I. Genealogy of American Studies
II. Myth and Symbol
III. Interpretive Social Science Theory
V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories
VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability
VII. Historical Theories & Methods
VIII. Literary Theories & Methods
IX. (British) Cultural Studies
X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories
XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)
Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?
III. Interpretive Social Science, Semiotics, and Material Culture
Beginning in the early seventies, there is in general a rise in the influence
of anthropology and sociology in AS. Central here is a move away from a
concept of "culture" as the high arts (drawn from the literary
origins of AS) to a more anthropological notion of "culture" as
patterns in a whole way of life. While the more positivist social sciences
have had some impact on AS (primarily through their use by social historians),
a more general influence has come from the hermeneutic human sciences, those
stressing the unavoidably interpretive nature of all social analysis. Included
among these would be phenomenology and its American cousins, enthnomethodology
and symbolic interactionism, and various other social constructionist and reflexive ethnographic approaches, all of which aim at a less reductive description
of social practices than is typical of some empiricist works. These approaches
tend also to stress the inter-subjective and self-reflective rather than
the wholly objective, structurally determined nature of social action.
Structuralism and semiotics, derived primarily from the Swiss linguistic
theorist Ferdinand de Saussure and American philosopher Charles Sanders
Peirce, also played a very important role in these developments. Most versions
of these approaches build on the notion that culture is structured like
a language with certain rules of combination analogous to grammar and syntax.
Semiotics has been applied to the study of virtually every kind of cultural
object from fashion, to architecture, to food, to television, as well as
to various linguistic, visual and aural art forms. It has been applied in
and across a number of fields including anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss),
folklore (Vladimir Propp), literature (Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva),
psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), film (Christian Metz, Teresa de Lauretis)
and general cultural studies (Umberto Eco).
In the context of AS, structuralism emerges in the mid- to late-70s, partly
as a desire to put the myth and symbol school on a more "scientific"
ground, and partly through a more general influx of European theory; while
structuralism as a term was largely overshadowed by its "post-"ing,
semiotics remains one of the most pervasive and lively approaches to cultural
studies. One key, related development has been a focus on "material
culture," on artifacts (furniture, buildings, etc.) that can be "read"
as social history via methods that frequently include the semiotic but draw
also from archeology and other traditional anthropological and histoy-based tools, as well as from the fields of folklore studies and art history, among others. More recently,
the influence of anthropology has returned in new form via the hermeneutic
ethnography of Clifford Geertz, the textual ethnography of James Clifford,
and socio-anthropology of
Pierre Bourdieu-- three varied approaches all
of which call into question the privileged position of the anthropological
observer (typically a "Westerner" observing "non-Western"
"primitive" cultures) by turning the ethnographic lens on the
culture and the interpretive practices of the observers themselves.
Bernstein, Richard J.
The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978). A lucid work of synthesis that
examines the empiricist tradition, linguistic critiques of empiricism, phenomenology,
and Habermas's "critical theory," concluding that social inquiry
needs ultimately to be empirical (grounded in particular social facts and
events), interpretive (seeing those facts and events as partly created by
analytical frames), and critical (responsible for the political motives
and implications of one's work).
Giddens, Anthony, and Jonathan Turner, eds.
Social Theory Today
. Palo Alto:
Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. A collection of insightful essays surveying
a range of recent theory with particular emphasis on sociological aspects
and applications but with interdisciplinary implications. Includes essays
on behaviorism, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, world-systems
theory, and post-structuralism, among others.
Rabinow, Paul and William M. Sullivan, eds.
Interpretive Social Science:
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2nd Edition, 1989. Fine sampling
of significant recent contributions to the theory and method of the social
sciences, stressing phenomenology, structuralism and post-structuralism.
Blonsky, Marshall, ed.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1985. A wide-ranging
anthology of theoretical pieces and applications of semiotics, including
contributions from most of the major contemporary semioticians.
