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SOR0010.1177/0038026118825233The Sociological Reviewde la Fuente

The Sociological Review

After the cultural turn:

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DOI: 10.1177/0038026118825233

Eduardo de la Fuente
School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Australia

This article proposes the social sciences consider texture – rather than text − as the
important legacy of the ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences. The article considers texture
in the literal sense of surface-patterns, as well as texture as a metaphor for the ‘dynamic’
and hard-to-capture qualities of social life. The article draws on the philosopher Stephen
C. Pepper and the anthropologist Tim Ingold, the ‘practice turn’ in organizational studies
and recent developments in geography and cultural research to map out different textural
frameworks. While sociologists have lagged behind their counterparts in other fields in
embracing a textural sensibility, the article considers the writings of Georg Simmel and the
Yale School of Cultural Sociology as prominent exceptions to that rule. The article concludes
by encouraging sociologists to consider the textural as a way into a ‘theoretical’ – as against a
purely ‘methodological’ conception – of the qualitative.

textural sociology, cultural turn, depth ontologies, texture and text, the qualitative

Debates about the ‘cultural turn’ remind one of Bruno Latour’s (2004, pp. 225–226) wry
observation there are always ‘generals … ready one war late’ and ‘intellectuals … one
critique late’. Indeed, quips the ‘high priest’ of actor network theory, rather than being at
the vanguard of ideas, it feels as if intellectuals have sometimes ‘moved to the rearguard,
or maybe are lumped with the baggage train’ (Latour, 2004, p. 226). Rearguard or bag-
gage train warfare seems an apt description for some of the polemics surrounding cul-
tural theory. Thus, just as some elements in cultural studies were advocating a move to
‘cultural policy studies’ (Bennett, 1992, 1998), and fields such as cultural geography
were experiencing ‘a corrective steer’ leading to greater ‘emphases on the senses,
embodiment, affect and materiality’ (Crang, 2010, p. 195), Chris Rojek and Bryan Turner
(2000) launched a somewhat belated all-out assault on the cultural turn and the impact of
textuality on social science.

Corresponding author:
Eduardo de la Fuente, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Building 19,
Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia.
Email: Eduardo.delaFuente1966@gmail.com
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The authors attacked what they labelled a decorative sociology: ‘a trend in con-
temporary sociology where “culture” has eclipsed the “social” and where literary
interpretation has marginalized sociological methods’ (Rojek & Turner, 2000, p.
629). The major characteristic was a focus on representation or ‘a politicized, tex-
tual reading of society and culture’ (Rojek & Turner, 2000, p. 629). Rojek and
Turner (2000, p. 639) claim, while there are certain advantages in teaching students
to ‘read politically’, the ‘politicization of culture’ has paradoxically resulted in a
failure by cultural studies and the cultural wing of sociology to ‘engage with state
politics’ and policymaking – a claim, paradoxically, made on the eve of the cultural
and creative industries becoming a central plank of UK state policy (Howkins,
2013, p. 7) and the impact this would have on academic research (Hartley, 2005).
Other alleged consequences of the type of decorative sociology Rojek and Turner
(2000, p. 645) identify include a ‘tendency towards theoreticism’ and to see the
world in ‘presentist’ terms (Rojek & Turner, 2000, p. 645). The latter stems from the
fact ‘Texts have no history … [and] exist in a timeless, placeless space of intertex-
tuality’ (Rojek & Turner, 2000, p. 638). On the basis of these defects in the cultural
turn the authors feel the need to declare a general state of emergency: ‘if sociology
is to survive as a viable discipline it must abandon its decorative orientation’ (Rojek
& Turner, 2000, p. 645).
But what if sociology was not in the year 2000, and is not presently, being overtaken
by textual theory or textual methods? My argument is that the lasting importance of a
cultural social science may well reside in the notion of texture and in the ontological
and practical significance to social life of textural qualities. The concept of texture
captures important ‘temporal’ and ‘spatial’, as well as ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ dimen-
sions, of how the world is shaped and sensed. Arguably, there is a textural sensibility
at play in a range of contemporary approaches attempting to rethink the entanglements
of ‘the cultural’ and ‘the social’. It is evident in the turn to concepts such as ‘affordances’
(Acord & DeNora, 2008; Gibson, 1979) and the ‘non-representational’ (Lorimer, 2005;
Thrift, 2008a), as well as in the growing emphasis on seeing ‘Everyday life [a]s a mix
of taken-for-granted realities, habit, and routine, as well as impulse, novelty, and viva-
ciousness’ (Vannini, 2015, p. 320).
My argument is organized as follows. First, I begin by outlining how the concept
of texture was present from the beginning of the cultural turn – even if in tension with
the concept of text. Second, I will suggest that attitudes towards phenomena such as
style, decoration and aesthetics have not been well served by the existence of depth
ontologies. Third, I examine the rise of a type of social and cultural analysis which
has self-consciously labelled itself ‘surface studies’ and connect it to (a) a revival of
interest in ornament, (b) a focus on the materialities of ‘glamour’ and ‘glossiness’ and
(c) the writings of urbanists and geographers who have recently emphasized the
‘atmospheric’ and other textural qualities of the city. Fourth, I survey attempts to
incorporate textural modes of theorizing into sociology, paying particular attention to
the essays on everyday objects and spaces of Georg Simmel and the ‘iconic turn’
within the Yale School of Cultural Sociology. In the conclusion, I summarize the
major implications of a textural sociology in terms of it offering a redefinition of the
qualitative which exists beyond subject/object dualisms.
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Texture: Rethinking the cultural dimensions of social life

