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Scandal-as-ritual – A comparison of Jacobsson & Löfmarck and Alexander.

Scandal-as-ritual, as Alexander sees it, is based on five factors, while Jacobsson & Löfmarck views the scandal-as-ritual by defining it: “Scandals is understood as a confrontation between various system of norms.” (Jacobsson & Löfmarck, 2008, p. 203).

Alexander’s five factors (1) there has to be consensus that an event is “polluting”, “or deviant”, by enough people – “more than a mere fragment”, as Alexander puts it; (2) “significant groups”, that is part of the consensus, has to perceive the event as a threat to the “center”; (3) institutional social controls – like in case of Watergate, the Senate – has to be “brought into play” for “this deep crisis to be resolved” – such a control also contains an instrumental force and threat to combat the pollution; (4) the social control mechanisms has be “accompanied” by a”mobilization and struggle of elites and publics” – that differs from each other and somewhat autonomous; (5) an “effective process of symbolic interpretation” – the “ritual and purification process” – a process that shows the transgressing deviation, and therefore also the threat to the sacred center, that is “increasingly” profane and impure. (Alexander, 2003, p. 157).

Jacobsson & Löfmarck, however, is rather concise about their analytic factors, or definition of scandal-as-ritual, and states, shorty, that “[s]candals is a collective outburst of outrage caused by a norm transgression – that is made public and is experienced as an offence by a norm audience” (Jacobsson & Löfmarck, 2008, p. 209). As one may see there are similarities in both of these articles presentation of what is, or how, a scandal is made. Jacobsson & Löfmarck compresses Alexander’s factors and simplifies them a bit – but I would say without that being an issue. Alexander’s factors are rather complex and also he has some difficulties actually pointing at these factors in the Watergate scandal, while using Jacobsson & Löfmarck’s definition of a scandal-as-ritual to be used on the Nannygate is positively applicable.

Alexander’s definition’s complexion is shown, for example, on the very first factor: “a mere fraction”, as compared to just an “audience” in the definition by Jacobsson & Löfmarck. Sure, one might say that both should be considered as equally diffuse, but I argue that, that is not the case since the word “fraction” implies a an actually figure, or integer, while “audience” does not. I think of this as the audience is bases on the (possible) scandal at hand. Although not non-problematic, there is a distinction in the difference. Also Alexander focuses much attention on the “center”, or the core – which is sacred, to use Durkheim’s dichotomy. There has to be a a threat of polluting this center, and control institutions that works to neutralize this threat. Jacobsson & Löfmarck doesn’t talk about a center, or a core, but something that is still sacred, which is the moral. I believe that Alexander talks about this moral when we talks about the center; the center is the moral of a society. A transgression against the moral, or the norms, is a threat on the sacred. It’s an offence, which is that Jacobsson & Löfmarck talks about. However, they don’t talk about this control mechanisms and that it has be a part of the conflict-as-ritual as a resolution, since this is a natural case of the scandal, where the ritual undergoes “certain phases” – [the] expectation, culmination and saturation point. Then “the calm returns”, but the “society has been reminded of the underlying system of values and norms” (Jacobsson & Löfmarck, 2008, p. 208).

As stated above Alexander defines the scandal-as-ritual as institutions, the law, being an necessity of the sanction, which Jacobsson & Löfmarck talks about, but instead states that the sanction is the outrage (Jacobsson & Löfmarck, 2008, p. 207).

Watergate took two years to develop to a “full-blown” scandal, while Nannygate did immediately. Why? Well, Alexander talks about the polarization of the political climate in the USA during that time, and therefore states the factor of the generalization and consensus of the offence. Of course, Jacobsson & Löfmarck talks about the “collective outburst”, but that still, just as fraction-audience, simplifies the discourse about the scandal-as-ritual. In Sweden, there had been an election just before the Nannygate, which would reflect the polarization that Alexander talks about in USA around the same time as Watergate, and due to that polarization there was not a scandal from start; but Sweden had a polarization after the election – especially since the was an governmental shift from a social-democratic government to a centre-right one. Jacobsson & Löfmarck even talks about how possible explanations of the Nannygate’s magnitude as scandal was because of the “disappointment” of the Social Democratic Party’s election result, which they state is not an explanation of the magnitude of the scandal (Jacobsson & Löfmarck, p. 205).

Jacobsson & Löfmarck argue that it is a “sociological understanding of scandal that takes the moral upset seriously” (p. 205). That scandals can be studied sociologically by it being a “disruption of moral order”, which is sacred.1 And Nannygate was an offence by being a transgression of moral norms, namely taxes, and later on honesty – both dishonesty and fiddling with taxes is against the moral order, and therefore profane. As a result scandals “reveal the underlying societal norms” (Jacobsson, p. 205), that is our society – the center, that Alexander talks about – which is temporarily disrupted – to use Jacobsson & Löfmarck – or polluted, under threat – to use Alexander.


Alexander, J. (2003). Watergate as Democratic Ritual. In The Meanings of Social Life: A cultural Sociology. (pp. 155-177). Oxford: OUP.

Jacobsson, K. & Löfmarck, E. (2008). A Sociology of Scandal and Moral Transgression: The Swedish “Nannygate” Scandal, Acta Sociologica, 51(3), 203-216.

1Points at Durkheim’s catigorization of moral order, which is acceptable and unacceptable – sacred and profane.

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