Structuralism and Semiotics
. Berkeley: UC Press, 1977.
A good general introduction to major figures and schools, from Peirce and
Saussure to Barthes and Eco.
Agger, Ben. Critical Social Theories: An Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. Compares postmodern, poststructuralist, neo-marist, feminist, and cultural studies approaches in light of an in relation to interpretive and empirical social science.
Lemert, Charles. (ed.). Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993. Unusually comprehensive collection, from Marx, Durkheim and Weber, to Foucault, Anzaldua, and Lorde. Includes a lucid introduction on what social theory is and how it is an everyday, not just a specialist, activity.
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann.
The Social Construction of Reality
Doubleday, 1966. Influenced by the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, this
text attempts to recreate sociology by placing a theory of knowledge production
at its center; the book was immensely influential in AS circles in the late
60s and early 70s and remains one of the most lucid presentations of a phenomenological
social constructionist approach emphasizing the interaction of subjective
and objective moments in the creation of reality.
Kelly, Gordon. "The Social Construction of Reality: Implications for
Future Directions in American Studies," Prospects, 8 (1983). Good general
description of ways in which Berger and Luckmann's stance (see above) can
be used in AS work.
---. "Literature and the Historian," AMERICAN QUARTERLY 26 (1974): 141-59 Influential
piece challenging the representativeness of elite literary works, and arguing
for a more sociological and anthropological approach to a wider range of
literary works, using children's literature as his example.
Sklar, Robert. "American Studies and the Realities of America,"
AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 22 (1970): 597-605. Traces the history of "high cultural"
criticism in AS and calls for more attention to issues of "social structure"
as understood by anthropologists and sociologists.
Mechling, Jay et al. "American Culture Studies: The Discipline and
the Curriculum," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 25 (1973): 363-389. An influential attack on the
vagueness of the term "culture" as used up till that time by AS
scholars, and a call for a more theoretically sophisticated concept drawn
from cultural anthropology. Also includes useful information on the history
of AS as a discipline, and various approaches to teaching AS.
The Search for a Method in American Studies
. Minneapolis: Univ.
of Minnesota, 1973. Based on a careful re-reading of the classic myth and
symbol works that brings forth their underlying assumptions, Tate's book
argues a kind of proto-structuralist position as a refinement of the myth
and symbol approach.
Blair, John G. "Structuralism, American Studies, and the Humanities,"
AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 30 (1978): 261-281.
Pace, David. "Structuralism in History and the Social Sciences,"
AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 30 (1978): 282-97. This article and the one above by Blair introduce
major structuralist works to an AS audience, survey then recent structuralist
work in AS, and suggest the approach's general value to the field.
NY: Hill & Wang, 1972.
. NY: Hill & Wang, 1977. These two collections
of essays contain much of the best, most accessible work of one of the finest
practitioners of semiotics. Mythologies is an eloquent, jargon-free collection
of short pieces on topics ranging from "The Face of Garbo" and
"The Brain of Einstein" to "The World of Wrestling"
and "Romans in Film." It also includes the important lengthy essay,
"Myth Today," wherein Barthes lays out his structuralist method;
it makes for an interesting comparison with the myth and symbol school.
In Image/Music/Text, see especially, "Rhetoric of the Image,"
and "The Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives."
Two other pieces, "The Death of the Author," and "From Work
to Text" are influential moments in the transition from structuralism
to post-structuralism, as they challenge the autonomous author and the autonomous
book, respectively, as sites meaning making, pointing instead to complex,
negotiated inter-textual networks of language.
* Wright, Will.
Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western.
Berkeley: UC Press, 1975. Application of a Levi-Strauss-influenced version
of structuralism to the Western genre of film. Includes a theoretical introduction
and a methodological epilogue that explain his approach.
* Cawelti, John.
Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art
and Popular Culture
. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976. Something of
a proto-structuralist text, this makes interesting reading alongside Wright
(above), since Cawelti too includes a section on the Western genre. His
introduction adds the concept of "formula" to the earlier terms
myth and symbol. He argues that popular literature with its enduring but
changing narrative formulas may provide a more valid indicator of wide-spread
cultural values than the study of a few, elite works. He further suggests
that because many narrative formulas are cross-cultural, one can through
close scrutiny identify specifically American variants that suggest the
unique characteristics of this culture.
Place, Linna Funk. et al. "The Object as Subject: The Role of Museums
and Material Culture in American Studies," AMERICAN QUARTERLY 26 (1974): 281-91.
Glassie, Henry. "Meaningful Things and Appropriate Myths: The Artifact's
Place in American Studies," Prospects 3 (1977): 1-49. This piece and
the Place piece above represent early reflections on what has become an
important interdisciplinary site in AS -- material culture.
Material Culture Studies in America.
Association of State and Local History, 1982. Lucid survey of varieties
of material culture study of American things and things American.
Martinez, Katharine and Kenneth L. Ames, eds.
The Material Culture of Gender, The Gender of Material Culture Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum ; Hanover : Distributed by University Press of New England, 1997. Includes a useful introduction on gender in material culture and in material culture studies, and a wide of array of essays on topics from Wilder's "Little House" books, to male friendship to quilts as the colonization of American women.
Kingery, David, ed. Learning From Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Surveys recent developments in theory and method for material culture studies
Journal of Material Culture
The Interpretation of Culture
. NY: Basic Books, 1973.
An infuential thinker practicing "semiotic," "hermenutic"
or "phenomenological" ethnography, this collection includes most
of Geertz's major essays. See especially his classic pieces, "Thick
Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture" and "Deep
Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." Geertz views "culture"
as an expressive or performative system of meaning making not reducible
to other systems (i.e., the social, political or economic), and tries to
defend the specificities of various cultural moments from superficial comparison
or reduction to structural sameness he associates with both functionalism
and version marxism.
* Isaac, Rhys.
The Transformation of Colonial Virginia: 1740-1790
Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1982. Brilliantly combines Geertzian
ethnography with social and cultural history.
The Predicament of Culture
. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ.
Press, 1988. A richly imaginative, lucid collection of inter-linked essays
on the topic of textuality and politics in ethnography and cultural criticism
generally. Chapter 1 contains a sustained analysis of the politics of various
ways of writing about "other" cultures, the middle chapters detail
the interactions between aesthetic and ethnogrpahic modes of apprehending
objects, Chapters 9 & 10 provide important insights into the display
of material culture in museums, and the stylistically innovative final chapter
on the Mashpee Indians of Maine raises important questions about the invention
and reinvention of identities with resonance beyond tribal cultures to all
---., and George Marcus (eds).
Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics
. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Clifford's introduction
provides a good description of the "textualist" turn in recent
anthropoligical writing, and the collected essays offer brilliant analyses
of the language of ethnography as it shapes the possibilities and limits
of representing a culture.
Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon (eds.)
Women Writing Culture
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995. A wide-ranging collection of feminist anthropological work that acts as a good antidote to the limited concern given to gender in the Clifford and Marcus collection.
Radway, Jan. "Identifying Ideological Seams," Communication, 9
(1986): 93-123. In this very important article, Radway offers an unusually
lucid explanation of interpretive ethnography and how it can be applied
to American culture. She also argues cogently for fieldwork on contemporary
American culture as a way of bridging academia and the wider society.
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.
Bourdieu, a French sociologist and anthropologist, argues brilliantly and
comprehensively the case that distinctions of cultural "taste"
are key factors in the structuring of society, especially with regard to
de Certau, Michel.
. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1986. DeCertau draws on anthropoligical, sociological, and literary techniques
to elaborate theories and methods for understanding the subtle resistances
of oppressed groups (including native Americans) embodied in the rhetorical
practices of everyday life.
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