The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology

By Jeffrey C. Alexander

As noted in its sub-title, Alexander’s study argues for a “cultural sociology” — a discipline distinct from existing sociologies of culture. “To speak of the sociology of culture,” Alexander writes, “is to suggest that culture is something to be explained, by something else entirely separated from the domain of meaning itself” (12-13). Cultural sociology, on the other hand, demands that culture and social structures be “uncoupled,” allowing a kind of cultural autonomy. Only within such a “strong” program does it become possible to “discover in what ways culture intersects with other social forces, such as power and instrumental reason in the concrete social world” (14).

Alexander contrasts his strong program with the “weak” ones that have come to dominate sociology over the last four decades. The best work of the Birmingham school, he argues, offers insightful criticism but ultimately invokes “abstracted influences and processes as adequate explanation for empirical social actions” (18). Pierre Bourdieu’s likewise reduces culture to a dependent of social structure — “It is a gearbox, not an engine” (18). Foucault’s deftly reconstructs historical data but “leaves no room for understanding how an autonomous cultural realm hinders or assists actors in judgment” (19). And, finally, contemporary work on the production of culture reduces it all to the workings of corporate sponsors and the elite, allowing little room for the examination of “internal cultural inputs and restraints” (20).

As an example of a weak program, Alexander cites Wendy Griswold’s fine study of the transformed trickster figure in Restoration drama. Despite her admirable work, what Griswold lacks, he argues, is an acknowledgment of dramatic narrative itself — its inner workings of plot and character and the effect they inevitably have on the coding of meaning. This example points to Alexander’s final proposal: a strong program of cultural sociology that fuses Geertzian ideological criticism with contemporary pragmatism and literary studies:

This impulse toward reading culture as a text is complemented, in such narrative work, by an interest in developing formal models that can be applied across different comparative and historical cases. In other words, narrative forms such as the morality play or melodrama, tragedy, and comedy can be understood as “types” that carry with them peculiar implications for social life. (25)

Alexander first applies his program in a chapter-long reading of the Holocaust, explaining its postwar meaning in terms of two distinct narratives. In the first, the “progressive narrative,” the West viewed Nazi atrocities as the birthing stage of a new era, one in which an event like the Holocaust will “never happen again.” This narrative played directly into “modernization” (as Alexander calls it here and in earlier work) — an ideology that posited postwar America as a kind of Utopia. Alexander supports his progressive argument by examining the anti-anti-Semitism movements of the late-1940s and early-1950s and the establishment of Israel in 1948. “Postwar redemption depended on putting mass murder ‘behind us,’ moving on, and getting on with the construction of the new world,” he writes (41).

With time, however, “The Holocaust,” as a concept, became divorced from its specific historical conditions and was universalized and metaphorized into a “sacred evil” unlike any act before or since. As it became universalized, the Holocaust took on the shape of a tragic narrative, thus allowing all of mankind to identify with the murders and to experience a form of catharsis in the process. Building from Aristotle and from literary critics such as Northrop Frye, Alexander illustrates how the Holocaust’s tragic narrative has been performed, both literally — in plays like The Diary of Anne Frank and in movies such as The Holocaust and Schindler’s List — and figuratively — in the formation of America’s interventionist policy in the Balkans and in the fights against A.I.D.S., environmental deregulation, nuclear build-up, and other potential human “holocausts.”

Alexander follows his reading of the Holocaust with three short chapters, none of which I found particularly useful. Each takes on a sizable task — defining the relationship between cultural trauma and collective identity, arguing for a cultural sociology of evil, and mapping the discourse of American civil society — tasks much too large to be adequately addressed in the twenty or so pages he devotes to each. Alexander (and co-author Philip Smith) acknowledge this weakness in chapter five, in which they argue that America’s political discourse can be best understood as a debate between “democratic and counterdemocratic codes.” Before diving into short analyses of six significant political crises — from Congressional attacks on President Grant to the Iran-Contra Scandal — they write:

Once again, we stress that we do not intend to explain any particular historical outcome; in order to accomplish this, extremely detailed case studies are necessary. We offer, rather, the groundwork for such studies by demonstrating the continuity, autonomy, and internal organization of a particular cultural structure across time. (126-27)

After tracing that structure through a century-and-a-half of American political history, they conclude that it is, in fact, a “necessary cause in all political events that are subject to the scrutiny of American civil society” (154). But their statement is undercut by a series of qualifiers; they write that it “seems plausible to suggest” such a conclusion. Those qualifiers are telling, I think, for Alexander’s argument demands definitive evidence but doesn’t muster the energy to provide it.

Chapter 6, “Watergate as Ritual,” goes some way in addressing this problem. In November 1972, just four months after the Watergate break-in, 84% of voters claimed that the scandal did not influence their decision on election night. Two years later, the event had taken on such symbolic significance that Nixon was forced to resign. “Watergate could not, as the French might say, tell itself. It had to be told by society; it was, to use Durkeim’s famous phrase, a social fact. It was the context of Watergate that had changed, not so much the raw empirical data themselves” (156). In his thoughtful analysis, Alexander explains how Watergate, as a symbol, came to transcend the world of petty politics and to touch upon fundamental moral concerns, thus polluting the executive office with the counterdemocratic code. This process was greatly influenced by the ritualizing experience of the televised hearings and by the release of Nixon’s taped conversations. “By his words and recorded actions,” Alexander writes, “he had polluted the very tenets that the entire Watergate process had revivified: the sacredness of truth and the image of America as an inclusive, tolerant community” (169).

Chapter 7, “The Sacred and Profane Information Machine,” offers a quick overview of the computer as a maker of cultural meaning. The 13-page essay, first published in Smelser’s and Munch’s Theory of Culture (1993), feels out of date or, at best, like an introduction to a much longer and potentially interesting book. I’m not sure why it’s included here. The final chapter, “Modern, Anti, Post, and Neo: How Intellectuals Explain ‘Our Time,’” was the biggest disappointment, as it is a barely-modified version of the essay that opens Alexander’s Fin de Siecle Social Theory (1995). In my dissertation I plan to build from the model that Alexander proposes here by expanding it to incorporate the new post-9/11 reality, and I was hoping that this new book would do some of my work for me. Apparently, I’ll need to wait for the next one. He writes:

Religiosity was not associated with totalitarianism. But is it fundamentalism per se or only Islamic versions that are employed to mark the correct alternative to civil society? Is terrorism such a broad negative that militant movements against antidemocratic, even murderous regimes will be polluted in turn? Will opposing “terrorism” and “fundamentalism” make the neomodern vulnerable to the conservatism and chauvinism of modernization theory in its earlier form? (Alexander, forthcoming)

As is probably apparent already, I am of two minds about The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. The argument that Alexander and Philip Smith lay out in Chapter 1 is intriguing, and Alexander’s application of it in his readings of the Holocaust and Watergate are refreshingly useful. The rest, to be perfectly frank, feels a bit like filler.