Mapping the Social Ecology of Culture: Social Position, Connectedness, and Influence as Predictors of Systematic Variation in Affective Meaning 

A strong model of culture should capture both the structured and negotiated elements of cultural meaning, allowing for the fluidity of social action and the agency of social actors. Although cultural meanings often reproduce societal structures, supporting stability and consensus, culture is constitutive of and not merely produced by structural arrangements. It is therefore essential to establish clear mechanisms which guide how individuals interpret social events and apply cultural meanings in making sense of the social world. As such, my dissertation focused on the model of culture forwarded by affect control theory, a sociological theory linking culturally shared meaning with identity, behavior, and emotion in interpersonal interaction (for reviews, see Heise 2007; Robinson and Smith-Lovin 2006). 

While many theories have attempted to deal with components of the cultural model separately, affect control theory provides a unifying multi-level framework, which rectifies many shortcomings of earlier models by simultaneously accounting for individual cognition and emotion, situational and institutional context, and cultural meaning. The dissertation begins by introducing affect control theory, which considers cultural meanings to be societally bound, based on consensual and widely shared sentiments, and stable over long periods of time. I advocate several refinements to the theory’s assumptions about culture, proposing that cultural sentiments are dynamic and structurally contingent, and that mechanisms operating within social networks serve as important sources of meaning consensus and change.
The remainder of the dissertation presents empirical evidence in support of my propositions. First, I draw upon primary survey data to show how social position and patterns of social connectedness relate to inculcation into the dominant culture and commonality with the affective meanings of others. Respondents’ demographics, social position, social connectedness, network composition, and experiences in close relationships are explored as predictors of inculcation and commonality in meaning. Second, through an experimental study, I explore social influence processes as a mechanism of cultural consensus and change. Analyses examine both conditionally manipulated features of the group structure and respondents’ emergent assessments of social influence as predictors of change in task-related attitudes and affective meanings.

Results identify structural sources of normative differentiation and consensus, and introduce social networks methodologies as a means of elaborating affect control theory’s explanatory model. More broadly, the findings generated by this project contribute to an ongoing academic discussion on the origins of cultural content, exploring the complex and dynamic relationship between patterns of social interaction and cultural affective meaning.