Monday, 21 April 2014

The Jerry Seinfeld of Social Science

There is a social-science perspective called Symbolic Interactionism, according to which the choices individuals make are restricted to the management of the situations in which they find themselves. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was perhaps the foremost practitioner in this perspective. His essay 'On Face-work' (in his book Interaction Ritual) takes a person's face, which is the social value an individual may claim for himself in interaction with other, to depend upon what line (action which influences others' perceptions of him) this person takes. Face-work is whatever is done to make actions conform to extant perceptions of faces, including A's working to make B retain his face.

This kind of view is, in my opinion, rather too social. Rituals which have emerged to deal with interactions among humans appear to be more powerful than the individuals who choose to conform to said rituals. The unit of analysis is the situation, not the individual, according to Goffman and the symbolic interactionists. This is, of course, anathema to economists who - myself included - will wonder whence the situations came if not from individuals' interacting with one another.

But one should not let this methodological imperfection curtail all that there is to enjoy in 'On Face-work', as well as in other diamonds of social science found in this perspective. Those who think that economists demand a lot of rationality from people will find much to squirm about here. Subtle signs such as tiltings of heads, hands thrown up, or winks of the eye are all expertly used to manoeuvre every social situation. With lots of examples, often from interviews, fellow symbolic interactionst Elijah Anderson discusses in StreetWise how mean streets are navigated so as to avoid trouble: When to cross the street to avoid a confrontation with might-be street toughs, how to grunt one's way to a safe walk home (I am not kidding), etc.

So why was Erving Goffman the Jerry Seinfeld of Social Science? Because of his lively and engaging focus on the little things. He gave a guest lecture at the University of Chicago once called, simply, 'The Lecture', in which he discussed audience behaviour and responses; looking interested, smiling politely at hard-to-get utterances which might be jokes, laughing at rather more obvious ones, etc. While at the University of Pennsylvania (I believe), Goffman called a meeting with several students outdoors in the quadrangles to which he did not show up. Instead, he observed the students from the window of a nearby building to see what they would do and how long they would wait and with what demeanour. A little nasty, perhaps, but a good source of research and quite clever. Some of his observations read like Seinfeld bits. Children riding in merry-go-rounds look outwards for the adults' reactions to make sure they ride according to face. Nothing is too small; the action is all in the minutiae.

I wonder what kinds of large-scale behaviour could be reduced to Goffmanesque concerns. One would think that, for instance, funny characters are appreciated in most groups, but not everyone has the ability to be funny. It would be hard to imagine someone like the late Margaret Thatcher doing stand-up, for instance. So the person for whom it would be most consistent (or perhaps least inconsistent) with his face to be the funny guy in the group assumes this role. The same could apply to various kinds of competitive behaviour (from the vulgar 'who can hold the most alcohol?' to the silly 'who has the most neuroses?'), or to who gets to be the go-to person for certain quaeres. Smiles and words of appreciation could be the currency used in this market for characters. People's being part of different groups would then act differently depending on in what type of constellation  they presently find themselves.

More people should read Goffman. Even if no ideas result from it, his works are almost certain to amuse greatly. Hats off to the Jerry Seinfeld of Social Science.

No comments:

Post a Comment