You are on page 1of 12

10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 75

RATIONALIZING MUSICALITY:
A CRITIQUE OF ALEXANDER’S
‘STRONG PROGRAM’ IN
CULTURAL SOCIOLOGY

Gregor McLennan

ABSTRACT This article argues that the long-standing tension in Jeffrey


Alexander’s work between theoretical multidimensionality and socio-cultural
idealism has intensified in his recent writings, to problematical effect. Whilst
Alexander has shifted of late towards a more substantive and normative style
of thinking, his new emphases continue to be grounded in arguments pitched
at the general theoretical level. One of these involves a particular reading of
the nature of post-positivist meta-theory today, and the other, within this, is a
determined effort to distinguish a project of ‘cultural sociology’ from ‘sociology
of culture’ approaches. I take issue with both of these theoretical moves,
showing that they are rhetorically and conceptually flawed, and of a strongly
idealist cast. They also run counter to those aspects of Alexander’s outlook that
do seem more robustly multidimensional and sociologically promising.
KEYWORDS Alexander • cultural sociology • foundationalism • idealism •
rhetoric

INTRODUCTION
In an earlier assessment of his work, I argued that Jeffrey Alexander’s
‘multidimensional’ perspective in social theory was burdened with debilitat-
ing tensions and dilemmas. Specifically, I tried to show that ‘under the guise
of openness and multidimensionality [Alexander] is busy – as any thinker of
stature would be – prefiguring his own form of closure, his own distinctive
one-sidedness . . . a voluntarist and culturalist framework for general reflec-
tion’ (McLennan, 1998: 81; emphasis in original). This idealist undertow was
something that from my own (neo-Marxist) point of view could only lead to
Thesis Eleven, Number 79, November 2004: 75–86
SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Copyright © 2004 SAGE Publications and Thesis Eleven Co-op Ltd
DOI: 10.1177/0725513604046958
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 76

76 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

flawed sociological and political understanding. In this contribution, I


maintain that Alexander’s thinking today, on the whole, exhibits an even
greater degree of idealism and culturalism. I say ‘on the whole’ because the
enhanced element of idealism makes its mark in the face of continued state-
ments by Alexander in favour of multidimensionality, and in the midst of
greater all-round engagement in middle range theorizing and substantive
research. The point, then, is not that Alexander’s work is idealist through-
and-through, but rather that this is an increasingly explicit normative moti-
vation for him. Were this merely a matter of greater internal consistency, then
we might simply note and admire the coherent development that it rep-
resents, even if we wanted to reject, as I would, the political platform that
emerges from it, which could be labelled ‘liberal multicultural utopianism’
(Alexander, 2001a, 2001b; Smelser and Alexander, 1999). But I want to show
that there are still major inconsistencies in the general articulation of his
outlook. Given the constraints on space, I limit my analysis to his framing
of post-positivist social theory, and his configuration of the project of cultural
sociology.

THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS: FROM GROUNDSHIFT TO


SEACHANGE
In Neo-functionalism and After (1998a), Alexander’s task was to estab-
lish neo-functionalism as a viable ‘position in the field of social theory’
(1998a: 4), couched within post-positivist philosophical discourse, and seen
as exemplifying a multidimensional approach to the logic of general reflec-
tion. This effort in reconstruction required defending the synthesizing ana-
lytical goals of Talcott Parsons, but not his actual delivery of the project,
because Parsons ‘consistently deviated from this professed aim in an idealist
way’ (1998a: 65). Accordingly, a more integrated interweaving of the core
dualities of sociological thought – structure and agency, macro and micro,
collective and individual, material and cultural dynamics – had to be
wrought. At the same time, Alexander retained an epistemological affinity
with Parsons, in the sense of a broadly rationalist defence of the relative
autonomy and scientific value of systematic reflection on all manner of
general presuppositions. Parsons himself did not help his own cause here,
because his socio-cultural idealism was smuggled into the epistemological
level itself. Alexander shows (1998a: Ch. 5), for example, that when Parsons
dismissed the analytical credibility of Simmel’s ‘formal sociology’ on the basis
that it lacked explanatory status, what he really meant was that it failed to
give the kind of independent weight to norms and values that Parsons
himself did. Alexander then effectively corrects for this by arguing that
Simmel’s forms eminently possess the sort of ‘emergent properties’ that any
valid explanatory perspective would have to embrace.
At the same time, Alexander indicates his acute awareness of the
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 77

