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CULTURE IN ACTION: SYMBOLS AND STRATEGIES*

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CULTURE IN ACTION SYMBOLS AND STRATEGIES ANN SWIDLER Stanford University Culture influences action providing the ultimate values not by toward which action is oriented but by shaping a repertoire or tool kit of habits and styles skills from which people construct strategies of action Two models of cultural influence are developed for settled and unsettled cultural periods In settled periods culture inde pendently influences action but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action In unsettled cultural periods explicit ideologies directly govern action but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic differentiated arguments about culture s causal role in shaping action cultural practices such as language gossip The reigning model used to understand cul stories and rituals of daily life ture s effects on action is fundamentally mis These symbolic forms are the means through which social leading It assumes that culture shapes action processes of sharing modes of behavior by supplying ultimate ends or values toward and outlook within a community Hannerz which action is directed thus making values 1969 184 take the central causal element of culture This place The recent resurgence of cultural studies has skirted the causal issues of greatest interest which this traditional view of culture leads and to sociologists Interpretive approaches drawn offers an alternative model Victor from anthropology Clifford Geertz Among sociologists and anthropologists de Turner Mary Douglas and Claude bate has raged for several academic genera Levi criticism Kenneth Burke Strauss and literary tions over defining the term culture Since better to describe the Roland Barthes allow us the seminal work of Clifford Geertz 1973a features of cultural products and experiences the older definition of culture as the entire way Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault have of life of a people including their technology of fered new ways of thinking about culture s re and material artifacts or associated with that lationship to social stratification and the name of Ward Goodenough as power everything For those interested in cultural explanation one would need to know to become a func paper analyzes the conceptual difficulties into as opposed to thick description Geertz tioning member of a society have been dis 1973a or interpretive social placed in favor defining culture as the pub of science Rabinow licly available symbolic forms through which and Sullivan 1979 however values remain the major link between culture and action This people experience and express meaning see not because sociologists really believe in the Keesing 1974 For purposes of this paper is values paradigm 1 Indeed been thor it has culture consists of such symbolic vehicles of oughly criticized But without an alternative meaning including beliefs ritual practices art formulation of culture s causal significance forms and ceremonies as well as informal scholars either avoid causal questions or admit the values paradigm through the back door Address all correspondence to Ann Swidler The alternative analysis of culture proposed Department of Stanford University Sociology here consists of three steps First it offers an 11 Stanford CA 94305 image of culture as a tool kit of symbols much earlier version of this paper A was presented stories rituals and world views which people Annual Meetings of the American at the Sociological may use in varying configurations to solve dif Association September 1982 For helpful comments including dissents on earlier drafts and thoughtful ferent kinds of problems Second analyze to discussion of the issues raised here I would like to culture s causal effects it focuses strate on thank Robert Bellah Bennett Berger Robert Bell gies of action persistent ways of ordering Ross Boylan Jane Collier Paul DiMaggio Frank action through time culture s Third it sees Dobbin James Fernandez Claude Fischer Elihu M ac causal significance not in defining ends of Gerson Wendy Griswold Ron Jepperson Susan tion but in providing cultural components that Meyer Krieger Tormod Lunde John John Padgett are used to construct strategies of action Richard A Peterson Jonathan Rieder Theda Skoc pol Peter Stromberg Steven Tipton R Stephen Warner Morris Zelditch and two Blake and Davis 1964 and the empirical and Jr anonymous See reviewers theoretical critique 1975 in Cancian American Sociological 1986 Vol 51 April 273 286 273 Review 1 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW The paper proceeds first outlining the Parsons substituted global ahistorical values by failures of cultural explanation based Unlike ideas which in Weber s sociology are on values then argues for the superior intuitive complex historical constructions shaped by It in 274 plausibility and explanatory adequacy stitutional interests political vicissitudes and of the alternative model Finally it suggests pragmatic motives Parsonian values research are ab approaches based on seeing culture in this new stract general and immanent in social sys way tems Social systems exist to realize their core values and values explain why different actors make different choices even in similar situa CULTURE AS VALUES tions Indeed Parsons does not treat values as concrete symbolic elements like doctrines Our underlying view of culture derives from rituals or myths which have histories and can Max Weber For Weber human beings are actually be studied Rather values motivated by ideal and material interests are es Ideal sences around which societies are constituted interests such as the desire to be saved from the theory of They are the unmoved mover in the torments of hell are also ends oriented action except that these ends are derived from sym 2 Parsons voluntaristic theory of action describes an actor who makes choices in a situa tion choices limited by objective conditions ideal interests Not ideas but material and and governed by normative regulation of the directly govern men s conduct Yet very fre means and ends of action Warner 1978 121 quently the world images that have been created by ideas have like switchmen A cultural tradition according to Parsons 1951 11 12 provides value orientations a determined the tracks along which action has a value defined as an element of shared been pushed by the dynamic of interest symbolic system which serves as


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