Culture and Economy Essay

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In traditional academic discourse, ”culture” and ”economy” have long been regarded as separate analytical spheres: on the one hand, the realm of shared cognitions, norms, and symbols, studied by anthropologists; on the other, the realm of self-interest, where economists reign supreme. Though the two disciplines overlap occasionally (in economic anthropology mainly), radical differences in the conceptual and methodological routes each field followed during the twentieth century have prevented any sort of meaningful interaction.

By contrast, the interaction between culture and the economy has always been a central component of sociological analysis. All the founding fathers of sociology were, one way or another, interested in the relationship between people’s economic conditions and their moral universe. In his famous presentation in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, for instance, Marx described ”forms of social consciousness” essentially as an epiphenomenon of material relations. Later interpretations, however, have suggested that even for Marx and Engels the relationships between ”material base” and ”superstructure” were far from deterministic. The ”western” Marxist traditions that developed in Europe after World War I proposed a somewhat more sophisticated analysis that emphasized the integration of culture into the apparatus of domination – either because the hegemony exerted by bourgeois culture induces the masses into implicitly consenting to their own economic oppression, or because the incorporation of culture into the commercial nexus of capitalism leads to uniformity of spirit and behavior and the absence of critical thinking. Still, in these formulations, culture remains wedded to its material origins in capitalist relations of production.

Partly reacting against what they perceived to be a one-sided understanding of the relationships between base and superstructure in Marxist writings, Weber and Durkheim both sought to demonstrate the greater autonomy of the cultural realm, albeit in quite different ways. Both insisted that people’s behavior is always infused with a meaning that is not reducible to their material positions. Weber, more than anyone else, demonstrated the influence of preexisting ideas and, in particular, religious worldviews on the economic conduct of individuals. For instance, even though their actions may look rational from the outside, the behavior of early Protestant capitalists was quite illogical from the inside: anxiety about salvation, rather than self-interest, motivated them to accumulate. In other words, their search for profit was not based on instrumental rationality, but it made psychological sense given the religious (cultural) universe in which they lived. In fact, Weber considered that all religions condition individual attitudes toward the world and therefore influence involvement in practical affairs – but they, of course, all do it differently, so that the ”economic ethics” of individuals varies substantially across social contexts.

It is Durkheim, however, who best articulated the collective basis of our meaning-making orientation: groups of individuals share certain understandings that they come to take for granted in their routine dealings with each other. Hence how people behave, including in economic settings, is not a priori reducible to a set of predetermined individual preferences and the interests they support. Rather, most of people’s actions are motivated by habit and routine; and preferences, as well as the institutions they support, are informed by cultural norms. In each society, then, culture and institutions act in tandem to shape individual consciousness and thereby representations of what is understood to be ”rational.”

As a system of representations that exists separately and independently of individuals, culture may shape economic behavior in many different ways. It may be more or less institutionalized. Corporate cultures, for instance, are often highly formalized, even bureaucratized, but the rules that underlie bazaar interactions, though obviously codified, remain very informal. Second, the effect of culture may be more or less profound: Meyer and Rowan (1977), for instance, have famously suggested that many organizational rules are adopted in a purely ceremonial way but have little impact on actual practice – a claim that has been notably supported by research on educational institutions and hospitals. On the other hand, substantial evidence has come out of cross-national studies of a deep patterning, not only of economic values and norms but also of economic institutions and organizations.

Biernacki (1995) illustrates particularly well the fact that we should think about the role of culture primarily through its inscription in practices. Economic settings, therefore, do not simply display, or reflect, preexisting cultural understandings, but should be regarded as places where distinctive local cultures are formed and carried out. There are two main ways in which this point has been articulated in the sociological literature. The first emphasizes the social meanings people produce (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) through their use of economic settings and economic objects, and is best illustrated by consumption studies. The second suggests that some form of social order – i.e., regulating norms and practices -emerges out of the interpersonal interactions that take place within economic settings, particularly formal organizations and markets.


  1. Amin, A. & Thrift, N. (eds.) (2004) The Cultural Economy Reader. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Biernacki, R. (1995) The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 1640—1914. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Meyer, J. & Rowan, B. (1977) Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American JournalofSociology83 (2): 340-63.
  4. Polanyi, K. (2001) [1944] The Great Transformation. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

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