”Goffman’ is one of my favourite ever ‘social thinkers’; he mustered up a whole host of interesting/intriguing and insightful theories on us humans in his time. This particularly beautiful little theory of his, which I’m gonna attempt to delve into, is explained fully in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’.
He had a magic all of his own, a magic you seldom see in the worlds of ‘Academia and/or Science’. His dry old cronies produced papers with ‘similarly genius content’, but as reading scientific journal papers is kinda similar to pulling your own teeth out, via a japanese instruction manual; sadly most knowledge in them, stays within a pretty small community, within an even smaller community.
But ‘Goffman’ used a mixture of clever yet simplistic metaphors and ‘almost’ poetic descriptions to explain the complex ways of society; in a way that made them understandable, meaningful and enjoyable to all. In this book he provides a genius understanding of the ‘roots’ and ‘layers’ of suppression! In ALL its forms, and across all ‘social borders’.
His concept, ‘summed up’ as best as I could manage (in the absence of many quotes of reasonable length from the giant book ;))…
Life is a Stage, and we are its ‘actors’… ‘Actors’ provided with a selection of props, phrases and sentences; right up to full monologues. A plethora of scripts to guide us through our daily interactions with ALL the different people we encounter. These pre provided ‘scripts’ are passed down through generations, and used in conversation, to ensure we stay within the realms of socially ‘appropriate’ chit chat…
Now what a truly simple but spandangaly way of explaining how we all go about our dailies! It truly does ‘cover’ every single human interaction in existence…
I’ll get back to his ‘gem’ shortly, but I need to mention the giant multiple hurdles of constraint we have to deal with first. (Before we become accomplished suppressors). These hurdles come long before we even know what self oppression means!
Constraints Part 1! (structure)
Academics call this phenomena, ‘Structure’. The term incorporates ALL the billion ‘happenings’ of life, which ENABLE some people, and CONSTRAIN others… Such as Money, Weather, Welfare Services and the way they are organised, Globalisation, Traffic Jams, Education Standards, Majority Ideals, Current Laws, yada yada yada etc…
Take Money as an example. It ‘structures’ (shapes) all our lives to an extent. For ‘The Loaded Crew’, their ‘money structures’ generally ENABLE them, by extending their choices in some arena’s of life. For ‘The Poor Crew’, their very different ‘money structures’, generally CONSTRAIN the number of choices they have available to them in these same (and other) arena’s.
I hope you’re still with me ;/
Oh and when we choose from our limited or almost limit-less number of choices; when we pick a lane; when we decide what to do…they call that ‘Agency’.
So ‘Structure’ is kinda like the parent of society, providing the boundaries of choice … and ‘Agency’ represents the rebellious teenagers, fighting for some control!
From the minute we pop out of the womb; the million and one varying structures in life dictate the number of choices available to us all. The style/shape/substance/extent of each of these ‘life happenings’, act also as the boundary walls of CONSTRAINT. Boundary walls of wildly varying proportions, but walls that constrain us ALL, just in differing arena’s. We are ALL equal in this respect, if not equally constrained.
So whilst all ‘constrained up’ in our different ways… by structures of capital, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, religion, race, the weather again, (farmers are affected differently to car salesmen by our weather structures ;)), right through to meager traffic jams again!!…We still have our ‘agency’ (personality, spirit, insides, ideals, dreams, thoughts), and we use it with all our might, to exercise our right to choose which path to take, no matter how small the ‘choose me’ pile might be.
So that’s ‘Suppression’ layer one revealed (I hope!). ‘That’s just life’ you could say; but ‘Goffmans’ layer is wholly man-made and wildly pervasive! The pressure and sadness of ‘acting out’ our lives, as opposed to really ‘living them’ is a sad concept, but one I fear is true! But there is hope 😉 which I’ll come to…
Day 1, Act 1, Scene 2.
Ian sees his old friend Sarah (entering via the left-wing ;0), he throws his arms around her and wails ‘Sarah, how the bloody hell are ya? Fucking ‘Ell, I haven’t seen you for months… how’s tricks Sare? Are you still with that ‘numpty’, or have you found someone who deserves you yet? My wild child, peter pan petal girl!’