As one recent commentator has put it, the concept of texture is ‘very much in the air’ and
serves to ‘redirect attention to the complex ways in which the world is woven together’
(Paavolainen, 2015, p. 14). Texture derives from the ‘Latin texere, meaning “to weave” ’
and over time came to mean both ‘the thing woven (textile) and the feel of the weave
(texture)’ (Adams, Hoelscher, & Till, 2001, p. xiii). The analogy between social life and
texture derives then from the fact a ‘textile is created by bringing together many threads
and, as such, represents ordered complexity’ (Adams et al., 2001, p. xiii). Gilles Deleuze
and Felix Guattari (1987, p. 475), on the other hand, think the ontological suppleness of
textility has been overstated and prefer the complexity of something like ‘felt’ where
there is ‘no separation of threads … only an entanglement of fibres’ that is ‘smooth’
rather than ‘striated’. However, whether fabric writ large serves as the primary metaphor,
or particular instances such as felt, social theoretical deployments of textility-cum-tex-
ture seem to be suggesting texture is good to think through the materialities and the
spatial and temporal orderings of reality.
How is it then that the cultural turn came to be associated with texts and textuality
rather than texture? Clifford Geertz’s (1973, p. 452) influential Interpretation of
Cultures did much to influence the equation of culturalism with textualism by suggest-
ing the ‘culture of a people is an ensemble of texts’ which the social scientist ‘strains
to read over the shoulders of those to whom it belongs’. Elsewhere, the same author
posits the cultural turn involves social scientists ‘see[ing] social institutions, social
customs, social changes as in some sense “readable” ’ (Geertz, 1983, p. 8). Geertz
(1983, p. 8) added the readability of social forms aligned the activities of the social
scientist with those of ‘the translator, the exegete, [and] the iconographer’. In a much-
cited passage from Interpretation of Cultures, the anthropologist declares his under-
standing of culture to be ‘essentially … a semiotic one’ and his approach an
‘interpretative’ science in ‘search of meaning’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 5).
Despite such rhetoric, Geertz found it difficult to limit his account to a purely text-
centred framework which neglected texture altogether. First, he describes his mode of
cultural analysis as ‘thick description’. The idea that descriptions can be ‘thick’ or ‘thin’
is textural and mirrors the sort of textural evaluations we make about a variety of objects
(e.g. whether a given quality in food or drink is concentrated or spread out). Second, one
of the key examples discussed by Geertz pertains to the differences between a ‘twitch’
and a ‘wink’, and to the extent the latter exists in the realm of the ‘gestural’ or non-lin-
guistic such communication is hard to frame within a text-based model of how meaning
operates. As one scholar of the non-verbal has put it, such communication occurs ‘in
accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none,
and understood by all’ – including those, like pre-linguistic infants, who have not been
inducted into the semiotic and representational conventions underpinning gestures
(Macdonald Critchley, cited in Pallasmaa, 2009, p. 43). Third, Geertz (1973, p. 12) sug-
gests culture entails ‘habits, skills, knowledge, and talents’, as well as ‘to be in the mood’,
and to possess the necessary material objects/technologies, to undertake certain cultural
practices. His case in point is playing the violin. But, he adds, ‘violin playing is [also]
neither the habits, skills, knowledge and so on, nor the mood, nor (the notion believers in
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“material culture” apparently embrace) the violin’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 12). Understanding
and performing culture involves much more than mastering any one element. Cultural
mastery is about how the elements are combined and embodied (e.g. ‘skilfully’ or ‘art-
fully’). When attempting to capture these hard-to-get-at features of cultural practice,
Geertz cites Wittgenstein on the need to ‘find our feet’ in the world:

We learn [the importance of practical mastery of culture] when we come into a strange country
with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country’s
language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are
saying to themselves). We cannot find our feet with them. (Wittgenstein, in Geertz, 1973, p. 13)

