Concepts of Culture
To see one's country as the product of "the processes by which it developed to its given state," or, alternatively, to see it as the ground of "the future course of events," is, in short, to see it rather differently. But, more than that, it is to look in rather different places to see it: to parents, to traditional authority figures, to custom and legend; or, to secular intellectuals, to the oncoming generation, to "current events," and the mass media. [...] For in the new states the age of ideology is not only not over, but, as the inchoate changes of self-conception wrought by the dramatic events of the past forty years emerge into the public light of explicit doctrine, only just beginning. [...]
Until Talcott Parsons, carrying forward Weber's double rejection (and double acceptance) of German idealism and Marxist materialism, provided a viable alternative, the dominant concept of culture in American social science identified culture with learned behavior. This concept can hardly be called "wrong"--isolated concepts are neither "wrong" nor "right"--and for many, rather routine purposes it was, and remains, serviceable. But it is now clear to virtually everyone whose interests extend any distance beyond the descriptive that it is very difficult to generate analyses of much theoretical power from such a diffuse, empiricist notion. The day when social phenomena were explained by redescribing them as culture patterns and noting that such patterns are handed down from generation to generation is very nearly past. And Parsons, insisting in his grave and toneless voice that to interpret the way a group of human beings behave as an expression of their culture while defining their culture as the sum of the ways in which they have learned to behave is not terribly informative, is as responsible for its passing as any single figure in contemporary social science.
In place of this near-idea, Parsons, following not only Weber but a line of thought stretching back at least to Vico, has elaborated a concept of culture as a system of symbols by which man confers significance upon his own experience. Symbol systems, man-created, shared, conventional, ordered, and indeed learned, provide human beings with a meaningful framework for orienting themselves to one another, to the world around them, and to themselves. At once a product and a determinant of social interaction, they are to the process of social life as a computer's program is to its operations, the genic helix to the development of the organism, the blueprint to the construction of the bridge, the score to the performance of the symphony, or, to choose a humbler analogy, the recipe to the baking of the cake--so the symbol system is the information source that, to some measurable extent, gives shape, direction, particularity, and point to an ongoing flow of activity.
Yet these analogies, which suggest a pre-existing template stamping form onto a process external to it, pass rather facilely over what has emerged as the central theoretical problem for this more sophisticated approach: namely, how to conceptualize the dialectic between the crystallization of such directive "patterns of meaning" and the concrete course of social life.
There is a sense in which a computer's program is an outcome of prior developments in the technology of computing, a particular helix of phylogenetic history, a blueprint of earlier experiments in bridge building, a score of the evolution of musical performance, and a recipe of a long series of successful and unsucccessful cakes. But the simple fact that the information elements in these cases are materially separable from the processual--one can, in principle anyhow, write out the program, isolate the helix, draw the blueprint, publish the score, note down the recipe--makes them less useful as models for the interaction of cultural patterns and social processes where, a few more intellectualized realms like music and cake-baking in part aside, the very question at issue is precisely how such a separation is, even in thought, actually to be effected. The workability of the Parsonian concept of culture rests almost entirely on the degree to which such a model can be constructed --on the degree to which the relationship between the development of symbol systems and the dynamics of social process can be circumstantially exposed, thereby rendering the depiction of technologies, rituals, myths, and kinship terminologies as man-made information sources for the directive ordering of human conduct more than a metaphor.
This problem has haunted Parsons' writings on culture from the earliest days when he regarded it as a set of Whiteheadian "external objects" psychologically incorporated into personalities and thus, by extension, institutionalized in social systems, to the most recent where he sees it more in the control-mechanism terms of cybernetics. But nowhere has it come home more to roost than in discussing ideology; for, of all the realms of culture, ideology is the one in which the relationship between symbolic structures and collective behavior is at once the most conspicuous and the least clear.
For Parsons, an ideology is but a special sort of symbol system:
A system of beliefs held in common by members of a collectivity . . . which is oriented to the evaluative integration of the collectivity, by interpretation of the empirical nature of the collectivity and of the situation in which it is placed, the processes by which it developed to its given state, the goals to which its members are collectively oriented, and their relation to the future course of events.8
Yet, left at that, this formulation fuses together modes of self-interpretation that do not entirely go together, and, glossing over the moral tension inherent in ideological activity, obscures the interior sources of its enormous sociological dynamism. In particular, the two clauses I have underscored, the "interpretation of the empirical nature of the collectivity," and "[the interpretation] of the situation in which [that collectivity] is placed," are not, as I hope I have by now demonstrated, as coordinate as practical enterprises in social self-definition as the mere "and" conjoining them might suggest. So far as new state nationalism is concerned, they are in fact very deeply, in some places irreconcilably, at odds. To deduce what the nation is from a conception of the world-historical situation in which it is thought to be enclosed-"epochalism" --produces one sort of moral-political universe; to diagnose the situation with which the nation is faced from a prior conception of what it is intrinsically--"essentialism"--produces quite another; and to combine the two (the most common approach) produces a confused assortment of mixed cases. For this reason, among others, nationalism is not a mere by-product but the very stuff of social change in so many new states; not its reflection, its cause, its expression, or its engine, but the thing itself.
