How might Interactionists, Functionalists, Marxists and Postmodernists interpret the death of The Queen..?
The Queen died on Thursday 8th September 2022, ending her reign as the longest serving monarch in British history.
Events like this are rare and the offer sociology students a good opportunity to practice applying perspectives and concepts to the event itself and the societal reaction to the event.
NB to be honest we are probably considering below the societal reaction to the event for the most part – both on the part of the media and the people themselves. This isn’t unusual as the Monarchy is a social construction and kept alive by people recognising its significance.
How would the main sociological perspectives understand the death of The Queen…
A good starting point for thinking about the Monarchy could well be Interactionism – the Queen, after all, is a symbol, rather than an individual that we know, even if millions of people may have convinced themselves they know the ‘person’ rather than the symbol.
In terms of symbolism The Queen, as the media have been very keen to point out, represents a ‘point of stability and continuity’ over the last 70 years, really THE ONLY person in all that time to have always been there in the public eye, an ever ‘reassuring presence’.
And of course she does represent (as a symbol) ‘Britain’ and ‘British Identity’ itself – so many symbols of the nation are linked to the Queen – obviously Buckingham Palace and her other residences, but also the Grenadier Guards specifically and the armed forces more generally, but also pretty much ANYTHNG you can point to as being British – because her role over the last 70 years has been to attend various national events, and to give awards (such as Knighthoods) to those deemed to be worthy, such as Captain Tom Moore.
Not to mention the fact that she’s on our bank notes, coins and stamps as well!
And of course The Queen as (as far as I know) always been police, apolitical (in public engagements) and attended a diverse range of events and met it could well be as many as millions of people over the last 70 years, so it’s very difficult not to ‘like the presentation of herself’ because she has come across as extremely, well ‘nice’
And she has been the most visible outward facing symbol of British National Identity – when people abroad think of Britain they probably think of The Queen as one of the most pre-eminent symbols of the nation.
So I’m not going to criticise anyone for feeling a sense of loss at The Queen’s death, we have lost our most important National Symbol, our longest serving, most continuous symbol of national unity – and even if the idea of national unity is a myth, even if people are mistakenly mourning the person rathe than the symbol (thinking they know here when they don’t) all of that doesn’t really matter – from the Interactionist point of view our society is constructed of symbols, and that’s what matters.
And it is highly unlikely that Charles can replace The Queen – he’s been too political over the years, too ‘odd’ with his views, Dianna is dead, Camilla is somehow a bit fake, and most importantly he hasn’t got youth on his side.
We could well be witnessing, with the death of The Queen, the death of the British Monarchy, effectively, something lost, never to be replaced.
One final word on Interactionism – about Impression Management – it’s worth remembering just how much backstage work has gone into prepping The Queen for her outward facing public visits – dozens of servants, hundreds of millions of pounds – and yes she has worked every day for 70 years more or less but there has been a lot of backstage prepping going on too!
The Mainstream Media seem to be interpreting the death of The Queen in classical Functionalist terms from the 1950s, but personally I think this is inaccurate.
For a start there is a TOTAL lack of criticism of the monarchy as an institution in the mainstream media in general, and especially now, and the ‘discourse’ is very much one of treating the Monarchy as if it has played a vital function in British society over the last 70 years under the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
And the main ‘function’ that The Queen has performed is that of being a symbol of national unity, helping maintain a sense of national identity and a sense of social solidarity, especially during The Pandemic, when in a now famous line she said ‘we will meet again’.
And now that the Queen is Dead it’s as if we are about to plunge into a time of radical uncertainty, of anomie, of rootlessness in a time when all in the world is chaos – political change in the UK, the cost of living crisis, the war in the Ukraine, AND NOW THE QUEEN!
HOWEVER, it might be better to view the monarchy as something of a ‘defunct institution’ – something based on ascribed status which harkers back to pre-modernity, and, in its postmodern incarnation is increasingly dysfunctional with it’s Divorced and Paedophile Princes.
One thing the monarchy isn’t is meritocratic, that’s for sure, and the one recent opinion poll from YouGov reported that only 6/10 Britons want the Monarchy to continue, so the idea that the symbol of the monarchy promotes social solidarity simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny…
It is more likely that the media reporting on the death of the Queen and what a great loss this is for the nation is ideological – it reflects the views of the conservative and older people who set the media agenda, this doesn’t reflect the views of younger people or Labour supporters.
The Marxist Perspective on the Monarchy
One of the key concepts of Marxism is social class, and one of their key aims is develop a class-based analysis of society.
And the monarchy is just about as elite as you can get. They are among the largest landowners in Britain with a crown estate worth £14 billion and the Queen is (or was) personally one of the wealthiest individuals in the country.
The children always go to Elite schools and the boys become men do a stint as officers in the army, navy or air force, and as the Queen’s 96 years of age are testimony to, the royals are very long lived – and the higher social classes to tend to live longer overall!
And despite their huge wealth, the monarchy still receives a state subsidy from the British taxpayer, which is, for them, completely unnecessary.
The media, however, NEVER comment on this old-school-elite-class fact of life, but we have got to see this in effect with the old restored images of the Queen’s Jubilee back in the 1950s – with all the gilded pomp and ceremony.
One wonders whether there will be a toning down of this when Charles is coronated, this kind of upper-class parade seems extremely distasteful in our modern/ post-modern meritocratic society.
A final word on Marxism – you might want to think how far the Queen’s death preforms an ideological function – in that it distracts us from other MASSIVE political issues – we have a new even more neoliberal government in power, and there is a cost of living crisis that is now slipped down the agenda for a few days at least.
