The Strong Program: Origins, achievements, and prospects

By Jeffrey C. Alexander and Philip Smith

This essay appeared in the Handbook of Cultural Sociology edited by  J. R. Hall, L. Grindstaff  & M. Lo (London, Routledge, 2010)

The Strong Program is the most controversial advocate of the cultural turn in sociology. It is the least apologetic and ambiguous, the most transparent and ambitious. Yet, while proclaiming “without fear” that meaning really does count, the Strong Program is more than simply a powerful provocation. It is also a research program, along with a set of transposable modules—models, methods, and conceptual tools—that taken separately or together allow interpretation and explanation of the social world. With these it has relentlessly made the case for a switch from the “sociology of culture” towards a truly “cultural sociology.”

The contours of this Strong Program were introduced some years ago in a polemic that underwent several iterations (Alexander 1996; Alexander and Smith 1998, 2001). Much water has passed under the bridge. The Strong Program has become the subject of special symposia, mini-conferences, journal articles, and textbook subheadings. We feel the time has now come for a more systematic accounting. Why was the emergence of the Strong Program regarded as significant? In what ways has it begun to deliver on its promises? What tasks remain?


As we see it the Strong Program is a major sociological carrier of the cultural turn, that sweeping arc of ideas that stretched over the latter part of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. The French structuralists and semioticians peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. The great cultural anthro- pologists Douglas, Turner, and Geertz wrote their most influential works from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. These thinkers, assisted by selected texts from Durkheim and Weber, eventually provided the intellectual foundations for the Strong Program. None of this material was locked away in a vault marked “Top Secret.” Why did it take twenty- five years for the implications of the cultural turn to be fully embraced in our discipline?

The answer lies in the peculiar intellectual history of the 1970s and 1980s. The revolt against Parsons in particular, and functionalism more widely, instigated a sharp turn away from culture as a valid mode of explanation. In the mid-1980s, things started to change, but the gesture towards culture in American sociology remained hesitant. Like a swim- ming lesson where the students stay in the shallow end, people wanted to talk about meaning but were unwilling to trust an elusive medium. They made certain their toes could still touch power, interests, and class, and all the other tiles at the bottom of the pool. Hence the growing influence during this period of the three big “weak programs” we identified in the initial Strong Program essay, those water wings and rubber rings that had been imported from Europe. Initially useful, such aids are eventually debilitating. Yet for all that, the writings of Bourdieu, Foucault, and the Birminghamers did serve the purpose of familiarizing a whole generation with new culturalist vocabul- aries. Challenging the tenor of mainstream American sociology, they also demonstrated the need for theoretically informed, non-empiricist explanations where concepts could play a stronger role than variables—a critique that was also anchored by the anti-cultural macro-historical sociologists like Mann and Tilly.

During this same period, there emerged from within American sociology influential middle-range nods to meaning that similarly revealed the uncertainties of this phase: John Meyer’s neo-institutionalism, Ann Swidler’s tool-kit theory, David Snow’s “framing” concept, the work of Pete Peterson, Wendy Griswold, and others on the production of culture (for Strong Program critiques of such works, see Rambo and Chan 1990; Reed 2002; Eyerman and McCormick 2006). Even as these ambiguous programs emerged, however, there were important figures in American sociology who responded more deeply to the growing cultural fermentation outside it. We do not wish to make the Strong Program the only white knight in our tale. Viviana Zelizer’s work, building on Durkheim and functionalism, looked to fundamentally challenge economic sociology’s key assumptions by showing that pricing and exchange values are shaped by wider cultural codes. Robin Wagner-Pacifici began to engage in subtle reconstructions of political power and performance, using ideas from Victor Turner among others. Barry Schwartz probed issues of collective memory and national myth-making, stimulated by Halbwachs and Durkheim. Michele Lamont, inspired by Mary Douglas and Bourdieu, began a research program devoted to empirical studies of symbolic boundaries, an interest shared by Eviatar Zerubavel, who took off from cognitive psychology. We should also mention the “new cultural history,” inside of which such figures as William Sewell Jr. and Lynn Hunt moved away from Tilly, walked over a bridge provided by Geertz, and in so doing enjoyed a major crossover influence in sociology. On the sociology side of the river, as early as 1987 John R. Hall’s book on Jonestown was subtitled with the words “cultural history.”

