Dr. Werner Binder of Masaryk University, Czech Republic, on Challenges of Cultural Sociology
A specialist in cultural sociology, Dr. Werner Binder of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, is no stranger to the HSE. He has been collaborating with his Russian colleagues here for almost two years, just gave two lectures at the HSE this past February, and will be participating in a joint interpretation session via Skype in March. The HSE News Portal offers its readers this brief interview with Dr. Binder, who shared his thoughts on the pertinence of his discipline, the myriad of challenges he faces as a researcher, and what other plans for collaboration with the HSE are afoot.
― What role does cultural sociology play in today’s world?
― The impact of modernity, initially experienced as a social crisis, gave rise to sociology as a discipline at the end of the 19th century. It is no accident that cultural sociology is now, at the beginning of the 21st century, on the rise. In the last 25 years, the globalization process has led to an unprecedented international circulation of financial capital, labor forces, and scientific knowledge. Global business and tourism have made people increasingly aware of the fact that different meaning structures shape the actions and perceptions of the world. Furthermore, cultural meanings and symbolic communication have become increasingly important in the economy and other spheres of life. Companies like Apple and BMW are not successful because they produce better and cheaper products, but because their products appeal to certain aesthetic sensibilities and life styles. Their products have not only a use value, but also a symbolic value. Using a concept of the cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, one can argue that nowadays the ‘means of symbolic production’ are more important than the means of production in the Marxist sense. Cultural sociology as a discipline explores and reflects these changes.
― Is research in this field in great demand?
― Despite the fact that culturally sensitive sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu set the discipline on the right track and exerted influence far beyond its confines, much work still needs to be done to reinstate culture as a central sociological category. This has to be done theoretically, for example, by criticizing the Marxist in Bourdieu, who sometimes creates the impression that culture is a mere reflection of a socioeconomic power structure, and also by empirical research. In some fields―like in the study of discourses and organizations―culture is already a central category. But there are still many fields, such as the study of markets or education, where the full potential of cultural analysis has not yet been tapped.
The workshop was very productive, and I was amazed by the quantity and quality of the empirical material. I definitely want to continue working on this project with my Moscow colleagues. Our next step is to institutionalize the collaboration while working on the empirical material together.
― How did your collaborations with the HSE come about? Do you have any specific plans for further cooperation?
― To make a long story short, I met Dmitry Kurakin, who is now Head of the Cultural Sociology in Education Research Group, in 2012, during my first visit to Moscow when I was presenting at a conference. It quickly became clear that we share similar theoretical commitments and research interests. We met again that year at a summer school organized by the University of Konstanz, where we discussed with colleagues the pressing need to rethink methodology for contemporary cultural sociology. Dmitry invited a group of international scholars, including me, to apply for the HSE’s April conference, where he organized a session on the methodology of cultural sociology. At that time, I was already giving lectures on advanced methods of interpretation in cultural sociology at the Masaryk University in Brno, which made me a specialist in the field of cultural sociological qualitative research.
Meanwhile, and under the supervision of Dmitry Kurakin, the Russian Longitudinal Panel Study of Educational and Occupational Trajectories was complemented by a culturally sensitive framework and a set of qualitative interviews. Because the project team was not yet experienced in dealing with qualitative interviews, Dmitry invited me to conduct a workshop on interpretative analysis. The workshop was very productive, and I was amazed by the quantity and quality of the empirical material. I definitely want to continue working on this project with my Moscow colleagues. Our next step is to institutionalize the collaboration while working on the empirical material together. To start with, several publications are planned, but we are also thinking about holding follow-up workshops. In the rather distant future, it would be great to initiate a similar project in the Czech Republic, Germany, or elsewhere.
― What is the most challenging aspect of your research right now?
― The life of a researcher is always challenging. You are constantly juggling many balls―projects, teaching obligations, conferences, administrative duties, and publications. The biggest challenge for me right now is to stay involved in the trajectories project in Moscow while being in Brno. Fortunately, we live in an age where computers and the internet make international scientific collaboration much easier. Still, the craft of interpretation is to a considerable extent based on intense communication and face-to-face contact. But I am optimistic; we’ll be having our first online interpretation session via Skype in March. Also, Dmitry has organized a panel on the cultural meanings of trajectories in Russia at the up-coming spring conference of Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology, where we’ll make our first joint presentation on the project. This will not only lay the foundation for our first co-authored article, but also allow us continue the discussion on the empirical material and on research and publication strategies.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE news service
Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Leipzig in Germany, began her involvement with HSE when she started working with two young scholars – Christian Fröhlich, an Assistant Professor at HSE and a former PhD student of hers, and Rafael Mrowczynski, who has served as a DAAD-lecturer at HSE. Ahead of her upcoming visit to Moscow, where she will present her work on ‘Multiple Secularities’ and give a seminar on Qualitative Methods, Professor Wohlrab-Sahr spoke with the HSE news service about her work, her academic interests, and her views on the key attributes researchers need today.