Reading Goffman (1): The Definition of the Situation

“Hello, is this Mr. Peartree?”
“I’m here from xxxx marketing and I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of yo-” [conversation abruptly ends]

“Hello madam how are you today?”
“[any answer]”
“That is lovely to hear, how can I help you today?”

“Hello sir, I love your umbrella”
[no response]
“I would like to talk to you about the charity….”

I’m sure you have heard many kinds of conversations like this. People in business, communications, politics or any kind of endeavour where currying favour is required, will be familiar with the notion that first impressions matter. Goffman’s Doctoral Dissertation on the subject of the interactions in a Shetlands hotel between the staff and customers, as well as between staff and the behaviours exhibited in front of staff and away from staff, formed the basis of his thought on interaction.

I have two contradictory feelings about Goffman, one is that I found it incredibly difficult to grasp the first time I read his monograph Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (henceforth ‘Presentation’), the second time reading it is similarly difficult, but perhaps I have a differing perspective on it now. The second thought that I have is that I see Goffman as relevant to everything in society insofar as it relates to people interacting in a dyadic (that is to say, one node to another, or ‘one on one’ in a more informal manner) manner, when it comes to polyadic, well, maybe I’ll get to that later.

The second time reading Goffman has made me think of the wider context in which he wrote. Goffman was a contemporary of Robert K. Merton; seems to be familiar with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; and was influential to a number of sociologists who took interaction more seriously. I believe that Goffman’s work on the Total Institution  was referenced by Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a basis for the latter’s own work, but that is a subject beyond my current comprehension, and the topic of this post.

The definition of the situation is a term that sounds opaque to me, it is even more unhelpful to find that it has an existentialist origin. I think there is something interesting to be said about the fact that Goffman leans heavily on Sartre’s thought in discussing this issue. What is the definition of the situation?

As I have read it, the Definition of the Situation is a social confine within a singular interaction between at least two agents, this reflects the nature of what this social interaction is. The Definition of the situation reflects macrosocial features but only in a crude sense, within the macrosocial construction an agent can navigate within. Insofar as interactions allow for more fine grained manoeuvre of outcomes from the crude macrosocial colouring of interactions, we have a layer of the microsocial.

Lets start with a distinction. By macrosocial impacts upon interaction, I mean features such as ethnicity/race, gender/sex, class/status, or other situational factors (such as facial disfigurement, wearing a wedding dress etc) imposing on how one may see another. If I were to write like Goffman, I would cite cultural examples like how a Black man in the United States during the Jim Crow period may be referred to as ‘Boy’, or how in contemporary society, diminuitive terms for women or affectionate others may be denoted as ‘honey’, ‘babe’, ‘sweets’, ‘love’ etc.

The best elaboration of the Definition of the Situation comes from my Sociology Lecturer who taught me Goffman, Kieran Flanagan, who spoke of an anecdote of a ‘young student during the 1970s’ in the US speaking to a hotelier. The hotelier asks the young man politely, ‘and how was your day sir?’, the young Sociology Masters student  man replies: “I’M FUCKING AWFUL”. There was a slight pause, and the young man realised that the hotelier was mortified. The older woman was working along a constructed social script, and had faced a reaction that she was incapable of responding to, in this response, the young man had broken the interaction and shattered the message that was trying to be conveyed by the hotelier.

For me, this example says everything about what the Definition of the Situation is, and perhaps made me understand the real meaning of ‘losing face’. the Definition of the Situation is, to put it in business parlance, trying to communicate a message, and trying to put forward a pitch. What I find personally revolting about this kind of agency, is that the message you are putting forward in the definition of the situation (such as a kind receptionist appearing simultaneously sexually available, attentive, helpful and courteous) is that much of this is defined by her or his role. What exactly are the features of this role are often tacit. Goffman presents a world of agency where our interactions are often an alienation of our true self and more a communication of what we are prescribed to do. This is at least the case in the ‘Front’ side of our social interactions (which I have planned to talk about in my fourth post).

The Definition of the Situation is the confine of rule-following behaviour in interactions between social agents. In a coffee conversation with Destre, I mentioned my thoughts on Goffman to him and I said almost disparagingly, in relation to another conversation we had about Kant’s Categories: maybe this is what Kant meant by the ‘receptivity between agent and patient’. The interaction between people is a fundamental social aspect, and there is something distinctly fluid about its nature.

From a personal perspective I feel that I fail as a social person. I’m very awkward and difficult around new situations and I’m not good at working within the ‘Definition of the Situation’. However there are agents who could perhaps play very well in these constructions: people who have something to sell, pick up artists (usually men) trying to pick up (usually) women; or anyone working in the service industry. I find usually that having a presence of fixed items or aspects to a role make my anxiety about social interactions a lot easier. There is a sense in which I colloquilally consider Goffman to be a justification or theoretical eludication of my own perspective to social anxiety.

In my next post I shall attempt to discuss the role of ‘props’.



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