‘Finding our feet with them’ – this could serve as one of the mottos of a textural social
science. It reiterates that our theories and methods should ‘aim to be as full of vitality as
the life-worlds they endeavour to enact’ (Vannini, 2015, p. 320).
A field where textural ideas have taken root, so as to capture the ‘indeterminacies and
contradictions intrinsic in organizational actions’ (Cooper & Fox, 1990, p. 581), is organ-
izational or critical management theory. In fact, there is a nice bridge between our pre-
ceding discussion of Geertz and organization studies through the writings of organizational
theorist Silvia Gheradi. Her account of ‘safety culture in the construction industry’ opens
with Geertz’s paradoxical insight about what it does and does not mean to play the violin
(Gheradi, 2006, p. x). However, if violin playing seems an elusive practice, Gheradi
(2006, p. x) asks us to imagine how much more difficult it is to ‘recognize “an organiza-
tional practice” or to detect how and when “knowing in practice” occurs’.
In her book, Gheradi provides a poignant ethnographic excerpt from co-researcher and
co-author Antonio Strati that speaks closely to Wittgenstein’s metaphor of ‘finding your
feet’. The observations pertain to construction workers dismantling a tiled roof while
standing on it: ‘they were in a literal sense removing the ground beneath their feet. I was
also struck by the speed at which they worked’ (Strati, cited in Gheradi, 2006, p. 81).
Afterwards, Strati asked the construction workers how they managed this. One of them
replied, by stamping his feet, and telling the ethnographer: ‘the secret lay in feeling the
roof through [our] feet as if [we] were fastened to it’ (Strati, cited in Gheradi, 2006, p. 81).
The implication we might draw from this is that phenomena such as organizational prac-
tices are ‘practical accomplishments’ (Gheradi, 2006, p. 51) underpinned by ‘tacit knowl-
edges’ (Polanyi, 1966). It is these hard-to-get-at, situated features of practical actions that
make the concept of texture especially relevant to the study of organizational processes:

Texture is a strongly evocative concept which recalls the intricacies of networking but at the
same time allows for an analytical, qualitative framework. … The interest of organization
scholars in the concept springs from their desire to move from the concept of ‘organization’ as
an empirical reality to that of ‘organizing’. … I maintain that the concept of texture paved the
way for the study of organizing as practical accomplishment and I consider it the antecedent of
practice-based studies. (Gheradi, 2006, pp. 49–51)

Most organizational scholars who have embraced the concept of texture cite the impor-
tance of mid-20th-century philosopher Stephen C. Pepper (1942/1966) to textural modes
of thought (Cooper & Fox, 1990; Strati, 2000). The latter claims texture is linked to the
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philosophical worldview of contextualism. Derived from pragmatists such as John

Dewey and vitalists such as Henri Bergson, one of contextualism’s central characteristics
is a preference for active descriptions of the world:

[Contextualism] is doing, and enduring, and enjoying: making a boat, running a race, laughing
at a joke, persuading an assembly, unravelling a mystery, solving a problem, removing an
obstacle, exploring a country, communicating with a friend, creating a poem, re-creating a
poem. These acts or events are all intrinsically complex, composed of interconnected activities
with continuously changing patterns. They are like incidents in the plot of a novel or drama.
They are literally the incidents of life. (Pepper, 1942/1966, pp. 232–233)

Pepper’s contextualism involves, as Teemu Paavolainen (2015, p. 14) points out, ‘a pro-
cess ontology of constant novelty and change’, and ‘events’ are its central unit of analy-
sis. The key terms in this process ontology are quality and texture where the ‘quality of
a given event is its intuited wholeness or character’ and its ‘texture is the details and
relations which make up that character or quality’ (Pepper, 1942/1966, pp. 238–244).
Amongst contemporary social science thinkers, anthropologist Tim Ingold comes closest
to Pepper in recognizing that social life represents a delicate web of mutually supportive
threads. In books such as Being Alive, Ingold (2011, p. 14) proposes ‘to bring anthropol-
ogy back to life’ by focusing on what he terms the knotting and weaving that comprise
the ‘textures of the world’. He lays out the following meta-theoretical position: ‘in a
world where things are continually coming into being through processes of growth and
movement – that is, in a world of life – knotting is the fundamental principle of coher-
ence’ (Ingold, 2015, p. 14). Ingold (2011, p. 18) asks with respect to a theory of social
life: ‘What, then, would a world be like that is knotted rather than assembled, enchained
or contained?’ Such a theory of social life should have as its central focus: (1) ‘the flows
and growth patterns of materials’; (2) ‘bodily movement and gesture’; (3) ‘sensory per-
ception, especially touch and hearing’; and (4) ‘human relationships and the sentiment
that infuses them’ (Ingold, 2011, p. 18; emphasis in the original). Thus, as we move from
text to texture we also encounter a different model of the social scientist. Rather than the
translator, the exegete, or the iconographer, the image of the cultural analyst and research
practitioner is more likely to be that of the ‘collaborator’, ‘curator’, ‘carer’ and/or ‘cor-
respondent’ (Ingold, 2016; see also Crang, 2010).

