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Summary - Final Report

Culture, Contention and Conflict

October 11 and 12, 2002, Princeton University

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and hosted by the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies

The purpose of the conference, sponsored by the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, was to bring together scholars from several disciplines who are doing significant – and significantly different -- work on cultural conflict, with the hope of taking stock of what we know, honing a research agenda, and reaching some preliminary conclusions about the nature and origins of cultural conflict from the 1960s to the present.

The meeting began on Friday, October 11, 2002 with a public panel intended to provide an historical context to contemporary battles over artistic expression and cultural and moral values. The panelists included: Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies; Gerald Graff, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Beyond the Culture War: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education; Michael Kammen, professor of history at Cornell University and author of Contested Values: Democracy and Diversity in American Culture; and Nell Irvin Painter, professor of history at Princeton University and author of Southern History Across the Color Line and the forthcoming Creating Black Americans (Oxford Press).

The following day, October 12, was devoted to a more intimate meeting consisting of three panels and a group discussion. The panels included presentations, respectively, on research on (1) public controversies over culture; (2) conflict and consensus in public opinion; and (3) representations of cultural conflict in the media. A particular goal of the meeting was to induce conversations among scholars across these research areas (roughly speaking events, public opinion, and media), with the expectation that such interaction will yield both substantive and methodological insights.

Public Controversies

Amy Binder (University of Southern California) drew upon her book Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools to explain how groups with non-mainstream claims (afro-centrism and creationism) press to have their interests represented in public school curricula. While neither group was very successful in pressing their claims, Afro-centrism has been taken more seriously by educators than creationism. Binder's central aim was to explain this discrepancy, which is particularly striking as creationism is much more widely supported among the American public than is Afrocentrism. The central weapon of Afrocentrism advocates is to accuse critics, black and white alike, of racism and to assert that eurocentrism is the cause of black school underperformance. In contrast, creationist target the supposed hegemony of secular humanist and point to the moral decay in schools—arguments that do not resonate with policy makers. There is also the nature of the two fields, history and biology. The former has less scientific authority than biology with which to dismiss potential challengers. The main obstacle to creationism – without a parallel for Afrocentrists – is a set of court rulings that hold that teaching creationism violates the establishment clause, which creationists have unsuccessfully tried to circumvent through a secularized vocabulary of "intelligent design" theory. Both movements were obstructed not so much by legislative bodies, but by the educational bureaucracy and embedded practices. The article contributes to social movement theory by differentiating between two autonomous entities – the policy-setters and the policy-enacters. The latter, regardless of the responsiveness of those that set policy (school boards, politicians), may minimize real change through institutional routines and practices.

Bethany Bryson (University of Virginia) focused on recent debates over multiculturalism within the academy. Most academic and popular critiques of “multiculturalism” focus on academic humanities departments, so to assess the debate, Bryson interviewed faculty at four anonymous English departments: one for each combination of public/ private and traditional/ progressive. She found that definitions of multiculturalism were not hard and fast, but followed Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblances.” Five themes arose in her interviews, alone or in combination: diversity, canons, values, pedagogy, and meaninglessness. Diversity was the single most common theme in faculty definitions of multiculturalism, though many private school professors claimed that the term “multiculturalism” is meaningless.

Steven Tepper (Princeton University) presented his work on cultural conflict in a sample of 48 American cities from 1995-1998. Whereas most studies of conflict examine the dynamics of a particular controversy or the nature of a particular social movement, Tepper examines metropolitan areas as his unit-of-analysis. Using newspaper reports as a data source, Tepper codes each conflict as conservative (alleged blasphemy, obscenity, etc.) or liberal (alleged misogyny, racism, etc.) in nature. Tepper divides the cities from his study into three types. A contentious city, such as Colorado, has a moderately diverse population (ethnically) with rapid influx of new immigrant groups. Such cities tend to experiences the highest level of conflicts, originating in both liberal and conservative grievances. A city of cultural regulation, such as Dayton, has low ethnic diversity (and relatively stable population growth) and experiences primarily conservative conflicts. Finally a city of identity politics, like Albuquerque, has high ethnic diversity and experiences primarily liberal conflicts. Overall, Tepper’s study highlights that underlying structural conditions of a community (such as ethnic diversity and population change) are related to levels and types of conflict in a city.

The papers highlight three important questions regarding cultural conflict: 1) When do conflicts arise? 2) What are the outcomes of conflicts (change, stasis, institutional reform, etc.)? and 3) What are the rhetorical strategies of those groups and individuals involved in cultural conflicts? One discussant pointed out that scholars need to think about ways to evaluate the claims of participants in a conflict. In particular, when is a grievance or claim really about the content of cultural expression (expressed beliefs, values and ideas); and when is the conflict about something else (underlying social tensions; political posturing)? In other words, how can distinguish cultural conflicts that result from some exogenous shock (social change) verses those that result from something intrinsic to the cultural expression under challenge?

