About Us


Harmony Forum

Peace from Harmony
Jeffrey Alexander: Cultural Sociology of harmonious peace

The American social theorist Jeffrey Alexander founded cultural sociology as a discipline in1984. We have exchanged books, and I was happy to review his book “A Cultural Sociology” (2003). My work, which Alexander described as an ‘excellent’ review by ‘a sophisticated theorist,’ has been published in English, and is submitted below. Cultural sociology has great significance for the formation of a new, international culture of harmonious peace. It can be at the forefront of theoretical progress and scientific research that introduces and supports this new culture, in what is now a disharmonious world. We firmly believe that Professor Alexander and his colleagues will make a powerful contribution to this great task, and we hope they will share their results o­n a distinctive page of our Website.

Leo Semashko

The Meanings of Cultural Sociology

Review of Jeffrey C.Alexander’s book The Meanings of Social Life: a Cultural Sociology. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003, X+296 pp., ISBN 0-19-516084-3.

This review with some changes is published in International Sociology. Review of Books (ISRB), Volume 21, no. 6, Nonember 2006, 834-838 p.

Having exchanged books with Prof. Jeffrey Alexander, whom the publisher names “one of the major social theorists of our day” (Alexander, 2003: cover), I have now his excellent work. I did the review of this remarkable book with great pleasure, because drawing parallels between cultural sociology and tetrasociology [1] , two theories that have similarities and complement each other in many aspects, we can illuminate how new sociological theories in the
US and Russia come into being and intersect.

The book consists of eight chapters/essays. Two of them are written jointly with Philip Smith, o­ne of the coauthors of the idea of cultural sociology. The book is dedicated to the members of a students "Cultural Club," which Prof. Alexander founded in 1984 at UCLA, where he taught then. In the introduction titled ‘ The Meanings of (Social) Life: o­n the Origins of a Cultural Sociology ‘ the author talks about the history of the idea of cultural sociology since 1984, when it emerged in the "Cultural Club." (Tetrasociology too was born inside a students club, called "Demiurge," which I founded in St.Petersburg in 1976 at the Institute of Precise Mechanics, where I taught philosophy then.)

Alexander talks about a discussion he had at UCLA in the mid-1980s with his three colleagues, who ridiculed the idea of cultural sociology. “ This idea struck them not o­nly as deeply offensive to their disciplinary sense but intellectually absurd. The very phrase ‘ cultural sociology ‘ seemed an oxymoron. Culture and sociology could not be combined as adjective and noun. If there were a sociological approach to culture, it should be a sociology of culture. There certainly could not be a cultural approach to sociology” (Alexander, 2003: 4-5) “ My colleagues were right about the present and the hast of our discipline, but events did not prove them prescient about its future. In the last fifteen years, a new and specifically cultural approach to sociology has come into existence” (Alexander, 2003: 5). If a new sociological theory has taken about 15 years to take root in the US, then Russia can hardly boast of similar examples.

In the introduction the author outlines principal meanings of cultural sociology. Firstly, he demonstrates its necessity. He writes that men and women today are getting o­n with their lives without really knowing the causes. Their lives and actions are enveloped in the rhetoric of good and evil, friendship and enmity, God and country, civilization and chaos. These types of rhetorics are highly entrenched cultural structures. The problem is that we do not understand them. And the purpose of cultural sociology is to help understand. The awareness that cultural sociology brings can transform the structures, but cannot undo them (Alexander, 2003: 3-4). Thus, it is theorized that society needs cultural structures, regarded as ideal meanings, as much as it does material and social structures. This premise clearly shows that Alexander's position can be defined as sociological pluralism -- a platform shared by cultural sociology and tetrasociology alike. However, .Alexander limits cultural sociology o­nly to the sphere of culture, whereas tetrasociology, in addition to cultural structures, also postulates social, organizational and material/economic structures, and studies interactions between them in all spheres.

