Theorist: Jeffrey C. Alexander

Jeffrey C. Alexander works in the areas of theory, culture, and politics.  He is a modern sociologist. One of the most significant theorist of sociology in the 20th century. He published a variety of papers and books. His papers appear not only in particulary sociological or scientific journals. Prof. Alexander also reviews the current events of the world society and his opinions and evaluations appear in form of articles in newspapers and magazines for ordinary people.

People are made so that never are interested in biography of significant scientists, writers, poets, artists, theorists etc.

We want to know how they lived, when and where they were born, what their childhood was like and many other details only after they die. So is the information about this great person, Prof. Jeffrey Alexander, is also very poor.

In 1868 Prof. Alexander, at the time only an ordinary student, has received his Bachelor’s degree (B.A.) in Harvard College. And in 1978 he got his Ph.

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D. in University of California, Berkley. It was quite a hard way to this title, Professor. The best illustration of these years of his life and how his views and theories were formed would the memories of Prof. Alexander himself:

“When I came to Berkeley in 1969, I was one of two or three students NOT given any financial assistance -- my academic record at Harvard was that bad! In fact, I was fortunate simply to have been admitted. My first two years at Berkeley revolved mainly around becoming a true Marxist intellectual, learning as much from Fred Block and the journal then called "Socialist Revolution" (later "Socialist Review") as from my courses.

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As my politics moved from revolutionary to democratic socialist (and eventually to left liberal), however, I became aware that I had, in fact, experienced several key intellectual episodes during those first years -- these were the courses from Neil Smelser, Robert Bellah, and Leo Lowenthal. I managed to corral all three to work with me on my grandiose dissertation, which became even more so in the four years after its completion, and have kept closely in touch with Smelser and Bellah ever since.

So, my Berkeley years were an intense education in high theory, starting from the culture of classical and New Left Marxism and moving from there into the classical and modern more strictly sociological domain. It was an experience that formed me, and removed me from "mainstream" sociology, for the rest of my academic life.

After leaving Berkeley, I spent 25 years as an assistant to full Professor at UCLA. I published lots of theory there, tried to start an intellectual movement or two, learned a great deal at the beginning from the microsociology that flourished there, and helped to build up, through my years of administration, one of our discipline's better, and certainly most balanced departments. Two years ago I moved to Yale, where I have reluctantly become a Chair once again, resuming institution building in a very interesting academic and disciplinary milieu.

In the more recent decades, the half life of the Berkeley "bomb" have continued to illuminate and charge my intellectual life. I've been trying to elaborate a cultural sociology, which has started off from Bellah's "symbolic realism," and I have been trying to develop a performative turn, which continues to be influenced by unyielding resistances to structural logics of Herbert Blumer, who was a kind of negative pole for me during my graduate student years. I have just completed editing a festschrift for Neil Smelser (with other Berkeley graduates, Christine Williams and Gary Marx). Neil and I worked closely together even over the last five years, developing at CASBS at Stanford, where he was Director, a collaborative theory of cultural trauma and collective identity.

So, "Berkeley" continues to be formative in my life, even as I have moved away from the notions of anti-capitalism and public intellectualism that formed my graduate life in the early 70s. There was a burning intensity to political, ethical, historical, and above all theoretical questions that made an indelible impression me, and that I hope continues to inform my work and intellectual identity today.” (11)

This is what Jeffrey Alexander wrote as an alumni of department of sociology of UC Berkley. His career began from working as a lecturer in his Alma Mater, University of California, where he then became an Assistant Professor and after that - a Professor. And now, since 2001, he is a Professor of sociology at the Yale University, and at the same time Jeffery Alexander is a Professor Emeritus of the University of California in Los Angeles.

His visiting appointments include being Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, (1998-1999), Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (1992 and 1996), Fellow at the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, New Jersey, (1985-1986) and being Visiting Professor at Nanki University (PRE), Hebrew University, University of Bordeaux, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and École des Hautes; Études en Sciences Politiques. From the 1994 he has been Executive Council of International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Sociological Theory.

