Goffman’s close encounters

image: GIF from D. Witt (link)


George Herbert Mead’s approach to social psychology is an important contribution to the new pragmatism in sociology (link). Mead puts forward in Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist a conception of the self that is inherently social; the social environment is prior to the individual, in his understanding. And what this means is that individuals acquire habits, attitudes, and ways of thinking through their interactions in the social environments in which they live and grow up. The individual’s social conduct is built up out of the internalized traces of the practices, norms, and orientations of the people around him or her.

Erving Goffman is one of the sociologists who has given the greatest attention to the role of social norms in ordinary social interaction. One of his central themes is a focus on face-to-face interaction. This is the central topic in his book, Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. So rereading Interaction Ritual is a good way to gain some concrete exposure to how some sociologists think about the internalized norms and practices that Mead describes.

Goffman’s central concern in this book is how ordinary social interactions develop. How do the participants shape their contributions in such a way as to lead to a satisfactory exchange? The ideas of “line” and “face” are the central concepts in this volume. “Line” is the performative strategy the individual has within the interaction. “Face” is the way in which the individual perceives himself, and the way he perceives others in the interaction to perceive him. Maintaining face invokes pride and honor, while losing face invokes shame and embarrassment. So a great deal of the effort extended by the actor in social interactions has to do with maintaining face — what Goffman refers to as “face-work”. Here are several key descriptions of the role of face-work in ordinary social interactions:

By face-work I mean to designate the actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent with face. (12)

The members of every social circle may be expected to have some knowledge of face-work and some experience in its use. In our society, this kind of capacity is sometimes called tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, or social skill. (13)

A person may be said to have, or be in, or maintain face when the line he effectively takes presents an image of him that is internally consistent, that is supported by judgment and evidence conveyed by other participants, and that is confirmed by evidence conveyed through and personal agencies in the situation. (6-7)

So Goffman’s view is that the vast majority of face-to-face social interactions are driven by the logic of the participants’ conceptions of “face” and the “lines” that they assume for the interaction. Moreover, Goffman holds that in many circumstances, the lines available for the person in the circumstance are defined by convention and are relatively few. This entails that most interactional behavior is scripted and conventional as well. This line of thought emphasizes the coercive role played by social expectations in face to face encounters. And it dovetails with the view Goffman often expresses of action as performative, and self as dramaturgical.

The concept of self is a central focus of Mead’s work in MSS. Goffman too addresses the topic of self:

So far I have implicitly been using a double definition of self: the self as an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking; and the self as a kind of player in a ritual game who copes honorably or dishonorably, diplomatically or undiplomatically, with the judgmental contingencies of the situation. (31)

Fundamentally, Goffman’s view inclines against the notion of a primeval or authentic self; instead, the self is a construct dictated by society and adopted and projected by the individual.

Universal human nature is not a very human thing. By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, build up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without. (45)

Moreover, Goffman highlights the scope of self-deception and manipulation that is a part of his conception of the actor:

Whatever his position in society, the person insulates himself by blindnesses, half-truths, illusions, and rationalizations. He makes an “adjustment” by convincing himself, with the tactful support of his intimate circle, that he is what he wants to be and that he would not do to gain his ends what the others have done to gain theirs. (43)

One thing that is very interesting about this book is the concluding essay, “Where the Action Is”. Here Goffman considers people making choices that are neither prudent nor norm guided. He considers hapless bank robbers, a black journalist mistreated by a highway patrolman in Indiana, and other individuals making risky choices contrary to the prescribed scripts. In this setting, “action” is an opportunity for risky choice, counter-normative choice, throwing fate to the wind. And Goffman thinks there is something inherently attractive about this kind of risk-taking behavior.

