Professor Jeffrey C. Alexander (Yale University) delivered the Mary Douglas Memorial Lecture on 3 June 2014 at Oxford. The lecture was 'The societalization of social problems: recent social crises and the civil sphere'
Drawing from cultural sociology, this lecture develops a theory of “societalization” to explain social reaction to three recent, globally significant upheavals – the financial crisis, church pedophilia, and media phone-hacking. While these problems were endemic for years and even decades, they had failed to generate broad crises: Reactions were confined inside institutional boundaries and handled by intra-institutional elites according to the cultural logics of their particular spheres. 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. A war of the spheres ensues and, eventually, there is movement back to steady state. Societalization cannot prevent the future eruption of social strains. In a differentiated and plural society, tensions between spheres is endemic, and civil repair depends upon the possibilities generated by societalization.