Sociology: Exploring a Shadow World

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Man as a social being divides his allegiance among a wide assortment of groups. The state, of course, is one, the family another. In between, there wheels a boundless galaxy of personal commitments and involvements, from the church committee to the golf club, all of which make rival membership claims on the individual and also serve to define who, what and where he is.

None may be more important to life than the type of event that Sociologist Erving Goffman calls "gatherings." These human groupings are often so fleeting and informal as to be unrecognizable as social functions—a ride in an elevator, two strangers passing on the street. They also include such emphatic events as the cocktail party. No less than the state and the family, the gathering has its own rules and laws. It is Goffman's contention that without the implicit obedience that these laws of behavior systematically command, the grander and more visible forms of human association would probably be unworkable. Society itself might fall apart.

Transgressing the Order. "More than to any family or club," writes Goffman in his book Behavior in Public Places, "more than to any class or sex, more than to any nation, the individual belongs to gatherings, and he had best show that he is a member in good standing. Just as we fill our jails with those who transgress the legal order, so we partly fill our asylums with those who act unsuitably—the first kind of institution being used to protect our lives and property; the second, to protect our gatherings and occasions."

Goffman has developed this proposition in six books.* They have cemented his reputation as one of the most illuminating—and disturbing—cartographers of that shadowy terrain where man plays at being a social animal without fully understanding exactly what he is doing. Some sense of the disquieting Goffman perspective can be gained from his elliptical revisions of prevailing human values, which are sown Like land mines through his books. Social man is not an entity but "a dramatic effect"; all social encounters are theatrical performances. In a marriage proposal, the suitor, who may think that he is swearing his love, "sums up his social attributes and suggests to a woman that hers are not so much better as to preclude a merger."

Tranquil Sleep. The same unsettling effect is produced by the Swiftian irony that Goffman brings to his appraisal of the human scene. To him, a hanging is a social event, circumscribed, just like a one-day sale or a picnic, by rules calculated to make the performance go smoothly. For this reason, he says, a "table of drops" based on body weight was worked out by long experience "so that the length of the free fall would neither leave the man to wriggle nor tear off his head." The true stagecraft of a funeral, says Goffman, is found "backstage," away from the flower-bedecked parlor. "If the bereaved are to be given the illusion that the dead one is really in a deep and tranquil sleep, then the undertaker must be able to keep the bereaved from the workroom where the corpses are drained, stuffed and painted for their final performance."

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