Culture & Society

Amir Goldberg: Cracking the Cultural Genome

Every decision we make is deeply rooted in our social identity. A researcher explains a new, networked approach to understanding our cultural traits.

May 15, 2014

| by Amir Goldberg



Amir Goldberg | Photo by Gabriela Hasbun

For many people who have been to a modern art museum it would be a familiar feeling: You are staring at an abstract painting that has been hailed as a masterpiece, trying as hard as you can to enjoy its brilliance. But inside you are mostly struggling to suppress thoughts about how much you long for this torture to end.

Ostentatious displays of enjoyment of fine art have been one of the bourgeoisie’s most effective or humiliating rites of passage, depending on whether one is on the giving or receiving end of it. In fact, every form of artistic consumption is, in some sense, also a ceremony. Even alone, connected through an earphone to tiny electronics playing our favorite band’s last album, we are still conducting an imaginary musical conversation with other people. The soundtrack we are listening to reminds us of meaningful moments. It excites and moves us, energizes us, or makes us ponderous.

Taylor Swift

Americans understand the social significance of musicians like Taylor Swift in different ways, says Professor Amir Goldberg | Associated Press photo by Nati Harnik

This experience, while intimate and personal, does not happen in a social vacuum. Our musical preferences are, to some extent, a statement directed at others about who we are and where we come from. Even when there is no audience, we are still rehearsing it.

We like believing that our decision to download a song to our smartphone is the result of conscious, perhaps even rational, individual choice. But above all, we are social animals. Every decision, even the most banal, is deeply rooted in our cultural identity. Musical taste is never merely about melody or lyrics. Studies find a consistent relationship between, on the one hand, ethnicity, education, and income, and, on the other, musical and other preferences. Our decisions tend to be similar to those who are like us socio-demographically. Struggles over the qualitative value of our preferences are therefore also struggles between different sociocultural identities over their position in the social hierarchy. Distinctions between sophisticated music and pop are also value-based distinctions between the different audiences that consume them.

Why is that the case? The simple explanation is that our preferences and beliefs are influenced by information we receive from our environments: our parents, schoolmates, and work colleagues. The more homogenous our immediate environment is, the crisper and more distinctive our worldview becomes. But reality is far more complicated. The environment does not affect our understanding of the world in such a direct and unidirectional way. What our parents or friends like to listen to does not always explain why we love a certain type of music.

Categorizing Cultural Impact

So in what ways does culture affect our daily decisions? In recent years, sociologists have been trying to understand these collective processes by focusing on mechanisms that operate on the individual level. They rely on insights drawn from cognitive studies about how we receive and use information. Rather than relying on simplistic assumptions about how people who belong to a particular culture necessarily share the same values and normative positions, these scholars developed complex theories that rest on the assumption that people who operate in the same environment can interpret it in different ways.

To help understand what this means, imagine for a moment that you are walking down a sidewalk on a busy city street. Your brain is constantly busy processing copious amounts of information. But without putting too much thought into it, you manage to avoid bumping into a woman ahead of you pushing a stroller. Subconsciously, you are using complex structures to represent your knowledge about the world. You rely on categories to divide and sort this information you see. You classify the person walking in front of you as a “woman” and as a “mom.” Some might also classify her as “old-fashioned,” while others might say she is “stylish.”

Culture affects how you and others employ this classificatory logic. It produces cognitive filters with which people attribute meaning to our experiences. Culture makes it possible for different people to interpret the same reality in systematically different ways.

That is a serious problem for social scientists because surveys and questionnaires are two of our most useful tools. If people understand terms like “rock” or “pop music” in different ways then what is the use in asking someone if they are a rock fan or whether they like pop music? The meaning that we assign to any given thing does not stem from some sort of inherent quality it happens to have, from what it “really is,” but from how our cognitive representation of this thing relates to our cognitive representations of other things.

We may think, for example, of a musician like Kanye West as related to other quintessential hip-hop stars such as Jay Z. Together they form a category. But we may as easily imagine West as a best-selling pop singer, and associate him with other pop stars such as Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé. The logic with which a person carves up the world into different groups of meaning is based on associative networks in which there are no clear boundaries between categories. Under such circumstances, in and of themselves these categories are practically meaningless. People employing different logics might therefore use terms like “hip hop” or “pop” but mean entirely different things. In order to understand the meaning hiding beneath their responses, we need to trace the logic that structures how they divide reality into categories.