Secondly. What is essential for understanding cultural structures is relations between materialism and idealism, or material and ideal aspects. o­n the o­ne hand, “ materialism is not forced o­n us, it is also a romance about the sacrality of things “(Alexander, 2003: 4).. However, in the history of social sciences, sociology of culture, which used to be called sociology of knowledge, art, religion, ideology, was not based o­n interpretations and the meaning of cultural structures, but rather, o­n how these ideal structures get shaped by other, more material structures. In the mid-1980s there were still few sociologists who rejected this sociological and essentially materialistic approach. o­n the other hand, cultural sociology that is beginning to replace it can be no less rigid and critical than materialistic sociology. Cultural sociology places at the center collective emotions and ideas, which rule the world, but this does not make cultural sociology into an idealism or "unsociological voluntarism." So, if idealism, along with materialism, is to be rejected, the facts of collective idealization cannot be rejected (Alexander, 2003: 5). Thus, Alexander reinforces his pluralistic position, elevating it above the limitations of materialism and idealism, and including materialism and idealism into the pluralism as equal parts.

Thirdly. Of special importance is psychoanalytic aspect. Cultural structures are unconscious; however, they regulate society in the light of experience, i.e. the conscious can transform them, but not undo. Cultural structures and meanings are produced by society even if they are invisible, although we should render them visible. The goal of Freud's psychoanalysis is to replace the unconscious with the conscious. In this respect, cultural sociology is a kind of psychoanalysis. Its goal is to illuminate and render visible the social unconscious, so that men and women could understand their myths (Alexander, 2003: 4).

Fourthly. Alexander is aware of the dialectical meaning of cultural sociology and its context. In out postmodern world factual statements and fictitious narratives are tightly intertwined. The binary symbolical codes of true/false are mutually incorporated. Fantasy and reality are so intertwined that we can separate them o­nly in the aftermath. Multidimensionality and conflict are inherent to modern society, and in this it is very similar to traditional society. The author writes:” My sensitivity to this reality, and my ability to understand it, has been mediated by a series of critical intellectual events: the linguistic turn in philosophy, the rediscovery of hermeneutics, the structuralist revolution in the human sciences, the symbolic revolution in anthropology, and the cultural turn in American historiography “(Alexander, 2003: 5-6). What the author wants to say by this is that multidimensionality and contradictoriness of reality can be grasped o­nly by a multidimensional, interdisciplinary and dialectical mind.

Fifthly. In cultural sociology, Alexander is especially interested in the dialectics of theory and practice, cultural logics and cultural pragmatics. He calls his study a collection of "essays," thus emphasizing that the study is neither purely theoretical, nor purely empirical or pragmatic. It combines all these qualities. Indeed, the book does not present the reader with a systematized theoretical narrative (although it does contain several very important theoretical constructs), nor with specific empirical research; but it does provide a profound sociological analysis of some well-known historical facts. Alexander writes: “ This essays do not aim at building a new model o culture. They do not engage un generalizing and deductive theory. In this respect they are postfoundational. I see them, rather, to borrow from Merleau-Ponty, as adventures in the dialectics of cultural thought…Even when they offer models and manifest generalizing ambitions…these essays are also rooted in pragmatic, broadly normative interests “(Alexander, 2003: 6). Meanwhile, as a theoretician, he says that “ My aim has always also been theoretical. By applying the cultural-sociological method to a widely dispersed range of topics, I wish to demonstrate that culture is not a thing but a dimension, not an object to be studied as a dependent variable but a thread that runs through … every conceivable social form “(Alexander, 2003: 7). So, cultural sociology purports to have a multidimensional, complex and pluralistic meaning, which the author repeatedly emphasizes.

Saying that the biggest part of his scholarship has been devoted to a creation of "pure theory," he stresses that “ This book is different. Its purpose is to lay out a research program for a cultural sociology and to show how this program can be concretely applied to some of principal concerns of contemporary life” (Alexander, 2003: 8).

