Where Did Sewell Get “Schema”?16 min read

Although there are precedents to using the term “schema” in an analytical manner in sociology (e.g., Goffman’s Frame Analysis and Cicourel’s Cognitive Sociology), it is undoubtedly William Sewell Jr’s “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1992 that really launched the career of the term in sociology.

In our forthcoming paper, Schemas and Frames (Wood et al. 2018), we briefly sketch the history of the schema concept in the cognitive sciences—from psychology and artificial intelligence to anthropology and cognitive neuroscience. We note how certain ambiguities in Sewell’s formulation renders it unclear whether it is compatible with the concept as used in the cognitive sciences. Part of the reason, I would suggest, is because Sewell did not get this concept from the cognitive sciences, not even cognitive anthropology.

First, we must discuss (briefly) Giddens’ intervention. To summarize (following Piaget 2015:6–16) the defining features of the various varieties of structuralism—in mathematics, psychology, anthropology, linguistics—include: (1) patterned-wholes are not mere aggregates, (2) patterned-wholes presuppose some principles of composition or transformation which structure them, and (3) the dynamics of wholes, as the product of these underlying principles, result in self-maintenance such that the process which constitutes the patterned-whole is not immediately terminated.

Giddens’ innovation, first articulated in Central Problems in Social Theory (1979), and later in Constitution of Society (1984), involved separating aspects (1) and (2) above. He referred to the patterned-whole as a social system and to the underlying principles of composition and transformation as structure. In essence, he asks for a Gestalt shift in how sociologists approached the regularities of social life. This, in turn, places structure as operating “behind the scenes,” or in Giddens words, “structure as a ‘virtual order’ of differences” (Giddens 1979:64)

In response to this move, Sewell uses the term schema for the first time in this passage:

Structures, therefore, have only what [Giddens] elsewhere terms a ‘virtual’ existence (e.g., 1984, p. 17). Structures do not exist concretely in time and space except as ‘memory traces, the organic basis of knowledgeability’ (i.e., only as ideas or schemas lodged in human brains) and as they are ‘instantiated in action’ (i.e., put into practice). (Sewell 1992:6)

Giddens also, confusingly, defines “structure” as consisting of “rules and resources”  (1979:63–64). The latter of which, Sewell points out, is not virtual. He goes on to demonstrate Giddens term “rules” isn’t virtual either as it implies public prescriptions. Sewell focuses his intervention here (1992:7):

Giddens develops no vocabulary for specifying the content of what people know. I would argue that such a vocabulary is, in fact, readily available, but is best developed in a field Giddens has to date almost entirely ignored: cultural anthropology. After all, the usual social scientific term for ‘what people know’ is ‘culture,’ and those who have most fruitfully theorized and studied culture are the anthropologists… What I mean to get at is not formally stated prescriptions but the informal and not always conscious schemas, metaphors, or assumptions presupposed by such formal statements. I would in fact argue that publicly fixed codifications of rules are actual rather than virtual and should be regarded as resources rather than as rules in Giddens’s sense. Because of this ambiguity about the meaning of the word ‘rules,’ I believe it is useful to introduce a change in terminology. Henceforth I shall use the term ‘schemas’ rather than ‘rules’.

Beyond noting that he is inspired by the work of anthropologists, Sewell offers few clues as to what motivates his use of schema.

Is Sherry Ortner and Michigan’s CSST the source?

Despite referring to “schema” over a hundred times in the essay, he cites almost no scholars. In a footnote, he states “It is not possible here to list a representative example of anthropological works that elaborate various ‘rules of social life.’” In the same footnote, after citing Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures as the most influential discussion of culture, he states “For a superb review of recent developments in cultural anthropology, see Ortner (1984).” As this footnote suggests, it may have been Sherry Ortner who motivated his conceptualization.

In the essay, Sewell cites Ortner’s 1984 piece “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties,” and includes Ortner among several scholars he thanks for feedback on his AJS piece. However, in the cited article, Ortner’s only mention of “schema” is in a quotation from Bourdieu  (1978:15). In this essay, she outlines the main cleavage within symbolic anthropology in the 1960s was between the Turnerians and the Geertzians. Geertz’s “most radical move,” according to Ortner, was arguing “culture is not something locked inside people’s heads, rather is embodied in public symbols” (1984:129). Ortner identified as “Geertzian,” as he was her advisor at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1960 to 1970, before leaving for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (David Schneider, another Parsonsian symbolic anthropologist, was also her teacher at Chicago).

