I am a professor and a writer. My concerns are modernity and the human sciences, culture and state-formation, agency theory, and historical changes in how power works. I study the political cultures of the Atlantic world from the seventeenth century to the present, and have written about the Salem Witch Trials, the Whiskey Rebellion, Bacon’s Rebellion, the French Revolution, and the intellectual history of political and social theory. I was part of the “performative turn” in studying states and violence, and I have tried, in my work in metatheory, to develop an interpretive or hermeneutic position on explanation in social science.
At the core of my work is the idea that signification–the use of signs to make meaning by human beings–is a source of immense variation in social life. In particular, one can study variation in how signification is used to create hierarchical relations and to exclude individuals and groups from the very possibility of struggling in such relations for a modicum of recognition.
I have written about the “King’s Two Bodies” as one format of signification–and, really, its own space of tremendous semiotic variation–that has been used to bind people into political communities, and I retain an interest in the life and times of the historian who wrote the most about the King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz. Other thinkers I find useful for pursuing sociology as a human science include Hannah Arendt, Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Max Weber, Wilhelm Dilthey, Judith Butler, Roland Barthes and Eric Voegelin. I am currently working on a paper about Franz Kafka. Sometimes, people seem surprised that I have read a lot of rational choice theory too.
I like co-authoring papers a lot, and I am especially grateful to the brilliant co-authors I have been lucky enough to work with: Julia Adams, Jeffrey C. Alexander, Natalie Aviles, Claudio Benzecry, Daniel Hirschman, Carly Knight, Benjamin Lamb-Books, Monika Krause, Paul Lichterman, Abigail Cary Moore, Vasfiye Toprak, Michael Weinman, and Mayer Zald.
I was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1978, and I attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 1995 and 1996. I graduated from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in Mathematics and Sociology & Anthropology. I earned my Ph.D. from Yale University in 2007.
I currently reside in Charlottesville, VA with my wife Jennifer and my daughter Hannah. At the University of Virginia, I co-convene the Sociological Workshop on Aesthetics, Meaning and Power with my colleague Fiona Greenland, and I am a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.