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Best Laid PlansCultural Entropy and the Unraveling of Aids Media Campaigns$
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Terence E. McDonnell

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226382012

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226382296.001.0001

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Cultural Entropy

Cultural Entropy

(p.17) 1 Cultural Entropy
Best Laid Plans

Terence E. McDonnell

University of Chicago Press

As cultural objects move from interaction to interaction—crafted by designers, vetted by opinion leaders and the community, circulated through public space, interpreted by the public—somewhere along the way they stop doing what they were intended to do. The energy invested in an object sometimes flows along the intended path, moving people to change their beliefs and behavior in ways aligned with organizational goals (i.e. encouraging condom use or abstinence). Often, though, an object’s energy diffuses or diverts along unintended trajectories. Polyvocality is always possible, as these alternative paths are built into the interpretive arrangements of people, objects, and settings. This potential instability is due to the shared symbolic and material qualities of arrangements. Organizations can mitigate entropy to some degree, but they can never entirely eliminate the possibility of entropy because interpretive arrangements never perfectly stabilize. Cultural entropy suggests that culture is far more complex than designers’ instrumental view. In addition, the concept helps us move past the audience-based explanations for polyvocality that have dominated cultural sociology for two decades. Both designers and reception theorists view audiences as too static and as the central source of alternative interpretations. The chapter borrows heavily from actor-network theory, Pragmatism, and theories of materiality.

Keywords:   cultural entropy, cultural objects, materiality, instability, actor-network theory, interpretive arrangements, polyvocality, pragmatism, reception theory, intentionality

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