Socialisation and cultural trade offs

To start this post it’s appropriate to briefly and broadly describe what I mean by ‘socialisation’. ‘Socialisation’ refers to the ongoing processes of learning and enacting, more or less successfully, the countless rules that make up social life – the sociological imagination involves learning to spot and inspect these rules, as if picking up and inspecting shells on a beach. Usually, socialisation is implicit, such as when we learn how to correctly address people, when it’s okay to stare at something, and when to hide or reveal ignorance. Think of it in terms of how you come to share a similar sense of humour with people: you don’t sit down and discuss what should and should not count as funny, you just kind of balance out after a while, hopefully. In this sense, socialisation tends to go without saying. However, as the French sociologist, Bourdieu, said (more elaborately, less concisely): there are things that ‘go without saying’ simply because they ‘come without saying’. By talking about socialisation, the sociologist (or me, what’s in a name?) tries to catch the things that go without saying in order to turn them into a paste with which to paint different ‘interpretations’ of how society rolls. These interpretations make up a lot of ‘sociological analysis’ – I’ll talk about what else this bulk consists of in another post.

Being successfully socialised is thus crucial when it comes to ‘blending in’ or ‘standing out’. When enough of a population has been socialised to the extent that their peculiar habits and rituals become ‘common’, they are on the road to what we often describe as a culture. Alternatively, you can talk about culture as food or the arts – for the time being, however, let’s calls a spade a sociological spade. Now that the tools for the discussion have been charged and sharpened, it’s time for some cultural engineering.

I’ve been finding myself in Northbridge a lot lately. It’s a place across the tracks from Perth city, where the promise of attracting a mate blooms like flame tree/is violently rebirthed every weekend. It’s a place where physical conflict can become a very real consequence for anyone who challenges the patriarchal convenience of the ‘winner stays on’ two dollar pool law. It’s also a place where thoughtful people can share their ideas in the comfort of an open bar ( Basically, Northbridge is a whole bunch of places, a trait it shares with everywhere else. What is of interest here, however, is that Northbridge in particular (along with other party city centrals like it) provides an excellent example of a place where ‘cultural engineering’ – a term I use here very loosely to refer to a form of socialisation that is explicitly asserted – abounds. In contrast to the implicit socialisation discussed above, this socialisation involves an institution ‘getting behind the wheel’ on the road to culture, and as such is often heavy handed and restrictive in its peculiar habits. I’m not saying that the city of Northbridge engages in social engineering as though the city were some collective mother brain. Rather, Northbridge is dotted with instances of social engineering, like lights in a nightscape viewed on high.

The example which got me thinking about this is the clubbing scene. This is a scene characterised by (among other things) selective dress codes, selective soundtracks, and selective selectiveness. Of course, such selectivity has its functions: last time I was in Northbridge I saw a guy with face flaked knuckles refused entry to a club because the collar on his jacket did not count as wearing a collar ‘because it was on a jacket’. He didn’t seem so drunk to be refused, and he could speak enough sense to reason with the unreasonable men (given their explicit reasons) at the door. Nevertheless, the doormen obviously remembered him from some previous offence and used the dress code as a legitimate trump card. In this sense dress codes can prove very useful (a less convincing argument is that the dress code is used to attract a particular kind of public… as if the public doesn’t know where to buy cheap collared shirts and fake leather shoes). Once the public has gone from being told what to wear, to wearing it and being let in, they enter a very specific soundscape filled with lyrics everyone knows not to take too seriously, while they’re telling you to drink and live for the weekend for however many hours straight – before anyone calls ‘fickle’ or ‘thinking too much’, I call sociyology. Y’all call it a moment, I call it life.

