Social knowledge at the micro level

People engage in their social worlds on the basis of a dense set of abilities and cognitive frameworks that permit them to make sense of the interactions they encounter, and to shape their behavior in ways that work for their purposes in the setting. People are creative, adaptive social actors, and this means that they engage with their social worlds on the basis of active, cognitive sense-making processes. These frameworks are rich and textured, and they plainly result from a long process of social learning on the part of the actor-in-formation.

The kinds of things that are encompassed here include —

  • Manners and stylized patterns of interaction
  • Frameworks for recognizing and interpreting the cues presented by others
  • Background knowledge about local social hierarchy
  • Rules of thumb for dealing with new action scenarios
  • Strategies for communicating and signifying socially important meanings to others

Some people are better at each of these modes of social interaction than others. Some are better at recognizing the cues of behavior or comportment of others — this stranger is safe, that one is menacing. Some are more adept at piecing together an action plan appropriate to the present circumstances. Some are more sensitive to the social expectations of a situation than others — the social dolt who neglects to offer a polite greeting before asking for assistance from a shop clerk in Wissembourg. And these differences have consequences; the person who is chronically insensitive or brusque in rural France is likely to find he or she receives minimal assistance from strangers when needed.

This fact about social interaction raises several kinds of questions for sociologists. First, mapping out the “grammar” of these micro norms of interaction and social knowledge is itself an interesting task. Much of the work of Erving Goffman takes this form of investigation — for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). One might describe this as discovery of a social grammar in a particular setting — a set of rules of interaction that can be discerned in ordinary social behavior.

Second, it is certainly an interesting question to ask what cognitive and emotional capacities are required for an individual to become adept in a familiar environment (one’s home village) or an unfamiliar context (a visit to Hong Kong by the middle-aged French farmer, let’s say). This is analogous to Chomsky’s ur-question: what mental capacities are required in order to acquire a human-language syntax?

And the processes of learning through which these kinds of skills and knowledge frameworks are acquired are certainly of great interest for sociologists. How does one learn how to behave in one’s home setting; in one’s work setting; or in an unfamiliar social context? What is the process of observation and adaptation through which one becomes an expert denizen of a particular social context? How much is endogenous to a given community, and how much is constructed from broader cultural avenues (e.g. film and television)? Did real Valley girls make Beverly Hills 90210, or did Beverly Hills 90210 make the Valley girls?

Several recent books provide very interesting analyses of these kinds of questions. One is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. Gambetta’s central issue is communications and signaling. Given the illegality of their activities, how do organized crime groups communicate their “sales” approach to their clients, victims, and the public? How does the Sicilian mafia communicate its effectiveness and menace as a source of protection for shopkeepers? How does it keep lesser groups of criminals out of this racket or that? How does it avoid adulteration of the brand?

At a more micro level, how do “made” men learn how to act as gangsters? How do they learn how to dress, how to talk, how to swagger? Gambetta suggests seriously that they do so in important measure through movies and television depiction of gangsters — The Godfather and the Sopranos were highly influential on gangster dress and behavior, Gambetta maintains. (Tony Soprano made one serious sartorial error in the Sopranos, wearing shorts to a barbecue. The producers were informed by mafia insiders this would never happen.) And Gambetta believes there is a fairly clear explanation of this fact, the workings of convention as a way of stabilizing behavior and communicating one’s identity. If one wants to say, “I’m a gangster” without confessing to a crime, what better way than wearing the sunglasses and open collars of the Corleone family in the Godfather? And the influence goes in both directions; according to Gambetta, Michael Caan (Sonny Corleone) spent an inordinate amount of time with gangster Carmine Persico during the filming of The Godfather.

The second recent book I’ve found interesting on the topic of micro sociology is Peter Bearman’s Doormen. Bearman is interested in making sense of the ways that doormen have professionalized their actions by mediating between the private worlds of their tenants and the public world of the street. Here is how he describes his research at the fifty thousand foot level:

Here, through the window of observed behavior, we observe that the real springs for social action rest in a nest of workable social theories, bags of tricks, and larger network processes. These theories, tricks, and processes appear to be social facts, that is, things that are not changeable by the will of a single individual — either the researcher or the research subject. (257)

Bearman makes a point of moving back and forth between fieldwork and social models. He wants to make sense of the social phenomenology he observes — how the job market for doormen works, how informal networks of knowledge sharing facilitate movement of young men into open doormen jobs (rather than waiting for years in queues for those same jobs), how weak ties play a crucial role in this world, and the ways in which these mechanisms prolong the workings of race- and ethnicity-based inequalities. And he makes expert use of the results of various areas of social modeling theory to explicate features of doorman activity — for example, the queuing of tasks and responses to tenants’ requests (chapter 3).

The situation of the doorman is unusual, Bearman finds, compared to many other semi-skilled service occupations. The doorman provides a buffer between the tenant’s world of privacy and privilege and the polluted world of the hustle-bustle street. He argues that the situation of the doorman is an unusual one, in that the doorman gains a high degree of personal knowledge about his tenants, and uses that knowledge to provide personalized service to them. 

Bearman makes a great deal of the fact that there is a wide social separation between doorman and tenant, even as there is a quasi-intimate relation between them based on the personal  knowledge the doorman has of the tenant. The doorman knows an enormous amount about the life of the tenant, while the tenant knows almost nothing of the doorman’s private life in Queens or Staten Island.

One of the striking things about Bearman’s book is the skill with which he diagnoses the semantics of the behaviors and spaces that he considers. What does the lobby of the residential building signify? In what ways do different residence styles signify different attitudes and qualities for their tenants? What does the routine, meaningless small chat between resident and doorman mean? What does the doorman’s uniform signify, for himself, for the tenant, and for the visitor? (According to one of the informants quoted by Bearman, the uniform makes him socially invisible as a human being.) This emphasis on social meanings is crucial and welcome; it is an acknowledgment for sociology of the insight that Geertz brought to ethnography, that the social world is a web of meanings that need to be deciphered if we are to understand the behavior of people within these settings (The Interpretation of Cultures).

Both these books are interesting because of what they bring to an actor-centered view of the social world. Both books are specifically interested in examining the social meanings invested in various modes of speech, dress, or comportment. As I’ve argued in earlier posts (link, link), we urgently need to have more nuanced theories of the actor, beyond stylized accounts of beliefs, desires, and opportunities. And studies like these provide a very welcome contribution to the task of formulating such a sociology.

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