The Chronicle: 2nd May 2003: Expanding the Agenda of Cultural Research

Published: May 1, 2003
Updated: May 1, 2003

Peter Stearns writes an interesting article on the changing face of cultural research.

For the past several decades, key disciplines in or around the humanities, including my own field of history, have been strongly influenced by what has been termed “the cultural turn”—the belief that culture influences, indeed powerfully shapes, the human condition.

In this pervasive view, key aspects of life can best be understood by exploring the fundamental beliefs and assumptions of a culture and (in some formulations especially) the language in which they are expressed. Some of the attention to the cultural turn began in the 1960s, with the period’s new sympathy for the styles and values of various groups, and then firmed up with a growing interest in the findings of cultural anthropology and in various theoretical formulations from gurus like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Recently, however, the fascination with culture seems to be waning: Historians, for example, are conducting symposiums and editing volumes about “what comes next,” and erstwhile culturalists are publicly bemoaning the decline of interest in relevant theory. Aside from demonstrating that humanists are not immune to faddism, the transition invites some comment about the state of cultural research more generally. For, while a rebalancing of scholarly priorities seems inevitable, it is important to keep oscillations within bounds.

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Recently, however, the fascination with culture seems to be waning: Historians, for example, are conducting symposiums and editing volumes about “what comes next,” and erstwhile culturalists are publicly bemoaning the decline of interest in relevant theory. Aside from demonstrating that humanists are not immune to faddism, the transition invites some comment about the state of cultural research more generally. For, while a rebalancing of scholarly priorities seems inevitable, it is important to keep oscillations within bounds.

The cultural turn, dominating an intellectual generation in several disciplines, has produced, or at least enhanced, several important advances in knowledge. The central emphasis has been on the role of cultural construction in not only expression, but also social and individual behavior. Building on findings in anthropology, but applying them to the modern evolution of complex societies, including our own, researchers in cultural construction have explored a number of areas. For example:

* A history of the senses has emerged, demonstrating how changes in values and assumptions have reshaped the nature of the sense of smell while, at the same time, diminishing its role in the sensory arsenal. Modern Westerners are now viscerally disgusted by odors people used to accept, because of changing ideas about cleanliness and the body.

* Various approaches to the history of emotion have shown how basic formulations have altered, with significant implications for the ways that emotions are handled by society and experienced individually. Indulgence in grief in 19th-century America turned, by the 1920s, into aversion, so much so that deep feeling denoted a need for therapy.

* Many diseases, as well, have at least partially been explained through cultural construction. The fascinating work on the emergence of modern anorexia nervosa has shown how changing beliefs about mother-daughter bonds promoted new forms of unconscious rebellion around food as a cherished family symbol, with new standards of beauty supplementing those reactions.

* Gender formulations, interactions between human beings and animals, even sexual norms and practices reveal the role of cultures, which is to say that all can vary considerably, and can change considerably as well. Aspects of human behavior sometimes regarded as “natural,” from economic life (where profit seeking is often assumed to be inherent in human hard-wiring) to homosexuality, are shown to be deeply informed by culture, and contemporary behaviors are best understood through exploring how they have emerged in the process of cultural change.

Such achievements, of the cultural turn at its best, clearly indicate that we should not reverse directions too fully, even as faddish interest declines. Initial sketches, as in the history of the senses, are still being elaborated, and there is much more to be learned. But limitations in the impact of the cultural turn also provide food for thought as we consider what should come next.

The recent explorations of culture have created both excitement and controversy in history and in literary studies. There has been important spillover into sociology (in the sociology of emotion, for example, which explores the impact of “feeling rules” on actual emotional experience and behavior), as well as in anthropology. The field of cultural studies has itself emerged, if still somewhat tentatively. A maverick current in psychology, sometimes known as discursive psychology, has also come to light. It contends that, instead of looking at inherent or invariant human reactions, scholars should probe how different cultures generate quite different psychological reactions.

But, outside core areas, the larger results in academic discourse have been slight. Most psychologists have brushed aside the constructivists, if indeed they are aware of them; the beacon of neuroscientific research burns far brighter. No new sources of research funds have opened for cultural inquiry, as the imbalance in federal research dollars between science and the humanities has actually widened.

On another front, references to “organizational culture” have expanded in management research—witness recent comments on cultural gaps in NASA’s explanation of problems surrounding the Columbia shuttle. The subject, however, has remained dangerously soft within business schools—taught but not emphasized. Nor has it been linked to cultural research more generally.

Indeed, no large curricular changes have marked a recognition that culture demands more systematic inquiry. Gender studies, strongly marked by the cultural turn, constitutes the most important exception to that statement, but its impact on curriculums outside its own programs has not been vast. Diversity studies might toss a bone toward the significance of culture, with its emphasis on multiculturalism. But the result more often involves injunctions about tolerance and mutual niceness than any serious exploration of what different cultures consist of or how they have created variations in basic behaviors.

