Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Society is a REALLY huge play

Goffman is not amused...
I've been up to some fascinating research lately on morality, ritual, and socialization in religion. One of my favorite sociologists, Erving Goffman, has some remarkably original insights into behavior and how different people are taught to react to situations. I would kind of dig sharing some of that with you so that each of you can maybe approach situations with new mindsets.

To Goffman, mankind is in a constant state of performance. This idea, called the Dramaturgical Analogy, presents people in a new light, namely to portray them in the guise of an actor. A good actor must be flexible (like Sean Connery or William Shatner... right?) to ever succeed in the world of acting. Goffman sees all people, or at least the ones who are socially competent, as multifaceted actors. Imagine! How would people react if you treated complete strangers as you do your spouse? Creepy, right? That, according to Goffman, is one of many reasons that each person needs multiple versions of themselves that they portray to others.

So then are we individuals, with a core concept of who we are? Are people truly independent and different from each other? According to Goffman, we crave social acceptance more than anything else. To gain acceptance, we become as actors and fulfill multiple roles. All actors are each made up of "selves," or instantly accessible personalities. Why plural? Because Goffman sees people as constantly changing these selves, depending on situations. Previous experience with a situation, mass media, or family tell us how to deal with a given scenario, and thus we have multiple reaction indoctrinated into us from multiple sources. When something happens, with lightning speed, we react in a way that is familiar to us. By doing this, we manipulate the outcome of an event. An example would be if a total stranger bumped into you on the street and proceeded to blast a juicy loogie all over your face. Gross! But why is it gross? Simply put, because we've been told, through other people or media, that loogies are gross! So your response, of utter disgust, is a self that has been developed out of previous examples as portrayed in mass media or culture.

In purposefully trying to manipulate a situation to our benefit, we create a new self that is separate from the self that we use elsewhere. When we have to purposefully maintain a self, we are (to use another stage analogy) in the Front. The Front are the environments that we get ourselves into that require us to maintain a self that is separate from the self in the Backstage, or environment where we are most comfortable, such as at home. Because culture as a whole teaches most people the same way to react to most situations, responses go from being completely instinctual to purposeful, structured ritual. Society is basically a fancy word for ritualized responses to events in which we are in constant process of creating and changing between multiple selves in the Front.

The two kinds of ritualized social interaction that we contribute to are demeanor rituals and deference rituals. Demeanor rituals are the things we do to show others that we are worthy of their attention or respect. Deference rituals are the ways in which we show our respect (or lack thereof) for another person. By mastering a balance between these two types of ritualized interactions, one can effectively master one's social environment. The socialization, or influence of our upbringing and past experiences,  of how we behave in the Front are a direct influence on the level of demeanor and deference that we show to others in a social situation. Therefore, we can see that most socially acceptable people are those that have taken the programmed responses that they have become familiar with and have learned to apply those in proper amounts of demeanor and deference behaviors with other people.

This fascinates me to no end! So if this isn't your bag, sorry about that. But I do urge you to start looking at your interactions with honesty. Are we always acting? Is there really an "I" when I think of myself? It's interesting introspection, for sure. I, for one, kind of dig the idea of not being completely socially acceptable :) Christ kind of turns that on its head. Maybe I'm just crazy!

Eluding cynicism... barely,

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