• Karen A. Cerulo
  • Karen A. Cerulo
  • Professor Emeritus
  • Ph.D. Princeton, 1985
  • Curriculum Vitae


    Professor Cerulo has authored several books and articles in the areas of culture and cognition, symbol systems and meaning, media and technology, social change, decision making, identity construction, and measurement techniques.

    Professor Cerulo's research addresses a variety of themes within the sociology of culture and cognition. Some of her works explore the social foundations of symbol systems -- music, scent, verbal scripts, and visual images. Her research examines the ways in which social actors use such symbols to construct personal identity, collective identity, and the identity of eras, events, and places. Her work also charts the ways in which social factors -- i.e. the nature of social ties, the stability of social environments, power structures, economic systems of exchange, and technological innovations – help to shape the content, form, meaning, and effectiveness of symbols. Her prizewinning article entitled “Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-making and Meaning Attribution” (American Sociological Review) uses focus group data to understand the role played by neural, physical, and sociocultural elements when we process and racialize the messages contained in commercial perfume scents.

    Professor Cerulo's writings are often noted for their contributions to the literature on measurement. She has developed a number of indicators designed to systematically capture verbal and non-verbal symbol structure. These measures render aural, olfactory, literary, and visual objects extremely accessible sources of social science data, amenable to all of the rigorous methods that are central to the social science tradition.

    In recent years, Professor Cerulo has turned her attentions to the social and cultural foundations of cognitive concepts and schema. Her work pays special attention to the links between cultural sociology and cognitive neuroscience. She has edited and contributed both to special issues and special sections on this topic published in Poetics (2010) and Sociological Forum (2014; 2021). She also co-authored a review piece, “Rethinking Culture and Cognition” published in the Annual Review of Sociology (2021).

    One prominent theme in Professor Cerulo's work on conceptualization concerns new communication technologies. Specifically, she explores how emerging communication media can change the ways in which individuals perceive social actors and social groups, experience social connectedness, and define forums of social action.

    Some of Professor Cerulo's work explores the conceptualization of the best and worst of people, places, objects and events. Her book Never Saw It Coming builds on theories and ideas forwarded by both cultural and cognitive sociologists. Professor Cerulo argues that the inability to envision and specify the worst is a sociocultural phenomenon. Indeed, in a broad array of social situations, she discovers that conceptions of the worst represent a gap in many cultures' shared frames of reference. The worst is a "blind spot" created by a variety of normative and patterned sociocultural practices – practices that, despite any single individual's intentions, keep the worst veiled and difficult to define. In her work, Professor Cerulo itemizes and unpacks these practices. She explores as well the ways in which certain elements of social structure may encourage this biased perspective. Finally, she considers the social consequences and pitfalls that masking the worst can exact. In so doing, she questions whether a more symmetrical view of quality is an achievable ... or a desirable social goal.

    Spurred by some of the issues raised in Never Saw It Coming, the prizewinning book, Dreams of a Lifetime: How Culture Shapes Our Future Imaginings (with Janet M. Ruane), argues that dreams are thought to be matters of an individual's heart and mind. But in this book, the authors explore the sociocultural dimensions that organize and structure what Americans do (or do not) dream about, the ways in which they dream, variations in dreams according to one's social location, and when, if ever, people stop dreaming.

    Professor Cerulo's articles appear in a wide variety of journals including the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Social Psychology Quarterly, Sociological Methods and Research, Sociological Forum, Sociological Inquiry, Sociological Focus, Communication Research, Contemporary Sociology, Poetics, Social Science Research, Law and Policy, Science As Culture, and annuals and collections such as the Annual Review of Sociology, the Encyclopedia of Nationalism, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Handbook of Cultural Sociology, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology, the Handbook of Social Theory, Research in Political Sociology, and the World Book Encyclopedia. She is the author of Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Deciphering Violence: The Cognitive Order of Right and Wrong (Routledge,1998), and Identity Designs: The Sights and Sounds of a Nation – winner of these Culture Section's "Best Book Award, 1996" (The Rose Book series of the ASA, Rutgers University Press,1995). She also co-authored Dreams of a Lifetime: How Culture Shapes Our Future Imaginings (Princeton University Press, 2022), Second Thoughts: Seeing Conventional Wisdom through the Sociological Eye (Sage, 2015), and edited a collection entitled Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition (Routledge, 2002).

    Professor Cerulo served as the Sociology Department Chair from July 2009 to August 2012. She has also served as the Chair of the ASA's Culture section (2009 through 2010), where she also functions as the section's network coordinator, and the director of the Culture and Cognition Network. She is a former Vice President of the Eastern Sociological Society and the current editor of Sociological Forum, the flagship journal of the Eastern Sociological Society. In 2013, she was named the Robin M. Williams Jr. Lecturer by the Eastern Sociological Society and she also won that organization's 2013 Merit Award. In 2012, she received the Rutgers University Scholar-Teacher Award, recognizing both her pedagogy and research in sociology. She was also elected to the Sociological Research Association.

    Professor Cerulo’s work has been widely covered in the media, including venues such as the Chicago Tribune, CNN Travel, The Conversation, DAME magazine, Le Monde, Mycentraljersey.com, The New York Daily News, The New Republic, The New York Times, North Jersey.com, Playboy, Psychology Today, The Post Courier, The Scientific American, Slate Magazine, The Times of India, and USA Today.  She has also been interviewed on 1010 Wins news radio, The Brian Lehrer radio program (WNYC), the Freakonomics podcast/radio program, Jeff Schechtman's Talk Cocktail podcast, Mancow Morning Radio Show (WLUP FM), Matthew Crawford’s The Curious Man podcast, and Thinking Aloud on BBC radio.

  • In the Public Eye:
  • Faculty Article(s):
  • Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive
  • Enduring Relationships: Social Aspects of Perceived Interactions with the Dead
  • Rethinking Culture and Cognition
  • Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-making and Meaning Attribution
  • Faculty Bookshelf:
  • Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition
  • Deciphering Violence: The Cognitive Structure of Right and Wrong
  • Dreams of a Lifetime: How Who We Are Shapes How We Imagine Our Future
  • Identity Designs: The Sights and Sounds of A Nation (The Arnold and Caroline Rose Book Series of the American Sociological Association)
  • Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst
  • Second Thoughts: Sociology Challenges Conventional Wisdom
  • Program Areas:
  • Culture and Cognition
  • Politics and Social Movements
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration