Jennifer C. Lena is the chair of the ASA Culture Section, and an associate professor in the Program in Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Hannah Wohl is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University, who will start a postdoctoral position at Columbia in the fall. Her paper “Community Sense” was the winner of the 2016 Shils-Coleman award for the best student paper in the Theory Section, as well as the Petersen Award from the Culture Section.
Jennifer Lena: Sometimes I joke that the research question for my dissertation was, “What makes a hit song?” (Lena 2003). When I started the dissertation project, in 1998 or so, we didn’t have the data corpus or the computing power to analyze song metadata and musicological components like we do now. So it was truly a question: what is the relationship between the aesthetic elements of a successful song and our perceptions of one? Was your interest in “community sense” motivated by a similar kind of question about what makes “good” or “bad” taste?
HW: I argue that aesthetic judgments can provide powerful feelings of belonging to and distinction from and within groups because they are derived from forms, generate visceral responses, and are intersubjectively validated in interaction. However, I don't fully explore why some aesthetic forms may be more powerful than others. Do you find that some musical styles provide stronger or weaker experiences of community, and how do you measure these perceptions?
JL: You’re generous in the framing of your question to have assumed I have ever considered this question (or measured it). I haven’t, although all of the data I employed in Banding Together (2012) was “perceptual data,” broadly speaking. Some of the dimensions of analysis are arguably proxies for not just the organizational form of the community, but the felt experience of being in it. These include the degree to which there is consensus around member goals—as I put it, the “genre ideal” of the community; the degree to which those goals focus on the group or outsiders; the degree to which there is consensus around the performance conventions; and the degree to which there is consensus around styles of dress, adornment, drugs, and argot. Thus, consensus is the consistent measure of strength, while the variables focus on shared activity (behavioral or linguistic).
You can see some of the Simmelian roots of my sociological worldview here, although he was far more interested than I in the psychological experience of social life. I am almost never interested in emotional experience in my work and have consistently expressed a real concern about how we purport to study “meaning” as a discipline. Briefly, my concern is that we have a very low evidentiary threshold for converting “things people say” into positive evidence of the kinds of durable, generative structures suggested by the word “meaning.”
I think you are also careful in your work around this issue—observing visceral responses provides confirmatory evidence that what is being thought and experienced is significant in its impact. But to get to your question of musical style, I think the normative expectations of emotional display vary so greatly—from, say, chamber music to heavy metal—that measuring this aspect of “community sense” would be very difficult in some cases. What might it be like to replicate your study on a group of quite staid chamber music fans or some other group in which norms of engagement dictate very minute expressions of emotion? Or on those for whom emotional display is less regulated—e.g, in children, among those with certain neurological conditions?
HW: I think you are right to expect visceral responses to vary greatly from style to style. Claudio Benzecry finds the community of opera fans expresses emotional engagement by silently kneeling on the floor with closed eyes, while heavy metal fans often jump around in mosh pits. One interesting element is how these visceral responses, expressed in different ways, interact with symbolic boundaries that inscribe the community. I imagine this would be difficult to measure, but perhaps some forms of visceral responses, such as those that are more interactive or visible, permit more communication of feelings of belongingness, and therefore encourage more intensely felt communities. Another possibility is that when the visceral response itself is a subversive within the mainstream or within practices of listening to other kinds of music (i.e. moshing), then this expresses a more tightly inscribed community to others that also see themselves as part of the community.
I find your idea of consensus as a measure of community strength to be extremely helpful. One thing I like about the idea of consensus is that it works at both the micro-level and macro-level. At the micro-level, we can observe consensus through face-to-face interaction, and at the macro-level we can observe consensus through similar practices. I would also think that these levels reinforce each other (shared practices leading to communicated agreement in interaction and vice versa). To tie this back to visceral responses, this makes me also think that very micro-level practices of visceral response can reverberate at the macro-level of community organization.
Shifting gears a bit, my newer work on the contemporary visual art world looks at how artists create and maintain distinctive signature styles (bundles of recognizable formal and conceptual elements in their work). Given your work on musical genres, do you have any thoughts about the relationship between individual signature styles and collective styles of genres?
JL: I have thought a lot about the relationship between aesthetic reputational work at the individual level and the group level. This is a major theme in my article with Mark Pachucki (2013). We analyze sampling patterns to examine the “position-taking” of rap artists. (Samples, pre-recorded pieces of music incorporated into new songs, are one important aesthetic element in the making of rap.) We treat the use of some new samples as innovations, operating within the ars obligatoria that regulates the space of possible choices that will be seen as legitimate among members of the field. The fact that not all samples are imitated by peers suggests that not all aesthetically novel items are viewed as innovations (some are ignored or rejected), so we can use the repetition of samples as one indication of the source’s status position. This may make it sound like rappers are rational and strategic actors with access to total information about the field—this is of course not the case…neither objectively true nor is it consistent with how artists describe their experience at work. But like Bourdieu, we argue that an artist’s inability to state the rules of the game doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no such rules.
