Posts Tagged ‘Erving Goffman’

Statement of Intent and Concern: Part III

In Reading, Sociology on June 28, 2009 at 9:57 pm

DSCF4470Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Concern and Intent #III: System Building

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.

Fernando Pessoa

I’m behind in my reading.  Stacked in front of me at my desk are the following: Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster, Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for Self Analysis, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbors Wife, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, John Cheever’s collected stories, and Elias Canneti’s Crowds and Power.  As if this was not enough, today I checked out Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and Robert Service’s Lenin.  I have also set aside for now, but need to get back to: Francois Cusset’s French Theory, Peter Drucker’s Management, Marx’s Capital, and Seth Lloyd’s Programming the Universe. All of these books are crucial and must be attended to at once.  Moreover, all of these books are connected–and taken in their totality they will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.  In fact, when incorporated with another hundred or so abandoned books to which I will shortly return, they will help constitute a system through which the universe and all contained in it shall be read.

Or so I tell myself.  I used to finish books in a single sitting; no longer.  According to my reading list for 2009, I have started 36 books and finished only 13 of these.  The remaining 23 range from the nearly finished (Solotaroff and Said) to the barely begun (Lloyd and Talese), but they all have one thing in common–I cannot truly move on with my life and work before these are completed, noted, and blogged about.  Herein the pathology.  In the year 2001 I began a master’s thesis.  The topic was supposed to be Japanese collective memory of the Second World War.  A big topic, surely, but not, perhaps, one which I could not wrap my arms around, even in the artificially constricted form of a thesis (my adviser told me 100, and not more than 120, pages).  220 rough pages later, having encompassed not only the topic directly at hand, but also Aristotle and Augustine, Occam and Kant, Weber and Wittgenstein, sociology and statistics, and a short history of the concept of free will, I foundered.  The thesis ran aground not from lack of something to say, but from a lack of ability to encapsulate and select–all this material seemed deeply relevant, indispensable in fact, but it wasn’t helping me finish the damn thing.

Evitar Zerubavel, in his highly sensible The Clockwork Muse, presents a compelling argument for just getting on with it.  Arguing for a “deromanticization of the writing process” (4), Zerubavel writes that “the problem, unfortunately, is that we often have difficulty letting go of our projects and bringing them to completion {…}  Such perfectionism (also expressed in the compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project) may lead us to keep spinning our intellectual wheels and work on the same project indefinitely” (87-88). Zerubavel recommends a micro-managed writing schedule–the “clockwork muse” in fact, whereby we forget about the idea of writing when inspired and instead write on a strict schedule.  “The very notion of a ‘clockwork muse’ may sound somewhat oxymoronic at first given the way we normally associate creativity with spontaneity.  It certainly goes against our traditional romantic image of a writer as someone who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy.  Yet only those who develop a certain amount of self-discipline actually end up completing theses, dissertations, and books” (98).

Uh huh.  And if one is afflicted by a “compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project” when at the same time being categorizable as one who’s passion in life is “theoretical” {as outlined by Eduard Spranger, someone in the grips of the theoretical passion “essentially likes to know that they have explained things better than they have been explained before” (Snyder, 132)}, the scope of necessary reading can reach outstanding proportions.   What I need is a clockwork system for my reading, and then the ability to draw some worthwhile lines.  But then, I just don’t seem cut out for this kind of efficiency.  Three things occur to me: Continue Reading


Statement of Intent and Concern: Part II

In Metaphysics, Organizations, Religion, Sociology on June 16, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

saul epipharyThis post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'” (Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis). Continue Reading

Minor Intellectuals Further Theorize About Selling Out Here

In Organizations, Sociology on February 17, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Editor’s Note: It is nice to see the affinity for the fascinating subject of sartorial conformism on the part of sympathists.  This post is organized as a dialogue, made up of comments to previous posts as well as material written expressly for the colloquy.

Tim Chanecka, Kyoto

Interesting observations, Mr. Inch, and good recollection as well. I would point out further that as one who shared that office with you and MT, it always seemed to me that for most of the rest of us (although if you’ll recall, I also seasonally wore a tie) the choice not to wear a tie was also an act of rebellion against the cultural norm that we were thrust into. In other words, an act of rebellion against a culture that insisted that anything less than a necktie was less than professional. Some of us, I believe you would be included in that group, wanted to be taken seriously as professionals for what we DID, not the packaging in which we did it. I guess that would skew quite seriously the idea that we could become something which we were not by pretending to be it.

At any rate, for me anyway, the wearing o’ the tie has become de rigueur, perhaps for the same reasons MT did and still does it, perhaps because I am in a culture which I cannot change, so I have changed my practices to be more in step with it. It still comes off before I even get out the door in the evening, however.

Dean Williams, Kyoto

What about MY sartorial choices? Something wrong with suspenders and bow ties? It was me, not the slim one, who read and took to heart the self-help smash, “Dress for Success–If You Want to be a Circus Clown.”

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Mr. Inch’s wonderfully ambivalent post deserves a full response, and, at the risk of typecasting Sympathies as a blog focusing on the minutia of social practice, will receive one. For the moment, I would only add that Puritano’s ability to pull off the circus clown look is wholly dependent on the projection of an identity that supports the fashion in question. For those many of us yet to acquire to ability to turn on and turn off more or less at will what for lack of a better word can only be called “charisma”–a conventional, even conservative professional appearance may indeed act as a kind of catalyst through which a measure of social effectiveness may be harnessed. I think that the ambivalence, perhaps even the hint of insecurity, that animates Andrew’s post is precisely born of his uncertainty about how far charisma, charm, and personality can take before he too will need to rethink his rebel pose, his “alternative (…) perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting,” and find it in himself to don the noose.

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

Fascinating stuff, Mr Thomas.  Goffman does indeed provide interesting means for thinking about the self and identity.  I think, however, that in part you have misinterpreted the roots of my ambivalence, and in so doing attribute something rather different to my post than I intended Continue Reading

The Imaginary Camera, Part II

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Editor’s Note: Part I of “The Imaginary Camera” left off with Jennifer Senior considering why it is that politicians like Reagan and Clinton were so effective as personalities; she suggests that this is because they basically have no “backstage” character–that the space between the private self and the public face is in fact de minimus.

On Bill Clinton:

Senior’s point here is that the best politicians are basically the same on stage and off stage. In Reagan’s case, as a professional actor, Ronald Reagan the man had, over time, simply become “Ronald Reagan” the politician and public figure. In the case of Clinton, one suspects, the same end result, being truly comfortable in the role, was attained by sightly different means–Clinton as an adult seems simply to have never had a self apart from his political image. Senior quotes Clinton advisor Paul Begala (well-read enough to be familiar with Goffman) to this effect: “Erving Goffman used to make the distinction between front-stage and backstage personas. Bill Clinton has the least distance between his front stage and his backstage personas out of anyone I know” (129). Begala’s comment here is especially interesting if seen through the lens of John Harris’ account of the first meeting between candidate Clinton and the two hot operatives of 1991, Begala and James Carville. According the Harris, Clinton first interviewed Carville and Begala at a bar, and he was wooing these two rather than the other way around. “Clinton had a reputation as the consummate politician, so the operatives sat down waiting for a discussion laden with inside dope {…} Instead, Clinton launched into an impassioned discourse–nothing short of a sermon, really–about how troubled he was about his country.” Begala “swooned” but “in his crush {…} kept enough detachment to contemplate that the session had been a put-on, and what seemed like a wonderfully guileless performance actually had been a more sophisticated brand of artifice. Is this guy for real? he asked Carville” (xi).

Through our reading of Senior and Goffman we realize that the answer to Begala’s questions is of course “yes”–he was for real, in this sense, the performance was both entirely guileless (that is sincere) and entirely artifice (that is cynical and calculated), the two modes blending in Clinton to such an extent that there was virtually no difference between the two. Clinton, after all, had by this point been running for a very long time; he lost a congressional race in Arkansas in 1974 at the age of 28, won a race for Arkansas Attorney General in 1976 and one for governor in 1978 at the tender age of 32. When it came time to run for president, Clinton the candidate had essentially erased any vestige of Bill Clinton the man, with a backstage self distinct from the man in the floodlights. Senior traveled with Clinton to Africa in 2005, and came away with this observation: “Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s always performing. The fantasy about Clinton is that he’s exactly like you or me. But he’s nothing like you or me {in} Africa {…} even in the most solitary circumstances, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He enjoyed performing in these quiet circumstances, often repeating the same jokes and anecdotes {…} It was like an imaginary camera was always running” (135). Continue Reading

The Imaginary Camera, Part I

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:35 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

bobdole250Introduction to Erving Goffman:

Here, I am interested to dig deeper into some of the themes of earlier posts on Sympathies, one by Matthew on being and becoming, the other by Andrew Inch on “practices of the self.”  This is a long post, so I have split it into two parts.  There may be a part three to follow.

We are concerned here once again with the way in which people, by inhabiting a role in society, create a social, public self–and with the relation of that created second self to what Erving Goffman calls our “backstage” self. This post draws primarily on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Jennifer Senior’s excellent article from 2007 “The Politics of Personality Destruction” (originally from New York magazine, collected in Best American Political Writing 2008).

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life would be on a very short list of my favorite books ever written, but it not too widely known, even among many casual readers of sociology. But while Marx, Weber, and Durkheim may enjoy a higher public profile, Goffman, in my opinion, holds his own as one of the most creative and influential sociologists to have written. Gary Alan Fine and Philip Manning argue that Goffman is indeed a major figure–that his ideas have been taken up by legions of sociologists, and have seeped into many other disciplines, but that very few have followed directly in his footsteps. Fine and Manning suggest that because he offered no “overarching theory of society,” thus not attracting followers or a ‘school’ as such, Goffman’s contributions have been somewhat overlooked, and it is true that Goffman provides great insight and inspiration, but not a systematic program or model of society. His exceptionality is in his individuality–his work is unreproducable and wholly idiosyncratic, but is it not true that in the long run individual obsessions played out at length are, in all their eccentricities and drawbacks, usually the most enlightening and lasting? Despite the unsystematic nature of his work, between The Presentation of Self and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior Goffman did produce a fairly thorough analysis of what transpires in everyday social interactions.

I have no intention here of providing a general overview of Goffman’s theory; suffice it to say that Goffman, like Shakespeare, sees almost all social activity as taking place on stage, and delineates between events that happen on “stage” (those actions carried out in front of the public) and those that transpire “backstage” (those actions carried out in private, many of which if they were seen by the public would disrupt, falsify, or even destroy the potency of staged actions). In Interaction Ritual, Goffman is centrally concerned with face-saving behavior and accommodation, and sees everyday activity as made up of countless “interchanges”–an interchange referring to a series of moves between social actors with face consequences. Continue Reading