Beyond depth ontologies

If texture was present from the very beginning of the cultural turn, there was arguably one
obstacle to social science fully embracing it: namely, the preservation of a dualism
between surface and depth, style and substance, in much humanistic and social scientific
thought. Here academic thought has tended to mirror the society at large in that, despite
all our late- or post-modern posturing about the importance of aesthetics and cultural mat-
ters to economy, knowledge, technology and self-identity, we are still in many respects the
‘heirs to Plato and the Puritans’ (Postrel, 2003, p. 7). We still suffer from a tendency to
think ‘mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value … [w]e veer madly between
overvaluing and undervaluing the importance of aesthetics’ (Postrel, 2003, p. xi).
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Surface/depth, style/substance dualisms do not just afflict the critics of the cultural
turn. Interpretation of Cultures itself alerts social scientists to the dangers of ‘socio-
logical aestheticism’ and urges them not to ‘lose touch with the hard surfaces of life
– with the political, economic, stratificatory realities within which [humans] are con-
tained’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 30). But, once you concede there is an unbridgeable chasm
between the stuff of culture and social stuff, the enemies of aesthetics, cosmetics,
fashion, appearance, the decorative, and so on, have an important weapon in their
arsenal. Cultural analysis runs the risk – as feminist critics have pointed out with
respect to the gendered aspects of fashion (Wilson, 1985) – of reproducing ‘larger
tensions between the “soft” of life – art, aesthetics, symbolism, whimsy – on the one
hand, versus the “hard” – technology, mechanics, economy, and rationality, on the
other’ (Molotch, 2004, p. 341).
It is no surprise, then, that critics of the cultural turn such as Rojek and Turner
chose the term ‘decorative’ to denounce cultural studies and its impact on sociology.
It emphasizes that debates about culture have been mired in what Daniel Miller (2006)
has termed depth ontologies. The latter writes that when he ‘began [his] career as an
academic, committed to the study of material culture, the dominant theory and
approach’ was ‘semiotics’ and the most ‘commonly employed’ illustration of how
signs and symbols did their communicating was ‘clothing’ (Miller, 2006, p. 12). The
kinds of things clothes were seen as communicating included gender, age, class and
differing levels of education. However, Miller (2006, p. 14) came to question this
semiotic model of clothing when he started doing fieldwork in Trinidad because
‘Trinidadians in general were devoted to clothes, and knew they were good at looking
good’ (Miller, 2006, p. 14). He came to see a semiotic approach to clothing as per-
petuating unhelpful distinctions about what really matters:

The problem with a theory of semiotics and of treating clothing as superficial is … what
could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being – what we truly are – is
located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. … But these are all
metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t
find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it.
(Miller, 2006, pp. 16–17)

Textural thinking provides a way out of such dilemmas. As Pepper (1942/1996, p. 250)
suggests: ‘As we analyze a texture, we move down into a structure of strands and at the
same time sheer out into its context. A bottom is thus never reached.’ By contrast, in inter-
pretative methods, not reaching the bottom can become a recipe for solipsism or infinite
regress (Geertz, 1973, p. 20). In the texturalist universe, coming across yet another ‘strand’
of reality to contemplate is generally a positive thing: ‘At each stage of your analysis (that
is, in each new texture into which you have been led), th[e] choice of what strand to follow
comes up again, and every strand is more or less relevant’ (Pepper, 1942/1966, p. 250).
For Ingold (2015, p. 14) also the problem of surface/depth dualisms evaporates because
he conceives of social worlds as resembling ‘the knotting of fibres in net-making and
basketry which was among the most ancient of human arts’. In cultural geography too,
Crang (2010, p. 194) suggests the defining sensibility in the last decade has been one that
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‘problematizes any pre-ordained attribution of significance, any set of qualities of the

“big” or “small”, knitting back together grand and intimate geographies’.
The texturalist standpoint would be that it makes little sense to prejudge whether cul-
ture is the ‘independent’ or ‘dependent’ or any other specific type of causal ‘variable’; or
to pre-decide whether social life ought to be studied at the ‘micro’, ‘meso’ or ‘macro’
levels of analysis. As Harvey Molotch (2004, p. 372) explains, ‘humans accomplish all
tasks’ by relying on the ‘entire panoply of emotional and sensate capacities’, so causality
is messy and the success of social life relies on having the ‘right mix’ of things coalesc-
ing at the right time: ‘We are, with form and function, art and economy, at home not just
with chicken and egg, but chicken in egg and egg in chicken. There are no independent
variables in this analytic hen house.’ Of course, social actors act as if socio-cultural cau-
salities ‘really’ existed: ‘folks “clean-up” their mess to provide an orderly’ account of
social practices when often it is ‘nearly impossible to capture in discourse the complex
textures of human agency’ (Molotch, 2004, p. 372). The ‘complex textures of human
agency’ is one of the things that propel a textural sociology. The other is the material
textures which, directly or indirectly, mediate social life. The latter are discussed in the
next section.

