Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reading :: Interaction Ritual

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.

Reading :: The Fifth Age of Work

The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy
By Andrew M. Jones

Drew Jones was one of the first people I met when I began investigating the coworking scene in Austin in 2008. An anthropologist by training, Drew began looking into coworking in 2007 and cowrote one of the first books (perhaps the first?) on coworking: I'm Outta Here. But Drew's focus was always broader than coworking: he was interested in how work would change in the near future due to a number of factors, such as millenials entering the workforce; the information revolution, which has obviated copresence in a lot of work; the question of how to nurture and sustain innovation in companies; the environmental and financial impacts of moving people back and forth; and the sheer waste of office buildings that are empty two-thirds of the time. Drew outlined many of these themes in forums such as the Future of Work salon and SXSW 2010, as well as his book on innovation. And now he's developed them in this book, which comes out in November. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy.

The Fifth Age of Work examines coworking and other work trends against this backdrop. This book, aimed at popular audiences, lucidly and engagingly discusses the challenges that organizations face as we move toward "the fifth age of work":
The Fifth Age of Work is an emerging world of work broadly defined by the rise of cloud-based technology such as remote computing, file storage and retrieval (e.g., Evernote, Dropbox), and communication channels (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout), as well as the decentralization and de-localization of work characterized by distributed teams, remote work, flex work and telecommuting, contract and project-based work, and the rapid growth of the coworking movement. But the Fifth Age is also much more than this.  These myriad arrangements are manifestations of more fundamental, evolutionary changes in our economy. The Great Recession in 2008, in fact, was an inflection point that marked the arrival of this new epoch, where we are now witnessing culture and technology colliding to disrupt and redefine the what, when, where, how, and even the why of work. (p. 10).

Jones contrasts the Fifth Age with the previous four:

  • First: hunting and gathering
  • Second: agriculture 
  • Third: merchantilism
  • Fourth: the Information Revolution (pp.11-12)
He sees the Fifth Age as the occasion for a new social contract, one that addresses workers' need for "more independence, trust, and honesty in their working lives" (p.15). 

Based on this vision, Jones discusses coworking, work innovation, corporate culture shifts, workplace design, and other aspects of work that are changing or under pressure. He concludes that in the Fifth Age of Work, leadership must look different—perhaps "anthropological." And he includes a workbook near the end of the book to help leaders think through experiments and innovations in their own workplaces.

Personally, I enjoyed the broad sweep and the way Jones connected different trends in this short but thought-provoking book. If you're interested in the future of work, coworking, or similar aspects, take a look.