Here Goffman seems to be breaking his own rules — the theoretical ones, anyway. He seems to be allowing that action is sometimes not guided by prescriptive rules of interaction, and that there are human impulses towards risk-taking that make this kind of behavior relatively persistent in society. But this seems to point to a whole category of action that is otherwise overlooked in Goffman’s work — the actions of heroes, outlaws, counter-culture activists, saints, and ordinary men and women of integrity. In each case these actors are choosing lines of conduct that break the norms and that proceed from their own conceptions of what they should do (or want to do).  In this respect the pragmatists, and Mead in particular, seem to have the more complete conception of the actor, because they leave room for spontaneity and creativity in action, as well as a degree of independence from coercive norms of behavior. Goffman opens this door with his long concluding essay here; but plainly there is a great deal more that can be said on this subject.

The 1955 novel and movie Man in the Grey Flannel Suit seems to illustrate both parts of the theory of action in play here — a highly constrained field of action presented to the businessman (played by Gregory Peck), punctuated by occasional episodes of behavior that break the norms and expectations of the setting. Here is Tom Rath speaking honestly to his boss. (The whole film is available on YouTube.)

Getting inside people’s frames

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.

The notion of a frame seems to originate (in sociology anyway) in the writings of Erving Goffman. Here is how he formulates the idea in Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience:

When the individual in our Western society recognizes a particular event, he tends, whatever else he does, to imply in this response (and in effect employ) one or more frameworks or schemata of interpretation of a kind that can be called primary. I say primary because application of such a framework or perspective is seen by those who apply it as not depending on or harking back to some prior or ‘original’ interpretation; indeed a primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful…. Whatever the degree of organization, however, each primary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms. He is likely to be unaware of such organized features as the framework has and unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked, yet these handicaps are no bar to his easily and fully applying it…. Social frameworks … provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being…. Taken all together, the primary frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture, especially insofar as understandings emerge concerning principal classes of schemata, the relations of these classes to one another, and the sum total of forces and agents that these interpretive designs acknowledge to be loose in the world. (21-22, 27)

The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront. At least a part of the disciplinary matrix of cultural sociology might be understood as the field of inquiry that tries to probe those frameworks as they are embodied in specific collectivities — working class people, women, African Americans, American Muslims, or college professors, for example. (Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel might be viewed as progenitors of this aspect of the sociology discipline; linklink.)

Wendy Griswold addresses part of this viewpoint on sociological research in her very good overview of the field in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World.

Most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people’s meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. (kl 195)

So how have sociologists attempted to investigate these kinds of subjective realities? Here is how Al Young describes his research goals in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances:

I wanted to get a sense of whether poor black men looked beyond their immediate surroundings and circumstances when thinking about the future. Hence, the story told here is about how these men think about themselves as members of a larger social world — not just their communities and neighborhoods, but American society. (lc 134)

Part 2, “Lifeworlds,” explores the men’s own accounts of their past and contemporary circumstances. It is here that the experiences and situations that have positioned them as poor, urban-based black men are explored. Chapter 2 provides a vision of the social contexts that circumscribe these men’s lives and shape the comments and opinions that they shared with me. (lc 195)

In order to answer these questions Young conducted several dozen interviews with young black men on the south side of Chicago, and his interpretation and analysis of the results is highly illuminating.

Or take as another example the highly interesting work of sociologist Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Here Lamont studies the mentalities of high-status white men in the United States and France. Her question is a fairly simple one: how do these men formulate their judgments of success and failure in themselves and others? What features do they admire in others and which do they dislike? She conducts interviews with 160 men in four cities in France and the United States, and makes a sustained effort to discern the profiles of culture and value that she finds among these individuals.