His editorial positions include: European Journal of Social Theory (since 1998), Ukrainian Sociology: Theory, Methods, and Marketing (since 1998), Sociologia E Politiche Sociali (since 1997), Thesis Eleven (since 1997), Citizenship Studies (since 1996), Chinese Social Science Ouarterly (since 1993), Sociological Perspectives (since 1992), Ecumene (since 1992), Teoria Sociologia (since 1992), Revue suisse de sociologie (since 1992), Co-Editor (with S. Seidman) - Cambridge Series on Cultural Social Studies, Cambridge University Press (since 1991), Sociological Theory (1994-98), Co-Editor (with J. Turner) - Key Problems in Sociological Theory, Sage (1985-1992), Contemporary Sociology (1983-1986), Rose Monograph Series (in 1983), American Journal of Sociology (1979-1981), Theory and Society (1978-1985). (8)

As for elected positions of Prof. Alexander one could name the following ones: Executive Council, Research Committee on Sociological Theory, International Sociological Association (since 1994), Co-Chair, Research Committee on Sociological Theory, International Sociological Association, 1990-1994; Council Member, Culture Section, American Sociological Association, 1990-92; Executive Council, Research Committee on the History of Sociology, International Sociological Association, 1983-1986; Chair, Theory Section, American Sociological Association, 1983-1984; Council Member, Theory Section, American Sociological Association, 1979-1982. (8)

Prof. Alexander received following honors and awards: Who's Who in America, Who’s Who in the World; Fellow, Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, 2001-2003; Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (in 1998-1999); Fellow, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (1992, 1996); Fellow, Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies (1985-1986); UCLA Gold Shield Faculty Prize for Academic Excellence (1990); Guggenheim Fellow (1979-1980); UCLA Division of Honors Teaching Prize (1989); Ford Foundation Travel and Study Fellowship (1980); Sociological Research Association; Phi Beta Kappa. (8)

Among his honorary lectures are his appearances at the following events: Annual meeting, Finnish. Sociological Association, March 2000; 100th Anniversary of Peking University, Beijing China, June 10-20, 1998; 28th National Congress of the German Sociological Sociology, October, 1996; National Lecturer, University of Bologna, 1990, 1996; University of Hong Kong, Sociology Department, 1994; Inauguration Ceremony, Georg Simmel Guest Professorship Humboldt Universitat, October, 1993; Shmuel Eisenstadt Retirement Symposium, Jerusalem, Israel, 1991; Kasper Naegale Memorial Lecture, University of British Columbia, 1987; Regents Lecturer, State University of New York Albany, New York, 1986.

His professional service include following: Program Committee: World Congress of Sociology, International Sociological Association, 1998-2002; American Sociological Association Annual Meetings 1989, 1990, 1992; Pacific Sociological Association 1981; Co-Founder and Co-Chair (with P. Sztompka), Research Committee on Sociological Theory (1987-1994), International Sociological Association.

And as for University service his activities in Yale University being a Director, Graduate Studies, Department of Sociology, 2001-02; Acting Chair, Department of Sociology, 2002; and in UCLA he was Director and Founder, Undergraduate Social Science Collegium, 1992-1997; Member, Concilium on Undergraduate Education, 1992-1996; Chair, Department of Sociology, UCLA, 1989-1992; Search Committee, Social Science Dean, 1983 and 1992; Vice-Chair and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Sociology, UCLA, 1987-1989.

Prof. Alexander works in the areas of theory, culture, and politics and is one of the most eminent exponent of the "strong program" in cultural sociology; he has investigated the cultural codes and narratives that inform such diverse areas as computer technology, environmental politics, war-making, the Watergate crisis, and civil society. His most recent papers in this field are "On the Social Construction of Moral Universalism: The 'Holocaust' from War Crime to Trauma Drama" and "Symbolic Action in Theory and Practice: The Cultural Pragmatics of Performative Action."

In the field of politics, Alexander is finishing a theory of the civil sphere and its contradictions, and his most recent paper is "The Long and Winding Road: Civil Repair of Intimate Injustice." As to the theory issues, he has recently moved "after" neofunctionalism to try to develop some new directions in contemporary theory, especially making connections with philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.

In cultural sociology, his work has been associated with what he calls the "late-Durkheimian" approach, or the "strong program" in cultural sociology (as compared to the "weak" program of the sociology of culture).

Prof. Alexander's researches move between the history of social thought, interpretative disputes and the construction of systematic models. His most recent book is The New Social Theory Reader (edited with S. Seidman, Routledge, 2001).

At AILUN Prof. Alexander presents his recent investigations on the Civil Society sphere and how it is at the foundations of some current social claims such as movements against arms, movements for sexual citizenship, movements to create an ecologically harmonious society.

All these awards, honors, memorable participation in significant events, as well as titles Prof. Alexander has earned due to his enormous work.

