Comparative Studies of Culture and Power: Volume 21


Table of contents

(11 chapters)

Conceptions of power in the social sciences have undergone significant changes during the last twenty-five years. Above all, sensitivity to the salience of communication and culture in the exercise of power has increased. An early overview was given by Michèle Lamont in a previous volume of this Yearbook (Lamont, 1989), where she delimited four fields of investigation: Cultural industries as an arena for power struggles; Knowledge and aesthetic competence serving as resources in the exercise of power; Cultural power exerted indirectly by modes of definition; and finally, Power by means of exclusion – exclusion of people or ideas.

Political communication is not first and foremost about truth; it is a struggle for power and influence between different interests. In this struggle, it is critical for politicians to persuade voters, and not just by the power of their argument, but also, and increasingly, through creating trust by means of their personality. In this study we will focus on how politicians attend to these concerns in televised election campaign debates in the Nordic countries. Ideally, political debates provide politicians with equal opportunities for airing their positions. This linguistic ideal of fairness has more elaborate equivalents in established theories of discourse, such as the theory of the ideal speech situation proposed by Habermas (1975a, b), Paul Grice’s maxims for efficient and logical communication (Grice, 1975), and the face-saving traffic rules of social interaction analyzed by Goffman (1967). However, this rudimentary standard of fairness is rarely satisfied in practice (Gastil, 1992). Rather than granting all participants equality, debates often become events in which prior inequalities, such as gender, age, class and status, are re-enacted (Edelsky & Adams, 1990). The question we are pursuing in this article is whether and how such “brought along” features are made relevant, or “brought about” in actual debate situations.

In their endless quest for self-devotion, the elite, the powerful, often seek to appropriate the most beautiful and impressive things. As Thorstein Veblen (1899, p. 36) put it: “In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient to merely possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.” Looking at it in these terms, pomp and prestige prove to be necessary elements for “upholding one’s rank.” Many authors have acknowledged that Veblen was the first to give a systematic sociological interpretation of “conspicuous behaviour.” However he has often been criticized for taking on a rather puritan and incriminating tone. For his part, Norbert Elias (1974, pp. 48–49) reproaches Veblen for not managing to understand the behavioural logics and the mentalities of societies different from the (American-bourgeois) one he was analysing. Moreover, Elias quite rightly points out that in industrialized societies, one is able to preserve great prestige without providing public proof for it through costly display. Social pressure for prestigious consumption would no longer have the unavoidable character it used to have (particularly within court society) and would take on a much more private one (Elias, 1974, pp. 54–55). Even if this statement often proves to be true, it is also an over-generalization.

This article addresses the issue of social representations of the past, focusing on the relation between collective memory and power. It is argued that cultural shapes of memories (i.e. a memorial, a monument, a diary, a public display) are the space and the place were power relations affect the social representation of the past. In this respect, the choice of representing a controversial past through a specific cultural form can be viewed as a good terrain were to study the process of selecting one of the competing versions of this past. This process, in fact, is closely related to the category of power. Particularly in case of controversial events (such as the Vietnam War, the Hiroshima bombing, the Bologna massacre, the Milan slaughter), Halbwachs’ and Namer’s analyses on the social construction of the past become particularly evident. In those cases there is a conflict among different versions of the past, that can be analysed by referring to the power relations among the different social groups related to that event. If collective memory is the content, and cultural objects are the form of this content, power is the key to understanding why a certain content embodied in a specific form has been selected in a specific context. Methodologically speaking, the notion of commemorative genre represents an useful key to understanding the articulation of power in relation to collective memories. The genre, in fact, can be viewed as a schema of perception, able to organise the process of classifying the competing representations of the past. In fact, if the arena where one version of an historical event successfully competes with another is represented by the cultural and symbolic field, the criteria of this competition are determined by the established genre of memorisation. By sketching the most pertinent dimensions to the understanding of the relations among cultural objects, collective memories and public discourse, it is here shown how the struggle over the most “adequate” social representation of a certain past (i.e. its cultural form) corresponds to a struggle over legitimacy.

