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“Culture Wars” Explored at Contexts Forum

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office

After a close and bitter 2004 presidential election, the dispute over whether the United States is experiencing a de facto “culture war,” stubbornly graces the front pages of national media and the headlines of TV news seemingly daily. And like Night of the Living Dead monster creatures, daily news topics continuously resurrect the culture war public debate. Are the “culture wars” actually nothing more than monster creatures of the country’s insatiable, 24/7 news-cycle-feeding frenzy?

Whatever their origin, given the intensity and longevity of values-focused national debates, it is fitting that the launch of ASA’s prize-winning Contexts magazine’s new editorial team (see May/June 2004 Footnotes) would engage sociologists and journalists discussing the current legitimacy of the culture wars concept. At New York University (NYU), two nationally known sociologists and two nationally known public intellectuals discussed the culture wars imbroglio.

Increasing Visibility

As the latest issue of Contexts (Issue 1, Volume 4) was sent off to press, the magazine’s new editors James M. Jasper and Jeff Goodwin, NYU, planned the forum to increase the visibility of the magazine. Jasper and Goodwin’s NYU colleague Eric Klinenberg organized the event, titled “How Many Americas?: Culture Wars and U.S. Politics,” and moderated the panel of three speakers. Their comments were intended also to spark ideas for material and topics for publication in Contexts, whose content is tailored to bring sociological research to the general public. ASA’s Public Information Office, with the assistance from NYU’s media relations office and Contexts editorial office, publicized the forum with the media and contributed in the logistical planning of the event. The forum was partially underwritten by the ASA Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy.

The forum featured best-selling social critic Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?; acclaimed columnist and Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams of The Nation magazine; and sociologist Elijah Anderson, University of Pennsylvania and author of The Code of the Street. Klinenberg introduced the forum with a discussion of the role of public sociology and of the values that epitomize the culture wars and their role in the recent election. Following the introduction, the three public intellectuals commented on the validity of the “culture wars” concept, which has been written about and disputed extensively by a broad range of public scholars. The panelists’ discussions were followed by an entertaining range of audience questions.

Despite the rather heavy snow in New York City on the night of the forum, the event drew a standing-room-only capacity crowd, with more than 260 attendees in the Kimmel Center for University Life on the NYU campus (overlooking the beautiful snow-covered Washington Square).

Culture War Context

Frank entertained and informed the crowd with his data and his musings on what it’s like to hail from the “red state” of Kansas. He discussed the perceived elitist classification with which “liberals” are labeled. His contagious wit and animated delivery energized the crowd. Williams, too, was engaging, citing recent court cases that bear on the issue as she discussed affirmative action and academic freedom and intellectual rights on college and university campuses. Anderson’s intriguing research on culture wars in the black community, especially regarding the marginalized and disenfranchised, was well received.

In describing the culture of the inner city, Anderson said, “Sometimes things get out of hand…. The inner city economy at ground zero rests on three prongs: low-wage jobs, the welfare system, and the idiosyncratic, irregular underground economy. The money circulates between and among those elements. If you take one of those away, like the way they cut welfare; if you take one element away you put pressure on the other two and so people then have to scramble to find low-wage jobs or they have to get into this bartering, begging, hustling system, conning in order to survive.”

The audience’s attention was held well beyond the two-hour time slot of the event and into an extended question-and-answer session. Caroline Persell, Craig Calhoun, and other prominent NYU attendees, as well as the Contexts associated staff, NYU faculty, and other sociologists attended the event. Future issues of Contexts will elaborate further on the “culture wars” topics that were raised at the forum.

With editorial offices now firmly ensconced at NYU, Contexts is published by the American Sociological Association in collaboration with the University of California Press. Contexts was named the “The Best Sociology Journal of 2002” by the Association of American Publishers as well as “One of the Best New Magazines of 2002” by Library Journal. For more information on Contexts magazine, see