Today begins our annual intellectual feast/boot camp, Theory Camp. For the next two weeks I will be sitting down each day with a group of students to work through a big theory book. This year we will take on Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere. As a run-up to the book itself we are starting with two earlier articles that Alexander wrote with Philip Smith, "The Discourse of American Civil Society: A New Proposal for Cultural Studies" and "The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics."
Alexander is a rising star in sociology. He now teaches at Yale, though he came there after my time. He and Smith are directors of the Center for Cultural Sociology, which "provides a focus for meaning-centered analysis in the social science tradition."
Alexander and Smith draw a distinction between the sociology of culture, and a true cultural sociology. The former treats culture as the dependent variable, produced by deeper forces in the social structure. Cultural sociology, by contrast, treats culture as the cause of why people act as they do.
Alexander and Smith's beef with other attempts at cultural sociology is that they don't take meaning seriously enough. That is, they see that people act on the basis of what they believe is true and meaningful, but the sociologist takes the content of that meaning as, in Pierre Bourdieu's phrase, a "cultural arbitrary." Against several "weak programs" of cultural sociology, of which they think Bourdieu's is the best, Alexander and Smith propose a strong program.
I am very interested in a sociology that takes the content of what people believe seriously. I will report on how our Theory Camp conversations on this strong, meaning-oriented program in cultural sociology turn out.