Autonomy, unity, identity: these three themes and ideals have been pursued by nationalist thinkers everywhere since Rousseau and Herder (Hutchinson & Smith, 1994). Zionism, founded in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century,1 is a particular case of a national movement, putting into practice the idea of a political community located within the boundaries of a single nation-state. Yet, at the same time, the Jewish nation-building process, which began in Palestine in 1881 and achieved its aim of independence in the spring of 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel under the political leadership of the Labor movement, was unusual in its complexity and marked, from its inception, by dramatic struggles over the distribution of power.

The significance of literature in nation-building in two “second generation” nations, Germany and Norway, is discussed. In both countries a specific national literature was constituted parallel to the political institutions during the latter half of the 19th century. Yet there are clear differences in political effects in the two cases. In Norway, the struggle for national independence up to 1905 entailed a significant democratization of society. Germany, in the wake of the revolution of 1848, developed into a politically authoritarian regime, fully established under Prussian leadership in 1871.

These processes are mirrored in the position of literature. In Norway, where artistic traditions were absent, the national literature was a product of the 19th century, and emerged in close connection to ongoing political debates. In Germany, the Weimar heritage had gained classical status during the 1850s. Thus, the problem was foremost that of redefining the spiritual heritage to fit the history of the German Reich.

A related difference is found in the diffusion of literature through its most important channel – the school system. Norway developed a modern, uniform school, where the nation’s new literature was accorded a central place. In Germany, a more class-based school system was cemented, and the idea of diffusing the cultural heritage to the population at large held a weak position.

Along with these institutional factors, the development of national literatures in the two countries is seen in the light of regional specificities, constellations of literary genres with high and low prestige, and the social and political position of writers.

The study of markets encompasses a number of disciplines – including anthropology, economics, history, and sociology – and a larger number of theoretical frameworks (see Plattner, 1989; Reddy, 1984; Smelser & Swedberg, 1994). Despite this disciplinary and theoretical diversity, scholarship on markets tends toward either realist or constructionist accounts (Dobbin, 1994; Dowd & Dobbin, forthcoming).1 Realist accounts treat markets as extant arenas that mostly (or should) conform to a singular ideal-type. Realists thus take the existence of markets as given and examine factors that supposedly shape all markets in a similar fashion. When explaining market outcomes, they tout such factors as competition, demand, and technology; moreover, they can treat the impact of these factors as little influenced by context. Constructionist accounts treat markets as emergent arenas that result in a remarkable variety of types. They problematize the existence of markets and examine how contextual factors contribute to this variety. When explaining market outcomes, some show that social relations and/or cultural assumptions found in a particular setting can qualify the impact of competition (Uzzi, 1997), demand (Peiss, 1998), and technology (Fischer, 1992). Constructionists thus stress the contingent, rather than universal, processes that shape markets.

A number of studies show that women are underrepresented in positions of power and authority in the labour markets of Western societies. Comparative studies within this field are few, and based on data from the 1980s, showing larger gender differences in workplace authority in the Scandinavian countries than in English-speaking countries (especially the U.S.). In this paper we use data from the International Social Survey Programme 1997 to describe and compare the gender gap in managerial positions within the labour markets in the U.S. and Norway. We include a perspective on differences in managerial and national cultures in order to interpret our findings. The American society has been characterized as individualistic and contract-based with a strong market orientation and work ethics. Compared with this, the Norwegian culture is less individualistic and less market oriented, and more inclined to emphasize a norm about a balanced life between work, family and leisure. These cultural differences may help us understand why the gender policy in these countries historically have had divergent foci: The Americans have implemented a powerful policy of equal opportunities within the labour market, regarding family issues as private matters. The Norwegians have a long-term political goal of gender equality in all areas of the society, comprising work-family linkages with a strong emphasis on arrangements allowing family members (in particular women) to combine work and family life. However, it seems fair to say that Norway has been less successful in implementing a powerful policy of equal opportunities within the labour market, in particular within the private sector. The paper discusses some possible implications of the differences between the U.S. and Norway, with regard to women’s access to managerial power positions.

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Comparative Social Research
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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