Additionally, there was a discussion about what factors might predict whether or not a particular cultural challenge (i.e., an attempted ban of a book in a library, or the reform of a school curriculum) will be successful. One participant suggested that when challengers make specific claims grounded in clear definitions, their chances of success are greater. Ambiguous claims and challenges, on the other hand, are less likely to gain any serious traction. Similarly, it was argued that claims that can be framed in ways that resonate with American political ideology are more likely to be successful than those that do not. For example, a challenge (i.e., an attempt to reform schools) that draws upon ideas of private responsibility, individualism, equal opportunity may have a greater chance of succeeding than a challenge that is rooted in notions of groups rights or collective responsibility. Another participant, proposed a rather counterintuitive hypothesis, suggesting that large-scale cultural and social change (i.e., civil rights) generates less resistance than small, incremental change. The latter is more easily derailed by institutional routines, professional norms, and bureaucratic practices.

Finally, participants noted that future studies of cultural conflict should recognize that social capital, networks, and organizational and institutional ties are important. The “staging of conflict events” does not happen in isolation – people are connected to organizations, institutions, political and social elites, neighbors, and others in their communities. These ties and connections can influence whether a conflict arises in the first place, who gets involved, and the nature of the outcomes (winners and losers).

Public Opinion

Wayne Baker (University of Michigan) provided a broad overview of conflict by examining cultural values (based on the World Values Survey) across within many different countries. On the basis of responses to a wide variety of questions about social and cultural values, Baker classifies cultures on two axes: survival/self-expression and traditional/secular-rational. The United States is practically the only country to value both self-expression and traditional values, whereas other advanced Protestant countries value self-expression and secular-rationalism; post-Communist societies value survival and secular-rationalism; the third world is traditional and survival-oriented, and Catholic societies are moderate on both dimensions. This sense of “value incongruence” – devoted to both traditional and self-expression values – makes the U.S. a very unique case. This underlying contradiction in American values – where people support self-expression and simultaneously expect their fellow citizens to embrace traditional views – lies at the root of cultural conflict in the U.S., according to Baker. Furthermore, Baker divides Americans into moral relativists and absolutists and finds that absolutists have increased in number in the last twenty years and have lower SES and higher church attendance than relativists.

Paul DiMaggio (Princeton University) presented research on patterns in the perennial debate over public funding for the arts. DiMaggio shows that while most Americans support public funding, their support is tenuous and arts funding lacks salience as an issue. In contrast, opponents to arts funding are less numerous, but more committed to their position. DiMaggio explains the long-running controversy as a result of this dynamic between an apathetic majority and vociferous minority, which makes it an attractive target for culturally conservative politicians looking to benefit their base without causing a backlash. Opposition to arts funding tends to be stronger, in part because it is institutionally grounded in religion, especially conservative Protestants.

Nancy DiTomaso (Rutgers Graduate School of Management) conducted 246 ethnographic interviews with working and middle-class native born whites in New Jersey, Ohio, and Tennessee about their attitudes towards racial and economic inequality. DiTomaso argues that religious conservatives differ from secular conservatives in the magnitude of their “right-wing authoritarianism.” Religious conservatives are more ideological than non-religious conservatives. The respondents tend to emphasize values, agency, and personal responsibility as explanations for poverty rather than structural factors. DiTomaso rejects the face value of these beliefs, describing them instead as masking a deeper failure to include “blacks in the moral community of whites.” The attitudes of religious conservatives have been culturally constructed and mobilized to attack those public institutions that incorporated blacks as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

John Evans (University of California, San Diego) updated his 1996 article, co-authored with Paul DiMaggio and Bethany Bryson on polarization of American attitudes. The earlier piece found that with the notable exceptions of the abortion issue and party-identifiers, Americans were not divided into two camps fighting a "culture war," contrary to much of the political and sociological literature's assumptions. With several more years of General Social Survey and National Election Studies data available to him, Evans tested the earlier conclusions. Like the earlier study, he found that the perception of polarization in the American public is primarily the result of polarization in the political system (increased partisanship), rather than in the public at large. While political scientists have recently found polarization among our elected officials on economic issues, it seems clear that member of the public who are involved with politics are becoming polarized on moral issues.

The discussion that followed focused on the relative value of studying “elite” opinion (politicians, media, business leaders) verses mass public opinion in an effort to understand cultural conflict. One person expressed the view that “public opinion” is “always moving, it is fluid, and generally difficult to measure.” Public opinion is easily swayed by a charismatic leader or by the media. As a consequence, they argued, elite opinion is what really matters. Polarization in American attitudes, as suggested by Evans, may well be a consequence of polarization of elite attitudes, rather than a divergence in the opinions of most Americans. Others disagreed and felt that some issues have great salience for the public and that opinion about these issues tends to be more stable and more independent of media and of political influence – thus more easily measured and tracked over time.

