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Reading :: Interaction Ritual

Posted by: on Oct 27, 2013 | No Comments
Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior
By Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman is a giant in sociology, and I always feel guilty that I don't enjoy his work more than I do. The work always seems to be promising, but the system weighs heavily on me and the illustrations are light touches, brief stories from others' works, not long enough to feel that the system has been well grounded. It's like reading Aristotle.

Nevertheless, the system itself is valuable and, like Aristotle, Goffman provides a vocabulary and set of concepts that can be productively applied to various instances. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle opposes rhetoric to dialectic and explains appeals such as logos, pathos, ethos; in Interaction Ritual, Goffman describes face-work and explains the various moves that people use to maintain it.

"The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes—albeit an image that others may share, such as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself" (p.5). People must maintain their face (i.e., keep the line internally consistent; p.6). They can be "in wrong face when information is brought forth in some way about his social worth which cannot be integrated, even with effort, into the line that is being sustained for him" (p.8). And they can be "out of face when he participates in a contact with others when he participates in a contact with others without having ready a line of the kind participants in such situations are ready to take" (p.8). They can be shamefaced (perceived as flustered) and can have poise (the ability to suppress or conceal shamefacedness) (pp.8-9). Throughout their interactions, people build a line—and are often stuck with it; switching one's line can be confusing because one is abandoning a line to which one had previously been committed (p.12; Goffman does not go on to discuss common ways of changing one's line, such as confession, repentance, and conversion).

On this basis, Goffman goes on to examine interaction rituals, i.e., "acts through whose symbolic component the actor shows how worthy he is of respect or how worthy he feels others are of it" (p.19).

The rest of the book, though it consists of separate essays, builds on this vocabulary of face-work. In one chapter, Goffman uses a study at two mental wards to examine the nature of deference and demeanor, concluding that the self is in part a ceremonial thing (p.91). Goffman also examines alienation, public order, and the notion of "action." In each, he carefully and systematically examines rituals of interactions.

Again, this book is a classic. But take it in small doses, like Aristotle.