Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1996 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
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ISSN 1070-8286


Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 4(1) (1996) 2-11


UNDERSTANDING CULTURE IN A CHANGING WORLD

A Sociological Perspective

Connie L. McNeely

Department of Sociology
University of California, Santa Barbara

The sociology of culture, along with cultural studies in other social sciences, has simply bloomed over the past several years. Once again, cultural considerations have been placed on the agenda for all kinds of social analyses; the significance of culture has been increasingly recognized and valued by scholars and students seeking to determine its role and effect across virtually all areas of human endeavor. While this has led to exciting new challenges and opportunities to advance our understanding of society and the world in which we live, it has also revealed a pressing need for conceptual clarity, along with specific guidelines and frameworks, for pursuing this kind of work. Wendy Griswold has, in fact, taken a giant step in fulfilling this need with her book Cultures and Societies in a Changing World (Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press, 1994), in which she explores "the complex interplay between culture -- idea systems, artworks, popular culture, religious beliefs, common sense -- and social structure" (p. xii).

While social scientists have conceptualized "culture" in a variety of different ways for a variety of different purposes, most sociological definitions of culture flow from the notion that culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a human being as a member of society (Tylor 1871). Accordingly, one largely encompassing use of the term has been in reference to a set of beliefs, customs, or way of life of a group or society. However, this kind of entire-way-of-life definition lacks the precision desired in the social sciences and, as Griswold notes, there has been a trend toward abridging the culture concept and making distinctions in defining the object of analysis (e.g., explicit and implicit, material and nonmaterial, abstract and concrete, internal and external, etc.). Thus, we have seen the development of more discriminating concepts, such as "belief systems," "systems of value," or "ideologies." Most current social scientific approaches to culture focus "on symbols and on the behavior that derives from symbolically expressed ways of thinking and feeling" (p. 10), reflecting a definition of culture as an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people [End page 2]

communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life (Geertz 1973, p. 89).

Cultures and Societies in a Changing World offers us a concise introduction and systematic guide for the study of all of these representations of culture. It was written specifically to help students understand and discuss symbols, discourse, meaning, and cultural practices, i.e., "to help students (1) explore the concept of culture and the nature of its linkages with the social world, (2) enhance their understanding of seemingly structural issues, such as poverty or ethnicity, by applying cultural analysis to these issues, and (3) broaden their cultural and social horizons so that they may operate effectively in the global economy and international culture of the twenty-first century" (pp.xiii-xiv). In doing so, culture is explored from a variety of angles addressing, for example, issues of high and low, or elite and mass, or popular, culture; material and nonmaterial culture; and explicit and implicit culture.[1] These aspects of culture are illustrated through an impressive array of topics -- including the arts, social movements, identity, health, and many others -- are covered in the text, showing the significance of the sociology of culture in analyzing a wide range of issues. Moreover, while the object of the book is a sociological treatment of culture, Griswold incorporates insights from both humanistic and social scientific traditions to arrive at a deeper understanding and vision of the relationship between culture and society.[2]

Central to Griswold's approach is the view that an object is not a "cultural" object until it enters "the circuit of human discourse." This thought provoking point is basic to the notion of the sociological study of culture, i.e., to the notion of culture as a social phenomenon and of the relationship between culture and society. As she points out (p. 14), "if a poet sings her odes in the wilderness with no one to hear or record, if a hermit invents a revolutionary new theology but keeps it to himself, if a radio program is broadcast but a technical malfunction prevents anyone from hearing it, then these are potential cultural objects, but not actual ones. It is only when such objects become public, when they enter the circuit of human discourse, that they enter the culture and become cultural objects." After all, culture is bounded by shared meanings, and Griswold argues that all cultural objects must have people who receive and make meaning of them. Moreover, cultural objects and their creators and the people who receive them are anchored in the social world, i.e., the economic, political, social, and cultural patterns and exigencies that exist at any given point in time.

