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Emergent Meanings: Reconciling Dispositional and Situational Accounts of Meaning-Making from Cultural Objects1

Across a wide variety of topics and methodological approaches, researchers find that meaning is segregated along sociodemographic lines. Using real-world data, this article evaluates and helps reconcile the often-theorized but rarely tested mechanisms that segregate meaning. Shared meaning is defined as both greater agreement on a cultural object’s interpretive dimensions and a similar schema organizing how these interpretive dimensions interrelate. The setting is 21 book groups across the United States, all discussing the same previously unknown novel. The authors find that, through their interactions with similar others, the meanings individuals make out of cultural objects rapidly become demographically situated as individuals resonate with one another and the work itself. Results indicate that sociodemographically segregated meanings for even nonideological cultural objects may be the routine outcome of social structure and interaction. Researchers, by focusing largely on snapshots of segregated meanings on specific issues rather than on meaning-making processes, may contribute to an overly ingrained view of a divided culture.