Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas

Irene Taviss Thomson
Research showing America's politics may be more based on personal choice than party or cultural divisions


The idea of a culture war, or wars, has existed in America since the 1960s—an underlying ideological schism in our country that is responsible for the polarizing debates on everything from the separation of church and state, to abortion, to gay marriage, to affirmative action. Irene Taviss Thomson explores this notion by analyzing hundreds of articles addressing hot-button issues over two decades from four magazines: National Review, Time, The New Republic, and The Nation, as well as a wide array of other writings and statements from a substantial number of public intellectuals.

What Thomson finds might surprise you: based on her research, there is no single cultural divide or cultural source that can account for the positions that have been adopted. While issues such as religion, homosexuality, sexual conduct, and abortion have figured prominently in public discussion, in fact there is no single thread that unifies responses to each of these cultural dilemmas for any of the writers.

Irene Taviss Thomson is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, having taught in the Department of Social Sciences and History at Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than 30 years. Previously, she taught in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University.

Praise / Awards

  • "Snowballing from a sample of 436 articles that occurred between 1980 and 2000 in The Nation, National Review, New Republic and Time, Irene Thomson demonstrates that the putative American "culture war" is more fiction than fact. She provides a splendid inventory of our cultural tensions and disagreements among as well as between liberals and conservatives on the myriad matters implicated in U.S. religion, morality, pluralism, elitism, and exceptionalism. Our choir of critics and analysts is more discordant than either angelic or antiphonal, and the same is true of the culture it assesses."
    —N.J. Demerath III, Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

  • "Scholars have shown that despite claims that America is in a culture war, ordinary Americans actually inhabit a vast middle ground between the extremes.  We have continued to assume that a culture war exists among elite cultural producers, even if it is not found among ordinary people.  Irene Thomson takes her careful eye to this question, examining elite discourse in magazines and also finds a deeper middle ground of shared values between right and left, as well as a lack of consensus within each of the two sides.  This book is an important contribution to our understanding of cultural conflict in the U.S."
    —John H. Evans, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

  • "Drawing on mainstream print media stories about 'culture wars' issues, Irene Taviss Thomson does not find the polarized fire-breathing that characterizes some high-profile media stars. Rather, she finds some remarkably shared cultural principles that illuminate five enduring dilemmas for the American body politic."
    —Rhys H. Williams, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

  • "Those who have come to believe that the issue of 'culture wars' in US public life is overblown will embrace this neatly organized study as a welcome corrective. Sociologist Thompson argues that the poular perception of a binary cultural split into orthodox and progressive camps 'is not supported by survey data.'"
    —B. T. Browne, Broward College

  • " important contribution to the ongoing debate on cultural politics and political exceptionalism in the United States."
    —Graham Taylor, University of the West of England, American Journal of Sociology

Look Inside

Copyright © 2010, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

News, Reviews, Interviews

Listen: UMP Author Podcast Series: Irene Taviss Thomson | MP3 | 4/1/2010

Read: Review | The Washington Post | 6/18/2010

Read: Q&A with Irene Taviss Thomson | PDF | 4/1/2010

Media Kit

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 284pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2010
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05088-8

Add to Cart
  • $27.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2018
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90091-6

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  • Culture War, American Culture, Pluralism, Multiculturalism, Morality, Individualism, Identity Politics,  Abortion, Homosexuality, Religion