In the first chapter, titled " The strong program in cultural sociology. Elements of a structural hermeneutics, " the author, together with Prof. Philip Smith, outlines the essential characteristics of this program. First of all, it attempts to separate "cultural sociology," which corresponds with "strong program," from "sociology of culture," [2] which corresponds with "weak program." (Why the programs are called "strong" and "weak" will be discussed below.) Both approaches recognize the importance of culture for society; the two have a lot in common; however, similarities are o­nly superficial. At the structural level we find deep antinomies (Alexander, 2003: 12). What are these antinomies, in most general terms?

Sociology of culture posits that culture is something external and separate from a dominant meaning, and regards it, in terms of "hard" variables, as something "soft," dependent, rather than as a truly independent variable. An "insignificant" role assigned to culture in sociology of culture makes culture a "weak program," which is called by Alexander, following C.Geertz, a "thin description" of culture (Alexander, 2003: 13). The classical period (pre-1960s) of the social theory of culture, including the sociologies of Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Parsons, Mills, and others, as well as communists and fascists, is characterized by Alexander as a period of "weak program" with o­nly some glimpses of strong program. However, in the modern (post-1960) cultural theory, too, he distinguishes at least four types of "weak program": Birmingham school, P.Bourdieu, M.Foucault, and the theory "of production and consumption of culture"(Alexander, 2003: 15-20).

The weak program still dominates sociological studies of culture today; however, a tendency for cultural sociology, "strong program," is budding within it. A hermeneutic project of "thick description", championed in the work of Clifford Geertz (1964. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books), Paul Ricoeur's follower, is regarded as a first step along the way toward this program. Geertz approaches culture as a rich and complex text with a barely perceptible pattern of influence o­n social life. Geertz repeatedly emphasizes that societies are similar to texts and can be read as texts, and that intellectually the need for explaining meanings is central. Geertz energetically champions the idea of cultural autonomy. Alexander considers the recognition of autonomy of culture by cultural sociology as “ the single most important quality of a strong program “ (Alexander, 2003: 13). Alexander attempts to supplement Geertz's approach, characteristic for its aversion to general theory, with an advancement toward it; to supplement the hermeneutics of particular with the hermeneutics of universal. Culture is a life's internal text, and not an external ambiance of action. So, the sought-after autonomy of culture and the textuality of social life make two axioms of the strong program, these axioms being linked by a third imperative, which establishes specific (semiotic) mechanisms through which culture does its work.

American cultural sociologists in their works have reduced culture to action, albeit avoiding Bourdieu's materialistic reductionism. However, Alexander is a proponent of the hermeneutic, rather than pragmatic, tradition, and he believes that hermeneutics is the best vehicle for progress in cultural sociology. At the center of this trend is a premise that culture is not o­nly a text, a la Geertz, but a text buttressed by signs and symbols. Alexander pays due respect to Levi-Strauss' big contribution to a synthesis of linguistic and sociological approaches, to a promotion of the idea of autonomy of culture. Meanings are derived from signs system, and they are relatively autonomous from the social. Given this, culture becomes an objective structure similar to more material social realities. In philosophy and linguistics, textual interpretation of social life, interpretation of culture as text have generated narrative theory, which analyses various narrative forms: moral play or melodrama, tragedy, comedy, romance, irony, etc. Like semiotics, narrative theory serves as a bridge between Geertz's hermeneutic scholarship and drift to general cultural theory (cultural sociology). The strong program emphasizes the central role of meaning-rich texts; it does not ignore a broad social context, but rather, approaches it as institutions and processes which refract cultural texts through meanings. Social institutions and processes are arenas wherein cultural (ideal) forces join or collide with material conditions and the interests of production of individual results. When institutions, processes and actors are regarded as causal agents (rather than original causes) of cultural meanings, then we have a foundation for a solid cultural sociology. Alexander sees in structuralism and hermeneutics "the fine partners" for constructing a general theory of autonomy of culture as the mainstay of cultural sociology. In spite of the author's polemical tone, he does not discredit other modes of interpreting culture. He sees in " a theoretical pluralism and lively debate" the natural sign of a healthy sociology. The weak program and the necessity to acknowledge its contribution, rather than eliminate, cultivate a terrain for a true cultural sociology. The strong program's function is to expose false idols and errors of reductionist (weak) sociology of culture (Alexander, 2003: 23-26).

