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Sociology and Art – the estranged bedfellows by Patrycja Kaszynska

Judging from the latest contributions to this blog, it would appear that the genre of the ‘mini-essay’ is booming. Admittedly, the confines of a blog posts might feel a bit constricting when the topic on hand is as weighty as developing new thinking on a complex problem, applying insights from research to policy thinking or reflecting on artistic practice, which are all writing challenges that guest contributors to this site routinely contend with. The latest mini essay in our series is by Dr Patrycja Kaszynska, researcher for the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project. This is a research project which, whilst independent from The #culturalvalue Initiative, share many of its core concerns and aspirations. It is therefore exciting for me to see the two projects finally ‘collide’ creatively on this site! In the dialogical spirit that drives this website, Patrycja’s piece is a response to another mini-essay recently published here,  contributed by Dr Daniel Allington and entitled ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’. There Daniel puts forward his personal take on the cultural value question, drawing on insights from Bourdieu and social network theory. Daniel’s post has been one of the most widely read on this site; was picked up by the LSE’s Social Science Impact Blog, provided the initial inspiration for a piece by Stephen Pritchard on this blog, and generated a large volume of debate on twitter. In responding to Daniel’s essay, Patrycja reflects on the historical difficulties that sociology has had in dealing with the aesthetic experience in its fullness. Are arts and sociology destined to a relationship of estrangement? Feel free to join the debate! 



‘Sociology and art do not make good bedfellows’ (Bourdieu, 1993 [1981]). This – according to Bourdieu – is first and foremost the fault of art and artists who operate with an untenable view of artistic autonomy and a host of false beliefs concerning autotelic agency. Still, as Bourdieu acknowledges,  sociologists are not without blame either in that they are prone to naively believe that any given artwork can be directly deduced from the ‘function that is alleged to be socially assigned to it’ (Bourdieu, 1993 [1981]). So here we are with two seemingly irreconcilable positions: an incorrigible faith in a free-floating world of creation unencumbered by social relations and a crude reductivism deflating all the artistry from art until it can be deconstructed and explained away in terms of the social and historical blocks constitutive of sociological analysis.

Indeed, explaining the value of art has been a bit of a struggle for sociology. It is not just explaining the relative autonomy of the field of art production – i.e., the fact that art-forms may be determined as much by social circumstances as other artworks that has proven difficult; but also coming to terms with understanding art reception, i.e., how art is experienced, consumed and valued – that has posed a big stumbling block for sociology. (Significantly, regarding the latter – compared to his assessment of the production side – Bourdieu’s own analysis is much more prone to reducing aesthetic and artistic responses to the effects of social conditioning (Bourdieu,1984[1979]).) So, the origin of the bedroom unease – to go back to the opening phrase – is, on the one hand, the alleged resistance of art to subject itself to empirical, social scrutiny on pain of losing its aura of mystique; and on the other, the inability of sociology to deal with the value of art experiences qua artistic values, without reducing these experiences to a set of social determinants.

Of course, the picture is more complicated than this. It is as difficult to maintain the position of the absolute autonomy of art within the artworld, as it is to sign up to the most extreme reductivism in sociology which deems art no more than a mere register of social forces.  On the one hand, the myth animating the art for the art’s sake movement, if it was ever taken seriously, certainly has no credibility in the arts these days. Indeed, very few artists and artworld insiders would quarrel with the sociological analysis which shows that the conception of intrinsic value in art, with the concomitant thesis regarding the autonomy of art, is in many ways itself a product of historical and social developments – one which can be traced back to the separation of the function of the arts from the sacral functions as well as to changes in the capitalist economy. (See for example Becker, 1982; Burger, 1984). Even fewer would see works of art as something apart and beyond other human affairs – the social, political, and psychological. On the other hand, in a similar vein, sociologists have come to appreciate that dissolving away art and aesthetics into nothing but a net of social relations and explaining artistic phenomena in terms of social determinants alone is not a satisfying approach (See Harrington, 2004; Wolf, 2008).