Post and Late Modernism
I have already considered some of these concepts above – but one additional concept worth considering in relation to The Monarchy is that of hyperreality – the media seem intent on making The Queen’s death into more than it is, ‘milking it for all it is worth’ – this is the best profit-making event newspapers are likely to see this century, for example, and they’ve probably had their ‘memorial supplements’ ready to go for years.
The Newspapers were late being delivered on 9th of September 2022, obviously because of last minute modifications being made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the reporting is going to be any more accurate, it probably just means adding to the hyperreal construction of the event, making it more than what it is.
That isn’t to say The Queen’s death isn’t real, of course it happened, but think about it – there is a LOT of constructing the narrative around the event, creating its significance, THAT is what is hyperreal.
Individualisation is another highly relevant concept when it comes to the way the media treat The Queen – focusing on HER as an individual rather than the institution of the monarchy as a whole – thus simplifying the narrative and preventing critical discourse around the wider institution.
Finally, this is certainly a ‘reflexive event’ with the media calling on the nation to reflect on what the passing of The Queen means and where we go from here…
You can read this post on Postmodernism for a more in-depth look!
Signposting and how to use this material…
Teachers of A-level Sociology might like to use this as a refresher with their Second Year students – you could get students working in small groups each focussing on one of the perspectives above and then get them to feed back their findings to the class.
It would probably fit best with the Theory and Methods part of the course, the theory part especially.
The Advance Information for the 2022 Sociology A-levels specifies that students WILL be assessed on the area of consensus, conflict, structural and/ or action theories.
The easiest way to revise these topics at A2 level is to briefly cover the key ideas of each theory AND ALSO revise how each of these theories applies to the topic areas you have studied – usually families, education, crime and deviance and research methods, and then to evaluate.
This post is a summary revision post of the key ideas of social action theory. Before reviewing it you might like to look at these posts:
We need Verstehen to understand human action, because the same actions can mean different things to different people. Statistical methods and observation alone are not enough to understand human action (Weber)
We need to understand action in terms of shared meanings within a group (Mead) and how the members of that group see themselves (their identity) and how the individuals and the group understand society.
We need to understand whether an individual is just putting on an act (manipulating props and just managing an impression)
We need to understand whether a person has been labelled by agents of social control, whether they have been stigmatised by society.
Research Methods Implications
Getting to people’s own motives for action requires in-depth qualitative methods
In order to understand shared meanings we need at the very least to use unstructured interviews.
In order to assess whether the extent to which people are ‘acting out’ identities we need to use Participant Observation, which in many cases will not be possible.
How Social Action Theorists understand family life
The Personal Life Perspective argues that we need to start by abandoning standard definitions of the family and focus instead on what ‘family’ means to them – when we do this, we find that many people see a whole load of unusual relationships as being more significant to their intimate lives (pets and dead relatives for example) than their actual ‘family members’. This critics the Functionalist idea that families are necessary parts of society – families are much more fluid than ever before, and friends can perform many of the functions as formal family members.
How they understand achievement in education
(Following Mead) – In depth research of anti-school subcultures has revealed a wide variety of meanings and identities which different students bring to the school…which conflict with the school’s value system. For example, Paul Willis’ study found that the lads saw school work as irrelevant to their future lives, while Tony Sewel argues that being a ‘swot’ may compromise young black boys’ ideas about masculinity. We thus cannot truly understand underachievement without understanding these boys’ identities and why school doesn’t fit in with their identities.
Labelling theory however explains underachievement in terms of middle class white teachers labelling students not like them as problem students, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Goffman’s dramaturgical theory is useful – ‘good’ students may just be better at putting on an act – better at ‘impression manageme
How Social Action Theorists understand Crime and Deviance
Following Mead – Research on gangs has shown that being in a gang doesn’t necessarily mean ‘being bad” – gang membership is typically casual and fluid, it does not mean that much at all to many members, and is about protection for many, rather than criminality. There are several different types of gang, several different meanings. This criticise structural subcultural theories of deviance.
Following Becker’s labelling theory – The Police act in terms of stereotypes when it comes to stop and search, as do the courts, this goes some way to explaining why there are more EM’s in jail.
Following Goffman’s dramaturgical theory – elites may be just as criminal as non-elites, they are just better at acting in ways which mean they avoid attention from the police.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
The ‘action’ bit of Paul Willis’ study of the lads.
John Heale’s One blood – gangs as self-defence, gangs as fluid;
Gok Wan – People dressing up
Howard Becker – The Ideal Pupil
David Gilborn – Teachers labelling African Caribbean boys
Social Action Theory: Evaluations
It doesn’t pay sufficient attention to how social structures constrain action – for example, material deprivation can have a real, objective impact on your ability to well at school, thus failure is not just all about labelling.
It tends to ignore power-distribution in society – it can’t explain patterns in class, gender, ethnicity.
If people are so active, then why do so many people choose to be so normal?
Labelling theory can also be criticised for being deterministic
The small-scale methods associated with this theory can equally be criticised for lacking reliability and representativeness
This video with Professor David Nutt on the bizarre way in which drugs are (miss) classified and (miss) regulated in the UK seems to be coming from an Interactionist point of view:
In the video Professor Nutt discusses how authorities inappropriately label/ categories certain drugs as harmful when really they are not and then harsher than appropriate penalties follow as a result.
Firstly he reminds us that categorisation (labelling) by authorities is fundamental to the way we understand and manage drugs – for a start there are two types – drugs for medical use (legal) and then illegal drugs.
