Julia Sonnevend is Associate Professor of Sociology and Communications at The New School for Social Research. She is a sociologist of culture; her comparative and interdisciplinary publications argue that much of global culture rests on the unexpected, not on the planned. A major international event can shake the world and the emergence of a charismatic new politician on the global stage can alter our lives. Just consider that almost nobody saw the earthshaking changes of 1989 coming even a few years beforehand, or the genuine shock political scientists felt as they failed to predict the outcome of the 2016 elections in the United States. We all desire to understand and describe our experiences in rational terms, and somehow predict and assess the future to come. But despite our best efforts we are still swayed by powerful feelings, exceptional representations, and magnetic people; we all confront moments that simply do not fit into neat boxes. Sonnevend’s work argues that contemplating these unexpected, non-rational features of human existence can lead to a better understanding of political, social, and communicative processes worldwide. Perhaps influenced by her Eastern-European upbringing by two librarians in Hungary during a jarring political transformation, she is skeptical of progress narratives and technological enthusiasm, and has a particular fondness for understanding failures and ruptures of communication and culture worldwide.
Her first book, Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event (Oxford University Press, 2016) raised the question: How we can tell the story of an event in a way that people would remember it internationally and over time? In this book, Sonnevend developed a new concept of “global iconic events”, defined as news events that the international media cover extensively and remember ritually. Focusing on journalists covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and on subsequent retellings of the event (from Legoland reenactments to the installation of segments of the Berlin Wall in shopping malls), she discussed how storytellers build up certain events so that people remember them for long periods of time. The East German border opening that we now summarize as the “fall of the Berlin Wall” was in fact unintentional, confusing, and prompted in part by misleading media coverage of bureaucratic missteps. But its global message is not about luck or accident or happenstance in history. Incarnated as a global iconic event, the “fall of the Berlin Wall” has come to communicate the momentary power that vulnerable ordinary people can have. This powerful myth still shapes our debates about separation walls and fences, borders and refugees worldwide. In contrast to globalization theories that focus on the metaphor of a “bridge,” her book highlights the ongoing presence of separation walls and barriers around the world.
While Sonnevend’s first book focused on magical events in our international imagination, her next book, Charm: How Magnetic Personalities Capture Our Hearts, Minds and Politics (under advance contract with Princeton University Press), will consider a magical quality in human relations. Bringing together sociology, performance studies, political science and international relations, it will analyze the importance of “charm” in global politics. Through case studies of liberal, illiberal and authoritarian political leaders from North Korea to Iran to New Zealand to Hungary, she considers how we can translate the everyday, in-person magic of charm to contemporary mediated and fragmented political environments. Updating Max Weber’s hundred-year-old charisma concept, Sonnevend argues that “charm” has become one of the keywords of contemporary global politics. As we increasingly turn our attention to political personalities in contrast to parties, policies and institutions, the seductive and deceptive powers of mediated political charm need careful consideration and dedicated scholarly and public attention.
Her graduate students work on a wide-range of topics in relation to global culture, including South Korea’s covid-response, the representation of “peace” in Israeli-Palestinian television shows, the culture of binge-watching in Chile and the United States, the Coca Cola company’s role in fostering independent music in Pakistan and Chinese artists’ coping with anti-Asian sentiment in New York.
Sonnevend received her PhD in Communications from Columbia University, her Master of Laws degree from Yale Law School, and her Juris Doctorate and Master of Arts degrees in German Studies and Aesthetics from Eötvös Loránd University Budapest.
Please view her Research Matters profile for more information about Sonnevend’s work.