I compare competing definitions of what it means to be a ‘worthy person’ by analyzing symbolic boundaries, i.e., by looking at implicit definitions of purity present in the labels interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people with whom they don’t want to associate, people to whom they consider themselves to be superior and inferior, and people who arouse hostility, indifference, and sympathy. Hence, the study analyzes the relative importance attached to religion, honesty, low moral standards, cosmopolitanism, high culture, money, power, and the likes, by Hoosiers, New Yorkers, Parisians, and Clermontois. (kl 179)

This kind of research is inherently interesting because of the light it sheds for readers about the lives and experiences of others. Reading Al Young or Michele Lamont offers the reader a window into the experience and meaning frameworks of people whose lives and experiences have been substantially different from our own; it helps us understand the ways in which these various individuals and members of groups understand themselves and their social worlds. All by itself this is a valuable kind of research. (Why did so many African Americans respond differently to the acquittal of OJ Simpson than their white counterparts and peers?)

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

A key issue with this kind of inquiry is methodological. How should we investigate and observe the subjective characteristics of thought and feeling that this work entails? What are appropriate standards of validity on the basis of which to assess assertions in this area? Sociologists like Alford Young and Michele Lamont have often chosen a methodology that centers on open-ended unstructured interviews — very much the kind of thing that Studs Terkel was so good at. What these sociologists add to the approach of a Studs Terkel or an Ira Glass is an effort to analyze and generalize from the interviews they collect in order to arrive at mid-level statements about the mentality and symbolic frameworks of this group or that. And both Young and Lamont succeed in providing portraits of their subjects that are highly insightful and sociologically plausible — we can understand the mechanisms through which these frameworks take hold and we can see some of the meso-level consequences that follow from them in specific social settings.

In a number of prior posts I’ve argued for an actor-centered sociology (link). And I’ve argued that we need to have better and more fully articulated theories of the actor if an actor-centered sociology is to be valuable.  What I am calling cultural sociology here is one way for the discipline of sociology to get down to business in providing more nuanced theories of the actor.

(I should note that the description provided here of cultural sociology makes the field seem highly actor-centered; but this isn’t entirely accurate. There are macro and meso zones of research in cultural sociology that are distinctly uninterested in the mental frameworks of the individual actors. Wendy Griswold captures this multi-level division of the field by referring to a “cultural diamond”, and the actor-centered aspect that I’ve described here is probably the smallest in terms of the volume of research conducted in the field. Here is Griswold’s description of the diamond:

I use the device of the “cultural diamond” to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects — symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. (kl 218)

In fact, the actor-centered dimension of the field gets relatively little spotlight in Griswold’s Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. If anything, one might argue that there should be more attention to the interface between frame and actor, so that individuals are not viewed as simply the passive bearers of this cultural icon or that.)

Goffman’s programme

Erving Goffman has had wide influence on American and French sociology, and I find his work highly interesting.  But it is hard to characterize, because it doesn’t fit easily into the standard categories of sociological research and theory.  It studies individuals, but it is not individualist.  And it is evidence-based, but it is not empiricist.  In earlier posts I’ve characterized it as a particular kind of local knowledge, a sort of ethnography for micro-sociology (link, link).  But there is certainly more to say than that.

One key part of his work can be described as “close observation of individual behavior in social context.”  This has two ends — individual behavior and social context.  And Goffman wants to shed light on both poles of this description.  In particular, he almost always expresses interest in the social norms that surround action — the expectations and norms through which other people interpret and judge the individual’s conduct.

Consider these programmatic statements from several of Goffman’s books:

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant.  A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, preface)

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life — that of behavior inpublic and semipublic places. Although this area has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.  Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. (Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, 3-4)

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his ‘social identity’ – to use a term that is better than ‘social status’ because personal attributes such as ‘honesty’ are involved, as well as structural ones, like ‘occupation’. (Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 11)

Within the terms, then, of the bad name that the analysis of social reality has, this book presents another analysis of social reality. I try to follow a tradition established by William James in his famous chapter “The Perception of Reality,” first published as an article in Mind in 1896.  Instead of asking what reality is, he gave matters a subversive phenomenological twist, italicizing the following question: Under what circumstances do we think things are real?  (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 2)