Surfaces: On the social life of material textures

In this section, I examine the material textures associated with phenomena such as orna-
mentation, glamour and glossiness, cities and architecture, and spatial atmospheres.
When it comes to material texture, a promising line of recent research – one clearly shorn
of an attachment to depth ontologies – is the emergent field of surface studies. A website
devoted to surface studies describes it as ‘an area concerned with working on and with
different kinds of surfaces, including but not restricted to – skin, screens, lines, inter-
faces, fabric, and the earth. … Surface studies is therefore an attempt to direct attention
to the co-ordination, textures and experiences of surfaces’ (Surface Studies Network,
2013). Despite been short-lived, surface studies has already produced a major piece of
scholarship: namely, Joseph Amato’s (2013) Surfaces: A History. The book combines
phenomenological and philosophical reflection on how surfaces ‘give manifest testi-
mony … to the plethora of life’ and serve as the ‘primary face of being’ (Amato, 2013, p.
1) with a historical account of societal and technological change. With respect to the
latter, the author posits the onset of modernity is marked by the development and diffu-
sion of material textures that are ‘strong, flexible, safe, sanitary, smooth, bright, colour-
ful, and even diaphanous’ (Amato, 2013, p. 5).
The discussion of surfaces and modernity raises an interesting issue: semiotics was
deemed conceptually ‘respectable’ in the 20th century while ornament was famously
decreed a ‘crime’. But, in retrospect, we can look at the material cultures of the modern
period through the lens of ornament – a social science concept that is making a comeback
due to the proliferation of ‘new engagements with surface, affect and digital culture’
(Necipoğlu & Payne, 2016, p. 2). The neglect of ornament during the last hundred years
in humanities, social science and design thought is a pity as ornamental patterns and
textures do much of their socio-cultural work without presupposing the kind of depth
ontologies criticized in the previous section. As Jan Bovelet (2012, p. 102) puts it, ‘[o]
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rnament neither “represents” nor “stands for” something else. … It says nothing, but
shows something’; and ornament provides a ‘holistic experience’ that keeps the ‘person
within the field’ while ‘not particularly demanding attention or goals-oriented actions in
relation to the patterns’ (Valsiner, 2008, p. 77). One mid-20th-century semiotician-cum-
textualist who understood the power of ornament was Roland Barthes. In ‘Ornamental
Cookery’, he analyses the practice (during the 1950s) whereby Elle magazine featured
each ‘week a fine colour photograph of a prepared dish: golden partridges studded with
cherries, a faintly pink chicken chaudfroid, a mould of crayfish surrounded by their red
shells, a frothy charlotte prettified with glacé fruit designs, multi-coloured trifle, etc’
(Barthes, 1993, p. 78). But the images of these dishes were ornamental not just because
they depicted ‘a whole rococo cookery’ of vivid colours and exaggerated patterns
(Barthes, 1993, p. 78). They were also ornamental in that they suggested an ‘openly
dream-like cookery’ which made the food depicted ‘objects at once near and inaccessi-
ble, whose consumption can perfectly well be accommodated simply by looking’
(Barthes, 1993, p. 79). ‘Ornamental cookery’ for Barthes implied an ‘abstraction’ of real-
ity that aestheticized the object under consideration and allowed it to be repositioned for
purely aesthetic or stylistic purposes.
In the context of mediated consumer culture, a central mechanism through which
attention is garnered is the allure and aesthetics of ‘glamour’. The cultural historian
Stephen Gundle (2008, p. 2) writes of glamour that it ‘has talismanic qualities’, a ‘spar-
kle and glow about it that enhance the people, objects and places to which it is attached’.
The geographer and cultural theorist Nigel Thrift (2008b) adds glamour has its own
materiality and history of material practices. The latter involve ‘a series of “magical”
technologies of public intimacy, most of them with long historical genealogies’ that have
led to ‘the establishment of human/nonhuman fields of captivation’ (Thrift, 2008b, p. 8).
Thrift (2008b, p. 16) notes that glamour can be constructed from the sensory ‘building
blocks’ of sound, light, smells, haptic association and even kinetic movement; but in his
own reflections he emphasizes the role of ‘colourful materials’ in ‘constructing worlds’
through the ‘unconscious poetry of substance’ associated with mass-produced and mass-
circulated synthetic colour. Nowhere is colour more prominent, nor more determinant of
cultural and economic value, than in the case of mass-circulated magazines. In her analy-
sis of magazines, Mehita Iqani (2012, p. 82) suggests ‘the material elements of full-col-
our printing, smooth shiny paper and airbrushing combine to produce a core material
dynamic of consumerist discourses which can be summarized as glossiness’. Celebrities
are an important aspect of such a magazine culture but the materiality and textures of the
magazine medium cannot be underestimated in cultivating reader interest and a general
sense of ‘other-worldliness’ around celebrity culture. ‘[A]s the personification of gloss,
and glossiness’, the celebrity relies on the materialities and surface qualities of a visual
economy that includes ‘full-colour printing on glossy paper, studio photography and post-
production retouching processes’ (Iqani, 2012, pp. 83, 89). The materialities of glossiness
can of course become attached to objects and situations as well as people. Thus, one of the
characteristics of contemporary architecture – which for the last decade or so has been
dominated by ‘starchitects’ such as Frank Gehry, Norman Forster and Zaha Hadid, and
unusual designs like London’s so-called ‘Gherkin’ – is that one of the functions of archi-
tecture has become to embody ‘brand qualities’ through the ‘immersive, sensory nature of
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architectural space’ (Dyckhoff, 2017, p. 171). Such a development is arguably unthink-

