Culturalist Perspectives in Social Analysis on Europe

This is part of our special feature on European Art, Culture, and Politics.


The field of European Studies is not only constituted by its inner conditions, but also by the many different meanings attributed to it. European Studies are sometimes seen as one among many Area Studies, which implies cooperation of several disciplines in order to develop a somehow holistic approach to societal and/or cultural developments of a given territory. In other contexts, European Studies are, to some extent, contrasted with purely analytical approaches and propagate openness towards normative positioning, for example, by taking sides in post-colonial identity struggles or with overt support of European integration.

For many social or political scientists, such characteristics of European Studies bear considerable challenges. They seem to contradict important pillars of their mainstream disciplines whose scholarly communities usually appreciate causal analysis and variable oriented research designs. Moreover, political science is until today focused on nations as the main arena for political struggle in Europe, while much scholarship in European Studies has for years undertaken efforts to overcome methodological nationalism.

I want to suggest that mainstream social sciences need not take distance to European Studies, and that indeed a number of pressing political issues in Europe can only be analysed by taking a broader perspective than is often taken in Europe oriented economics, political science, or (parts of) sociology. What mainstream scholars need, however, is a sober view of the potentials of different meta approaches to the societies and cultures in Europe. The task of my text is to propose such a distinction.

Understanding and/or explaining social action can take place in different paradigmatic models that increase in complexity. “Cultural” explanation is, in this context, more complex than is the case in competing models. The approach starts from the idea that different models (or paradigms) can be chosen in a second step of analysis—while the first step consists in systematically screening a social situation for complexity and predictability. If “culture” plays an important role, we have to take account of it. If this is not the case, for example, because all actors behave within a certain culture and are aware of the restrictions this culture imposes, there might be non-contextual factors that are able to better explain certain patterns of social action.

In particular, two paradigms place “non-cultural” factors as major explanatory components. Contrasting to a homo culturalis the homo oeconomicus rests on the assumption that humans follow their interests in pursuing social action, while the homo sociologicus places societal rules and norms into the center of explanation. Both models, at least in their pure forms, seek to eliminate context from the core of their explanatory patterns. In the homo oeconomicus model, the explanatory strategy consists in carving out patterns of behavior within clearly defined boundaries, usually within markets or market-like settings. Despite several efforts to include culture into the paradigm,[1] the main idea of the homo oeconomicus approach has been to explain social behavior in circumstance where culture does not play a role: a consumer of certain products will opt for the most profitable option regardless if he/she is from Chicago, Madrid, or Reykjavik.

The same applies for the homo sociologicus, or the institutionalist, model. Institutions are the product of underlying rules and norms within society; they “describe social practices that are regularly and continuously repeated, are sanctioned and maintained by social norms.”[2] While institutions have developed through time and history, their analysis in a given time does not necessarily require an historic-sociological analysis, but can also be directed towards the functionality of social relations. Rule systems are important elements to distinguish one society, or one culture, from another. For example, German culture is distinct from French culture because of its language, and honoring the German flag bears different connotations than honoring the French flag. However, within the German or French cultures, there exist common horizons of understanding with regard to the respective language norms or the potential meaning of core societal symbols. The institutionalist approach rather aims at understanding institutions as ossified rules that have condensed as a result of complex historic developments.

The recombination of causal analysis and a cultural perspective is certainly not necessary with regard to all empiric fields of European Studies. It is well possible to understand European elections with an institutionalist approach, and the functioning of the Euro and the monetary policy around it may exhaustively be explained from the perspective of rational choice.

What, however, if we deal with issues like the acceptance of European Parliament or the European currency by the population? Could we argue that the course of European integration is influenced by the different understandings of core terms of contemporary European politics? There are many examples which suggest exactly that. For example, political culture implies a strong link between national autonomy and democracy whereas majorities in other member states favor democracy on the EU level.[3] One political culture is therefore likely to welcome a strong European Parliament, whereas others take the same institution as a symbol for the erosion of (national) democracy in Europe. Moreover, while German ordo-liberals may support the “stability” of the Euro, Greek pensioners have little positive to say about the strengthening of the European currency.


The homo culturalis model

I’d like to contrast the two models of the homo oeconomicus and the homo sociologicus with a culturalist model: the homo culturalis. As with the other two models, the homo culturalis should not be imagined as a real person that wanders around the streets. Rather, the three homines present models within the imagination of social scientists in the sense that they exist as ideal types with certain attributes. While there are rich traditions by which the homo oeconomicus and the homo sociologicus can be determined, the scholarly views on the homo culturalis are more diverse. In fact, even the term homo culturalis remains fluid. The notion has been used by a few scholars with the purpose to widen the paradigm of the homo oeconomicus within economics.[4] However, the term has certainly not received the same status as its counterparts.

