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Dr. Werner Binder (Masaryk University, Czech Republic) on Cultural Sociology and Cooperation with the IoE

The Higher School of Economics has a broad network of partners, scientists and colleagues all across the globe. So, for HSE Saint Petersburg student Ksenia Burko it was no surprise to meet Dr. Werner Binder during her exchange program at Masaryk University, Czech Republic, and to ask him for an interview.

Dr. Werner Binder of Masaryk University, a specialist in cultural sociology, has been in collaboration with the HSE Institute of Education for a couple of years. During his visit to Moscow two years ago, Dr. Binder gave public lectures and headed a workshop at the IoE. In the interview, whose full version is published below, he dwells on the participation in the IoE project “Trajectories in Education and Career”, as well as his cooperation with Dmitry Kurakin, Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology and Anthropology of Education.

  • Firstly, a bit of personal history. How did you come to cultural sociology?
  • It might sound strange but I think that I was a cultural sociologist before I knew that there is something like  cultural sociology. When I started to study sociology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, I also took courses in philosophy and German literature, which raised my interest in questions of meaning. Unfortunately, the sociology department in Mannheim was strongly influenced by rational choice theory, but they did not convince me that human action can be reduced to the pursuit of utility. I kept asking myself: ‘What is behind this utility that humans supposedly maximize?’ In the end, I decided to change the university and went to Berlin to continue my studies at the Humboldt-University and the University of Potsdam. Later, when I was preparing for my PhD, which was about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, I came into contact with cultural sociological literature and I found there arguments similar to the ones that I wanted to make. After that discovery, I got a job as a PhD student and lecturer at the University of Konstanz, where cultural sociology was very strong at that time, and I was able to make contact with some of the major theorists in cultural sociology. So it was a kind of elective affinity: I was already looking for a cultural sociology, when it all of a sudden appeared.
  • In order to introduce the key topic of the discussion to the readers, could you briefly summarize what is cultural sociology about? 
  • Cultural sociology is a kind of paradigm, a research program in sociology that puts meaning into the center of analysis. It is not a subdiscipline of sociology, because it investigates all kind of objects: economy, public discourses, violence etc. It is not about theater, art or whatever people might think culture is. The main idea on which cultural sociology is based is that social life, human action and society in general are driven by meaning. Of course, there is the question ‘How to conceptualize meaning?’, and many cultural sociologists offer different kinds of perspectives on it, but it is the concern with meaning that all cultural sociologists share. 
  • What are you working on now? 
  • Well, there are different projects that I am currently involved in. I’m still kind of busy with my old PhD topic even though the doctoral thesis had been already submitted, defended and published a few years ago. I am working on a shortened English version, because the original was in German and more than 500 pages long. Moreover, I still work on some follow-up articles: you cannot expect everyone to read big books; you need articles that are more accessible and easier to read. 

Another thing that I am involved in is a collaborative project with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow: two years ago, Dmitry Kurakin, who is also very cultural-sociologically minded, invited me to come to the capital of Russia and take part in his panel study. Dmitry and his team collect and analyze interviews with young Russians ‒ teenagers and young professionals ‒ asking them very broad questions about their life, their choice of profession, future plans, and they were interested in applying cultural sociological methods to the study of narrative interviews. At that time, I already had some ideas about methodology: I had previously worked for my master thesis with interviews and then in my PhD thesis with images and discourses, and now I am trying to outline a unified methodology for cultural sociology that can be applied to different kinds of empirical material – texts, images, artifacts, social practices etc. So I came to Moscow and spent ten days working with Dmitry’s team and, actually, I enjoyed it a lot. They not only asked me to prepare a methodological workshop for them, but also invited me to work with them on their empirical data. Of course, they had to translate some of the interviews for that. Meanwhile, I co-authored two articles with Dmitry, which are currently under review in international journals. So, working on this project I really liked, I also realized how extremely important it is to have the face-to face contact with collaborators. This year, Dmitry was two times in Brno, and it seems that it is now time for me to come to Moscow again. 

