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The Structure of Culture

PETA (Peolple for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) may be the largest animal rights organization in the world with a membership base numbering nearly three-quarters of a million and spanning the U.S., England, and Western Europe. It has an operating budet over $17 million. For a so-called (and relatively) marginal movement, this is a big operation. New World Vision, on the other hand, is a localized project in California that advocates for charter schools as the locus for humane education. While PETA seeks to eradicate animal exploitation, New World Vision teaches "a life-enriching and life-affirming ethic for students" in order to challenge commonly held assumptions about the human-animal relations. Where do these differing ideologies come from? Do these groups share a fundamental concern for non-human animals yet frame their concerns in different ways? Did these activists' ideas come from their parents, their teachers, and other primary socializers? Or, is there a connection between who you know and what you believe? Consider this problem in terms of social network structures and culture. In the field of social movements research, both cultural theories (e.g., Dave Snow and colleagues) and network approaches (e.g., Mario Diani) to movements are growing areas of interest, and together they provide the foundation for an inevitable combination. Beyond this field influential sociologists of culture (e.g., John Mohr) are developing tools that unite structural, and in particular relational, analyses with cultural beliefs, meanings, and symbols. This approach is likely to provide important insights into how our deeply held beliefs are governed by the social structural arrangements in which we find ourselves. In the movements literature culture typically refers to three things: how movements frame their grievances, how activists adopt collective identities, and how individuals and groups develop their ideologies. Carroll and Ratner (1996) find that location in activist networks relates to how activists framed their oppositional ideology. Individuals in their study with many cross-movement organizational memberships tended to adhere to injustice frames that resonated much more broadly than did individuals who remained tied to a single movement. Chris Ansell (1997), following Basil Bernstein, might say that these frames rely on an "elaborated code" that is abstract, flexible, and inclusive. Ansell writes in the Durkheimian tradition where symbols effectively bind groups together and contribute to the development of a collective identity. He argues that the combination of elaborated and restricted codes (the latter are specific, rely on tacit knowledge, and tend to build solidarity within rather than between groups) in a single symbol unifies broad coalitions of oppositional groups. What is not clear in these studies is the direction of causality. Does network position shape ideas or do ideas shape position? Both is the likely answer, but this is quagmire that cross-sectional studies such as these cannot untangle. Some scholars of movement outcomes have recently called for more attention to the role that movements play in contesting and innovating cultural meanings. Consider the ongoing construction and contested meanings associated with the terms nigger, negro, colored, black, and African-American. To what extent have movements affected these cultural referents? What role have movements played in constructing our ideas about non-human animals, the environment, women, gays, lesbians, gender, disabilities, and race? If we extend the findings of Ansell, Carroll and Ratner to include those social relations that bridge social movement and other sectors will we find a relationship between social network structure and culture? That is the question.

“The Structure of Culture”