How Culture Changes
There is a debate today over the dynamics of cultural formation. One’s strategies and tactics are significantly shaped by one’s understanding of these dynamics. Here are the basic contrasts:
Bottom Up vs. Top Down
Individuals vs. Institutions
Masses vs. Gatekeepers
Artifacts vs. Matrix
Conscious Choice vs. Unconscious Coercion
Information vs. Imagination
University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that the common view of cultural change is sociologically ill-informed and consequently ineffective. Good intentions and increased activity are no substitute for an accurate understanding.
Culture is the frame or story through which we live our lives.
Winston Churchill said we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. Culture formation works in the same way: it’s a historically informed dialectical process. Culture is both socially constructed and socially constraining. We make culture and are, in turn, made by it. Culture is the frame or story through which we live our lives. Everything is seen or explained through its lens. Culture includes the ideas, images, and institutions that shape a given society’s understanding of what is thinkable, sayable, and doable in a given time and place. It serves as an invisible matrix.
Those individuals or gatekeepers that have decision-making authority within the culture industry have a disproportionate influence in society. Culture is a public reality maintained by public institutions. Hunter writes, “While everyone participates in the construction of their own private worlds, the development and articulation of the more elaborate systems of meaning, including the realm of public culture, falls more or less exclusively to the realm of elites. They are the ones who provide the concepts, supply the language, and explicate the logic of public discourse.” Those individuals or gatekeepers that have decision-making authority within the culture industry have a disproportionate influence in society. The culture industry is the academy, arts, media, advertising, and entertainment. They function as the creators of the collective ideas and images of a society.
Power of Culture
Religious elites have an existence that is essentially meaningless to the economic, political, and cultural dynamics of advanced industrial society.
The power of culture is its ability to create an unconscious matrix of ideas and images. Hunter writes, “The power of culture is not measured by the size of a cultural organization or by the quantity of its output, but by the extent to which a definition of reality is realized in the social world—taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the social world. In modern society religious elites have an existence that is essentially meaningless to the economic, political, and cultural dynamics of advanced industrial society—a sideshow to the ‘real’ issues of the day.” Religion in a post-Christian society has been relegated to the private subjective realm of individuals and families, rather than the public objective world of business and politics. Sunday is disconnected from Monday.
Cultural change is top-down, not bottom-up, diffused through culture-forming institutions rather than the mass mobilization of individuals. Market populism—the combination of consumerism and egalitarianism—masks this process. Culture formation does not function as a mass consumer market. Culture is not the aggregate of atomized individual choices. It cannot be correctly thought of in the language or categories of politics or business. Consequently, changing individuals will not ultimately change culture—even if every individual in a society were included.
The gatekeepers of the reality-defining institutions frame the public metaphors and shape the collective imagination. These institutions, in turn, set the parameters for the private behavior and consciousness of the masses.
It is this failure to acknowledge a role, not to mention a disproportionate importance, for institutions and elites that constitutes a major problem in current thinking about cultural change. One reason for this blind spot is that to acknowledge the power of institutions is to seemingly relinquish one’s own agency. But agency is always mediated—by the past that we inherit and the present we confront. Individual agency—while critically important in local settings—is largely an illusion at the societal level. It is institutions, such as the church, that give cultural traction to individual agency over time and in society at large.
Moreover, there is a food chain in cultural innovation and diffusion, beginning with those whose work is most conceptual and invisible to those whose work is most concrete and visible. With the advent of digital communication and the Internet, there is a proliferation of information and an acceleration of its cultural diffusion. Intellectual innovations that once took decades to filter into the cultural mainstream now happen immediately and globally.
Each of these linkages is strategically important. Lasting change doesn’t happen unless there is a constructive strategic partnership between academics and activists, between theorists and practitioners, scholars and businessmen.
• Theorists (discover knowledge)
⇓ Researchers (prove knowledge)
⇓ Academics (teach knowledge)
⇓ Popularizers (simplify knowledge)
⇓ Consultants (advise about knowledge)
• Practitioners (apply knowledge)
Cultural influence thus requires a long-term commitment of intellectual effort and financial resources that are strategically placed. Changing the cultural direction requires reshaping the taken-for-granted assumptions about reality, which necessitates gaining access to the reality-defining spheres of cultural influence and establishing strategic linkages to the channels of cultural diffusion. The aim is to reframe the collective imagination. There are no short cuts or quick fixes to lasting cultural change.