Schudson, M. 1989. “How Culture Works: Perspectives from Media Studies on the Efficacy of Symbols.”

Schudson, Michael. 1989. “How Culture Works: Perspectives from Media Studies on the Efficacy of Symbols.” Theory and Society 18(2): 153-180.

“How does culture work? That is, what influence do particular symbols have on what people think and how they act?” (153) – asks more about the conditions as to what makes culture (not) work.

“Culture is not something that works or fails to work. It is not something imposed on or done to a person; it is constitutive of the person. It is the precondition and the condition of human-ness. The meanings people incorporate in their lives are not separate from their activities; activities are made of meanings” (153). Culture as inseparable from social structures, human activity. Framed as a debate between cultural idealism and historical materialism – yet, these things are inextricable, but people differentiate between symbolic and real agents within the world. This logic is faulty, ignoring how immaterial goods DO have an impact on society, in material forms and social practices. Rituals act as a means to describe the power of symbolism in our life. “The symbols do not exist apart from how they are conveyed, and our own participation in them and with them constructs not only their power but their very meaning” (154).
There is use in examining objects in relation to culture, as cultural symbols – acts as a means to communicate meanings through time, access an instrumental means to examine culture. Looks into culture as ideology versus culture as toolkit debate (kx^ in other words, structure versus agency) – however, in the latter, it is symbols, not people, which are changeable – “polysemic” – with multiple meanings.

“The study of culture is the study of what meanings are available for use in a given society from the wider range of possible meanings; the study of culture is equally the study of what meanings people choose and use from available meanings. Views that take culture as a social mold emphasize that meanings can be made by individuals only from symbols available to them. Views that take culture as a public resource emphasize that culture works only when individuals use it” (156)

Focuses on a middle path between these two that does not deny extreme positioning, and more on how to develop a vocabulary and methodological understanding for this middle path. No simple answers, as no cultural objects are universal, nor impact everyone the same way. All cultural objects are situated, and can even change meanings for individuals based upon relational contexts.

Notes the dimensions that lend cultural objects potency: retrievability, rhetorical force, resonance, institutional retention, resolution
1) Retrievability – ability of culture to reach target , availability of object, for people to “reach”, use (economically, cognitively, socially), despite barriers or competing choices. “If a cultural object is connected to a culturally salient event institutionalizedo n the culturalc alendar,i t will be more available – not only more present, that is, but more easily remembered over time” (162). – becomes means of sociopolitical strategy.
2) Rhetorical Force – Even if culture can reach a person, what makes people mind it? – sender, audience, situation, message, medium, (kx ^ authenticity?) – cultural objects do not exist by themselves, but in an already existing field; work to displace or relate conversations to self.
3) Resonance – how well the object applies, takes hold, speaks to audience “People not only attend to media selectively but perceive selectively from what they attend to. Obviously, then, people normally participate in culture-making; as some literary theorists would say today, readers are co-authors, “writing” the texts they read” (168). The success of symbols as a representation of a valued entity, and an “aura” which generates its own power, which becomes a tradition in representing the held ideas. “Relevance or resonance, then, is not a private relation between cultural object and individual, not even a social relation between cultural object and audience, but a public and cultural relation among object, tradition, and audience” (170).
4) Institutional Retention – Culture intermingles with institutions as well as interests, as a set of concrete social relations where meaning is enacted, institutionally. Priorities, sanctions enforced. Social institutions as gatekeepers to legitimizing and perpetuating certain cultural objects.
5) Resolution – Objects more situated in action or as a call for action. Offers definition and parameters to action. Spiro’s hierarchy of effects on the impact of religious teachings and learning ideology: 1) learn about concept, 2) learn and understand, 3) belief in veracity or rightness in concept, 4) come to value concept (as organizing principle), 5) internalizing belief – cognitive and motivational important… as a means to social action (Spiro 1966)

Impacts as variable – small impact on lots of people, great impact on small amount of people.

Spiro, Melford. 1966. ” Buddhism and Economic Action in Burma.” American Anthropologist 68: 1163.


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