Taxonomies of Production
A second family of theory that attempts to integrate the meaningful and pragmatic dimensions of economic life while preserving the causal autonomy of culture is that of cultural structuralism. The proponents of this approach share an emphasis on culture as a set of signs whose meanings are fixed only differentially, that is, by their relations to all other signs in a hypothesized system. Starting with the premise that meaning inheres in a coherent, overarching structure of signs, these practitioners tend for the sake of analysis to abstract culture from its contextual uses and to think of it as a formal, systematically interrelated series of terms. Marshall Sahlins is among the distinguished investigators who have applied this specification of culture to the analysis of economic institutions.
In Sahlins's Culture and Practical Reason , culture appears to intervene in the same mode in capitalist as in kinship-based social orders: out of an inchoate environment it creates for agents a meaningful order. Only the content of the cultural forms and the site for the invention of the integrative forms of culture—commercial production versus kinship—appear to vary between these social orders. Yet in practice, Sahlins does not faithfully
apply his theory to capitalist manufacture. The deviation becomes apparent if we compare his dissection of economies integrated by kinship with those held together by the cash nexus. In traditional Moalan civilization in Fiji, Sahlins shows, the production process itself incarnates an overarching cultural scheme founded on a series of isomorphic, binary distinctions: land/sea, inside/outside, female/male. For instance, men busy themselves in the extremities of the high seas and the distant bush, whereas women work in the interior lagoon and within the village. By the same scheme, villages where the people are designated as belonging to a "land" group do not angle even when they have access to fishing grounds. These binary distinctions governing production are reiterated in the codes of governance, domestic furnishings, and myth.
The logic by which Sahlins demonstrates the economy's dependence upon a symbolic order changes, however, when he turns to "market-industrial society." Here he applies the interrelated distinctions of his formal schemata only to items of consumption such as food and clothing. No application of Saussurean principle emerges for the living execution of production itself. The focus now is on the operation of culture at a remove, as the agents' application of a cultural code identifies for them the kinds of goods worth manufacturing. We observe a cultural structure for the production process, not in it. In Sahlins's portrayal of the kinship-based society, the divisions of the symbolic order constitute, not just perceptions of production or of goods, nor merely the distribution of particular agents among economic roles, but—the very methods and organization of the production process. What generates this shift in the way Sahlins attempts to demonstrate culture's effect? Is it attributable merely to the misapplication of an adequate theory? Or is capitalist production resistant in principle to this variety of cultural analysis?
For one question immediately arises: once capitalist manufacture takes account of the cultural valuation of goods, may it follow an unmediated economic logic in their production? In his more recent studies of Polynesians' contact with Europeans, Sahlins emphasizes that the chiefs' demand for finery by which they could denote their mana obviously helped articulate the Polynesian and European economic systems. The demand for particular European goods and therefore their prices were set by native conceptions of mana. Yet this acknowledgment of culture's presence does not maintain its explanatory significance. It is theoretically deficient for social investigators who underscore the importance of culture to contend only that culture comprises a necessary ingredient in reconstructing a concrete historical situation. As we know, in the recreation of a sequence of change the number of components whose presence is indispensable for the outcome is inexhaustible if one attempts to appreciate events in all their concreteness. Culture may still operate as a necessary element in a course of change whose fundamental, underlying logic is that of a pristine "capitalist mode of production."
If we oversimplify the task of dissecting the independent contribution of culture to capitalist practice, we subvert the enterprise by making its accomplishment trivial. Even if an investigator must refer to the categorical distinctions of a culture in order to explain agents' conduct, this set of distinctions may change principally in response to the active, directing logic of market and technological pressures. It is not enough to contend that the distinctions themselves can neither register directly nor reflect the bare material logic of economic circumstance. For the forces driving—and necessitating—the redefinition and realignment of cultural categories may still be those of economic imperatives, however much the culture registers the
changes after the fact in modified terms. Few social theorists care to assert that culture has no influence whatsoever upon the concrete events of history. Just as the cultural theorist may accept the actuality (though not the unmediated presence) of material constraint and instrumental adaptation in history, so the rational choice theorist may acknowledge that the cognition of the maximizing agent depends in part upon the orienting assumptions of a culture. Although Sahlins's solution is inadequate for the capitalist production process, he has correctly posed the challenge: the issue is not whether culture represents a social force but whether it bears a constitutive and identifiable logic of its own.
So long as culture is separated from the construction of capitalist manufacture, it surfaces as a decorative frill on the fabric of capitalist development. For if the categorical distinctions of a culture are employed merely to distinguish worthy goods or to assess the course of events, culture recedes to the sphere of contemplation. Ought we to suppose that the techniques of machino-facture in the capitalist factory are subordinated to an elegant system of conceptual correspondences such as guides the ritualized procedures of the Moalan economy? The thinking subject under capitalism may impose and reimpose such a comprehensive order upon the free and expressive realm of consumption—and in theory could even draw upon a prior experience of production to do so. But the practitioners of cultural structuralism have not yet shown in a particular setting how the ever-changing, efficiency-driven practices of the capitalist workplace itself correspond to an overarching taxonomy of reiterated classifications. The obstacles to doing so are ones of principle.
