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James W. Carey and Communication Research

Reputation at the University’s Margins

Jefferson D. Pooley

Winner of the 2017 James W. Carey Media Research Award

James W. Carey, by the time of his death in 2006, was a towering figure in communication research in the U.S. In this book, Pooley provides a critical introduction to Carey’s work, tracing the evolution of his media theorizing from his graduate school years through to the publication in 1989, of his landmark Communication as Culture. The book is an attempt to understand the unusual if also undeniable significance that Carey holds for so many communication scholars, as well as making his work accessible to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students.

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Chapter 3. A Cultural Approach


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In 1973, Carey’s scholarly project took a sharp cultural turn. The catalyst was Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, published early that year. No other single work had, or would have, a comparable impact on Carey’s intellectual worldview. And the effect was as sudden as it was profound: In the year following the publication of Geertz’s collection, Carey drafted a handful of essays that, in revised form, would constitute the core of Communication as Culture. Carey’s mid-1970s essays formed an elegantly written brief for a “cultural approach” to communication research. That approach was unambiguously the Geertzian program for anthropology, transposed onto communication studies.

In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz presented an extended case for a meaning-centered concept of culture. All humans, he claimed, make sense of experience through symbols and stories that are established, reaffirmed, and altered in daily life. “Believing, with Max Weber”, he wrote in a soon-famous line, “that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs”.1 For Geertz, two facets of cultural life are key. First, cultures are highly various, bound in place and time to particular human groupings. Second, these webs of meaning are shared, produced and altered in everyday interaction. The task of the anthropologist is to interpret those specific cultural formations. ← 77 | 78 →

Geertz positioned his interpretive approach as an explicit challenge to the definitions of social science then...

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