In addition, recognition of the importance of context in the creation of culture, including a consideration of how a cultural object's establishment depends on a specific set of conditions, is derived from Durkheimian thinking in which culture is regarded as a collective product or representation, rather than [End page 3]

as exclusively the work of individual creators. This view of culture and cultural works as collective creations -- as social products -- reveals a complex picture of how cultural objects (e.g., a painting, a religious belief, a song, etc.) represent social experience; they are produced by people bound to other people (Chapter 3). In short, we have a collective production approach to cultural meanings. However, to realize that culture is a collective product is not sufficient. "We need to understand just how culture - - and the cultural objects that compose a culture -- is produced," and we also need to understand the "impact the means and processes of production have on cultural objects themselves" (p. 71).

Thus, as an overall framework, Griswold offers her patented "cultural diamond" as an analytical device for investigating the culture-society relationship, i.e., for investigating the connections among cultural objects, cultural creators, cultural receivers, and the social world. These four "points of the diamond" are examined in the first four chapters of the book, with the later chapters providing examples of how the cultural diamond operates in specific cases -- social problems (Chapter 5) and organizational transactions (Chapter 6) -- and in looking at culture and community "in the dawning age of global culture" (Chapter 7).

This framework locates cultural objects in the cultural diamond. Distinguishing between cultural objects and culture, specification of a cultural object is "a way of grasping some part of the broader system we refer to as culture, and holding up that part for analysis"; a cultural object is "a shared significance embodied in form" (pp. 11, 12). Moreover, Griswold posits that all cultural objects have creators; besides their creators, all cultural objects must have people who receive them and make meaning of them; and all cultural objects, creators, and receivers are anchored in a particular context, or social world. These elements can be arranged in the shape of a diamond with lines connecting each element to every other one. Thus, we have the cultural diamond.

Note that the cultural diamond is not a model or a theory. Rather, it is "an accounting device intended to encourage a fuller understanding of any cultural object's relationship to the social world. It does not say what the relationship between any of the points should be, only that there is a relationship" (p. 15). As Griswold puts it (p. 16), "once we understand the specific points and links in the diamond, we can say that we have a sociological understanding of that cultural object. Moreover, once we have a sense of how that cultural object fits into its context, we are on our way to understanding the culture as a whole."

Throughout the text, Griswold demonstrates how different theoretical approaches might bear upon questions of societal actors, relations, and structures -- a particularly important point for [End page 4] student comprehension of culture as an area of sociological study, application, and insight. Any review of the sociology of culture must include at least some discussion of reflection theory, and Griswold does a masterful job of reviewing, comparing, and critiquing the major approaches to the notion of reflection in simple, yet comprehensive terms. In doing so, she introduces the major schools of thought on the connection between culture, as a bearer of meaning, with the social world. Much discussion of cultural meaning and significance centers around the notion of reflection, based on the assumption that culture is the mirror of social reality and, thus, the meaning of a cultural object lies in the social structures and patterns it reflects. Marxist and functionalist theories in particular posit a classical reflection model in which culture reflects social structures and patterns like a mirror. Alternatively, more Weberian approaches emphasize how social structures and patterns respond to cultural meanings. Griswold provides a very even-handed and clear description and assessment of these theories, all of which concentrate on the links between the cultural object and social world points of the cultural diamond. However, she also demonstrates that the other elements of the cultural diamond are virtually ignored, and it is here in the examination of the social basis for cultural creation, production, and reception, that her own contribution of the cultural diamond really stands out. In addition, as in any model, the scope conditions of the application of the cultural diamond are fundamental to understanding the related processes and products. Griswold demonstrates this beautifully by discussing a wide variety of subjects and contexts in terms of different models and arguments. For example, she presents Hirsch's (1972) culture industry system model, a framework developed specifically for mass culture products, and shows how it can be applied to high culture, ideas, or other cultural objects and, more, how it can be applied to cases from nonindustrial as well as industrial societies (Chapter 4).