Illegal drugs are controlled and categorised by the ‘misuse of drugs act’, which Nutt describes as being made up by a group of people based on what they thought.
The act classifies drugs into categories A, B or C. Less harmful drugs are in category C while more harmful drugs are in category A.
Class A includes drugs such as heroine and ecstasy
Class B includes cannabis
Class C includes Steroids, for example,
Over the last 20 years politicians have got more involved in categorising drugs based on their desire to be seen as being tough on drugs and thus tough on crime, and Professor Nut believes certain drugs have been mis-categoriesed.
For example, the medical evidence suggests that Ectasy is not a particularly risky drug, but government officials have put it in category A, along with the highly addictive and really harmful heroine and cocaine.
As a result, people caught with Ecstasy receive harsher penalties than they should based on the relative harm the drug does, just because of the whim of government.
In fact they often face harsher penalties just based on the categorisation – because Judges tend to be more lenient handing out punishments to Heroine users precisely because the later is more addictive while Ectasy is not.
So we have a situation where people are being punished for using recreational drugs with little harmful consequence associated with the drug itself.
A more systematic classification system
Nutt has worked with medical experts to produce a new classification system for drugs based on nine categories of harm, outlining several different harms which drugs do, both to the individual and society.
There is only data for some of these measurements, but for the data that exists Alcohol comes out on top.
Alcohol is the most common reason for deaths in men under 50, for example.
If you look at the individual only, Crack Cocaine and Crystal Meth come out on top, but because alcohol is so widely used once we factor in social harms it comes out as the most harmful
Why isn’t Alcohol regulated by the misuse of drugs act?
The fact that alcohol is not harmed is a huge anomaly – and the reasons it is not controlled is political and economic – the drinks industry makes a fortune and so does the government through taxes.
Police may have just found the culprit behind a horrific moggy murder spree which started in Croydon in October 2015.
Three years ago, the decapitated bodies of cats began be show up in various locations around Croydon, South London. They appeared to have been killed by blunt force trauma and then the bodies torn apart with various body-parts being deposited in places which seemed to have been carefully selected – such as on the owner’s doorstep or outside children’s playgrounds.
Local animal rights group SNARL (‘South Norward Animal Rescue Liberty’) hypothesized that this was the work of a psychopath, and, fearing the killing might spread to humans, scoured the country, uncovering hundreds of similar cases.
Despite the hundreds of alleged cases reported to the police over the past three years, not one of them was ever linked with any actual hard evidence of an individual actually committing a crime. However, in three of the cases there was CCTV footage of foxes in the area carrying cat body parts.
The police have now concluded that these ‘moggy murders’ were in fact a result of cats being hit by cars (which explains the blunt force trauma) and foxes then playing around with the dead bodies.
Given that both of these events are fairly well-known about, this raises the question of why there was ever a media-event surrounding the ‘Croydon Cat Killer’ in the first place…?
A Moral Panic Fit for a Culture of Fear?
This is clearly a ‘moral panic‘ (an exaggerated outburst of public concern) – given that animals can’t officially commit murder. Maybe this hit the headlines because humans love to make up stories, and construct outrageous villains, and the idea of a serial killer stalking our streets after our pets titillates us.
We also need to consider the role of the moral entrepreneurs: i.e. SNARL…. not doubt this gave the activists something to do, and some status for a few years.
Finally, this in well with the place of our pets in our families. Pets, after all, are part of the family. At least according to the Personal Life Perspective.
Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.
The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.
Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they ‘to be avoided’.
According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).
According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.
A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.
Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.
Classic studies on teacher labelling in education
Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:
David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization
David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to be typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.
Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:
In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:
how far they conformed to discipline
their ability and enthusiasm for work
how likeable they were
their relationship with other children
whether they were deviant.
Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.
In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.
When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.
Labelling and social class
A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student.
Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).
Aaron V. Cicourel and John I.Kitsuse (1963) conducted a study of the decisions counsellors made in one American high school.
The counsellors largely decided which students were to be placed on programmes that prepared them for college. They claimed that their decisions were based on the grades students achieved in school and the results of IQ tests, but there were discrepancies: not all students achieving high grades and IQ scores were being placed on college-preparation programmes by the counsellors.
They found that the social class backgrounds of students had an influence. Those from middle class backgrounds were more likely to be placed onto higher level courses even when they had the same grades as students from lower class backgrounds.
Cicourel and Kitsuse argued that counsellors decisions were based around a number of non academic criteria related to social class such as the clothes students wore, their manners and their general demeanour.
Similarly when deciding which students were to be classified as ‘conduct problems’ counsellors used criteria such as speech and hairstyles which were again related to social class.
In general those with middle class manners were more likely to be labelled good prospects for college while those with working class manners and style were more likely to be labelled as conduct problems.
Labelling theory and the self fulfilling prophecy
Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.
The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):
teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.
It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree, a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.
A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.
They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.
Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Gender, ethnicity and labelling
A considerable amount of research has been done into the ways in which students of different genders and ethnicities are labelled by teachers.
One classic study of gender and labelling was John Abraham’s research in which he found that teachers had ideas of ‘typical boys’ and typical girls’, expecting girls to be more focused on schoolwork and better behaved than boys in general. Teachers also had higher expectations of girls than boys.
Many studies have also focused on how teachers label differentially based on both gender and ethnicity simultaneously.