McLennan: Rationalizing Musicality 77

‘cultural turn’ in social thought, and its undermining of fulsome declarations


of meta-theoretical rationalism. Thus, social theory has to be posed as much
in terms of unresolvable discourse and rhetorical persuasion as definitive
explanation. But Alexander’s embrace of epistemological constructionism is
complicated. He insists that acceptance of a degree of contextualism does
not lead to ‘relativism and irrationality’ (1998a: 167), and holds that ‘a kind
of progress’, in sociology, is possible, even in ‘Kuhnian’ circumstances of
relentless scientific and ideological dispute (p. 42). In any case, whenever
consensus is lacking, ‘supraempirical issues come explicitly into play’, and
we can attempt to fairly reconstruct what is at stake in evaluating the ‘loose
packages’ of abstraction and evidence that constitute competing social
science traditions (pp. 73, 167). So, even as sociologists enter wholeheart-
edly into ‘the thicket of cultural studies’, they must have their explanatory
‘armaments well in hand’ (pp. 194–5), and keep the faith that ‘sociological
arguments need not have an immediate explanatory pay off to be scientifi-
cally significant’ (p. 165).
These sorts of rationalist arguments were required if a multidimen-
sional-style neo-functionalism was to be coherently defended, especially if
the overarching ‘objectivist’ Parsonian model of interaction between the
social, cultural, and personality systems was to be retained, as Alexander
reaffirmed it would be. But both the rationalism and the systems-theoretical
objectivism then start to fade quickly from his agenda. Alexander tried to
persuade us that the moves he had already made were quite sufficient on
their own to re-establish the credibility of neo-functionalism (1998a: 5). But
this was unconvincing. Rather than philosophically elaborate and substan-
tively exemplify the neo-functionalist perspective, he really just wanted to
move on. Neo-functionalism was after all ‘just one strand in the fabric of the
new theoretical movement’, a movement that represented a ‘deep ground-
shift’ (p. 56) in our ways of doing sociological theory, other strands of which
were more comfortably post-positivist. Indeed, the new challenge to all
existing synthesizing efforts was to fully address ‘the centrality of collectively
structured meaning, or culture’ (p. 194). For this space to fully come into
view, Alexander had to work his way towards a more voluntarist account of
post-positivism than his residual rationalist inclination had allowed to that
point.
Accordingly, in the Introduction to The New Social Theory Reader
(2001), written with Steven Seidman, Alexander strengthens his sense of the
extent to which social theory has become post-disciplinary, normatively
orientated, and anti-foundationalist. In that context, formations such as
cultural studies and postcolonialism have come from the margins to the
centre, at the expense of rather staid, still-quasi-positivistic disciplines like
sociology. With these new bearings set, a veritable ‘sea change’ (Seidman
and Alexander, 2001: 1) in our understanding of the task of social theory is
announced. This sea change goes beyond the previous ‘ground shift’
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 78