able without the confluence of new architectural surfaces (e.g. Gehry’s famous use of
titanium) and the accompanying media infrastructure (e.g. how well such buildings pho-
tograph not only in traditional media such as print and television but also on social media
and new circuits of ‘amateur’ image-production).
Given such developments in the material-textural and political-economic aspects of
the built environment, it is not surprising topics such as architecture and design, space
and place, and fields such as urban studies and cultural geography, or journals such as
Environment and Planning D and Emotion, Space and Society, have been at the forefront
of having a textural sensibility cultivated in relationship to them. Crang (2010, pp. 194–
195) credits the ‘inspirational manifestos of “non-representational theory” ’ with over-
turning cultural geography’s perceived ‘retreat from physicality’ and ‘material
landscapes’; and suggests the field as a whole is now much better at ‘layering together
concerns with the “phenomenological/experiential” and the “social/institutional” and the
“discursive” ’. The textural move has also seen a significant amount of renewed interest
in the writings of Henri Lefebvre, including his ideas regarding rhythm and spatial analy-
sis (Edensor, 2011); and it is interesting that his all-important contribution to urban the-
ory, Production of Space, is littered with references to the concept of texture – usually in
direct contrast to the concept of text. Thus, for example, when discussing phenomena
such as unplanned paths through woodlands, fields and pastures, as well as ‘the reticular
patterns left by animals, both wild and domestic’ and by people ‘in and around the houses
of village or small town’, although they constitute ‘traces of the “values” assigned to
particular routes’, these should not, warns Lefebvre (1991, p. 118), be ‘called a text or
message … it would make more sense to speak of texture’. ‘Similarly’, he adds, ‘it is
helpful to think of architectures as “architextures” ’ in that buildings and other parts of
the designed urbanscape are interwoven with the fabric of their surroundings. Production
of Space also considers the architectural and urban phenomenon of ‘monumentality’ and
suggests monuments possess ‘a complexity fundamentally different from the complexity
of a text’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 220). Lefebvre (1991, p. 221) gives the example of entering
a cathedral’s monumental space where ‘visitors are bound to become aware of their own
footsteps … breathe the incense-laden air’, as well as being ‘plunge[d] into a particular
world, of sin and redemption’.
One of the textural qualities that Lefebvre alludes to in the case of monumental spaces
has generated its own vibrant sub-field of study: namely, spatial atmospheres. An article
introducing a special issue on atmospheres defines them as the sensory and psychologi-
cal ‘texture of the in-between’ present in landscape, architecture, homes and other spatial
environments (Bille, Bjerregaard, & Sorensen, 2015, p. 31). The in-between nature of
spatial atmospheres stems from what philosopher Gernot Böhme (1993, p. 114) terms
their ‘indeterminate … ontological status. We are not sure whether we should attribute
[atmospheres] to objects or environments from which they proceed or to the subjects
who experience them.’ It is appropriate to finish a section dealing with material textures
with a mention of spatial atmospheres because it highlights yet again the complex inter-
play of the material and the symbolic in the textural domain. As suggested by Tim
Edensor (2017, p. vii) in his recent monograph on how illumination and darkness impact
spatial atmospheres, the ‘perception of luminous and gloomy space is a key existential
10 The Sociological Review 00(0)

dimension of living in the world’ yet it seems that social science research and analysis of
‘daylight, darkness and illumination is meager’. Given the manner in which spatial
atmospheres become entangled in the success or failure of expensive infrastructure pro-
jects, or in perceptions of urban vibrancy, one would expect this area of socio-spatial
research will continue to grow.