David Gilborn (1990), for example, has argued that teachers have the lowest expectations of Black boys and even see them as a threat, while Connolly (1998) found that teachers label Asian boys’s disruptive behaviour as immature rather than deliberately disruptive, so they weren’t punished as severely as Black Boys. Meanwhile Asian girls were largely ignored because they were seen as passive and not willing to engage in class discussion.
Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.
Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.
For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.
Criticisms of the labelling theory of education
Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.
Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.
Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students. In some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry test.
One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.
This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students, although it will hopefully be a useful primer for anyone with a general interest in this subject.
individuals are active and social theory needs to develop an empathetic understanding of people’s actions.
Unlike structural consensus and conflict theorists social action theorists do not try to explain human behaviour in terms of an objective social structure that passes down norms, values, or disadvantage. Instead, they try to understand human action by looking at how people interpret their world and the actions of others.
This post covers five of the key ideas of social action theory:
Individuals are active
We need to understand how people see themselves (their self-concepts)
Verstehen – the importance of empathetic understanding
Labelling theory – social interaction is important in shaping people’s identities
Criticisms social action theories make of structural theories.
Individuals are Active
According to Social Action Theory, individuals are active, complex and react to the social structures around them in very different ways. People don’t just passively respond to social norms and institutions and go along with them, rather, we examine them and decide whether to accept or reject certain norms and values.
Interactionists argue that we can’t understand individuals without understanding how they see themselves (their identity). A considerable amount of our time in modern society is devoted to constructing and expressing ‘my’ identity, which involves communicating something about myself to others through the use of shared symbols (symbolic action). Unraveling the complexities of how people construct their identities is one of the main things symbolic interactionists contributed to modern sociology, and the main man that looked at this was Erving Goffman in his classic text The presentation of the Self in everyday life
Goffman demonstrated how complex symbolic interaction is in modern life. Goffman argued that when we are out and about ‘in society’, it is like we are on stage, acting for the benefit of others. The ‘self’ that we present others requires careful behind the scenes management of the smallest detail. This is carried out at home, the equivalent of back stage. Such careful management of the self is required because of the dense array of meanings associated with such mundane things as dress, speech and body language. We need to understand these meanings to understand people.
Because individuals are active, Social Action theorists aim for empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through the eyes of the people acting and they believe that individual action can only be understood by understanding the how people define their ‘realities’ and uncovering the meanings humans give to their actions.
Max Weber, the founding father of social action theory used a German word ’Verstehen’ to describe this type of understanding, which loosely translated means ‘empathetic understanding’.
There are several different reasons why someone might wear something to college on one particular day, and there are several different ways other people might interpret that action. According to Interactionists, there isn’t simply one correct interpretation of human action – someone’s decision to wear a mini-skirt can’t be reduced to the influence of the patriarchal media making that woman think she needs to wear a particular item to impress men (like Radical Feminists might argue), there are lots of possible reasons.
Individuals make hundreds of thousands of ‘choices’ throughout the course of their lives, and so social life is full of hundreds of thousands of decisions, interpretations and mis-interpretations, and if we want to understand people, we need to understand their own personal motives, and how they see themselves in relation to others.
This means research is a complex, and very involved business, it won’t result in nice neat theories of why people act like they do, like you get with Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism, you end up with lots of stories about how people shape their identities.
(Also, you may have noticed that if you want to know why someone acts in the way they do, you need more details in the question – How warm? How short? Did they go out the night before and not go home?)
Labelling Theory is an important part of Interactionism. It argues that there are existing power-structures that constrain people, and that these power structures are kept going by people in power labelling themselves as superior and people not-like them as inferior. Power inequalities are maintained by the powerless accepting their inferior labels.
Labelling theory was developed by Howard Becker in the 1960s. Becker argued that agents of social control often work in narrow stereotypes and label people like them as being ‘good’ and people not like them as being ‘bad’. He argued, for example, that white middle class teachers had an idea of the ‘ideal pupil’ as being middle class, well spoken, quite, respectful of authority, polite and well dressed, and often gave these middle class children positive labels, irrespective of their intelligence. Similarly, working class or underclass children, who tended to be scruffier and more energetic than middle class children, were seen as inferior.
According to Rosenthal and Jacobsen, this could result in a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy which is the process where an individual accepts the label given to them and acts accordingly. If middle class children are labelled positively and working class children negatively we end up with a social pattern: Middle class children do better than working class children. According to labelling theory this structural trend emerges not because of structural disadvantages working class children face as a result of their background, but because they are labelled negatively by middle class teachers. Thus the social structure emerges out of social interaction.
Criticisms of Structuralist Social Theory
Sociologists such as Goffman argue that Social Norms don’t have as much power over us as Functionalists suggest. Rather, most people learn what norms are appropriate and ‘act them out’ when they are in particular social roles (at school, at work, with parents etc), returning to their more complex ‘true selves’ when by themselves or with their friends and family.
This is why societies can change unpredictably – what appears to be mass conformity with social norms isn’t, it’s just masses of people going along with existing norms in a kind of illusory mass performance. If we want to get to the truth of who people really are, we need to dig deeper.
If you could represent the five sociological perspectives in sociology as five shapes, I think they’d look something like this:
Functionalism – a rectangle as it emphasizes structure and order.
Marxism – a triangle to represent the class structure, Bourgeoisie on the top, Proletariat on the bottom.
Feminism – had to be an egg shape, because only women can produce them, albeit with a little thrust from men in the first instance
Interactionism – a cone – you start off looking at micro processes and see how these contribute to the bigger picture
Postmodernism – a spikey star because it emphasizes fragmentation, individual freedom and difference.
