CULTURE AS A PRODUCT
Hall and Neitz (1993) provide an inclusive definition of culture that describes it as 1) ideas, knowledge (correct, wrong, or unverifiable belief), and recipes for doing things; 2) humanly fabricated tools (shovels, sewing machines, and computers); and 3) products of social action that can be drawn upon in the conduct of social life (apple pie, television, or highways). This definition seems to leave out “doing” culture in preference of culture as a thing.
Culture as a product requires a macro-level approach written about quite often by classical social theorists. Culture as a thing, an object, or something external to human beings could be defined as a Durkheimian “social fact” that is a collective constraining force (Smith and Riley 2009). With this approach, theorists may make the concession that culture is a product of social construction, but it becomes so large and external that it then acts back upon us. Culture acts on us all (DiMaggio 1997). None of us can escape its grasp. The tragedy of culture, as discussed by Simmel (1968) is when objective culture comes to dominate subjective souls; when things dominate people.
Our social institutions are dominating. We are beholden to rules, laws, and social norms. We created a legal system that is now incarcerating more people than at any point in human history. Our churches have begun to use a rational-choice model (Stark and Finke 2000) that has abandoned intimate settings for the “mega church” which typically houses thousands of churchgoers at one time. Our economy has a mind of its own, tearing itself from the shackles of regulation over and over again. Our government no longer serves the electorate, but special interests with never-ending pockets. “Things” have come to dominate people.
Money, for Simmel, transforms human interactions by making them more impersonal (Smith and Riley 2009). Money has come to dominate people. This is a similar concept to Marx’s base/superstructure theory (Smith and Riley 2009). For Marx, the capitalist economy is the base for all cultural institutions and structures. The desire to increase money or capital is the root system in Western societies. Our culture and capitalism are intertwined and almost interchangeable.
Although Marx never fully developed a cultural theory (Williams 1958), the base/superstructure argument presents a solid foundation for the economy as a basis for society. We face alienation as we are removed more and more from the product, process, our species being, and our fellows in a profit obsessed capitalist society (Smith and Riley 2009). The base of our culture, capitalism, is unforgiving. It is an amoral system that is not concerned with the well-being of the laborers within it. Capitalism now dominates Christianity as working on Sundays and religious holidays is required at many retail establishments. Capitalism subsumes the family when stores make Thanksgiving a blackout day, requiring all employees to be available regardless of family plans so they can open doors and sell more useless products to those who typically cannot afford them to impress people who do not care.
One of the most obvious examples of this is the culture industry (Adorno1975). Art for art’s sake is a foreign practice in contemporary America. It has become a commodity rather than art and a commodity. The music industry, for example has standardized its practices. In order to be commercially successful with the backing of a major record label, your band must already have a following, already be able to sell records, and have 3-minute long songs that are inundated with a “hook” – a catchy melody that sticks in your head, a hook is typically a vocal line or guitar riff. Almost every band or artist on radio, regardless of genre, has these characteristics. These standardizations of the culture industry are also found in film, television, fast food, websites, social media, the 24-hour-news-media, churches, and just about every other rationalized entity in our society.
Of course, if you want to be accepted into a product based culture, one must have some sort of knowledge of the objects of mass culture. There are positive sanctions, like invitations to engage in these cultural objects with others, and there are negative sanctions like being an unwanted social outcast.
A major implication of culture as a product, is that affecting change is incredibly difficult. One of the most powerful indicators of this dilemma is directly traced to the economy. The power of individuals is almost entirely given to larger institutions. Political donations are poured into political action committees (PACs) or special interest lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), or labor unions, because writing your Senator is not as powerful as a large campaign donation from an organization with whom you want to associate.
This all seems overwhelming for many of us. It can lead to a blasé attitude (Smith and Riley 2009), we shut down our emotional responses due to overwhelming stimulation. Many of us shrug our shoulders and allow culture to engulf us. Our desire becomes an effort to exist within a culture, rather than try to change it. While Marx and Simmel would resist the effort to merely go along with the flow, there are benefits to doing so.
According to Pew Research (Anderson and Lopez 2018), first generation African immigrants who assimilate into the dominant American culture are more educated and financially successful than their American born counterparts. Asian immigrants, once seen as an undesirable group, have also assimilated into American culture and lead all racial and ethnic categories in most measures of academic and fiscal success. It would appear that going along with culture as a dominating force has its benefits.
Durkheim’s idea of organic solidarity (Smith and Riley 2009) presents an argument that increased social divisions and divisions of labor creates solidarity. We all benefit from a unified culture that embraces our difference as mechanisms for coming together. We use our different specializations to help each other. This is necessary in a rational society, according to Weber (Smith and Riley 2009). By working on Thanksgiving, we present an opportunity for the poor to buy goods often reserved for the more well-off. When we rely on the mechanic to fix our car, we have more time and opportunity to pursue other interests. Being a Jack-of-all-trades is difficult and time consuming. By allowing government to take care of our basic needs, we have a greater ability to enjoy leisure. When we give our stresses to God, we can throw off the psychological baggage of worry.
CULTURE AS A PRACTICE
For social interactionists, critical theorists, and postmodernists, stagnation and apathy toward a culture that dominates the individual is not reaching our full human potential. Culture as a practice, or something that people do, begins with a similar baseline of culture as product. Micro-level approaches acknowledge that culture tends to act on us. Rather than allowing the product to just act on us, however, we act back on it. Drawing from Eagleton’s (2000) idea that culture comes from husbandry, or cultivating natural growth, we transform nature and are derived from it. Culture is socially constructed (Berger and Luckmann 1966), but under this paradigm, those of us within culture can either perform or change culture-writ-large. Yes, writing your Senator seems unfruitful. However, if hundreds of thousands of individuals pen letters, change may happen. Everyday life, according to Berger and Luckmann (1966) is “a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world” (p 19). There are multiple realities, and everyday life takes reality for granted.