Even in English, the field that serves as home to cultural theory, the researcher in cultural studies still usually needs firm credentials in conventional literary fields like Victorian literature or Shakespeare studies to have any hope of finding a job. Culture in most university curriculums continues to mean literary masterpieces, art history, or foreign languages—all very desirable, but none usually devoted to culture as causation. Few general-education programs, in other words, reflect the cultural turn, and, while the list of majors has been slightly altered, the basic roster has not been markedly adjusted either.

There are several reasons for the distressing gap between significant findings and wider reception. Two key explanations are closely related: the self-indulgence of culturalists and the hostility of conservatives.

In terms of impact, as opposed to self-congratulation, many cultural-turn partisans have committed a number of blunders that have called their approach into question. Some have, quite simply, pressed the cultural case too hard, ignoring evidence of constant or “natural” features in the human experience.

Historians, for example, have sometimes created black-white contrasts between one era’s culture and that of the next, weakening an otherwise important case for cultural change through an excess of enthusiasm. Thus, several formulations have argued for a total contrast between absence of affection in traditional Western families and great warmth in their modern counterparts, ignoring more constant aspects of the emotional bonds between parents and children. Not surprisingly, in reaction, revisionists have insisted on demonstrating that premodern families were fully loving, throwing real, if more subtle, indications of changes in values in a fog of counterclaims.

More serious still has been a widespread addiction to exceedingly recondite postmodern, once called poststructuralist, theorizing that has created an often impenetrable in-group vocabulary while, at times, showing little interest in actual evidence. One Latin Americanist has termed the postmodern jargon in subaltern studies “verbaje,” and many consumers of some of the most fashionable cultural-studies products have wondered if often good insights could not have been presented in more straightforward ways.

The point about evidence can be more troubling. Generalizations about people’s behavior in capitalism, for example, have often seemed little more than assertion, with no real inquiry into actual data about motivations. The same holds for some of the most sweeping statements about prisonlike conditions in various modern institutions. References to social class or gender, in the hands of some cultural researchers, may turn out to derive from one or two popular novels or behavioral prescriptions, with no effort to trace resonance or even to amass a significant number of cultural sources. Unpacking the meaning in a single provocative item has sometimes counted for more than proving claims about context or impact.

Implications of relativism, inherent in the cultural approach to some degree, have often been presented too baldly or defiantly, distracting from solid findings. Few disciplines have really been converted to a sense that everything is in the eye of the beholder, and grandiose claims in that direction have, rightly or wrongly, alienated many potential allies. And some culturalists have taken such a delight in exploring particular subcultures, for example where sexuality is concerned, that larger cultural standards have been underinvestigated or even ignored. A colleague recently pointed out to me a graduate student who was amazingly knowledgeable about cultural evidence for the values of various sexual minorities, but who knew nothing about either widely current standards or about actual sexual behaviors in the society he was studying.

For a variety of reasons, thus, it has been too easy for nonconverts to dismiss the cultural turn as radical self-indulgence.

In the United States, the cultural turn has also run afoul of political conservatism. In the hands of critics like Lynne Cheney, the valorization of the nation as multicultural in the 1960s began to yield to an emphasis on a single inspiring national story in the 1980s. The central issue was conservative discomfort with exploration of cultural diversity at a time when growing immigration seemed to be making the discussion of core values imperative. But, for American anti-culturalists, issues were not national alone. Conservatives also tended to rally around the transcendent value of Western culture, as opposed to eager exploration of multiple cultures. The conservative approach might have acknowledged other cultures—not everything is yet Western—but it sought to circle the wagons around a single tradition. Amid the din, findings about values and beliefs as sources of human behavior could not overcome partisan objections.

The cultural turn, in other words, got caught up in the wider culture wars. Theory and jargon helped comfort culturalists amid growing conservatism, but those tendencies discouraged wider persuasion while goading conservative intolerance. And, while the culture wars may have softened, they are not over today, as new international crises have prompted reassertions of the need to rally around a national culture.

Most important, the sound and fury have distracted us from what should be the principal discussion: the place of cultural findings in an intellectual community that, particularly in the United States, has become excessively devoted to a scientism that tends to ignore culture.

The cultural turn has made no perceptible dent in our deeply rooted attitudes. Many social scientists still view cultural data as soft. Indeed, particularly in disciplines like psychology, which could serve as a bridge between the humanities and the social sciences by embracing both nature and nurture in their explorations of human behaviors, trivial but quantifiable projects—like those that endlessly count college students’ reactions to this or that stimulus—easily qualify for funds over projects that explore larger questions with cultural data.

Even more: Widespread assumptions of human uniformity across cultures, ultimately derived from the Enlightenment and deeply ingrained in disciplines like economics as well as the life sciences, readily prevail over attention to cultural causation. It’s far easier, for example, to finance a project on uniform human facial expression (not least because of obvious relevance in military interrogation) than to find backing for studying cultural distinctions in emotional standards.

