February 20, 2008


Caption: This man is a poor player that struts and frets his hour on the stage.

One of the more interesting sociologists of the 20th century was the legendary Erving Goffman (1922-1982) whose best known work is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which first came out in 1959.

It's not exactly a barrel of monkeys to read but the El Cabrero was shaken the first time I waded through it. I tend to think of myself as a fairly straightforward person without a lot of pretense. But Goffman makes a pretty convincing case that we're pretty much all acting pretty much all the time.

It's turtles all the way down.

His approach to social interaction has been called dramaturgical, which is a fancy way of saying based on the theater. And we all have a part. According to Goffman,

when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.

Sometimes, Goffman says, we are taken in by our own performance. When a person does that, "he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality." That's one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, people may be cynical about their performances and only engage in them to accomplish some specific goal (even if it's amusing oneself). Most of the time, we're somewhere in between.

Sometimes we "act" with more or less sincerity in groups or what he calls performance teams. An example is a group of people in a workplace that serves the public or a couple at a party. Sometimes performances come off smoothly, say when a combative husband and wife appear in public as a happy couple; sometimes performances break down.

Many locations, such as classrooms, treatment rooms, offices, etc. are in effect stages full of props intended to create an impression. Just like any stage, there are front and back regions. In the front region, the performance team confronts the public, while the back region, such as a staff lounge, is a place where people can relax and take off the mask--or at least put on a different one.

The thing that makes reading Goffman a little exasperating is that he seems to think we're all masks all the time with no face behind them. On the other hand, maybe there's something to ponder in the fact that the English word for person comes from the Latin persona, which means a mask worn by an actor.

SUICIDES SURGE FOR MIDDLE AGED AMERICANS. The NY Times reported yesterday some disturbing trends in patterns of suicide:

A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. (All figures are adjusted for population.)

For women 45 to 54, the rate leapt 31 percent. “That is certainly a break from trends of the past,” said Ann Haas, the research director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Veterans now account for one in five suicides.

This is a sad subject no matter what the age of those involved, but previously more attention has been focused on suicide in the young and elderly.

POVERTY ON THE BRAIN. Here's more about the report on poverty and child development mentioned yesterday. Here's an extract from the Financial Times:

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.

It seems to hit language and memory hardest.

IN THE SPIRIT OF FAIR PLAY, congratulations to WV Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard for endorsing the idea of some kind of committee to oversee recusal decisions made by judges. Maynard was the center of a WV media storm (with some national spillover) when he was photographed with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in Monaco after the court agreed to hear a case involving the company.

GOT GOAT? El Cabrero can relate to this one.

BEELZEBUFO!!! We interrupt this blog for an important announcement:

A frog the size of a bowling ball, with heavy armor and teeth, lived among dinosaurs millions of years ago _ intimidating enough that scientists who unearthed its fossils dubbed the beast Beelzebufo, or Devil Toad.

It weighed 10 pounds and was 16 inches long. When this froggie went a courtin', he rode first class.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: If the colon (punctuation mark) went on strike, would this shut down the writing of academic papers and research reports?


1 comment:

yennob said...

Your thought of the day would have been a lot funnier without the parameters around colon. I'm sure that college student's everywhere would agree that if the colon went on strike, it would indeed effect academic and research papers.