“The Rules of Meaning Making: Toward a Theory of Cultural Syntax”
In my dissertation I develop the theory of cultural syntax, a concept whose purpose is to help identify and delineate the rules of meaning making in social life. Up until now, most culturally-minded sociologists have devoted themselves to investigating (1) the meanings that permeate the social world and (2) the cultural structures that crystalize when these meanings are patterned in particular ways. However, this double focus misses an important aspect of the social world.
In order to illuminate this unobserved feature, I propose a semiotic model of culture, a heuristic based in part on Ricoeur’s dichotomy of word and sentence. From the perspective of this model, individual cultural meanings are analogous to individual words, while the integrated patterns of these cultural meanings are analogous to sentences; cultural sociology’s focus on meaning is therefore akin to a focus on semantics, while its focus on cultural structures is like a focus on the grammar of sentence types (e.g., declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory). At the analytic level of the word, this sole attention to semantics misses a critical dimension of analysis: that of syntax, the rules governing the combining of words. That is to say, cultural sociologists have failed to theorize the rules governing which meanings can combine with which other meanings within a given cultural structure.
Vietnam: A War, Not a Country
This project is a comparative analysis of the Vietnam War narratives that circulate within the societies of each of the war’s three principal antagonists (i.e., Vietnamese communists, Vietnamese Americans, and the broader American society). Within each of these three social groups, my co-authors and I conceptualize arenas of collective memory where various groups struggle to promote their particular narrative of the war. As we trace these struggles, we explore whether each erstwhile antagonist sees itself as having experienced a radical disruption to its sense of collective identity, a phenomenon theorized as cultural trauma.
My contributions include three of the book’s six chapters. The first is a theoretical introduction to the project that delineates the principal concepts used to frame our research, including collective memory, arenas of memory, and cultural trauma. My next chapter is a historical narrative of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e., South Vietnam) from its founding in 1955 to its surrender to the Vietnamese communists and dissolution in 1975. And my third chapter is an exploration of the many narratives that have been propagated throughout the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States. I combine (a) interview data collected from a diverse and geographically dispersed number of Vietnamese-Americans (about 50 in all), including artists, academics, journalists, community leaders, and veterans of the South Vietnamese military with (b) analysis of the literary, graphic, and plastic representations of the war created by the diaspora’s various carrier groups. In analyzing this data, I show the sundry ways in which the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States has come to narrate their collective identity in light of the war, and I argue that these narratives indicate a fracturing of the collective’s identity and subsequent effort to reconstitute that identity.
Eyerman, Ronald, Todd Madigan, and Magnus Ring. 2017. “Cultural Trauma, Collective memory and the Vietnam War.” Croatian Political Science Review. 54(1-2): 11-31.