One of the theories which he developed is neofunctionalism. It has been described as one of only a small handful of new theoretical movements that have emerged over the last decade in sociology. Developing simultaneously in Germany and the United States, it has involved at once a sharply revived interest in the mode of theorizing associated with Talcott Parsons and a self-conscious distancing from the particular manner in which Parsons himself practiced it. For this reason, the emergence of neofunctionalism in the l980s can be seen as part of the new wave of synthetic theorizing that displaced earlier mappings of sociology as revolving around issues of conflict versus order, structure versus agency, exchange versus normativity.

In l983, Jeffrey C. Alexander published what was immediately recognized as a major revisionist work of Parsons's scholarship, and in l985 he coined the term "neofunctionalism." This groundbreaking work became the focal point for a small but influential group of American sociologists working self-consciously in a "neo-functionalist" tradition. Along with the writings of Luhmann and Munch, Alexander's work also played an influential role in emerging new strands of German sociological theory.

Bringing together for the first time all of Alexander's writings on neofunctionalism, the present volume also contains two chapters written especially for this publication. The first, "From Functionalism to Neofunctionalism: Creating a Position in the Field of Social Theory," is an autobiographical reconstruction of the origins of this movement. The other, "Action, Culture, and Civil Society," is an ambitious theoretical argument in which Alexander asserts that the internal contradictions of neofunctionalism inevitably lead to a new movement of theoretical reconstruction that goes beyond it.

Since the late 1980s Prof. Alexander was involved in the theoretical discourse about civil society among such known scholars as A. Arato, J. Alexander, E. Gellner, J. Keane, R. Putnam, A. Seligman, Ch.Taylor, K. Tester, M. Waltzer and many others.

The ideas of the American post- (or neo-) Parsonian scholar Jeffrey Alexander start from the analysis of what is often called “social realm” and define civil society as a  “sphere of social solidarity” which may exist or not as an independent substructure of society under various political regimes, but the sprouts of which, of course, are more common for human society than any concrete model of civil life. From this general ground we may easily pass to the study of particular forms of civil life and voluntary cooperation. Taylors’ assertion that only public dimension should be taken into account and that civil society should function as a whole (as a subsystem of social system) is very important for this approach.

One of his most significant works was about a horror of Holocaust. Modern men and women go about their lives without really knowing why. Why do we work for such a long time every day? Why are we so obsessed with technology? Why do we continuously construct scandals? Why do we finish one war only to fight another? If we had to explain these things, we would say "it just makes sense" or "it's necessary" or "it's what good (or bad) people do". But when we say that the war against terrorism is necessary and rational we use a rhetoric of good and evil, of friends and enemies, of honor, conscience, loyalty, of civilization and primeval chaos.

These rhetorics rest on ideas and feelings, not just rational necessity, and they are of immense power and import. These rhetorics are cultural structures. They are deeply constraining but also enabling at the same time. The problem is that we don't understand them. That is the task of this book. In this pathbreaking work, Jeffrey Alexander argues for a cultural sociology that will bring these unconscious cultural structures into the broad light of day.

Exposing our everyday myths and narratives in a series of empirical studies that range from Watergate to the Holocaust, he shows how these unseen yet potent cultural structures translate into concrete actions and institutions. Only when these deep patterns of meaning are revealed, Alexander argues, can we understand the stubborn staying power of violence and degradation, but also the steady persistence of hope.

By understanding the darker structures that restrict our imagination, we can seek to transform them. By recognizing the culture structures that sustain hope, we can allow our idealistic imaginations to gain more traction in the world. A work that will transform the way that sociologists think about culture and the social world, this book confirms Jeffrey Alexander's reputation as one of the major social theorists of our day.

One of the Prof. Alexander’s studies argues for a “cultural sociology” — a discipline distinct from existing sociologies of culture. “To speak of the sociology of culture,” Ptof. Alexander writes, “is to suggest that culture is something to be explained, by something else entirely separated from the domain of meaning itself”. 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”.

Prof. 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”. Pierre Bourdieu’s likewise reduces culture to a dependent of social structure — "It is a gearbox, not an engine”. Foucault’s deftly reconstructs historical data but “leaves no room for understanding how an autonomous cultural realm hinders or assists actors in judgment”. 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”.

As an example of a weak program, Prof. 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 Prof. 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.

Prof. 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 Prof. Alexander calls it here and in earlier work) — an ideology that posited postwar America as a kind of Utopia. Prof. 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.

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, Prof. 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.”

Prof. 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. Prof. 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.

In his analysis, Prof. 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,” Prof. 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”.

