Normative Orders in Crisis: Cultural Codes in Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential Election

Jason L Mast, PhD

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 11/2017 – 12/2019

Recently, western democracies have been wracked by unanticipated swells of populism, ethno-nationalism, and isolationism, all of which are greatly unsettling the neoliberal, globalist, and multicultural trajectories many assumed were durable and determined. The shock produced by events like Brexit, Trump’s victory, and le Pen’s showing in the French vote, for instance, indicate that taken for granted cultural assumptions are not only being called into question but upended. Foundational cultural elements that control, anchor, and organize social orders are in crisis, and are being challenged in severe ways. In this research project, I am examining the scope and intensity of these conditions of cultural crisis.

My research sites: Contemporary manifestations of cultural crisis are rendered visible not in armed uprisings but through collective votes. In 2016, less than a year after the failed Scottish independence referendum, citizens of the United Kingdom voted to withdrawal from the European Union. One of the most prominent features of the pro-Brexit campaign was its racial and xenophobic discourse and imagery. Its most ardent supporters were those with the greatest social and geographical distance from immigrant communities. Combined, these features indicate that the Brexit movement represented, in part, a strong reactionary movement aimed at dismantling and reversing the UK’s multicultural model of citizenship.

In 2016, American voters elected a candidate who campaigned on the themes of putting “America First,” on withdrawing the country from international agreements and commitments, on building legal and physical barries to greatly restrict immigration, and on removing foreign nationals from American soil. Candidate Donald Trump radically destabilized cultural structures that had established the boundaries of legitimate political and civil discourse in the United States. He willfully activated racist, orientalist, nationalist, sexist and conspiratorial signs and narratives, and his performances were met with favor and enthusiasm by significant portions of the American electorate. While Trump lost the popular vote, he won enough votes to win in the electoral college. Trump’s victory exacerbated public sentiments, on both the left and the right, of citizens feeling like “strangers in their own land” (Hochschild 2016).

Increasingly, scholars are characterizing contemporary western democratic publics as wracked by forces of fragmentation, and their “civic epistemologies” (Jasanoff 2011), or shared modes of “public knowing,” as unravelling. Regarding Brexit, recent research indicates that citizens experienced a form of interpretive dissonance in the run-up to the vote. In the prelude to the 2016 American vote, scholars and cultural commentators gave detailed accounts of how, in a highly polarized public sphere, sizeable portions of the American public were retreating from a shared understanding of an overarching identity and embracing more particularlistic and primordial ones. My project is designed to build on the findings of these recent studies.

One of the central challenges for the interpretive social sciences is specifying “how some cultural elements control, anchor, or organize others” (Swidler 1995). To address this epistemological question, and to better understand the unsettling forces rippling through western democracies, I am drawing on insights from the “strong program in cultural sociology” (Alexander and Smith, 2003) which provides tools for reconstructing the meaning structures --binary cultural codes, narratives, discourses, collective representations-- that shape people’s experiences in their everyday lives. I use an interpretive method called “structural hermeneutics” for this task. One of its central conceptual tools is “binary cultural codes,” which are pairs of evaluative symbols that stand in strict opposition to one another (much like Emile Durkheim’s categories of the sacred and profane). The codes are important for my project because they represent durable building blocks upon which more complex narratives, discourses, and repertoires are constructed. That is, the binary codes “control, anchor, or organize” other cultural forms such as “civic epistemologies.”

In my research project, I am examining how these cultural codes, which represent some of the building blocks of UK and American normative orders, were challenged and placed under great strain in the run-up to the Brexit vote and throughout the 2016 US presidential campaigns. I am using structural hermeneutics, and I am also incorporating into my research new social network methods, and new types of (“big”) data, that will increase the scale and breadth of the “strong program’s” investigative and explanatory reach.

In-text references

Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith (2003) “The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics,” in J.C. Alexander (ed.) The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. Oxford University Press.
Hochschild, A. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right. New Press.
Jasanoff, S. (2011) Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton University Press. 
Swidler, A. (1995) “Cultural Power and Social Movements,” in H. Johnston (ed.) Social Movements and Culture. Routledge.  

Selected publications related to this project

Mast, J.L., and J.C. Alexander (eds.) (2017): Special Issue on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,  American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 5(3), October 2017.
Mast, J.L. (2016): Action in Culture: Act I of the presidential primary campaign in the U.S., April to December, 2015,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 4 (48): 241-288.
Mast, J.L. (2013): The Performative Presidency: Crisis and Resurrection during the Clinton Years. Cambridge University Press.


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