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Dramatic performances in the play of politics: Egypt, Obama and the works of Jeffrey Alexander


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This review article explores Jeffrey Alexander's cultural theory of political transformations. In his two recent works Performative Revolution in Egypt (2011) and The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power (2009), Alexander analyses the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the rise of President Barack Obama, respectively. Alexander challenges the idea that revolutions depend primarily on the material conditions of a population, demographic changes, and the capacity of a group of contenders to gather material support for an overthrow. He also argues that the stagecraft of the political horserace matters for national elections. The strong versus weak dramaturgical performances of presidential candidates (rather than macroeconomic or geopolitical changes) proved consequential for changes in the poll numbers of Obama versus McCain, for example. Macroeconomic conditions had to be filtered, interpreted, and made meaningful; the candidate who could cast these material conditions onto the sacred side of civil discourse improved his likelihood of victory. Curiously, many social scientists and political pundits have largely taken performances for granted in the democratic struggle for power, and have therefore rendered the charismatic speeches and the grand narratives (culture) as epiphenomena, plays in the shadow of large structural shifts – a residual variable, or else as shifting, evanescent meanings produced in local, face-to-face settings. In the newer understanding, ‘culture’ is a level of analysis researchers use to investigate symbolic patterns and meaningful practices that structure how people act, how they define identities, even how they define what counts as ‘strategic’ or instrumental. Since the 1980s, sociologists working with this notion of culture have crafted different approaches to political culture, in national, organizational, and informal everyday arenas. Their different culture concepts carry different strengths and liabilities for research and they rely on different assumptions about action and meaning. This article reviews these arguments and asks what the limits to Alexander's performative theory are, how his theory can be reformulated to address settled versus unsettled political regimes, and how disaggregating Alexander's concept of audiences along with their roles in political change would provide the theory with greater predictive power.