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The Views of Goffman and Foucault on How Social Order Is Produced



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    In a community, some form of order is an essential foundation for people to live and interact together. ‘’Order is part of the way people both imagine and practice their social existence.’’ (Silva et al., 2009, p. 311) Taylor (2004, p.58) argued that ‘’ the human capacity to imagine order is at the foundation of society itself.’’ (Taylor, cited in Silva et al., 2009 p.311) Social order draw in imagination, practices, the fitting together of people and things, and ideas about the past and the future. (Silva et al., 2009)There are many explanations of how social order is produced, Erving Goffman (1959, 1971 and 1972) and Michel Foucault (1972, 1977 and 1978) attempted to explain how social order is created and part of their work will be discussed in this essay. Goffman’s theory of social order is that of a theater where the individual will act according to the situation.

    As an example, he described how a waiter behaves in a restaurant, being polite and respectful in front of the customers but taking another character as he goes to the kitchen away from the client’s view and he can act completely differently. Sometimes very rude, complaining about the customers. The waiter postures and behaves would change depending on the demands and constraints of the scenario. Goffman concentrated his studies of social order in a micro-level examining ‘’the rituals of trust and tact in everyday lives, which provide the parameters of daily social interactions, trough control of bodily gesture, the face and the gaze, and the use of language.’’ (Silva et al., 2009 p. 317) Goffman involved himself as a participant-observer in different social interactions to analyze the roots of human interaction and social order without analyzing any link between the individual and social history. Goffman studied social life based on the idea that people interact in many different ways, sometimes cooperatively, competitively, or in conflict.

    Goffman argues that society is people living their lives constructed by actions and interactions of many individuals and social order produced by patterns of interaction – interactional order. (Silva et al., 2009) Working as a participant-observer in establishments like restaurants, hotels, and hospitals, Goffman ‘’ drew on the metaphor of the theater designating the front stage as a setting for the demands of the interaction order and the backstage as the place where individuals could let go of their performance.’’ (Silva et al., 2009 p.317) Foucault’s work ‘’examines how social order is shaped and organized by authoritative knowledge, particularly forms of knowledge that are put to work in the social and political institutions.’’ (Silva et al., 2009, p. 319) Using the theory of discourse to investigate how knowledge and power are linked in the process of shaping what can be known, what can be thought and what can be said about social life. (Silva, 2009)

    He argues that institutions of power, such as schools, parents, priests, teachers, government, welfare systems and so on, exercise their authority through punishment, practices of law, management, parenthood education, and the like. (Silva et al., 2009) Power works in an ethereal way through discourses, shaping social manners and attitudes regarding appropriate behavior. There are three types of power executed by different organizations to shape human conduct: sovereign power, surveillance, and the capacity of punishment. Foucault argues that social control is internalized and becomes self-control. ‘’Individuals come to see themselves as self-directing, active, and choosing agents. This is what Foucault recognizes as liberalism – ‘’ a social order in which people see themselves as unique individuals as a result of having internalized social disciplines, social ordering and the discourse of individualism.’’ (Silva et al., 2009 p. 321,322) Monderman’s (Silva et al., 2009) thesis illustrates Goffman’s theory.

    Mondersman argues that the best way to improve road safety is to put an end to traffic control, signs, roadside markings, and warnings. Mondersman called this ‘psychological traffic calming’ encouraging motorists to take responsibility for their actions instead of given them orders and telling them what to do. This flexible approach is built on the idea that a natural interaction between drivers and pedestrians would create a civilized environment without the imposition of the state through control, punishment, and power over what is correct to do, therefore, making human behavior central. It relates to Goffman’s examination of the ‘rituals of trust and tact’ in everyday lives that are mostly invisible to social order. Subsequently, the modernist approach of Buchanan (Silva et al., 2009) illustrates Foucault’s theory that ‘’the development of standardized uniform spaces commanding uniform behavior, leaving no room for individual interpretation, explaining everything with signs and texts.

    The government and public authorities look after the citizens’’ (Silva et al., 2009 p. 339). In the modernist approach rules, orders and prohibitions enforce behavior demanding individuals to adapt to the system on the street. The individual conforms to rules and a state solves problems and looks after the people by setting up laws and prohibitions. In contrast, the flexible approach or shared space movement has the opposite outcome, making human behavior central and negotiating ‘shared space’ as emphasized by Goffman. (Silva et al., 2009) Another example to illustrate both Goffman and Faulcault’s views is disorderly/anti-social behavior in a society. Firstly, events highlighted in newspaper articles can be a very powerful discourse to influence how people see society. As a means of mediation radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and the internet can sometimes dictate many people’s ideas about what is going on in society.

    By ‘blindly’ believing in what the media says Cohen (1973) argues that ‘’ the portrayal of folk devils in the media creates a moral panic in society at large whereby people are both terrified and outraged’’ (Cohen, cited in Silva et al., 2009 p. 370 ) which is often neither rational nor relative to the actual size of the problem. This is a good example of how power over public discourse informs how people think and behave in a society. Furthermore, under this media influence, people will demand from the government to come up with more enforcement of based solutions. New laws and severe punishments increase state control over the people whilst offering them the promise of security. As an example of this, and of Foucault’s theory the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in the U.K. illustrates the way in which the state uses punishment to stop or control behavior that is deemed anti-social. On the other hand, members of the public are encouraged to report incidents to the ASBOs team which gives power to the individual of the society to judge what anti-social behavior is, placing the individual on the center of the stage as Goffman suggested.

    In conclusion, Goffman and Foucault give only a partial theory about how behavior is shaped in society. For both, social life is made out of a similar combination of factors but ordered in different ways. Goffman’s main concern to analyze social order was ‘‘at the micro-level and in how people performed their roles within organizations and institutions.’’ (Staples et al., 2009 p. 51) Placing human interaction at the center of analysis focusing on how people’s actions and reactions are coordinated in everyday life therefore producing social order by individuals all acting and interacting in their self-interest, creating behavioral norms. These norms become the basis for socially-expected codes of conduct, which can sometimes go unnoticed unless they are breached or broken causing a disorder that can be repaired by the progress of the interactional order forming a constant process of building and rebuilding social interactions. (Silva et al., 2009)

    Goffman is detached from the historical processes of social ordering and the ways of orders of interactions that are established by authority. In contrast, Foucault examined social life taken away the individual from the center of the stage and instead the ‘’central focus is on discourses which are sets of ideas allowing for certain kinds of thoughts to be thinkable, talked about, and made into effective tools for normalizing conduct, at different historical times. (Silva et al., 2009, p.324) For Foucault, people are not in charge of their destinies or actions; ‘’people are not the authors of society, there are not even authors of their own actions, as the scripts or discourses they are governed by are formed independently of anyone’s purpose.’’ (Taylors et al., 2009 p. 51) The individual is primarily governed and disciplined by internal discourses that organize knowledge and power ‘forced’ and imposed upon them throughout their lives. In modern society the individual is cooperating with its own subordination, accepting the increase of surveillance as a method that helps to create order under the concept chosen by the state of what is or it is not allowed to think, behave, speak about, and so on. (Silva et al., 2009)

    Another important factor of Foucault’s work is the identification of liberalism a ‘’social order in which people see themselves as unique individuals as a result of having internalized social disciplines, social ordering and the discourse of individualism’’ (Silva et al., 2009, p.322) Clearly, both Goffman and Foucault are concerned to understand how society is created and particularly how social order is made and repaired, explaining the connection between the individual and the social but with different focus and concepts and what society is.

    The Views of Goffman and Foucault on How Social Order Is Produced. (2016, Jun 19). Retrieved from

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