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

Conclusion: Historical Sociology of Culture and Cultural Sociology of History (8)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

In spite of its distinctive value for studying historical patterns of culture, there is still some strong reluctance to embrace cultural genealogy as a sociological method for historical analysis (Long, 1997; Steinmetz, 2005). Social and cul- tural history, in contrast, seem to provide much more attractive models for doing historical sociology because they foreground people, institutions, and social actions.

Cultural historians themselves sometimes address questions of genealogy, memory, archiving practices, and translation, and can be as interested as any ethnographer in empirical details of social processes (Joyce, 1998, 1999; Smith and Findlen, 2002). There are historians who study memory practices, too, that explain the movement of cultural forms across time (Carruthers, 1990, 1998; Long, 2001). Cultural historians are also interested in forms of material culture, and study techniques and aesthetics that can reveal much about past practices of ordinary people that constitute and support forms of cultural descent (Joyce, 2003; Smith and Findlen, 2002). They even use artifacts to compare practices to ideas – just what sociologists do while conducting field- work (Smith, 2004).

But social historians are also often reluctant to embrace genealogical methods or to focus on patterns of cultural continuity over time (Steinmetz, 2005). They are trained to think about change, not inheritance, and are explicitly cautioned in graduate school against using the past to explain the present rather than appreciating earlier periods and ways of life in their own terms. So, historians have an epistemic culture that is more appropriate for doing a historical soci- ology of culture than cultural sociology of history. For the latter, genealogical methods are more appropriate because they allow us to analyze how history itself is formed through social practices.

Some cultural sociologists have used elements of genealogical analysis to try to understand cultural descent, but to many, cultural genealogy as it has been practiced in the humanities seems abstract, unfounded, and almost ritual- istic compared to ethnography. Stories of cultural and technological inheritance seem devoid of social agency – far from the complex social worlds researchers see while doing fieldwork (for views on the subject, see Long, 1997). It is hard for sociologists to treat cultural reproduction as a form of ‘usage’ of cultural forms through which practices are sustained but with changing meanings over time. This impersonal and anti-institutional approach to culture appears to deny individual agency along with structural forms of power.

Scholars in cultural studies have gained enormous insight into the power of meanings and their patterns by thinking genealogically (Haraway, 1990; Hall, 1990; Lipsitz, 1990; Treichler, 1999). But they pay little attention to the social mechanisms of cultural descent. On principle, some eschew mechanistic models from the social sciences along with totalizing systems as explanatory strategies. They see them as holdovers of modernism that have no real explanatory signif- icance. The best of these critics produce interesting models of domination that sociologists can appreciate, such as Grewal and Kaplan’s notion of scattered hegemonies (Grewal and Kaplan, 1994). But by foregrounding classification by race, class, gender, and sexuality, replacing social structures with linguistic ones, they truncate the social in ways that make it hard for sociologists to embrace – even those in cultural sociology.

But cultural genealogy does not have to follow an etymological/usage for- mat. The social side of the connection between culture and social life can be mod- eled differently. Cultural genealogy can be compared to family genealogy, in which lines of descent are managed by people with strong stakes in the outcomes. Insiders define what there is to inherit, and legislate the rules of descent that limit access to the resources of group membership. Not everyone born into a family is recognized as a member of that group, and not all those recognized as family members are the genetic descendents of a limited set of forbears. Family trees are not just documents of bloodlines, but patterns of collective memory and amnesia that constitute a family as a cultural artifact.

In principle, family lines are just one case of cultural descent – perhaps with more stakes, but similar mechanisms of control. The genealogical work of fami- lies reveals the power as well as patterns of inheritance, and demonstrates how ‘utility, habit, forgetfulness and finally error’ contribute to social constructions of the past. It provides a model for doing cultural sociology of history – studying the cultural practices and consequences of constituting pasts.

We can use this technique to see how cultural practices, like bits of Roman hydraulics familiar in the Pyrenees, can be stripped of their localisms, and made ‘common sense.’ We can analyze ‘common sense’ itself as both as a form of rea- soning, and as cultural inheritance that has been detached from any temporal location. This kind of common sense is understood as intuitive and useful, but its effectiveness, like its provenance, is not questioned. It is thinking that is ‘sen- sitive’ and ‘sensible’ at the same time – a motherless child of social life that any- one can adopt.

To the extent that explaining common sense is one of the fundamental underlying problems of sociology, then genealogical analysis can and should be an important tool for social analysis. And to the extent that genealogical stud- ies can focus on the social practices of constituting and erasing the past, it can become a viable epistemic option for social research.

Cultural genealogies not only can serve sociologists who want to study his- torical cases of cultural inheritance, but also can be useful when sociologists want to approach the problems of consciousness and self-consciousness in con- temporary cultural work. There are many instances when habits, sub-conscious predispositions or under-articulated practices in social life do not show up as ‘actors’ categories.’ Anyone doing fieldwork in the arts knows that artists often do not know or cannot say why they have particular ideas, tastes, techniques or impulses. Artists often (and frustratingly) say they paint what looks good to them. Animators who make cartoons for children similarly say that they design characters that kids will like, but they are hard pressed to say what kids might like about them. Both groups work intuitively, and are unable to provide an explanation of what they do. Like morality, aesthetics and other intuitive understandings can defy direct expression, but can still be approached, as Nietzsche suggests, using genealogical analysis. By Nietzsche’s account, intu- ition is itself a form of memory and a mark of cultural descent.

The fieldwork currently being conducted on musical improvisation by Howard Becker and Rob Faulkner (2006) holds the promise of making better sense of cultural innovation based on un(der)articulated memory. By playing with musicians while interviewing them, Becker and Faulkner get at forms of cultural intuition that are hard for subjects to articulate, but conceivable for them to demonstrate. Still, there may be limits to what ‘memories’ can be recov- ered through fieldwork. Paul DiMaggio (1997) has written that fundamental cultural predispositions seem to be (in the view of cognitive scientists) deeply ingrained in cognitive patterns, effecting how members of different cultures store information in the brain. If this is really the case, people will never be able to acknowledge or articulate the ones that they learn pre-verbally.

But cultural habits that have histories can be traced, and the erasures that have obscured them in the present can be found in earlier acts of suppression or social isolation. And cultural sociology can be the richer for seeing these habits as connected to ‘forgetfulness and error.’ While ethnographers look at the social life of un(der)articulated cultural forms, cultural sociologists can trace their genealogies. Then the social characters that we describe in our soci- ology will include not only the cunning but anomic actors of an Erving Goffman (1959, 1963) or the pleasure-seeking creatures of a Randall Collins (2004), but also Nietzsche’s ‘knowers,’ unknown to themselves, carrying the burdens and powers of history in their hands.


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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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