We must also acknowledge the longstanding and pervasive influence of ethnography and the Chicago School, as exemplified for example in the works of Howard Becker. For decades these approaches insisted that meaning is central to social life. To be sure, symbolic interactionism kept the torch burning during the darkest hours of abstract empiricism and quasi-materialist reductionism. We would suggest, however, that times have changed. By holding fast to the idea that concrete situations and interpersonal contacts are the building blocks of sociality, this tradition has never fully come to terms with the legacy of the more textual cultural turn—to understand that myth and meaning might structure and energize situations from above and without as well as from within and below (e.g. Fine et al. 2008).

As the 1990s unfolded, the pressure mounted. There began to be significant defections to cultural sociology from such theoretically minded Europeans as Ron Eyerman (2001) and Bernhard Giesen (2004), and such American mainstreamers as Roger Friedland (Friedland and Hecht 1996). To take one noted example, in the last years of his extra- ordinarily productive career Charles Tilly wrote books featuring words like “narrative” and “performance,” describing these in Snow-like ways as powerful mobilizing devices. While such efforts seemed aimed more at co-opting rather cooperating with the cultural turn, they represented a tacit admission that the terms of debate had decisively changed.

Today the contemporary landscape looks very different from the one of the mid- 1980s. This was when the first author of this essay and his then UCLA students first began Strong Program work. Twenty years ago, “cultural sociology” was regarded as an oxymoron, but now the term is a commonplace. This very ubiquity raises the question: How does the Strong Program distinguish itself from the work of its talented friends and fellow travelers, many of whom are, in fact, affiliated Faculty Fellows with the Yale Center for Cultural Sociology, the Strong Program’s institutional base? What separates the Strong Program from that of Nina Eliasoph, Michele Lamont, Paul Lichterman, Margaret Somers, Lyn Spillman, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Viviana Zelizer, George Steinmetz, Krishan Kumar, Mabel Berezin, Mustafa Emirbayer, John R. Hall, Richard Biernacki, Gary Alan Fine, and Julia Adams? All of these sociologists take meaning seriously too. Let us adumbrate some characteristics.

The Strong Program is a collective effort to put meaning center stage. By contrast with the model of the lone scholar working by candlelight, the Strong Program has the character of an intellectual social movement. Various scholars self-identify with the movement, and there is a sense of shared enterprise or common identity. It is, moreover, a movement with an increasingly global reach, e.g. with self-defined associates and/or partner centers in such places as Japan, Korea, Colombia, Hong Kong, Italy, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, South Africa, and Australia. The creation of the Yale Center for Cultural Sociology in 2003 offered a symbolic home for this worldwide intellectual movement, with conferences and other gatherings. We see at least formal similarities here with other exercises in collective paradigm building, such as the Année Sociologique and the Vienna Circle. As Randall Collins has noted, such organized collective energy can often be effective in generating ideas and intellectual productivity.

The Strong Program is not field specific. Many contemporary cultural sociologists make contributions to a defined topic area. By contrast, the Strong Program orients itself towards sociology as a whole. Although individual studies are conducted in specific topic domains where the author has expertise, the major collective impetus is to change the sociological enterprise, to help create a new and different comprehension of social life. Such a radical ambition also marked the programs of Bourdieu, Foucault, and the Birmingham School, and it is also manifest by Randall Collins’ interaction ritual theory today.

The Strong Program aims at explanation. Too much cultural work is theory of theory, history of theory, “compare and contrast” pseudo-theory, intervention, normative theory, or “readings” of meaning without long-term empirical investigation. By contrast, the Strong Program draws upon and reconstructs theory so as to engage in sociological explanation. The aim at the end of the day is to better understand the world, to know how society works and why certain outcomes eventuate.

Inside the Strong Program there is embedded a larger theory of modernity, a big picture behind all the individual studies. Inspired particularly by Durkheim’s religious sociology, but also by a cultural reading of Weber’s political and institutional work, the Strong Program insists that social life is not fully or even mostly rational. It continues to be deeply meaningful, involves feelings about the sacred, good and evil, and has diffusely symbolic, theatrical, and often quasi-ritualistic qualities. For this reason, many Strong Program products set out to offer starkly alternative readings of presumed sites of instrumental rationality such as war, finance, punishment, or scientific information.

