Idioculture




Idioculture is defined as ‘‘a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and employ as the basis of further interaction’’ (Fine 1979: 734). Termed by Gary Alan Fine, idioculture respecifies the content of culture by focusing on the level of small groups and the social interactions therein. Developed before the sociology of culture gained popularity in the discipline and at a time in which macro, structural, political, and economic approaches were dominant and culture was seen as a vague, amorphous, fractured, ‘‘indescribable mist’’ (Fine 1979: 733), idioculture makes the culture concept useful by focusing on empirically observable group interactions as the locus of cultural creation. To reground culture in group interactions, Fine draws from the symbolic interactionist tradition and research on group dynamics.




While the idioculture concept respecifies culture at the group level, it also identifies the process through which elements become a part of an idioculture. To become a part of an idioculture, an item must be Known, Useable, Functional, Appropriate, and Triggered (KUFAT). An item must be a part of a known pool of background information. If the item is not known by at least two group members, it cannot become a stable basis of ongoing interaction. Though the focus of idioculture is local, the ‘‘known’’ criterion provides a link to broader social structural and cultural forces as they are experienced by group members. An item must also be useable, that is, it must be ‘‘mentionable in the context of group interaction,’’ (Fine 1979: 739). If the item violates the morals of a group or has taboo implications, it will not survive as a part of the idioculture. To become a part of idioculture, an item must also be functional: it must help the group to fulfill some need. Items that have no purpose in terms of group tasks or group emotions are unlikely to become a basis of ongoing interaction. An item must also be appropriate. An item is appropriate when it supports the status relations within the group. Items that are hostile to high status group members are censored, but items that are sponsored by high status members are likely to be incorporated into the idioculture. An item must also be triggered, it must ‘‘spark’’ group interactions, and triggers which are notable or unusual are most likely to become a part of the idioculture. The creation of idioculture through this five part process occurs via the interactions of group members.

The content of idioculture ranges from nick names and jokes to stories and rules of conduct. The concept was generated inductively from Fine’s (1979, 1987) ethnographic study of little league baseball teams, but features prominently in all of his works, from his study of fantasy gaming to his recent observations of weather forecasting. Among the many examples that Fine gives is an informal rule created by a little league team prohibiting the eating of ice cream in the dugout during a game (Fine 1979: 743–4). The rule was triggered by an unexpected loss, during which a younger, non playing member ate an ice cream cone. The rule was drawn from a known background – the players knew that it was abnormal for a player in the ‘‘big leagues’’ to eat ice cream during a game. Likewise, the rule was useable because it did not deal with any childhood taboos. It was functional because it provided an emotional outlet while focusing the attention of the younger members and creating solidarity, and it was appropriate because it was enacted by high status members against the actions of a low status member. Though this feature of the idioculture was created through this interactive process, it sets the terms for ongoing actions: it effectively ended the eating of ice cream for the rest of the season.

This process of idiocultural creation emphasizes the non random and therefore thoroughly sociological nature of culture. Different configurations of the five features explain how idioculture varies between different groups and how different forms appear and remain in different groups. That the ‘‘no ice cream’’ rule did not present itself in the idiocultures of other teams can be explained by the notable triggering (during a loss as opposed to a victory) and the status dynamics of the particular group.

The term idioculture is routinely referenced in the sociological literature as a synonym for small group culture. However, it is rare for researchers to engage the full KUFAT apparatus, perhaps due to an implicit methodological implication. Because idioculture is local in nature, it must be studied at the group level, and though the process of idiocultural creation is empirically observable, it requires detailed microsociological data collection and analysis. Though fieldwork is increasingly viewed as a legitimate method, many sociologists do not have the interest or inclination to engage in this labor.

While the term is used more frequently than the full concept, a number of studies capture the ‘‘spirit’’ of idioculture by emphasizing the connection between groups and culture. In his research on ‘‘creative genius,’’ Farrell (2001) debunks the image of solitary inspiration to show how groups such as the French Impressionists used friendship networks to form a ‘‘collaborative circle’’ that spawned creativity. Farrell presents a stage model of group creativity (formation, rebellion, quiet, creative work, collective action, separation, reunion) that is not unlike the KUFAT process. In their ethno graphic studies of voluntary associations, Eliasoph and Lichterman (2003) propose a model of culture in which ‘‘group style’’ filters macro level collective representations down to the micro level of interaction. Eliasoph and Lichterman stress how the group style (composed of boundaries, bonds, and speech norms) mediates broader cultural categories, codes, and vocabularies, to make them useable in the context of everyday group life.

References:

  1. Eliasoph, N. & Lichterman, P. (2003) Culture in Interaction. American Journal of Sociology 108: 735-94.
  2. Farrell, M. P. (2001) Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  3. Fine, G. A. (1979) Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams. American Sociological Review 44 (5): 733-45.
  4. Fine, G. A. (1987) With the Boys: Little League Base ball and Preadolescent Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Hare, A. P., Borgatta, E., & Bales, R. F. (1965) Small Groups. Random House, New York.
  6. Hollingshead, A. B. (1939) Behavior Systems as a Field for Research. American Sociological Review 4: 816-22.
  7. McFeat, T. (1974) Small Group Cultures. Pergamon Press, New York.
  8. Sherif, M. & Sherif, C. (1953) Groups in Harmony and Tension. Harper, New York.

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