the tendency in early anthropology to embrace values, ideas, beliefs, customs, usages, institutions, technology, and material artifacts. This phenomenon of inclusiveness persists, as Mayntz indicates at the outset of chapter 8. From a methodological point of view, it creates the same problems as vagueness: the difficulty of treating culture as an entity that can be explained or can operate as an explanatory variable.


The concept's tendency toward circularity follows in large part from the two preceding characteristics. If the concept of

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culture itself is so vague and inclusive, then including an empirical indicator within its scope of definition and meaning cannot be justified. Moreover, to say that some institution or item of behavior is "explained" by culture often amounts to little more than renaming it according to its cultural location or identity. These problems also frustrate the use of the concept in scientific explanations.

Global Character

Most concepts used in the behavioral and social sciences are at the individual, group, and social-relational (roles, institutions) levels of analysis and, as such, are identifiable parts of a larger unit of analysis: society. A typical explanation is the establishment of an association between two or more phenomena at one or more of these levels of analysis; for example, differential crime rates or political attitudes are found to be associated with group memberships or institutional location, and some causal—often psychological—mechanism linking the two is posited. Because the notion of culture is often conceptualized as a global, unitary characteristic of the society or a group, to link it causally with phenomena in individual, group, or institutional behavior poses difficulties in explaining variations in such behavior. This point is a variant on the general principle that it is methodologically difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain variations by reference to a constant. This observation is also related to the often-mentioned difficulty of extending the concept of culture—portrayed as relatively enduring—to processes of social change. Weber's (1958a, 1968) analysis of the transformative potential of certain types of religious belief is a noted exception to this complaint but does not diminish its force.

Some Corresponding Conceptual and Methodological Suggestions

While I was developing the observations in this chapter, a number of constructive suggestions came to mind, and I conclude with them. An immediate qualification is in order, however. There are evidently many avenues, styles, and emphases in investigating cultural phenomena: as a social-scientific concept and variable, as a literary or narrative text, as a philosophical system, and as a way to evaluate the high or

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low attainments of a civilization. All of these are legitimate enterprises in their own right, and all merit scholarly pursuit. Furthermore, they should be regarded as independent from one another in many respects and not as competitors in the same explanatory or methodological race. In venturing the following conceptual and methodological suggestions, I limit their intent to the first mode, namely culture as a social-scientific concept.

First, culture is in large part a construct about the society or group under study rather than a simple empirical attribute to be apprehended, recorded, and described. That means that the investigator, as well as the conceptual apparatus he or she brings to the study, must be considered as an active factor—a source of variation—in understanding what a culture is and what its characteristics are. To argue this is simply to assert that the process which necessarily occurs in investigating culture should be made explicit in the operation of apprehending it.

Second, the coherence and incoherence of a culture or some part of it also vary according to the framework that is used to describe it. To appreciate this point changes the investigator's scientific agenda. The salient question is not how coherent or incoherent is a culture; that repeats the positivist fallacy identified previously. The more appropriate question is how useful or powerful is it—from the standpoint of generating scientific explanations—to portray a culture as relatively coherent or incoherent. In short, a cultural description should be assessed primarily on its explanatory adequacy or its usefulness as an explanatory element rather than on its significance as an empirical description.

To thus conceptualize culture is to regard it as a heuristic device in scientific investigation. Its explanatory role is akin to the heuristic device of "rationality" or "rational choice" used by economists and others. (Note Eisenstadt's remark, in chapter 3, that rational-choice analysis treats "culture as the result of the aggregation of individual choices.") The idea of rational choice in economic and other analysis, is, indeed, an idea of culture, however thin that idea may be. Methodologically, moreover, the status of rational-choice constructs is that of an intervening explanatory variable. Its intervention is "between" certain changes in actors' environments (for example, price changes in products) and patterns of behavior that result from those changes. Changing the parameters of rational-choice constructs, that is, positing different preferences and rationalities, results in different ranges of prediction about the resultant behavior. More generally, other conceptions of culture—based on cultural constructs other than rational-choice models—can profit-

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ably serve as intervening devices in explanations of behavior and institutional structure.

