Social Skills, by Alan Wolfe
The New Republic
Issue date 04.23.07
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
The Civil Sphere, by Jeffrey C. Alexander (Oxford University Press, 2006, 793 pp., $35)
Can sociology be saved? It ought to be. Not long ago, sociology was the most promising of the social sciences. At a time when economists had not yet discovered rational actors and political scientists belonged to government departments, sociology was the American social science most in touch with the great minds of Europe. Inspired by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, sociologists wrote books that grappled with the contradictions and the potentialities of the modern condition. Even when it was in the grip of academic professionalism, sociology was distinctive. America's most famous sociologist during the 1940s and 1950s was Talcott Parsons of Harvard, a dreadful writer and a builder of imponderably complex classifications, but for all his abstruseness Parsons addressed many of the salient issues of his time (notably McCarthyism) and many of his collaborators and students--Edward Shils, Robert K. Merton, Robert Bellah, Neil Smelser--became giants in the field.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, radical students were ready for sociology--and sociology was ready for them. Out at Berkeley, Nathan Glazer and Seymour Martin Lipset greeted the New Left with something less than enthusiasm; for them, the student movement seemed uncomfortably close to European extremism. But then there was Columbia's C. Wright Mills, a Camus-like figure to the radicals of his day, whose books were read as holy scripture. And even if the radical students did not like what thinkers such as Daniel Bell or David Riesman said about them, their understanding of American society was deepened by The End of Ideology and The Lonely Crowd. In the heady atmosphere of the time, sociology, like left-wing politics, looked like a growth industry. The idea that one or the other--let alone both--would enter a steep period of decline simply did not seem possible.
Sociology is not completely dead, even if some of its former adherents, such as Peter Berger and Irving Louis Horowitz, have written its epitaph. There are figures--William Julius Wilson, Richard Sennett, Orlando Patterson, Paul Starr--who write for a broad general public. And others--Jerome Karabel, Kristin Luker, James Davison Hunter--have written important books that help Americans to understand such contentious issues as university admissions policies, abortion, and the culture war. Yet sociology does not attract the best and the brightest among college students, and few of its practitioners have become household names. (In 1954, David Riesman was on the cover of Time!) The field no longer has much use for its European originators. Half of the discipline is engaged in number-crunching, while the other half does thinly disguised (or completely overt) left-wing politics. Meanwhile, academics from all the social sciences, including sociology, turn to economics for models of human behavior, while political science attracts significant numbers of undergraduate majors and speaks to the issues central to the disasters of the Bush years. So sociology exists, but it does not flourish. Some universities have closed their sociology departments down. Others just leave them underfunded, knowing full well that their poorly paid members have nowhere else to go.
One reason why sociology may be in trouble--the most serious reason, come to think of it--is that it lacks both an agreed-upon subject matter and a distinctive methodology. Economists study things involving money, and even those who apply their skills to non-economic subjects, including faith and family, are linked to their disciplinary colleagues by the commitment to a common method. Political scientists have a pretty good idea of what politics is, and while they study power in many locations, including the international arena, they typically agree that power involves, in Harold Lasswell's pithy formulation, who gets what, when, and how. But what is sociology's proper area of study? It once was "society," a broad term that includes both economics and politics; but sociologists, given their current troubles, would be hard-pressed to be so confident and imperialistic today. Yet if not society, what?
Unless sociologists can define with some precision a subject and a method unique to them, they will never recover the intellectual prestige that they once enjoyed. Jeffrey Alexander's new book is the most audacious attempt in recent memory to establish a turf for the discipline of sociology. Alexander's aim is to offer "a new theory of society by defining a new sphere, its cultural structures, its institutions, and its boundary relations with discourses and institutions outside it." Sociology, in Alexander's view, does have a distinct subject matter and methodology, and he is going to tell us what they are and demonstrate what insights they can provide. These are big claims. If Alexander, who is certainly one of the most significant sociological theorists in the United States, makes good on his claims, his discipline has the potential to flourish once again. But if someone with his abilities and his accomplishments fails, then sociology is in worse trouble than we imagined.
