Scott Kistler’s Review – “To Change the World” (Chp. 4)

Posted: June 23, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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Having addressed what he views as flawed views of culture, Hunter now presents his views.  As he recognizes, culture is an incredibly complex concept and reality, and so he gives seven general “propositions” about culture and four about cultural change.  I’ll list his exact wording for each proposition and briefly summarize each:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations: These are often unconscious rather than “exist[ing] as a set of propositions” (33).  Culture is how define reality, and it is found in what we think of as “obvious” and is found in our language.  As it’s been said in at least one sociology class that I’ve had before, culture is like water for a fish: it’s assumed.  Therefore, it is not easy to change or challenge one’s own culture.
  2. Culture is a product of history: The fact that culture has been built over centuries also helps to give culture its staying power.  Cultures have changed over time and therefore they continue to change; “it is just that they are not easily changed in these way or changed in the direction we want them to change.  The inertia built into culture by virtue of its relationship to its long history tends to make it lumbering and erratic at the same time” (34).
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical: Culture is not only symbolic, it is also made.  In other words, we make something with the symbols.  Ideas are therefore connected with the institutions that produce culture.  Speaking sociologically, he gives examples of these institutions: “the market, the state, education, the media of mass communications, scientific and technological research, and the family” (35).  There is also the dialectical (two-way) relationship between individuals who make these institutions and institutions that influence individuals through their cultural production.  “Institutions have much greater power,” he writes, but our prevailing cultural theory about individual hearts and minds tends to ignore their power (35).
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power: Certain people and things in cultures have more cultural power than others.  He calls this power “symbolic capital.”  He gives numerous examples: certain people (like a person with a Ph.D.), schools (like Yale), newspapers (like the New York Times), and awards (like the Nobel Prize) simply have more symbolic capital than other things in the same category, and they can transfer some of that power to other things.  As he notes, think of the process of book “blurbs” that can give a certain prestige to a book because of the reputation of the “blurber.”
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery”: As Hunter says, this follows the previous proposition.  Certain people and things are at the center of cultural production, while others are at the periphery.  “With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most” (37), and I should note that I think he means quality as judged by the culture’s symbols and institutions.  USA Today, he notes, outsells the New York Times, but the Times’ position at the cultural center allows it to enjoy greater status and confer status on other cultural products.
  6. Culture is generated within networks: Contrary to the “great man” theory of history expounded by Hegel and Carlyle, he writes that “the key actor in history is not an individual genius but rather the network and new institutions that are created out of those networks” (38).  While brilliant people may lead “networks of similarly oriented people and similarly aligned institutions,” that is their necessary context to make the great impacts that they are credited with making (38).
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent: Culture is not independent from other factors in a society, but rather is bound together with institutions like the economy and the state.  Our economy commodifies and sells many non-physical cultural products and the increasing power of the government means that government has a great role in cultural production (like public education).  A culture also has “fields,” cultures within cultures.  I think what he means by this are things like professions and voluntary associations, although it’s not entirely clear how these are different from cultural institutions.  I imagine that these are in some ways secondary institutions, not the great commanding institutions of society.  Finally, there are what we usually call subcultures, although he doesn’t use this word: “relatively distinct, and often competing perspectives” relating to regional, ethnic, religious, or other differences (40).
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up: Because the production of culture is so influenced by elites, institutions, and networks, long-lasting change is most likely to come through these processes
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige: The elites at the center aren’t going to challenge the norms that they are influential in creating, but challenging those norms takes some form of power, which elites not at the center have.  He gives the analogy of Vilfredo Pareto, whose writings have influenced Hunter on this point: elites are either lions (defenders of their tradition) or foxes (challengers of elite traditions).  When foxes succeed, they have difficulty establishing order, and then lions come back or “the foxes become lions” (43).
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap: Cultures change when elites cooperate.
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight: This is pretty self-explanatory.  Hunter also draws on Robert Wuthnow’s work to note that for an alternative to take hold, “its discourse, moral demands, institutions, symbols, and rituals” need to be close enough to the culture not to seem alien, and different enough to not be “co-opted” by elites.

Hunter’s main foil in this chapter is the statement that “ideas have consequences,” the title of a book by Richard Weaver, which Hunter views as typifying the idealism that is prevalent in popular understandings of culture.  They can, Hunter says, but only to the extent that “they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols” (44).

It’s really important to note that Hunter does not denigrate the favored tactics of cultural change today: evangelism, social reform, or political action (in fact, he praises them, especially evangelism). But he says that unless they affect the elites of society, they will not produce long-term cultural change even while they have other positive impacts.  His example is the Prohibition movement, which got to the point of outlawing alcohol but never really transformed the culture.  Such are the passing victories that he thinks will be the highlights of the idealist view of culture.

I thought that this was a really good chapter.  I was a bit worried that he presented culture as too monolithic at first, but he noted the complexity in Proposition 7.  One thing to note is that I do think that the leading culture change advocates among evangelicals do recognize the importance of elites more than Hunter realizes, because part of the rhetoric is often that the elites are against them.  Perhaps they overestimate the impact of grassroots activism, though.  Also, as Doug Wilson notes, evangelicals are working hard to defend the institution of marriage, so there is some understanding of the importance of institutions.  And he also says that some culture war rhetoric is the public face that is put on a more comprehensive understanding of culture.

  1. […] Scott Kistler’s Review – “To Change the World” (Chp. 4) […]

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