78 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

inaugurated by the ‘new theoretical movement’, in that Alexander becomes


increasingly committed to a particular specification of post-foundationalism
that would exclude some prominent theorists in that stream.
Seidman and Alexander position post-foundationalism as resting on a
rejection of ‘scientism’, that is to say, the conviction that social science know-
ledge can ‘parallel in precision and objectivity the frameworks of the hard
sciences’ (2001: 1). Now, if such a parallel is thought to ‘provide logical
chains of propositions and models that can be empirically tested and elabor-
ated’ into positivistic general laws, then it is indeed now widely agreed that
such a goal for social theory is impossible. However, a curious and prob-
lematical slide then takes place, whereby the abandonment of ‘scientism’
equates to the rejection of any ‘scientific explanatory framework’ whatever,
and what we are left with as the modality of social theory is the construc-
tion of ‘credible or persuasive arguments’ rather than ‘research testing theory’
or the ambition of developing a ‘specifically social science’ (2001: 2).
Against this, it can be insisted that many eminent post-positivist thinkers
would dispute that ‘science’ as such is being abandoned in the process of
loosening up the philosophical benchmarks of explanatory adequacy. Rather,
the conception of science itself is being rethought and broadened out. Even
if we accept that ‘credible and persuasive argument’ is particularly significant
in the social and cultural disciplines, the suggestion that this operates in the
place of systematic empirical and quasi-‘objective’ reasoning is wrong. This
is because what counts as credible and persuasive necessarily involves a
painstaking assessment of the truth and validity of any claims being put
forward. Of course, this can never be a definitive matter, but the same can
be said for natural-scientific knowledge-claims too.
Anti-foundationalism is further interpreted by Seidman and Alexander
as requiring the abandonment of attempts to ‘establish the most basic general
ideas about society that would then guide social analysis’ (2001: 2). Again,
this seems an unwarranted extension of an uncontroversial proposition: that
social scientific theory and research practice are fallible and contestable. Let
us now note what Seidman and Alexander say about those new social
theorists singled out for anti-foundationalist praise. Stuart Hall, for example,
is said to argue ‘that culture is the ensemble of meanings, beliefs, values,
norms and rituals that structure a society’, and Frederic Jameson’s basic
position is given as ‘arguing that genres are a response to the fragmentation
of modern capitalist life’. ‘Rather than providing an authentic meaning’,
Jameson sees genres as expressing ‘the suppressed hope of the political
unconscious’ (2001: 8). But what is on offer in these theoretical arguments
of Hall and Jameson is precisely some kind of attempt to establish ‘basic
ideas’ about society that would then usefully ‘guide social analysis’. Their
innovations would hardly command our interest or allegiance otherwise.
A final critical qualification to Seidman and Alexander’s characterization
of post-positivism relates to their emphasis upon the greater concern with
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 79

McLennan: Rationalizing Musicality 79

norms and normativity within contemporary commentary. They thoroughly


approve, for example, our readiness to situate our theorizing in the context
of our social and moral values and predicaments, and they reference authors
whose recent work shows the benefits of this enhanced reflexivity. But again,
we need to be quite careful about what all this entails and what it does not.
For one thing, Seidman and Alexander cite Marx as the kind of earlier ‘foun-
dationalist’ author who sought to establish materialism ‘as the only sound
basis for a non-ideological, objective sociology’ (2001: 1). This is certainly
one way of looking at Marx’s project, but the idea that this intellectual
impulse, whether in Marx’s or any attentive reader’s eyes, involved the sup-
pression or denial of values and normativity is absurd. Moreover, when
Habermas is portrayed as having ‘fully abandoned the final romantic vestiges
of neo-Marxism’ in order to advocate ‘democratization rather than socialism’
(2001: 4), this will hardly do as a case of foundationalist theory yielding to
anti-foundational normativity. Rather, it is a case of dropping one kind of
foundationalist normativity for another, albeit one that the commentators
clearly have greater sympathy with.
This leads to the general point, somehow missed by Seidman and
Alexander, that serious normative theorizing cannot but be ‘foundationalist’.
To say that certain kinds of norms trump others, and to try to demonstrate
that those norms are more attuned to contemporary social existence than the
outmoded ones, is to try to ‘ground’ them in the kind of conceptual and
empirical reasoning that will be ‘persuasive’ just because one holds it to be
true and valid.
Perhaps it is because they are implicitly aware of these kinds of
problems that Seidman and Alexander proceed to emphasize that normativ-
ity under post-modern conditions increasingly takes the form of theoretical
pragmatism (2001: 3). Once again, we can accept the broad accuracy of this
generalization. But it is extremely hard to rise from pragmatic denials of foun-
dationalism towards passionate advocacy of specific new norms, values and
theories. Undoubtedly, pragmatism is an appropriate mind-set for those who
believe, as Seidman and Alexander appear to, that we have now gone
beyond the need for ‘ideology critique’ (2001: 6). But it is hard to see how
any powerful expression of social theory, ‘new’ or otherwise, can get started
if one accepts from the outset that social and political thinking is necessarily
fragmented and lacks any potential for rational consensus. In all these
matters, it strikes me that this is merely another form of ‘end of ideology’
apologetics, and that what comes ‘after’ Alexander’s neo-functionalist phase
is less cogent than what it left behind.

