Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Kink in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman (1922-82), Canadian sociologist

The Social Constructionist view was a product of the merging of sociology and psychology that resulted in sociology broadening its focus from social organizations to interest in the ways individuals participate in social life.  By far one of the most influential single contributors to this movement was Erving Goffman.

Goffman was born in rural Canada, his parents Jewish Ukrainian immigrants.  He worked on the stage and in film before starting his academic career.  He thus brought lessons of an outsider from the world of acting to his academic work as a sociologist.  So much so, in fact, that his discipline was often called dramaturgical analysis.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)  American sociologist and principle contributor to role theory, and the concept of 'self.' 
There already existed a powerful tradition within sociology to look at society in terms of social roles, the legacy of the early twentieth century sociologist George Herbert Meade.  Meade launched role theory as a consequence of his investigation of social structure.  He recognized that industrial society had an increasingly diversified division of labor, and the rules of work life varied tremendously depending on the kind of work role an individual held.  Managers had different roles than production workers, who had different roles than sales workers, etc.  By the 1950’s, however, sociology began to look at the idea that roles were important in private life as well as public life, in part influenced by the rising social and economic recognition that people were important social contributors not just in the roles as workers and voters, but as consumers.  Partly this reflected rising influence in sociology from Freudian ideas, and efforts to understand the rise of authoritarian political systems following World War I.  And partly it reflected the rise of radio and television in persuasive communications.  People were being investigated not just in their work roles, but as parents, neighbors, club members, consumers and voters.  So the renaissance in microsociology was partly a reflection of academic recognition that private life and public life followed some similar social laws.  Goffman arrived at the proper moment to articulate some of those.

The stage as metaphor for context for role performances in dramaturgical analysis.

Role theory terms people ‘social actors’ when they occupy a particular role, and dramaturgical analysis takes that term ‘actor’ literally.  Dividing role performance as ‘on stage,’ ‘off stage,’ and ‘backstage,’ Goffman looked at role performance as if role performance was all about social context.  When onstage, actors perform roles to manage audience expectations.  Backstage, the audience is not present, and actors engage in behaviors that are unsafe on stage for fear of damaging their performance.  Goffman also defined space outside the stage altogether, where the audience might be fragmented, and the actor might assume different roles with different goals and performance criteria.   For Shakespeare, ‘all the world’s a stage’; for Goffman, it is a whole series of stages.  Unifying all of this was the over-arching necessity to present a good performance in the eyes of the self, and all those audiences.  In dramaturgical analysis, Goffman defines a psychological dynamic of pride and shame that was the primary currency at stake in role performances.

In the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman’s most influential work, he went on to expand this theory beyond its application to the theater and from the analysis of cons, games, and scams, to mundane social interaction.  This was an important improvement over the symbolic interactionist approach because the concept of self and desire of social actors to maintain a positive self-presentation unified many of the previous flaws in pragmatism that symbolic interactionism was designed to address.  Behavior became easy to explain when viewed as efforts to save face, rather than as materially pragmatic.

Insight into just how deeply and ruthlessly Goffman understood this can be achieved from a personal story about him.  Goffman had been invited to the University of Michigan to deliver its most famous annual lecture in social psychology.  After the successful presentation, a group of senior faculty met to accompany the speaker on a celebratory dinner at the hot new Szechuan place, which happened to have a package liquor policy that let you bring your own wine.  So the faculty assembled outside the party store next door, and Goffman took the opportunity to wager on the very theory he had just expounded:  he would get the wine, and he declared in advance he would be able to obtain it at a substantial discount.

So Goffman, accompanied by a rapt observer, went in and selected a fine bottle of wine and took it to the proprietor.  Goffman proceeded to closely question the gentleman about the vineyard, the vintage, the details of the terroir, sediment in the bottle, and the year, disagreeing and discrediting the proprietor’s defense of the wine at every turn, and eventually discrediting him for even trying to sell the bottle at half its listed price!  Goffman left with the wine at 40% off, just as he had predicted.  What he had failed to anticipate was the private reaction of his professorial audience.  They were shocked that an esteemed professor of sociology whose fame was world-wide at the time, and whose reputation was so great he had been invited to deliver the lecture in the first place, would feel the need to trash talk an immigrant business owner out of a measly bottle of wine!  They thought he was a sociopath!