Now, as always and never not, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this dressing up of people and singing them the neo-liberal zeitgeist while they go about their business is necessarily a bad thing (remember, it takes two to whatever). What’s more, I think that the owners of such places simply follow suit with other successful places, like bricks in a wall. Nothing malign there. Nevertheless, I find it really interesting that these places have been so effective in engineering a culture, where so many other institutions fail miserably. It could just be a carrot and a stick thing, with the carrot being a place filled with potential sexual partners, drink, etc. Or maybe it’s the fact that these places permit the kind of behaviour that is usually seen as vulgar almost everywhere else… that is, they strip back conventional socialisation (don’t swear, punch, bump, vomit, make sexist comments, reward sexist comments) and replace it with new versions. A trade that people, perhaps rightly so, are happy to make.



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3 Responses to Socialisation and cultural trade offs

  1. Sam says:

    Interesting to learn the sociological understanding of the term “socialisation” – it seems very philosophical in a sense: deliberately turning explicit attention to habits and histories which fade into the background in everyday living.

    I do worry a little at the seeming “distance” of your approach (respectfully!) – analysing human interactions and behaviours as curiosities, without any sense of preference or moral order. I understand that in a way your interest is specifically only in examining behaviours, with no normative element – but I would love to hear your thoughts on how your findings might fit in with an investigation into creating better functioning societies.

    Not a criticism – more like attaching an ocky strap between your interests and my own 🙂

    • Thanks, Sam. Good feedback.

      When I started this blog the intention was to try and get away from the ‘sociological disinterest’ that I employ in my PhD. This is why some blog posts will seem more distanced than others. In fact, such issues could have been avoided entirely if the blog were named ‘anthropyology’… Just kidding.

      I realise that these two next points may sound like copouts, though I do mean them none the less. First, the interest, or even ‘moral interest’ (in some loose sense) is demonstrated in the things I choose to post about and how I write about them. This is why the whole blog is filled with similes and metaphors that will clearly influence the reader. For instance, in talking about the more ‘vulgar’ sides of club culture, in a way intended to conjure distaste, (I think, though, it may just be me) my sense of moral order (right or wrong conduct) is apparent.

      Second, in regard to normative claims, I intend to use this place as a kind of ‘exploratory exercise’, where I can experiment with different approaches and, indeed, normative arguments. If you look at my other posts, they wouldn’t really pass the non-normative radars of a diligent uni supervisor. The idea here is to kind of ‘test the limits’ of when a normative claim becomes a satirical comment, and thus some how less normative; as well to explicitly nut off some normative claims specifically to suggest possible alternatives – which leads to your last point on suggesting changes for a better society.

      Basically, I honestly believe (few honest beliefs that I have when it comes to the social sciences) that encouraging the use of what I refer to as ‘the sociological imagination’ is a very important step toward a better society. This is a micro step, in that it deals with individuals, rather than institutions. The idea is that a better society could (though not necessarily) require informed, attentive, and critical civil participants. By realising that the current society is not a cement block, and that, contrary to popular belief, the world is not ‘just like that’, a space can open for considering (and maybe even acting on) possible alternatives. Encouraging the sociological imagination is my contribution, maybe more will come. Until then, it takes 1+ to whatever 🙂


    • Jeremy says:

      It’s a really interesting debate about the extent to which value judgements should be part of sociological study. It relates to the more expansive debate over ‘objectivity’ in social analysis, and also the ethics of social inquiry. I think many sociologists want to make society a better place, but the problem is the lack of reflexivity that underlies notions of what is ‘better’. Given that sociology differs somewhat radically in its perspectives on society (e.g., Marxist versus postmodern theories), which vision prevails? It’s a bit like religion – they can’t all be correct (or at least, they can’t all be *entirely* correct), so whose vision is the correct one?

      When one says, for example, that they would like to see “better functional societies”, what does that mean exactly? If it is in terms of Parsons’ view of functionalism, then it might involve reinforcing existing norms concerning inequalities and marginalisation.

      I think it is important that sociology operates, at base, as a science of observation (I use the term ‘science’ loosely here). The power of sociological insight itself can be extremely powerful as a genesis of social change – but that is something that should be consequential rather than the prime motive I feel. It is the distinction between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’, reality versus ideals. When we understand enough about how society operates, then perhaps we can move to the question of how society should be. But the latter is primarily an ethical – rather than sociological – issue.

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