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)

Jeffrey Alexander, as a prominent sociological theorist, also studies the term "cultural studies," he dates from the classical sociological tradition, and particularly the work of Emile Durkheim and his followers: "Both as theory and empirical investigation, poststructuralism and semiotic investigations more generally can be seen as elaborating one of the pathways that Durkheim's later sociology opens up."

And another example is to be found in a collection of essays on the sociological tradition known as Symbolic Interactionism, an American tradition related to Pragmatism, and deriving from the work of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, which emphasizes, and studies, the construction of meaning and of the "self" in social interaction.

Although Prof. Alexander appropriates the term "cultural studies" for sociology, his views on Birmingham cultural studies are clear–and totally dismissive–in a review he co-wrote in 1993 of the Cultural Studies reader which came out of the 1990 Illinois conference; actually, they are immediately clear in the title of the review, which is "The British are Coming . . . Again! The Hidden Agenda of 'Cultural Studies.” Like the symbolic interactionists, Prof. Alexander uses the term "cultural studies" to identify the type of sociological theory and sociological analysis he proposes. In 1988, he edited a book entitled Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies.

The book is premised on an argument spelled out in his introduction, namely that the later work of Durkheim–especially his work on religion–provides an excellent model for contemporary sociology, given its primary focus on symbolic process. (Durkheim is, of course, primarily perceived as the sociologist who stressed "social facts," and those features of social life that are "external" to social actors; in the usual schematic history of classical sociology, he is contrasted in this with Max Weber, the begetter of "interpretative" sociology, with its focus on meaning and its methodology of Verstehen.)

Prof. Alexander claims that Durkheim turned to the study of religion "because he wanted to give cultural processes more theoretical autonomy." He suggests that there are parallels with the work of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, and Foucault, and that in some cases this is more than coincidence, but rather the unacknowledged influence of Durkheim.

He goes on to review the work of certain sociologists, and some anthropologists, who have pursued Durkheim's later theory (Edward Shils, Robert Bellah, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas,) and he outlines a project for a late-Durkheimian sociology, which he calls "cultural studies." But, despite the names of structuralist and poststructuralist writers, this project is innocent of some of central theoretical insights of those writers. This is Prof. Alexander's formulation of such a sociology:

The major point of departure is The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which functions as a model for explaining central processes in secular social life. The other shared emphases follow naturally from this. They concentrate, first, on what might be called motivated expressive behavior as compared with conscious strategic action. This emotionally charged action, moreover, is not seen psychologistically, but instead as the basis for ritualization. It is conceived as action organized by reference to symbolic patterns that actors–even if they have a hand in changing them–did not intentionally create.

His own chapter in the book is on Watergate and Durkheimian sociology, and he summarizes it thus:

Using Weber and Parsons, I try to connect Durkheim's later ideas to a broader theory of social structure. Rituals, I suggest, are simultaneously effects and causes of social crises; they open these liminal periods to symbolic and moral issues of the most profound kind.

One can continue to discuss the achievements of Prof. Alexander but already this amount of information let us understand what a significant role he already played in the development of sociological theories.


  1. Alexander, Jeffrey C., Twenty Lectures: Sociological Theory Since World. War Two. Columbia University Press, Hutchinson, 1987.
  2. Alexander, Jeffrey C., “Robust Utopias and Civil Society”. International Sociology. Vol. 16, № 4, December 2001. pp. 579-591.
  3. Alexander, Jeffrey C., "Modern, Anti, Post, Neo," New Left Review, no. 210, March/April, 1995, pp. 63-101.
  4. Alexander, Jeffrey C., “On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ from Mass Murder to Trauma Drama.” Forthcoming in European Journal of Social Theory.
  5. Jeffrey C. Alexander, "Introduction: Durkheimian Sociology and Cultural Studies Today," in Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1-21, my italics. Quotation from p. 6. See also Jeffrey C. Alexander and Philip Smith, "The Discourse of American Civil Society: A New Proposal for Cultural Studies," Theory and Society 22 (April 1993): 151-207.
  6. Alexander, Jeffrey C., "Revolution, Reaction, and Reform: The Change Theory of Parsons' Middle Period," Sociological Inquiry. Vol. 52, 1982, pp. 267-280.
  7. Ralph M. Coury. Neo-Modernization Theory and Its Search for Enemies: The Role of the Arabs and Islam.
  8. Curriculum Vitae. Jeffrey C. Alexander. http:// ccs/wpapers/ cvalexander.pdf
  9. Antonina F. Kolodii. Thinking about civil society. International Summer School in Political Science and International Relations Mierki, Poland, 1996.
  10. Alumni. Jeffrey C. Alexander.
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
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