Those, too, could have policy implications, helping American policy makers anticipate various reactions to political or commercial stimuli, but their lack of standardization normally disqualifies them. Quantification and the replicability of laboratory experiments still have a credibility that cultural research has yet to even begin to attain.

The presumably scientific approach has gained further impetus in recent years from the new passion for genetics, which, again, seems to dwarf attention to culture. Want to know why Americans are too fat? The answers are primarily cultural, best illuminated by comparisons with other societies and earlier time periods when we weren’t so pudgy; but enthusiasm more commonly rivets on the search for “fat genes.”

There has been undeniable and important progress in genetic research in recent years. But there has also been a tendency to claim too much for genes where behavioral changes are concerned. First, genes have a soothing way of limiting responsibility for one’s actions. Cultures do not, since it is widely assumed that individuals should be able to rise above cultural constraints that are human creations. Second, there is the hope that genetic identification might lead to medical remedy (hopefully without much personal effort); we are less certain about changing cultures.

That last uncertainty leads back to the need to pay more attention to cultural analysis. Cultural factors are often altered, sometimes quite intentionally: Eating habits of our culture can be changed, even if we haven’t yet hit on a successful formula. One of the reasons to urge the continued validity of culture research, in fact, involves our capacity to learn more about that process of deliberate cultural change than we currently know. Even prosaic examples, like the dramatic American shift toward disapproving of smoking and the reconfiguration of smokers as moral pariahs, provide evidence of change through what one might call culture management.

We need, therefore, to expand the cultural research agenda. Continued inquiry into what cultures cause, in terms of human and social behaviors, remains vital. Comparative work, domestic and international, has tremendous additional potential. We can also think about “applied” cultural work, dealing with the explicit promotion of beneficial cultural change, and the kinds of methods that are most likely to be reliable, with the fewest unintended consequences.

Already, there are signs of how a new generation of work on culture can focus on central issues, even as we discuss moving beyond the cultural turn. Recent ventures on changes in the standards for appropriate sleep in Western society, for example, show the expanding reach of cultural inquiry. We know that people used to worry about sleep less than they do now, and we can discuss the relationship between changing cultural concerns and shifts in context brought about by new lighting and the greater availability of stimulants.

Similarly, new work is emerging in several disciplines on the way culture shapes parenting, not only with attention to cross-cultural comparisons but to changes over time within our own society. New attitudes to children’s working, initially applied to factories and sweatshops, came to affect judgments about home chores as well, creating significant confusion in the process.

Other changes in the cultural expectations that adults have of children underlie familiar developments like grade inflation and the popularity of self-esteem movements. A brilliant 1995 literary study, by Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, first showed how awareness of boredom, including the term itself, emerged as part of Western modernity. Now, we can also trace the change from using boredom as a warning to potential perpetrators, as part of the constraints of etiquette, to emphasizing the capacity to claim boredom as a legitimate complaint, even, or perhaps particularly, among children.

Opportunities for expanding the range of moods, behaviors, and social actions that can be explained, at least in part, through cultural factors—and, therefore, compared from one culture to the next, and traced over time—remain considerable. Exploring them will genuinely add to our understanding of the human condition.

In a global age, the impact of cultural variation has greater significance than ever before, and we need a new generation of comparative scholarship to explore what’s involved. We are well beyond the stage when inquiry into a remote island people does the trick in demonstrating cultural complexity; we can explore both diverse and overlapping cultural responses to globalization. At a time when various policy makers grapple with the behavioral implications of Islam, often with more heat than light, the need for cultural research and its dissemination emerges with renewed clarity.

The task does not stop with current scholarship. We also need to improve the dialogue among researchers on human and social behavior, to locate the appropriate place for cultural causation and the balance with other factors, including genes.

The curricular challenge is at least as great. We need bold ventures that stake a clear place for cultural analysis—blending the humanistic and social-science areas involved in a new interdisciplinary configuration focused on cultural construction, and operating from general education on up. To be sure, in the humanities such ventures do not preclude more conventional offerings, which have significance of their own. We need to clear space for both cultural explanation—the newer work—and the presentation of great expressions, the more traditional fare. A single approach is out of date. At the same time, we need to encourage cultural-studies programs to move beyond their current isolation and to take more central roles in combining the disciplines that generate understanding of how cultures work.

As we take the essential next steps, we can learn from the past and avoid the kind of overblown claims and overuse of jargon and thick theory that made cultural analysis so many enemies. Partisan shots at explorations of cultural diversities may not end, but one can hope that they will also fade as we learn more about the significance of cultural variations over place and time, with less sheer sloganeering about multiculturalism, and more real analysis. We need more researchers willing to ask what role culture plays, even when their own main interests lie in other explanations. We need more students capable of asking and answering similar questions, as they try to understand what makes people tick. After the cultural turn, then, we need to apply fresh energies to explorations that the turn helped launch. The challenge is exciting.

Peter N. Stearns is provost and vice president for academic affairs at George Mason University. His most recent book is Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (New York University Press, 2003).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 49, Issue 34, Page B7

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