Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

Commensuration and Cognition

Wendy Nelson Espeland

The sociology of culture appears poised to take a cognitive turn. 1 Witness the breadth of topics represented in this volume and the vitality of the exchange that was its impetus. Of course, understanding the social dimensions of classifications is nothing new in sociology. Our founding fathers, in their efforts to carve out a distinctive intellectual niche for sociology, were deeply concerned with the social dimensions of the categories we use to think, represent ourselves to one another, and express our desires. Emile Durkheim ([1912] 1995), Georg Simmel (1971; [1900] 1982), and George Herbert Mead (1934) were especially invested in understanding our dazzling capacity to create and order the social categories that we use to make our worlds and ourselves distinctive. While an abiding concern with understanding classification characterizes some of sociology’s best cultural analyses, often our understanding of cultural boundaries has emphasized their normative dimensions at the expense of their cognitive ones. 2 But important advances in our efforts to theorize culture have rekindled interest in cognition on two fronts: a concern with agency and, paradoxically, its obverse, a concern with understanding power that is not directly linked to agents’ intentional acts.

The discrediting of grand theory that makes sweeping assumptions about the homogenizing effects of culture has prompted us to rethink how we conceive of agency and the limits that culture imposes on it. How do we reconcile people’s varied responses to culture that is embraced or resisted, restrictive or manipulated, a venue for innovation or mindless reproduction? No longer convinced by the vague, if potent, link that Talcott Parsons made between abstract values and concrete action, attention has shifted to accounting for variation and innovation in the effects of culture, in explaining how people on the ground adopt and manipulate culture, and in efforts to pin

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