why do we need a book about measuring culture?

The following is a guest post by Jenn Lena and Terry McDonnell.

While cultural sociologists have had numerous debates about method in recent years (ethnography v. interviews v. forced choice surveys!), we have been far less attentive to questions of measurement. Our new book, Measuring Culture, aims to fill this gap. We start with the simplest question: Who might benefit from our book?

“I’ve never really thought about the measurement of culture; will the book make sense to me?” For a discipline with a strong interpretive ethos, it took some time for our coauthors to come to any consensus about what we “mean” by measurement. To name one example: we spent several hours debating whether noting the presence or absence of some thing or someone is an act of quantification. This, in and of itself, is a contribution of Measuring Culture—giving us a framework and language for how cultural sociologists can talk about measurement. We argue that measurements are representations of the world, and while every representation is good for some purpose, none can serve all purposes. This ecumenical view is translated into our prescriptive buckets—we argue that measuring culture is about its qualities (e.g., content, form), and quantity; it is also about the relationship/s between elements and the processes by which cultural elements are generated, reproduced and transformed, and dissolved over time.

“My department lacks a cultural sociologist; how can this book help me?” Despite the fact that the Sociology of Culture has been among the two largest sections of the American Sociological Association for a decade or more, graduate level courses on the sociology of culture are relatively rare. Graduate students in departments that do not have the resources to train them often rely on synthetic texts to gain a view of the field. Classic “readers” like Rethinking Popular Culture or Cultural Sociology can help students make sense of the theoretical arguments of key works in the field; Measuring Culture is the first book that can help students make sense of the measures we use. To cherrypick a few examples:  the measurement of schemas (pp. 32-4), or of innovation (pp. 79-82), or the causal relation between networks and culture (pp. 109-111).

“I’m trying to get up to speed on cultural sociology quickly; what about me?” Even under the most ideal circumstances, graduate students have to economize their work time in order to stay on-schedule. If you are creating a reading list for your qualification exams, drafting a literature review, or preparing a guest lecture, time is of the essence. Although our own limitations of time prevent us from performing an exact count, there are many dozens of important books and articles included in our review of measurement strategies. In choosing examples for Measuring Culture, we have paid particular attention to works that are frequently cited and taught, and those that are innovative and should be more widely known. Scholars with limited time available may discover our book simplifies the task of reading and understanding key works in the Sociology of Culture.

“I’m teaching a class on culture or research design; is this a book I should add to the syllabus?”: We hope that faculty who teach courses in the Sociology of Culture and in Research Design will consider adopting the book. The chapter structure of the book—people, objects, relations, pivots—lends itself well to a course that treats the whole field as a subject of inquiry, rather than a particular theoretical tradition. Within each chapter, there is a balance of attention to general issues and to particular research projects, so instructors can twin a chapter from our book with one or several of the studies that we describe in detail. As the MWD (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) approach to the teaching of sociology fades slowly into the past, new and synthetic models are needed.

“I want something that reflects on the practical realities of research design; is Measuring Culture for me?” One of the most novel aspects of Measuring Culture is found in the chapter on “pivots.” We conducted in-depth interviews with the authors of three research projects, asking them to focus on important measurement decisions they faced, and how they resolved them. The pivots chapter has arguably the broadest appeal of any in the book because the decisions these researchers faced are generic: when, why, and how do we modify our research techniques in the course of studying group behavior? The three projects—Paul DiMaggio’s research (with colleagues) on the “culture wars;” Ron Breiger, John Mohr, and Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s discourse-analytic study of National Security Strategy documents; and Ann Mische’s study of Brazilian political activists using both quantitative network analysis and ethnography—represent a diversity of subject matter and measures that we hope will have a wide appeal.

The book takes a pluralist approach to methods, preferring instead to engage questions of measurement. Regardless of where readers fall on the quantitative v. qualitative or positivist v. humanist divide, the book seeks to grapple with questions about measurement in accessible ways that push the conversation forward in productive directions. Our goal was to write a book that anyone under cultural sociology’s big tent would find worth reading.

This pluralism and open-mindedness is testament to John Mohr’s leadership. The book emerged from our conversations with John and the “Measuring Culture” group across a series of small conferences. Our conversations turned toward basic questions of measurement: are all measures ultimately quantifiable? Is the core concern of the sociology of culture the measurement of meaning? We realized that we hadn’t seen these internal debates and our moments of consensus and productive dissensus as part of the broader conversation. John encouraged us to consider a book, bringing Eric Schwartz into the fold. John’s easy-going and intellectually inclusive style shaped the tone of our conversations and ultimately the contributions of the book.

Terry McDonnell (L), Jenn Lena (C), and Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director Columbia University Press (R)

If you have read the book, we hope you have found it useful. If Measuring Culture has provoked questions, please let us know what those are. We are eager follow up with a second post engaging them.

Jennifer C. Lena  is an Associate Professor of Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. Terry McDonnell is Associate Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame. They write with the blessing and support of Margaret Frye, Omar Lizardo, Ann Mische, Iddo Tavory, Frederick Wherry, and on behalf of John Mohr.

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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