Of particular interest is the application of the cultural diamond to social problems and business transactions, as a demonstration of how the cultural diamond can inform us about our world. The study of organizations is a central area of inquiry in sociology, and Griswold's analysis of business transactions and interactions show just how the cultural approach has furthered our understanding of both inter- and intra-organizational actors, participants, activities, relations, and structures (Chapter 6). In particular, she considers the impact of culture on organizations along a number of dimensions: culture and motivation, organizational subcultures, cross-cultural differences, and organizations in multicultural environments. In general, she convincingly and clearly explains how and why cultural patterns and meaning constructions are always highly consequential in business relations.

Furthermore, bringing the area of social problems into the arena of the sociology of culture, we are [End page 5] immediately confronted with the question of the degree to which social problems are culturally constructed in the first place (Chapter 5). Griswold presents illustrations from a wide range of issues defined as social problems in certain contexts, including, for example, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, poverty, drunk drivers, AIDS, linguistic difference, and so on. Her discussion of social "problems" is decidedly positive, reflecting the position that "thinking of social problems less as givens and more as cultural objects draws attention to the artificial construction of any one problem and to the implied meanings that are conveyed when a problem gets defined in one way and not another.... Understanding this allows us to construct other formulations of a problem and to imagine solutions" (p. 113).

Students of crime and criminal justice will find this perspective on social problems particularly enlightening and useful. Many related studies have focused on determining patterns of crime as part of everyday life in various populations, i.e., as cultural patterns, or, alternatively, as breaks in culture. However, a fundamental question that arises in these studies is how crime is defined. Some behaviors are illegal and criminal in some contexts and not in others, and the "invention and classification of crimes" has been a key issue across related fields. The cultural construction of a social problem is the primary issue here. Obviously, crime and criminal justice are not autonomous categories or concepts; they are intimately related to the cultures within which they are embedded, defined, and implemented. Therefore, issues of crime and criminal justice are best understood when placed with the context of broader social developments and culture. Indeed, attention to changes in the way that crime and criminal justice are constructed can yield valuable insights into a variety of social issues.

While crime can be defined as any violation of the law, sociological definitions of crime can also include any behavior contrary to a society's or group's moral codes for which there are group formalized sanctions, whether or not they are laws, or it may even refer broadly to any behavior considered antisocial and harmful to individuals or groups (Theodorson and Theodorson 1969). Indeed, sociological studies of crime are often classified within the purview of the sociology of deviance.

Interestingly, since modern society is typically regarded as complex, fragmented, and diversified, some approaches to the sociology of deviance depict society in terms of a plurality of conflicting subcultures. In fact, fragmentation is typically expressed in terms of socially constructed differentiation, ethnic diversity, class structures, or regional variations. Accordingly, Griswold's discussion of race and ethnicity, and of race and ethnic relations in particular, is quite instructive, clarified by several comparative examples showing the extent to which race and ethnicity are not biological categories, but are [End page 6] largely operationalized and imposed as cultural constructs.

Different traditions, fragmentation, and diversity notwithstanding, "people have been linked together at an accelerating rate -- economically, politically, socially, and culturally -- throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first" (p. 138). In other words, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, reflecting the process of globalization. Paradoxically, however, this globalization is exerting simultaneous pressures toward both unity and fragmentation. What are the implications of this paradox for culture and cultural meanings? Griswold concludes her book by exploring the relationship between culture, technology, and community in an effort to address this question (Chapter 7). Specifically, she examines "how changes in communication technologies have changed the nature of culture and how different cultural technologies have affected human communities and the very idea of community" (p. 138). New communication technologies make cultural objects widely available, accessible across the globe, and people, "who are, after all, located in time and space, can now interact with these cultural objects to make meanings...." Shared meanings (shared locally) embodied in form (transmitted globally) -- that is what culture is all about (p. 152).