They laugh, smile and talk together for what seems like an age. The audience viewing the scene immediately ‘pick up’ on the charming warmth within the conversation. Just 2 friends, 2 equals, NATURALLY and excitedly ‘catching up’. They obviously didn’t need to check what ‘script’ to use/or not use for this scene, only the ‘ad lib’ flowed unabated. An uncontrolled, compassionate, expressive, open, human to human interaction. A pure connection; in that it was ’empty of all constraints’, was aired and appreciated. Both Sarah and Ian’s ‘Agency’ was out in full attire, so the scene flowed gracefully, without a hitch… 2 friends, 2 equals…
Day 1, Act 1, Scene 2
A man sits across the table from another man… 2 strangers to each other; and again, thus far, 2 equals. But as this scene unfolds, a ‘perceived’ inequality of some kind is protruding from the audience
Man 1 is 41, his name is Ian, and he is ‘HOMELESS’.
Man 2 is also 41, he is called Alan, and he is a ‘SENIOR DOCTOR’ at his local surgery.
Now according to Old ‘Goffman’s’ theory (mentioned high above), these ‘tags’ (i.e. friend, homeless person, senior doctor) provide us ‘actors’ with clues, regarding which sentences/phrases and ‘scripts’ to use; in order to remain within the realms of social appropriateness!
Day 1, Act 1, Scene 2 continued…
Alan talks freely whilst Ian perches nervously in the chair opposite, nodding like a good boy as the one-sided conversation unfolds. Alan stops speaking, Ian stands immediately and says ‘Thank-you so much’ to the doctor, for the incorrect diagnosis and the inadequate prescription. And off he scuttles out of the door, having forgot to mention the searing pain in his leg; the discomfort of which had been increasing daily, ever since it dropped to minus 4, back in November last year.
Ian ‘s not alone here with his suppressed reaction. Have you noticed how when we enter the door of any of the ‘tagged elite’, we do tend to rush out our problems in a quest to ‘take up as little of their time as possible’?. So straight away, these ‘titles set hierarchies of importance between people. Alan’s time ranks as more important than Ian’s, without a spoken word, this factors into which scripts Ian feels comfortable using!
Compare this to the 2 equal tags (friends)…Ian and Sarah naturally perceived the ‘taking up of each other’s time’ as equally important, only because they were interacting as Actors with ‘tags’ of the same value in that ‘scene’ of the day.
As for Alan, because the ‘doctor’ tag holds all sorts of connotations of higher knowledge, expertise, intelligence etc, even though it’s our right to ask for a second opinion, we often don’t. Why? Because most of us didn’t grow up with access to the ‘Doctor/Patient script’ where we perceive ourselves as equally important/knowledgeable/intelligent etc. So we conform to our phrases; we suppress ourselves further; we change. We use our Agency to actively ‘squash’ our natural selves in virtually ever scene of every day.
This obsession of the west, to define people’s worth by their occupation and social status makes me bilious. I also find it utterly nonsensical as our occupation and social status is subject to change AT any point, but we are still exactly the same people.
And like occupation, our age, (perceived) ‘class’ position, religious tendencies, sexuality; also can and DO change as we go through life, they are as un-fixed as Ian’s abode. Yet the very basis of the nature of ALL our conversations is framed by these things! We are constantly bobbing up and down all day long in terms of ‘how much of ourself we are socially permitted to express’. We spend so much of out lives behaving within boundaries on top of boundaries on top of constraints on top of boundaries.
But here’s the magic of our ‘Agency’. Our personalities, our spirit, our drive, our identity, dreams and thoughts, and our individualism; ensures that through all these layers of constraints and boundaries and rules, throughout all the piles of self – oppression we all adhere to…
We still LIVE life, we thrive, we fall, we get up, we grow, we shrink, we make plans, we choose paths and we follow them, we lose our way and find it again, we fight, we survive, we find other routes to express ourselves all the time. We feel, we smile, we find happiness and we make the most of the choices in ‘our pile’.
In spite of all of the scripts, and all of the lines, we all still remain Individuals. And we never stop shifting the boundaries or pushing on the constraints. The structures and rules around us are so strong and so far-reaching, yet we all go around performing our own little miracles within these bounds, in spite of their sheer force. The more we are suppressed, the more we find a way to express. Agency will always win over structure, so long as we all remain as similar and as different as carrots and foxes! And we’ve manged that since the beginning of time, so I hold much faith in the power of ‘Agency’! Or to put it another way, I hold much faith and hope in the power of simply being human.