Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7

Moral Inquiry in Cultural Sociology

Robert Wuthnow

Cultural sociology, perhaps more than any other specialty area within the discipline, is positioned to play an important role in the study of values, beliefs, moral constructs, and other normative issues. These topics are central to the theoretical traditions on which cultural sociology is founded, and many cultural sociologists continue to be interested in them. However they are defined, moral constructs are generally framed discursively; they depend on the symbolic creation and maintenance of cognitive maps and they are embedded in larger narrative traditions of values and beliefs. Yet cultural sociologists also have reason to distance themselves from moral inquiry. The study of moral topics may be confused with taking normative positions on these topics. The effort to establish itself as a respected field within sociology may be pursued by sharply distinguishing the approach and subject matter of cultural sociology from related fields in which normative arguments are more common, such as cultural studies and moral philosophy.

I argue that the distinction between empirical and normative approaches in cultural sociology is largely exaggerated. For various reasons that can themselves be subjected to examination, a few works receive attention as exemplars of moral inquiry. But closer consideration shows that nearly all research in cultural sociology includes a normative component as well as an empirical one. In contrast, there is a more useful distinction that helps to locate the distinctive contributions of cultural sociology. This is the distinction between autonomous moral selves and socially embedded moral actors. Popular understandings of morality, as well as traditional philosophical and theological approaches, generally emphasize autonomous moral selves. Morality is thus distinguished from social or political concerns insofar as emphasis is placed on

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