One of our discoveries is that advances in peer esteem (indicated by higher levels of imitation of samples by peers) often preceded increases in status based on sales. We hypothesized this was an indication of audience tastes “catching up” with those of artists. Those moments are followed by periods of greater consensus over which works are successful, which propels the next generation of innovators to emerge, then forcing the two status measures out of alignment again.
There is a potential application of this approach to the visual art fields that interest you, if you can identify aesthetic elements that were subject to innovative work or experimentation, and then find a way to measure them in works, over time. I will say that I think it is extremely important to have direct evidence of these elements and measure that, rather than relying on critical evaluation, because peer evaluation in the form of imitation is empirically distinct (and sometimes almost orthogonal) to critical evaluation (Lena and Pachucki 2013). Brushstrokes? Use of specific color? Thematic material?
HW: I fully share your interest in the relationship between artistic content and status. It is exciting to engage with someone studying this intersection in another creative industry! In my book project, Creative Visions, I explore how contemporary visual artists differentiate their work from others by producing signature styles, and how varying degrees of formal breadth within signature styles shapes artists' critical and commercial success. I find that when dealers and collectors perceive artists to have formally narrow signature styles, this helps artists be recognized, but can prevent them from experimenting more broadly later in their careers, as demand for artists' iconic work persists. When artists stop producing work that conforms to collective perceptions of their signature styles, they often lose exhibition opportunities, sales, and face a drop in the price of their work. On the other hand, I find that when dealers and collectors perceive artists to have stagnant signature styles, they view artists as sell-outs, damaging their reputations and sometimes hurting sales as well. To remain active in the contemporary art market, artists must contend with how others perceive their signature styles and continuously navigate between consistency and variation within their bodies of work each time they present new works.
Signature styles focus on artistic content, or the qualities of creative products. I define signature styles as bundles of recognizable and enduring elements within producers' bodies of work. In the case of contemporary visual art, I examine both formal elements, such as media and techniques, as well as conceptual elements, such as topics and themes. This seems similar to your work on rap, where you look at musical content as including lyrics, notes, and themes. I wonder if this is something that is generalizable to all creative industries. In other words, do you think that we can examine artistic content across industries as composed of formal and conceptual elements? What might this look like in different creative industries?
I see your research as measuring artistic content as an objective feature of the product. I think this can work for music (especially with lyrics), because you can detect combinations of notes and strings of words. This seems harder with other industries, such as contemporary art. Certain formal elements, such as media, can be charted, but it is hard to say that other elements, especially conceptual elements like “memory,” are objectively "there" in the product. Do you think there is a way to measure artistic content directly across creative industries, or do you think we must rely on perceptions of artistic content in certain industries? Why is the artistic content of certain kinds of creative products more "objectively" quantifiable?
JL: In comparing my work on artistic content and status to your own, I see we may disagree about whether artistic content is ever an “objective feature of the product.” In identifying patterns in the use of lyrics and other aspects of song structure, I don’t mean to argue that these are “there” in the object. This work, like my work on genres (Lena 2015) and my forthcoming work on artistic legitimation, relies upon the secondary analysis of perceptions of patterns from the field participants. I very consciously employ an emic approach in my work. So some of my early manuscripts on rap music employed categorizations of the works by musicologists, who had based theirs off of participant observation and interviews with producers. In Banding Together, I analyzed several hundred primary and secondary documents describing the experiences of fans, artists, and others who participated in musical communities. One of the chapters in my next book is essentially a meta-analysis of studies of fields undergoing artistic legitimation, many of them written by sociologists reading this.
My approach is driven by an understanding that even some of the most “objective” qualities of things—color, for example—are not tractable in my analysis until they are “used” by someone. So I think your question, “why is the artistic content of certain kinds of creative products more “objectively" quantifiable?”, has a premise I can’t adopt. It seems instead that we are both drawn toward understanding distinctions made within fields as people pursue careers and passions.
Lena, Jennifer C. 2003. “From ‘flash’to ‘cash:’producing Rap Authenticity: 1979 to 1995.” Unpublished Dissertation, Columbia University. http://elibrary.ru/item.asp?id=8828109.
______. 2012. Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Princeton University Press.
______. 2015. “Genre: Relational Approaches to the Sociology of Music.” Pp. 149-60 in Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, edited by Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage. New York: Routledge.
Lena, Jennifer C., and Mark C. Pachucki. 2013. “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Innovation, Repetition, and Status in an Art Movement.” Poetics 41 (3): 236–264.
Wohl, Hannah. 2015. “Community Sense: The Cohesive Power of Aesthetic Judgment.” Sociological Theory 33 (4): 299–326.