Friday, July 22, 2011

Reading :: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
By Erving Goffman

I haven't read this book for years. It was assigned to one of my MA classes, long ago, but I think I either gave it away or lost it in a move at the end of my Ph.D. work. In any case, I picked up another copy and took a look. And although it's not fieldwork per se, it's full of interesting things. I won't attempt to justice to it in this short review, but I'll point out some of the interesting parts - particularly in terms of team performances, which interest me the most.

Using a dramaturgical metaphor, Goffman argues that people are constantly tailoring the images that they project to others around them. Although individuals constantly do this sort of performance management, so do teams: “any set of individuals who co-operate in staging a single routine” (p.79).

Goffman’s examples are as disparate as family dinners, filling stations, and prostitution syndicates, but across all these team performances, Goffman identifies two basic components of the team relationship. First, “while a team-performance is in progress, any member of the team has the power to give the show away or disrupt it by inappropriate conduct” and consequently there is “a bond of reciprocal dependence linking teammates to each other” (p.82). Second, “if members of a team must co-operate to maintain a given definition of the situation before their audience, they will hardly be in a position to maintain that particular impression before one another” (pp.82-83). That is, teammates develop both a reciprocal dependence and a reciprocal familiarity with each other (p.83).

Team members engage in defensive practices to allow them to “save their own show” by maintaining their team performance. Goffman identifies three defensive attributes and practices.

  • Dramaturgical loyalty, in which teammates “act as if they have accepted certain moral obligations” such as not betraying team secrets (p.212), not trying to steal the show (p.214), and not forming attachments with the audience that will compromise team performance (p.214). 
  • Dramaturgical discipline, in which each teammate “remembers his part and does not commit unmeant gestures or faux pas in performing it” (p.216). The disciplined team member avoids unintentionally giving away team secrets and covers up the inappropriate or disruptive behavior of teammates (p.216). 
  • Dramaturgical circumspection, in which teammates “exercise prudence and circumspection in staging the show, preparing in advance for likely contingencies and exploiting the opportunities that remain” (p.218). One technique for assembling such a team is to “choose members who are loyal and disciplined”; another is to determine “how much loyalty and discipline [the team] can rely on from the membership as a whole” (p.218); a third is to “select the kind of audience that will give a minimum of trouble in terms of the show the performer wants to put on” (pp.218-219). 

Goffman recognizes that team performances are difficult since they rely on a high degree of coordinated improvisation in the face of contingencies as well as a high degree of trust among team members. He lists several ways to limit the risk of disruptions in team performances, including getting the team’s story straight ahead of time (p.88); punishing teammates for mistakes after the performance (p.89); excluding teammates who cannot perform properly (p.91); controlling the information to which the audience has access (p.141); and limiting team size (p.220).

Goffman also notes another tactic. “In those interactions where the individual presents a product to others, he will tend to show them only the end product, and they will be led into judging him on the basis of something that has been finished, polished, and packaged. In some cases, if very little effort was actually required to complete the object, this fact will be concealed. In other cases, it will be the long, tedious hours of lonely labor that will be hidden” (p.44).

There's much, much more to the book. In fact, one disappointment is that although Goffman alludes to and occasionally uses examples from fieldwork he did on Shetland Island, he doesn't focus the book on that project or even discuss it enough for us to understand the project. Rather, he casts widely - and frequently draws on the unpublished dissertations of U-Chicago doctoral candidates as well as works of fiction - to illustrate the different dramaturgical moves he identifies. Although that choice gives Goffman a wide range of illustrations and serves to emphasize how broadly this phenomenon is distributed, it also makes the framework seem too generally grounded and universalized.

Nevertheless, it's a solid book, and its examples generally stand, even more than 50 years later. And it's a fast read. If you haven't taken a look, do.

Reading :: Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco

Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco
By Paul Rabinow

In 1968, a young graduate student set out from the University of Chicago under the direction of Clifford Geertz to do ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco. He saw fieldwork as an extremely important transformational event; certainly that's what his professors had indicated. "In the graduate anthropology department at the University of Chicago," he explained, "the world was divided into two categories of people: those who had done fieldwork, and those who had not; the latter were not 'really' anthropologists, regardless of what they knew about anthropological topics" (p.3). Indeed,
I was told that my papers did not really count because once I had done fieldwork they would be radically different. Knowing smiles greeted the acerbic remarks which graduate students made about the lack of theory in certain of the classics we studied; never mind, we were told, the authors were great fieldworkers. At the time, this intrigued me. The promise of initiation into the clan secrets was seductive. I fully accepted the dogma. (p.3)
Yet, he notes, anthropology presents a double bind.
As graduate students we are told that 'anthropology equals experience'; you are not an anthropologist until you have the experience of doing it. But when one returns from the field, the opposite immediately applies: anthropology is not the experiences which made you an initiate, but only the objective data you have brought back. (p.4)
Rabinow's book tries to break that double bind. In his previous book, he presented a standard ethnography based on his time in Morocco. But in this book, he tells us his experiences in trying to do fieldwork, warts and all. The result is poignant and frequently hilarious. Rabinow bungles along, trying to find informants, trying to learn the language, trying not to alienate people or burn bridges. As he works his way into the situation, he finds that some informants, though eager for attention, are too peripheral to be useful; that most informants see him as a means to their ends as well, and have no problem taking advantage of him or shutting him off from people in other factions; and that if he doesn't take advantage of power differentials, he can't get any sort of cooperation at all. For instance, he befriends an excellent informant, only to learn later that (a) the man is marginalized because he's a pimp and (b) the man, like others, plays domination games with him.

"I had to clarify where I stood," he realizes at one point. "If the informant was always right, then by implication the anthropologist had to become a sort of non-person, or more accurately a total persona. ... This was the position my professors had advocated: one simply endured whatever inconveniences and annoyances came along. One had to completely subordinate one's code of ethics, conduct, and world view, to 'suspend belief,' as another colleague was proud of putting it, and sympathetically and accurately record events" (p.46). But Rabinow soon realized that this meant being dominated, walked over, and in his situation it meant performing ethnography poorly. "As confidence is built up, the informant judges and interacts with the anthropologist in his own habitual style" (p.47) - and that means that he will test the anthropologist. Who can respect someone who lets himself or herself be bullied and dominated?

Rabinow gradually realizes that anthropology must mean participating in a culture on the terms of the informants. But it also means cultivating informants, helping them to see things differently as well so that they can explain them. Informants necessarily have to have that critical distance, so frequently the best informants are on the fringe of their culture. "Culture is interpretation," he tells us in the conclusion (p.150). In the conclusion, he discusses and evaluates all of his informants, examining why they behaved as they did and discussing how they could and couldn't help him.

Overall, this book is Rabinow's account of learning to understand fieldwork - and learning to understand his informants as real people who are changed by, and who change, the ethnographer who comes to study them. It's thoughtful and highly entertaining. If you're interested in fieldwork, and especially if you haven't done fieldwork yet, take a look.