Cerulo earned her B.A. from Rutgers University, graduating summa cum laude in 1980. She received her M.A. (1983) and Ph.D. (1985) in sociology from Princeton University. Her dissertation was titled "Social Solidarity and Its Effects on Musical Communication: An Empirical Analysis Of National Anthems."
Cerulo was an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook from 1985 to 1990. She joined the faculty of Rutgers University in the fall of 1990. In 1994, she received the School of Arts and Sciences’ "Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education." In 2012, she won the university’s "Scholar-Teacher Award", an honor bestowed on faculty persons who have made outstanding contributions in both research and teaching. She chaired the Rutgers sociology department from 2009 to 2012.
Much of Cerulo’s work revolves around symbol systems and their role in communication. She studies both verbal and nonverbal systems, including language, music, graphic images, and scents. While most people focus on the content of symbols, Cerulo prioritizes symbolic structure. She defines symbolic structure as the spatial or temporal organization of a symbol’s constituent parts—i.e. the ways in which colors and shapes are combined in visual images or notes, sounds, odors or words are temporally sequenced in musical, olfactory or verbal messages. Cerulo argues that structure, like content, carries meaning for those creating and receiving symbol based messages. Therefore, it is important to understand how symbolic structure resonates with those involved in the communication process. Cerulo unfolds this agenda in several articles and two of her books: Identity Designs: The Sights and Sounds of a Nation and Deciphering Violence: The Cognitive Structure of Right and Wrong. These works highlight two important findings. First, Cerulo shows that certain symbolic structures are associated with predictable reactions from those receiving messages. By uncovering and understanding these patterns, she argues, one can greatly enhance communication effectiveness. Second, she demonstrates that symbol structures vary in predictable ways according to the sociocultural conditions under which they are produced or projected. Contextual factors such as cultural heterogeneity, political or social stability, existing power structures, dominant systems of economic exchange, professional norms of expression, the nature of social ties, or levels of "collective focus" are all associated with certain variants of symbolic structure. (Collective focus is a concept developed by Cerulo to gauge the points of attention to which a collective body is directed at a given moment; others have since utilized the term.) Some describe Cerulo’s work on symbolic communication as a "demonstration of research ingenuity," one that "makes important contributions to debates about meaning and measurement." Moreover, "her answers to questions of how rather than what symbols communicate merit the attention of all scholars working in the sociology of culture and symbolic anthropology."
In line with her interest in symbolic communication, Cerulo has developed a number of quantitative indicators that capture the essence of symbol structures. For example, her measures of musical structure capture elements of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic motion, ornamentation and dissonance. Her measures of graphic images capture levels of density, contrast and distortion. In dealing with scents, she measures the diversity, contrast and temporal ordering of scent components. These measures allow one to classify the relative complexity of symbol structures. As a result, Cerulo’s measures make cultural objects such as paintings, logos, anthems, songs, even perfumes accessible sources of social science data, amenable to the field’s most rigorous analytic methods. The development of these measures earned Cerulo recognition as "a methodological pioneer in symbolic research."
In addition to studying the tools of communication, Cerulo is also interested in communication media. She has written extensively on the ways in which new communication technologies can change definitions and perceptions of social actors, social groups, and appropriate sites of action. She also problematizes the distinction between direct and mediated communication and she explores the contexts in which social connectedness and social cohesion develop in lieu of physical co-presence. Her work "presents a sophisticated typology of forms of interaction which goes beyond simple dichotomies like direct vs. mediated."
In recent years, Cerulo has worked to establish a dialog between cognitive neuroscience and cognitive sociology. Her edited collection, Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition, as well as several review pieces suggest viable links between these disciplines’ approach to conceptualization and schematization, habituation and attention, nurturance and attachment, cognitive styles, and memory storage. Cerulo’s book Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst also forwarded this agenda. In it, she builds on two cognitive scientific ideas, prototyping and graded membership, to explain a sociocultural phenomenon she calls "positive asymmetry"—i.e. a blind optimism associated with a disregard for worst-case scenarios. Cerulo’s work documents the widespread nature of positive asymmetry, tracking its influence in key events in the life cycle, the sites of work and play, and in the organizations and bureaucracies that structure social life. She shows that while definitions of best and worst change over time and place, the tendency to prioritize the best is rather constant. Most communities maintain cultural practices (what she calls "eclipsing", "clouding" and "recasting") that background materials dealing with worst-cases or negative concepts. Her work also identifies certain structural conditions under which these cultural practices are more or less likely to be used. "In a daring extrapolation, Cerulo argues that this individual grading is recapitulated in cultural cognition." She suggests that the cultural practices associated with positive asymmetry harness the brain’s propensity toward asymmetrical thinking. The practices take the mechanic of human brain operations and encode that process into a much more targeted and specialized experiential bias. Cerulo’s work concludes by reviewing both the helpful and debilitating consequences of positive asymmetry. She also questions whether this highly entrenched phenomenon can ever (or should ever) be corrected. Organizations expert Karl Weick says of the book, "This book is a welcome addition to an already growing literature on worst cases … What Cerulo adds to this mix is a mechanism, a catalog of cultural practices that make it difficult for people to envision the worst, a broader range of settings in which this imbalance plays out, initial efforts to characterize settings where negative symmetry is acceptable and encouraged, insistence that the unique details of worst cases are what is important, and a solid grounding at the individual level of analysis with the cognitive principle of ‘graded membership’." Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich called the book "remarkable" as it "recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking … undermined preparedness and invited disaster." The book was the topic of an "Author Meets Critics" session at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. In an effort to spotlight Cerulo’s critiques of the optimism agendas forwarded in books such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, writer John Gravois initiated a campaign in Slate magazine to have Cerulo interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey show. "The Secret tells us to visualize best-case scenarios and banish negative ones from our minds," wrote Gravois. "Never Saw It Coming says that's what we've been doing all along—and we get blindsided by even the most foreseeable disasters because of it."Cerulo, Karen and Janet M. Ruane. (2014) "Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Social, Cultural and Cognitive Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive." Social Psychology Quarterly 77: 2: 123-149.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2010) "Mining the Intersections of Cognitive Sociology and Neuroscience." Poetics 38: 2: 115-132.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2009) "Non-Humans in Social Interaction." Annual Review of Sociology vol. 35: 531-552.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2006) Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226100332.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2002) Culture in Mind: Toward A Sociology of Culture and Cognition. New York/London: Routledge. ISBN 041592944X.
Cerulo, Karen A. (1998) Deciphering Violence: The Cognitive Structure of Right and Wrong. New York/London: Routledge. ISBN 0415917999.
Cerulo, Karen A. and Ruane, Janet M. (1998) "Coming Together: New Taxonomies for the Analysis of Social Relations." Sociological Inquiry 68: 3: 398-425.
Cerulo, Karen A. (1995) Identity Designs: The Sights and Sounds of A Nation. The Arnold and Caroline Rose Book Series of the American Sociological Association. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813522110.