In 1945 Alfred Schutz took up James’ theme again in a paper called “On Multiple Realities.” … Schutz’s paper … was brought to the attention of ethnographic sociologists by Harold Garfinkel, who further extended the argument about multiple realities by going on (at least in his early comments) to look for rules which, when followed, allow us to generate a “world” of a given kind. (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 5)

I have borrowed extensively from all these sources, claiming really only the bringing of them together.  My perspective is situational, meaning here a concern for what one individual can be alive to at a particular moment, this often involving a few other particular individuals and not necessarily restricted to the mutually monitored arena of a face-to-face gathering. I assume that when individuals attend to any given current situation, they face the question: “What is it that’s going on here?” (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 8)

The study of face-to-face interaction in natural settings doesn’t yet have an adequate name.  Moreover, the analytical boundaries of the field remain unclear.  Somehow, but only somehow, a brief time span is involved, a limited extension in space, and a restriction to those events that must go on to completion once they have begun…. The ultimate behavioral materials are the glances, gestures, positionings, and verbal statements that people continuously feed into the situation, whether intended or not.  These are the external signs of orientation and involvements — states of mind and body not ordinarily examined with respect to their social organization. (Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1)

There are several orienting themes among these statements and within Goffman’s work — frames, we might call them.

  • There is the idea of face-to-face behavior, in private, in public, and in everyday life.  
  • There is focus on the social setting within which local behavior takes place — the norms and constraints that are embodied in the group and constraining of the individual.  
  • There is emphasis on the particulars of the place — the factory, the asylum, the hotel.
  • There is the social-cognitive situation of the individual — the way in which he or she answers the question, “What is going on here?” 
So Goffman starts much of his work with fine-grained, detailed observations of behavior — elements as subtle as the bodily signs of embarrassment in a conversation.  Second, he wants to discover some of the structures of mental processing through which individuals act in social settings — the frames, scripts, and rituals that guide social perception and action for individuals.  Third, he wants to tease out the social judgments and norms that provide the normative and guiding context for the actor’s movements — the judgments surrounding “saving face,” embarrassment, shame, pride, and proper performance.  

There is also a psychiatric dimension of Goffman’s work: “abnormal behavior” and the description and contextualization of unexpected patterns of behavior are frequent elements of Goffman’s discourse.  For example, in Stigma:

The term stigma and its synonyms conceal a double perspective : does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable.  This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations. I will begin with the situation of the discredited and move on to the discreditable but not always separate the two. (14)

And psychiatric examples permeate Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings as well.

The Erving Goffman Archive at UNLV has some very useful materials relevant to Goffman’s intellectual project (link). The site is of great value and is worth studying in detail.  Here is a link to one of Goffman’s course reading lists from 1970.  The list is titled, “The Ethnography of Symbolic Forms: Frame Analysis,” and is dated Fall 1970.  The list is very interesting, and particularly valuable is the first section on “Basic Materials.”  This gives us an idea of some of the most important formative influences on Goffman.  Included on the list are several phenomenologists (Husserl, Kockelmans); several ethnomethodologists (Garfinkel, Schutz); a handful of analytic philosophers (David Shwayder, J. L. Austin, Nelson Goodman), and a playwright (Pirandello).

The 1960 reading list is also of interest; link.  This syllabus is titled Communication and Social Contact.  Goffman describes the course in these terms:

This course deals with face to face interactions in natural settings.  Interest will center on the components of the communicative act, the variables and models of interaction analysis, and the natural units of interaction for which a literature is available.

The syllabus breaks the course into a series of topics: Sign Processes, Expressive Behavior, Interaction, Substantive Areas, Conversation, Task Meetings, Two-Person Psychotherapy, Performances, Play-Games, Public Behavior, and Social Occasions.  This list has some of the surprising conjunctions evident in the 1970 list as well; for example, there is a significant amount of attention to game theorists (Von Neumann and Morgenstern, Schelling, Luce and Raiffa), as well as Freudian psychology.

