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Putting Culture Back in Context: A Context Dependent Model of How Cultural Inputs, Toolkits, and Meanings Influence Action


In this article I outline a new framework for the sociological study of culture that relates three fundamental facets of human culture (inputs, toolkits, and meanings) to each other and suggests the contingencies under which each can influence action. Sociological theories of culture typically pitch these facets as opposing perspectives of “what culture is.” I argue that while each perspective answers a necessary part of the theoretical puzzle linking culture and action, existing models are not sufficient as standalone answers. Even the more theoretically nuanced attempts at integrating multiple elements of culture tend to argue that one particular aspect of culture provides the most powerful link to action a priori. The empirical inadequacies of each perspective as a stand-alone theory of “how culture affects action” are accounted for by the failure of theorists from each perspective to fully recognize and integrate the other elements of culture, as well as the concrete contingencies that give them analytic power, into their models. I argue that inputs, toolkits, and meanings are fundamental, complementary, and necessarily intertwined elements of culture. Further, which of these elements has the strongest influence on action is a function of social context. I use examples from both my own research on health behaviors and the empirical works of other scholars to propose a context dependent model of how and under what conditions each element of culture can affect both action and outcomes. Specifically, I show how varying levels of social stability, inequality, codification, and institutional involvement affect the relative influence of each aspect of culture.

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