Textural themes in sociology: Georg Simmel and the Yale

Compared to their disciplinary and interdisciplinary ‘cousins’ sociologists have, argua-
bly, been a little slow to embrace textural approaches. But in this last substantive section
I would like to complicate the discipline’s self-image by suggesting instances where
textural themes have appeared; and to prepare the way for my Concluding Remarks
where I will outline some of the unique attributes of a textural sociological approach. The
‘classical’ sociological author who was most ‘textural’, in his orientation and choice of
subject matter, was Georg Simmel. In his sociological universe, social actors, objects and
situations are constantly undergoing changes in their forms such that some things become
shiny and distinct while others become opaque or dilapidated. Simmel is also interested
in the differences that these qualitative states make (de la Fuente, 2016). Thus, in ‘The
Ruin’, he suggests ‘so long as we can speak of a ruin at all and not a mere heap of stones’
it is because the ‘crumbling power of nature’ has not yet sunk the products of culture
‘into the formlessness of mere matter’ (Simmel, 1965, p. 261). While urbane and often
couched in analogical form, Simmel’s reflections on everyday objects, subjects and
spaces contain important hypotheses about how psychic energies and material form com-
bine to make the world feel connected and separated. The essay on ‘Adornment’, for
example, speaks of the ‘radioactivity’ of the adorned person, which the author defines as
‘an inextricable mixture of physiological and psychic elements … which issue from an
individual in the direction of the environment’ (Simmel, 1997, p. 207). The key socio-
logical mechanisms through which adornment does its work, then, is ‘the sensuous atten-
tion it provokes’ and the ‘enlargement or intensification of [the] sphere’ of perceptual
influence it bestows upon the wearer and the adornment itself (Simmel, 1997, p. 207).
Simmel was also amongst the first to focus on spatiotemporal textures. His essay on the
metropolis comments on ‘the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinu-
ity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions’
characteristic of doing something as mundane as crossing the street in any large city
(Simmel, 1950, p. 410).
Simmel (2010, p. 16) famously quipped, ‘I know that I will die without spiritual heirs
(and that is as it should be)’. While true in the sense there has never been a Simmel
‘school of thought’, it nonetheless seems to be the case that every new generation of
sociologists discover something new in his work and often it is the textural qualities of
the thought that are either implicitly or explicitly celebrated. Thus, it is noteworthy that
Simmel’s translator and mid-20th-century champion of his work, Kurt Wolff, praised
him for being able to think ‘our sense of life as we catch ourselves in the act of sensing
it’ (Wolff, 1965, p. viii). This image of Simmel has held through the decades – Olli
Pyyhtinen (2010, p. 38) describing his thought as ‘enliven[ing]’ the social, which rather
de la Fuente 11

than appearing as some ‘absolute, substantial unity’ emerges as a set of ‘endless entities
connected to one another by reciprocal relations’. Simmel’s dynamic sense of the social
has ensured that, even if his work has appealed primarily to those who value a ‘sociologi-
cal aesthetics’, his texturalist admirers also include phenomenologists of perceptual
qualities and sociologists of everyday ‘cognitive’ classifications. In the end, whether
something is ‘interesting’ or ‘uninteresting’, or evokes a ‘rigid’, ‘fuzzy’ or ‘flexible’
frame of mind involves textural or qualitative judgements (Davis, 1971; Zeruvabel,
1991) – responses shaped by the ‘intensities’ and ‘hues’ of life (Simmel, 1971, p. 353).
In terms of recent sociological approaches, I think there are a variety of contenders
for the category of ‘textural sociologies’. In the UK context, there have been depart-
ments or groups of scholars working within prominent faculties that have come to
embody texturalist sensibilities. One such example would be the Lancaster Sociology
Department, which, at one time or another, has housed figures such as John Urry, Scott
Lash, John Law, Celia Lury, Sara Ahmed and Elizabeth Shove, and had concentrations
of scholars working on topics such as mobilities, science and technology studies, trans-
formations in capitalism, nature and landscape, gender and cultural studies. The major
publication approaching a manifesto from this institutional context, John Urry’s (2000,
p. 18) Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, had as one
of its aims ‘to develop through appropriate metaphors a sociology which focuses upon
movement, mobility and contingent ordering, rather than upon stasis, structure and
social order’. Strong echoes here of the Pepper-cum-Ingold type of process ontology
outlined earlier.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there has been a recent ‘school of thought’ that has
invoked the concept of texture. I am referring to the ‘Strong Program’ in Cultural Theory.
Its online mission statement makes reference to ‘develop[ing] concepts and methods that
illuminate the cultural texture of social life at both individual and collective levels’
(https://ccs.yale.edu/about-us). However, much of the early work of the Yale School was
about it positioning itself in debates between a sociology of culture versus a cultural
sociology (see Alexander & Smith, 2003) – something David Inglis (2016, p. 2) attrib-
utes to the fact that ‘in the US both “cultural sociology” and the “sociology of culture”
exist more as defined sub-fields, which exist in complex relationships with other socio-
logical sub-fields and the discipline more broadly’. It is also the case that the early work
of the Yale School of Cultural Sociology could be said to have left the concept of texture
undeveloped. This seems to have been due to a desire to marry such cultural turn tropes
as ‘codes, narratives, and symbols’ with a Durkheimian emphasis on the ‘sacred/profane’
via concrete empirical case studies of phenomena such as the Holocaust, the Watergate
scandal, the technological imaginary and attitudes towards ‘modernity’ amongst intel-
lectuals (Alexander, 2003).
Only later does the textural dimension of the Yale program become much more prom-
inent. For example, the ‘Introduction’ to the volume Iconic Power makes a strong theo-
retical claim on behalf of the mediating power of material surfaces: ‘What we experience
phenomenologically is a sensible material surface that generates its own aesthetic power’
(Bartmanski & Alexander, 2012, p. 2). However, Iconic Power suggests it is not neces-
sary to reverse the ‘logocentrism of Western culture … [by] downplaying discursive
meaning and giving priority to the physicality of surface’ (Bartmanski & Alexander,
12 The Sociological Review 00(0)