Media Depictions

Myra Marx Ferree (University of Wisconsin) discussed her work examining newspaper coverage of abortion politics in the United States and Germany since the 1970s. She finds that whereas the American media focuses primarily on law enforcement (and therefore public protests) and appellate disputes, the German media is more concerned with legislation (and therefore the activities of political parties). Although previous research has decried the American media’s focus on elite sources, Ferree shows that the German media is even more extreme in this regard. German newspapers are fairly oblivious to the street theater (on-the-ground conflict) that is widely covered in the United States. As a result, if German social movements want to influence the agenda or attract attention to their cause (e.g., abortion rights), they must do so by mobilizing officials in existing political parties (or creating new ones) to take public stances on an issue of concern. Thus legitimacy comes from organizing within the normal political process, rather than from the outside (e.g., through protests, rallies, etc.). In part, this explains the formation of the Green party as a strategy to get environmental concerns taken seriously in Germany. Ferree’s main conclusion is that more actors (feminists, social movement and nonprofit leaders, medical professionals, etc.) are included in press accounts of abortion in the U.S. than in Germany. German media accounts of abortion focus primarily on legislation so that debate about the topic becomes visible only when there is some legislative action in play.

Susan Olzak (Stanford University) reported on her research about right-wing violence, mostly against foreigners, in Germany during the 1990s. She analyzes the number of such hate crimes, yearly, in each state as reported in police statistics and media reports (two highly correlated measures). Using a time-series analysis, Olzak regresses the amount of right-wing violence per state-year. Prevailing theory attributes such conflict to social deprivation and group competition for scarce resources. Therefore, she considers the effects of local unemployment and immigration rates on right-wing violence and finds that immigration increases violence but changes in unemployment do not. Olzak’s innovation is to analyze the effect of media content – both dissenting and affirming xenophobia – on violence. She finds that an abundance of highly visible coverage of right-wing violence, articles that provoke comment from third parties, and positive comments (xenophobic) from third parties reported in the papers (e.g., public officials) combine to increase the rate of subsequent right-wing violence. Thus, media exposure (especially if it contains xenophobic commentary), fuels more violence. On the other hand, low visibility and strongly dissonant reactions to certain types of violence in the mass media, decrease subsequent rates of such violence.

In Brian Steensland’s (Indiana University) presentation, he discussed his application of frame analysis to debates over “guaranteed income policy” (a form of welfare) as described in the New York Times from 1966-1980. Each statement in each article was to any of eight frames (systemic reform, fiscal management, work, poverty, social division, family, labor markets, and social values) and six types of actors (president, other executive branch, congressmen, local politicians, civil society, and journalists). Over time the fiscal management and work frames increased in dominance while the poverty and social division frames dwindled drastically. Likewise at the beginning of the period many types of speakers were represented in the press, but by the end most “frames” came directly from journalists. In general in the early period of his study, the notion of “guaranteed income” was spoken about in diverse ways by many types of actors. But, towards the latter period (late 1970’s), a few frames (mainly “fiscal” and “work”) came to dominate public discourse so completely that they were taken for granted and were presented and repeated in the press without attribution.

Following the presentations, the group discussed the extent to which media coverage influences public and elite opinion, and, consequently, policy decisions. Olzak’s research certainly suggests that media coverage can have an independent effect, if not on policy, on public attitudes and actions (e.g., right wing violence). One participant suggested that there is a recursive process between events, media content and public opinion. To disentangle the effects of the media, it is important to have some independent measure of what is going on in the world – e.g. real crime rates, protest activity, hospitalization rates, etc.. This allows for better conclusions regarding the relationship between the media content and the “real world” outcomes. It is also important to build in time-series in order to distinguish cause and effect as well as studying “what is not getting into the media” (e.g. creating some basis of comparison over time or across locations between the effects of the media when certain stories get covered verses when they do not).

Finally, there was some consensus that better theory is needed to differentiate cultural conflict from other types of conflict. Are the actors in a cultural conflict different? The role of the media? The types of frames used to argue or defend a position? The role of public opinion? One possibility, suggested by one participant, was that cultural conflicts are more “multi-valent” – allowing more entry points into the debate by more different actors. They are also, perhaps, less predictable, and more influenced by the media, framing, and public opinion.

In general, the group agreed that approaching cultural conflict through the study of public opinion, media depictions and public controversies was a good idea. The three approaches need to be better integrated, so that the dynamics of a conflict over time can be better understood. How does public opinion take form and how is it shaped over the course of a conflict? What role does the media play? What role do networks play in helping determine who enters and who exits a conflict? What is the relationship between the public opinion climate and the extent to which citizens speak out on an issue or choose to join in a protest activity? Again, how does this change over the course of a conflict?

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