Swidler, A. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.”

Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51 (2): 273-286.

Culture influences action not through providing values, but by providing a toolkit of habits, skills, and styles. In settled cultural periods (stasis), culture independently influence action through providing resources for diverse actions; unsettled periods offer explicit ideologies to directly govern action, but face significant competition from other ideologies (activity, social transformation), which are whittled through structural opportunities for action. Definition of culture as “the publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning” (Keesing 1974). Culture as beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, ceremonies, language, gossip, stories, rituals of daily life – means through which “social processes of sharing modes of behavior and outlook within a community” take place (Hannerz 1969, 184). Interpretative anthropologists (Geertz, Turner, Douglas, Levi-Straus) offer language to describe features of cultural products, experiences. Bourdieu and Foucault as power’s relationship to culture, stratification. Focuses on how people take action with the meanings put to these cultural components – “strategies of action”

Culture as values sources from Weber – interests, end-orientation push action, Parsonian views values as essential, ahistorical, static. Swidler notes “Action is not determined by one’s values. Rather action andvalues are organized to take advantage of cultural competences” (275). Continuity of social action is based upon how action is organized, not necessarily its goals. Strategies of action are influenced by individual moods, views of the world, habits – constructed of pre-fabricated links of culture that shape and organize action.

Ideology (development of system of cultural meaning)  tradition (taken for granted articulated cultural beliefs/practices that order special or everyday events)  common sense. In unsettled periods, ritual takes on significance as it aids to reorganize habits and experience, new strategies of coping. In competition with other ideologies, traditions, and cultural frameworks. In settled lives, diverse cultural resources can be selectively called upon to bear different outcomes and strategies of action, offering a “knowing” of how to act. Cultural experiences may reinforce/refine skills, attitudes, habits, but do not depend immediately on them. Difficult to analyze, as structural and cultural enmeshment becomes highly wrought. Cultural lag during social change is not due to people holding on to values, but holding on to strategies of action.

“Choices are often made without respect to tastes. Human decision makers routinely ignore their own, fully conscious, preferences in making decisions. They follow rules, traditions, hunches, and the advice or actions of others. Tastes change over time in such a way that predicting future tastes is often difficult. Tastes are inconsistent. Individuals and organizations are aware of the extent to which some of their preferences conflict with other of their preferences; yet they do nothing to resolve those inconsistencies…. While tastes are used to choose among actions, it is often also true that actions and experiences with their consequences affect taste” (March 1978: 596).

Unsettled lives – values are unlikely to predict actions, or even future values. Ideologies have high coherence and consistency, while competing with other cultural values. Short term effects include having strong control of action, teaching new modes of action. Long term effects create new strategies of action, but depends on structural opportunities for survival of competing ideologies.

Settled lives – Characterized by traditions and common sense, which have low coherence and consistency, has the short-term effects of having weak control over action, refining/reinforcing skills, habits, experience. Long term effects include the provision of resources to construct strategies of action, the creation of continuity in style to organize strategies of action.

“The significance of specific cultural symbols can be understood only in relation to the strategies of action they sustain” (283). Reappropriation of culture sources from existing modes, is organized along existing frameworks.

March, James G. 1978. “Bounded Rationality, Ambiguity, and the Engineering of Choice.” Bell Journal of Economics 9: 587-608.
Keesing, Roger M. 1974. “Theories of Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology 3: 73-97.


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