Studying the Cultural Omnivore

In order to understand what associations people make between different categories — what they mean when they say they don’t like pop music — we need a new research method. Instead of analyzing each response in a survey separately, we need to investigate how responses relate to one another: how the same person associates between different concepts, and what categories they use to make sense of the world around them.

This is precisely the challenge that, together with my PhD adviser, Paul DiMaggio, I have been trying to address. Rather than using traditional statistical methods to analyze survey respondents’ answers to individual questions, we decided to think of them as making up a social network. We determined the relationships between our respondents by the similarity in the patterns of their responses.

What we ended up with was a complex network comprised of thousands of respondents, many of which are each other’s “friends.” In this context, friendship does not necessarily mean these two people know one another; rather, it indicates that their responses are informed by the same categorical logic.

How can we find different groups of people in this network who, presumably, interpret the world through different cultural filters? Thankfully, in recent years mathematicians and physicists have become increasingly interested in analyzing social networks, and particularly developing methods for partitioning a network into distinctive cliques. We used these algorithms to analyze our social network and divide our respondents into different groups, each inspired by a different cultural logic. I decided to use this approach for exploring how Americans consume music.

I was expecting to find support for two competing theories about the social underpinnings of cultural tastes. The first was formulated by the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In a groundbreaking study he conducted in 1960s France, he found a strong correlation between social status and artistic taste: Upper-class French tended to consume classical music and opera, whereas those from working-class backgrounds seemed to exhibit more lowbrow preferences. Bourdieu argued that these taste patterns in fact reinforce social inequalities. Liking highbrow music also functions as a stamp of quality that reasserts the privileges enjoyed by those who were born on the right side of the tracks, and it marginalizes those who were less fortunate.

The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the idea that music conventionally thought of as highbrow is, in fact, inherently better. Consequently, argued American sociologist Richard Peterson, the artistic hierarchy Bourdieu describes lost its legitimacy in the post 1960s Western world. He offered an alternative that he labeled the “cultural omnivore theory.” In a world shaped by the politically and socially tumultuous events in France in 1968, the American civil rights movement, and the second-wave feminist revolution, high-status individuals became indiscriminate “all-eaters” who consume a wide variety of artistic genres. These people took the previous hierarchy and turned it on its head: They began distinguishing themselves from their less sophisticated counterparts through their wide range of preferences. While the ethos inspiring them appears to be more egalitarian, it, too, serves to create symbolic boundaries between people of different social backgrounds.

Has multicultural omnivorousness indeed obliterated good old-fashioned elitism? Traditional research methods are ill designed to answer this question. A Brooklyn hipster, appreciating classical influences and ironically enjoying Lady Gaga’s commercial music, and a young fan willing to stand in line for hours just to get an autograph from Gaga, would both say they “like pop music.” The method we developed is precisely designed to overcome this limitation, and in my analysis of American opinions on musical genres, it yielded pretty surprising results.

Coexisting Realities

It turns out that Americans have indeed become cultural omnivores, but not at the expense of elitism. In fact, the American public can be divided into coexisting groups, each understanding the social significance of music in different ways.

The first group clings to the outmoded logic Bourdieu describes: There are high and lowbrow genres, and those correspond to a class-based hierarchy — classical music and opera enthusiasts versus those who listen to pop, rap, or country. The second group confirms the omnivore theory, distinguishing between people whose scope of musical likes is particularly wide, and those whose scope is particularly narrow. A third and final group distinguishes between traditional Americana such as country and folk music, and more contemporary musical genres ranging from rap and reggae to rock and pop: Kanye West’s bling culture versus Taylor Swift’s all-American traditionalism.

Even more interesting is the finding that these different categorical distinctions between types of music also reflect different salient cleavages in American society. The old-fashioned hierarchical logic marks social status-based differences. The omnivorous logic corresponds mostly to differences in income; the rich tend to be more diverse in their musical preferences. And the logic that distinguishes between traditional and contemporary music also pits white, small-town, religious Southerners against urban seculars.