Griswold's Cultures and Societies in a Changing World is an excellent handbook, with very little with which to argue. At most, I might mention a few things that I would have liked to have seen included to perhaps encourage students to examine cultural issues at an even deeper level than she suggests. For instance, Griswold might have used some of her examples at various points to develop a deeper critical analysis. A bit of a disappointment was the failure to show explicitly the depth of how some of the examples themselves involve cultural constructions, assumptions, or situations, or to at least pose them explicitly as questions of context, interpretation, and extension. For instance, Griswold cites work demonstrating a "cultural difference" whereby African Americans (as opposed to whites) are depicted as "uncomfortable" around or afraid of dogs (Anderson 1990) -- a point which would, no doubt, surprise the many African Americans of all classes who have dogs as pets, and situations in which other groups or "subcultures" (white and otherwise) might evince similar reactions or not.

In another instance, she provides an example of how a norm might get established (p. 53): "A little girl is running and bumps into a boy in her play group. The girl observes the boy's expression of pain and anger, and she imagines that he thinks her clumsy or thoughtless. She understands his probable judgment of her action..., and she responds emotionally.... Through such interactions, the norm of apologizing when accidentally bumping into someone else gets established." In and of itself, this simply describes [End page 7] a situation in which an apology constitutes an "interaction sequence to restore the social harmony." However, note that the example itself might also be interpreted as communicating cultural stereotypes and meanings in terms of gender relations and assumptions, e.g., "she responds emotionally" -- a typical depiction of socially defined "female reactions." The same scene reflecting an interaction between two boys would not most likely invoke the same kind of imagery beyond the intended point of the example. More sensitivity to these kinds of issues would have been useful; or, rather, extension of the analysis to consider the gendered assumptions might have been additionally instructive. Indeed, in this light, the examples themselves might change.

These examples, and others, reflect a lack of perspective on their own presentation as socially constructed, as viewed through a selected lens; they are not presented as particular interpretations or perspectives -- they are presented as is. Keeping in mind that a primary purpose of the text is to expand beyond narrow conceptions of people, social structure, and culture, this is no small matter. It seems a mistake not to mention the social variables that might lead to this kind of behavior or "mindset." These behaviors are constructed within a particular cultural context. Otherwise, the implication is that there is something "genetic" in their determination -- an assumption that unfortunately underlies much of the cultural biases rampant in society. An important lesson would be for the student to at least recognize, and perhaps question, their own socially constructed assumptions and interpretations. More sensitivity to and analysis of the cultural assumptions underlying some of the examples and/or their expression might have been particularly instructive.

To be fair, I must note that, other than in a general way, this was not her purpose in presenting these particular examples. I merely want to point out that these types of examples, and many others throughout the book, could have provided valuable opportunities to show how -- even within the same culture -- interpretations are often contextually dependent, how cultural stereotypes and perceptions become institutionalized, and how students should be aware of these types of cultural considerations in their own reading and work.

She does approach this point in her discussion of audiences and reception of cultural objects (Chapter 4), and also reveals it in more subtle, yet effective, ways. (Her use of the pronoun "she" instead of the usually expressed "he" in several general or "generic" descriptive examples is a case in point.) However, my concern is the need for direct indication of the need for awareness by analysts of their own cultural relativism or culturally influenced observations and interpretations. In other words, more direct indication of this matter to the readers themselves is needed, rather than assuming awareness and application of these principles to their own analyses. Actually, this point underlies much of Griswold's own [End page 8] assertion that receivers of a cultural object come to it conditioned by their cultural and social experiences and background.