The Strong Program is omnivorous and promiscuous, looking far and wide for useful theories about culture, for concepts and exemplars. Others working in the field of culture (Wagner-Pacifici being a major exception) tend to pursue narrower agendas and drink mostly from one or two wells. Randall Collins, for example, uses Goffman to rework Durkheimian sociology, and Michele Lamont draws from Douglas and Bourdieu. The Strong Program incorporates the classical sociologies of Durkheim and Weber; the linguistic theories of Saussure and Jacobson; the literary theory of Northrop Frye, Peter Brooks, and Russian Formalism; the dramaturgic theory of Goffman and Schechner; the hermeneutics of Dilthey and Geertz; the anthropology of Turner and Douglas; the semiotics of Barthes and Lévi-Strauss; and more. Like recombinant DNA, these resources have generated continuous variations on the Strong Program’s core mission, allowing evolutionary breakthroughs in models and research tools and allowing for generational or topic-specific adaptation.

The Strong Program has created new tools that allow generalization or create trans- posable theory: code, narrative, performance and so forth (we briefly describe these on pp. 16–19). While the ambition is not to construct a grand theory that explains everything from history to psychology, we confess a desire to move beyond intervention, relativism, and hyper-localism—hence an ambivalence about Geertz that might be surprising to some (Smith 2008b; Trondman 2008). In line with the Kuhnian model of the paradigm as an exemplar or concrete research strategy, the Strong Program has developed a series of middle-range theoretical concepts and models. These can be taken up and used by scholars in various local and topical settings. Modified and elaborated, new middle-range theorizing will be generated in turn.

Back to top


Doing cultural sociology is not as easy as it sometimes looks. Indeed, the late arrival of the cultural turn in sociology undoubtedly reflected the problem of translating resources from literary theory, philosophy, and anthropology into tractable idea-sets for explaining contemporary (and also historical) social life. This translation is necessary if we are to move beyond the impressionist hit-or-miss schools of esoteric, aesthetic, or impres- sionistic interpretation. We see the emergence and refinement of a range of middle- level resources over the past fifteen years as perhaps the single most important contribution to knowledge of the Strong Program. We set out below these research tools or paradigms.

Collective conscience, civil society and the mass media

Durkheim wrote many years ago about the collective conscience of a society. The idea is intuitively appealing, but also somewhat amorphous and plagued by metaphor. Drawing from Habermas’ ideas about the public sphere and rejecting his pessimistic conclusions, the Strong Program has argued since the late 1980s that we can see the collective conscience at work in a “civil sphere” (Alexander 2006). This is a place where the diffuse moral authority and pressure of public opinion are concretized and where the evaluation of actors and policies is made possible. With the civil sphere in mind, there can be a concerted effort to explore the public and observable speech acts through which claims are made, both in political and social movement arenas and in the mass media (Alexander and Jacobs 1998; Sherwood 1994).

Binary oppositions and the discourse of civil society

Binary opposition, of course, was a staple of the semiotic structuralism from Jacobson to Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, and Sahlins. A major step by the 1980s Strong Program pioneers was to understand public-sphere talk as shaped by strong binary logics. Emerging out of Alexander’s Watergate research, we published studies about the “discourse of civil society” from the early 1990s. These offered a new way of reading politics (e.g. Alexander and Smith 1993; Smith 1991). Not only debate and public thinking but political action itself was shown to be organized around the codes through which sacred and profane motivations, relations, and institutions were defined and applied in a process of typification. President Nixon, for example, eventually came to be seen in terms of the negative side of the code (as secretive, emotive, non-rational, etc.) and was driven from office. While early critics suggested these civil codes were USA specific, Strong Program scholars have confirmed their distribution throughout liberal democracies (e.g. Smith 2005 for UK, Spain, and France) and in pro-democracy movements in less tolerant places (Baiocchi 2006 for Brazil, Ku 2001 for China). Further there have also been efforts to explore illiberal codes (fascism, authoritarianism, communism) and their relationship to this civil discourse (Baiocchi 2006; Edles 1998; Smith 1996b). Finally, the investigation of the binary opposition has by no means been restricted to political arenas. Strong Program members have identified them at work in more local institutional settings and lifeworld domains. The computer is coded by commentators as sacred or profane (Alexander 1992); concert performers are seen by their audiences as deeply musical or as robotic and shallow (McCormick 2009); in the men’s movement any given masculinity can be read as regressive and hegemonic, or as sensitive and reformed (Magnuson 2008).