Here is how Pierre Bourdieu distilled Goffman’s originality (link):

The work of Erving Goffman is the product of one of the most original and rarest methods of doing sociology — for example, putting on a doctor’s white coat, in order to enter a psychiatric asylum and thus putting oneself at the very site of the infinity of minute interactions which combine to make up social life….  Goffman’s achievement was that he introduced sociology to the infinitely small, to the things which the object-less theoreticians and concept-less observers were incapable of seeing and which went unremarked because they were too obvious, like everything which goes without saying.  These entomologist’s minutiae were bound to disconcert, even shock, an establishment accustomed to surveying the social world from a more distant and more lofty standpoint. (“Erving Goffman, Discoverer of the Infinitely Small,” Theory Culture & Society 2:1 1983, 112)

This is a nice description of Goffman’s work.  It leaves out an important dimension, however, namely, the social and contextual side of Goffman’s gaze. Goffman was always interested in the nuances of social expectation, norm, and script within particular social settings.  And this makes his work thoroughly sociological.

Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don’t really have good answers to any of these questions:

  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?

These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups — how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well — once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions — basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description — for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn’t have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn’t seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics — people from a certain region (“midwesterners”), people with a certain occupation (“insurance adjustors”), people with a certain national origin (“Irish-Americans”), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme (“Protestants,” “Populists”).  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common — the “nominal” characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics — lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, …  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:

  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or “The Greatest Generation”?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  

Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.
Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:

“There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile.” This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  

Or: “A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups.”

It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: “Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;” “teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;” “white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.”)  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A’s are so different from the B’s: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?
The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity — a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions — that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.

Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel’s work defines this genre — both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to “sociological knowledge”? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of “concrete, individual-level experience” for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman’s work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman’s work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction — one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.

The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)

 Goffman’s text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:

[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)

[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids — although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)

[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)

[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests’ food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters’ culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)

So Goffman’s sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

Acting, deliberating, performing

Earlier posts have addressed aspects of action — particularly the features that align action with purposiveness and choice, deliberation, planning, and improvisation. Here I’d like to focus on the idea of action as a performance — a series of behaviors meaningfully orchestrated by the actor out of consideration of an expected “script”. Here we interpret actions as falling into scripts and roles, created by the culture’s history and constituting the actor’s behaviors as a performance. The agent is postulated to possess a stock of mini-scripts and role expectations that are then invoked into a “syntax” of performance in specific social settings.

The anthropologist Victor Turner makes central use of this framework in constructing his ethnographies (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society). He refers to this approach as dramaturgical ethnography. The idea here is that social groups — cultures — have created for themselves a set of schemes of ways of behaving that individuals internalize and play out as social settings arise. There is the role of the doctor, the salesman, the librarian, the clown, and the general, and the individuals who assume those roles know the scripts. So when they interact in social settings relevant to their roles, their behaviors reflect the role and the script. The scripts become part of the furniture of “behavioral cognition” — the routines the players string together in ordinary and extraordinary social settings. (Note the parallel with Erving Goffman’s treatment of everyday behavior (post).) And, perhaps, the script governs the social actor so deeply that his/her behavior no longer has its own individual meaning or intention. (It is said that Gary Cooper never saw his role in High Noon as the anti-McCarthyism allegory that most people on the progressive side of the spectrum take it to be.)

What does this framework imply about the actor’s state of mind in performing an action? How much agency do actors maintain under this theory? And to what extent is the actor’s conduct his own, deriving from his or her own authentic self rather than from an externally created role? Consider as an example, a fire captain’s behaviors and speeches during his management of the fire company’s handling of a major fire. Let’s amplify the story a bit. The captain and the members of the company have a well-rehearsed set of procedures for various scenarios encountered in fighting a fire — “victim trapped in bedroom”, “elderly person inside”, “possible toxic materials on site”, “roof collapse imminent”. As these contingencies arise, captain and company play out the prescribed actions. Second, though, there is probably a prescribed style of command that influences the captain’s manner and conduct: be calm, give sufficient attention to the company’s safety, keep control of the press and crowd on-site, don’t fall into a screaming, cursing rage when things go badly. (Think of Captain Sullenberger’s methodical double sweep of the USAir passenger cabin after landing his disabled aircraft on the Hudson River, before exiting for his own chance of rescue.)

