In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociology of Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Classic Statements
  • Contemporary Statements
  • Methodology in Cultural Analysis
  • The Culture-Structure Connection
  • Practice
  • Belief and Cognition
  • Discourse
  • Symbolism and Ritual
  • Categories and Boundaries
  • Production
  • Reception
  • Politics
  • Social Stratification
  • Social Networks
  • Organizations and Institutions

Sociology Sociology of Culture
Brian Steensland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0055


Culture is the symbolic-expressive dimension of social life. In common usage, the term “culture” can mean the cultivation associated with “civilized” habits of mind, the creative products associated with the arts, or the entire way of life associated with a group. Among sociologists, “culture” just as often refers to the beliefs that people hold about reality, the norms that guide their behavior, the values that orient their moral commitments, or the symbols through which these beliefs, norms, and values are communicated. The sociological study of culture encompasses all these diverse meanings of “culture.” Amid this diversity, what unifies the sociology of culture are two core commitments: that the symbolic-expressive dimension of social life is worthy of examination, both for its own sake and because of its impact on other aspects of social life; and that culture can be studied using the methods and analytic tools of sociology. Within the discipline, the sociology of culture emerged as a bounded subfield during the 1980s. Prior to this period, sociological analyses of culture were found mainly in theoretical treatises and in empirical studies of religion, the arts, and the “sociology of knowledge.” Throughout, the sociological study of culture has been oriented by a common set of broad questions: What are the social origins of culture? What cultural patterns are found in various groups and institutions? And what influence does culture have on important aspects of society? Scholarship in the sociology of culture ranges from highly general conceptual arguments to closely observed empirical studies. The readings included here reflect this breadth.

General Overviews

Overviews of the sociology of culture take a variety of forms. Griswold 2008 is a popular introduction to key concepts and debates. It also gives sustained attention to the arts and cultural industries. Battani, et al. 2003 provides broad coverage, with special attention to politics and power dynamics. Smith and Riley 2009 contains the best introduction to general theories of culture and their relations to one another. A recent special volume on cultural sociology, Binder, et al. 2008, provides an introduction of a different sort. It collects review articles on the intersection between cultural analysis and other topical areas within sociology.

  • Battani, Marshall, John R. Hall, and Mary Jo Neitz. 2003. Sociology on culture. New York: Routledge.

    A broad overview of the sociology of culture with particular emphasis on stratification, modernity, power dynamics, and social change.

  • Binder, Amy, Mary Blair-Loy, John H. Evans, Kwai Ng, and Michael Schudson, eds. 2008. Cultural sociology and its diversity. Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science 619. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A recent collection of papers describing how cultural approaches have been incorporated into a wide range of topical areas in sociology, including the law, education, science, sexuality, economic markets, formal organizations, social movements, popular culture, and race and ethnicity.

  • Griswold, Wendy. 2008. Cultures and societies in a changing world. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

    A clear and concise introduction to the sociological study of culture. Particularly strong on outlining the multiple meanings of “culture” and showing the value of conceptualizing cultural processes using Griswold’s “cultural diamond” analytic framework.

  • Smith, Philip, and Alexander Riley. 2009. Cultural theory: An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    An exhaustive yet accessible introduction to cultural theory in its many manifestations. An indispensable guide to complex conceptual terrain.

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