Analysing Culture in Long-Term Perspective: Documents and Artefacts As ‘Figurations'

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 8:45 PM
Room: Booth 51
Oral Presentation
Jason HUGHES , Department of Sociology, University of Leicester, Leicester, United Kingdom
In this paper, I explore Norbert Elias’s sociological practice as a model of analysing culture and the media in long-term perspective. I centrally argue that embedded in Elias’s work is an approach to historical and cultural analysis in which documentary and cultural artefacts are treated as part and parcel of human ‘figurations’. I propose that Elias’s approach to social analysis raises a series of methodological questions concerning the status of documentary/cultural artefacts as sources of evidence. Principal among such issues is the question of whether medieval manners texts; literature and art works; and, by extension, television and film can be treated as reliable informants on the social universe. I suggest that, using conventional methodological standards, notably those expounded in John Scott’s seminal A Matter of Record, the value of such sources should be checked against such criteria as authenticity, credibility, representativeness and meaning. As such, serious questions are raised concerning the extent to which documentary and cultural artefacts can be used as sources of evidence for social/historical analysis. However, this approach to assessing the worth of particular sources of evidence against, what we might loosely call, ‘standards of truth’ is itself problematic in key respects. While such criteria have their place, they ultimately lead towards a series of questions which are profoundly at odds with processual/relational thinking. Again using Elias’s work as a case in point, I explore as an alternative an approach to diachronic cultural analysis in which both discursive form(s) and content(s) become simultaneously ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of investigation. In this way we might re-consider the value of cultural/documentary artefacts not simply as sources of ‘content’, but in terms of what such sources might be used to tell us about the unfolding relationships, human interdependencies – the broader social conditions under which such materials ‘came to be’.