APPRECIATING CULTURE: A NEW ‘FAULT LINE’?


The way that Alexander practises the ‘new social theory’ involves re-
specifying the ‘general social theory’ mode that he once fully occupied. On
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 80

80 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

the one hand, he engages in more openly normative general reflection (see
2003: Ch. 4 on evil and ‘evility’). On the other, his exercises in taxonomical
classification – of ‘civil society’ (1998b), of the ingredients of ‘cultural trauma’
(2004) – are designed not as stand-alone theoretical models but as launch-
ing pads for research programmes. And what unites these different expres-
sions of the new vein of thinking, for Alexander, is that they are integral
parts of a distinctive project of ‘cultural sociology’. In taking issue with the
arguments invoked to establish this perspective, I endorse Terry Eagleton’s
ironic observation that many cultural theorists have gone on from formally
anti-foundationalist statements to nothing less than a new foundationalism,
one that privileges ‘culture, rather than God or Nation’ – or, we might add,
‘society’ – as the essentialist basis for all social analysis (Eagleton, 2003: 58).
The problem is not, let me stress, the importance of culture, but rather the
exaggerated elevation of something called Culture to a near-sacred interpre-
tative status.
In the introduction to The Meaning of Social Life, Alexander tells us that
the primary task is to interpret collective meanings, by ‘tracing the moral
textures and delicate emotional pathways by which individuals and groups
come to be influenced by them’. This is partly because ‘it is such subjective
and internal feelings that so often seem to rule the world’, and these are
particularly powerful today, since ‘in our postmodern world, factual state-
ments and fictional narratives are densely interwoven. . . . Fantasy and reality
are so hopelessly intertwined that we can separate them only in a posthoc
way’ (Alexander, 2003: 5). It is all the more vital, then, that we see culture
as a ‘dimension’ rather than a ‘system’ of activity, and thus avoid the
sociology-of-culture temptation to construct a reified ‘model’ of culture
(pp. 6–7).
This first specification of the vital ‘fault line’ that divides cultural soci-
ology from sociology of culture is too loose to be decisive. Whether it be
the attachment of teenagers in the west to particular forms of music-making,
or the passionate claims of Islamicists that the secular west is decadent and
corrupt, the intrinsic quality and emotional connectivity of the feelings and
symbolic constructions involved just cannot amount, by themselves, to a
satisfactory sociological account. In any case, it is precisely because feelings
– ‘massive ones’ (2003: 3) – appear to ‘rule the world’ that we are obliged
as critical observers to try to gain some interpretative distance from them.
The reference to our peculiarly post-modern times, for its part, is something
of a non-sequitur: a dense interweaving of fantasy and reality is not the same
thing as their utter inseparability, or if this truly were so, then logically
speaking it must always have been that way, and the contemporary refer-
ence is beside the point. As for the separation of fact and fiction being ‘only’
a matter for ‘posthoc’ analysis, the belittling connotation here is spurious: of
course such distinctions come ‘post hoc’, they could hardly come before the
event. This hardly diminishes their necessity and significance.
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 81

