Imagining and Re-imagining the Social: A response to the Cultural Sociology of Jeffrey Alexander
Jeffrey Alexander is an American sociologist who is perhaps most widely acknowledged in his response to Parsonian Structural-Functionalism and pioneering the sub-discipline of Cultural Sociology. Alexander’s theorizing was crucial to the reshaping of American Sociological Thought which was dominated by Parsonian Structural-Functionalism in the 50’s and 60’s. Alexander’s response to Talcott Parsons Grand theorizing was termed as the Neo-functionalist approach, which sought to revive some important postulates of Parsonian Functionalism but by tweaking it with a left orientation and a Conflict theory perspective. Neo-functionalism along with approaches like C. Wright Mill’s Conflict Theory sought to challenge the dominance of Parsons’s grand frame of reference and its conservative orientation. This was also largely a consequence of the Cultural Turn in the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, that resulted in the emergence of a new left orientation in American Politics as well as academia. Cultural Sociology, as termed by Alexander, also has its roots in the Cultural Turn.
Alexander is particularly interested in understanding the theoretical logic which governs most of the classical sociological theory (his doctoral thesis), and the Cultural Sociology approach also emerged out of his desire to understand this theoretical logic, which he refers to as realism in sociology. Realism set in stone in Sociology departments a rigor that focused on carrying out the legacy of Classical sociological thinkers (Comte, Saint-Simon, Weber and Durkheim) and also what Max Weber termed as “Value Neutrality” in social research. According to Alexander, realism is a great danger to sociology particularly because it is an attempt akin to certain methods in the natural sciences that attempt at mirroring external reality. Such a sensibility is not suited for social reality because as Alexander asserts, “social phenomena may have an independent reality but it does not speak for itself”. What this means is that social reality is intersubjective, it has to be imagined and made meaningful through processes of meaning-making.
Fact Signs, meaning-making and Culture Structures
Alexander borrows from the Structuralist understanding of language and culture to articulate the meaning-making process much better in the statement “Social facts are signifieds of the Social signifiers we call theories.” What he means by this is that sociological theory in an attempt to understand what Durkheim referred to as “social facts” (or the subject matter of sociology according to him), make meanings about these through the process of theorizing by using language and the material conditions surrounding and influencing the theorist. Therefore, sociologists cannot be value-neutral because they are making their own meanings when doing research and producing grounded theory from it, or when quantifying their variables to strengthen this grounding. They are influenced by the cultural politics of their own times which directly influences their everyday lives and material conditions. In doing so, their theories become their signifiers that ascribe meanings to social facts (signifieds). Thus, for Alexander, theorizing social reality is one of the many meaning-making processes and is therefore a process of reconstruction and not discovery. Meanings about social reality have to be constructed over and over again, making it a historical process.
This interrelation between theory and social facts, defined by the saussurean signifier-signified analogy, is what Alexander terms as Fact-signs. Fact signs are nothing but combinations of “visible theoretical signifiers and invisible theoretical signifieds”, therefore products of signifying practices. This tells us that fact signs are not objective and realistic but imaginary and meaningful. The production of fact signs is the production of theory, a process that realism often disregards and invisiblizes according to Alexander.
Meaning-making is an everyday process that directly affects and shapes everyday life. It is here that fact-signs become culture structures, or the subjective meanings that are ascribed to various aspects of social reality. These meanings are not derived from the nature of social reality but are shaped by the structural confines of language. Meaning-making occurs with the help of language, which provides a structure for making these meanings and since different languages provide different structures, meanings differ from culture to culture, hence they are referential or intracultural. This tells Cultural representations are not independent and Alexander draws on Derrida’s idea of Binary oppositions, Saussure’s concepts of langue and parole and the example of the civil rights movement in America to elucidate this. Alexander states that social meanings are binary and analogous, constituted by antipathies. This idea is central to understanding the politics of culture according to him, for he uses the example of the conception of race, wherein the binary opposition between “black” and “white” is made analogous to the notion of the “profane” and the “sacred”. This is an imaginative structuring (culture structure) which yields social consequences like the systemic oppression of the BIPOC in the United States. Therefore, for Alexander, culture structures and their social effects are the subject matter of cultural sociology, and it precisely challenges the theoretical logic of realism in classical sociological theory. For cultural sociology, the acknowledgement that social facts (culture structures) are invisible is important to justify its method of attempting to look beyond what is made visible and what meanings are constituted and made ahistorical by a dominant cultural group.
