Decorative sociology: towards a critique of the cultural turn



In this paper we outline a critique of ‘decorative sociology’ as a trend in contemporary sociology where ‘culture’ has eclipsed the ‘social’ and where literary interpretation has marginalized sociological methods. By the term ‘decorative sociology’ we mean a branch of modernist aesthetics which is devoted to a politicized, textual reading of society and culture. Although we acknowledge slippage between the textual and material levels of cultural analysis, notably in the output of the Birmingham School, we propose that the intellectual roots of cultural studies inevitably mean that the textual level is pre-eminent. In emphasizing the aesthetic dimension we seek to challenge the political self-image of decorative sociology as a contribution to political intervention. We argue that while the cultural turn has contributed to revising approaches to the relationships between identity and power, race and class, ideology and representation, it has done so chiefly at an aesthetic level. Following Davies (1993), we submit that the greatest achievement of the cultural turn has been to teach students to ‘read politically’. The effect of this upon concrete political action is an empirical question. Without wishing to minimize the political importance of cultural studies, our hypothesis is that, what might be called the ‘aestheticization of life’ has not translated fully into the politicization of culture.

We argue that an adequate cultural sociology would have to be driven by an empirical research agenda, embrace an historical and comparative framework, and have a genuinely sociological focus, that is, a focus on the changing balance of power in Western capitalism. We reject the attempt to submerge the social in the cultural and outline the development of an alternative, integrated perspective on body, self and society. We conclude by briefly commenting on three sociological contributions to the comparative and historical study of cultural institutions which approximate this research agenda: Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and Richard Sennett.