If anyone’s blood is boiling over because they think this is way too simplistic, below is a slightly more in-depth summary of the five sociological perspectives:
In case your blood’s still boiling about the oversimplification (‘blood’ ;0) click on the links for even more detailed notes; if it’s still boiling after that, you can always post an irate comment, I’m sure that’s make you feel better!
Functionalists see society is a self-regulating system which functions like a human body (‘the organic analogy’) – all institutions have unique functions and contribute to the maintenance of the whole.
Functionalists tend to analyse institutions by looking at the contribution that institution makes to maintenance of social order.
Functionalism is sometimes known as a consensus perspective– they think that social institutions are ‘neutral’ – they generally work well for most people, and they perform positive functions, maintaining consensus or harmony in society which ultimately benefits everyone equally.
Education acts as a bridge between home and school, promoting value consensus through secondary socialisation and preparing students for work, allocating students to appropriate jobs through a meritocratic system of exams and qualifications.
Marxists argue that social class divisions are key to understanding everything else in society. In contemporary Capitalist society there are two basic classes – the Capitalist class (the Bourgeoisie) who own the means of production and effectively live off their investments, and the Working Class (the Proletariat) – all those who have to work for a living.
Exploitation lies at the heart of the capitalist system – the Bourgeoisie, who are the extreme minority, are wealthy because they exploit the proletariat.
Marxists analyse society and social institutions through a ‘class lens’ – they focus on how institutions maintain the power of ruling class elites and keep the system working for them.
Marxism is sometimes referred to as a conflict perspective because there is a fundamental conflict of interests between the two classes. Those with economic power control all other institutions, and those institutions function to maintain the power and privilege of the capitalist class and to keep the proletariat in their place.
According to Marxists the education system reproduces class inequality while at the same time legitimating class inequality by teaching pupils there is equality of opportunity (when in reality there is not)
Feminism sees divisions between men and women as the most significant feature of society: radical feminism argues that society is patriarchal – men tend to dominant social institutions and occupy social roles which give them more freedom and power than women.
Feminists analyse society in terms of sex and gender inequalities – they are interested in how social institutions and social norms maintain gender inequalities, and the possible opportunities which exist to bring about greater gender equality.
The traditional nuclear family is of particular interests to feminists – the private realm of the family is typically associated with women, while the public realms of work and politics are associated with men. This public private divide is one of the fundamental norms which maintain male power.
Feminists argue that gender is socially constructed – the norms and values associated with masculinity and femininity are shaped by society, not by biology.
Unlike the previous three perspectives (which are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘structuralist’ perspectives) which take a top down approach to studying society, looking at trends and patterns, Interactionists focus on micro-level processes to explain social action.
Interactionists believe you need to understand the meanings individuals give to their own actions in order to understand why they do what they do. They use qualitative research methods to find out how individuals interpret their own actions.
Interactionists are especially interested the micro process of labelling – they argue that labels given to people by authority figures such as teachers and police can affect the way they see themselves.
Focussing on education, interactionists developed labelling theory to explain how middle class teachers label working class boys negatively, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and helps to explain working class underachievement.
Postmodernism emerged in the 1970s – when the pace of technological change and globalisation really started to change society – around this decade, consumption became more central to society and individuals had much greater freedom to shape their identities.
Postmodernism argues that societies have become more fluid as a result of postmodernisation – the old structures of work, government, the nuclear family all lose their power to constrain the individual and thus human action becomes harder to predict. Life becomes more uncertain.
Pure postmodernism rejects the idea that grand theories of human action and society are possible – they thus reject the validity of all of the above theories (although to my mind, I see interactionism as an antecedent of aspects of postmodernism).
Sociological responses to postmodernisation, such as the work of Beck, Bauman and Giddens all argue that there are still structures and processes in place which steer human action, but these are now global and thus theorising about how these interface with human action is more complex.
NB – Be warned that many A level sociology text books tend to misrepresent ‘late modern’ sociologists as ‘postmodernists’.
An ‘extended summary’ of Erving Goffman’s ‘Presentation of Self in Daily Life’ including his concepts of front and backstage, performers and audiences, impression management, idealisation, dramatic realisation, manipulation, discrepant roles and tact.
Chapter One: Performances
Goffman distinguishes between two approaches to acting out social roles: sincerity and cynicism.
Sincere individuals really believe their act is an expression of their own identity, and truly want others to believe this too (the ‘typical’ case), while cynical individuals do not invest ‘themselves’ in their roles, they are acting with a means to another end, which can either be for self-gain (like a conman) or for the benefit of the people around them (a teacher who acts strict but is not necessarily like this in real life).
To quote Goffman:
“At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; and he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When the audience is also convinced in this way about the show he put one – and this seems to be the typical case – then for the moment at least, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.
At the other extreme, we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine… the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of the audience only a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception they have of him or of the situation.“
Goffman goes on to say that people can oscillate between these two extremes as they move through different stages of their lives. He gives the example of a new recruit to the army who first of all acts out the disciplined training routine and hates it but must go along with it in order to avoid punishment, but after time comes to feel that a disciplined life has real meaning for him personally.
Goffman uses the term ‘performance’ to refer to “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on observers. ‘Front’ is ‘that part of the individuals performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance”.
There are three things an individual can use to establish a ‘social front‘ – Setting, Appearance and Manner (the final two Goffman calls ‘personal front’).
‘Setting’ refers to the fixed elements of front – the physical layout of a room and associated background props – someone’s work space or living room is a good example of a ‘setting’.
