The Living Play inside the Living Play
The Living Play inside the Living Play
A passage from the Conclusions to Erving Goffman's 'Behavior in Public Places' (1963), a sociological treatise in living dramatism which is a necessary complement to his other major interventions in social interactionism, 'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life', 'Frame Theory', 'Strategic Interaction', etc. Here he deals with the nesting of face engagements within social gatherings and social situations—as so many plays inside the play, acted out in real life. The whole system of situations, gatherings, and face encounters are embedded withing the Great Theatre of the World, the theatre of society and human interaction generally, and its diverse cultures and institutions—and individuals can be seen as performing different roles in several of these plays at once.
"In this report, three basic social units were employed, all three of which were interaction entities. One was a FACE ENGAGEMENT or encounter, consisting of a circle, typically conversational, where a single focus of visual and cognitive attention is ratified as mutually binding on participants. Another was a SOCIAL OCCASION, consisting of the wider social-psychological unit that provides the frame of reference in terms of which engagements occur. The third, and the only one treated in any detail, was a SOCIAL GATHERING. At the beginning this was defined as the full set of persons mutually present to one another during any one continuous period of time, their presence staking out a SOCIAL SITUATION; namely, an environment of monitoring possibilities anywhere within which an entrant would become a participant in the gathering stationed therein. Near the end of the study the concept of the "gathering" began to take on added meaning. By virtue of being in a social situation that is itself lodged within a social occasion, individuals modify their conduct in many normatively guided ways. The persons present to one another are thus transformed from a mere aggregate into a little society, a little group, a little deposit of social organization. Similarly, the modifications in their behavior which they suffer by virtue of finding themselves in a particular social situation—their enactment of situational proprieties—constitute, when taken together, a little social system. It may be added that when the term "social situation" is used in everyday life, it sometimes refers not to an environment of communication possibilities, but either to this little social system, this little social reality, that the persons present come to sustain, or to the subjectively meaningful transactions that they feel are occurring at the moment amongst them.
"May I repeat: when in the presence of others, the individual is guided by a special set of rules, which have been called situational proprieties. Upon examination, these rules prove to govern the allocation of the individual's involvement within the situation, as expressed through a conventionalized idiom of behavioral cues. this allocation entails appropriate handling of matters we can discern as occasioned main involvements, "aways", occult involvements, auto-involvements, mutual involvements, margin of disinvolvement, and so forth. Through the governance of these rulings the individual finds that some of his capacity for involvement is reserved for the gathering as a whole (and behind this, its social occasion), as opposed to matters of concern to only a portion of those present or to those not present. This obligatory phrasing of involvement represents a kind of dutiful attachment to the gathering, a kind of belonging to it. The individual will find, then, that every participation in a social situation will represent one sense of what is meant by personal attachment. Starting with situational proprieties, we have ended up with the problem of attachment.
"In the sociological study of different species of human organization, such as political movements, professional bodies, local communities, or families, it has proved very useful to put the question of appropriate personal attachment: in what ways is the member obliged to give himself up to the organization, and in what ways is he expected to hold himself off from it? This question helps us to see that the individual is known by the social bonds that hold him, and that through these bonds he is held to something that is a social entity with a boundary and a life substance of its own. In looking at behavior in social situations one finds that the same key question helps us to bring together and understand many of the scattered details of things we know about interactional activity. There is reason, then, to view a social gathering as a little society, one that gives body to a social occasion, and to view the niceties of social conduct as the institutionalized bonds that tie us to the gathering. There is reason to move from an interactional point of view to one that derives from the study of basic social structures. A social gathering may be only a filmy pinpoint of social organization, but however minuscule it is, there is reason to examine it sociologically. When we see the gathering as something that must embody the social occasion in which it occurs, we have some added reasons for giving it weight."