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Durable Dispositions? Interaction and the Structural Emergence of Collective Meanings

Tue, August 14, 8:30 to 10:10am, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Floor: Level 4, 404

Abstract

Based largely on cross-sectional analyses, research commonly treats social and cultural background characteristics as causally leading to variations in cultural tastes and meanings. We term this research stream the “scaffolding approach.” We juxtapose the proposed structural mechanism of this approach with what we call the “channeling approach,” for which structure is made up of local interactional orders that shape meanings in idiosyncratic ways over time. We outline and empirically test both of these perspectives, first independently and then together. Our setting is twenty-one book groups throughout the United States, all discussing the same newly-released novel. Results offer modest support for scaffolding (prior to group discussions, few background characteristics predict shared interpretations), and strong support for channeling (interpersonal influence leads individuals to shift interpretations toward group consensus, largely diverging from other groups as well as the author’s privately-stated intentions). However, because channels of influence are largely homogenous, individuals of the same genders, education levels, and geographic regions derive similar meanings over time. As a result, interaction contributes both to the entropy of meaning while also acting as a catalyst for the emergence of interpretations that may appear, after the fact, to be more ingrained and durable than they actually are.

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