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Jeffrey Alexander, Erving Goffman Memorial Lecture 2017

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Lecture Theatre 3, Appleton Tower

Edinburgh

United Kingdom

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In this lecture, I develop a theory of “societalization” to explain social reaction to three recent, globally significant upheavals – the financial crisis, church pedophilia, and media phone-hacking. While each of these strains was endemic for years and even decades, they had failed to generate broad crises: Reactions to the problems were confined inside institutional boundaries and handled by intra-institutional elites according to the cultural logics of their particular spheres. The boundaries between spheres can be breached and the “steady state” disrupted only if there is code switching. Rather than institutional logics, strains are interpreted according to the cultural logics of the civil sphere. When intra-institutional strains become interpreted as challenges to civil discourse and interests, there is societalization. Inter-sphere boundaries become tense and there is widespread anguish about social justice and the future of democratic society. In such conditions, the civil sphere becomes intrusive; projecting symbolic pollution and promoting legal intervention, the newly energized civil sphere triggers state-sponsored institutional repairs that aim for civil purification. While initially contrite, institutional elites soon engage in backlash efforts to resist reform. A war of the spheres ensues and, eventually, there is movement back to steady state. No matter the extent of civil repair, societalization cannot prevent the future eruption of social strains. In a differentiated and plural society, tensions between spheres remains, and societalization endemic.

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Lecture Theatre 3, Appleton Tower

Edinburgh

United Kingdom

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