Culture, here, is interactive (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003). It is a product of social interactions, rather than social facts. Culture is articulated through behavior (Geertz 1973). In a postmodern world – though some theorists, like Habermas, would say that modernity is incomplete, thus, there is no postmodern (Dickens and Fontana 1994), social constructionism and cultural relativism can be examined more readily. Take, for example, some of the recent political arguments made on the social level.
“Meaning” is a “social transaction and is constituted exactly in an audience’s ability to respond in a way commensurate with an initiator’s act or utterance” (Maines 2000). If meaning is a social transaction between a communicator and an audience, the
an it can change s based upon agreed upon definitions so long as the audience commensurating with the initiator is the one with power.
As the LGBT community and allies have accumulated political power as a solidaristic bloc (Smith and Riley 2009), same sex marriage, an idea that has been readily rejected for centuries around the globe, finally broke through legal barriers just a few years ago. Gender as a “thing” is becoming more widely accepted as something people “do”. Categories of race, gender, nationality, and religion are being de- and re-constructed and are reaching political influence like never before in American society. Dialogues that have been long avoided are now being discussed on national television. Cultural institutions like the family are being remade and are more widely accepted as they are increasingly depicted in television and film.
Hegemonic domination, conceptualized by Gramsci as “ruling ideas” and “ruling class” (Morley and Chen 1996) is being stripped away from the traditions of America’s past. Prior to the effects of the LGBT movement, the Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements also used intense social pressure to affect change for their movements leading to a Constitutional amendment rendering discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual preference illegal.
Of course, whenever hegemony is challenged, resistance should be expected. In America, the Christian, white, patriarchal powers are fighting back through the courts and legislation. Some more conservative states have put forth legislation to ban gender neutral restrooms. In Texas, the female state wrestling champion is a F/M trans who is undergoing hormone therapy and identifies as a male. Under Texas law, athletes must compete with the gender assigned at birth, so the female born champ is a social male. Rather than address the issue of a testosterone filled biological female dominating her more estrogen filled female competition, the state ignores the problem and the champion has won two consecutive titles.
Persistent social upheaval creates an unstable nation, but a result of the tension leads to the creation of a national society, where changes in one section of society affects others (Bell 1976). It unites us, but this unity is far from stable. When a retailer changes a restroom policy, the effects ripple through society. If we can hold on through the waves, we increase solidarity as a society.
As Schudson (1989) points out, changing or altering social direction is near impossible. However, it is not completely impossible. Culture as a process is presently engaged in the process of changing social norms and laws. There is ample evidence that institutions that used to seem totally unaffected by cultural movements have begun to shift. After the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, major brands like Wal-Mart, Delta, Enterprise, and many others began to change their policies regarding NRA benefits and the age for purchasing rifles. Target and other retailers changed their restroom policies to allow trans people to use the restroom of their choice. Target also removed their gender designations for toys. Disney has begun to include same sex couples in their afternoon television shows and included a “same sex moment” in their live-action release of Beauty and the Beast.
In the past, these companies would have feared potential loss of revenue from these social statements. However, acting in concert with typically voiceless Americans in the LGBT and gun-control advocacy communities, they risked losing business for doing what they felt was the “right” thing to do. This is a radical shift from Marx’s base/superstructure theory. If the base is maximizing profit, then these structures took the risk of doing the exact opposite.
The battle over culture is far from over. Traditionalists who see culture as a social fact spend their dollars to protect institutions like the Constitution, religious groups, and the nuclear family. They vote for politicians, like Donald Trump, who vow to uphold those institutions. However, social activists who believe that their bottom-up approach to changing how we “do” culture spend their time and money organizing political protests and being active on social media. These are the voices screaming loudest for social change. They do not want to “make America great again”. They want to move “forward” with “hope and change” and many are convinced that they must “feel the Bern” by promoting democratic socialist ideals that, again, have not been popular by name in about a century.
I feel that the best strategy is understanding not just that culture is constructed, but how and why it is constructed in such a way. We may want to change specific laws, but the effects will affect other groups. Is it always worth upsetting the balance? In the case of slavery, absolutely. In the case of moving away from a capitalist economy to a more socialist one, I am not so sure.
I tend to agree with Weber that some bureaucratic rationalization is necessary for a society as large and diverse as ours, though too much can trap us in an iron cage. I agree with Marx, Adorno, and Bell that capitalism has its faults. I agree that culture is a process that we do, and it can change with enough social pressure from the body politic. I also believe that some social facts are good to have, though they could use a little reformation. In general, a rational-legal society (Smith and Riley 2009) is the most ideal form of legitimate domination in a society like ours. It is the most democratic and gives citizens the strongest voice for change. However, we often cede that power to those who are more politically passionate rather than most informed. That is a bottom-up problem that can only be addressed by a willing electorate.
We, the people, are the ones who determine the micro-culture of the people and the macro-culture of the country. It is up to us to delegate authority or keep it for ourselves. I believe this dynamic is at play every day over the media and through protests. It is a messy process, but one worth engaging in so that the social facts that guide our culture are fairer and more humane.