‘Appearance’ consists of those things we most closely associate with the person themselves – the things which ‘follow them around’ and consists of fixed attributes such as one’s racial background or age, as well as things like clothes and the items one chooses to carry around.
‘Manner’ is the attitude to one’s setting one displays – confidence, humility, authority etc.
We generally expect there to be consistency between setting, appearance and manner, but these don’t always match up.
Goffman also notes that we are constrained by society in terms of the front we can put on. If we adopt certain roles in society, we don’t actually have that much choice over the front which we can adopt – we are required by social norms to put on a certain front, and there is little room for manoeuvre.
He further suggests that the same sorts of front are required in many different roles – so if we successfully learn to project one front in one setting, we can apply that front to many others.
“While in the presence of others, the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts which might otherwise remain hidden.“
Many social roles and ‘status positions’ require a certain amount of energy to be invested in the performance of the activities associated with them, energy that is in excess to actually performing the tasks associated with the roles themselves.
One of the best illustrations of this is the Aristocracy – who spend an enormous amount of intentional energy on performing day to day tasks with excess decorum in order to distinguish themselves from others. There are rituals associated with dress codes, greetings, eating, body language, speech and so on….
To give a more mundane example, many jobs require people do certain things to convince the customer or client that they are competent.
A problem in social life is that “those who have the time and the talent to perform a task well may not, because of this, have the time or talent to make it apparent that they are performing well.“
There are many roles which we are required to fill in social life, and so one finds that people must choose which performances to invest their egos in; some social roles and some routines are deemed to be more important than others.
“When the individual presents himself before others his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify officially accredited values of the society, more so, in fact, than does his behaviour as a whole.“
“To the degree that the performance highlights the common official values, we may look upon it as an expressive reaffirmation of the moral values of the community“(Maybe a nod to Durkheim there?).
To go out in the world is to attend a wedding, a celebration, to stay in one’s room is to miss out on the party.
People play up or down their actual status according to how they think others perceive them (without actually buying into it)…. Social Mobility requires a good performance – often conceived of as making sacrifices in order to maintain ‘front’,
People also engage in negative idealisation, which involves concealment – people will, for example, ‘play down’ when they are interacting with people they believe to be of lower status, in order to fit in with them (although this may not be appreciated by that particular audience)
“a performer tends to conceal or under-play those activities, facts and motives, which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself and his products.’ There are a number of discrepancies between appearance and overall reality”:
Hiding the profit which is made from a performance
Hiding the mistakes made during a performance
Hiding the effort that goes into preparing a performance (the back-stage work)
Hiding any illegal activities
Hiding double standards – this happens because we are often expected to maintain multiple values/ standards which are cannot all be maintained – for example a team at a restaurant may have to sacrifice quality for speed of service, but keep quite about the decline in quality and hope this isn’t picked up on by the audience.
Hiding of origins – people tend to hide the fact they were something else before their performance, giving off the impression that they have always been this way.
In addition, a performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case.
An important part of keeping aspects a performance hidden involves practising audience segregation – different performances associated with different roles are often meant for different audiences, who ideally won’t see the actor in any of his other performances. This is especially important because something actors do is to make any particular audience feel as if they are special, the most important audience, when in reality they are just one audience amongst many.
Maintenance of expressive control
Performers can reasonably expect minor cues to be read by their audience as signs of something significant. Unfortunately, the opposite is also the case – minor cues which were not intended to be read by the audience may also be taken to be of significance and these may undermine the image the performer is trying to present.
These accidents and unmet gestures are very common and there are three general types:
Losing muscular control – tripping, yawning, belching
Showing too little or too much concern with the interaction
Lacking dramaturgical direction – the setting may be sloppy, or the timing of aspects of a performance wrong.
“The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between out all-too-human selves and our socialised selves. As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs. A certain bureaucratisation of the spirit expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogeneous performance at any given time”.
The same tendency of the audience to accept the importance of signs (even if they are not meant to give off any meaning) which leads to the need for expressive control also opens up the opportunity for the performer to manipulate the audience through using signs to signify things which have no basis in reality.
Not all misrepresentation is the same. For example we tend to think more harshly of someone acting up to a higher status than acting down to a lower status. Also, some statuses are ambiguous. We can prove easily that someone is not a legal professional, but it is not so easy to prove someone is not a ‘true friend’.
Most misrepresentation is not about blatant lying, it is about not putting on display everything one has to do fulfil one’s social roles, and there are hardly any roles in society where everyone can be completely open about everything the do without losing face in some way.
One of the easiest ways to maintain an idealised image of oneself is to maintain a distance between oneself and one’s audience – The more distance a performer can keep between them and their audience, the more elbow room they have to maintain an idealised image of themselves (Kings should not mix with ordinary people).
Reality and Contrivance
We generally tend to think of performances as being of one or two types – the sincere and the contrived. The former are not acted, they come from the unconscious ‘pure self’ of the individual who really believes in what they are doing, the later is the cynic, acting out a role without really believing in it.
But most performances on the social stage fall somewhere between these two realities. What is required in social life is that the individual learn enough about role-playing to fulfil the basic social roles that are required of him during his life – most of us ‘buy into this’ and act out what is expected of us, so we invest an element of ourselves into our roles, but at the same time we don’t necessarily get into our roles in a gung-ho sort of way…. So most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ or fully ‘contrived’.
Chapter two: teams
People don’t just engage in the presentation of the self as single actors, performances (or attempts to define the situation) are often conducted in teams – Goffman uses the term ‘performance team’ to refer to a group of people who collaborate in staging a single performance.