Third, to argue that culture is a heuristic device does not imply that its conceptualization should be arbitrary or unconnected with empirical observation. There is every reason to believe that certain rules for the empirical description of culture can be developed and that the adequacy of posited descriptions can be assessed according to those rules. In that sense the concept of culture becomes similar to a hypothesis, that is, a statement that can be demonstrated to be more or less true (or adequate or inadequate) in light of its correspondence with empirical rules of verification (or description). Some depictions of culture will fare better than others in relation to these rules of description. Furthermore, empirical descriptions of cultures as coherent or as incoherent will also fare differently in relation to such rules. Given the rational-choice analysis, it is possible (and advisable) to rely on two separate modes of evaluating a given model. The first is its utility in accounting for market and other behavior when incorporated into a predictive statement; for example, an exclusively monetary definition of utility may not prove to be a valuable tool in predicting consumer behavior. The second is assessing the posited utility function by direct empirical evidence (for example, by interviews, laboratory investigations, and examination of document or rituals) of its existence and validity as a general psychological principle. Both its limitations as a heuristic device and its lack of presence or viability as a cultural/psychological principle may constitute occasions for revising it. The same general observations apply more generally to the use of culture as a variable in social-science explanation.

Fourth, the concept of culture should, as far as possible, be disaggregated into discrete parts (values, beliefs, ideologies, preferences) and, correspondingly, not be treated as a global entity. These parts should be represented, furthermore, as variables rather than as global attributes of a society or group. This strategy is aimed at overcoming the methodological difficulties occasioned by properties of vagueness, multiple meanings, and circular definition that the concept of culture has customarily carried.

Finally, and returning to the issue of coherence-incoherence, I suggest one approach above and beyond its empirically informed description and use as an intervening, explanatory concept. It seems that any systematic effort on the part of an investigator to depict a society's culture will inevitably yield a significant measure of incoherence—incompleteness, illogicality, contradiction—in his or her rendition. To choose only one example, it is likely that any culture will present a

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number of contradictory adages or sayings ("look before you leap" and "he who hesitates is lost") as part of its repertoire. Similar discrepancies will appear in a culture's moral system and ideologies. Such a depiction, however, is only the beginning of analysis. In addition to that representation of relative incoherence, it is necessary to identify the whole range of individual and social pressures and tendencies that work to present the culture as more coherent or less coherent than it appears . For example, just as individuals tend to develop personal "myths" about themselves that may downplay conflicts and contradictions in their personalities, so do individuals and groups tend to represent their culture as more coherent or consistent than it appears on the basis of a social-scientific investigator's depiction. Actors in society may tend to represent the culture as incoherent or contradictory as well; for example, opposition parties and revolutionary groups may be bent on discrediting the "integrative myths" advertised by those in power. By attending to these tendencies and their dynamics, the investigator moves beyond the issue of the empirical characterization of cultural coherence and incoherence and treats it as an integral part of the stakes of the game of social control, social conflict, and social change.


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The Cultic Roots of Culture

Eugene Halton

. . . man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.
—Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act 2, scene 2

—New word coined in sign language by an ape to describe what it did at night.

A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. No age proves it more than ours. Monkey chatter is at last the most disastrous of all things.
—D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places

What is culture? The usual way of answering this question is to trace the modern history of the "culture concept" from E. B. Tylor to the present. Such a history can be quite revealing, because the culture concept itself is a cultural indicator of the major intellectual tendencies and battles over the past century. The joint statement in 1958 by A. L. Kroeber and Talcott Parsons on culture formalized a kind of a truce between structural functionalism and cultural anthropology,

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ratified by the two leading proponents of each camp (some may have regarded it as what in business is called a "hostile takeover attempt" of the culture concept by Parsons, although "corporate merger" might be a more apt expression).