Goffman was very interested in scams, shills, cons, and games.  His outsider mentality, and ruthlessly strategic view of social interactions was powerfully predictive of how con artists and their victims behaved.  And his willingness to criticize such performances was to revolutionize psychiatry.  In Asylums, Goffman took up the persistent problem of institutionalization just as the community public health movement was getting started.  Due to institutionalization, criminals in prisons and psychiatric in-patients faced great difficulties in adjusting to their release to everyday life.  Goffman explained institutionalization as adjustment to the complementary roles imposed by institutional life. Of course they were ill-prepared for release, explained Goffman, they obtained release by playing the role of good in-patients.  The qualities that made one a good role player in a mental ward constituted catastrophic role failure in life outside the institution.  The pressure of role failure outside led many to seek readmission.  And psychiatry was complicit in all of this.  By playing their roles well of diagnosing and labeling these patients and rewarding them for submissive, institutionalized behavior, they were not improving anyone’s mental health, only promoting smooth institutional functioning and furthering their careers.

The power of social roles with extreme power differences:  The Stanford Prison Experiment unwittingly replicated  at Abu Gharib prison in 2004.  
Goffman was soon to achieve confirmation in the laboratory.  In one of the most famous social psychology experiments, Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo conducted his 1971 prison simulation in the basement under Stanford’s social psych offices.  Merely by arbitrarily dividing his volunteers into guards and patients, the role play had so escalated in violence that some of the inmate volunteers were showing severe anxiety symptoms and the experiment had to be stopped in less than one week on ethical grounds.  Although Goffman advocated qualitative methods in sociology, and many of his observations were not easily and ethically put to empirical tests by a field that was increasingly struggling to achieve greater legitimacy through quantitative methods, Zimbardo had demonstrated the power of Goffman’s observations.  This ugly scenario repeated itself at the notorious Abu-Gharib prison in Afghanistan in 2004.

That randomly assigned student volunteers would do violence to one another served as a powerful challenge to both Freudian and Kraepelinian models of mental illness at the time, and remains a powerful challenge to the DSMs and social discourse that mental illness is an attribute of a person, rather than primarily an interaction between individual and context.  Asylums would become a cornerstone of efforts to reform psychiatry, pressure on The American Psychiatric Association to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals from a nosology based upon the construct validity of Freudian theory to one of symptom-based diagnosis achieved through inter-rater reliability.  While this change did not completely solve the problem of whether behaviors were an attribute of personality types or social context, it began the rollback of spreading definitions of sexual perversion ascendant in psychology since Krafft-Ebing invented the concept back in 1869.  Homosexuality, in the later versions of DSM-II, and then all sexual diagnosis beginning in 1972 with DSM-III, received more limited and behavioral definitions.

A Pieta by 16th century painter Luis de Morales prominently emphasizing Christ's stigmata.  Goffman's social stigma are wounds to the self.
By far the most important gift of Erving Goffman, however, was the pervasive recognition of the importance of social stigma.  It followed from his analysis of everyday interaction that if shame at role failure was a pervasive social motive, social stigma was a crucial analytic concept.  The term ‘stigma’ is derived from the Latin word for wound.  It was in pervasive use before Goffman with reference to the wounds—stigmata--of Jesus Christ incurred during his torture and crucifixion, and pervasively represented in artistic depictions.  These wounds, symbolic in Christianity of the offense of sin against the teachings of God, and graphically represented in art and central in doctrine stressing the magnificence of God’s forgiveness, were the perfect term for Goffman’s social interactions since they evoked the shame of social failure analogous to Christianity’s shame at moral failure.