Back to top

Narrative and genre

Binary oppositions are a critical intellectual tool but they do not exhaust the culture structures that form social life in a post-Geertzian world. To a certain extent they fail to capture fully the nuance and hermeneutic specificity of particular settings and struggles. Draft papers written by our members toward the end of the Cold War and during the build up to the Gulf War developed a model of narrative process in civil society (e.g. Sherwood 1994). The Strong Program argues that narratives, just like binary codes, circulate and are contested in the collective conscience/public sphere, and in this process can shape history. Watergate and Irangate, for example, are similar in that each involved an intensive deployment of the discourse of civil society, yet each also featured divergent efforts at storytelling. To understand the popular response to Watergate fully one needs to reconstruct the narrative that eventually became dominant: of the unshaven Nixon and his “plumber” cronies engaging in secretive, un-American plotting in the White House. To account for the outcome of the Irangate scandal we would need to reconstruct the narrative of a patriotic Colonel Oliver North working with good intentions to help the “freedom fighters” in Central America.

Realizing that cognition is tied to storytelling, Strong Program members have devel- oped two approaches to narrative. One is more inductive and historically embedded, even if it employs general theory of plot and character en passant. Thus Alexander (2002) demonstrates that the Holocaust was initially seen as a war crime and only later re- narrated as universal evil. Eyerman (2001) traces continuous conflict between more optimistic and progressive narrations of slavery and more pessimistic and tragic ones in African-American history. The other approach is more ontological and Aristotelian, works more from the logic of culture structures, and has produced a more systematic model of narrative process. Jacobs (2000) and Smith (2005) employed Northrop Frye’s theories of literary genre to show how powers of action, plot trajectories towards a happy society or its collapse, and other deep anxieties about future success vary systematically over a gamut of genre types (romance, tragedy, comedy, irony). These play out in pre- dictable ways in struggles over legitimacy, authority, and reconciliation. Such models open the way towards a less idiographic mode of narrative inquiry, making a more sys- tematic comparative cultural sociology possible. Tracking genres against outcomes, for example, Smith (2005) explains decisions in four nations as they encountered the same foreign policy crises, whereas Jacobs (2000) is able to predict the kinds of narrative that will accompany successful civic repair in a time of racial crisis.

Back to top


A major problem of text-based approaches to culture is that agency tends to be squeezed out of the frame. Strong Program accounts of narrative and coding might leave us with a description of the distribution of signs and symbols relative to each other and to sponsors and constituencies, but not say enough about action patterns and projects. By developing a paradigm of social performance, the Strong Program has responded to this challenge by conceptualizing cultural pragmatics, thus building upon our more general understanding of political and social life as deeply dramatic. Ideas about performance were latent in our early studies that emphasized, as Wagner-Pacifici had already shown, liminal breaks in the political process, e.g. collective representations about “a new beginning” in the post-Franco era (Edles 1998). The work of Jacobs (2000) was still more explicit in the use of the “social drama” analogy for a city in crisis, as was Smith (1996a) in his account of the eighteenth-century public execution as a failed performance. Still, the main thrust of this early work was on the semiotics and narratology of the public sphere as reconstructed from texts, hence the subtitle of our original Strong Program essay— “Toward a Structural Hermeneutics.” Today, there has been a change that, though at first glance slight, is rather significant, as this and the next two paradigms developed at Yale make clear.

Drawing on the philosophy of performativity, drama theory in the humanities, and the new discipline of performance studies, cultural pragmatics emerged in the early 2000s (Alexander et al. 2006) as a model that systematized formerly fleeting references. This new model provided a repertoire of transposable concepts—fusion/defusion/refusion, scripts and background representations, means of symbolic production, mise-en-scène, hermeneutical power—and showed how they could be employed in various settings to explain social dynamics. What separates the approach from the Goffmanian is not only its macro-orientation but its insistence that performances are oriented by and towards deep culture structures and myths, not only situational contingencies and interpersonal inter- action norms. This model has been especially effective in exploring political strategy and the ups and downs of political careers such as that of Bill Clinton (Mast 2006), various acts of political violence (Eyerman 2008), and the pivotal role of the Truth and Recon- ciliation Commission in South Africa (Goodman 2009), but it has also been turned back onto the arts themselves (Eyerman and McCormick 2006), even explaining how musi- cians communicate with audiences (McCormick 2009). Ideas about performativity also have enabled the return of a more Geertzian spirit of interpretation, allowing aesthetic play and historical locality (e.g. Reed 2007; Trondman 2008) to balance the structuralism that emanated from earlier, more text-based Strong Program writings.

Back to top

Cultural trauma

The most problem-oriented paradigm of the Strong Program has focused on episodes of social trauma and their cultural reinterpretations (Alexander et al. 2004). The focus here is not on individual psychological process. Further, the approach takes aim at lay theories that view collective responses as rational or irrational adaptation. The spotlight, rather, is on meaning-work, how it orients painful experiences, constructs new collective iden- tities, defines moral responsibilities, and channels the course of future actions and events. Cultural trauma makes binaries about polluted others, even as it shapes narratives about past, present, and future confrontations between perpetrators and victims (Giesen 2004). These cultural processes are propelled by the ideal and material interests of carrier groups, powerfully mediated by the institutional field in which they unfold, and significantly affected by the existing distribution of vertical resources. So far, this trauma model has framed Strong Program investigations into war, genocide, mass murder, slavery, and political assassination.

Back to top


A major challenge for cultural sociology lies in coming to terms with the non-discursive and non-verbal elements of social life. Evoking materiality, such aesthetic experience has primarily been approached by neo-Marxism. Materialist theories of commodification emphasize instrumental manipulation or posit that object meanings systemically reflect market processes and interests in oblique but generally shallow ways. Meanwhile “authentic” meanings from the lifeworld are taken to be a form of folk resistance to power. Introducing the idea of iconic consciousness (Alexander 2008), the Strong Pro- gram has most recently begun challenging the materialist vision, offering in its place a multidimensional vision of social materiality. We suggest how sensuous aesthetic surfaces remainpowerfulandhowtheyareoftenexperiencedasseamlesslyintertwinedwiththe diverse social meanings or background scripts that establish an object’s moral and intel- lectual depth. Often, we suggest, this process has very little to do with worldly power. Our ongoing work draws from less systematic earlier Strong Program surveys of the powerful meanings of visual culture (Emmison and Smith 2000), the iconic dimension of such punitive technologies as the guillotine and electric chair (Smith 2008a), and the sacral aura that inspires consumption and adheres to apparently mundane domestic objects (Alexander 1992; Woodward 2007).

Back to top

Critiques and challenges

As the outspoken carrier of the cultural turn in sociology, the Strong Program has inevitably become subject to critique, increasingly so as its theorizing has so markedly extended into the middle range. One persistent charge has been idealism, an accusation that goes with the territory. This plaint turns out to have several dimensions: (1) we have an over-optimistic view of human nature; (2) we neglect strategic action by elites; (3) we fail to see that civil society is weak (Cutler 2006); (4) we ignore the situational interactions of concrete actors and groups in favor of a meta-discourse which goes about its business in a transcendental quasi-Hegelian way (Battani et al. 1997; Fine et al. 2008; Morris 2007); (5) we have little to say about the material bases of inequality or social life and should connect culture back to such foundations (Antonio 2007; Gartman 2007; McLennan 2004, 2005); and finally (6) we are anti-scientific, espousing a culturalist and anti-positivist relativism where interpretation replaces explanation (Boudon 2007; Steensland 2009), or more charitably we can’t really explain why some meanings and performances stick and others don’t (Emirbayer 2004; Kurasawa 2004).

Our critics have ignored our carefully worded caveats about power, interests, resources, and strategy, but they have pointed to real issues of balance, emphasis, and relative neglect. While there is not space to mount a protracted defense against these charges, we would maintain that Strong Program work has never departed from a multidimensional understanding of social life; that we do not assume real-world autonomy for culture structures just because we give them analytic autonomy (Kane 1992); that action can be fully strategic—but of course must still have due reference to meaning systems (Smith 2005); and that hermeneutical reconstruction need not abandon objectivity and efforts towards rational knowledge formation (Reed 2007). We add that pretty much every Strong Program exploration has been about struggles over meaning, not consensus. Indeed, power itself has become the object of intense examination, as something that energizes and directs, even as it is channeled by, cultural perceptions of geopolitical threat (Smith 2005); as something that attempts to deploy meaning as it goes about the task of controlling deviance (Smith 2008a); as something that is augmented and challenged by the deft performance of ideology and “character” (Mast 2006); and as the cultural out- come of ferociously aggressive political struggles (Jacobs 2000; Alexander 2009). Even the fighting effectiveness of troops in battle, the most raw of all forms of power, has been comprehensively explained using Strong Program resources (Smith 2008c). The trick as we see it is to understand the subtle distinction between an explanation that is “all about culture” and one that is “just about culture” (Smith 2005: 26), a semantic nuance that our critics are often unable to comprehend but towards which we are acutely sensitive.