Sewell received his Ph.D. in history at Berkeley in 1971, and was an instructor at the University of Chicago from 1968 to 1971, before becoming an Assistant Professor there from 1971 until 1975 — overlapping with Ortner’s graduate studies there. He then had a five-year stint at the Institute for Advanced Study with Geertz in residence. From 1985 to 1990, Sewell was faculty in the history and sociology at the University of Michigan, overlapping again with Ortner, a faculty member in anthropology from 1977—1995. However, the overlaps between the two (and Sewell with Ortner’s mentor), is speculative evidence of their interactions.

In 1991, the relatively new American Sociological Association Sociology of Culture Section gave an honorable mention for the best article to Nicola Beisel for “Class, Culture, and Campaigns Against Vice in Three American Cities.” Her advisor at Michigan was Sewell, and in the Culture section newsletter’s interview with her, she states (1991:4-5):

Certainly, the biggest influence on my work was the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Social Transformations (CSST), a group of sociologists, social historians, and anthropologists that was started by Bill Sewell, Terry McDonald, Sherri Ortner, and Jeff Paige. The year I spent as a CSST fellow was one long and extremely fruitful discussion of culture, structure, agency, and social change….I do think that we have to demonstrate to our colleagues who think they do work on ‘hard structures’ that culture plays a vital part in the constitution and reproduction of those structures. In thinking about these issues I have been greatly influenced by Bill Sewell’s and Anthony Giddens’ theorizing the duality of structures, particularly the discussions in Sewell’s forthcoming AJS article.

In a recent interview about her 1995 essay, “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (CSSH), Ortner also refers to the founding of CSST:

In 1995 I was still at the University of Michigan and was involved in the formation of an incredibly exciting interdisciplinary discussion group, Comparative Studies in Social Transformation or CSST (not to be confused with the journal CSSH!). CSST was populated by anthropologists, historians, and a few folks from other fields, with many shared theoretical interests (Marxism, culture theory, practice theory, feminism, Foucault, etc.) and with overlapping cultural and historical interests in–broadly speaking–issues of power, domination, and resistance. If you look at the acknowledgments of “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” (and I am a big believer in looking at acknowledgments), you will see the names of many of the key participants in that group, and it is an amazing roll call of some of the leading anthropologists, historians, and other social and cultural thinkers of that generation.

Sewell was among those acknowledged (alongside, Fred Cooper, Fernando Coronil, Nick Dirks, Val Daniel, Geoff Eley, Ray Grew, Roger Rouse, Julie Skurski, Ann Stoler, and Terry McDonald). Curiously, Sewell acknowledges none of those members of CSST in his 1992 article — only Ortner. This strongly suggests there was, at least, cross-pollination between Ortner and Sewell.

Where Did Ortner Get “Schema”?

Ortner’s sketch of the Gyepshi altar in Sherpas Through Their Rituals

We may speculate, therefore, that Sewell received the schema concept from Ortner through, either informal talks, discussions at the CSST, or something of Ortner’s he read but did not cite in the AJS article. That is, it is strange that in the single essay of Ortner’s cited by Sewell, she does not really refer to “schemas” beyond a quoting Bourdieu.

In Ortner’s first book (1978), Sherpas Through Their Rituals (based on her dissertation), she references schemas only once, in quoting Ricoeur: “the stain [defilement] is the first schema of evil” (Ortner’s addendum). In a collection of reactions to Ortner’s “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties,” by Maurice Bloch, Jane Collier, Sylvia Yanagisako, Thomas Gibson,  Sharon Stephens, and Pierre Bourdieu—based on the 1987 American Ethnological Society invited session, held at the American Anthropological Association Meetings in Chicago and published as a working paper by the CSST—Ortner offers the following in her response (1989:102-103, emphasis added):

And finally, my own recent work on Sherpa social and religious history utilizes a notion of cultural schemas, recurring stories that depict structures as posing problems, to which actors must and do find solutions. Here again structure (or culture) exists in and through its varying relations with various kinds of actors. Further, structure comes here as part of a package of emotional and moral configurations, and not just abstract ordering principles.