The subject matter of sociology, Alexander argues, is civil society. This was once a term in considerable vogue. Theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson had used the expression to insist on the importance of cooperative relations of trust and mutual obligation. Hegel borrowed it from Ferguson, and for that reason Ferguson's ideas came to have an influence on Marx, although Marx would vehemently disagree with the contention of the Scottish school that commercial activities encourage peaceful resolutions of conflicts. Rousseau's notions of civil religion, as well as Tocqueville's discovery of voluntary associations in American life, could be read as endorsements of the importance of civil society. Although the idea of civil society lost its way toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was enough life in the idea to spark new interest when a series of momentous events in the late twentieth century seemed to require it for their explanation.
The most important of those events was the rebellion against communism led by Eastern European intellectuals. Hating the state for its repressive proclivities, yet unwilling to turn their countries into laissez-faire bazaars, these activists turned to civil society as an alternative to both the market and the state. The term was quickly picked up by social theorists in the West who were looking for something other than an increasingly dysfunctional welfare state and the cold-hearted forms of Thatcher-Reaganism. Eventually the ideas associated with civil society would make their presence felt in a social science best-seller, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. (Alas for sociology, Putnam is a political scientist.) Everything seemed in place for a huge revival. Civil society would liberate intellectuals from stale political debates between left and right. It would call attention to the serious problems facing families threatened by divorce as well as communities facing unemployment. It would remind us that obligations to others cannot be satisfied by pursuing only our self-interest, and that duties must not be relegated to indifferent bureaucracies. We would all be communitarians forevermore.
And yet the promised intellectual revolution never came to pass. Newly enfranchised voters in Eastern Europe chose governments committed either to Milton Friedmanism or to ethnic nationalism. Some left-wing thinkers in the West began to realize that religion was one of the most important components of civil society and that the greater reliance upon it might violate their secularist commitments, while others argued that the loosening of once-strong family ties, perhaps a loss for solidarity, was a gain for the autonomy of women. On the right, Ronald Reagan proved to be something less than a full-throated libertarian; if his form of conservatism threatened liberal values, it was certainly not by washing government down the bathtub. And more recently, George W. Bush's policies, far from shrinking government, expanded its repressive features.
Under confusing political conditions such as these, it was by no means clear that a third path between the market and the state really did exist, or that, even if it did, it was a fruitful path to take. Civil society still had a following, but its major adherents, such as Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen, were writing about Hegel and Habermas, not about concrete institutions and the roles that they do or should perform. By the first years of the twenty-first century, civil society has lost much of its promise, as an idea and as an ideal.
This is the vacuum that Alexander seeks to fill. Civil society, he writes, "should be conceived as a solidarity sphere, in which a certain kind of universalizing community comes to be culturally defined and to some degree institutionally enforced." This conception contains a number of important definitional points. With "solidarity," Alexander links back to Durkheim, so as to remind us that we are collective creatures whose individual well-being is intimately shaped by the communities in which we live. With "sphere," he echoes Michael Walzer, to suggest that our collective side is just one aspect of our behavior as human beings, that it has its own rules of organization, and that it can be threatened by other spheres operating with different rules. "Universalizing" builds upon the fact that while the institutions of civil society are particularistic--we belong only to certain civic organizations and adhere to specific religions--through our membership in them we become full members of the larger communities of which we are a part. "Culturally defined" means that the ways in which we move back and forth from the particular to the universal are shaped by artifacts of meaning expressed through language and symbolic representations. And "enforced" represents Alexander's conclusion that civil society, which we shape, in turn shapes us by holding out ideas of moral obligation, which, if we are to lead full lives as members of society, we ought to fulfill.
Civil society, in sum, is both an empirical reality and a utopian goal. Like the economic and political spheres of society, it marks out territory that can be studied using empirical methods. But unlike them, it evokes a normative conception of how society should be organized, which requires deep familiarity with political theory, moral philosophy, and (although Alexander does not emphasize this sufficiently) theology. Through the civil sphere, human beings do not just act; they also aspire. Sociologists who study them should do the same. When they study what society is, sociologists have in mind an ideal of what society ought to be. Society is not just about money and power. It is also about meaning. And the search for meaning, unlike the quests associated with money and power, brings out what is most fully human about us.