Whilst most critics seem to wish the Strong Program to be something other than what it is, or to have not read our work carefully, we see two barbs against the Strong Program as potentially quite productive. The argument that we are Hegelians has alerted us to the problems of text-based research. While the early work of the program was more desk-driven and media focused and so vulnerable in this way, the younger generation has largely taken a different tack. It has generated more ethnographic and interview-based studies, tracing the interaction between symbolic structures and interaction at the local level. Magnuson (2008) looks at shifts in the cultural structuring of masculinity through the lens of a five-year study of micro-interactions inside a men’s group. McCormick (2009) explores the meaning-making of classical music competitions through participant observation and interviews at multiple sites. Brad West (2008) employs ethnographic observation and interviews to explore the relationship of sacred collective memory narratives with the embodied activity of battlefield tourism. It is important to note that such work differs from that of more conventional ethnography or the Chicago School. Although attention is given to the local and situated meanings generated by participants in settings, the Strong Program ethnographers understand these as emerging dialogically with wider public culture structures of the kind captured by terms like myth, code, or narrative (Trondman forthcoming). So people bring prior ideas about masculinity, music, or national identity with them to the interpersonal encounter. Their ideas are modified in encounters, but we insist, contra Herbert Blumer, they do not emerge solely from the crucible of personal influence, group dynamics, or interaction ritual. The relationship is dialogical.

A second useful and somewhat fair critique has come from our fellow travelers who have conjured the specter of indeterminacy (Emirbayer 2004; Kurasawa 2004). This is a particularly sensitive issue for a cultural approach that aims to produce transposable and abstract models, that has ambitions to be a social science. Strong Program arguments typically explain outcomes by pointing to the rise and fall of cultural patterns. An apocalyptic narrative dogged Saddam Hussein in 1992; unable to shake this off, the “new Hitler” was driven out of Kuwait (Smith 2005). Mast (2006) tracks both the major failures of Clinton’s Presidency to his “slick Willy” shadow. Likewise Edles (1998) links the successful post-Franco Spanish democracy to the emergence of three powerful sets of new representations, and Jacobs (2000) accounts for civil renewal in Los Angeles with reference to an ascendant Romantic genre. But just why does one cultural structure succeed and another fail? Traditional sociology would answer this question with reference to material resources, to information control, to networks, or to interests or manipulative elites— things or people that we can point to and measure because they seem somehow more “real” (Reed 2007; cf. Cutler 2006). These are the familiar default positions of mainstream sociology, an apparent bedrock of ontological faith where we can stop asking questions about origins. We could sleep easy if only we would admit that the narrative that won was propagated by a dense network, or the binary that stuck was promoted by an influential interest group.

The truth is that the Strong Program has chosen a bed of nails. We have avoided the easy choice of referring the triumph of one meaning system or another back to some- thing that seems more concrete, insisting instead that there can be cultural factors behind cultural outcomes. So far as we are concerned there should be some equivalence of standards. If it is acceptable to the discipline to tether a cultural structure to a social structure as an explanatory move, it should also be acceptable to tether it to another cultural structure or to a performance or icon. So our explanations have continued to refer to the flexibility, plausibility, appeal, adaptability, attractiveness, fit, or instability of a discourse, trope, or performance as well as to the resources upon which the circulation of meaning depends. The challenge, as we have seen it, is to avoid two fates as we make this move. One is the destiny of framing theory in the social movement literature. While we certainly agree with its claim that a movement succeeded if a frame “resonated,” failed if it did not, the concept of resonance looks a bit like a giant black box for post hoc explanation. The second fate is that of Geertz, who simply threw up his hands as he insisted that “it is turtles all the way down.” We agree that everything is constructed and that meanings rest upon meanings, but we want an approach that is more systematic in explaining this piling up, and that also finds ways to incorporate those turtles into con- flict, power, and institutional life. So we rejected what sometimes seems like Geertz’s analytic fatalism, which has led many of his readers to conclude that a simple textual description of a meaning complex or setting is sufficient as an explanation.