The culture concept, now a hotly contested topic for sociologists (as perhaps signified by the theme of this book), remains a profound indicator of contemporary intellectual culture. Although academic sociology has finally seemed to acknowledge the importance of culture, as seen in the recent creation of cultural sociology sections of the German and American sociological associations in the past few years, this does not at all ensure that the concern with culture will animate new directions for theory. The very term culture is so indeterminate that it can easily be filled in with whatever preconceptions a theorist brings to it.

Indeed, the sociology of the new culture section in the American association suggests that the objectivist and positivist prejudices of mainstream American sociology are appropriating the "soft" concept of culture by making it "hard." A peculiar irony of this development is that the objectivists share a tendency with relativists to view culture in purely conventional terms. Hence the inner social aspects of culture—subjective meanings, aesthetic qualities of works of art or common experience, the "spontaneous combustion" of new ways of feeling, doing, and conceiving—are either proclaimed to be not sociological, reduced to external considerations, or are virtually ignored. The outer aspects, the externals of culture, such as reputations, "tool kit" strategies of action, social networks, and production standards, although admittedly social, are enlarged to cover the whole meaning of culture (for example, Becker 1982; Swidler 1986; Griswold 1987; Wuthnow 1987). The result is that culture legitimates new topics of study while simultaneously being tamed to meet the expectations of actually existing sociology: old wine comes out of new bottles, and we remain, to paraphrase Shakespeare, most ignorant of what we're most assur'd, our glassy social essence.

By beginning with a brief tour of the contemporary landscape of culture theory, I hope to show how current conceptions of meaning and culture tend toward extreme forms of abstraction and disembodiment, indicating an alienation from the original, earthy meaning of the word culture , I will then turn to the earlier meanings of the word and why the "cultic," the living impulse to meaning, was and remains essential to a conception of culture as semiosis or sign-action. Putting the "cult" back in culture requires a reconception of the relations between human biol-

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ogy and meaning, and I touch on this by looking at dreaming as a borderland between biology and culture, a thoroughly social, yet private, experience. Dreaming not only highlights the cultic roots of culture—the spontaneous impulse to meaning—but also illustrates one way in which the technics of the biosocial human body forms the primary source of culture. Sociologists have seldom considered dreaming itself, perhaps because it seems nonsocial. Yet I will attempt to show why dreaming, although private, is a thoroughly cultural, biological, communicative activity. The deepest implications of this chapter are that contemporary modern culture in general, and intellectual culture in particular, have unnecessarily narrowed our conceptions of meaning and culture and that by undertaking a broad historical reconstruction of human consciousness and communication—known in the German context as philosophical anthropology —we can see why culture seeps into our very biological constitution: cultus , the impulse to meaning.

A Report to the Academy

In Franz Kafka's "A Report to an Academy," an ape gives a lecture on his acquisition of symbolic consciousness. He describes his long months in a tiny iron cage on board the ship that brought him to occidental civilization and the unbearable loneliness that tortured him into a state of cultivation. Becoming communicative, as he put it, was his "only way out." He learned to become rational, to communicate, to drink schnapps and wine. He became socialized into a "cultural system," and, in ways quite consistent with what most contemporary theorists of culture believe, he became utterly estranged from his animal nature. Thus, when presented with a female ape mate, he could only see "the insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eye," a dimwitted unconscious creature of nature, uncivilized, incapable of drinking wine, let alone schnapps.

I would like to propose Kafka's ape, this hairy biped virtually reduced to talking, as the ideal type of ethereal creature proposed by most contemporary theories of culture. This creature, regardless of whether one reads of him in structuralist, poststructuralist, or critical accounts, or in structural-functionalist and neofunctionalist ones, is a product of unfeeling systems; his or her actions thoroughly stamped with the impress of an inorganic, rational system.

