The nascent field of cultural sociology can be described as anything but unified. Its multidisciplinary roots and influences have left a lasting imprint on scholarly activity in this broad field of study: classical social theorists, cultural studies scholars, linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, communications scholars, historians, and sociologists are frequently cited in contemporary cultural sociology. Given the unique social contexts and disciplinary conventions of all these contributors, it is no wonder that there is widespread disagreement about what culture is and what the goal of studying “culture” should be. It is instructive, for example, that few scholars accept others’ definitions of culture without modification or qualification. “Culture” is a term that defies simple definition, and it would be a Herculean task to incorporate the essence and significance of the cultural realm in any parsimonious way. As is to be expected in these circumstances, strong theoretical arguments and polemics abound about what is legitimate enquiry in the field of cultural sociology (Alexander 2003; Bourdieu 1977; Peterson and Anand 2004; Swidler 2001; Wuthnow 1987).
Rather than add to this contest, I have a different agenda in this paper. I aim to draw together some of the diverse theories, methods, and goals of cultural sociologists in a pragmatic way. I use the term “pragmatic” to indicate both the everday use of the word and in the philosophical sense, what William James meant when he spoke of the pragmatic method as “primarily a method of settling metaphysical dispute that otherwise might be interminable” (James 1981, p. 25). For social science, pragmatism offers a perspective that judges a theory or analytic approach by the contribution it makes towards explaining some empirical phenomenon. Theories are tools for understanding; not just ends in themselves. Although I acknowledge the vast intellectual and scientific gains that can be made from competition among strong theories through rigorous critique, the benefits come only from moderation or the emergence of a middle ground. One wonders what is gained, for example, by Alexander’s (2003) polemic defense of thick description and structuralism and against the work of Pierre Bourdieu and sociologists working in the production perspective (e.g., Peterson and Anand 2004), while he simultaneously ignores Bourdieu’s (1977) own critique of structuralism and Swidler’s (2001) critique of thick description! Such works tend to result in an endless circling about the shortcomings of the other’s approach given the criteria of “good” cultural sociology defined on no other basis than the strengths of one’s own approach.
The pragmatic approach I take here evaluates some of the prominent strands of research in cultural sociology according to their own standards and the extent to which they meet their own goals. I view each approach as valuable for answering certain kinds of questions and not others, and for shedding light on some cultural phenomena and not others. Taken together, they comprise a “tool kit” (Swidler 1986) from which scholars may draw in attempting to understand the cultural dimension of life. Such an approach is beneficial in a way that strict adherence to a strong theory is not: an “omnivorous” (Peterson and Simkus 1992) theoretical approach allows the strengths of one theory to overcome the weaknesses of another theory. We do not need to be content with merely a “thick description” of the cultural realm; rather, a research agenda that employs all the tools that cultural sociology has to offer can move in the direction of what might be called “thick analysis,” in which the full complexity and significance of the cultural dimension of social life can be understood.
I begin from the assumption that “culture” does not constitute a...