There is, then, a distinct methodology that accompanies sociology's concern with the civil sphere. To appreciate fully the role that meaning plays in the lives of human beings, Alexander continues, "we need to employ semiotic theories of binary codes, literary models of rhetoric and narrative, and anthropological concepts of performance and myth." Sociology's distinctive methods are dialogical: words are as much a sociological reality as the things that words strive to describe. Far more than economists and political scientists, sociologists are interested in how human beings communicate with one another. Such communication is shaped by binary codes, for if we are at one and the same time creatures operating in an already existing world and hoping to live in a better one, we are likely to divide the ways we think and speak into categories that reflect this duality of our social existence. The particular and the universalistic, the good and the bad, the real and the imagined--all have to become part of the way we think about how society functions.
Civil society itself is dualistic in nature; it implies the existence of uncivil society. In the one realm, our motives are active, calm, and self-controlled, while in the other they are dependent, excitable, and irrational. Our civil relations with others are characterized by altruism and honesty, while our uncivil ones are marked by secrecy and greed. The civil institutions that bring out the best in us are regulated by laws and seek to be inclusive, while those that bring out the worst are factionalized and power-hungry. Rather than taking motives, relationships, and institutions for granted, as if they fulfilled some function that they were put on this earth to perform, sociologists are constantly engaged in processes of translation, moving between behavior shaped by requirements of power and material gain to forms of behavior shaped by community-building and collective solidarity. (Although he does not say so explicitly, this focus on human communication is Alexander's way of coming to terms with Talcott Parsons, whose commitments to functionalism owed much to forms of biology that paid particular attention to the way human beings change the world around them through the ways they talk about it.)
Understood this way, Alexander believes that sociology's emphasis on the civil sphere broadens our understanding of how modern societies are organized. There is a tendency in the other social sciences to adopt a posture of hyper-realism. Based ultimately on the contention of Thrasymachus that justice is nothing but the interest of the stronger, hyper-realism insists that the uncivil sphere--greed in the marketplace, power in politics--is the only sphere that matters. Yet modern societies tend to be democratic ones, and democracy insists on the refinement and growth of civil ways of acting and thinking. Thus public opinion and the mass media, for all their flaws, act as checks on the power-hungry; and voluntary associations and interest groups teach civic skills; and elections offer accountability; and power resides in the offices that leaders occupy rather than with those leaders themselves. The health of a democracy is defined as the distance between an autonomous civil sphere and the state. If the distance is great, democracy is vibrant. If the two spheres combine, democracy ceases to exist.
Much the same can be said for law. It is wrong, Alexander argues, to view law as a set of commands made on high meant to force compliance on those below. Law itself is more a way of drawing lines between civil behavior, which society ought to (and frequently does) reward, and uncivil behavior, which it should (and does) punish. Lawyers and judges ask what a "reasonable" person might do under a particular set of circumstances, and the term "reasonable" is meant to establish a civil standard that is both ideal and achievable. The matters that law seeks to regulate, especially contractual relations, do not need the law if they are regulated well themselves, and when uncivil behavior leads to the breaking of a contract, it is by no means certain that the law can restore it. We "see" the law working, especially if we watch television, which cannot get enough judges, lawyers, criminals, and trials before an insatiable viewing audience. We do not see civil relations the same way, but without them we cannot have a system organized by laws.
The civil realm is simultaneously vibrant and vulnerable. Crucial to the workings of politics and economics, it is also threatened by the uncivil behavior of both states and markets. This puts sociologists in something of a bind. They must insist on the autonomy of civil society, as a sphere with a logic and method of its own; but the health of civil society is determined by its relationship to other spheres, and so sociologists must pay attention to them as well. Alexander is most interested in what he calls "civil repair." Uncivil motives and behaviors do not necessarily have to drive out civil ones. On the contrary, new forms of civil relations can challenge uncivil forms of inequality or immorality and improve them. When this happens, sociology is at its best, for its practitioners can not only claim to have understood something that those committed to more static models of human behavior cannot, they have also helped their own society grow by calling attention to what it needs in order to do so.
Sociology, then, is organized by its own binary codes, just like society. Against conservatism, which sees no need for social improvement, sociology insists that life can be better than it is. But unlike revolutionary Marxists who want to transform society from top to bottom, sociology's concern with the civil sphere recognizes that tomorrow's civil institutions grow out of today's uncivil ones. Civil society is not a blueprint for a utopian society, but it is nonetheless utopian. "Civil society," Alexander observes, "is a project. It is a restless aspiration that lies deep in the soul of democratic life." Any academic discipline that makes civil society central to its outlook on the world will aim simultaneously at social understanding and social justice, for once we understand what happens in the civil sphere, we begin to appreciate how one cannot take place without the other.