Yet showing how meanings systematically build on meanings can easily result in a culturally mechanistic mode of explanation. If the Strong Program is to retain a belief in the relative autonomy of meaning, then of course there has always to be recognition of a moment of contingency that escapes crude explanatory ambitions. This is the act of interpretation through which people come to make sense of their world. We hope that the ethnographic and interactional studies by the next generation, and more historical methods as well, might be able to shed more light on such moments where persuasion and meaning-making take place, effectively linking large-scale cultural systems, such as those of civil discourse, to embedded situational contexts. That said, our belief is equally that our theoretical tools, by systematically mapping the structures of cultural life, will allow us to give more precise reasons for failure and success than the more inductive and somewhat descriptive “framing” theory was able to do. The performance paradigm provides a complex yet at the same time simplified model of the moving parts of cultural effect, of communicative intention and audience response, of background tradition and foreground script, of situation and mise-en-scène, of power in the productive, distributive, but also hermeneutical sense. Our structural models of code and narrative permit faulty discursive moves and absent component parts in wider myths to be identified and explained. Our theories of iconicity, trauma and civil discourse are also now developing to the point where there are core findings and patterns and where productive analytic comparisons can be made.

The Strong Program has been cumulative; it is a progressive research program in the Lakatosian sense. The conditions are more propitious than ever before for explaining outcomes with culture—if not exclusively with it, then never without reference to it. At the end of the day, this is what the Strong Program is all about.

Back to top


Alexander, J. 1992. “The Promise of a Cultural Sociology.” Pp. 293–323 in R. Munch and N. Smelser, eds., Theory of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——. 1996. “Cultural Sociology or Sociology of Culture?” Culture 10(3–4): 1–5.

——. 2002. “On the Social Construction of Moral Universals.” European Journal of Social Theory 5(1): 5–86.

——. 2006. The Civil Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——. 2008. “Iconic Experience in Art and Life.” Theory, Culture and Society 25: 3.

——. 2009. “The Democratic Struggle for Power: The 2008 Presidential Election in the United States.” Journal of Power 2: 65–88.

Alexander, Jeffrey C. and Jacobs, Ronald N. 1998. “Mass Communication, Ritual, and Civil Society.” Pp. 23–41 in T. Liebes and J. Curran, eds., Media, Ritual, and Identity. London: Routledge.

Alexander, J. and Smith, P. 1993. “The Discourse of American Civil Society: A New Proposal for Cultural Studies.” Theory and Society 22(2): 151–207.

——. 1998. “Sociologie culturelle ou sociologie de la culture? Un Programme fort pour donner à sociologie son second souffle.” Sociologie et sociétés 30(1): 107–16.

——. 2001. “The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics.” Pp. 135–50 in J. Turner, ed., Handbook of Sociological Theory. New York: Springer.

Alexander, J., Sherwood, S., and Smith, P. 1993. “Risking Enchantment: Theory and Method in Cultural Studies.” Culture 4(4): 10–14.

Alexander, J., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N., and Stzompka, P. 2004. Cultural Trauma. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Alexander, J., Giesen, B., and Mast, J., eds. 2006. Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Antonio, Robert J. 2007. “Locating ‘The Civil Sphere’.” Sociological Quarterly 48(4): 601–14.

Baiocchi, G. 2006. “The Civilizing Force of Social Movements.” Sociological Theory 24(4): 285–311.

Battani, M., Hall, R., and Powers, D. 1997. “Culture’s Structures: Meaning Making in the Public Sphere.” Theory and Society 26: 781–812.

Boudon, R. 2007. “Nouveau Durkheim? Vrai Durkheim?” Durkheimian Studies 12(1): 137–48. Cutler, J. 2006. “War Cultures and Culture Wars.” Contexts 5(3): 52–54.

De La Fuente, E. 2008. “The Art of Social Forms and the Social Forms of Art.” Sociological Theory 26(4): 344–62.

Edles, L. 1998. Symbol and Ritual in the New Spain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Emirbayer, M. 2004. “The Alexander School of Cultural Sociology.” Thesis Eleven 79(1): 5–15.

Emmison, M. and Smith, P. 2000. Researching the Visual. London: Sage.

