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Last fall, the New York Times reported that in the halls of academia, studying culture was no longer, like Lord Voldemort, “that which must not be named.” Culture was officially back on the poverty research agenda. According to the story, much of this newfound respectability had come courtesy of William Julius Wilson, the Harvard scholar who has long argued on both culture and structure fronts. In 2009, Wilson published a book, More Than Just Race, in which he marshaled the best of sociological research to argue that both structural barriers and cultural impediments keep poor people of color trapped in poverty. In the end, Wilson concluded that the structures of racism and the globalizing economy matter far more than the cultural behavior that conservatives love to blame. But in the essay that this review focuses on, Wilson focuses less on which trumps which. Instead, he makes a strong case for a “unified framework” to integrate both structure and culture.

If I might put the argument in a stylized form, Wilson shows in essence that structure and culture are related to each other in a positive feedback loop, in which structure shapes culture, and culture in turn shapes and contributes to structure. So for example, Wilson points out the way in which segregation and a globalizing economy produce informal illegal economies, in which the “code of the street” and distrust of the police become commonplace cultural norms as rational responses to illegality and isolation.  These codes of the street and their accompanying frameworks of meaning—distrust of the police, for example–contribute in turn to the perpetuation of segregation and diminished access to jobs. And the cycle goes round and round. In integrating structure and culture into one analytical framework, Wilson continues to make a strong case (as he has for twenty years) that the study of culture should enjoy full respectability in the academy. It seems left academics are finally listening.

But it wasn’t always so. Until recently, in the long-running and often tedious debate about the causes of persistent inequality, people who did work on persistent inequality fell into two camps, largely defined by political ideology. The structuralists, or those on the left, emphasized structural causes, like residential segregation but didn’t say much about culture. The culturalists, or those on the right, focused on cultural traits like teen pregnancy and the propensity to work in unskilled jobs that don’t require English. The structuralists on the left accused anyone in their ranks who was working on culture of “blaming the victim.” The culturalists on the right focused on issues of personal responsibility and cultural deficit, and said next to nothing about structural issues like job access.

But why choose sides in that endeavor, asks Wilson? In both the book and the essay, Wilson points out that focusing on either structure or culture to the exclusion of the other offers an analysis that is incomplete. For Wilson, social structure refers to the social positions, social roles, and networks of social relations that configure people into particular positions and relationships. Structure is made up of two more specific categories of behavior: social acts, like stereotyping, discrimination and exclusion (of the individualist sort), and institutional social processes, like racial profiling, racial tracking in schools and Jim Crow laws of segregation. With regard to social processes, Wilson includes not just the obvious but also processes that are more indirectly connected to race–like the globalized and technology-driven economic displacement that disproportionately affects people of color because they lack skills and spatial access to jobs, owing to past discrimination.

In Wilson’s view, culture includes two categories of collective behavior—first, national beliefs and viewpoints on race shared by society at large, and second, intra-group beliefs, habits, modes of behaviors. This latter category includes (most importantly for Wilson) cultural frameworks of meaning—shared visions of human behavior and of the rules of meaning connected to that behavior. In social capital terms, for example, beliefs about who is trustworthy might be a cultural framework connected to decisions about whether a person ought to refer a friend or family member to one’s own employer for a job if she thinks her reputation might be on the line.

In this essay, Wilson explains that structure—e.g., segregation and poverty—produces particular cultural practices and frameworks of meaning that in turn shape the response to, and indeed cause, poverty. Referring to Elijah Anderson’s work, for example, Wilson notes that the “code of the street” maxim to “keep to yourself,” can be understood as both an adaptive trait that promotes safety in unsafe Philadelphia neighborhoods where people feel unable to rely on the police and an impediment to forming resource networks that deliver material and informational support.  Likewise, from Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, Wilson points out that the “code of shady dealings” that emerges to mediate disputes in a city’s underground economy both adaptively facilitates relationships in that economy and impedes integration into a broader society. Thus, cultural modes of behavior both reflect and create structure, in a positive feedback loop that defies dissection. And such behavior is not just rational, but also cultural, in that it reproduces itself through social learning, from parents and from peers.

In my enthusiasm for the argument, I am happy to be critical at the same time. I want Wilson to be even more explicit about the crucial theoretical move from culture back to structure in the feedback loop. I know the standard conservative arguments about the way in which teen-age pregnancy and lawlessness cause racial poverty. Are Wilson, Anderson and Venkatesh making the same cause-and-effect kinds of arguments for this part of the feedback loop? Does their “culture causes (or shapes or contributes to) poverty” half of the loop look the same, or differ in any theoretical way from conservative claims, beyond adding the other half of the “poverty causes culture” leg of the feedback loop? Hard to say from the essay, though Wilson says more in the book. And certainly this is a question that dances close to the perennial “blame the victim” controversy.

I also wonder whether the argument to pay attention to “culture causes structure” might be badly timed, post-economic crash, when structure seems to dominate the landscape. Recent research documents that the recent economic crash rolled back wealth gains for a large section of the US populace. To be sure, wealth for black and brown plummeted far more so than for whites.  But many middle-class whites have now felt the pinch if not the pain of displacement and job loss, more than ever before, and even the country’s biggest banks have become beneficiaries of affirmative action of a sort, as they struggled with the fallout of a major “structural adjustment.” Maybe this is the time where scholars should be hammering home arguments about structure, with less reference to the link to culture and more reference to experiences like straight-up access to jobs. Focusing on culture might divide where references to common experience might unite.

These are all minor quibbles, of course. Wilson ends his essay by joining Orlando Patterson to argue against political correctness–studying culture does not require that we ignore or downplay structure. I heartily agree. If the New York Times report is any indication, young scholars on the left are also now listening. Perhaps, post-economic crash, conservatives will now be willing to listen to arguments about structure as well.

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Cite as: Daria Roithmayr, Structure and/or Culture, JOTWELL (October 14, 2011) (reviewing William Julius Wilson, Toward a Framework for Understanding Forces that Contribute to or Reinforce Racial Inequality, 1 Race and Soc. Probs. 3 (2009)),