McLennan: Rationalizing Musicality 81

In that initial statement, Alexander does signal (shades of Weber here)


that he has no intention of ignoring the so-called ‘material factor’, and that
even if ‘the facts of collective idealization’ have to be recognized, ‘idealism
must be avoided’ (2003: 7, 5). But given the volume of the culturalist
overture, this minor key in the piece jars rather than harmonizes. The
problem deepens when the issue is returned to, with firmer resolve, in
Chapter 1 of Meanings, written with Philip Smith. Here, some rival tenden-
cies are named, and the argument is tightly organized around a parallel with
debates in the sociology of science. Cultural sociology, in this construction,
constitutes a ‘strong program’ because its ‘single most important quality’ is
the thesis that ‘culture is autonomous’. Sociology of culture, by contrast, rep-
resents a ‘weak program’ because culture is treated as a ‘feeble and ambiva-
lent variable’ (2003: 13). Of course, sociologists of culture may not intend to
be so weak and feeble: whether in Bourdieu, Birmingham cultural studies,
or Foucauldianism, there are variable amounts of sincere effort to take
culture seriously. However, for all their sensitivity to meaning construction
and symbolic power, ultimately such theorizing – and here it would be
logical to include any revamped neo-functionalism too – reveals ‘telltale
ambiguities’ in which the autonomy of culture is no sooner affirmed than it
is disallowed. Ultimately, theirs is an ‘anticultural mode of theory’ because
in weak programs ‘culture is something to be explained by something else
entirely separated from the domain of meaning itself’. In the end, weak
programs feature culture as a function of ‘the reproduction of social
relations’, the vehicles of which are ‘self-interested ideologies, group pro-
cesses, and networks rather than . . . texts’ (2003: 12–19).
Three sets of considerations are needed to counter this way of estab-
lishing the ‘fault line’. The first step involves stalling the internal flow of the
position. In some ways, Alexander is re-igniting debates from the 1970s about
the issue of the ‘relative autonomy’ of ideology, broadly conceived (CCCS,
1978). In those discussions, politics, culture, law, philosophy and so on could
plainly, in broad terms, be understood as operating in relation to the
‘relations of ruling’ in the wider society; equally plainly, they operated
according to their own distinctive rules and goals. It made sense, then, to
consider them to be ‘relatively autonomous’ from the central structural
features of the general society. Against this, some (e.g. Hirst, 1979) argued
that this constituted a contradiction in terms: if something was autonomous,
then as a matter of stipulation, this implied that it was free of extraneous
determination. And in any case, when we say that culture, etc. is relatively
autonomous, the issue arises: relative to what, exactly? After all, social
theorists have never come to agreement about the fundamental ontology of
the social realm, or about the primary drivers of systemic social change. And
it is not as if the ‘structural’ or ‘economic’ levels are outside of the realm of
meanings anyway.
Now, when locked into a dialogical engagement of this kind, the
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 82

82 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

debate about relative autonomy develops into an impasse rather than some-
thing that is open to decisive theoretical resolution (Thompson, 1990: 85–96).
On the ‘relativity’ side, reductionism is denied and the ‘anti-social’ nature of
the ‘autonomist’ alternative is declared. On the other side, the relativity of
culture is taken to be its unwarranted reduction to not-culture, and the
supposed idealist connotations of autonomism are thought to make sense
only from a skewed ‘materialist’ starting point. Alexander’s variation on these
thematics is that the codes and meanings that people construct form semiotic
and normative structures, the ‘thick description’ of which can only proceed
if we accept that they possess a ‘musicality’ and drive of their own –
‘autonomy’, in short (Alexander, 2003: 4, 16).
This is persuasive, but only up to a point, because the significance of
such structures and the intensity of the tunes cannot be properly gauged
without putting them in the context of the entire social life of the groups
under examination, in other words in relation to those very factors that
Alexander, unaccountably, seems bent on relegating in importance: ‘group
processes’, ‘self-interested ideologies’, ‘networks’, and, yes, the ‘reproduction
of social relations’ in a given type of societal formation. These things,
granted, are by no means ‘outside’ the realm of meanings, but neither can
they be posed as congeries of meanings rather than practices, behaviours,
structures, or relations. This matters, because the element of truly creative
and voluntary meaning-making activity within them is neither uniform nor
necessarily primary.