In capitalist societies integrated by the mechanisms of commodity exchange, the agents in the labor process have no need to ensure that the categories employed to execute work and to organize social relations at the point of production are aligned with those in other institutional domains. Nor does such a requirement arise at the level of the collectivity. If, as in Moalan society, the institutions of agriculture and manufacture can be contemplated as the fulfillment of a global cultural design, not unlike an intentionally created piece of art, then one can both conceive of culture as a constellation of interrelated categories and see it as constitutive of production. In this setting the process of executing practice also calls that globally integrated culture into everyday experience. But this felicitous application of structuralist theory results from its coincidental
fit with the operation of kinship-based societies. Social reproduction in kinship-based societies depends upon an integrative, overarching cultural schema: or, more exactly, the isomorphism of symbolic relations is a concomitant of the reproduction of institutions that are all centered on kinship relations.
In a society integrated by market relations, by contrast, organizations fulfilling diverse tasks will articulate with one another not by taxonomic design but by commercial function. It causes no surprise, then, that on the single occasion when Sahlins refers to the intervention of culture into the capitalist labor process, he offers only a dissipated form of his characteristic argument: the general economic conditions under which production will proceed always leave meaningful particularities of the manufacturing process unspecified. "An industrial technology in itself," Sahlins contends, "does not dictate whether it will be run by men or women, in the day or at night, by wage laborers or by collective owners, on Tuesday or Sunday, for a profit or for a livelihood." These specificities make of production a realized human endeavor. At this moment, culture illuminates the residual: whatever objective constraints, rational choice, or conventional economic logic leaves undetermined. A system of binary distinctions no longer constitutes the basic form of practice. Advocates of utilitarian explanation could justifiably claim that Sahlins's exposition at this juncture sets up an artificial contrast between the generic and the particular: who would suppose that all the details of production could be explained by introducing only the most basic of economic constraints? By this contrary line of reasoning, the persistence of a residuum is only to be expected, for the conditions for responding to the environment, the appropriation of cultural categories for utilitarian purpose, and the opportunities for profitable adaptation have not been filled in with sufficient detail. Even accepting that inexplicable details are always left
over, however, small ground remains for attributing to culture the consistent and identifiable effect of a structure or of making it the guiding object of study. For the residuum is precisely that—a haphazard deposit, rather than an ordered constellation.
Cultural structuralism cannot be moved from its original home in kin-based society to the capitalist labor process. If culture is conceived as a global system of categorical distinctions, it cannot order and organize the capitalist labor-process from within. To be sure, interrelated sets of categorical oppositions can be discovered in the agents' outlooks, which in turn influence the way agents interpret the operation of the production system. But can we take this as a starting point for the ultimate destination, that is, for elucidating culture's systematic constitution of material practices at the point of production?
The masterful work of Paul Willis inadvertently exposes this path as a blind alley. In his classic study Learning to Labor , Willis discovers the classificatory distinctions that organize young working-class men's perception of jobs in Britain. These workers seek their place in the world of labor through a series of parallel cognitive oppositions: manual versus mental exertion; free versus conformist activity; productive versus impotent work; and masculine versus feminine actions. The lads see manual labor as a realm of independence, since it leaves their thoughts unsubordinated, and they esteem it as a demonstration of their manliness. Willis concludes that the culture acquired by the boys in rebellion against the intellectual rigors of school also generates their tragic commitment to a life of toil. If culture thereby serves as a conduit for the reproduction of practices in the capitalist workplace, it does not structure them by its own logic. According to Willis, the commemoration of physical exertion infuses production with an imported meaning that is, in his words, "no part of its intrinsic nature." Willis's emphasis on culture as a superimposition allows him to see it as a distinct component of social reality. It also limits culture's effectivity. The lads' indifference to the particular manual occupation they find and their assumption that work itself is meaningless apart from the detached attitude they adopt in its execution adapt them to any given work environment. Culture is identified merely with the subjective response and adaptation to already given institutions of work.
If the general approach of cultural structuralism fails to demonstrate the cultural constitution of practice at the site of capitalist manufacture, it nonetheless offers important resources for this task. In contrast to the practice theorists, the cultural structuralists do not center their theory upon the confrontation between a singular agent and structural conditions, but upon the invention and use of a cultural schema as an accomplishment of a collectivity. By making the creation of meaning dependent upon the conventionally understood distinctions that stand above the immediate context for action, the cultural structuralists block the reduction of culture to social structure. Yet in their hands this very separation isolates culture and thereby makes it difficult to identify its formative effect. The challenge remains of reattaching culture to the living execution of work while preserving its autonomy. The present study is not engineered to show how diverse concepts articulate and form a kind of architecture in the agents' minds; rather, it is designed to show through comparison that a single concept, that of labor as a commodity, was consistently incarnated in a field of practice.