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The sociology of culture, and the related cultural sociology, concerns the systematic analysis of culture, usually understood as the ensemble of symbolic codes used by a member of a society, as it is manifested in the society. For Georg Simmel, culture referred to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history". Culture in the sociological field is analyzed as the ways of thinking and describing, acting, and the material objects that together shape a group of people's way of life.
Contemporary sociologists' approach to culture is often divided between a "sociology of culture" and "cultural sociology"—the terms are similar, though not interchangeable. The sociology of culture is an older concept, and considers some topics and objects as more or less "cultural" than others. By way of contrast, Jeffrey C. Alexander introduced the term cultural sociology, an approach that sees all, or most, social phenomena as inherently cultural at some level. For instance, a leading proponent of the "strong program" in cultural sociology, Alexander argues: "To believe in the possibility of cultural sociology is to subscribe to the idea that every action, no matter how instrumental, reflexive, or coerced [compared to] its external environment, is embedded to some extent in a horizon of affect and meaning." In terms of analysis, sociology of culture often attempts to explain some discretely cultural phenomena as a product of social processes, while cultural sociology sees culture as a component of explanations of social phenomena. As opposed to the field of cultural studies, cultural sociology does not reduce all human matters to a problem of cultural encoding and decoding. For instance, Pierre Bourdieu's cultural sociology has a "clear recognition of the social and the economic as categories which are interlinked with, but not reducible to, the cultural."
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