THE RULES OF RHETORIC


The second way to deconstruct Alexander’s definitive fault line involves
thinking about the ‘rhetorical turn’ in the human sciences that came to promi-
nence in the 1980s (e.g. Nelson et al., 1987; Simons, 1990). Alexander echoes
the main tenets of this movement in presenting social theories as discourses
rather than scientific propositions, instruments of persuasion and communi-
cation rather than objective explanatory uncoverings. One catchy notion
from that period was that in realist discourse, of whatever sort, a deceptive
‘rhetoric of no rhetoric’ is typically at work. That is to say, theories with realist
presuppositions gain much of their legitimacy by appearing to point beyond
and outside themselves, to the world of indubitable facts and structures, so
that the discursive work of constituting and invoking these entities and
relations disappears, as if by magic. But once we see that this is itself a
particular rhetorical strategy, and that its force is affective rather than merely
cognitive, then we need no longer feel ‘coerced’ by the scientistic impera-
tive to always appear to be neutral, disinterested, and objective.
It then becomes attractive for social theorists to ‘own’ their rhetoric
more openly, and to see metaphorical and visceral expression as lying at the
heart of what theorists do. But two things need to be pointed out in the light
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 83

McLennan: Rationalizing Musicality 83

of this stylistic unbuttoning. One is that there is by now a large and rather
sad cast of postmodernists who seem to think that once they have discov-
ered that discourse and rhetoric go ‘all the way down’, this gives them licence
to present themselves as tremendously poetic minstrels of social thought and
social life. That effectively crafted rhetoric is a rigorous matter of discipline,
practice and honour, not to mention talent, seems to escape many of them.
Luckily, Jeffrey Alexander, who is now talking much of ‘musicality’ and
giving vent to a more expressive register, is a decent writer and strenuous
thinker; but the observation is salutary none the less.
Second, social science discourse still needs to be judged as effective,
persuasive, and so on. And part of this is, inevitably, a matter of assessing
empirical adequacy. In the end, no one actually believes that social science
writing is the same as fiction. As Ricca Edmondson notes in her insightful
exploration of how sociological discourse works through ‘rhetorical induc-
tion’, social scientists, at bottom, are ‘searching for opinions which are
adequate to reality’ (Edmondson, 1984: 165). Of course, this is done only in
and through rhetorical means, but the rhetoric deployed in sociological argu-
mentation – including theoretical argumentation – has to be appropriate to
the perceived object of investigation if the ‘communicative attitude’ of the
author is to win the crucial degree of ‘trustingness’ from the reader.
Returning to Alexander’s ‘fault line’ in this light, it is of some conse-
quence that the strategic parallel that it forms with debates in the sociology
of science is rhetorically broken-backed. The stakes are high because of the
element of potential emotive manipulation inherent in the connotations of the
terminology: I am strong and bold, you are weak and feeble. And everyone
is aware too of the symbolic capital that is at stake in the effort to establish
the ‘new American cultural sociology’ as the leading brand in the cultural
theory marketplace. The chief rhetorical strategy deployed to that end is
inappropriate because either Alexander has misread the very tradition he
leans on, or he sidesteps the awkward difficulties it poses for his own stance.
Let me explain. In the ‘strong program’ in the sociology of science developed
at Edinburgh and elsewhere, the idea was to deny, not confirm, the ideational
‘autonomy’ of scientific conceptualization, by treating successful as well as
unsuccessful theories as strongly explainable in sociological terms. And the
central things that were to do the explaining were none other than
Alexander’s dis-preferred factors: social interests, group processes, and the
reproduction of social relations. Rejecting this sociologism, the ‘reflexivists’ in
the sociology of science – including the Woolgar and Latour that Alexander
mistakenly references alongside Bloor as authorities in the strong program –
felt that the prevailing ‘explanationism’ in terms of ‘social interests’ was un-
responsive to the open-ended, rhetorical and cultural dimensions of actual
scientific practices (see e.g. Pickering, 1992 for an account of these develop-
ments). In other words, the connotations in a whole series of debates about
the strong program are exactly the contrary to those advanced by Alexander.
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 84

84 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

BACK TO SYNTHESIS (AND NEO-FUNCTIONALISM?)

