Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Culturalization: On the Boom of “Culture” in Social Diagnoses

Guiding theme of the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz, academic year 2010/11

“Culture” has emerged as a respected category of social analysis. Despite considerable criticism, a “post-cultural turn” is not on the horizon. To the contrary: culturalized interpretations are increasingly widespread, extending from economic discourse to that of domestic and foreign policy, and onward to the discourse of the biological sciences. Research on society as a cultural phenomenon is increasingly supplied with resources. The Constance Center of Excellence is itself a good example of the way in which the relation to culture has come to be considered a highly institutionalized and legitimized form of social analysis. Consequently, our guiding theme will take up the boom in ‘culture’ self-reflexively, and against this particular institutional backdrop.

Since the much-evoked “cultural turn” in the humanities and social sciences, culturalistic interpretive models have established themselves in a complex manner: on the one hand, in many disciplines they now enjoy discursive priority; on the other hand, they are increasingly being applied in disciplines where they previously played a marginal role or no role at all. This is the case, for instance, in relation to questions of economic integration and development on the level of firms (“company culture” and “company identity”), branches (“culture of risk”), and entire national economies (“Asian values”; national “investor cultures”); onward to the culturalistic interpretation of international conflicts, phenomena of migration, and trans-national terrorism (key term: “clash of civilizations”); and on again to the interpretation of the “cultural specifics” of animal societies.

That the relation to culture now passes, as suggested, as a highly institutionalized and legitimated form of social analysis does not mean that the development is itself analytically and socio-politically unproblematic. In the first place, culture-oriented analyses can become one-sidedly culturalistic, thus eliding alternative, additional, or complementary analytic levels. This often involves the residual category that “culture” frequently represented in the positivistic scholarly understanding being inflated into the sole independent variable. Second, the relation to culture can be very easily manipulated politically, because culture is often presented in primordial codes such as ethnicity, sex, age, and so forth. Third, culturalistic discourses will remain fundamentally open to attack to the extent that institutional approaches they criticize as one-sided are rejected by them in an equally one-sided way.

In light of such considerations, the question – also important in relation to research policy – emerges of what ways “culture” can be retained and differentiated as an analytic category in the long term. Exploring this question will require not only a long-overdue survey of culturalized discourses, but also special attention to the margins of such discourses.

Correspondingly, this results in an open list of possible research questions:

  • On what analytic levels can culturalized discourses be observed (economies, firms, international relations, immigration, terrorism, etc.), and against what are they demarcated in each case?
  • What characteristics have been formed by culturalized semantics (for instance references to “discourses” and “narratives.”), and how are these integrated into existing analytic systems?
  • How are culturalistic discourses constituted in relation to critiques they formulate of other discourses?
  • What further discourses has the “cultural turn” been producing in contemporary social diagnoses, for example in relation to the (again) recently demanded distinction between cultural and religious spheres or to the increasingly confirmed epistemological threat posed to concepts of truth and reality (for example in discourses on climate change and creationism)?
  • What objects and phenomena turn out to be resistant to culturalistic approaches, and to what degree?
  • How have culturalistic approaches in the humanities and social sciences been criticized (for instance, in actant-network-theory or rational choice), and which particular understandings of culture do those critiques target?

The guiding theme of “culturalization” should be understood as a contribution to the self-reflective understanding of the “Cultural Foundations of Integration” regarding its basic conceptual categories. On the one hand, both the extent of and channels through which the culturalistic approach iluminates a particular group of problems is open for discussion: these problems focus, for example., on the economical, sociopolitical, psychological, and anthropological foundations of integration. One question posed here might be as follows: in the framework of what non-culturalistic discourses has “culture” been newly introduced in order to secure existing interpretive approaches, including those regarding research policy? An example of this would be an understanding of integration as an investment strategy, such as in theories of human capital or in sociobiology. On the other hand the trans-disciplinary spread of culturalized discourses in the humanities and social sciences has its own effect on the disciplinary discourses through which culture was borrowed as what Mieke Bal has termed a “traveling concept.” An additional basic question thus involves whether and the extent to which the conceptualization and usage of the category of “culture” shifts within the classical culture-oriented disciplines—e.g. anthropology, literary studies, and to an extent history and the social sciences—in the course of its dissemination.

Bernhard Kleeberg and Andreas Langenohl