2012, p. 4). The contention is that ‘iconicity allows us to see enchantment as a continuing
presence despite tremendous historical change’ (i.e. that modernity does not make aes-
thetic and sensuous appeal disappear); and that ‘[i]conic power stems from a mutually
constitutive (horizontal), not a hierarchical (vertical) relationship between aesthetic sur-
face and discursive depth’ (Bartmanski & Alexander, 2012, p. 4).
One of the most interesting pieces of cultural analysis to emerge from within the Yale
cultural sociological framework following the ‘iconic turn’ is the book Vinyl by Dominik
Bartmanski and Ian Woodward (2015). Theoretically, their framework combines a Yale
cultural sociological emphasis on ‘iconicity’-cum-neo-Durkheimian sense of the
‘totemic’ power of certain symbolic artefacts with very generous sprinklings of perspec-
tives drawn from sensory studies, material culture theory and socio-technical studies. We
are thus presented with a rich and multidimensional style of cultural analysis that high-
lights, amongst other things, how the vinyl record’s ‘texture makes the dark surface alive
with the game of light’ but where the textured surface is ‘not to be touched, only the
edges of the record’. The authors tell us the dirt, captured on the vinyl record’s surface,
is both a ‘pollutant’ (as in Douglas’s ‘matter out of place’) and a source of ‘patina’ or of
‘ageing and heritage’ (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015, p. 85). Such rich and nuanced
aesthetic-cum-material cultural analysis is balanced with insights into how vinyl is an
artefact whose ‘sensual qualities and physical properties [become] stabilized over years
of experimentation, testing and routine use at home and in clubs’ (Bartmanski &
Woodward, 2015, p. 92). In the case of the city of Berlin, they found that vinyl was inter-
woven with various aspects of the city’s identity and its wider cultural economies:

Berlin is not only a city rich in vinyl – like vintage design, third wave coffee culture, bio and
secondhand markets, and cutting-edge club scenes – vinyl seems to be an integral part of the
city’s fabric and projected self-definition. It is, in fact, something that symbolizes the city, from
the chic vinyl boutiques, to gritty and authentic meccas, and just simply out-of-the-way gems,
to the Famous Sunday Mauerpark Flohmarkt, where vinyl re-sellers recirculate the music
myths of the city in form. (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015, p. xi)

To the extent that material artefacts are grounded in place, as well as in particular socio-
technical and affective-sensory formations, ‘[v]inyl and its pleasures may not be fully
describable’ (Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015, p. xi). Yet, Bartmanski and Woodward
(2015, p. xi) are adamant cultural sociology needs to hold on to the idea that, even if
‘words cannot grasp all that happens between minds and bodies, language constitutes an
irreplaceable medium of human life, just like records uniquely mediate the music’. I
think Bartmanski and Woodward’s ethnography of vinyl’s rediscovered materiality, in
the digital age, fulfils many of the requirements of a textural cultural sociology.

Concluding remarks
In this article I have tackled the question of what a culturalist social science might look
like in the ‘wake of the cultural turn’ and argued that texture rather than text might serve
as an appropriate guiding metaphor. Texture derives from the Latin word for ‘weaving’
and this etymological connection, as we have seen, presages the use of texture in social
de la Fuente 13

theory and analysis to refer to both the literal ‘surfaces’ of everyday life as well as the
metaphorical ‘atmospheres’, unspoken ‘practical codes’ and other implicit orderings at
work in social and cultural life. This division between the literal and the metaphorical is
purely analytical of course. Ingold (2011, p. 18) advises ‘not to explain any’ dimension
of social life ‘in terms of another, nor should we treat knotting in any one as literal and
in any other as metaphorical’. For the texturalist, ‘the question is one of how to translate
from domain to domain’ and how to render the ‘corresponding’ interweavings of the
symbolic and the material in thought and in practice (Ingold, 2011, p. 18).
As a result of this non-reductionist ethos, textural sociology offers a view of sociology
that is thoroughly qualitative at the theoretical and ontological as well as methodological
and epistemological levels. While there are a number of formulations of the qualitative
in social theory, I think Dewey – whom Pepper sees as a forerunner to textural thought
– and his notion of the ‘live creature’ is extremely prescient. In Art as Experience, Dewey
suggests qualities emerge out of the psychic and other exchanges of energy between self
and world:

The live animal does not have to project emotions into the objects experienced. … There are
rhythmic beats of want and fulfilment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing [present
within the environment itself] … Because the actual world, that in which we live, is a combination
of movement and culmination, of breaks and re-unions, the experience of the living creature is
capable of [perceiving] quality. (Dewey, 1934/1958, pp. 16–17)

The only situation in which qualities would not arise is in what Dewey (1934/1958, p.
16) terms a ‘finished’ world, because in such a world, ‘sleep and waking could not be
distinguished’. Such a world would be a lifeless or ‘textureless’ world. The question for
sociology, then, is this: how can we ensure that the social and cultural worlds we attempt
to grasp through our thinking and writing are not lifeless, are not textureless? While there
is no one single answer to this question, it is heartening that a number of scholars are
starting to engage with the possibilities offered by a textural sociology.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.

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