So, the strong program of cultural sociology, with its premise of sovereignty of culture, can be characterized as pluralistic, allowing for autonomy of other social factors, and as interdisciplinary, synthetic, combining several scholarly approaches. In this sense, cultural sociology has a similarity with tetrasociology, although the former differs from the latter in that it focuses o­n autonomy of o­nly o­ne, cultural sphere of society's life, without taking into account the autonomousness of three other spheres of society. For this reason, cultural sociology does not tackle the issue of culture's measure of autonomy in contrast with the measures of autonomy that other spheres of life possess. Tetrasociology posits equal measures (degrees) of autonomy of the spheres of social life, recognizing meanwhile that spheres' prioritization (as fluctuations of measures of autonomy in o­ne or another direction away from the point of equilibrium) may vary in different social conditions and at different periods. The scale of fluctuations of culture's autonomy is neither larger nor smaller than the fluctuations of autonomy of other social spheres. o­nly this premise can prevent pluralistic theory from lapsing into methodological extremes such as o­ne or another kind of monism. Measures of autonomy of society spheres correlate, they determine each other in every specific macro- and micro- social situation. The spheres cannot determine measures of their autonomy individually, independently from other spheres. Nor can an individual sphere alone determine the social ideal. Thus, cultural sociology, limited as it is to o­nly o­ne sphere, fails to reach the social ideal, whereas tetrasociology, which embraces all four spheres of society, sees the social ideal in social harmony between these spheres and classes of people employed in them. Therefore, cultural sociology, while brilliantly discovering individual cultural meanings, fails to understand the general social meaning of society's harmony.

The second chapter of the book, " o­n the social construction of moral universals ", is devoted to the transformation of the Holocaust, “ as the greatest evil of our time “, from a war crime, into a traumatic cultural drama. This is an excellent example of a finely accomplished cultural-sociological study. At the beginning, in April 1945, when the U.S. infantrymen unlocked the Nazi concentration camps, and a flood of news about the camps poured in newspapers, magazines and o­n the radio, the Holocaust was not yet "the Holocaust," it was empirically categorized as "atrocities" of the mass murder of Jews (Alexander, 2003: 28). Within the framework of trauma theory, the author creates a general cultural construct of trauma and applies it to analyze the Holocaust. Any social trauma is evil, although from cultural-sociological perspective, any evil, including the Holocaust, is epistemological, rather than o­ntological. “ For a traumatic event to have the status of evil is a matter of its becoming evil… the category ‘evil’ must be seen not as something that naturally exist but as an arbitrary construction, the product of cultural and sociological work“(Alexander, 2003: 31, 32). If the allies had not won the war, the "Holocaust" would have never been discovered. If a majority of Nazi camps had been liberated by the Soviets, rather than by the U.S. allies, the Holocaust would have never been described the way it is now. Mass murders could be called Holocaust and coded as evil o­nly by those who controlled the means of symbolical production, but not by the Nazi of Communist regimes [3] (Alexander, 2003: 33).

The cultural construct of trauma is four-dimensional and has four elements: 1. the material «base» -- controlling the means of symbolic production, 2. the coding of trauma as evil, 3. weighting, “degrees of evil” because “ normal evil and radical evil cannot be the same “. 4. narrating about the characteristics of evil, about what evil is, what the victims are, who is responsible for victims, what the consequences are, etc. The backbone of this construct is history, social time, filled with “ the competition for symbolic control, and the structures of power and distribution of resources “ (Ibidem).

The elements of cultural construct have similarities with the structure of social resources in tetrasociology. Narrating is connected to the human resource, to people, their thoughts and emotions. Weighting is the informational resource in cultural context. Coding, as a classification, is akin to the organizational resource, organization of cultural meaning. The means of symbolical production, which form the material basis of cultural constructs, are akin to things, to technical means of the cultural sphere. The historical context of the cultural construct is social time as o­ne of the fundamental dimensions of tetrasociology. The difference in interpretation of resources consists in that cultural sociology limits its analysis of resources to the sphere of culture, while tetrasociology analyzes resources in all four spheres of social reproduction.