Interestingly, the same musical genre can be associated with different social identities in each of the groups. Whereas educated suburban women, who may understand music through an old-fashioned prism, see pop as a symbol of low status, religious Southern men might associate pop with multicultural urban secularism they find threatening. What seems like a very personal preference is also a statement about how we fit into and understand our location in the social jigsaw puzzle.

Music is just one example of how our preferences and perceptions of reality are informed by who we are socially. Such social constructions structure our worldviews in other domains, even those we don’t normally think of as particularly “cultural,” such as politics. It turns out that, as is the case with music, people interpret political reality through different socially influenced filters and classifications.

We tend to think of the political discourse in simplistic terms of right versus left. But such labels incorporate ideological positions on a wide range of issues, from economic policy to gay marriage. Is it really reasonable to assume that whoever fervently defends traditional marriage is necessarily also a free-market enthusiast? In a study I conducted with Delia Baldassarri, a political sociologist at New York University, we used the same method to discover that Americans’ political positions are defined by two competing conceptualizations of what “right” and “left” actually stand for.

One of these groups accepts the conventional division between conservative and progressive political viewpoints: People in this group who expressed conservative opinions against abortion were also economically conservative in their support for fiscal austerity. But a second group rejected the connection between moral and economic conservatism. These people tended to be progressive on issues such as evolution and gay rights, but adopted conservative positions on government regulation of market activity or taxation.

Members of this group, who comprise roughly 40 percent of the population, find themselves pulled in opposite directions by the mainstream political discourse in the United States. They include, for example, a wealthy New York lawyer, whose education and life experience in cosmopolitan Manhattan induce him to be open on matters such as sexual orientation and women’s rights, but who vehemently resists any attempt to use his tax dollars to cover health insurance for those who serve him food in the office cafeteria. It also includes an African-American housewife from Louisiana who is still recovering from the damages and debts left behind by Hurricane Katrina that no government agency helped her cover, but who goes every Sunday to church and is suspicious of anyone who challenges traditional gender norms.

Our findings shed new light on vexing puzzles about political behavior in the U.S. A variety of studies demonstrate the partisan positions have become increasingly polarized since the 1970s. But this polarization is only weakly manifest in the opinions of the general public. Two opposing trends can explain this seeming contradiction. Whereas those who understand politics through traditional categories of liberalism and conservatism became more polarized in their opinions, those who employ an alternative logic increasingly rejected this polarization. Together, the two trends offset each other.

Our findings also help answering the question whether values have trumped economics in determining U.S. presidential elections, as some observers have argued. We found that, to President Obama’s chagrin, those who subscribe to an alternative logic — irrespective of their specific positions on religion, the economy, or abortion — ultimately tend to identify more strongly with the Republican Party. In other words, it’s not so much whether economics trump morals, but rather that when one’s positions on these two dimensions are incongruent with one another, the conservative leaning tends to win.

The Culture Competition

Indeed, culture provides us with categorical distinctions we use to impose order on the messy reality we live in. In politics, in art, and in finance, cultural categories serve as cognitive shortcuts. Like the stock market, where the current value of a financial asset is a mere weak signal about its future value, so is music, where uncertainty hovers above the symbolic meaning of a genre that might be in its heyday but will soon become a symbol of passé anachronism.

The various ways in which culture supplies us with cognitive filters, with which we make sense of the world, embody social power struggles. Yesterday’s avant-garde becomes today’s mainstream, only to be rejected tomorrow as yesteryear’s conservatism. Cultural categories provide the cognitive materials with which these struggles unfold.

In the past, sociologists tended to think of culture as a unified whole, as an invisible glue holding together a uniform social order. Today we understand that reality is far more complex, that culture is in fact a collection of orders that compete with one another. Most of us belong to all kinds of tribes: pop-fan, lawyer, grandmother, liberal. And these identities do not neatly overlap. Different cultural logics emerge from these cleavages.

Thirty years ago, the English biologist Richard Dawkins suggested thinking about culture in terms of genetic evolution. But culture lives and thrives in our brains, a structure far more complex than chromosomes. New mathematical methods and computational abilities unimaginable three decades ago move us, so far only a few preliminary footsteps, toward cracking the cultural genome.

Amir Goldberg is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. His research lies at the intersection of organization studies, cultural sociology, and network science.

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