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Cultural Economy: Cultural Analysis and Commercial Life.

CULTURAL ECONOMY: CULTURAL ANALYSIS AND COMMERCIAL LIFE Paul du Gay and Michael Pryke (eds) London: Sage, 2002, ix + 243pp.

This is a welcome collection that epitomizes where much of the intellectual action is in British cultural theory. Du Gay and Pryke assemble a well-credentialled team of authors to address the question of whether contemporary economic relations are more or less 'culturalized'. The value of the diverse studies in this volume is not in offering a definitive, general response, but in refining theoretical and methodological tools for investigating the claim.

The editors point out that the term 'culturalization' can be understood to subsume two assertions, each drawing upon rather diverse recent literatures. First, it refers to arguments regarding epochal changes in economic relations and organization which position culture as integral to economic organizations and institutions, and related changes in the type and relations of consumption. Critical reflections on a range of important and influential works that dominated the theoretical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s--for example by Baudrillard, Featherstone, Jameson, and Lash and Urry--recur in the chapters that consider such threads. Rather than honouring a theory edifice, a feature here is to draw attention to how the cultural turn in economic life is to be found in various settings and contexts: from the way workers are encouraged to exhibit enterprising traits, to emergent models of organizational efficiency. On this point, chapters by Thrift (on 'fast subjects') and Heelas (on 'soft capitalism') are instructive. Second, culturalization can refer to the inherently cultural relations, strategies and practices for ordering the diverse activities and settings of 'the economy'. Here, the focus is not so much on how culture is somehow more important but--drawing on the tradition of work by Callon, Latour and Law--on how discourses, practices and relations constitute economically relevant objects.

Though one might draw attention to Weber and Simmel (and a variety of anthropologists) to show how economic activity and cultural meaning are entwined, the strong claim that there is something that can be labelled a 'cultural turn' and, as a corollary, that economic and social relations are now predominantly 'symbolic' and 'aesthetic', is one of the key innovations in recent social theory. One could locate the development of this collection as a response, in some part, to the saturation of such descriptions of epochal change of the last few decades that heralded the development of these supposedly novel, flexible arrangements of economic relations and consumer subjectivities. A virtue of the current collection is that it steps back from such strong general claims, preferring close, empirical--even 'anthropological' (p. 12)--analysis of cases and sites where the soundness and substance of the distinction between--or dissolution of--'economy' and 'culture' can be interrogated.

Du Gay and Pryke's differentiation between the 'epochal' thesis of culturalization and the 'heterogeneous relations of economically relevant activity' thesis offers a broad framework for understanding the chapters. Space does not allow a discussion of each chapter, so I shall highlight a small number of chapters to illustrate the diversity of the volume. John Law opens the contributions with a strong piece that undoubtedly falls into the latter category. Reprising themes developed in Organizing Modernity (1994) and using observations from the ethnographic account of Daresbury Laboratory which formed the basis of that book, Law focuses on the material practices, orderings and discourses that produce subjectivity and activity which is considered economically relevant. By drawing on the toolkit of science and technology studies, and actor-network theory, an important implication of Law's ethnography of management practice and the use of spreadsheet ordering is that accounts of the social order (rather than 'society') can be built from a focus on the artful performance into being of social-technical relations and things.

Don Slater's chapter deals with the theoretical problem of integrating logics of economy and culture. Using data from an ethnographic study of cultural intermediaries, he investigates marketing strategies for baby oil and crispbread. Slater demonstrates how a variety of product definitions is available, and how each carries its freight of cultural assumptions. He concludes that actors endow objects with meaning in certain social contexts as part of lived social practices. Alan Warde's chapter is an insightful and authoritative survey of claims about the culturalization of economic relations. Warde argues that questions about the degree and nature of processes such as 'aestheticization' need to be addressed. Warde offers substantial theoretical conceptual clarification of his own, and argues that sociologists need to be equally precise in their directed programmes of empirical research in order to sift what is useful from theories of the cultural economy.

One feature of this collection is the balance between established and emergent traditions in the research field. The result is that, on the one hand, there is plenty to cater for those interested in the heterogeneous relations and materials of modern ordering (a relatively new research area), but what complements this material is a concern with established debates about the relation between culture and economy. The standard is high overall, and du Gay and Pryke manage to give the collection a coherent meaning. It is to be recommended for researchers who are interested in new theoretical means for studying sites of cultural production and consumption, and for those interested in how 'economically relevant activity' is enacted through diverse relations, performances and objects.


Law, John (1994) Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ian Woodward

Griffith University
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Author:Woodward, Ian
Publication:Journal of Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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