Not content with laying out the elements of a theory, Alexander uses the concept of civil society to analyze what happens when excluded groups demand inclusion into society's mainstream. There already exists a huge body of literature on "new social movements," but the analysis of their dynamics, inspired by various versions of Marxist theory, looks at the resources that they mobilize and the gains in material benefits that they achieve. We need instead to appreciate them, Alexander argues, as vehicles of civic repair. Through their experiences, we can understand how groups once perceived as uncivil contribute to the broadening of the civility of the society to which they belong.
Conflicts in society, Alexander points out, do not take place only over matters of money and power. New social movements raise questions about the distribution of recognition, "about who will be what, and for how long." A good example is provided by feminism. If we look at concrete accomplishments, there may be grounds for concluding that the women's movement failed: the Equal Rights Amendment never passed, and women have not achieved equal wages. In symbolic terms, however, the women's movement dramatically transformed a rigid duality in which women were assigned to the private realm of the family while men were allowed access to the public realm of politics. That uncivil division no longer exists, and feminism can take credit for its disappearance. Once an uncivil way of dividing women from men is abolished, it is possible to find a civil one in its place, such as the idea, associated with Carol Gilligan, that women's way of caring for others is less rule-bound than men's. Civil society is not repaired by getting rid of binary codes, for that would be impossible. It is improved when binary codes that oppress are replaced by ones that liberate.
Alexander devotes four chapters of his book to the ways in which struggles on behalf of racial justice contributed to civic repair. It is important to him, as it should be, that the leaders of the movement for civil rights, especially in the early days of their campaign, acted civilly. This was by no means an easy thing to do. The institutions and the practices of southern racism were offensive, degrading, and often violent. Against such uncivil practices, activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. could easily have chosen to react in kind. But they did not. "From Montgomery on, the movement's success, both locally and nationally, depended upon its ability to establish a solidaristic relation with the broader, less racially distorted, civil sphere, which drew its power from geographic regions outside the South." The goal of the civil rights movement was not just to develop power in order to challenge the power of southern officialdom. It was also to change the very meaning of politics by adding a discursive dimension to arguments about racial justice.
King, in this context, was a brilliant performer who understood his role to perfection. A master of symbolic representation, he translated a political struggle into a process of sanctification. Evil would be compared to good on terms in which good would become the ultimate winner. Once the majority of Americans understood that the issue they were facing was whether the United States could live up to its civic ideals, they would inevitably identify with the humble non- violence of the demonstrators rather than with the hate-filled, club-wielding representatives of unjust authority.
Not everything went as smoothly as King had hoped. Alexander analyzes not only the victories of the civil rights movement, but also its defeats. Albany, Georgia was only one place in which the dramaturgy did not work as expected when southern police chiefs refused to be baited into violent action against demonstrators. When violence did take place--the killing of the young girls in the Birmingham church, the horrors of the march for voting rights in Selma--its sheer brutality sapped much of the movement's idealism. Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the civil rights movement "lost its centrality to the normative core of American civil society." Black power became a rallying cause. King proved unable to bring to Illinois the same moral clarity that he evinced in Mississippi, and the problems facing the inner-city poor proved too difficult to be solved by his means. Once those developments were locked in place, the language and practice of civic repair gave way to rhetorical protest and conservative backlash, neither of which was especially civil.
Movements for inclusion demand that society change to accommodate their demands. But society also requires that such movements change if they are to become full members. So how much give should there be on either side? Alexander has no use for what he calls backlash movements, which seek to preserve existing society against any and all newcomers. But he also worries about assimilation: demanding that new groups give up what is distinctive about them as the price for membership is as uncivil as rejecting their demands entirely.
In search of an example to demonstrate the ambiguities of assimilation, Alexander turns to an unlikely place. The leftist sympathies with the oppressed that have inspired many students of social movements have rarely prodded them to pay much attention to the case of the Jews. People seem to think that Jews are too well established in too many societies to count as victims any longer. Alexander will have none of this. In his view, the story of Jewish assimilation is a mixed blessing. In terms of the societies to which they aspired, they arrived as citizens, but they did not necessarily arrive as Jews.