Goffman notes two features of teams engaging in dramaturgical cooperation.
Firstly, anyone can one of the team members can mess up a performance, and everyone is dependent on the good conduct of everyone else.
Secondly, team members have a degree of ‘familiarity’ with one another – which means that they share a back-stage where they will drop their collective performance.
Teams have to conceal certain aspects of their activity to make their collective performance effective: for example the fact that they have engineered, or practised a ‘party line’ is hidden because a collective front seems more sincere if the audience thinks all the members agreed on the performance independently.
In large organisations the party line can become rather thin because it is difficult to keep everyone happy.
Also in order to be sincere, teams need to hold a united front, and so corrective sanctioning tends to be done backstage.
Teams have a division of labour – they have directors, they have those who are more dramatically dominant than others, and they have those that actually do the tasks (rather than the performance) which the team is expected to do.
Chapter three: regions and region behaviour
“In our Anglo-American society, a relatively indoor one, when a performance is given it is usually given in a highly bounded region, to which boundaries with respect to time are often added. The impression and understanding fostered by the performance will tend to saturate the region and time span, so that any individual located in this space-time manifold will be in a position to observe the performance and be guided by the definition of the situation which the performance fosters”.
Goffman famously distinguished between what have become known as frontstage and backstage regions of social life.
During a performance in a front region, the performer tries to convince the audience that that his activities in the region maintain and embody certain standards. To do this he engages in ‘talk’ with the audience – actual verbal and non-verbal gestural interchanges, and also practices ‘decorum’ – maintaining moral standards and manners but where he just visible to the audience rather than interacting with them gesturally.
One form of decorum is called ‘make work’ – people acting like they are busy even when there is not work to be done when in the presence of a superior. Everyone knows what’s going on but to not act this out would be to show disrespect to one’s superiors.
A backstage region is where the impression fostered by a performance is contradicted as a matter of course. Here a performer can relax, and step out of character.
Backstage is a place where the performer expects the audience not to go, and they are necessary if the worker is to buffer himself from the deterministic demands that go along with a performance.
NB – The ability to control both front and backstage is a fundamental power distinction in society. Some have more power to control both than others.
Some regions are permanently front regions — such as churches or schoolrooms, so much so that people act in them with a certain deference even if they are not members of their congregations. Similarly some other regions are notably backstage. Such areas set the tone for the interaction.
In other regions, they can sometimes be backstage and front stage at different times – the household for example on Sunday morning or while entertaining.
Goffman now provides some examples of where some groups of people lack control over backstage or where the ‘walls’ between front and backstage are too thin to maintain effective boundaries.
He also notes that the boundary between back and front stage is a great place to observe transformation of character.
Where teams are concerned, familiarity backstage may not be total. Three things put paid to this – firstly team members still need to convince other team members that they are worthy players, secondly, they may need to maintain morale for the forthcoming performance, thirdly, where there are differences in age and gender, acts may be put on to differentiate these – it is very rare in cultures that men and women will fully relax backstage with each other for example.
“In saying that performers act in a relatively informal, familiar, relaxed way while backstage and are on their guard while giving a performance, it should not be assumed that the pleasant interpersonal things of life – courtesy, warmth, generosity are reserved for those backstage and that suspiciousness, snobbishness, and a show of authority are reserved for front region activity.
Often it seems that whatever enthusiasm and lively interest we have at our disposal we reserve for those before whom we are putting on a show and the surest sign of backstage solidarity is to feel that it is safe to lapse into an associable mood of sullen, silent irritability.“
A third area for consideration is the outside, and outsiders – those who are not supposed to witness the performance. Embarrassment can occur when outsiders unexpectedly stumble across a performance meant for others only. Strategies can be employed to overcome this (such as loudly welcoming them or shunning them) but these rarely work to avoid embarrassment.
Chapter four: discrepant roles
“One overall objective of any team is to sustain the definition of the situation that its performance fosters. Given the fragility and the required expressive coherence of the reality that is dramatized by a performance, there are usually facts which, if attention is drawn to them during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters.
These facts may be said to provide ‘destructive information’. (in order for performances to work) the audience must not require destructive information about the situation that is being defined for them… A team must be able to keep its secrets, and have its secrets kept”.
There are three general types of secret:
Dark secrets – these are things which the team would want no one to know because their disclosure would fundamentally undermine the team’s credibility – The fact that Barclay’s Bankers regularly engage in Fraud for example
Strategic secrets – These are secrets which give a team a competitive advantage over another team – so their disclosure would harm the team but not discredit them
Insider secrets – basically ‘tricks of the trade’ – knowledge which allows teams to put on a good performance but the disclosure of which would not really harm the team in the eyes of the audience.
Goffman also distinguishes between entrusted and free secrets – which are to do with the kind of secrets an individual has in relation to his team. the former are those which if not kept by an individual would discredit both himself and his team if not kept, the later would discredit the team but not the individual if not kept.
Secrets are not the only sources of destructive information – there are also ‘latent secrets’ (harmful facts about which there is no hard evidence about) and unintended gestures – basically accidents and unmeant gestures.
There are three general roles involved in any social situation –
The performers who define the situation and have destructive information about the performance
The audience who largely accept the definition of the situation but do not have destructive information
Outsiders who no little of either of the above.
There, are however, a number of ‘discrepant roles’ which occur on top of the above three major roles:
the non person: e.g. the servant, the very young and the very old.