Eyerman, R. 2001. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African-American Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

——. 2008. The Assassination of Theo Van Gogh. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Eyerman, R. and McCormick, L. 2006. Myth, Meaning and Performance. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.

Fine, G.A., Harrington, B., and Segre, S. 2008. “Tiny Publics and Group Practice.” Sociologica 1: 1–6.

Friedland, R. and Hecht, R. 1996. To Rule Jerusalem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gartman, D. 2007. “The Strength of Weak Programs.” Theory and Society 36(5): 381–413.

Giesen, B. 2004. Triumph and Trauma. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.

Goodman, T. 2009. Staging Solidarity: Truth and Reconciliation in the New South Africa. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.

Hall, John R. 1987. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New York: Transaction Publishers.

Jacobs, R. 2000. Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kane, A. 1992. “Cultural Analysis in Historical Sociology: The Analytic and Concrete Forms of the Autonomy of Culture.” Sociological Theory 9(1): 53–69.

Ku, Agnes. 2001. “The Public Up Against the State.” Theory, Culture and Society 18(1): 121–44.

Kurasawa, F. 2004. “Alexander and the Cultural Refounding of American Sociology.” Thesis Eleven 79 (1): 53–64.

McCormick, L. 2009. “Higher, Louder, Faster.” Cultural Sociology 3(1): 5–30.

McLennan, G. 2004. “Rationalizing Musicality: A Critique of Alexander’s Strong Program in Cultural Sociology.” Thesis Eleven 79(1): 75–86.

——. 2005. “The New American Cultural Sociology: An Appraisal.” Theory, Culture and Society 22(6): 1–18.

Magnuson, E. 2008. Changing Men, Transforming Culture. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Mast, J. 2006. “The Cultural Pragmatics of Event-ness: The Clinton/Lewinsky Affair.” Pp. 115–45 in J. Alexander, B. Giesen, and J. Mast, eds., Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morris, A. 2007. “Naked Power and ‘The Civil Sphere’.” Sociological Quarterly 48(4): 615–28.

Rambo, E. and Chan, E. 1990. “Text, Structure, and Action in Cultural Sociology: A Commentary on ‘Positive Objectivity’.” In Wuthnow and Archer, Theory and Society 19: 635–48.

Reed, I. 2002. “Review Essay on Ann Swidler, Talk of Love: How Culture Matters.” Theory and Society 31(6): 785–94.

——. 2007. “Why Salem Made Sense.” Cultural Sociology 1(2): 209–34.

Sherwood, S. 1994. “Narrating the Social.” Journal of Narrative and Life History 4(1–2): 69–88.

Sherwood, S., Smith, P., and Alexander, J. 1993. “The British Are Coming. … Again! The Hidden Agenda of ‘Cultural Studies’.” Contemporary Sociology 22(2): 370–75.

Smith, P. 1991. “Codes and Conflict.” Theory and Society 20(3): 101–38.

——. 1996a. “Executing Executions: Aesthetics, Identity and the Problematic Narratives of Capital Punishment Ritual.” Theory and Society 25(2): 235–61.

——. 1996b. “Barbarism and Civility in the Discourses of Fascism, Communism and Democracy.” Pp. 115–37 in Jeffrey Alexander, ed., Real Civil Societies. London: Sage.

——. 2005. Why War: The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War and Suez. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2008a. Punishment and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——.

2008b. “The Balinese Cockfight Decoded: Reflections on Geertz, the Strong Program and Structuralism.” Cultural Sociology 2(2): 169–86.

——. 2008c. “Meaning and Military Power: Moving on from Foucault.” Journal of Power 1: 275–93.

Steensland, Brian. 2009. “Restricted and Elaborated Modes in the Cultural Analysis of Politics.” Sociological Forum. 24: 926–34.

Trondman, M. 2008. “To Locate in the Tenor of Their Setting the Sources of Their Spell: Clifford Geertz and the Strong Program in Cultural Sociology.” Cultural Sociology 2(2): 201–21.

——. 2012. “Burning Schools/Building Bridges: Ethnographical Touchdowns in the Civil Sphere.” In J. Alexander, R. Jacobs, and P. Smith, eds., Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

West, B. 2008. “Enchanting Pass.” Sociological Theory 26(3): 258–70.

Woodward, I. 2007. Understanding Material Culture. London: Sage.