Herb Gans Is Right

Gans (photo at on image to get to hosting page)

My dear former professor, Herb Gans, has written a piece in Identities that is causing quite a stir among sociologists, especially cultural sociologists such as myself. The piece, which Gans himself admits is a “polemic” and therefore often unfair, is a rant against cultural sociology for separating itself from what he calls structural sociology. Although this might seem like a purely academic argument, I think it has much broader implications as we look around at the mess this country is in and ask “what is to be done?”

The problem with dividing culture from structure stems from Karl Marx’s base and superstructure. Because not just academics, but many activists, accept this distinction, it continues to haunt how we respond to everything from financial to environmental catastrophes.

As Gans puts it:

While the culture–structure dichotomy can be traced back historically to earlier ones, its current sociological incarnation is in some respects similar to Marxist theorizing about superstructure and substructure. Such theorizing became familiar and widely visible in the 1960s when neo-Marxists were allowed to enter mainstream sociology, and sociology’s cultural turn may at least in part be a reaction to neo-Marxist analysis.

The problem is that rather than tying culture and structure together, as Marx suggested, academics and activists have separated them completely and at our own peril. Because those most critical of global capital were often the ones focusing on its performance rather than its policies, many of us missed all the deregulation of banking, financialization of the industry, huge tax breaks for the wealthiest, and so on that led to this mess.  As Gans points out, this turn to culture may have been a response to the highly politicized neo-Marxist sociology of the 1960s. In this way, cultural sociology may have provided a way of being critical without actually presenting a threat to the status quo. Given the increasing insecurities of the academic labor market (e.g. when I finished, I had a 50-percent chance of finding a tenure-track job; today’s recent Ph.Ds have a 28-percent chance of finding a tenure line), insecurities related to structural issues like contract labor, concentration of wealth in the top of the university hierarchy, decline of labor unions, etc., it is a lot safer to focus on frames and discourses than greedy scoundrels.

I was one of those insecure recent Ph.D’s. As Gans’s student, I drove him crazy. I was a cultural sociologist who wrote my dissertation and then first book without considering the economy, not even once. Somehow, probably more through activism than academics, I began to realize it really is the economy.

It is activists like those involved with the Occupy movement who are forcing all of us, even those of us who would rather hide behind the seemingly safe study of discursive regimes, who are forcing us to pay attention to structure. Or as Lisa Duggan put it in a recent article:

But how can we provide an effective critique when many of us, in the United States in particular, don’t understand what neoliberalism is? We need to understand what the Federal Reserve is doing, how Wall Street works, how interest rates affect employment rates, how different health care systems really work, and so much more. Economic policy and basic vocabulary have been mystified—we aren’t supposed to understand it. We’re supposed to think that economics is a highly complex problem of technical management. It isn’t. The economy as such does not even exist as a fully concrete and discrete object of analysis. It is a historical invention, falsely abstracted from the operations of culture and politics more broadly.

Duggan is right. Culture cannot be abstracted from the economy; economy cannot be abstracted from culture. It is time to relinquish this false binary between thoughts and actions, believing and doing. Marx handed us this binary, but it has never really been true anymore than most binaries are. Culture and economy are united in a single verb of doing. It is time to pay attention to the doing.

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