She tweets from @juliasonnevend
PhD in Communications, Columbia University, 2013
LLM, Yale Law School, 2007
Sonnevend, J. (forthcoming 2023). Charm: How Magnetic Personalities Capture Our Hearts, Minds and Politics. Princeton University Press
Sonnevend, J. (2016). Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reviews: The Times Higher Education;Journal of Communication; Journalism:Theory, Practice and Criticism; Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly; Media, Culture & Society
Book award: Runner-up Best Book Award in the Global Communication and Social Change Division of the International Communication Association
Translation: Hungarian (Corvina Publisher, June 2018)
Greenhow, C.,Sonnevend J., & Agur, C. (Eds.). (2016). Education and Social Media: Toward a Digital Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sonnevend, J. (2020). A virus as an Icon: The 2020 Pandemic in Images. American Journal of Cultural Sociology. 12, 451-461.
Sonnevend, J. & Katz, Y. (2020). Capturing Hearts: Charm, Personal Magnetism and The Iranian Nuclear Deal in the American and Israeli Press. Journalism Studies, 21 (11):1551–1570.
Sonnevend, J. & Kim, Y. (2020). An unlikely seducer: Kim Jong-un’s charm offensive from the PyeongChang Winter Olympics until the Trump-Kim summit. International Journal of Communication, 14, 1398–1420.
Sonnevend, J. (2019) Charm offensive: mediatized country image transformations in international relations. Information, Communication & Society, 22(5), 695-701.
Sonnevend, J. (2018). The lasting charm of Media Events. Media, Culture & Society 40(1), 122-126.
Sonnevend, J. (2018). Interruptions of time: The coverage of the missing Malaysian plane MH370 and the concept of “events” in media research. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 19(1), 75-92.
Sonnevend, J. (May 25, 2017). Our New Walls: The Rise of Separation Barriers in the Age of Globalization. E-International Relations (also published on Public Seminar).
Sonnevend, J. (2015). “Symbol of Hope for a World Without Walls”: The Fall of the Berlin Wall as a Global Iconic Event. Divinatio, 39-40, 223-233 (also translated into Bulgarian)
Sonnevend, J. (2013). Counterrevolutionary icons: The representation of the 1956 ‘counterrevolution’ in the Hungarian communist press. Journalism Studies, 14(3), 336-354.
Special issues in peer-reviewed journals:
Sonnevend, J. (2018). “Media Events Today”, Media, Culture & Society, 40(1), 110-113
Bodker, H., & Sonnevend, J. (2018). “The ShiftingTemporalities of Journalism”, Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 19(1), 3-6
Sonnevend, J. (2017). Media Events. In Moy, P. (Ed.) Oxford Bibliographies in Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sonnevend, J. (2020). The East in You Never Leaves. In Laczo, F. & Gabrijelcic, L. L. (Eds.) The Legacy of Division: East and West After 1989. Budapest: CEU Press. [also published on Eurozine and Public Seminar, and translated into Slovene]
Sonnevend, J. (2018). Facts (Almost) Never Win Over Myths. In Boczkowski, P. & Papacharissi, Z. (Eds.) Trump and the Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sonnevend, J. (2016). Event. In Peters, B. (Ed.), Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (pp. 109-118). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Balkin, J. M., & Sonnevend, J. (2016). The digital transformation of education. In Greenhow, C., Sonnevend J., & Agur, C. (Eds.), Education and social media: Toward a digital future (pp. 9-25). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sonnevend, J. (2016). More hope! Ceremonial media events are still important in the 21st century. In Fox, A. (Ed.), Global Perspectives on Media Events in Contemporary Society (pp. 132-141). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
"'The Big Clean Up': The 2020 Pandemic as a Representational Crisis," SSRC Items, September 27, 2020
"Mekkora Orbán vonzereje, és miért ilyen fontos, hogy van neki?" 24, August 13, 2019
"The East in You Never Leaves," Public Seminar, March 16, 2019
"Why We Need More Essays about Media," Public Seminar, March 6, 2018
"Megingott a liberális világrend, újra büszkén lehet falat építeni," 24, February 21, 2019
Cited in "'Trump and the Media': Work-in-Progress Dispatches from a Sinking Ship," Pop Matters, October 29, 2018
"'There Was No Berlin Wall, and It Never Fell'," Research Matters, July 5, 2017
"Our New Walls," Public Seminar, June 16, 2017