Friday, August 23, 2013

Naming Culture

Having just finished a very stimulating series of Annual Moore College lectures from Dr Bill Salier on the κόσμος, I though I'd share some of what I've been reading in James Davison Hunter's To Change the World. Hunter offers eleven propositions on culture that prove useful in defining this slippery term. Firstly are seven propositions on culture:
1 Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.  But these truth claims and moral obligations “are embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and within various myths that often reinforce common ideals.”

2 Culture is a product of history.  Any given culture “takes form as the slow accretions of meaning in society over long periods of time.”

3 Culture is intrinsically dialectical.  On the one hand, this dialectic is played out in between ideas and institutions.  “One must view culture, then, not only as a normative order reflected in well-established symbols, but also as the organization of human activity surrounding the production, distribution, manipulation, and administration of those symbols.” On the other hand, this dialectic is played out between individuals and institutions.   

4 Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power.  This resource “is not neutral in relation to power but a form of power.”

5 Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’.  

6 Culture is generated within networks, not the ‘great persons’ view of history. The “key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.”

7 Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent.  Culture “is mixed together in the most complex ways imaginable with all other institutions, not least of which in our own day are the market economy and the state.” Moreover, culture is composed of innumerable fields.
Hunter rounds this proposition off with four propositions on cultural change:
8 Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up. "...the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occurs from the 'top down'. In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites."

9 Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the center-most positions of prestige. Following proposition five, "when change is initiated in the center, then it typically comes from outside the centers nucleus. Wherever innovation begins, it comes as a challenge to the dominant ideas and moral systems defined by the elites who posses the highest levels of symbolic capital."

10 World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. "The impetus, energy, and direction for world-making and world-changing are greatest where various froms of cultural, social and economic and often political resources overlap."

11 Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight. The work of institutions and elites is to legitimize and legitimize different understandings of the world. "Every field of culture and thus, culture itself represents terrain in which boundaries are contested and in which ideals, interests, and power struggle." 

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