This is precisely what I am referring to in this blog when I allude to the social stigma that attends open expression of sexuality, and of social discrimination against BDSM’s diversity of sexual expression.  Because sexual variation is stigmatized, the dominant cultures in which it occurs have norms, mores, laws, rules and stories that legitimate social sanctions against BDSM.  All of this makes social discrimination against kink easy to understand, even if it remains hard to combat.
But stigmatization does not just function in the larger society to limit and marginalize kink, but it functions within the kink community as well.  Every potential kinkster must struggle in some manner against their own internalization of social stigmatization that is prevalent in the larger social arenas in which they participate.  This has variously been represented as homophobia, transphobia, and kink phobia, but often the fear in these ‘phobias’ is the fear of stigma, rather than the fear of specific behaviors.  Many people who have never had any meaningful contact with sexual variation are afraid of the social consequences, rather than afraid of pain, anal sex, variant gender expression or other behaviors they would not otherwise have considered because they prefer not to think of themselves as the type of people who do such things.  This is precisely the cause of a steady stream of government officials who daily preach sexual conventionality while indulging in vigorous alternative behaviors in their private lives.  Such stories always raise questions about these officials’ personal beliefs, but it is not hard to understand their reluctance to pay the price of actively confronting social stigmatization when most people are doing much the same by keeping private and public life separate because of conflicting role demands. Often those internal conflicts bring kinksters into therapy, and in those cases, the kink itself may be less of a problem than the problems of stigmatization.

But stigma works within the community to.  Although many in the BDSM communities are open-minded about precisely the sexual behaviors the surrounding societies most often judge, the community itself participates in setting up the role definitions of roles like top, bottom, switch, service Dom’s, and tourists.  These have varying degrees of legitimacy, and there are role prescriptions about how to do them properly.  ‘Smart ass masochists,’ ‘topping from the bottom,’ or people who ‘betray’ the community by outing people are all examples of behaviors that are somewhat stigmatized within the community as it provides its own system of guidelines about ‘proper’ kinky behavior.  Kink is sometimes a performance, and subject to the painful consequences of role stress, role failure, and the problem of needing to subordinate selfish goals to communitarian demands that Goffman talked about, even if he didn’t write specifically about kink.

Goffman would go on to inspire many other important contributors to kink theory.  He contributed to the practice of viewing gender as performance, and his work underlay advocacy by Jean Kilbourne and her Killing Me Softly series of documentaries on gender performance in advertisingThis gave rise to the modern media education movement and influenced Lenore Teifer, PhD to launch the New View Campaign to deconstruct the medicalization of female sexuality.
Goffman profoundly influenced Michel Foucault who has deconstructed the idea of sexual repression in Western society as a myth primarily serving to legitimate the professionalization of sex and to marginalize homosexual expression.  Foucault, like Goffman, is a mainstay of the movement to deconstruct psychiatry and efforts to prevent the medicalization of everyday life.

As Goffman aged, his work progressively widened to scope of the social contexts of interaction.  While he denied being a Social Constructionist, his focus on context is characteristic of that school and has led many later observers, including this one, to so-label him anyway.  His interest in social games, deception and bluffing made him a natural to try to wed social constructionism with game theory, and his final major work, Frame Analysis continued this ambition to transcend categorization.  We will never know how far he might have taken this, Goffman died at the peak of his career, having been elected President of the American Sociological Association.  He died of stomach cancer in 1982, leaving a very rich legacy to those of us interested in mental health, social deviance, sub-cultures, and variant social expression of all kinds.

Act Up in the streets.  Sexual advocacy worked because of the sacrifices of activists, and Goffman and others had prepared society to deconstruct traditional institutions.

Kink is largely personal behavior conducted off stage in the realm of private life.  Much of the work to create above-ground BDSM social organizations that can advocate for the legitimacy of kink lifestyle choices is the legacy of prior work by gay and lesbian organizations whose struggles have partially legitimated these lifestyles.  But they succeeded in this context because of work deconstructing psychiatry and mental health diagnoses, and by challenging the legitimacy of conventional social discourse about sexual variation.  Goffman played a crucial role in the rise of this discourse, and made social activism fruitful. 

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