About Measuring Culture

Cultural analysis has historically been a site of diverse and creative strategies of specification, formalization, description, and quantification in the social sciences. This inclination toward novelty produced a wealth of fresh ideas and methodological contributions that have reverberated across different fields of inquiry. Many see this diversity of approaches as a distinctive contribution that sociologists of culture offer to scholars in multiple disciplines. However, recent debates suggest that this proliferation of perspectives and analytic strategies generate problems of communication and coordination, both across different scholarly communities and between scholars and the lay public. One perennial issue is the ambiguity of “culture,” which to this day resists a consensual, unitary definition. This perceived lack of conceptual clarity and analytic specification opens up the field to methodological criticism from social scientists that expect more clearly delimited concepts.

If critics are right, our failure to develop consensually shared analytic and measurement strategies for cultural analysis can produce three problems. First, any lack of common yardsticks for measuring culture can lead to the problem of scholars speaking past each other. This is likely the cause of heated debates between quantitative and qualitative researchers, and more recently between ethnographers who study action and interviewers who study discourse. Second, without standard measures it could prove difficult to build upon past work and refine theories as a field. If there is any crisis of recognition for our work—say, for example, in the hiring priorities of academic departments—disorder of this kind may be one cause. Third, culture has a dual character, as both subjective reality embodied in persons and an objectified reality out in the world. Bridging these two worlds of culture, which often rely on distinctive methods and skills, has proven difficult in the past.

The Measuring Culture group seeks to move beyond these debates by establishing common ground around the problem of cultural measurement and identifying new methodological approaches to study this terrain. Rather than seeking to compel the field to converge around a set of standardized measures, we instead advocate for an iterative approach that embraces diverse measurement strategies and specifies the research questions to which they are most usefully applied. We argue that the contributions of one measurement approach should be understood in dialogue with other approaches. Thus, standardization is not the goal; rather, we seek productive dialogue across different ways of tackling measurement problems that yield insight into the phenomenon of interest. We argue that often contexts require creative solutions rather than traditional or habitual ones. Such creativity involves borrowing techniques from proximal fields, putting measures in conversation via triangulation, and inventing and adapting approaches to data gathering and analysis.

We advocate a theoretically informed and pluralistic approach to cultural analysis that questions the opposition between quantitative and qualitative approaches, showing how hermeneutic and computational methods complement and inform each other. The methods deployed by the scholars in our group include close textual readings, ethnography, focus groups, interviews, survey analysis, network mappings and automated text mining of “big data.”

We develop a simple taxonomy identifying four domains of culture in which particular clusters of measurement issues emerge. We then suggest ways to bridge within and across these dimensions to provide fuller accounts of the explanatory power of culture. At the Measuring Culture conference, we’ll have panels on each of these four domains of culture:

  1. Deliberative and Unconscious cognition
  2. Cultural Structures and Culture in Interaction
  3. Relational and Categorical Objects of Analysis
  4. Cultural Reproduction and Emergence

Measuring Culture at Notre Dame will primarily focus on this first half of the volume will explore each of these dimensions, identifying the utility of a wide range of measures to their study. The program closes with a dialog about the second half of the book: a case study where we consider a broad domain (e.g. the reproduction of social inequality), walking through the process of identifying its various cultural aspects, and proposing measures that might generate insight and analysis.