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The proponents of Kafka's ape usually assume that meaning is a systemic property, that signification forms a logical system, and that culture is a code for order. Even the antirationalist opposite proposed by some "postmodern" theorists, such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, remains tethered to the structuralist logic it acts out against and infected with the old Cartesian "ghost in the machine" dichotomy: the ethereal ape of deep structural code and poststructural fission, without presence; his or her body reduced to a text. When Lyotard proclaims his pseudorevolutionary postmodernism, "Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name," we see merely another avatar of what painter Ernst Fuchs has called the invisible dictator , a servant of the ghost in the machine mentality of modernity who happens to reside on the ethereal side of the dichotomy. If modernity is characterized as cultural nominalism (Rochberg-Halton 1986)—a dichotomous worldview that falsely divides thoughts from things, producing an ethereal conception of mind and a materialized conception of nature—then we can well understand why Lyotard suddenly waxes nostalgic to "save the honor," not of a flesh and blood creature but of "the name" itself in its abstract generality.

The same etherealizing and mechanizing tendencies reside on the other half of the great divide of cultural nominalism, for humanity incarnate is also the unacknowledged enemy of many current biologically based theories of culture, such as those of human ethology or sociobiology. The seeming antithesis to the ethereal ape of structuralism and poststructuralism, the so-called natural man of ethology and sociobiology, likewise shares a domination by the calculating character of modern rationality. Like Caliban of The Tempest , that nasty and brutish subhuman, the creature of ethology and sociobiology is all appetite and impulsive greed. Yet these Hobbesian "state of nature" emotions are themselves façades for a cunning, underlying, rational genetic choice theory. Indeed structuralism, poststructuralism, rational-choice theory, and the rational calculation imputed to the genes by sociobiology are only apparently opposed; inwardly they speak the same disembodied language. The incarnate human body, with its stored capacities of memory and tempered abilities to suffer experience and engender meaning, is epiphenomenal in the sociobiologists' accounts; all that truly matters is the ethereal rational self-interest and its total willy-nilly maximalization (Rochberg-Halton 1989a).

We see the same ethereal language, albeit in a different dialect, in

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those theories that view culture as "a system of symbols and meanings," as though system were the be-all and end-all of culture and human action. Such theories claim to do justice to the systematic nature of human signification, but in reality they grossly exaggerate those aspects of signification concerning conceptual systems—as though culture were a domain of knowledge instead of a way of living—while ignoring or distorting those aspects of signification that reside outside the boundaries of rationality and systems. These latter forms of significatory experience include dreaming, imaginative projection, lived and suffered experience and its contingencies—what Charles Peirce termed iconic (or qualitative ) signs and indexical signs (signs of physicality or existence)—as well as symbolic signs that are conceived within a living context and a larger purport beyond the narrow confines of system and rationality.

In founding modern semiotics toward the end of the nineteenth century, Peirce proposed that signification occurs through three modalities of being. He demonstrated logically not only why signs can represent their objects qualitatively, existentially, and conventionally but also why all three modalities are inherently social (Rochberg-Halton 1986). His existential signs, or indexical signs, are therefore fundamentally unlike the positivist notion of semantic reference, with which they are sometimes confused. Similarly, iconic signs, in being wholly within semiosis, or sign-action, convey essences , or the qualities of their objects, within the social process of interpretation. Iconic signs may exist within social conventions, yet are not reducible to conventional signification. Both advocates and critics of essentialism tend to view essences as outside of the realm of signs, yet Peirce's concept of iconic signs undercuts both positions. Such nonconventional modalities of signification are fundamental to a vital culture and civilization, I claim, though they may fall outside the pale of conventionalist theories.

In the etherealized language of contemporary theory, the "natural" human of sociobiology and the "cultural" one of individualistic or systematic conceptualism are equally divested of organic nature and personhood. Even an ape can see that these creatures are simply lackeys of rationalism, ignorant of their "glassy essence."

