Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology
Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2009
Culture and Media, Health and AIDS, Social Movements, Gender and Sexuality , Urban Studies, Theory, Methods
Terry McDonnell is a cultural sociologist (Ph.D. 2009, Northwestern University) who studies the role of objects and media in everyday life. He explains why some cultural objects have the power to shape belief and behavior, while others fail to have the intended effect by tracing the production, circulation, and reception of objects over time. Once objects leave the design studio, the ad agency, and the publisher they leave unexpected lives, travel unanticipated pathways, and face unintended interpretations and practices. Sometimes these disruptions are happy accidents of creativity and enhance the power of objects. More often than not, though, this instability undermines the effectiveness of objects to do the work they were designed to do.
Terry’s present work theorizes this process of “cultural entropy:” how the intended meanings and uses of culture fracture into a chaos of alternative meanings, new practices, failed interactions, and blatant disregard. His book manuscript, Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns, develops the idea of cultural entropy to explain why HIV/AIDS media campaigns often fail to change peoples’ belief and behavior. He finds that institutionalized “best practices” of design undermines organizations’ capacity to communicate the intended message. Even if they design what appears to be a resonant campaign, he finds that audiences interpret and use campaigns in ways the designers never intended once campaigns leave the controlled settings of focus groups, advertising agencies, and stakeholder meetings to circulate through public space: People turn female condoms into bracelets, communities refuse the t-shirts they helped to design, AIDS posters go missing from public space to become home decor, and red ribbons fade into pink ribbons under the sun. He argues that such cultural misfires are not random, but patterned, widespread, inevitable, and indicative of cultural entropy.
Theorizing the materiality of objects is central to Terry’s work, as can be seen in two publications. “Cultural Objects as Objects: Materiality, Urban Space, and the Interpretation of AIDS Campaigns in Accra, Ghana” (The American Journal of Sociology 2010) won an honorable mention for the Geertz Prize in Cultural Sociology. More recently, he analyzed materiality and space in art exhibitions with Wendy Griswold and Gemma Mangione, titled “Objects Words, and Bodies in Space: Bringing Materiality into Cultural Analysis” (Qualitative Sociology 2014).
Terry has additional interest in theorizing cultural resonance. This research appeared in the special issue of Theory and Society on Measuring Culture, titled “Drawing Out Culture: Productive Methods to Measure Cognition and Resonance.”
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