The work she is referring to here is in her 1989 book, High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. It is here that “schema”— specifically “cultural schema”—is used numerous times (54 in total). In the opening chapter, Ortner describes two “notions” of structure will be used in the analysis (1989:14 emphasis added):

The first is a concept of structural contradictions—conflicting discourses and conflicting patterns of practice—that recurrently pose problems to actors. The second is a concept of cultural ‘schemas,’ plot structures that recur throughout many cultural stories and rituals, that depict actors responding to the contradictions of their culture and dealing with them in appropriate, even “heroic,” ways.

In chapter four, Ortner argues “Sherpa society is founded on a contradiction between an egalitarian and hierarchical ethic.” She furthermore argues that recognition of this contradiction is “culturally formalized, in the sense that important cultural stories both depict such competitive relations and show the ways in which they may be resolved….the stories collectively embody what I will call a cultural schema” (1989:59, emphasis added; see also her 1990 chapter “Patterns of History: Cultural Schemas in the Founding of Sherpa Religious Institutions”).


Ortner then offers a short survey of the “pedigree” of this concept in anthropology, beginning with what she called “key scenarios” in her dissertation and a 1973 American Anthropologist article. These are a particular kind of “key symbol,” which “implies clear-cut modes of action appropriate to correct and successful living in the culture…they formulate the culture’s basic means-ends relationship in actionable form” (1973:1341). Ortner outlines how numerous different contexts—like seating arrangements, shamanistic seances, ritual offerings to gods—were structured as if they were a hospitality event. Therefore, the “scenario of hospitality” acted as a “cultural schema,” transposable across situations and providing prescriptions for action.

Next, Ortner identifies other exemplars, including Schieffelin’s ([1976] 2005) examination of reciprocity and opposition as “cultural scenarios” among the Kaluli of New Guinea, Turner’s (1975) “root paradigms” like martyrdom in Christianity, Geertz’s  “transcription of a fixed ideal” in Negara (1980), and Sahlins’ “structures of the long run” in Historical Metaphors (1981) (1981). Ortner argues that cultural schemas have “durability” because “they depict actors respond to, and resolving…the central contradictions of the culture” (1989:61). After High Religion, Ortner refers to schemas only once, in a retrospective on Geertz in 1997.

What is absent from Ortner’s otherwise exhaustive review of anthropology in the 1984 essay, and throughout her work on cultural schemas, is any references to “cognitive” anthropology. She offers no reference to Goodenough, Lounsbury, Romney, D’Andrade, Frake or others, and only referring to Bloch’s work prior to his turn to the cognitive sciences as exemplified by his 1991 article “Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science.” In fact, it is odd that she does not reference a 1980 review essay in the American Ethnologist, titled “On Cultural Schemata” written by G. Elizabeth Rice, a UC-Irvine PhD. Nor is there a reference to the 1983 Annual Review of Anthropology essay, “Schemata in Cognitive Anthropology,” written by Ronald Casson, a student of D’Andrade and Frake while at Stanford. Furthermore, she does not cite the work of Robert I. Levy who studied Nepal (1990) from a cognitive-anthropological perspective (in fact, both Levy’s and Ortner’s book on Nepal are reviewed in the same issue of the American Ethnologist). Originally trained as a  psychiatrist, Levy was brought to UC-San Diego in 1969 to help establish the nascent field of “psychological anthropology.” In Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands (1975), he applies the concept of schema—which he attributes to the psychiatrist Ernest Schachtel’s study of memory and amnesia.

Several more such examples can be found. We can conclude that Ortner’s conceptualization of schema (and therefore Sewell’s and likely Sewell’s students) appears to be largely independent of its parallel development in the cognitive sciences (including cognitive anthropology) forming in the U.S. west coast (briefly discussed in my post on connectionism).


Geertz, Clifford. 1980. Negara. Princeton University Press.

Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. University of California Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1979. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Vol. 241. Univ of California Press.

Levy, Robert I. 1975. Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands. University of Chicago Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1989. High Religion. Motilal Banarsidass.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1973. “On Key Symbols.” American Anthropologist 75(5):1338–46.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1978. Sherpas Through Their Rituals. Cambridge University Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1):126–66.

Piaget, Jean. 2015. Structuralism (Psychology Revivals). Psychology Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1981. “Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 344.

Schieffelin, E. 2005. The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. Springer.

Sewell, William H. 1992. “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation.” The American Journal of Sociology 98(1):1–29.

Turner, Victor. 1975. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press.

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. 2018. “Schemas and Frames.” Sociological Theory, Forthcoming.


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