The Question of Moral Action: A Formalist Position


  • Address for correspondence to: Iddo Tavory, Department of Sociology, The New School for Social Research, 6 East 16th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10003. E-mail: I would like to thank Gabi Abend, Lior Gelerenter, Robert Jansen, Colin Jerolmack, Nahoko Kameo, Michele Lamont, Eeva Luhtakallio, Michal Pagis, Ann Swidler, Andreas Wimmer, and the participants of the Junior Theorists’ Symposium in Atlanta for valuable notes and important criticisms. I would also like to thank the anoynmous reviewers for insightful comments on an earlier version.


This article develops a research position that allows cultural sociologists to compare morality across sociohistorical cases. In order to do so, the article suggests focusing analytic attention on actions that fulfill the following criteria: (a) actions that define the actor as a certain kind of socially recognized person, both within and across fields; (b) actions that actors experience—or that they expect others to perceive—as defining the actor both intersituationally and to a greater extent than other available definitions of self; and (c) actions to which actors either have themselves, or expect others to have, a predictable emotional reaction. Such a position avoids both a realist moral sociology and descriptive-relativism, and provides sociologists with criteria for comparing moral action in different cases while staying attuned to social and historical specificity.