in (partial) defense of cultural dopes

The following is a guest post by Jeff Guhin.

John O’Brien has an important new article at Sociological Theory about individualism that everybody should read. It uses a brilliant and incredibly well-handled meta-analytical technique: by combining 17 qualitative studies of religion in America (including his own), he’s able to use others’ data but not take their conclusions for granted. Of course, he’s limited by what ended up in the field notes and then, more importantly, what made it from the notes to the pages, but he still does a lot of his own interpretation. In fact, watching O’Brien shift how an author interprets “individualism” to what he thinks is really going on is some of the article’s best stuff.

The argument is complex and worth examining on its own, so I’m more interested here in thinking about how O’Brien thinks about that boogeyman of cultural sociologists: cultural dopes, and, by extension, the difference between a structure and a strategy of action. On pg. 175, he says we sociologists are at risk of rendering dopey our respondents through our current ways of proceeding. Yet I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing: after all, we’re all to some degree structured in our lives and preferences and choices, in what feels necessarily right and good. It doesn’t seem at all odd to me (and it wouldn’t be a new argument) that cultural and moral life are a lot like language: intuitively easy to use, even as an ornate and hard to describe structure lies beneath what appears simple and self-evident. The fact that most folks cannot explain how they use past participles nor the basis of their participation in concepts like gender and individualism does not make them dopes. It just means choice is circumscribed by (and routed into) particular structures, many of which are habituated and hard to notice and articulate. The “dope” line of reasoning strikes me as an attack on a straw-man: of course people have some agency. The question is how much, and about what.

This relates to a bigger question I have about the difference between a structure and a strategy of action, and the degree to which a strategy of action is structural, or at least structurally rooted. I’m wondering about the need to respond to individualism, or the fact that O’Brien find it consistently being leveraged as a strategy of action (as opposed to, say, pacifism) indicates that individualism is not just a strategy that actors can use when they want to but has a constraining structural power that compels people to deal with it (on pages 182 and 188 O’Brien calls this the dominant U.S. cultural expectation). Now, how they deal with it is much more strategic than certain structuralists would argue (O’Brien does a great job showing that) but then individualism is still “a strong, underlying cultural force” in the way he is insisting it’s not. In other words, you can deal with individualism in a lot of ways, but it’s a force, and you’re going to have to deal with it. It just seems to me that if someone see individualism as often as O’Brien does, in so many different cases, it’s hard to understand how it’s actually “lightly held” (except inasmuch as “lightly held” comes to mean able to be handled adroitly, which I think makes perfect sense).

Jeff Guhin is the Abd El-Kader Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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