“Paul Willis – Socio symbolic analysis and homology – (SUBTITULADO EN CASTELLANO)”


Hello. My name is Pau Willis I’m speaking from Keele University and I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you about my approach to cultural analysis. Within the general field of cultural sociology, what we’re looking at is processes of human meaning-making. There are many ways in which human make meanings and equally there are a number of ways of trying to make sense of how people make meaning with each other and with themselves to develop an identity. My approach is what I term “sociosymbolic analysis”. It is outlined in my book Profane Culture. Now I’ll be telling you a little bit about my own approach, which utilizes the notion of homology to try to show the reflections and connections between a cultural item that’s liked (an enthusiasm in music, motorbikes, cars, anything that is in a tension of a cultural meaning) and the social group that makes sense of it. I say there is a kind of reflection, or connection, between the group, its sensibility, and its preferred cultural item. All that I claim in my book. However, in order to understand my approach to cultural analysis I think it’s vital to understand that it utilizes a particular method: the method of ethnography. And I’ll start now by giving a very brief account of my history and at my approach to ethnography. Forty years ago now I studied in what was then the early Canter for Contemporary Cultural Studies which developed British Cultural Studies. Richard Hoggart was my supervisor, then followed by Stuart Hall. And I developed there a particular cultural studies’ approach to human meaning making. I felt that I had to be in the situation where people were making meaning. I had to use my own body, my own presence, my own sensibility to understand how other people were making sense of their world through their cultural engagements. This required the technique of ethnography. “Ethno” is people, “graphy” is writing. “Writing about people”. I started and edited this journal Ethnography, which you can easily find online at Sage. I also wrote a book not long ago on the ethnographic approach. The whole point of ethnography is that you use the human body as your research instrument. You don’t send out a questionnaire, you don’t do it by telephone, but you put yourself in the same situation as those human agents you are interested in, and you use your own body in that same regime, the same enclosure, the same relationships to try to understand something about how human meaning is developed. If you like, you’re using your body to see what marks and traces occurred on your own body, what marks and traces are in your mind, what marks and traces are in your sensibility, to read from that the similar processes, the human meanings in other people, because my approach to cultural analysis, to the relation between human groups and their preferred cultural items, is to stress the materiality, to stress the sensuousness, to stress the way in which human bodies are practically and sensuously involved in the objects and artefacts around them. Not all approaches in cultural sociology and cultural studies put the materiality and sensuous of the human relation to culture at the very centre; they look more at language and signifying systems which can be studied from afar. My approach is to try to use the human body through ethnography to understand how human bodies are related to their preferred items. There are three levels in my approach to sociosymbolic analysis: the indexical, the homological and the integral. By the indexical I mean simply the quantative involvement of human beings with the things that surround them: how often they listen to TV, how often they go out to dance. If you like is a statistical count of their behaviour. I’m more interested in my next level, which is the homological level, where I argue that chosen items reflect and hold certain human meanings which help to develop the identity of the human agents involved. If you like, where the indexical level simply counts what people are doing, the homological level tries to show the quality, that sensuousness I was talking about a moment ago, whereby people chose to listen to a certain record, wear certain kinds of clothes, and it is through carefully observing that relationship that you come to see that this is not random, there is a chosen element: ¿what is it about an object or a music or a practice that attracts these kinds of human beings? Why this and not that? And looking carefully through observation at the relationship between the human social group and their preferred cultural items. My last level of analysis of the socio-symbolic approach to cultural forms is the integral: where I look at the dialectical relation of the human group to a cultural item over time. ¿Does the relationship get closer? ¿How does identity change? Through processes of human selection and work on objects. ¿are the cultural items themselves changed? All of that has been rather fast. I want to focus on the homological level because it’s the most important and tell you little bit about my research some time ago now for Profane Culture, where I looked at the bike boys in Birmingham, and the way in which the motorbike, a functional item “without” culture (there are many other accounts of culture), how the bike itself came into a homological relationship with the motorbike boys, where I argued that certain kinds of masculinity, a sense of confidence in the world, and the brush style was held and reflected in the motorbike and its style of riding and that over time the boys changed to this cultural item the more both to reflect and to develop their own sensibility. So they took off the straight handle bars which you normally have so you get down low on the bike to lower wind resistance so you can go faster (the rational technical way of riding your bike), they put cattle horn handle bars upright, far more wind resistance but it gave a very distinct style of riding that helped to hold their identity. They took the baffles out of the exhaust. Why? To make the exhaust louder, so when you pulled the grip on, the bike roared and frightened people, if you like, rather than just go through the grey surroundings of the urban city. And they took the mud guards off to put chrome on and they also chromed their exhaust systems again to give a visible sign that reflected and held their own sense of identity and through the ethnographic methods observing the ways in which they developed the bike to express themselves I argued a distinct motorbike identity and cultural relationship was formed. I think we can take any cultural item (music, cars, clothes), and look at the ways in which it’s held through human activity and human praxis both to keep and reflect something that feels important to the individual and the group and through further choice, further work, further refinement, further exploration in a music form, furhter development of how you bike or car looks, further thinking about what your personal style is… All of these things are in a dialectic which helps to develop a sense of identity: how a person, if you like, becomes a person. What I want to emphasize about my approach to cultural analysis through this homological approach is the materiality and the sensuousness. These aren’t just signifying words floating in the ether. These are real, practical, present things that you cant feel, which you need a methodology like ethnography to really get inside of. And secondly I want to stress the, if you like, creativity of objects. The motorbike presented certain kinds of meanings, it held a set of possibilities that could then be developed. But the bike and the material forms of culture, in my view, also limit possible meanings. Often it is said, in language approaches to culture, for instance, that words, the alphabet, are purely arbitrary elements that are made to mean particular things only through convention. My approach to the materiality of culture is that the thingness of things sets limits on what can be held and reflected, as well as suggesting particular creative possibilities for what humans can make – of the bike for instance – to develop a personal and group sense of strength and masculinity and a certain kind of working class creative control of machinery and the leisure that at work dominates them and disciplines them into boring routines, but which through leisure, through their cultural praxis could be made to mean and made to develop a particular sense of identity that says “This is me and I’m different from that group over there”. This approach I believe can be used across a wide range of cultural analysis and I invite you to think about your own examples of how homological analysis and close observation can tell us something about how cultures work, how they help to make humans what they are. Thank you.

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