Culture and the State

Studies of culture and the state focus on a range of relationships between modern political regimes and patterns of symbolic and material life. They reveal the diverse ways that power works through culture, and provide means for a better understanding of how power is accumulated, organized, and deployed in or around state systems.

Much work in this subfield takes nationalism to be the fundamental culture of states, but most scholars working in this tradition do not make the mistake of treating national cultures as natural kinds. They try instead to understand how the processes involved in developing and shaping state power since the nineteenth century have generated distinctive national forms of political culture. Sociologists studying nationalism and its development have revealed the cultural techniques used in the creation of nationalist movements and identities. They have investigated the use of propaganda, the arts, gender relations, sexuality, storytelling, engineering, dress, and the media to establish taken for granted connections between populations and their governments.

Other scholars interested in culture and states have examined political processes like voting, policymaking, public advocacy, court procedures, and the use of violence, considering these activities as cultural performances or narrative devices, and following the complex rituals by which power is both exercised and legitimated. Among the students of American culture, there has also been broad interest in the moral dimensions of political participation and the practices of political activists. And Europeans have written with insight and precision about the cultures of bureaucracies, economic institutions, and educational systems that have helped to shape state based political life and national identities.

Studies of culture and the state in the US surprisingly had methodological roots in urban sociology, particularly work of the Chicago School with its fundamental interest in political culture. Fieldwork studies of urban political life and social movements made their cultural forms evident. Scholars schooled in this tradition but caught up in the social activism and analytical Marxism of the 1960s and 1970s began to broaden the area of political concern, asking questions not only about cities but also about states and how they gain or lose authority. They were given tools for their analyses of politics by European sociologists such as members of the British School of Cultural Studies, and the French scholars working with Pierre Bourdieu. These analysts showed how seemingly innocent cultural practices, particularly education and popular culture, had effects on stratification and national identity. Unfortunately, scholars working in these schools generalized about ‘‘culture’’ from their own national traditions, as though there were no cultural differences or different uses of culture among states. This lack of attention to states and culture was criticized by Michele Lamont, and led to her work with Laurent Thevenot to compare class cultures in France and the US (Lamont & Thevenot 2000).

While techniques for analyzing political culture were developing among sociologists of culture in the mid twentieth century, theories of the state became a major area of sociological concern. This was motivated by some of the same historical conditions: the social activism of the 1960s and 1970s. By doing comparative research across countries and historical periods, students of the state hoped to see when and why political regimes failed or endured. Most of the work in the field was strictly structuralist, and explicitly so. Guided by the traditional Marxist theory of history, these scholars assumed that the political fates of regimes would be a consequence of structural processes, and dismissed culture and ideology as objects of analysis. Methodologically, they used the extant historical accounts of states and empires to compare their trajectories of power. Where they found states (as they often did) to be ‘‘semi autonomous,’’ they could have asked questions about culture, but did not. Only in the last decade has there been a turn toward culture by theorists of the state. The results have been impressive, if different in method and implication. Tilly’s (2003) elegant analysis of violence has revealed the unclear border between legitimate and illegitimate forms of collective violence. Charrad’s (2001) award winning study of the political cultures of gender in North African countries has shown how differently a common religion could be portrayed and used in political processes of state building.

Given the fundamental differences in theoretical orientation and methodology between macrosociology of state systems and microsociology of culture, it seemed unlikely between 1960 and 1990 that sociologists would have considered seriously cultural studies of states. But outside sociology, there were shifts in intellectual culture that pushed sociologists in this direction. One was strong interest in comparative cultural studies of states among anthropologists and historians who wrote influential pieces about the political cultures of these systems. Their empirical work made sense to sociologists working with similar methods and interested in comparable concerns. The other influence was more powerful and disconcerting to sociologists: the rapidly growing interdisciplinary interest in cultural studies and the writings of Foucault. Foucault argued that power did not primarily reside in institutions like the state, but rather in the processes of social classification that simultaneously organized knowledge and social relations.

Structural analyses like those developed by historical sociologists of the state, from this perspective, were fundamentally misguided. Even power (as legitimate violence) was not a monopoly of armies and police systems, but was a part of the discursive terrain that aligned power with knowledge. Cultural studies begged the question of whether there were any distinctive kinds of powers that states could wield to their advantage. It was a good question, so rather than destroying all efforts to study states, poststructuralism simply sent sociologists back to the historical record to see what could be learned about the cultural powers of states.

Foucault’s early work on hospitals, clinics, and prisons had been easily folded into the sociology of deviance. But later poststructuralists’ mantra like invocation of class, gender, and race and treatment of complex cultures as texts were more grating to sociologists. They seemed to provide humanists with pre fabricated versions of social analysis, making even constructivist sociologists weary of this approach to culture. Some scholars in the field shared Foucault’s interest in the politics of language and labeling, but even these often remained advocates of fieldwork methods and more local ways of understanding stratification and power.

Studying culture, then, seemed more important than before, but the question was how to improve sociological analysis. Many sociologists simply did fieldwork to address questions raised by poststructuralists. But a substantial number of new works in historical sociology appeared, using subjects in political culture to address the workings of power itself. They rejected Foucault’s aversion to traditional politics as an object of study, but embraced his project of seeking out neglected cultural practices of power. Michael Schudson (1992) and Barry Schwartz (2000) considered the powers of collective memory, while Joseph Gusfield (1981) and Robin Wagner Pacifici (1986) wrote on the performative aspects of political events. Meanwhile, Chandra Mukerji (1997) focused on material culture and the built environment, the ways that state power could be stabilized and materialized in maps, styles of dress, and places themselves.

In the 1990s, perhaps in response to the Reagan years in American politics, many new works on culture and the state appeared, focus ing on nationalism, fascism, and the Holocaust. The question of why fascism gained power in the mid twentieth century had dominated critical theory and neo Marxism, bringing cultural issues to the heart of Marxist thought. Now the subject was being reexamined, using the tools of cultural sociology to explain the seductions of political imagery and identities that supported genocide (Berezin 1997; Falasca Zamponi 1997).

In the face of theoretical challenges from cultural studies and methodological ones from anthropology and history, sociologists interested in culture and the state have become better scholars. The push to produce a more richly nuanced cultural history of states has made it harder simply to skim off the secondary literature. At the same time, sociological under standings of states have matured, too. They are not automatically reduced to apparatuses (as structures) or nations (as a natural counterpart to states). They are analyzed as places of power, engineered to be politically identifiable and materially managed territories, and sites of performances of power, linking people to places. States in the new sociology of culture are simultaneously imagined communities, narratively organized sets of social relations, socially sanctioned ways of using the land, and elements in webs of violence and control. They exist as social institutions but exercise power not as some passive apparatus, but rather through politically nuanced and intentional practices of cultural domination through design.


  1. Berezin, M. (1997) Making of the Fascist Self. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
  2. Charrad, M. (2001) States and Women’s Rights in the Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  3. Falasca-Zamponi, S. (1997) Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  4. Gusfield, J. (1981) The Culture of Public Problems. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Lamont, M. & Thevenot, L. (2000) Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  6. Mukerji, C. (1997) Territorial Ambitions and the Gar dens of Versailles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  7. Patterson, O. (1998) Rituals of Blood. Civitas, Washington, DC.
  8. Schudson, M. (1992) Watergate in American Memory. Basic Books, New York.
  9. Schwartz, B. (2000) Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  10. Tilly, C. (2003) The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  11. Wagner-Pacifici, R. (1986) Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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