To tell the story of how this took place, Alexander adds Europe to his American focus, and to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries he adds the twentieth and twenty-first. The problem, as he sees it (and he is relying here on a rich historical literature), begins with the Enlightenment. Gentiles such as Christian Wilhelm von Dohm were willing to accept Jews if Jews abandoned their Jewishness, and Jews such as Moses Mendelssohn, while rejecting Dohm's anti-Semitic views, prepared the ground for Jewish assimilation into modern civil society by emphasizing the ethical and universal side of Judaism more than its status as a revealed religion. From there it was an inevitable and rather swift step to Reform Judaism and its rude modernizing of the liturgy and the halachic tradition--and eventually to even purely secular movements led by intellectuals of Jewish background.
By the time Jews started fleeing to the United States, the bargain was sealed. In this country Jews would eventually have access to all major social institutions, but not on terms established by themselves. Symbolic of the situation they faced, Alexander notes, was the fact that the Barbie doll, the quintessential expression of WASP womanhood, was developed by Ruth Handler, a Los Angeles Jew. Even in what seems like a great success story, incorporation has not take place, Alexander believes, "in a truly effective and egalitarian manner." Jews, he oddly concludes, remain at least marginally outsiders in America, no matter how inside they seem. The whole idea of Jewishness is being threatened, he says, not by anti-Semitism but by Jewish success.
The Civil Sphere is a long, deeply researched, and--despite occasional lapses into jargon--well-written book. It covers a very broad range of topics and brings fresh perception to many of them. There is an intellectually curious, eclectic, and engaging mind on display throughout these many pages. Yet on the crucial question of whether Jeffrey Alexander provides the materials that would enable sociology to lay claim to its own intellectual turf, the answer must be no. Nearly everything he writes about can be just as easily analyzed without the concept of civil society; and even when the concept proves useful, it does so in ways different from how Alexander thinks it should.
Of the many issues discussed by Alexander, the one that least fits with his ideas about civil society is the issue of the Jews. This is not to suggest that the subject of Jewish assimilation is unimportant. I simply do not see what is gained by adding the idea of civil society to a debate that has gone on, as Alexander rightly points out, since the eighteenth century. Non-Jews determined to oppose the incorporation of Jews into public life said very uncivil things about them. Christians who welcomed them often had ambivalent motives for doing so. Jews who accepted the terms offered to them had (as signers to any imperfect contract would have) reservations. These are topics that have engaged philosophers and historians for centuries, and all have written about them without having developed a theory of civil society.
Is there any particular reason for making the incorporation of Jews central to the story of civil society? Alexander thinks so. "In the history of Western societies," he writes, "no issue has loomed larger for the civil sphere than the incorporation of the Jews." I find the lack of qualification in this sentence troubling. I would like to believe that my people may be the West's most important people, but I am afraid (and a little glad) that this is not the case. Surely, given their greater numbers, we ought to recognize that the incorporation of Catholics into once-Protestant countries such as the United States is a historical phenomenon of great importance. I cannot imagine a more pressing issue right now than the question of whether Muslims will be successfully incorporated into the primarily Christian countries of western Europe and the United States. The fact is that the story of Jewish incorporation is one significant story among many, and calling it the most significant one either requires an argument to that effect or betrays a blindness to the experience of others.
Alexander not only wants to add the idea of civil society to a discussion where it sheds little light, he also claims that civil society can explain what nothing else can. "Considering the Holocaust in the framework of the theory of fragmented civil society," he remarks, "demonstrates how misleading it is to insist on the uniqueness of German resistance to Jewish incorporation, much less of German anti-Semitism. It was the collapse of the civil sphere in Germany, not German anti-Semitism, that allowed the Holocaust to proceed." This is theory-building gone wild. There are times when a theorist should stop, when he should admit that, much as he loves his theory, some events in the real world are so tragic, so beyond the capacity of the meager tools we develop to understand them, that a bit of theoretical modesty is the only appropriate response. I am willing to blame the rise in parking tickets or in public rudeness on the collapse of civil society; but the mass extermination of a people suggests darker and more primal forces at work.
