Section II A:
            Interlude:  Social Definition of the Person: Roles, Scripts, and Expectations

        Cooley, Charles Horton
            1909    Chapter 3: "Primary Groups", from his: Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind.  Pp. 23-31.
        Goffman, Erving
            1956    "The Nature of Deference and Demeanor." American Anthropologist 58: 473-502.
        Gregor, Thomas
            1977    Ch. 1, "Dramaturgical Metaphor." Mehinaku: The Drama of Daily Life in a Brazilian Indian Village, pp. 6-12.
        Turner, Victor
            1967  "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in the Rites de Passage." Forest of Symbols, pp. 93-111.


        "Society" must be the key word/concept in social science. But it is used in many different ways, by all of us. An important distinction is between using "society" to refer to people, and to refer to patterns of relationship. When we say "Canadian society", we may mean Canadians, the populace, the people; or we may be referring to the shape of life among those people, to forms of order or pattern or organization: "Canadian society is founded on order and good government."

        When social scientists use phrases like "social organization", "social structure", "social system", "social order", "social formation", and so on, they are thinking of social life as pattern, not people. They view social life as composed of relationships, not persons. Of course, without both persons and the relations between them, you have no social life. But the difference between the two ways of directing attention is very great. For example, there can also be relationships between relationships: there is the father's relationship to the child, the mother's relation to the child, and the relation between those relationships, which is not the same as either of them taken separately, as every child knows. Most ideas about order, organization, structure, and so on in social life are ideas about patterns in which relationships relate to each other. If you wanted to think of "relationship" as an abstraction, then "patterns of relations" is doubly abstract.

        So, in response to the question: "When we study society, what do we study?", one answer could be "people", while another could be "patterns of relations...".

        During the 20th century, much social science talk about relationships between persons came to be cast in terms of the connected notions of "status" and "role". "Status" refers to the position a person has in relation to another: "he is father in relation to someone considered his child". Father is a status, and so is child: statuses are parts of relationships, which presuppose two or more people, so they can't exist alone, but always in pairs, or groups, or institutions, etc. "Role" refers to the behaviour expected of someone holding a particular status: "he plays the role of father in relation to that child, but acts as uncle to that other child, and customer to that store clerk". Anthropologists have noted that, in all societies, most social roles are named, so this way of thinking about social order may be pretty well universal.

        At the beginning of this discussion, we thought of persons as being the two ends of a relationship, but now those persons are being discussed not as whole individuals, but just in their guise as players of a role in a situation involving particular other sorts of role-players: "I'm not talking about Tom, I'm just talking about how he is with his kid". Just as, in theatre, we distinguish between the actor and the role being played, so, in talk of social organization, we are talking about the roles, not necessarily the unique persons who play them, even though each may "play the role" in a different style. In a society like ours, every person plays many different roles in the course of a day, depending on the situation. And many relationships are anonymous, but still we usually understand each other. Consider pedestrian behaviour in crossing a busy city street: mobs stand on opposite corners waiting at a red light. The light turns green, the mobs advance on each other and pass through each other, possibly without anyone being touched. How do we pull that one off? Everyday social life includes much more mutual communication and sharing of expectations than we usually notice.

        Thus: the elementary unit of "social organization" is the relationship, and the relationship can be descibed in terms of the roles being played.


      The essay by Goffman is a fine introduction to thinking about what "role-playing" in social life is, and what roles are made up of. This sort of work is often called "microsociology". Pay particular attention to his ideas of "obligation" and "expectation", and notice that he's trying to develop a vocabulary for understanding what's going on in face-to-face interaction: he is not asking where the roles or expectations come from. As the essay goes along, he draws distinction after distinction, and creates lots of jargon. Though certain distinctions are of general importance (e.g., symmetrical vs. asymmetrical), most are not and there's no reason to try to remember them all. His use of ideas from Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life is extraordinarily clever, and suggests the presence of "ritual" (regular, repeated, predictable action) in secular life. As he very nicely shows, many of the rote gestures which we often think of as meaningless custom may be the most important thing of all, because they help to define who we are going to be in a situation, so that we can understand each other. Thus relationships are shown to consist of meaningful gestures: their essence is communication (messages sent and received). This suggests that models, theories, and ideas used to analyze communication may be immediately applicable to the study of everyday life. That's probably why the word "role" was taken from theatre in the first place: it's a highly ritualized form of communication.

        In this essay, from early in Goffman's long career, he's emphasizing the metaphorical connection of role-playing and ritual. Later, he often sought his metaphors directly from the theatre, and Gregor reviews some of that language.

     Nearly every student of anthropology has read this essay at one time or another, and it's because of Turner's work that the obscure word "liminal" (having to do with the threshold, crossing point, or boundary between) has come to be fairly widely used in contemporary academia.

        If we talk about certain transformative social rituals --such as marriage, initiation, funerals, and so on-- as "rites of passage", what do you pass from and to? The answer is: from one status/role to another: for example, from child to adult, or from unmarried to married, or from citizen to prime minister. What is especially interesting about Turner's work is his focus on the time when one is on the threshold, betwixt and between, neither "in" one role nor in another. Turner was trained as a British social anthropologist by Max Gluckman (a student of Malinowski). For those anthropologists, the big idea was "social structure", as you will see. In terms of that tradition, Turner is being subversive here: focussing on what happens between the bits of structure, rather than within the structure. In fact, he often spoke of this sort of moment as exemplifying "anti-structure". In a way, he is directing attention to the sort of social activity that postmodernists would later call "transgressive", or in violation of normal expectations. Except that rites of passage occur as a normal part of social life, as a normal way of moving people through structure. Perhaps the message is simply: no "social structure" structures everything. But the deeper point is that any structure is composed of parts differentiated from but connected to other parts. And the process of differentiation necessarily creates tensions and complex relations among the things differentiated.