An important consideration to bear in mind is that the book is written primarily for an American audience, or American "cultural receivers," with many examples assuming (without explaining) certain amount of knowledge of American "culture" (e.g., reference to domestic television programs and brands of food) or American cultural themes.[3] On the other hand, it does an excellent job of stressing the importance of an international perspective for understanding global influences and processes affecting American life and culture. While the focus of the book is on western cultural tradition, and American culture in particular, Griswold maintains that a somewhat international perspective is indispensable to any contemporary sociological study, with implications for both internal and external relationships and practices. Throughout the book, she draws on comparative and historical examples from a wide variety of periods and countries -- especially the United States, Nigeria, and China, but also Japan and Israel, among others -- to demonstrate problems and issues in cultural analysis, and to show "how cultural producers and consumers express a changing world through culture and how culture itself contributes to social changes" (p. xii). This also includes attention to how cultural conflicts -- e.g., struggles over ethnic homogeneity and religious fundamentalism - - involve culture, or "meanings and passions that go far beyond the mere economic or political." Furthermore, global processes -- ranging from transnational media, tourist art, and immigration, to international commodity chains and production, and global markets -- are also considered in order to realize and better understand how they affect culture and cultures in terms of individuals, organizations, societies, and the world.

Written in a very accessible style, Cultures and Societies in a Changing World is straightforward and direct, and is filled with colorful, interesting, and understandable examples to clarify main concepts and arguments -- perfect as a primer or introductory text, and providing students with the fundamentals for pursuing cultural analysis across a wide range of [End page 9] domains. A particularly nice feature of the volume is Griswold's visual representations of the arguments and relationships being explained. For many students, these diagrammatic expressions will help clarify the main points under discussion. Also, the organization of the book follows a clear logic, with each chapter building and contributing to an overall analysis, and with examples linked across chapters for continuity. Moreover, each chapter concludes with a summary and a list of works recommended for further reading -- invaluable tools for both student and teacher. In fact, throughout the text, Griswold draws on a multitude of sources to explain and illustrate the general area of the sociology of culture. The breadth of references that the book invokes is highly impressive, with work cited from a wide range of cultural theorists and researchers and addressing a wide range of substantive issues and areas. The reference list itself is an excellent foundation document for an area exploration of the sociology of culture.

The most important lesson to take from Cultures and Societies in a Changing World is that the cultural diamond not only can be successfully and usefully applied in our study of society, but that it should be applied if we are to truly understand society at virtually all levels of analysis and interaction. Not only for those interested primarily in the sociology of culture and other cultural studies, it also reveals the importance of cultural analysis for substantive investigations in social problems, politics, law, education, economics, and a host of other areas. To understand any cultural phenomenon -- whether an artistic creation, a social problem, an organizational practice, or any other cultural object -- we must begin by asking some fundamental questions (p. 153): "What are the characteristics of this specific cultural object? What does it mean, and for whom? Who are its creators? Who are its receivers, and how do they interpret it? From what social world does it come, and into what social world is it sent?" These questions represent the points of Griswold's cultural diamond, and determining their answers will help us to know our world and the world still to come.

NOTES

1. Explicit culture includes those aspects that may be directly observed and of which members of society are fully aware (e.g., standards of right and wrong, typical behavior patterns, technology, etc.) However, members of society are only partially or not at all aware of implicit culture, i.e., the assumptions and premises underlying behavior and thought. Material culture includes all artificial, or made and constructed, physical objects; nonmaterial culture is all made and constructed intangible traits, e.g., norms, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, techniques, and language, which are passed down through generations.

2. Indeed, Griswold holds advanced degrees in both the humanities and sociology.

3. Cultural themes, or major patterns of values within a culture that provide the underlying assumptions upon which systems of belief and behavior standards are based, constitute the cultural ethos, or predominant ideas, values, and ideologies of a culture (or subculture), giving it its distinctive character.

REFERENCES

Anderson, E. (1990). Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [End page 10]

Geertz, C. (1973). "Religion as a Cultural System." In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Hirsch, P.M. (1972). "Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization Set Analysis of Culture Industry Systems." American Journal of Sociology 77: 639- 659.

Theodorson, G.A., and A.G. Theodorson. (1969). A Modern Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Harper and Row.

Tylor, E.B. (1871). Primitive Culture, vol. 1. London: John Murray. [End page 11]