From "Either-Or" to "When and How": A Context-Dependent Model of Culture in Action

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34 Scopus citations


In this article, I outline a framework for the sociological study of culture that connects three intertwined elements of human culture (cultural motivations, resources, and meanings) and demonstrates the concrete contexts under which each most critically influences actions and their subsequent outcomes. In contrast to models that cast motivations, resources, and meanings as competing explanations of how culture affects action, I argue that these are fundamental constituent elements of culture that are inseparable, interdependent, and simultaneously operative. Which element provides the strongest link to action, and how this link operates, must be understood as a function of the actor's position within wider social contexts. I argue that on average motivations have the most discernable link to action within a social strata, cultural resources provide the strongest link across strata, and meanings have the greatest direct influence when codified and sanctioned. I then offer a reframing and synthesis that reintegrates previously "competing" theories of culture into a more holistic context-dependent model of culture in action. Finally, I use evidence from prior empirical research, as well as new data from an ongoing ethnographic study of health behaviors among the aged, to show how various elements of culture are concretely linked to action in eight different social contexts. In doing so, I provide a roadmap for the transition out of the "either-or" logic underlying much of cultural theory and reemphasize the importance of the classical sociological concern for "when" and "how" various aspects of culture influence action and outcomes in concrete social contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-180
Number of pages26
JournalJournal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • Agency
  • Cognition
  • Context
  • Culture
  • Meanings
  • Motivations
  • Structure
  • Theory
  • Toolkits
  • Values

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • General Psychology


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