July 31, 2011
How influenced are we by the world around us? How much are our personality, our observations, our actions, and even our thoughts are deeply influenced by what we believe will be effective or by the norms of the social world around us. Phin Upham reviews some of the seminal pieces on the topic.
A deep claim in sociology argues that what we think is personal is actually social, what we think is free is actually heavily guided, what we think is “me” is actually “us.” In an attempt to free itself of what it perceived of the shackles of religion American sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers like Dewey, James, Goffman and Austin embraced a more rationalistic, science based, methodologically rigorous form of pragmatism. This, along with some heavy German influences, led to theories that we are not guided by some higher power, nor are we Godly individualists, but rather we are part of a whole, living in a sea of others and responding to this reality.
Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society gives us a picture of man in a world where the surface and the purpose are not obviously one. We ask “how are you” we intent to express our interest in another’s inner being. Goffman goes on to show that the form of society shapes our actions such that we are constantly aware and “presenting” ourselves to others. We have a kind of “presented self” which we try to act and make others believe. Constantly and always, we try to manipulate others into this belief and they do the same to us. I would also hypothesize that a Red Queen sort of expansion of this pattern, perhaps, causes an escalation of this buildup and can explain some of our oddest and most intricate social phenomena. These simple building blocks make up our complex reality, chaos theory in the social realm. Goffman theorizes that these feelings can be conscious or unconscious, “sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way wholly in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain. Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case” and sometimes he will act according to a tradition or pattern whether or not he intends to be seen in this light (6). Goffman’s model of human behavior depends on what motive an individual has in a situation. If one wants to come off as bored, happy, “cool,” powerful, attractive, etc. an individual will pass on these clues in the form of semiotic behavior.
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Samuel Phineas Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.