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Theses Doctoral

Figures of Purity: Consecration, Exclusion, and Segregated Inclusion in Cultural Settings

Accominotti, Fabien

Like many sociologists, I am perplexed by the fact that in meritocratic societies, individuals whose abilities or talent does not differ widely nevertheless enjoy considerably different levels of achievement and success. The present dissertation seeks to uncover some of the reasons behind such non-meritocratic inequality.
There are two main approaches one can take to that problem. The first and more classical one consists in observing inequality that matters – inequality in earnings or career prospects for example – and to show that such inequality can be traced back to broad categorical attributes such as class, gender, or race and ethnicity. This is not the approach I follow here. Rather, I strategically select cases that make it possible to uncover the fine-grained processes and mechanisms generative of non-meritocratic inequality.
Among these “pure” cases are art worlds – winner-take-all settings typically marked by high inequality, and where success is often vastly disconnected from merit or intrinsic quality. The first part of this dissertation focuses on one such art world as a laboratory for studying the social processes underlying the formation of economic value, and therefore the formation of inequality in economic success.
My approach to success and inequality rests on the intuition that we can partially explain them by studying social processes of valuation, i.e. processes that shape the value of things or individuals without affecting their underlying differences in ability, merit, performance, or talent. In the first two chapters this dissertation, I outline and test a theory of one such process, namely consecration.
The first chapter develops a structural definition of consecration that makes possible to study its occurrence, conditions, and consequences in a variety of social settings. The chief features of that definition are identified using a series of empirical instances of consecration. The chapter then shows how that definition can be operationalized with simple network concepts, and suggests a network-based strategy for capturing consecration empirically – in art worlds for example. The chapter finally draws testable implications from that definition, and explores its relationship with the notion of retrospective consecration.
The second chapter uses that notion of consecration to solve an empirical puzzle in the sociology of valuation. Markets for unique and novel goods are often seen as privileged settings for the powerful influence of market intermediaries: when quality is uncertain, or when it lacks definition altogether, intermediaries can play a crucial role in signaling or specifying it, thereby ultimately shaping the prices consumers are willing to pay for products. Products, meanwhile, do not get much more unique or novel than in the market for contemporary art. Yet economic sociologists have repeatedly failed to observe any influence of art market intermediaries on the value of the artists they distribute.
This puzzling finding, I argue, arises from a misconception of how intermediaries shape the value of artists. We usually think of intermediation as acting through two chief processes of valuation: credentialing, or the signaling of unobservable quality, and qualification, or the establishment of specific quality criteria. Yet I suggest that it also can influence value through consecration, or the structural signaling of the existence of quality differences in a population. Using the market for modern art in early twentieth-century Paris as an empirical backdrop, this chapter shows that intermediation as consecration, not credentialing or qualification, was indeed how art market intermediaries shaped the value of their artists in the heyday of French modern painting.
The remaining chapter is a logical development of the previous two. It builds on the fine-grained insights they offer – on social processes of valuation, and on the mechanisms of non-meritocratic inequality more generally – to address larger-scale issues of social inequality and social reproduction.
The chapter uses a new database of subscribers to the New York Philharmonic to understand how cultural participation cemented the status – or social value – of elites in Gilded Age America. The database has information on who subscribed to the Philharmonic between 1880 and 1910 – a period of huge upheaval, of threats to the dominance of traditional elites, and ultimately of elite consolidation in the United States, and in the city of New York in particular. In analyzing these data I seek to understand how culture worked as an elite resource in that era.
The classic account of culture and elite consolidation posits that the formation of an upper class and its continued dominance rest on a mechanism of exclusion. In this view, cultural participation reinforces elites by setting them apart – a process akin to consecration as I delineate it in earlier chapters.
My work on the Philharmonic challenges that classic view. For the distinctiveness associated with elite cultural endeavors to reinforce elite dominance, I argue, these endeavors have to happen against a backdrop of general agreement over their value. In Gilded Age New York, this agreement happened not through exclusion, but through the inclusion of a group of cultural experts into the cultural institutions championed by the social elite. The inclusion of that cultured group served to testify to the quality of the cultural endeavors of the social elite, and provided them with a stamp of cultural legitimacy. In other words, it valued the elite through a process of credentialing.
The second analytical contribution of that final chapter has to do with class consolidation and the reproduction of upper class dominance more generally. While consolidation is often seen as happening through exclusion and closure, I argue that in a context of rapid social differentiation, marked by the emergence of new areas of expertise, maintaining dominance does not necessarily involve barring access to outside groups. It can also mean being flexible enough to include the experts in emerging spheres. To remain atop the social hierarchy, elites may benefit from incorporating external elements that testify to their own continued relevance. Such inclusion is not necessarily full integration – instead, I show that at the Philharmonic it involved a built-in mechanism of protection, namely segregation. Hence cultural experts were included to help reify and support upper class status and social power, but in a segregated fashion to protect the upper class from threats of destabilization.
Finally, a word on title: the notion of purity is the recurring motif in this work. It conveys ideas of social exclusion and social closure, as deployed in the third chapter. When thought about in relational terms, purity may also refer to one’s absence of ties to others whom one does not wish to be associated with in the public eye. This relational take on purity has strong affinities with the idea of consecration developed in chapters one and two. As a heuristic tool for the sociological imagination, purity is the thread that connects all the dots in this dissertation.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bearman, Peter Shawn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 1, 2016
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