The culturalist perspective can be grasped in two books that strategically use culturalism in order to distinguish it from other forms of social understanding and/or social explanation. The first, The Transformation of Cultural Theories, was written by the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz.[5] His book, which only exists in German, covers a wide range of post-structuralist and interpretative theoretic approaches towards culture from Claude Lévi-Strauss to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu as well as from Alfred Schütz to Erving Goffman, Clifford Geertz, and Charles Taylor. Reckwitz’s main argument is that theories of culture used to be divided into (post-)structuralist and interpretative camps with Lévi-Strauss’s structural thinking and Schütz’s phenomenology as central figures. Throughout theoretic development, however, both strands borrowed axiomatic aspects from each other. Post-structuralism, especially with Bourdieu, became more interpretative, and interpretative cultural theory integrated structural thinking—Goffman’s frame analysis is one example, Taylor’s background knowledge another.[6] By drawing together these lines of thinking, Reckwitz arrives at an understanding of culturalism that combines interpretative and post-structuralist elements:

In order to reenact why actors act the way they act (…) it is necessary to carve out which meaning systems actors have or, with other words, which meaning they ascribe to objects on a regular basis (…). These meaning systems and patterns of meaning form the background of individual actions and collective patterns of action. They make plausible why actors act in a specific way and not differently.[7]

The second book I refer to is Craig Parsons’s How to Map Arguments in Political Science. Parsons establishes a typology of “explanations of action” which distinguishes structural, institutional, ideational, and psychologically oriented schools of social action.[8] Parsons includes “culture” into the ideational paradigm. In his approach, culturalism is largely attributed to

(…) ideational elements: they include practices, symbols, norms, grammars, models, beliefs, ideas, and/or identities that carry meanings about the world. (…) When we say that people hold certain culture or beliefs, we are not just making a descriptive statement that leaves open the causal dynamics. It makes little sense to call something a ‘belief’ unless we also mean that someone believes in it: that they use it to assign meaning and interpret the world around them. Thus the very notion of ideas, culture or beliefs leads us straight to the core logic of ideational explanation. It explains actions as a result of people interpreting their world through certain ideational elements.[9]

Parsons’ book serves a different purpose than the one written by Reckwitz. While Reckwitz aims at establishing a convincing notion of culturalism within the broad field of cultural theories, Parsons tries to draw the attention of his readers – mainly, I would think, political scientists like himself – to the distinctions between different schools of thought. His ideational logic is characterized by “particular” and “interpretative” explanatory goals: cultures can always be distinguished from other cultures, their meaning systems are based on interpretations.

Despite the fact that the two authors use different terminology and aim at establishing different typologies, they converge in important aspects. They use culture as an independent variable in order to explain human action—because of “culture,” or rather of cultural elements, the behavior of individuals or subjects can be understood better than if those elements would be discarded.[10] Additionally, both emanate from the idea of a first order autonomy in the sense that individuals are free to interpret symbols in one way or another, or believe one thing or another. First order cultural autonomy consists in the capacity of subjects to deal with symbols and to have an impact on collective patterns of actions. At the same time, first order cultures frame subjects within their reach and define borders (or border zones) within which human behavior corresponds with the rules of these cultures. For example, subjects can love or hate the European Commission, or they can believe or disbelieve in the capacity of the Euro to maintain a stable European currency. Interpretation therefore opens a wide field of congruent or competing ideas within a culture. The culture itself, in turn, is held together by the fact that the symbols in question are thought to be of common relevance.


Second order observation

An aspect which is inextricably linked to the culturalist perspective is the existence of a second order autonomy in creating, interpreting, and judging (cultural) symbols. This refers to the contingency that exists when third persons reconstruct meanings. These third persons can be of very different origins—in principle everybody who observes first order cultures. We can think of ordinary people, for example tourists during a trip abroad, but also professional observers like journalists, scholars, or creators of fiction. Narratives created by the latter group form discourses that offer interpretations on the culture under observation.

Second order observation focuses first order cultures by interpreting them. This interpretation can be characterized as decoding—a decoding, however, that can itself not overcome the contingency of the symbols under observation. Since observers are part of the game, contingency also concerns the second order layer of culture. The culturalist perspective offers a double contingency, of which observers have to be aware. Cultural observation is always uncertain. Observers might not be able to make sense of a meaning system, or they might not be able to grasp an action pattern in full scale.

The main point, however, is that observers can establish various understanding systems with regard to given cultures. For example, foreign observers can come to different understanding about national e.g. German, French, or European culture through the different ways of dealing with the various national anthems. In that sense, cultural observation is as contingent as symbol evolvement itself. It is this contingency that makes it hard to develop quantitative approaches to culture, a repository of shifting variables and interpretive strategies. The reconstruction of “other” meaning systems can in this case only take place against the background of one’s own meaning system— misrepresentations as a consequence of cultural translation are almost unavoidable.