Yet, problems persist. Briefly put, while sociology and theories of art and aesthetics have acquired more mutual respect, interaction is still not forthcoming in many cases. Recently, this very problem resurfaced in an article published on this forum. ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective by Daniel Allington’ offers an account of how empirical, sociological methods can be used to evaluate intrinsic cultural value, i.e., how sociology can deal with analysing culture qua cultural value in a manner which respects the autonomy of the cultural system. Fundamentally, Alligton shows how Bourdieu’s theory can be operationalized using network theory. For Bourdieu the field of art production rests on a network of social relations propagating and disseminating a collective belief in the transcendental or cultural value of artistic production. As Allington puts it quoting Bourdieu ‘the conviction that good and bad painting exist’ is both ‘the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’ (1993 [1977], p. 80)’. Thus, propagating one’s beliefs and earning the esteem of other art producers becomes the animating force of art production. When extended beyond the field of art production, the cultural value chain can be amplified and distorted by other dissemination agencies such as consumers whose choices might influence the choices of other consumers and more importantly, public-facing cultural institutions which play a major role in the process of consecration or canonisation, where the esteem network is developed in such a way as to give rise to a belief that some artworks are great, excellent and fit to stand the test of time. Collectively, these patters form what Grayson Perry dubbed in his recent Reith lectures ‘the validation chorus’, when he spoke of ‘a kind of panel, if you like, that decides on what is good quality, what are we going to end up looking at. They include artists, teachers, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, the media, even the public maybe’ (Perry, 2013).  Network analysis, as Allington shows, offers a compelling way of modelling these patterns and configurations whereby cultural value is transmitted and canonised.

This is a good way of applying social methods to study cultural formation. There is however a problem here. If the ambition of this account is to demonstrate how sociological methods can unravel cultural value, Allington’s proposal falls short of this goal. In a nutshell, focusing on the transmission mechanism, Allington loses sight of the value. He argues that arts advocacy can utilise his approach to show how more value is produced: ‘for example, it might argue for a particular cultural institution on the grounds that it demonstrably facilitates value-producing social interactions. Or it might campaign for publicly-funded value-propagating institutions to recognise and transmit the value of currently subcultural forms’. The problem however is that this is a purely formal account where value is defined in terms of wider transmission, independently of the substance of the value that is being actually transmitted. Try substituting mafia or drug trafficking in the place of institutions.

In other words, Allington’s account has very little to tell us about what this cultural value actually is and how it interacts with other human dimensions qua cultural value. This needs not trouble those who, like the Bourdieu of ‘Distinction’, do think that cultural value amounts to no more than a ‘belief caught up in cycles of consecration and succession within a domain of competitive struggle between various positions’ (Prior, 2011). Indeed, Allington makes clear that this is where he stands when he admits that ‘belief in cultural value – is a fundamentally social product’. However, this way cultural value is not explained, it is yet again dissolved away. This is a return of the repressed old school – a retreat to thinking about cultural value in terms of the ‘hidden social factors’. In other words, here – perhaps in spite of Allington’s best intentions – we are back to the reductivist sociology which simply can’t cope with culture in its own right.

This is not to say that Allington does not tell us anything interesting about culture. Of course learning about consecration and esteem transmission is interesting and undeniably of value to those keen to understand how the artworld operates. Incidentally, the consecration mechanism described by Allington mirrors extremely well the process underpinning Dickie’s institutional theory of art  whereby some everyday objects but not others are recognised as art objects  (Dickie, 1974). Still it is important to recognise that, interesting as it is, this process only touches tangentially on most everyday aesthetic and artistic experiences. These experiences are of course situated and intersubjectively negotiated, yet they are certainly not reducible to a belief acquired through an exposure to the artworld’s ‘machinations’. Aesthetic and artistic experiences can hardly be denied to the peasants of Patagonia or Siberian hunters – to run the risk of caricature – and yet, it is safe to say that these groups operate outside of the patterns Bourdieu identified in the ‘legitimate’ cultural fields. For these groups – or even more so individuals living outside of groups – cultural value is warranted first and foremost by experiences, not by discourses and patterns of cultural transmission.

The challenge to sociology is to look at these experiences, to explain their nature, their emergence,  and their effects, as well as their social meanings. Sociologist should get to the heart of what happens because these phenomena are no doubt complex. Cultural experiences are situated and mediated and yet, their value is not exhausted in terms of network transmission. Rather – or perhaps besides the transmission and consecration mechanisms – sociology should understand the nature of ‘attachments, tastes, ways of acting and pleasures, as an activity in its own right and an elaborate competence, capable of self-criticism’ (Hennion, 2004).

The fact that this quote is taken from a sociologist indicates that the work of ‘reconciliation’ has begun.  Writings of sociologist such as Hennion (Hennion, 2004; 2007), DeNora (deNora, 2000) or Born (Born, 2005) embrace the complexities of artistic and aesthetic encounters. Their work registers and tries to come to terms with the peculiarities of aesthetic and artistic experiences which, while intersubjectively warranted, the way classical sociology would tell us, are also reflexively structured in relation to artistic objects, strangely attuned to affective and sensual qualities and indeterminate and open-ended in terms of their outcomes.

Advances in the understanding of cultural value made in the work of sociologists such as Hennion, DeNora and Born are a clear indication that art and sociology should not co-exist in parallel, but must rather collide. Instead of skimming the surfaces of cultural networks, sociologists should crack open cultural experiences. Until this happens, art and sociology will be sleeping comfortably, but each in the ‘ideological slumber’ of its own disciplinary bed, without fruitful interaction.