So there are fairly tangible ways in which the behaviors of the commander and the company are in fact governed by scripts and roles. The dramaturgical interpretation makes sense here. The actions of these participants are not invented de novo on the scene of the fire; rather, they derive from earlier practice of roles and, more intangibly, carrying out of a certain conception of behavior of a commander under stress. We don’t get actions here that derive from unadorned actors, considering a range of choices and choosing the best in the circumstances.

But neither do we get the opposite extreme — robots playing out their scripts without intelligence or adaptation to circumstance. Instead, each of the players in this story retains his/her own assessment of what is currently going on and what deviations of script may be demanded. The captain retains the ability and the responsibility to break with procedures when there is an imminent reason to do so; and this degree of autonomy extends down the line of command to the junior firefighter. So the routines and scripts guide rather than generate the behavior.

So the performative interpretation of social action is not inherently inconsistent with the idea of intelligent, purposive action. Instead, we can think of the actor in this case — captain or junior firefighter — as involving in a complicated series of behaviors that reflect both deliberation and internalized script. I think this interpretation is very analogous to Pierre Bourdieu’s position on the subject of habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice. Conduct that is guided by norms (in this case, scripts and roles) can nonetheless also be intelligent and strategic. Seen in this light, the dramaturgical interpretation supplements the purposive theory of action rather than replaces it.

It is challenging to get the balance right, though, between the compulsion of a set of norms or scripts and the practical freedom the actor maintains at every point to act differently than the prescription. It seems unavoidable that the kinds of scripts, roles, and norms mentioned here have some binding power over the agent in actual social life. Much of the time the behavior simply plays out the script, with no homunculus reconsidering the action from the point of view of other possible choices. And often the role or norm is psychologically compelling to the extent that the actor can’t realistically consider breaking it. Today’s British newspapers break a mini-scandal in which an environmental activist is pressured by the Scottish police to serve as a paid secret informant (story). They offer a substantial amount of money and immunity from otherwise scary criminal charges for her cooperation. Rather than accepting their terms she bugs her meeting with them with her cellphone and exposes the police effort. Why? Presumably because her understanding of her role as a principled activist with the courage of her convictions made accepting this offer humiliating and impossible. (Think, though, how many people made a different choice in the GDR when confronted by the Ministry for State Security (Stasi).)

Everyday social interactions

It is apparent that there are patterns in the ordinary social interactions between individuals in various societies. Whether and how to greet an acquaintance or a stranger, how close people stand together, how loudly people speak, what subjects they turn to in idle social conversation, how conflict is handled — all of these topics and more seem to have specific and nuanced answers in various specific social environments. And it seems likely enough that there are persistent differences at this level of social behavior across cities, gender, race, and class.

So is there room for social science in this domain of social behavior? And what sorts of concepts and theories help us in trying to characterize this type of social behavior?

On the first question, there is no doubt that there are researchers and traditions that have addressed exactly these sorts of questions. Erving Goffman’s writings are most directly relevant (for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings), and urban anthropologists and sociologists are often interested in micro-descriptions of social behaviors as well — for example, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum or Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men.

Here is one of Goffman’s descriptions of his goals:

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life — that of behavior in public and sempublic places. Although this has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.

Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. To be sure, one part of “collective behavior” — riots, crowds, panics — has been established as something to study. But the remaining part of the area, the study of ordinary human traffic and the patterning of ordinary social contacts, has been little considered. … It is the object of this report to try to develop such a framework. (Behavior in Public Places, 3-4)

The school of ethnomethodology also attempts to provide this kind of detailed observation and description. This approach is illustrated, for example, by Harold Garfinkel’s descriptions of the procedures embodied in the practices of professional accountants or lawyers in Studies in Ethnomethodology. A major objective of the method is to arrive at an interpretation of the rules that underlie everyday activity and thus constitute part of the normative basis of a given social order. Research from this perspective generally focuses on mundane forms of social activity–e.g. psychiatrists evaluating patients’ files, jurors deliberating on defendants’ culpability, or coroners judging cause of death. The investigator then attempts to reconstruct an underlying set of rules and ad hoc procedures that may be taken to have guided the observed activity. The approach emphasizes the contextuality of social practice–the richness of unspoken shared understandings that guide and orient participants’ actions in a given practice or activity.

So there is quite a bit of work in anthropology and sociology that chooses to provide careful observation and description of concrete social behavior.

But there is a more fundamental question to ask: in what sense is this research scientific? What would a scientific study of the patterns of face-to-face social behavior need to provide? And why would this subject be of genuine interest from a scientific point of view?

One feature that stands out in the work of Goffman, Whyte, Liebow, or Garfinkel is the commitment of these observers to careful, detailed observation and description of social behavior. They are interested in capturing the nuances of ordinary behavior, and their research reports give a great deal of emphasis to the importance of providing detailed descriptions of ordinary social interactions. And in fact, it seems very reasonable to say that this body of descriptions is itself scientifically valuable and intellectually challenging, perhaps in some of the ways that the careful observations and descriptions produced by Darwin or Wallace in the Galapagos or Malaysia are scientifically important. Here the standard of scientific value is empirical: it is very important for the observer to “get it right” — to accurately observe and record the fine differences in behavior that are embedded in the social contexts that are observed. (See an earlier posting on the subject of descriptive social science.)

But we can also discern a second scientific objective at work in these kinds of writings, either directly or indirectly — the goal of arriving at an explanation of the patterns of behavior that are uncovered through this micro-descriptive work. Any body of phenomena that demonstrates consistent patterns over time is potentially of scientific interest, because the observable patterns imply an underlying causal order that ought to be discoverable. And this is the more true if there are stable differences in the patterns across contexts. If there are very specific patterns of behavior in these mundane situations of social encounter, how are we to explain that fact? What sort of structure or fact could count as a cause of these patterns of behavior?

One particularly appealing approach to explanation in these circumstances is to make an inference from behavior to rules that is familiar from Chomsky’s view of generative linguistics — from patterned behavior to the underlying “grammar” or system of rules and mental paradigms that produces it. So we might go a bit beyond Goffman’s own description of his work, and say that his detailed descriptions of social behavior invite him to reconstruct the underlying and psychologically real set of rules that “generate” the behavior. Here we are invited to consider the social actor as possessing a “grammar” of ordinary behavior that guides the production of actions in specified circumstances. And in fact this interpretation of the intellectual project of this work seems pretty consistent with Garfinkel’s approaches.

There is a third angle that one might take on this work — that it is a part of “interpretive” social science; that the descriptive work is an effort to provide an interpretation of the meanings of the actions described. This doesn’t seem quite right in application to the works mentioned here, however. Goffman’s work or Whyte’s descriptions aren’t exactly hermeneutic; instead, they are guided by an effort to discern and capture the smallest nuances of behavior, with an eye to discovering the underlying rules that appear to generate the behavior. The orientation of the work is not so much directed to underlying meanings as it is to underlying rules.

In short, it seems to me that the careful observation and description of the subtle complexities of ordinary social behavior is in fact a valuable contribution to a scientific understanding of the social world — even though it is primarily descriptive. The patterns of behavior that Goffman, White, or Liebow document are a genuine and novel contribution to our knowledge of the concrete social world. And these contributions to descriptive sociology can be fitted into next-generation efforts to provide explanatory contexts that would make sense of the patterns that these researchers document.