Culture Warriors: Cultural Sociology at Notre Dame

Author: Omar Lizardo and Terence McDonnell

The Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame has traditionally been recognized for its continuing strengths in the sociology of religion, the sociology of education, and the study of social movements and political sociology. In recent years, Notre Dame has managed to firmly establish itself as a hub for excellence in cultural sociology, to the point where it is safe to consider Notre Dame one of the few places that can call themselves “culture departments” without danger of stretching the meaning of that term.

The establishment of the Culture Workshop in the fall of 2011 under Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology Terence McDonnell’s leadership has provided an institutional home for the cadre of faculty and graduate students interested in culture at Notre Dame. The workshop puts a  formal stamp on the department’s already vibrant intellectual strand in the study of culture.

If there is one distinctive feature of cultural sociology at Notre Dame is its methodological and substantive breadth. At Notre Dame, rather than engaging in a self-containment strategy, the study of culture necessarily spills over to a wide variety of cognate subject areas in sociology, without much respect for standard methodological boundaries.

This is most clearly exemplified in the propensity of both faculty and graduate students to attempt to connect the sociological study of culture with questions and research problems at the intersection of various subfields within sociology. These include the study of culture and materiality studies, the study of culture and cognition, the role of culture in stratification processes, the study of culture in economic life, the study of political culture from a comparative/historical perspective, the role of culture in social movements, culture at the level of micro-interaction processes and culture and social networks (among others).

The diverse interests and approaches of the four core culture faculty—McDonnell, Associate Professor Omar Lizardo, Associate Professor Ann Mische, and Professor Lyn Spillman—are emblematic of this distinctive character of cultural sociology at Notre Dame.

Cultural Power and Entropy

McDonnell studies the everyday life of cultural objects, explaining how objects come to gain and lose cultural power. His current research examines HIV/AIDS media campaigns in Ghana.

With his concept of cultural entropy, McDonnell describes how the intended meanings and uses for cultural objects—like AIDS prevention billboards—fracture into a chaos of alternative meanings, new practices, failed interactions, and blatant disregard. As his 2010 publication in The American Journal of Sociology implies, materiality is at the center of this process of entropy.

McDonnell has plans to extend his interests in entropy to understand the failure and unexpected success of other instrumental uses of culture, such as art exhibitions (2013), advertisements, political campaigns, and social movement protests. Beyond his research on entropy and materiality, McDonnell has ongoing research on the power of cultural forms like irony in ACT UP’s protest art and street theatre, the waxing and waning of powerful icons like the red ribbon, and how cultural institutions like art museums use elitist metaphors when responding to moments of crisis (2014).

Culture and Social Networks

Lizardo’s work deals with both theoretical and substantive issues in the study of culture and stratification, culture and social networks and culture and cognition. His work combines quantitative methodological strategies with detailed attention to generative mechanisms in the study of the relationship between cultural tastes, lifestyle practices and social networks.

This has taken the form of conceptual contributions to work on the relationship of culture consumption and status rank in the contemporary context (Sociologica 2008) and the problem (with Sara Skiles) of the origins and dynamics of the “omnivorousness” phenomenon (Sociological Theory, forthcoming).

A related line of work brings together concerns with the role of cultural tastes and lifestyle practices in stratification processes with the links between culture and social networks. This has resulted in work demonstrating a link between variety of culture consumption practices and network size and range, network use and local structure.

Lizardo’s more theoretical work on the culture and cognition linkage seeks to specify a practice theoretical approach to the theory of action using insights from cognitive science and neuroscience. One empirical outcome of these efforts is a paper (Social Forces 2010) with Stephen Vaisey that links cultural worldviews with dynamic changes in the composition of personal networks among adolescents.

Cultures of Deliberation, Movements, Democracy, and the Future

Mische, a professor of sociology and peace studies, focuses on processes of communication, deliberation, and leadership in social movements and democratic politics. Using a combination of interpretive and network-analytic approaches, she discusses the challenges to leadership and coalition building posed by the participation of activists in multiple institutional sectors, including partisan, civic, religious, corporate, labor, and social movement networks.