BECKER, H.S. (1982) Art Worlds. California: University of California Press.

BORN, G. (2005) ‘On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity’, Twentieth Century Music 2(1): 7–36.

BOURDIEU, P. (1984[1979]) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.

BOURDIEU, P. (1993 [1981]) Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications.

BüRGER, P. (1984), Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

DeNORA, T. (2000) Music and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DICKIE, G. (1974) Art and the Aesthetic. New York: Cornell University Press.

HARRINGTON, A. (2004) Art and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

HENNION, A. (2004) ‘Pragmatics of taste’. The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture, eds. Mark Jacobs, Nancy Hanrahan. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 131-144

HENNION, A. (2007) ‘Those Things That Hold Us Together: Taste and Sociology’. Cultural Sociology, No. 1, pp. 97-114.

PERRY, G. (2013), Playing to the Gallery. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/player

PRIOR, N. (2011) ‘Critique and Renewal in the Sociology of Music: Bourdieu and Beyond’. Cultural Sociology, No.5, pp.121-141.

WOLFF, J. (2008) The Aesthetics of Uncertainty. New York: Columbia University Press.




Dr Patrycja Kaszynska is Project Researcher at the Cultural Value Project –  a two-year AHRC funded research initiative whose objective is to advance the understanding of the value of the arts and culture to individuals and to society. She has extensive experience of public policy: prior to joining the Project she worked in policy research for a number of Westminster-based organisations; and before that she spent two years researching Higher Education policy. She completed her PhD (DPhil) investigating the political significance of the aesthetic domain at the University of Oxford, where she also taught aesthetic theory. Patrycja has written on the potential of aesthetic sensibility to act as a catalyst in the process of political decision-making and consensus-formation. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


3 Responses to “Sociology and Art – the estranged bedfellows by Patrycja Kaszynska”

  1. As an Artist who has recently spent time in bed with sociologists I find this post really helpful. It reminds me of Tracy Emins now burnt tent “Everyone I have ever slept with.” A small tent covered in embroidered names. Lots of people assumed that it was people she had had sex with when actually it was everyone she had gone to sleep with. Perhaps It’s fine to share a double bed in a hotel room in a Morecambe and Wise way but we need to be careful to get single rooms if we have a serious crush on the other discipline.

    Posted by Steve Pool | January 17, 2014, 8:44 am
  2. Patricyja sets out an interesting challenge to the social sciences, which, I think, stand accused (in a collegial fashion, of course) of not being able to account for the specificity of the aesthetic – either dismissing it to the psychologists, or, possibly worse, dissolving it into the anonymity of ‘social context’. I just wanted to respond to Patricyja’s blog by briefly reflecting on her comment: “The challenge to sociology is to look at these experiences, to explain their nature, their emergence, and their effects, as well as their social meanings.” To talk about things having ‘natures’ and being subject to processes of ‘emergence’ is to set out a view of knowledge that hasn’t really been at the heart of social scientific thinking for a very long time (if ever it really was). The social sciences, for good or ill, have been dominated over the last few decades by varieties of empiricism that place the data of sensory experience at the heart of knowledge. To cut a very long story short, I think one of the reasons why social scientists (of whom I’m one) struggle to get to grips with causation (which is what we are really dealing with here) is because our reliance on sense data dis-aggregates things which might be better understood holistically – hence our endlessly tortuous discussions about how things might or might not interact, their ‘relative autonomy’ from each other and so forth. The alternative to this form of empiricism is what used to be called naturalism or essentialism, or in its more modern guise, critical realism. There are differences, but one thing they share in common is the proposition that our knowledge consists of things that are wholes with natures. Such natures map out the potentialities of a thing, its emergence (as Patricyja calls it), its typical lines of change and development. This, I think, is a clue to the source of our difficulty when it comes to thinking about culture, the aesthetic, or art sociologically. It has always struck me as odd that we seem absolutely committed to the view that culture (the aesthetic, art, etc) has a distinctiveness about it, but then seem equally unable to articulate its specific properties (or at least agree what those might be). The problem is we want to treat culture as an end in itself (a good essentialist, critical realist thing to do), but then cannot help ourselves from falling back into old empiricist habits – hence our endless spinning in the wind on this. If we want to understand the value of something (an equally good essentialist thing to do), we could do far worse than to start from its nature; starting from its properties being the least effective alternative. The problem, I would argue, lies in general, not on the culture side, but on the other, in society, economy, etc, where so much social science is reluctant to state the nature of things.

    Posted by Calvin Taylor | January 17, 2014, 11:07 am


  1. […] quite a bit of a stir. You can find a response to Daniel’s post by Patrycja Kaszynska here, and another is coming soon (watch this space!). Immediately after posting Daniel’s piece, a […]

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