  • Maybe, after that to Saint Petersburg?
  • Maybe… I should combine this. You are totally right! Then, there is also another international project I am involved in: it is about the collective memory of Jan Hus ‒ a Czech national hero ‒ who was burnt in Konstanz in 1415. At that time, Konstanz was the center of the Catholic Europe for four years, and the city is currently celebrating the 600th anniversary of the so-called Council of Konstanz. I was interested in the positive collective memory of the citizens of Konstanz and the way they integrate the burning of Jan Hus, a rather negative event, which nowadays even the Catholic Church condemns, in the commemoration of the events. I went there with some students, and we saw how different the Czech and the German discourses on Hus were, how hot the topic was for the Czechs and how the mayor of Konstanz was caught by surprise and tried to deny any responsibility for the fate of Hus on behalf of the city. We work on this project with an anthropologist from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, and we are planning to revisit Konstanz in the next year. 

Finally, the fourth thing, I have already mentioned, is my habilitation project which should result in a methodological book on how to do cultural sociology or better: how to do cultural sociological interpretations. So it’s about methods of interpretation, and I want to argue that interpretation is something that has a certain logic and objectivity. Many people think that interpretations are totally subjective, which I believe is wrong. It might not be as objective as experiments in physics or other natural sciences, but there is objectivity in interpretation, there are certain standard for the validity and usefulness of interpretations. I want to develop a general methodological framework, because this is one of the things that, as I see it, cultural sociology is still lacking ‒ there is no explicit formulation of its methodology. It might be a little bit tricky to outline a general methodology for a diverse field like cultural sociology, but even if I do not succeed, my work might still be helpful for others. So, these are the four main things currently occupying my mind. 

  • I want you to show how cultural sociology works in practice. What I mean by this is to analyze the real situation in the world from a cultural sociologist’s perspective. Nowadays, we can see that the world goes crazy with all these wars and conflicts. Most of them are primarily fights for energy resources, firstly for the ‘black gold’, but these reasons are highly veiled, and many ethnical, religious and other struggles are on the forefront. Doesn’t it mean that the real causes of these conflicts are hidden under the cover of numerous symbols that are ‘speaking’ instead of them; I mean religious values, civil ones, and various nationalisms? What do you think about such conjecture?

I would disagree with such point of view from my personal as well as from the cultural sociological perspective. I don’t think that the world’s conflicts are about energy and resources. The conjecture you proposed can be called a realist or materialist explanation: the desire to get to the real causes and reasons, to go beyond the surface, to uncover what actually makes the world go round. The question is: ‘To what extend is this valid in nowadays society?’ I mean Russia is a good example of a country that has a huge amount of natural resources and energy. There are other countries like this, and many of them are very poor. Often the black gold has not been much of a blessing but a curse, for example in Nigeria. And it’s really a double edged sword – because if you can make money selling resources this can be very convenient, but you don’t then need to invest so much in the industry or the brain power of a society. Today, wealth is not created in the process of mining resources but by refining resources and even more by designing and creating intellectual property. The center of world economy is not in the countries with huge industrial production or resource generation, but in countries where intellectual property and brands are created. For example, the huge ‘Apple’-profits are not generated in the countries, where the natural resources for the devices come from, and not in China, where they are assembled, but in the U.S. It’s all about symbolic value. 

This is why from the cultural sociological point of view I would say that the deep structures that explain the certain phenomena are not necessarily hard facts – resources and things like energy. Rather it is culture, structures of meaning, and all these hard facts play only a role when they can be translated into meaning, when they are able to dock onto meaning structures. As plausible some arguments like “the Iraq War was all about oil” might sound – for me it’s not a very convincing and sophisticated explanation, it’s just one way of meaning making among many others. In my opinion, this is not even a very realistic explanation. There are always interests involved, sure, and there are people who earned a lot of money with the Iraq War in the United States, but with the argument ‘blood for oil’ you cannot get your population to go to war. You always have to mobilize values and norms, and even then it’s not fair to say that politicians hide behind values and norms. Actually, the Iraq War was a deficit war for the United States, but nevertheless it fulfilled certain functions, for example it kept the country united after 9/11. Initially, the Bush government was not very popular, but with the Afghanistan and the Iraq Wars they were able to get American people behind them. Hussein had been already portrayed as a kind of new Hitler, and it was easy to convince Americans that it was a good thing to get rid of this dictator. With the unintended consequences of the war, we have to deal today in Syria and Iraq. The same applies also to Russian global politics in the last years – they are also meaning-based. There is not much material interest in the Crimea. Rather, it is a symbolically loaded land, and this is what many Europeans did not understand at first, while for Russians it was always clear that it has to do with meanings, emotions and identity. This entire situation is a good example of how symbolic politics works and how important it is for politicians to create symbols that people can connect to. It’s about crafting narratives, mobilizing images, appealing to the emotions of the people.