These ideas are front and center in Mische’s book Partisan Publics: Communication and Contention Across Brazilian Youth Activist Networks (2008), which examines the relationship between partisanship and civic association in Brazilian youth politics during 20 years of democratic restructuring. Mische has also written broader theoretical articles on agency, culture, temporality, and social interaction.

She is currently beginning a new project on how individual and collective projections of future possibilities influence deliberation and decision-making.  This study will compare the discursive and relational dynamics of future-oriented deliberation in local communities, social movements, and policy arenas. 

As a pilot project, she is analyzing future-oriented discourse in the (often fierce) debates over proposals for a “green economy” in the documents of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) and the accompanying “People’s Summit.”  She examines how network location, power disparities, and cultural genres influence modes of future projection, including variations in time horizon and a relative emphasis on predictions, values, and strategies.

Political and Economic Culture

Spillman’s research is concerned with how meaning-making processes interact with macro-historical patterns of social and cultural change, with a special attention to political and economic culture.

Her research on economic culture has dealt with the cultural dimensions of comparative economic governance, industries, organizations, professions, and nonprofits, and her interest in political culture has generated work on interest groups, nationalism, national identity, and collective memory.

These two strands are exemplified in her two major books; Nation and Commemoration (1997), a comparative study of national identity formation and collective memory in Australia and the United States, and more recently in her award-winning book Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations (2012), a ground-breaking new study of how the relations among trade associations at the heart of the American economy are structured as much by concerns for sociability and collective identity formation as they are by “self-interest.”

In addition to these substantive contributions, Spillman has also done some fundamental theoretical work on the relationship between cultural meanings and social structure and the cultural foundations of markets. She has also made contributions to some central methodological issues on the logic of casual reasoning and explanation in the cultural and historical sociology.

Conceptualization of Culture

In Professor Christian Smith and Professor Eugene Halton Notre Dame can be said to have its own proponents of a “strong program” in cultural studies. Culture takes center stage in Christian Smith’s work on religion, morality, and personhood. This is clear in his call for a “thickly culturalist” approach to understanding the role of culture in human motivation in Moral, Believing Animals (2003) and more recently in What is a Person? (2010). 

Eugene Halton’s critical work on material culture and consumption in The Meaning of Things (1986) and The Great Brain Suck (2008) as well as his theoretical work in Meaning and Modernity (1986) and subsequent series of articles arguing for a neo-pragmatist semiotics also make a plea to returning to a strong conceptualization of culture, one that recovers the “cultic” roots of culture in lived experience and that takes seriously the idea that culture entails some measure of “cultivation” at an embodied level.

Culture-Centered Approach

In an ongoing collaborative project, Fishman and Lizardo bring together their respective interests to examine the consequences of Portugal and Spain’s divergent democratization pathways on generation-specific divergences in patterns of cultural taste among cohorts born after democracy. They show, using a mixed methods methodological strategy how the distinct politico-cultural fate of each Iberian neighbor left an imprint on the logic of educational institutions and how that has resulted in the creation of distinct culture consuming publics across the two cases.Other faculty at Notre Dame place culture at the center of their approach to the study of a broad array of subject matter. Professor Robert Fishman’s recent work on civic and political culture in post-revolution Portugal (see “Democratic practice after the revolution: the case of Portugal and beyond” Politics and Society, 2011) draws on recent calls to consider culture as not only embodied in explicit symbols, but also carried by the “implicit culture” evident in routine practices of civic participation and commemoration.

Associate Professor Erika Summers-Effler, in Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes (2010), has made important contributions on small group cultures and emotions in social movements, with particular attention to how groups stay motivated in the face of repeated failures and internal conflict.

Assistant Professor Mary Ellen Konieczny, in The Spirit’s Tether: Religion, the Family, and Moral Polarization among American Catholics (2013), combines an appreciation for the power of the religious symbolism inherent in the material culture of parishes with careful attention to the construction of opposing moral and political cultures around distinct conceptualizations of family life. She brings the same attention to the power of space and materiality in her current work on commemoration and symbolic politics of the Cadet Chapel in the Air Force Academy.

Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology Erin McDonnell’s work in on the economic sector of the Ghanaian state realizes the origins of bureaucracy in subcultures, suggesting that state development begins in deviant pockets of excellence with a shared esprit de corps. In addition, in her paper in American Journal of Sociology (2013), she advances theoretical work on Weber’s concept of the “budgetary unit” proposing a new way of understanding household consumption by focusing on the social organization of purchasing decisions, going beyond the notion of consumption as having a purely symbolic character.

Innovative Graduate Work

We are fortunate to have a group of bright, dedicated, and collegial graduate students and recent alumni engaged in innovative work in culture.

Melissa Pirkey is bringing theories of organizational culture to bear on exchange theory through an ethnographic account of a volunteer-based, nonprofit farm.

Ana Velitchkova uses a four-case cross-national comparison of the adaptation and institutionalization of Esperanto as a way to understand how political structures in Eastern Europe affected citizens’ capacity to create a shared cosmopolitan culture.Justin Farrell, who has done award-winning work on how moral worldviews impact collective participation in environmental movements, examines how the moral claims-making in environmental conflicts over Yellowstone stem from the embodied practices of “Old West” ranchers, farmers, hunters versus the “New West” environmentalists, mostly recreation-oriented hikers and photographers.

Mike Strand, who has already done some award-winning work on the genesis and dynamics of classification systems in American Psychiatry (Theory and Society 2010), is engaged in an in-depth case study of the emergence of the first recognizably modern discourses of welfare provision in the turn-of-the-19th-century British political field.Sara Skiles NSF-funded dissertation work is a creative attempt to use vignette-based survey experiments to shed empirical light on of the most often noted but least empirical explored aspects of Bourdieu’s argument in Distinction: that personal expressions of tastes are affected by relational information regarding the taste expressions of others located in different positions in social space.

Finally, Kari Christoffersen uses data from online fora and interviews to compare the cultures of “mainstream” and “ultra” runners to tease out how ultra runners rely on group culture to stay motivated, even as they face of the toll these races take on their bodies.

We’re quite proud of the work of our graduate students. They show a capacity to think creatively and we’re convinced they will make important contributions to thinking in cultural sociology.

It is worth pointing out the diversity of ongoing dissertations here at Notre Dame. This diversity is suggestive of our capacity to support a variety of methods (Pirkey’s ethnography, Farrell’s analysis of the minutes of community meetings, Velitchkova’s internationally comparative work, Skiles’ survey experiments, Strand’s archival work, and Christoffersen’s coding of online fora and interviews). If there is one thread that ties these projects together, it is our students’ ability to craft theory-driven, though empirically grounded research.

A Thriving Culture

The culture workshop at Notre Dame provides graduate students and faculty a venue for presenting works in progress. Alongside the core group of sociologists, the workshop serves as a center of gravity for scholars of culture across a variety of departments on campus: American studies, anthropology, English, history, and film, television, and theatre. A few times a year we host scholars visiting from beyond South Bend, providing a supportive, informal setting for cultural sociologists to share and refine new ideas.

In addition to the culture workshop, a number of centers at Notre Dame create opportunities for bridging cultural sociology with other fields. Scholars associated with the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science & Applications (iCeNSA) are at the cutting edge of networks and culture. Many of our culture-oriented faculty are affiliated with the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, making Notre Dame one of the best places to study culture outside the U.S. context.

In addition, our department has close ties to the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for the Study of Social Movements. We can’t think of anywhere better to research religious cultures or cultural approaches to movements.

Culture at Notre Dame is thriving. When encouraging your students to pursue a specialty in cultural sociology, point them in our direction. If you are a young graduate student trying to choose a place to study culture, Notre Dame should not only be at the top of your list, it is the place where you should be. We are ready to welcome the best and brightest young minds in culture with open arms.

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Originally published by Omar Lizardo and Terence McDonnell at on April 28, 2014.