Yet Alexander does not stop there. How can we be sure that the Holocaust was caused not by capitalism or by modernity, but by the collapse of civil society? The proof, according to Alexander, lies in what he calls "the uneven but increasingly substantial Jewish incorporation into the modern, capitalist, and often deeply anti-Semitic United States in the latter half of the twentieth century." Now, I lived the greater part of my life in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, and I can recognize neither the time nor the place to which Alexander refers. To be sure, Alexander does offer a few caveats: we did not have ghettos here, and our demography and geography gave Jews some protections. "Still," he continues, "the Jews' formal status in American civil society was counteracted, more forcefully even than in many European civil societies, by the deep and pervasive Christianity of the American core group." I do not doubt that there are anti-Semites in this country, and maybe even a few of them, especially those who love the Jews on behalf of their own Christian eschatology, have undue political influence. But we turn to a theory of society not only to understand how it works, but to distinguish one society from another. Alexander's decision to open a chapter on Jewish incorporation in the United States, where Jews have flourished, by tying the subject to the fate of the Jews in Europe, where they were murdered en masse, makes no sense to me, empirically or normatively.
Finally, Alexander's discussion of the Jews does not prove what he wants it to prove, which is that the story of incorporation is a tragic one. Assimilation is by its very nature "uncivil," if we mean that it forces changes upon people. But if the result is that society becomes more "civil" because people of different faiths have learned ways to live together, then every loss of civility in one place becomes a gain for civility somewhere else. Alexander begins his discussion of this issue by pointing out, correctly, that to understand what happens when outside forces confront a society, we must consider "the variable internal structure of the social system responding to such outside forces." But it is precisely the internal structure of the United States that drops out of Alexander's discussion of Jewish incorporation into America; we are told a great deal about Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but almost nothing about the customers, many of them presumably non-Jewish, who turned them into best-selling authors. Had Alexander focused as much on the United States that was doing the incorporating as he does upon the Jews that were being incorporated, he might have noticed that a society that is more open to non-Christians than it used to be is a society that has met some of its aspirations, and in that way undergone significant civic repair.
Alexander's treatment of the civil rights movement is more defensible than his discussion of anti-Semitism, but once again he does not demonstrate that adding a theory of civil society offers startlingly new insights. Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed an inspiring figure, but his story can be told using already existing terms associated with religion and politics. He was a man of God steeped in both the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible and the turn-the-other-cheek pacifism of the New Testament. He knew when to call out demonstrators, how to speak to followers, how to treat enemies, and how to deal with politicians. Of course he relied upon symbols, but that is because symbols were his most effective political resource. King was a realist as well as an idealist. Especially in the great years of his movement, he knew the weakness and the strength of the cards he was dealt, and was able to minimize the one and to maximize the other. To be sure, the movement he led was an unusual one. But if the means used were inspirational, the ends sought were, in a political sense, conventional: power, including the power to vote, for those who had been denied it.
Even if the means used to bring issues of racial justice to the fore were distinct during the early years of the civil rights movement, they lost that distinctiveness when the issues became national in scope. John F. Kennedy realized that black votes could help him defeat Richard Nixon in 1960s, which they did, but once in office he also knew that he had to strengthen his ties with racist southern whites in his own party. His ambivalence on the issue of racial justice reflected conflicting political pressures, not the need to translate back and forth from a civil sphere to a political sphere. Alexander argues otherwise. "Kennedy had to gain recognition as a worthy representative of the civil sphere," he writes. "Only by gaining this recognition could he be trusted with control of the state's coercive power, and only if voters believed that he could be trusted in this way could he win the right to represent the civil sphere inside the state." Yet Kennedy was already president and already had control of the state's coercive power. The passage of laws outlawing discrimination and protecting the right to vote had little to do with representing the civil sphere inside the state, and much to do with the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination and the brilliance of Lyndon Johnson's quite conventional arm-twisting.
Alexander's aim, a worthy one, is to remind us that some forms of politics are different from others; that achieving civil rights for a long-oppressed minority improves the moral life of a society more than, say, passing a bill pleasing to the sugar lobby. But even if we need a new theory to explain high politics rather than low politics--and it is by no means clear that we do--Alexander does not offer it. Instead he shows an unfortunate tendency to put the adjective "civil" before as many nouns as he can. At one point in his book, in the span of just ten pages, "civil" modifies power, figures, virtue, audience, drama, traumas, community, indignation, encounters, life, rights, sphere, opinion, and effect. In nearly all those cases, the word "public" would convey just as much significance, if not more, than the word "civil." We know what public opinion is, but I doubt we can agree on what civil opinion is. Calling something civil does not make it so.