So, I think that the major events in the 21th century cannot be explained using simplistic materialistic arguments. As cultural sociologists, we have to pay attention to culture, not to the supposedly hard facts, but understand human beings as driven by emotions and meaning, for example feelings of patriotism etc. ‒ independent of our personal agreement or disagreement with specific political developments.  

  • If somebody who is strongly interested in cultural sociology asked you about where to study, what would you advise?
  • It’s hard to say because there are also different kinds of cultural sociology and the answer really depends on what kind of research focus or interest one has. In The United Kingdom, there are some departments with strong cultural sociology such as Exeter and Edinburgh. I am not really familiar with the Russian context, though I know that the Higher School of Economics in Moscow has strong cultural sociology [programme]. My colleague Dmitry Kurakin is currently not much involved in teaching sociology, but he is well-versed in cultural sociology and particularly of interest for those who want to analyze biographies from a cultural sociological point of view. Furthermore, I would say that my own University ‒ Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic – is pretty strong, I think it is one of the centers of cultural sociology in Europe. Moreover, we have our own English program specialized in cultural sociology, and a second program, an international master in cultural sociology in collaboration with our partners: Zadar in Croatia, Trento in Italy and Graz in Austria. In the joint program, students have to spend the third semester of their Master in one of the partner universities. There are some strong departments in Germany too, but unfortunately, my alma mater in Konstanz is no longer among them. In United States, the obvious choice is Yale, not only because of Jeffrey Alexander, but also due to Phillip Smith and other younger scholars. Harvard, with scholars like Michele Lamont, is another good address.  Nevertheless, it is hard to get a good overview of the field. The problem with cultural sociology is that not everywhere where cultural sociology is inside there is ‘cultural sociology’ written on it. So, you often don’t know before checking the actual works of those who teach there.
  • What are your personal future academic plans, especially the future cooperation with HSE? 
  • For the next years, I will be staying in Brno working on my habilitation. And then… I am not sure. To be honest, I like Brno very much, and there are very good working conditions here. I could imagine myself staying here for a few decades. Next year, I will probably visit Moscow to continue to work on the project with Dmitry. I am looking forward to come back to Russia again. Moreover, with Dmitry we would like to publish a book about forms of life. Dmitry Kurakin started to work with the concept of form of life, but he convinced me of its usefulness for cultural sociology, so we have joined forces. I already spoke about cultural sociology as a specific way of explaining social surface phenomena via cultural deep structures, so we elaborated the concept of form of life to be able to analyze and categorize biographies with regard to their deep structure that underlies all the biographical episodes in one interview. There is a hidden logic behind how people act and perceive different events in their life, and our argument is that it is not fully individual but something that follows a collective logic, shaped by social circumstances and cultural patterns. We want to use the data which have been already collected for this panel study and identify different forms of life in contemporary Russia. The concept of form of life has some similarities with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, but we criticize Bourdieu from our cultural sociological point of view and think that form of life is a better concept, because it gets rid of some of the problems of habitus concept. For Bourdieu, the habitus is determined by the social class, and though he sometimes spoke about individual habitus or the habitus of other kinds of social groups, he never used it systematically. And we wanted to have the more flexible instrument, that separates culture from social structural determination and that can be used on different levels of analysis. One of my future plans with Dmitry would be to have a similar study in the Czech Republic and then compare the results with the Russian one, to look at the similarities and differences. And where the project will take us in the future - we don’t know yet. We’ll see!