Imagining the Civil Sphere and understanding the Emancipating potential of Culture
Alexander understands domination as a cultural politics which creates vertical hierarchies by fixing meanings in a binary opposition, and understanding these vertical hierarchies as the social consequences of culture structures is crucial to cultural sociology. In understanding, vertical hierarchies the potential for realizing the emancipating potential of culture itself lies according to Alexander. One way in which one must understand vertical hierarchies is by imagining them alongside more egalitarian, moral, reciprocal horizontal structures that produce solidarity rather than domination as a social consequence. And according to Alexander, such empirical imagination is present in all cultures and this is something that he refers to as the Civil sphere. The civil sphere is however mostly construed within the confines of a binary culture that produces the culture structure of the sacred civil and the barbaric profane, as he elaborates the dominant cultural groups define themselves as civil and their subalterns as profane and barbaric and vice versa, what he refers to an agonistic way of making meanings about each other. Alexander then writes about how a civil sphere can exist beyond this binary culture, for when it exists in a binary culture it is intertwined with vertical inequalities to create systems of oppression. However, a civil sphere can exist at both sides of a binary, in a horizontal fashion, and how this can happen is through a reformist sentiment in societies. Negotiating with vertical power structures in a reformist fashion is necessary to establish horizontal relationships such that the meanings between what he calls the civil signifier and the social signified shifts to create newer worlds where fact-signs have social consequences of solidarity.
Sex, Sexuality and Gender as ever-changing Fact-signs in the history of Feminist Theory: An Example
Perhaps one example, that best suits Alexander’s articulation of fact-signs and the meaning-making process is the example of the concepts of gender and sexuality and their ever-changing meanings within feminist discourses that mainly emerged out of Anglo-American and western European cultural conditions. Stevi Jackson, an English materialist feminist, mentions how both these terms take the notion of “biological sex” as a point of reference, and in doing so sex, gender and sexuality go from being understood as “natural” social signifieds to “naturalized” concepts that have been constructed by certain cultural politics. What this means is that when the dominant ideology of cis-hetero-patriarchy fixes the meanings of gender and sexuality, it does so by convincing the masses that gender and sexuality are natural facts of human existence. From hospital wards to school textbooks to friendships, one is socialized into thinking that binarism in terms of gender and sexuality is rooted in nature, explained in terms of the biologism of the category of sex. Feminist theories have challenged this fixing of meanings in a variety of ways, it has constantly reimagined sex, gender and sexuality to subvert the cultural politics of cis-hetero-patriarchy.
Ann Oakley’s articulation that sex is the biological signifier that distinguishes human bodies physically and gender is one’s social expression that is closely tied to biological sex determiners like secondary sexual characteristics for instance. Jackson tells us as to how this political distinction between sex and gender was useful for the cultural projects of liberal and radical feminism at a time when cis-hetero-patriarchy ascribed singular meanings to these concepts and used them interchangeable to invisiblizes alternate genders and sexual minorities. However, over time, this distinction came to be challenged by later discourses like that of the French poststructuralist and materialist feminists like the trinity (Cixous, Kristeva and Irigaray) and American postmodern feminists like Judith Butler and Sandra Harding, who tell us how sex and gender are both culturally constituted, and how the earlier distinction between sex and gender played into the objective, naturalizing logic of cis-hetero-patriarchal realism. Theorizing Sexuality, according to Jackson played a crucial role in this articulation as it forced feminists to recognize the political and intentional linguistic confusion between sex and gender and linguistic derivatives of “sex” such as sexual and sexuality.
This tells us how feminist movements and theories have constructed newer fact-signs in order to visiblize gendered and sexual realities that are otherwise invisiblized by cis-hetero-patriarchy. Recent developments in feminist theory have also fostered a recognition for queerness in feminist theory, which has attempted to foster a network of solidarity amongst all gendered minorities as feminisms have moved away from their preoccupation with their social subject of “woman”.
Jeffrey Alexander’s Cultural Sociology is an immensely important contribution to the social sciences in terms of not only engaging with dominant theoretical logics that are indeed culture structures in the academia, but also in terms of ascribing an autonomy to culture, something that finely separates it from the sociology of culture. An important sensibility that this articulation of cultural sociology and its ontological and epistemological questions, provides us with is that of hopefulness, in realizing the emancipating potential of culture. And this realization is very profoundly expressed in a quote by Alok Vaid-Menon, that “we have been taught to fear the very things that have the potential to set us free”.