Cultural Genealogy: Method for a Historical Sociology of Culture or Cultural Sociology of History

Introduction (1)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

There are two ways to view and tinker with the foundations of a (sub)field: one theoretical, the other methodological. The cultural turn in sociology seems so successful that theoretical arguments for taking some new area of culture seriously do not seem particularly useful at this point. There is no needto call attention to the power of language, the political importance of media, the stratifying possibilities of taste, the social character of objects, the creative nodes in networks, cultural forms of violence, patterns and practices of ‘activism,’ the classificatory underpinnings of race, gender, and sexuality, or the cultural dynamics and patterns of decorum that characterize and shape history. I could add to the list of potentially revealing subjects to study by doing theoretical lob- bying, but I think the more pressing issue is how to do research well or better.

More precisely, I think we need to reflect on our epistemic culture (Knorr- Cetina, 1999), the links between knowledge claims and practices that underlie our studies, particularly in relation to history. We know that culture has distinc- tive ways of oozing through time, but we have few ways of approaching the prob- lem systematically. We need an epistemic culture to warrant our research that gives full sociological attention to time itself as a cultural form and a tool of col- lective identity that meddles in our attempts to write sociologically about the past.

Historical sociology has always been a productive site of theoretical devel- opment, and a subfield with high epistemic legitimacy, but one that has had limited interest in time itself, periodicity, or the negotiations of past and present that give cultural depth to social processes. Cultural sociologists, on the other hand, take seriously both time and periodicity as subject-matter for research (Wagner-Pacifici, 2005; Zeruvabel, 1985), so we are in a privileged position to consider the epistemic problems of doing historical work. And we would bene- fit, I think, by considering how we look ‘into history’, what time-marking activ- ities we find there, and how we participate (or not) in on-going efforts to narrate the past.

Anthropologists treat methodological practices as interesting sociocultural processes in themselves, and I take my warrant for these reflections from them. I ask myself how would I write a counterpart to Rabinow’s (1977) book on fieldwork in Morocco to describe historical research? What is the relationship of a cultural sociologist to the author of a document or book on history? What can we say about the others who we see as ‘inhabiting’ the places in the past we visit vicariously? How do we think about the textual and other bases of our studies? And how do we give voice in our writing to those whose words we read or practices we study? Better, how do we place their voices in relation to each other to see inter-subjectivity in the face of archives and histories organized around autonomous actors? And what kind of past do we write as sociologists and hold against canonical works in history and sociology?

Analyses in cultural sociology are often based on ethnography. The method helps distinguish this type of cultural analysis from the more textual approaches of the humanities. Fieldwork data has made it easier for sociologists to borrow ideas from cultural studies without abandoning their disciplinary training and identities, and to contribute to humanistic studies in a useful and distinctive way. Historical work in cultural sociology, on the other hand, has not had the benefit of such an identifiable set of methods. The comparative methods from historical sociology were never designed to answer questions of culture. This has left practitioners in this subfield (including me) mucking around with his- torical, art historical, feminist and literary methods to try to write something

empirically grounded with a theoretical focus appropriate for a historical soci- ology of culture. The purpose of this article is to consider one methodological option for this type of work: genealogical analysis. In spite of the criticism often leveled at it by sociologists, this method from cultural studies can be useful for sociologists interested in patterns of cultural inheritance and the historical social practices that have shaped them.

To make the point, this article will draw on Nietzsche’s ideas about geneal- ogy to reconceptualize cultural descent in more sociological terms. Then it will apply genealogical methods to a particular case: construction of the Canal du Midi in 17th-century France. The Canal du Midi was not just a piece of infras- tructural engineering, but also a demonstration of cultural intelligence and part of a propaganda effort to define France as the New Rome. Descriptions of the canal explained its importance as evidence that ‘moderns’ in France could sur- pass the ‘ancients’ in the ‘art’ of engineering. Unknown to the political archi- tects of the New Rome, however, there was more than political rhetoric linking the French present to the ancient past. The military engineers, surveyors, labor- ers and artisans who built the canal actually used ancient engineering tech- niques for the work – some of which had become part of vernacular culture. The New Rome was really built on the foundations of the old empire, but this cultural heritage was buried. Some ancient knowledge was exercised without any sense of its provenance. Peasants who employed Roman methods to improve their towns with canals did not see their skills as Roman. In addition, their contributions to the canal that had engineering value in the eyes of learned men were attributed to others. To carriers of formal knowledge, the contribu- tions of low-status people to the engineering had no standing. Carriers of clas- sical technique were erased from the historical record to give these engineering achievements the political value desired for building the New Rome.


Primary sources:

Papers from the Archives du Canal du Midi are marked as ACM with a file and document number. Some of the documents are titled; others are not. There are a few printed sources from the archives:

Le 14 octobre 1666, l’Arrêt d’adjudication des ouvrages à faire pour le canal de communication des Mers en Languedoc est promulgué. Ce même jour, le Roi ‘fait bail et délivrance à M. de Riquet des ouvrages contenues au Devis’ préal- ablement défini sous l’autorité du Chevalier de Clerville. Reprinted in ‘Edit du Roy pour la construction d’un canal du communication des deux mers, Océane & Méditerrannée. ACM 03–10.

Claude Bazin, ‘Bail et Adjudication des Ouvrages à Faire Pour la Continuation du Canal et du Port du Cette, 20 Août 1668’, 9, section x, Archives de Canal du Midi (ACM), folder 07, item12 (07–12).

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