My research draws influence from pragmatist and hermeneutic approaches developed by John Levi Martin, Georgina Born, and Isaac Ariail Reed. Martin’s pragmatist revision of Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory emphasizes the qualities of social experience that provide an aesthetic model for the cognitive components of social action. By contrast, Born’s theory of music’s mediation calls for a sociological hermeneutic designed to divulge what Reed refers to as “landscapes of meaning.” Martin and Born both conceptualize “social aesthetics” as a framework to explain social action, albeit in starkly different ways. Synthesizing elements from each approach, however, suggests new possibilities for theorizing the relationship between social action and meaning-making.
I hope to invigorate sociological interest in the role of the aesthetic in analyses of social action and experience. The field of art music provides a rich empirical case through which the aesthetic is seen as active in the ways actors traverse the boundaries between the instrumental-rational, and the sensuous organic activity of artmaking. Beyond this case, however, questions of judgment, perception, and action, how individuals and groups make sense of who they are and what they do are all fundamentally aesthetic concerns that yield potential for a broad spectrum of scholarly inquiry. I would like to see the aesthetic implicated in scholarship beyond art worlds, given that action across most social domains involves actors striving to creatively cultivate a self, organize pleasure, and manage constraint.
Alexander C. Sutton is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of sociology at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on aesthetics, cultural production, creativity, and artistic identity formation. His dissertation, “Composing the Creative Self: Constructing Meaning, Identity, and Aesthetic Imaginaries in Contemporary Art Music,” examines the creative and professional lives of contemporary American composers. His work has been published in Qualitative Sociology, and The American Journal of Cultural Sociology.