To see one's country as the product of "the processes by which it developed to its given state," or, alternatively, to see it as the ground of "the future course of events," is, in short, to see it rather differently. But, more than that, it is to look in rather different places to see it: to parents, to traditional authority figures, to custom and legend; or, to secular intellectuals, to the oncoming generation, to "current events," and the mass media. Fundamentally, the tension between essentialist and epochalist strains in new state nationalism is not a tension between intellectual passions but between social institutions charged with discordant cultural meanings. An increase in newspaper circulation, an upsurge of religious activity, a decline in family cohesion, an expansion of universities, a reassertion of hereditary privilege, a proliferation of folklore societies are--like their contraries--themselves elements in the process by which the character and content of that nationalism as an "information source" for collective behavior are determined. The organized "systems of belief" propagated by professional ideologists represent attempts to raise aspects of this process to the level of conscious thought and so deliberately control it.
But, no more than consciousness exhausts mentality does nationalist ideology exhaust nationalism; what it does, selectively and incompletely, is articulate it. The images, metaphors, and rhetorical turns from which nationalist ideologies are built are essentially devices, cultural devices designed to render one or another aspect of the broad process of collective self-redefinition explicit, to cast essentialist pride or epochalist hope into specific symbolic forms, where more than dimly felt, they can be described, developed, celebrated, and used. To formulate an ideological doctrine is to make (or try to make--there are more failures than successes) what was a generalized mood into a practical force.
The scuffle of political sects in Indonesia and the shifting foundations of monarchy in Morocco, the first so far an apparent failure, the second so far an ambiguous success, represent such attempts to draw the intangibilities of conceptual change into articulate cultural forms. They represent, also, of course, and even more immediately, a struggle for power, place, privilege, wealth, fame, and all the other so-called "real" rewards of life. Indeed, it is because of the fact that they also represent this that their ability to focus and transform men's views of who they are and how they should act is so great.
The "patterns of meaning" by which social change is formed grow from the processes of that change itself and, crystallized into proper ideologies or embedded in popular attitudes, serve in turn, to some inevitably limited degree, to guide it. The progress from cultural diversity to ideological combat to mass violence in Indonesia, or the attempt to dominate a field of social particularisms by fusing the values of a republic with the facts of an autocracy in Morocco, are without doubt the hardest of hard political, economic, and stratificatory realities; real blood has flowed, real dungeons have been built--and, to be fair, real pain has been relieved. But they are also without doubt the record of those would-be countries' efforts to breathe intelligibility into an idea of "nationhood," in terms of which these realities, and worse to come, can be confronted, shaped, and understood.
And this is true for the new states generally. As the heroic excitements of the political revolution against colonial domination recede into an inspirational past to be replaced by the shabbier, but no less convulsive movements of the dispiriting present, the secular analogues of Weber's famous "problems of meaning" grow more and more desperate. It is not only in religion that things are not "merely there and happen" but "have a 'meaning' and are there because of this meaning," but in politics as well, and in new-state politics in particular. The questions "What is it all for?" "What's the use?" and "Why go on?" arise in the context of mass poverty, official corruption, or tribal violence as much as in those of wasting illness, defeated hope, or premature death. They get no better answers, but insofar as they get any at all it is from images of a heritage worth preserving or a promise worth pursuing, and though these need not necessarily be nationalist images, almost all of them-Marxist ones included--are.9
Rather like religion, nationalism has a bad name in the modern world, and, rather like religion, it more or less deserves it. Between them (and sometimes in combination) religious bigotry and nationalist hatred have probably brought more havoc upon humanity than any two forces in history, and doubtless will bring a great deal more. Yet also rather like religion, nationalism has been a driving force in some of the most creative changes in history, and doubtless will be so again in many yet to come. It would seem, then, well to spend less time decrying it-which is a little like cursing the winds--and more in trying to figure out why it takes the forms it does and how it might be prevented from tearing apart even as it creates the societies in which it arises, and beyond that the whole fabric of modern civilization. For in the new states the age of ideology is not only not over, but, as the inchoate changes of self-conception wrought by the dramatic events of the past forty years emerge into the public light of explicit doctrine, only just beginning. In preparing ourselves to understand and deal with it, or perhaps only to survive it, the Parsonian theory of culture, suitably emended, is one of our most powerful intellectual tools.