There are also four additional discrepant roles – who are not present in a performance but have information about it (who may be present in our minds of performers while they are acting out roles).
The service specialist
Chapter five: communication out of character
Discrepant sentiment is nearly always found when we study institutions. There are nearly always occasions when team members make it clear to each other that they are just playing a role, and they communicate with each other out of character – there are four types of communication in which the performer engages which are incompatible with the impression trying to be collectively portrayed to an audience – treatment of the absent, staging talk, team collusion and realigning action.
Treatment of the absent – When backstage it is especially common for team members to speak in a derogatory way about the audience, and ritual profanations of the performance are part of this.
Staging talk – refers to discussion about the front stage apparatus and their suitability for impression management.
Team collusion – Performers often use secret signs to signal to each other during a performance. These may be secret messages pertaining to what they think of certain audience members, this may just be ‘catching the eye’ of another member of the team and a sly glance. One notable form of this is ‘derisive collusion’, an example of which is school children in class passing notes to each-other.
Realigning action – these are guarded exchanges between teams which send out feelers and set the tone for interaction where the boundaries are not clear
“each of these four types of conduct directs attention to the same point: the performance given by a team is not a spontaneous, immediate response to the situation absorbing all of the team’s energy; the performance is something the team members can stand back from, back far enough to imagine or play out simultaneously other kinds of performances attesting to other realities.“
Chapter six: the arts of impression management
Unmeant gestures, inopportune interruptions and the like are sources of dissonance and embarrassment, but both performers and audience alike tend to have strategies for ‘saving the show’ and to prevent masks falling off in many performance situations.
Performers engage in defensive attributes and practices
Dramaturgical loyalty – attempts to achieve high levels of in-group solidarity to prevent some members of the team becoming too close to the audience and giving away dark or strategic secrets; regularly changing audience may also be another strategy.
Dramaturgical discipline – simply where each member of the team learns to better control aspects of their performance
Dramaturgical circumspection – basically trying to select the audience that is likely to be the kindest – teachers prefer middle class schools, salesmen prefer to sell to one rather than two people.
Audience members engage in protective practices
Goffman gives various examples – individuals voluntarily stay away from backstage areas, and audiences are careful to pay attention to the right aspects of a performance – when performances go wrong they practice tactful inattention for example.
Goffman finishing off by noting that performers and audiences need to be ‘tactful about tact’ – they need to be sensitive to when each is employing tact lest masks fall off and embarrassment is the result.
Chapter six: conclusion
It’s worth quoting the first page at length, because it basically summarises the whole book:
“…. any social establishment may be studied from the perspective of impression management. Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation. This will will include the conception of own team and of audience and assumptions concerning the ethos that is to be maintained by rules of politeness and decorum.
We often find division into back region, where the routine is prepared and front region, where the performance is presented. Access to backstage is controlled to prevent the audience and outsiders from seeing preparations. Among members of the team, we tend to find solidarity, familiarity and secrets being kept.
A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and of accord existed between them. Typically, but not always, agreement is stressed and opposition is underplayed. The resulting working consensus tends to be contradicted by the attitude towards the audience which the performers express backstage and through communication out of character while ‘on stage’. We find that discrepant roles develop which complicate the problems of putting on a show.
Sometimes disruptions occur which threaten the definition of the situation which is being maintained. Performers and Audience all utilise techniques for saving the show – teams are careful to select loyal and circumspect members and prefer to play to audiences who are tactful.”
The analytical context
Goffman sees his ‘dramaturgical perspective’ as the fifth perspective among four already existing ones for viewing a social system (technical, political, structural, cultural)
“The dramaturgical perspective can be employed, like any other, as a final way of ordering facts. This would lead us to describe the techniques of impression management employed in a given establishment, the principal problems of impression management, and the identity and inter-relationships of the several performance teams within the establishment.“
Goffman also suggests that we can look at any of the above in relation to technical, cultural aspects of a social system as well.
He further suggests that we can look of all of the above in relation to their impact on the individual personality, the social interactions themselves and the wider society.
MORAL NOTE: THE ROLE OF EXPRESSION IS CONVEYING IMPRESSIONS OF SELF
To uncover fully the factual nature of the situation, it would be necessary for the individual to know all the relevant social data about others. Full information is rarely available; in its absence appearances must be relied upon instead.
The information off is treated as having a moral character – we tend to assume that people shouldn’t mislead us with the information they give off – even though we know full well that this is what we do, and that we also know that much information given off is not done so intentionally.
There is a basic dialectic:
“In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and pervasive, the individuals who are performers dwell more than we might think in a moral world. But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realising these standards but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realised.”
The dialectic is that the more effort we put into managing the impression of being a moral actor, the more distant we come to feel from the standards we are acting out, and the more and higher the standards, the more effort, so the more distant we feel!
The key factor in this structure is the maintenance of a single definition of the situation, this definition having to be expressed, and this expression sustained in the face of a multitude of potential disruption. (These are the interactional tasks which all of us share).
Staging and the self
Goffman splits the individual into two –
The character (or characters): this is what the performer presents to the audience, the social self – which is constructed with the use of various props, a stage as setting and a team as collaborators. THE INDIVIDUAL CANNOT CONSTRUCT A SELF WITHOUT ALL OF THE SOCIAL STAGING THAT GOES ALONG WITH IT.
The performer: the harried actor who is putting on a performance – The performer’s own psychological well-being is fundamentally linked to his social-self.
Signposting and Sources
Goffman’s theory is one of the main social action theories taught as part of A-level sociology, within the Theories and Methods module.