Terence McDonnell

Terence McDonnell

Associate Professor; Director of Graduate Studies; Concurrent faculty, Keough School of Global Affairs
4049 Jenkins Nanovic
P: (574) 631-7599
F: (574) 631-9238

Terry McDonnell is an award-winning cultural sociologist (Ph.D. 2009, Northwestern University) who studies the role of symbols, objects, and media in everyday life. He explains why some cultural objects have the power to shape belief and behavior, while others fail to have the intended effect by tracing the production, circulation, and reception of objects over time.


Professor McDonnell’s recent book, Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns (University of Chicago Press), develops the concept of “cultural entropy” to explain why HIV/AIDS media campaigns often fail to change peoples’ belief and behavior. He finds that institutionalized best practices of design undermine organizations’ capacity to communicate their intended message. Even if they design what appears to be a resonant campaign, audiences interpret and use campaigns in ways the designers never intended: People turn female condoms into bracelets, communities refuse the t-shirts they helped to design, AIDS posters go missing from public space to become home decor, and red ribbons fade into pink ribbons under the sun. He argues that such cultural misfires are not random, but patterned, widespread, inevitable, and indicative of cultural entropy. Best Laid Plans won the Eliot Freidson Outstanding Publication Award from the Medical Sociology section of the ASA, and best book honorable mentions from the Sociology of Development, and the Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology sections of the ASA.

His work has three major threads: 1) theorizing how materiality shapes meaning and action, 2) identifying the mechanisms and effects of resonance, and 3) analyzing the effects of culture and media in the public sphere. He’s published research on space and place in art museums; metaphor and crisis in cultural organizations (like ballet companies, art house cinemas); AIDS and breast cancer awareness ribbons; ACT UP’s protest art and street theater; books, the internet, and the reading class; and memories of state repression around the Brown Scare. Currently Professor McDonnell writing two books: Cultural Objects (Polity) and Measuring Culture (Columbia University Press). He is currently engaged in studying empathy objects, and the effects of social media on civic and political participation. His research has been published in The American Journal of Sociology, Sociological Theory, Social Problems, Poetics, Qualitative Sociology, and Theory and Society.

Research Interests: Culture and Media, Health and AIDS, Social Movements, Gender and Sexuality, Urban Studies, Theory, Methods

Subfields: Cultural Sociology, Gender and Family, Research Methods, Social Movements / Political Sociology, Theory