Another layer beyond interpretation concerns the second order judgement of first order processes. This obviously introduces the value patterns of second order observers into the perspective. Judgements on the coherence of first order cultures also fall into the sphere of cultural evaluation. If we follow these thoughts, we arrive at the conclusion that all meaning systems—including second order ones—are contingent. The cultural perspective entails a reflexive view both on first order and second order cultural observation.

Once we take the secondary observer perspective into account for our conception of culture, criticism becomes an imminent part of the approach. The traditional view was dominated by the mutual dependency of meaning structures and action. Kroeber and Kluckhohn in their famous definition of culture had argued that “culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, and on the other as conditioning of further action.”[11] This view hardly allowed for non-affirmative action within cultural systems. “Cultural critique,”[12] however, brings in a systematic element of change to culture, and “culture” obtains the double meaning of being an observable object (i.e., “French culture”) and a practice of reviewing that very same object with the intention to better understand it. The latter aspects leads to an interest which—in the field of anthropology —“has led to the present dominant interest (…) about how interpretations are constructed by the anthropologist, who works in turn from the interpretations of his informants.”[13]

With this turn, cultural theory has taken a strong bias towards knowledge and knowledge orders. If culture consists of a permanent (critical) review, the acts that constitute this review—maybe interpretations,[14] maybe constructions,[15]maybe re-constructions[16]—orm a constant flow of new or redefined knowledge into culture. Of course, it constitutes a vast task to (methdologically) take hold of these two related, but still distinct, operations.

On the one hand, meaning systems need to be reconstructed with a kind of freezing technique: any culture which is reconstructed is looked at in a way that discards constant processes of change. On the other, second order interpretations always have the tendency to change the object of observation. There are indeed cultures that have changed in response to cultural critique. One example is the self-understanding of Ukrainians as a nation, which has turned self-reflexive due to the many interpretations of Ukrainian history and nation building.[17]

In sum, the culturalist approach presents a focus on understanding and re-constructing meaning systems of “cultures.” There can be national, regional, or other group cultures. In this approach, cultures are understood as internally glued by ideas, but if and how these ideas are relevant is an issue of constant re-negotiation, both between members of that culture and between members and observers. Ideas, as a psychological category, need artefacts by which their meanings can be exchanged on an interpersonal basis. Such symbols, or more generally signs, have the function to condense group knowledge, but the concrete meaning they carry is always debatable and often contentious. Group members and observers undertake different practices of action and knowledge production. Despite the focus on knowledge and meaning systems, the attention that needs to be paid to the (re)creation of symbolic knowledge has put “social practices” in the center of contemporary culturalist approaches.[18] As a paradigm of social research, therefore, culturalist social sciences require a researcher’s interest to make plausible why actors act in a specific way and not differently with reference to the existence and the conditions of this existence of ideational meaning patterns.


Culturalism in the social analysis of Europe

The cultural approach I have suggested can serve as a bridge between interpretation oriented European Studies and the mainstream camp of social and political science. In a time when various political actors, institutions and movements struggle for symbolic recognition, many pressing questions cannot be answered by disallowing the interpretation of social/political symbols. Including interpretation in one’s own perspective of analysis, however, does not automatically mean that the aspiration for causal explanation and variable orientated research needs to be given up. Rather, variables need to be contextualized by cultural meanings, and observers need to systematically be aware of the dangers of contingency that encircle any act of interpretation.

In the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, European Studies today hold a double status. On the one hand, they can be seen as “normal science” in the sense that understanding “Europe” —European societies, European artefacts, European literature and art, and so on—is object to sophisticated academic elaboration. There exist certain publications to which most scholars in the field refer to, which makes it possible to allude to a paradigm of European studies. On the other, European Studies do not adhere to a single “disciplinary matrix,” a term Kuhn used to identify a “consensus on exemplary instances of scientific research.”[19] In order for European studies to keep and enhance the bridging function that are generally attributed to area studies, they need to be a place where different disciplines cooperate and exchange views.

The culturalist approach can be used to analyze social and political development that cannot be captured by non-material artefacts alone. The approach is able to take account of the following elements that are easily overlooked by mainstream social analysis:

  1. Material variables can be reliably used only in stable meaning contexts. If variables run the danger of meaning different things to different people, a culturalist perspective helps to avoid premature conclusions.
  2. Understanding political action in Europe requires a reconstruction of the meaning horizons of political actors. A culturalist perspective enables us to grasp the action horizons of politically relevant persons with regard to (for example) their national traditions and institutional roles.
  3. By distinguishing between first order and second order observation, the culturalist perspective allows for a systematic consideration of normative positions on political developments in Europe. While self-reflection is (or should be) characteristic of all scholarly work, the culturalist perspective offers an in-built operation to distinguish between internal and external interpretation of (political) symbols and meanings.

In conclusion, the culturalist perspective works on the basis that different cultures exist in their own right. European integration or Europeanization should therefore be seen as processes with contingent consequences. They may lead to the integration of the Europeanness of cultures, but they may also destabilize existing cultures, be it outside of Europe or within. European colonization and some aspects of EU egalitarianism bear clear examples of the destructive cultural potential of Europe.



Timm Beichelt holds a chair for European Studies at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). Educated as a political scientist at Heidelberg University, he started his career without reflecting too much about the significance of culture in politics. After his recruitment by Viadrina, this changed. Frankfurt (Oder) is located at the border between Germany and Poland, the university closely cooperates with Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland). Beichelt directs the Master program of European studies, which upholds three double degrees with universities in Istanbul, Poznań, and Strasbourg.




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Berger, Peter; Luckmann, Thomas (1966): Die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Eine Theorie der Wissenssoziologie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Bird, Alexander (2018): Thomas Kuhn. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 edition).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998): Praktische Vernunft. Zur Theorie des Handelns. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Bulmer, Simon J.; Lequesne, Christian (ed.) (2020): The Member States of the European Union. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1987): Die Schrift und die Differenz. 3. Aufl. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 177).

Geertz, Clifford (Hg.) (1973): The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic.

Goffman, Erving (2008 (1959)): The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.

Goldschmidt, Nils; Nutzinger, Hans G. (2009): Vom homo oeconomicus zum homo culturalis. Handlung und Verhalten in der Ökonomie. Berlin: Lit (Kulturelle Ökonomik, 8).

Harrison, Lawrence E.; Huntington, Samuel P. (Hg.) (2000): Culture Matters. How Values Shape Human Progress. New York: Basic Books.

Jekelʹčyk, Serhij O. (2007): Ukraine. Birth of a modern nation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Kroeber, Alfred L.; Kluckhohn, Clyde (1952): Culture. A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage.

Kuzio, Taras (1998): Ukraine. State and nation building. London: Routledge.

Marcus, George E.; Fischer, Michael M. (1999): Anthropology as Cultural Critique. An experimental moment in the human sciences. Second Edition. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.

Panther, Stephan; Nutzinger, Hans (2004): Homo oeconomicus vs. homo culturalis. Kultur als Herausforderung der Ökonomik. In: Gerold Blümle, Nils Goldschmidt, Rainer Klump, Bernd Schauenburg und Harro von Senger (Hg.): Perspektiven einer kulturellen Ökonomik. Münster: Lit, S. 287–309.

Parsons, Craig (2007): How to map arguments in political science. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Reckwitz, Andreas (2006): Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien. Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms. Weilerswist: Velbrück.

Reckwitz, Andreas (2010): Toward a Theory of Social Practices. A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. In: Mark Bevir (Hg.): Interpretive Political Science. London, S. 275–298.

Taylor, Charles (1985): Self-interpreting animals. In: Charles Taylor (Hg.): Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, S. 45–76.

Wilson, Andrew (2000): The Ukrainians. Unexpected Nation. New Haven / London: Yale University Press.

[1] Harrison/Huntington (2000).

[2] Abercrombie et al. (2000: 180).

[3] Bulmer/Lequesne (ed.) (2020).

[4] See, for example, Panther/Nutzinger (2004); Goldschmidt/Nutzinger (2009).

[5] Reckwitz (2006).

[6] Goffman (2008 (1959)); Taylor (1985).

[7] Reckwitz (2006: 130). Translation into english by the author.

[8] Parsons (2007).

[9] Parsons (2007: 96).

[10] As a political scientist, Parsons is closer to thinking of „individuals“, whereas the cultural sociologist Reckwitz would usually talk of „subjects“ in order to mark any individual’s embeddedness in historical and/or institutional contexts.

[11] Kroeber/Kluckhohn (1952: 357).

[12] Marcus/Fischer (1999).

[13] Marcus/Fischer (1999: 26).

[14] Geertz (1973).

[15] Berger/Luckmann (1966).

[16] Derrida (1987).

[17] Kuzio (1998), Wilson (2000), and Jekelʹčyk (2007) are just a few books that have appeared on the topic and which are widely read by Ukrainian intellectuals.

[18] Bourdieu (1998); Reckwitz (2010).

[19] Bird (2018).



Photo: Row of EU Flags in front of the European Union Commission building in Brussels | Shutterstock

Published on April 28, 2020.


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