My third and last counter to Alexander’s tendential idealism is to play


up the way in which he qualifies the main drift of his thinking on culture.
The point here is that if these qualifications had been fully registered from
the start, then no decisive ‘fault line’ between cultural sociology and soci-
ology of culture could have been constructed. The qualification takes a
general form when Alexander claims that ‘wider social contexts are not by
any means necessarily ignored’; rather they are ‘every bit as important as in
work from the weak programs’ (2003: 26). Yet this cannot be so: if the neces-
sity of taking full account of the context of meaning making were every bit
as important in the strong as in the weak program, then this foundational
ranking would be inadmissible. Alexander does add that this is all simply a
matter of healthy sociological pluralism – that different styles of cultural soci-
ology/sociology of culture must be allowed to co-exist. However, this too is
a big concession, and it is not completely convincing anyway, because
Alexander says other things that point towards analytical synthesis of diver-
gent programs, not just to their amicable coexistence.
For example, the Geertzian notion of ‘thick description’ is frequently
lauded by Alexander as the way to explore the ‘inside’ of cultural phenom-
ena, something that ‘weak’ (reductionist, functionalist) programs seem
incapable of. Thick description is couched as that ‘moment where the social
text is reconstructed in its pure form’ (2003: 16). But then, a contrary line of
thought comes through. Thick description, in the end, ‘seems rather elusive’,
because we are often left with a situation in which ‘the local explains the
local’, and with a merely ‘novelistic recapitulation of details’, at the end point
of which process, in the hands of some writers, lies ‘cultural narcissism’,
‘indiscipline’, and the avoidance of ‘explanation’ altogether (2003: 22). This
is entirely right in my view: sociology is not, in the end, (bad) fiction, and
in any case thick description itself is not, and could never be, the ‘recon-
struction’ of social texts ‘in their pure form’. This is because even thick
description involves the intervention of analytical terminologies that necess-
arily put an objectifying distance between the phenomenon itself and the
observing appraiser, however culturally sensitive. Even if conceptual appre-
hension takes the form, in cultural studies, of what the philosophers of
history used to call ‘colligation’ rather than explanation, theory, not descrip-
tive re-presentation, is going on in all the time in cultural analysis (see
McLennan, 2002).
Alexander enters another important rider: in Geertzian reportage, the
‘precise mechanisms through which webs of meaning influence action are
rarely specified with any clarity’ (2003: 22). And the corrective is ‘to anchor
causality in proximate actors and agencies, specifying in detail just how
culture interferes with and directs what really happens’ (2003: 14). These
references to ‘causality’ and ‘what really happens’ are genuinely more in line
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 85

McLennan: Rationalizing Musicality 85

with the original ‘strong program’ thinking, but we could be forgiven for
thinking that we are dealing now with two Jeffrey Alexanders rather than
one. The emphasis on causal mechanisms and agentic ‘carriers’ of meanings
is, after all, eminently realist talk. And it may even be functionalist or neo-
functionalist talk too. If the ‘analytical Marxists’ who stringently debated these
issues (see Roemer, 1986) could not agree that holistic societal explanations
were valid without specification of lower-level causal mechanisms, they did
commonly hold that if such mechanisms could be specified, then the general
stigma attached to functional explanation was misplaced. Today, of course,
theories of mechanisms are targeted chiefly on micro- and meso-level prop-
erties (see e.g. Hedstrom and Swedberg, 1998), but arguably ‘big picture’
thinking about social structures is only excluded from view in this genre
because of the continuing vogue for tough-talking rational choice theory. Be
that as it may, Alexander’s acceptance of the significance of explanation-
by-mechanisms runs against his strident advocacy of Diltheyan cultural
hermeneutics.

