Piracy, Punishment, and Structural Hermeneutics (Matt Norton, University of Oregon)

Piracy, Punishment, and Structural Hermeneutics (Matt Norton, University of Oregon)
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Hermeneutics is one of the wellsprings of interpretive methods in contemporary social science. The space between biblical interpretation and the interpretation of social life, though, opens wide opportunities and demands for creative developments and elaborations to make hermeneutics a compelling foundation for a methodology of social scientific inquiry. "Structural hermeneutics," as coined by Alexander and Smith, is one such innovation that oscillates in its version of the hermeneutic circle between concrete social situations, performances, and other occurrences on one side of the circle and, on the other, an approach to the analysis of the semiotic dimensions of social life (i.e. culture) that draws analytical and methodological inspiration from literary, philosophical, and anthropological structuralism. The goal of this approach is, as Geertz concisely puts it, "grasping what other people are up to" through a "familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs." The talk will explore and illustrate structural hermeneutics as a methodological framework for this sort of interpretive social science with reference to the stumbling emergence of a legal regime for the punishment of pirates in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British empire.

Matthew Norton is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. His work explores the intersections of culture, states, and power. He is the author of the 2023 book The Punishment of Pirates: Interpretation and Institutional Order in the Early Modern British Empire.

A recording of this event is now available to watch here: Piracy, Punishment, and Structural Hermeneutics 

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For more information on the talks or the IMC, write to the convenors: April Biccum and Nick Cheesman

Date & time

Fri 27 Oct 2023, 12–1pm




Matt Norton, University of Oregon

Event series


Nick Cheesman


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