Culture theory is facing the problem portrayed in the 1950s American science fiction movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers . In this movie the citizens of a small American city are secretly replaced gradually by alien replicas grown from pods that have fallen from outer space. When placed near a sleeping human body, the pods assume control by appropriating memory, personality characteristics, and a perfect physi-

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cal resemblance; all they lack is human emotions. As the pod creature blooms in the night, the human creature withers, so that the next morning—presto!—a real vegetable substitute walks and talks in embodied form and the "system of symbols and meanings" is virtually unchanged: people still drink coffee and read the newspapers in the modern manner criticized by Camus, though fornication has become obsolete. But of course there is one major change in the culture of this town, for the system of symbols and meanings has taken on a distinctly alien life of its own, and the one passion left to the quasi-carnivorous vegetarians—if I may so describe creatures who absorb human flesh while remaining vegetables—is to transform all human life to their system of perfect, dispassionate being, to their rational system of symbols and meanings.

Now many valid interpretations of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be given. It could signify the paranoia of the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Or, in its remade version from the 1980s, it might signify the neo-1950s paranoia of the neo-McCarthyite neoconservatives. It could also be taken to signify the deadliness of "organization man," as a sort of collective synonym for Willy Loman of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman . We could also interpret this movie as a prophecy of the evisceration of the American city by the "alien" automobile and shopping mall, a process that began in earnest in the 1950s and continues unabated today, leaving in its wake "urbanoid tissue." For my purposes the movie is a popular narrative of mythic rationality: the progressive loss of natural human capacities resulting from the dictatorship of the megamachine of modernity. The cultural processes that effuse from the movie in phobic form are expressed in recent culture theories in intellectual form.

Culture theory, in its dominant contemporary manifestations, is to my poor ape eyes an old science fiction movie, practiced by would-be body snatchers: some claim to transform the body into a text or into communicative "talking heads"; still others seek to appropriate the human capacity to body forth meaning to the depersonalized system, for example, Niklas Luhmann's concept of autopoeisis . A considerable number of feminists have as their goal, not the reform of gender relations, but the eradication of gender: they take a neutered androgeny as an ideal instead of as a form of deprivation. Camus regretted modern man, reduced to a life of coffee drinking, newspaper reading, and fornicating. What would he say of our genderless, eviscerated, postmodern person, reduced to the status of a text? At least Camus's modern man could have a little coffee and sex now and then. Whether one regards gender as

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limited to conventional social roles or, as I believe, an aspect of one's identity with deep biosemiotic roots in the human body, femininity and masculinity ought to be celebrated as part of what it means to be human. The attempt to eradicate gender differences is based on the mistaken assumption that genderlessness is requisite for social equality. Those who would devalue gender are unwitting accomplices of the invisible dictator of modernity, the neutered ghost in the machine.

The body has recently emerged as a major theme in intellectual life, but it is for the most part a conceptualized and etherealized body modeled on the text: the gospel of postmodernism seems to proclaim that "the flesh was made word and dwells among us!" In other words, it is not so much "body language" that is now fashionable as the body as language. The rhetoric of the body, the conventionalization of the body, and the symbolism of gender differences can all be significant topics. But when we note how little is said about the organic, biological body in these discussions, we begin to suspect that the academic megamachine is continuing its work of rational etherealization. Such is perhaps more clearly the case in Paul Ricouer's and Jacques Derrida's calls to view human action and social life as texts or in Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action, which says much about rational talkers talking, but very little about actors acting: felt, perceptive, imaginative, bodily experience does not fit these theories (Rochberg-Halton 1989b).

Or consider the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, who introduced the idea of autopoeisis to account for self-generating systems. Here we see another contemporary avatar of the megamachine. The abstract, lifeless "systems" theory, because it excludes the living humans who comprise the social "system" as significant, ignores those natural capacities of life for self-making and self-generation. Autopoeisis must ignore poeisis

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