On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture, originally published in 1982, is a precise and methodological approach towards the field of cultural sociology. The book is centered on establishing the prominence, evolution, and reproduction of culture. Williams ultimately traces this evolution through a discussion of cultural sociology, and through a painstaking description of cultural forms and their nuances.

Raymond Williams posits that a sociology of culture is an  cross-sectional, cross disciplinary area of study that is concerned with all areas of cultural production, including those forms that can be approached as ideological. The work of the cultural sociologist or cultural historian centers on:

the social practices and social relations which produce not only ‘a culture’ or ‘an ideology’ but, more significantly, those dynamic actual states and works within which there are not only continuities and persistent determinations but also tensions, conflicts, resolutions and irresolutions, innovations and actual changes. (29)

Thus, rather than attempting to solely find easy solutions to problems, the sociology of culture tries to take into account the totality of cultural productions, even when this totality is paradoxical or incomprehensible. This encompassing approach strives to rework social and sociological ideas that approach cultural productions such as language and art as marginal or peripheral social processes. Furthermore, the sociology of culture “is concerned above all to enquire, actively and openly, into these received and presumed relations, and into other possible and demonstrable relations” (10).

Williams opens his discussion by alluding to the multitudinous definitions of culture that exist. He points out three common and general definitions that are usually attributed to culture; however, he points out that the third definition is the most common usage within contemporary cultures (all three definitions are found on page 11):

  1. a developed state of mind – referring to the person who possessed a developed or cultured mind. (e.g. Neil goes to art museums every weekend. He is a very cultured individual).
  2. the processes of this development – referring to cultural interests or activities. (e.g. wine-tasting, opera, going to the theater, going to an art museum, playing golf, attending a lecture, playing a game, watching a television show, etc.).
  3. the means of these processes – referring to the broad categorizations used to approach cultural processes. (e.g. the humanities, the arts, the sciences, etc.).

These definitions of culture, according to Williams, can be traced back to two different “convergences” of interests: one that he refers to as idealist, which emphasizes on the “informing spirit” (11), or in other words, a lifestyle that aims for broad and deep engagement with socio-cultural activities; Williams approaches the other convergence as materialist, which emphasizes “a whole social order” (12), in which “a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities” (12). For instance, from this macro perspective, we can refer to a specific Puerto Rican culture, which is known for possessing its own music (bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton), literature and literary figures, and even its own cuisine (banana tamales, arroz con gandules, etc.).

Although these were the traditional convergences that were usually scrutinized when conducting a cultural study, Williams points out that there is a third emerging convergence that is becoming evident in contemporary cultural work–and this third convergence becomes the central object of analysis in The Sociology of Culture. This third convergence “sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (13). This convergence is quite different from the previous two because it takes into account signs and signifiers, along with the traits usually associated with these elements, such as reproduction, replication, and innovation. Even more so, this focus on cultural signifiers allows sociologists to more effectively scrutinize social relations as mediations rather than reflections. According to Williams, mediation refers to the

necessary processes of composition, in a specific medium; as such it indicates the practical relations between social and artistic forms […]. But in its more common uses it refers to an indirectness of relation between experience and its composition. (24)

Another element that Williams approaches as crucial for the sociology of culture is the concept of ideology, for it is used to approach and categorize “formal and conscious beliefs of a class or other social group” (26) or “the characteristic world-view of general perspective of a class or other social group” that includes conscious and “less conscious, less formulated attitudes, habits and feelings” (26). Williams seems to prefer the latter definition because he believes that an effective ideological critique cannot be restricted solely to formal and conscious matters. He also makes a succinct critique of the notion of a general ideology, explaining that if the term is used to allude to a broad group or a way of life lived by a certain community, then we run the risk of creating a “false generality […] to discriminate ascriptions to specific classes and other groups” (29). Williams thus highlights the sociological necessity of the concept of ideology, as long as it not used as a term to categorize or stereotype the “informing spirit” of a universal or broad population.

I was particularly drawn to Williams’ chapters on identifications and reproductions, mostly because they contribute immensely to conversations that I’m engaged with in terms of the “literariness” of young adult fiction, and the possibility of approaching the young adult novel as an object capable of cultural innovation. Williams devotes a significant amount of effort into discussing notions of the aesthetic. He speculates that at first, many might assume that the aesthetic seems relatively easy to define–the term is usually approached as a a synonym for terms such as beauty, harmony, or proportion. However, these terms lead to an “untraceable” problem when it is deemed that people can specialize in channeling or using these perceptions to recognize and judge works of art. Another problem that arises when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts is the plasticity of the term; art can be used as a categorical marker to approach everything from hair, fashion, decoration, landscaping, dancing, and sports, among others. Williams also points out that the arts are a label usually assigned to “areas of human thought and discourse” (124), as seen within the humanities.

