My work applies insights from cultural sociology to the study of political processes. In particular, my research agenda focuses on two topics: national identification and populist claims-making, with the former consisting of bottom-up understandings prevalent among national populations and the latter emphasizing top-down mobilization efforts by political elites. Given the centrality of both phenomena to radical-right politics, I have also been developing a larger project that seeks to explain the causes and potential consequences of rise of radical politics in the United States and Europe. My empirical research on these topics makes use of innovative data, from survey experiments to large corpora of political speeches and social media traces, and emphasizes relational approaches to the measurement of meaning, such as latent class analysis, word embeddings, and network analysis. As a result, I have a strong interest in the opportunities offered to social science by the proliferation of large-scale digital data (a topic on which I have written, and which I teach at the graduate level).
Shared Understandings of the Nation-State in Modern Democracies
My research on nationalism has sought to unsettle three assumptions: (1) that national identity is homogeneous within nations (and thus that entire nations can be classified into discrete categories like those defined by ethnic and civic nationalism); (2) that national identification is a stable attribute of individuals; and (3) that “the nation” is a unitary (if polysemous) object of identification. The first assumption was dominant in functionalist research for much of the 20th century, and while it has partly fallen out of fashion, few alternatives have been proposed. The second and third assumptions underlie much survey research on nationalism, which views survey items concerning attitudes toward the country (e.g., U.S., America, or the United States) as theoretically and methodologically unproblematic. Using relational survey methods and computational text analysis, I demonstrate that popular conceptions of the nation are fragmented within countries but consistent across them (an article on the U.S. case, co-authored with Paul DiMaggio, appeared in the American Sociological Review; see also a chapter comparing popular nationalism in France and Germany and a working paper on nationalism in 30 established democracies), that the nation and the state evoke distinct cognitive constructs with differential affective loadings, and that national identification fluctuates in patterned ways within national communities. I set out an agenda for research on nationalism in settled times in a 2016 Annual Review of Sociology article. A chapter on the importance of nationalism for understanding the 2016 U.S. presidential election is forthcoming in an edited volume edited by Kurt Weyland and Raúl Madrid. Other working papers on these topics (e.g., on the exclusionary aspects of civic nationalism in Western Europe and on the relationship between collective memory narratives and anti-immigrant sentiments in Israel) are available upon request.
Populism in Political Discourse
Populist political claims are predicated on a Manichean opposition between “the people,” who are viewed as the rightful and legitimate source of political power, and elites, who have allegedly betrayed the populace in the pursuit of their own particularistic interests. This basic discursive structure is elaborated in a variety of ways in different political contexts. For instance, the overarching category of “the people” is often constructed through a narrative of shared victimhood that glosses over various cleavages that may otherwise divide the target population, while the elites are frequently portrayed as having been co-opted by various disparaged out-groups (e.g., immigrants or ethnic and religious minorities). Using computational analyses of large corpora of political speeches, this project seeks to understand why political actors choose to rely on populist claims-making and how the specific content of such claims has changed over time, both in Europe and the United States. Reframing populism as a dynamic feature of speech acts rather than a stable ideological property of individual and collective political actors, I show that populism is as prevalent on the political left as it is on the right and that variation in populist claims-making is a function of actors' changing relational positions in multiplex political fields. An article on populist claims-making in U.S. electoral discourse was published in Social Forces; relevant theoretical interventions have appeared in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, the APSA Comparative Politics Newsletter, and a highly-cited Weatherhead Center working paper (co-authored with Noam Gidron). I am currently completing a project based on a survey experiment showing that populism has become a dog-whistle for ethno-nationalism in the United States: respondents primed with anti-elite claims are more likely to show antipathy toward minority groups and immigrants (draft available upon request).
The Rise of Radical Politics in Europe and the United States
I have been integrating insights from my research on nationalism and populism into an overarching framework for understanding the rise of radical-right politics. The result has been a series of publications and media articles on the relationship between populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism, on the centrality of nationalist cleavages for fueling radical-right support, on the structural changes that have been favorable to the rise of radical politics, and on the consequences of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism for inter-group relations and the future of liberal democracy. Based on this work, I am developing a monograph on the politics of resentment in the United States and Europe. The book will have three objectives: to bring conceptual clarity to research on radical politics by analytically separating and theorizing nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism, to empirically examine long-term trends in the political discourse and popular beliefs that fuel such politics in the United States and Europe, and to use the resulting findings to propose a cultural theory of radical-right politics that emphasizes the heightened salience of majority-group identities—and thus the potency of identity-based political appeals—on the radical right, amidst a confluence of social changes perceived as threatening to traditional status hierarchies. In addition to its substantive contribution to the scholarly understanding of the radical right, the book will seek to reestablish institutional politics as a core object of inquiry for
political sociology and demonstrate to political scientists the value of a more theoretically rich and empirically rigorous approach to the study of political culture, informed by insights from cultural sociology. Early versions of my arguments are laid out in articles published in The British Journal of Sociology and Nations and Nationalism.
Cross-National Cultural Diffusion
In a 2010 IJCS article, I challenged the primordialist logic of Huntington’s and Inglehart’s civilizational approach to comparative cultural analysis by demonstrating that cultural similarities between national populations are a result of two dynamic processes: economic development and ongoing contacts between nation-states in the domains of international politics, trade, and civil society. The paper confirmed the prediction of world polity theory that institutional interactions facilitated through non-governmental organizations translate over time into changes at the level of popular attitudes. As countries join the same organizations, they develop similar institutional arrangements (via processes of institutional isomorphism), which in turn shape the attitudes and preferences of their domestic populations, thereby producing cultural convergence.
My other work has addressed topics related to race and ethnicity, inequality and stratification, and cultural taste. I have examined the impact of ecological competition between musical genres on changes in the distribution of cultural consumption preferences in the American population, the use of racial profiling in state counter-terrorism practices, and the construction of race and national identity in American high school curricula. I have also co-authored journal articles and book chapters on labor market inequality (with Devah Pager and Bruce Western), the remunerative effects of Internet use (with Paul DiMaggio), the demography and network characteristics of entrepreneurial teams (with Martin Ruef), and the social and political significance of voluntary associations (with Miller McPherson).