The rest of the essay focuses o­n a description of the transformations that have occurred in cultural processes (coding, weighting, and narrating) of the trauma of the Holocaust up until now. Alexander examines the birth of the trauma in the period of Nazi rule between the world wars, and analyzes the different types of its coding, interpreting and narrating in the after-war period. The process of generalization and universalization of the Holocaust began in 1945 with the Nuremberg trial. The author focuses a lot of his attention o­n the tragic narration wherein the mass murder of Jews transcends the boundaries of a trauma of the Jewish people, to become a trauma of the whole of the humankind, turning into a timeless archetype, which puts up an ethical shield protecting good from evil. The Holocaust becomes a universal moral symbol of crime against humanity. In the 1960s the Holocaust started to be associated with victims of violence against different national minorities, and their struggle for their rights; in the 1980s it became a symbol of the nuclear and environmental dangers, acquiring a meaning of "nuclear Holocaust," etc. The universalization of the Holocaust trauma resulted in the idea of "universal human rights" in the Western world. Non-Western nations cannot remember the Holocaust, but, within the context of cultural globalization, they gradually become aware of its symbolical sense and social meaning. Non-Western nations develop trauma dramas equivalent to the Holocaust. As any tragedy, the traumatic drama of the Holocaust tells us that evil is a natural part of every person, every society, that we are simultaneously victims and criminals. Tragic narration turns the traumatic drama of the Holocaust into a healing and purifying catharsis. The conclusion drawn in the essay is that "moral universalism rests o­n social processes that construct and channel cultural trauma" (Alexander, 2003: 34-84).

In the rest of the book, Alexander either elaborates o­n individual theoretical details of the cultural-sociological construct (chapter 3: Cultural trauma and collective identity; chapter 4: A cultural sociology of evil (Alexander, 2003: 85-120)) or provides new examples of application of cultural sociology (chapter 5: The discourse of American civil society; chapter 6: Watergate as democratic ritual; chapter 7: The sacred and profane information machine; chapter 8: Modern, anti, post, and neo: how intellectuals explain of ‘our time’ (Alexander, 2003: 121-228)). Cultural sociology is first of all an American achievement, but it also has an global significance, because it provides a new approach to study of just o­ne, but universal sphere of social life -- culture. Our review touches o­n o­nly a small part of the book's rich theoretical and empirical content. o­n the whole, this book is a grandiose attempt at a theoretical construction of the inner autonomous mechanism of culture as o­ne of the four spheres of global reproduction.

 Semashko Leo M., PhD, A/Professor, head of the public Institute for Strategic Sphere (Tetrasociological) Studies, member of the International Sociological Association.

 April 13, 2004

[1] Semashko, Leo M. (2002). Tetrasociology: Responses to Challenges.St.-PetersburgStateTechnicalUniversity (www.tetrasociology2002.spb.ru ).; Semashko Leo with co-authors. (2003) Tetrasociology: from Sociological Imagination through Dialogue to Universal Values and Harmony. St.-PetersburgState Polytechnical University

[2] Philip Smith, Alexander's coauthor, explains the difference between these sociologies in the mode of simplified binarity. He writes that if " a cultural sociology is concerned to explain social life as an expression of culture ", then " a sociology of culture, by contrast, is concerned to explain cultural life as an expression of the social " (Smith, Philip.2000. Sociology of Culture and Cultural Sociology. Theory. The Newsletter of the ISA RC16, Winter 2000/2001, p.6-7). However, this simplification may suggest that these sociologies are viewed as the polar opposites of each other, like idealism and materialism, but this would be an error of judgment, because both authors champion pluralism.

[3] For fairness sake we should note that the communist regime too coded the Nazi death camps as evil.

© Website author: Leo Semashko, 2005; © designed by Roman Snitko, 2005