Yale sociologist receives prestigious award for his body of work

Jeffrey Alexander
Jeffrey Alexander

Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has been honored for his “significant contribution to sociological theory and for being a thinker held in high standing by sociological theorists around the world” with the Distinguished Contribution to Sociological Theory Award from the International Sociological Association Research Committee 16 (ISA RC16) on Sociological Theory.

Alexander helped found the new field of cultural sociology,  the “Strong Program” research program, 25 years ago. The new theoretical approach, cultural sociology, represented a shift from the traditional sociology of culture — by incorporating aspects of the arts and humanities to develop a new way of thinking about societies and how social meanings affect every dimension of social life, from politics and race to gender relations, class conflict, and war, says Alexander.

The Strong Program, says Alexander, asserts that every aspect of social life has a meaningful dimension — that the role of the sociologist is to grasp these meanings, to interpret them, to understand their force, and to see how they can be considered as “causes” that shape policy, outcomes, opinions, technologies, actions, politics, preferences, consumption, gestures, and expressions. Cultural sociology is a relatively recent, highly innovative approach to sociological practice, says Alexander. It moves sociology away from focusing on power in narrowly materialistic ways and towards a “meaning-centered” model that highlights the role of narratives, codes, symbols, icons, and performances in modern life.

Alexander is author of 16 books and has edited 25 more — which have been translated in more than 20 languages — as well as numerous journal articles. He developed a sociological theory of justice in his book “The Civil Sphere,” which examines what binds societies together and how social orders can be structured in a fair way.

Alexander, the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology, is the founder and co-director of Center for Cultural Sociology, which is celebrating its 15th year at Yale in 2018. The center, says Alexander, has grown from himself and two to three doctoral students to a robust group of six to 10 Ph.D. students and a steady stream of national and international visitors who come with their own funding.

Every Friday, for 26 weeks a year, the Center hosts the Workshop — which, says Alexander, attracts scholars worldwide because of the clarity of the graduate students’ questions and the fact that the attendees share a common, cultural-sociological perspective. “The workshop is an excellent opportunity for graduate students and guests to gather. Everyone is treated as an equal. It’s like doing gymnastics mentally. It is fun, stimulating, and exciting! I’ve had many ‘aha’ moments during the workshop. It happens all the time. In fact, in my career almost all of my good ideas have come from such outside encounters that have not been planned.”

Alexander believes CCS graduate students and visitors — both through coursework and in their interactions during the Workshop — understand the role of social meaning and collective subjectivity in a discipline that tends to look more at impersonal, objective structures like money and power. “I hope that they will develop something creative and original on their own, taking into account, of course, the CCS work that has gone on before. The best thing is when you have graduate students who come up with something new, and your jaw drops open because never in your life would you have thought of that yourself.”

The Center for Cultural Sociology expanded even further in 2018 with the establishment of the Yale Fudan Center for Cultural Sociology in Shanghai, China. This offshoot of the Yale center will sponsor exchanges among students and faculty in order to raise the level of cultural sociological practice in China, and to draw attention to Chinese academic efforts in the United States and at Yale in particular, says Alexander, adding: “This center gives scholars opportunities to have intensive contact with people in China and the United States who are interested in cultural sociology.”

Of his career thus far, Alexander says: “I think that I’ve to create — or, better perhaps, to crystallize and articulate — a new way of thinking about society. A society that is more humane, a society that recognizes that collective social structures are deeply connected with subjectivity and meaning.”

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324