CONCLUSION
I have been arguing that on conceptual and rhetorical grounds,
Alexander fails to separate off cultural sociology from sociology of culture,
and to rank the former as manifestly superior. There are resources in
Alexander’s work to render his methodological conspectus more coherent,
but this would involve retracting some of his concessions to an anti-expla-
nationist construal of post-positivism, and require him to be less uncritically
‘autonomist’ in his appreciation of cultural effervescence. That stronger
critical thrust might further lead to a reconsideration of his ‘idealist’ political
and normative leanings too. But that suggestion must stand here as a diag-
nostic provocation only.

Gregor McLennan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol. His


main research interests are post-Marxism, philosophy of social science, and (empiri-
cally) the work of societal ideas in contemporary political discourse. His books
include Marxism and the Methodologies of History, Marxism Pluralism and Beyond,
and Pluralism, and he has recently published a range of journal articles on the situ-
ation and prospects of sociology in relation to ‘successor’ discourses. Address: 12
Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UQ, UK. [email: g.mclennan@bristol.ac.uk]

References
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (1998a) Neo-functionalism and After. Oxford: Blackwell.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (1998b) ‘Civil Society I, II, III: Constructing an Empirical Concept
from Normative Controversies and Historical Transformations’, in J. Alexander
(ed.) Real Civil Societies: Dilemmas of Institutionalization, pp. 1–19. London:
Sage.
10 046958 (jr/t) 4/10/04 9:38 am Page 86

86 Thesis Eleven (Number 79 2004)

Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001a) ‘Robust Utopias and Civil Repairs’, International


Sociology 16(4): 579–91.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001b) ‘Theorizing the “Modes of Incorporation”: Assimilation,
Hyphenation, and Multiculturalism as Varieties of Civil Participation’, Socio-
logical Theory 19(3): 237–49.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2003) The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2004) ‘Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma’, in J. Alexander,
R. Eyerman, B. Griesen, N. J. Smelser and P. Sztompka (eds.) Cultural Trauma
and Collective Identity, pp. 1–27. Berkeley: University of California Press.
CCCS (1978) On Ideology. London: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies/
Hutchinson.
Eagleton, Terry (2003) After Theory. London: Allen Lane.
Edmondson, Ricca (1984) Rhetoric in Sociology. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Hedstrom, Peter and Swedberg, Richard (eds) (1998) Social Mechanisms: An Analyti-
cal Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hirst, Paul Q. (1979) On Law and Ideology. London: Macmillan.
McLennan, Gregor (1998) ‘Fin de Sociologie? The Dilemmas of Multidimensional
Social Theory’, New Left Review 230: 58–90.
McLennan, Gregor (2002) ‘Sociology and Cultural Studies: the Question of Expla-
nation’, Cultural Studies 16(5): 631–49.
Nelson, John S., Megill, Allan and McCloskey, Donald N. (1987) The Rhetoric of the
Human Sciences. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Pickering, Andrew (1992) ‘From Science as Knowledge to Science as Practice’, in
A. Pickering (ed.) Science as Practice and Culture, pp. 1–26. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Roemer, John (ed.) (1986) Analytical Marxism. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Seidman, Steven and Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001) ‘Introduction’, The New Social
Theory Reader: Contemporary Debates, pp. 1–26. London: Routledge.
Simons, Herbert W. (ed.) (1990) The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in
the Conduct of Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smelser, Neil J. and Alexander, Jeffrey C. (1999) ‘Introduction: The Ideological
Discourses of Cultural Discontent: Paradoxes, Realities, and Alternative Ways
of Thinking’, in Neil J. Smelser and Jeffrey C. Alexander (eds) Diversity and
Discontent: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American
Society, pp. 1–17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thompson, John B. (1990) Ideology and Modern Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.