The problematic nature of the notion of aesthetics leads Williams to ask an important question within the sociology of culture: what is, or what is not, art? Williams points out that judgments of value, quality, and execution are expected in virtually every practice. However, within the practice of art, there are works that are produced through a practice recognized as art that are difficult to categorize or approach as art. For instance, although some films, such as Academy Award-winning movies, can be and are approached as art, there are other movies that people would refuse to view as such. Think, for instance, of the differences between movies such as The PianistDude, Where’s My Car?; InceptionThe Hoursand Sharknado.  Some of these movies would, undoubtedly, be approached as high-quality works of art; others would be approached as a movie capable of killing brain cells. Williams points out that the criteria used to approach cultural artifacts and productions is variable and unstable, and even though a production might comply with expected and general standards, it might still lack an element that prevents it from being categorized as art proper.  As Williams puts it:

a ‘bad novel’ does everything that the category ‘novel’ indicates, at the level of generic definition, but then fails to do something else, either in its ‘aesthetic process’ or in terms of its ‘seriousness’ or its ‘relation to reality’ (which at least explicitly, the original definition had not included). (125)

This notion is problematized even more by the fact that works that were once considered “bad” can later on obtain status as a “legitimate” work of art. Williams points out that novels, for instance, were considered to be a literary object associated with lower classes–whereas this is clearly not the case today. Science fiction novels, as Williams claims, are also examples of works that “move from one side of the [art/not art]divide into another, or are straddled across it” (125). Williams then delves into the social processes of art, and he makes a claim that I, at first, was rather skeptical about. He argues that

The attempt to distinguish between good, bad and indifferent work in specific practices is, when made in full seriousness and without the presumption of privileged classes and habits, an indispensable element of the central social process of conscious human production” (126).

My hesitancy about this claim arose from my belief that this focus on the “good” or “not good” is a dated idea in that contemporary critical studies recognizes that all objects, good or bad, are capable of informing the subject on the social processes of human production. However, from a social perspective, this divide between the good and the bad can be useful, because it highlights the way elements and productions are socially organized. Thus, Williams does not view these labels as permanent, but rather, he views these labels as markers in flux: “variable social forms within which the relevant practices are perceived and organized” (130).

The Room (2003) is a film that is almost universally recognized for being one of the worst movies of all time. What does this help us to understand how cultural forms and productions are socially organized? What makes The Room a bad film? Even more so, how do we approach the film once we take into account its popularity as a cult classic? Is this movie so bad that it becomes good?

– – –

Another chapter that I was really interested in was the one on cultural reproduction. Williams opens this chapter by discussing the tension that exists between micro socio-cultural studies that target a very specific forms, practices, and institutions, and macro socio-cultural studies that tries to develop a general theory that accounts for most social processes. He believes that the more one knows about a subject, the more one tries to defend it from being distilled or interpreted through a broad, general perspective. He then proposes a distinction between two kinds of cultural consciousness that are in play in terms of the value of the specific over the general:

  1. “that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity” that puts “working generalizations and hypotheses under strain” (182).
  2. the “often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for endless postponement of all (even local) general judgments or decisions” (182).

Williams argues that the distinction between these two forms of consciousness is crucial towards understanding the process of cultural reproduction.  Cultural reproduction is approached as a temporal concept (one that is not always historical) that involves “movement from one dateable manifestation of culture to another” (183). Cultural reproduction is also a negotiable concept, or better said, a notion that is characterized by its plasticity. Williams points out that when talking of cultural reproduction, it is important to keep the two connotations of the word reproduction in mind: although it can denote the exact replication of an object (such as in the case of a photocopying machine), it can also have a biological valence in which a new organism is producde that shares traits with the original source, without being an exact copy. Williams asserts that when it comes to cultural reproduction, both connotations should be kept in mind because “There are very few significant cultural processes analogous to the printing press or the photocopier, but there are also very few analogous to sexual or other biological reproduction” (185).

In terms of reproduction, Williams emphasizes works that are transitional, that is, works produced when formal innovation begins to manifest within a particular culture. Innovation usually takes place in these transitional forms when there are new elements that are “incompatible or undigested” present within the work. As Williams points out, there are times when a work’s treatment of these new elements may be simplified and unable to reach their full potential, but we must be careful not to ignore their formal significance by comparing them with “preceding or succeeding mature examples” (200).  It is quite easy for scholars to not notice transitional innovation when it is occurring, but as Williams puts it, this innovation “is one of the very few elements of cultural production to which the stock adjective, ‘creative’, is wholly appropriate” (200).

After addressing the issue of innovation and reproduction, Williams classifies categories of social and cultural change that take into account relations of domination and subordination, but that also takes into account the dynamic nature of cultural forms. These categories are:

  1. Dominant – Williams asserts that this is the most obvious condition of production. Dominant forms are usually seen as crucial, “natural,” and necessary by forms that are not dominant. Dominant forms are not always overtly aware of their dominance. There is a range between dominant forms that consciously control (e.g. the press), “various kinds of displacement, to a presumed (and then dominant) autonomy of professional and aesthetic values” (204).
  2. Residual – “work made in earlier and often different societies and times, yet still available and significant” (204).
  3. Emergent – “work of various new kinds” (204).

Williams points out how the dominant can absorb, or at least attempt to absorb, the residual and emergent forms. He also posits that there is older work preserved by certain groups available as an alternative to “dominant contemporary cultural production” (204), just as there is almost always the presence of innovative work that tries to move beyond dominant forms, and at times succeeds. Interestingly, Williams asserts that some forms of innovation can happen within the dominant, ultimately becoming a new form of the dominant.

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture is a slightly difficult yet very insightful book that gives scholars the tools and the terminology needed to effectively scrutinize and critique culture. There are countless other interesting ideas in this book that I could’ve highlighted in this discussion, but I simply decided to focus on the elements of the book that will be useful for my future research. In due course, I hope this post gives you a better idea of the notions discussed in The Sociology of Culture, and I hope that it pushes you to give it a read.

Work Cited

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Print.


One thought on “On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

  1. Jessica says:

    Thanks for this summary – it’s really helped me to confirm my reading and understanding of this challenging but interesting text.

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