There are also problems with the cases that Alexander selects to illustrate particularly civil forms of politics. To be sure, the civil rights movement was especially ennobling. Is the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade equally so? Not for me, and certainly not for Alexander, but it is most definitely ennobling for those who make it central to their lives. Try convincing them that they are not engaged in civic repair! They have strong moral and ethical convictions that are guided by their faith. They understand and can wield the power of symbols. They have a strong sense of good and evil, and they know who is on which side. They say that they believe in democracy, and they argue that the majority's will is being thwarted by an arrogant and unrepresentative elite. They move from particular cases--an abortion clinic here, a pharmacy dispensing birth control there--to a universalistic theory of what life is and how it should be sanctified. They develop movement intellectuals who take to the pages of influential magazines to spell out the ideals that move them. They are not especially civil toward feminists who oppose them, but then again, neither are those feminists civil to them.
How, then, do they fit Alexander's categories? Should he view them as friends or enemies of the civil sphere? The truth is that, aside from a few comments about backlash, he never discusses them. In part, Alexander is reflecting the biases of the field he represents: sociologists who write about the new social movements are typically leftists who either once participated in them or more generally admire them. But the absence of the new-right movements from Alexander's book also suggests a problem with the way he defines civil society. In his discussion of binary codes, he argues that civil movements are committed to such virtues as equality and autonomy, while uncivil ones are not. Yet this defines civility as an end rather than as a process of moving toward that end. According to this way of thinking, even a movement that respected its opponents, engaged in no financial corruption, and built community among its followers would be engaged in uncivil behavior so long as its political objective was to further inequality or the acceptance of authority.
But who is to decide what is inegalitarian or oppressive? Pro-life activists claim that the rights of the fetus are equal to the rights of the mother and that someone needs to protect the future autonomy of a living creature lacking decision-making capacity now. These claims may be right or they may be wrong. But such claims cannot be judged by consigning those who disagree with the goals of feminists or egalitarians to the dreaded precincts of backlash movements. Identifying civility with left-leaning causes, which implicitly means asserting that right-wing ones are uncivil, is not a very civil thing to do.
“Nothing is more practical than a good theory," Alexander writes in his conclusion. The search for justice, in his view, is not some version of woolly-headed idealism, but is built into the democratic societies in which we modern individuals live. It therefore follows that any theory of human behavior that fails to hold it up to its own constitutive ideas is anything but realistic. This is Alexander at his boldest. I admire his ambition, and I sympathize with his purpose. At a time when the social sciences try to narrow their vision as much as possible in order to appear scientific, Alexander should be congratulated for trying to broaden it as much as possible, so as to make the disciplines more humanistic.
It may be asking too much of the author of a work of this sort to tighten his argument and exercise better discretion over the cases that he selects for inclusion. After all, Alexander is trying to sweep away a lot of accumulated dust, and for that he needs something of a free hand with the broom. Still, I wish he had exercised a bit more control. Civil society is a powerful idea, and it ought not to be collapsed into purely self-interested action on the one hand or coercive power on the other. But the term is not a cure for everything that ails us. To bring out the best in civil society requires a modesty in assertion and a respect for evidence that economics and political science too frequently lack. Alexander's case is a strong one, but not strong enough. It would have been stronger if he had acknowledged also the limits of talking about solidarity and inclusion.
Jeffrey Alexander is not a new Talcott Parsons; his theoretical ambition, fortunately, is not that great. Nor is he a new Nathan Glazer or a new Daniel Bell; he lacks their capacity for clear writing and their gift for the critical application of large ideas to real situations. Nor is he a new Seymour Martin Lipset; his book lacks both data and sensible interpretations of what the data signifies. Still, he is a gifted sociologist for a time in which European social theory is once again being taken seriously in the United States. His book will not by itself resurrect his discipline, but it does demonstrate by example that sociologists are by no means irrelevant to the dilemmas of contemporary society. Human beings really do live in a world that too frequently asks the worst of us while too infrequently demanding the best. For all its flaws, The Civil Society offers grand theorizing in ways that remind us of both what we are and what we can be. Jeffrey Alexander offers sociology at least a place from which it may begin again.