Realm: Robert Fuller on the Politics of Dignity
Robert Fuller’s writing parallels Goffman’s on facework but is clearer and
broader. Goffman’s theses are often unclear, and claim to be narrowly limited
to outer behavior in the microworld of social interaction. Like Goffman, Fuller
traces the emotional consequences of losing face in humiliation/embarrassment.
Unlike Goffman, he gives equal consideration to dignity, that is, to justified
pride. Also unlike Goffman, Fuller’s work implies a step toward conceptualizing
social integration, the typology of solidarity and alienation. He proposes that
rank need not be alienating if rankism (abuse of rank) is avoided. Fuller
applies these ideas to the macro problems of inequality and intractable conflict.
Further, and contrary to Goffman, he explores their application to changing the
This essay compares facework, a central
theme in Goffman’s writing, and Robert W. Fuller’s version of the same theme. I
think that Fuller’s approach covers much the same ground as Goffman’s but is
interdisciplinary, much broader, and has immediate implications for social
Goffman’s work is extraordinarily vital
and important, but difficult to pin down. There are many sources for this
difficulty. One is that his work is complex; another is that he seldom states
an explicit thesis. When he does, the thesis he offers is often misleading. How
could that be?
Vastly creative people seem to have two
different personalities, the creative giant and a much more conventional
person, especially when it comes to assessing his or her own work. A recent
article has shown that Cervantes was far from understanding his own masterpiece,
Don Quixote (Leys 1998). In the course of his argument, Leys goes on to
make a general point:
closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation fully alive
with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had a full
control and a clear understanding of what he wrote. D.H. Lawrence…summed this
up…: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a
critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it"
Although this passage concerns literature,
it applies equally to scholarship. The most creative work does not arise from
calculated effort, but is largely intuitive. In contemporary language, it comes
from the right brain, light years more complex and original than the
calculating left brain. The creative writer is a mere channel for work that he
or she may not understand. Can we save Goffman’s work from Goffman?
The Two Goffmans
Goffman’s scholarship is extraordinarily
brilliant, but his pronouncements on its meaning unreliable. Despite his
freewheeling writing style, or perhaps because of it, he insists that his work
is highly specialized and technical, like any conventional academic. His
specialization, he claims, takes three different forms. First, he specifies
that his approach is sociological, rather than psychological. He calls
his analysis dramaturgical: he focuses on the socially scripted parts of the
human drama, rather than the actors.
His second specification is closely
related: he claims that his field of study is social interaction, rather
than the individual, on the one hand, or social structure, on the other. Both
specifications align him with conventional, rather than revolutionary
scholarship. Like most scholars, he claims loyalty to a discipline and to a
special conceptual approach, dramaturgy.
Finally, Goffman insisted that his
interests are scholarly, not aimed at practical application. This
particular claim, unlike the other two, seems to me to be quite accurate. He
wanted his scholarship to be pure in this respect, without the possible taint
of attempting to apply it. As he wrote in several different ways, he saw his
job as observing, not changing the world.
With regard to his first claim, it is
true that Goffman’s writing is more concerned with social interaction than
social structure. Yet many of his books and articles involve both. Asylums
(1961), for example, and his articles on mental illness imply many features of
the social institution of mental illness without claiming to do so. Some of his
later work, such as Gender Advertisements (1979), don’t involve social
interaction at all, but blatantly concern only the institution of female gender
implied by commercial ads.
Goffman’s claim that all of his work is
dramaturgical is grossly misleading. In this vein, his best known book, PSEL
(1969), has a split personality. The early chapters outline and illustrate his
dramaturgical approach: a sociology of outer behavior.
But the middle section, ending with the lengthy chapter (6) on impression
management, is mostly concerned with the inner life. Surprisingly, the last
chapter returns to dramaturgy with no mention of the inner battles described
and profusely illustrated in the middle of the book. The right hand knowth not
what the left hand doeth.
In his considerable writings on face and
facework, Goffman’s Everyperson (EP) is virtually always struggling to manage
the impressions others have of her or him, in order to maintain face. When
management fails, as it often does, EP may resort to emotion management, trying
to avoid the pain of embarrassment. In Goffman’s analysis of facework, the
individual’s internal struggles share the stage with the social interaction in
which they are embedded. Here is one of many examples:
that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the
individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely
because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad.
Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen;
feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms these false
conclusions concerning him. He may then add to the precariousness of his
position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that he would employ
were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become
fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might
imagine us to be. (p. 236)
This excerpt entirely concerns an internal
sequence of events, spelling out moment by moment thoughts and feelings. As it
happens, this example, and many others in Goffman, are the concrete instances
of the looking-glass self process that Cooley failed to supply. However, as
already indicated, there are many limitations to
Goffman’s work, especially in the area of application to individual and large
Struggle for Dignity
Robert Fuller’s approach to
what he calls rankism and to dignity may be a first step toward a language
equally applicable to individuals and to social relationships. It is based on
two dichotomies: dignity-humiliation, and legitimate versus abusive use of rank
(“rankism” Fuller 2003; 2004; 2008).
Lindner’s work (2006) is also based on the dignity-humiliation dichotomy
but doesn’t include the concept of rankism. As will be discussed below, some
such concept is needed in order to distinguish between true and false solidarity.
Fuller cites Erving Goffman dutifully in
his first book (Fuller 2003, p. 161). Even though his analysis of dignity and
humiliation is exactly parallel to Goffman’s analysis of facework, my sense is
that Fuller arrived at his approach independently of Goffman. Fuller’s analysis of whether or not dignity is maintained
or lost parallels Goffman’s impression management and Fuller’s humiliation is
equivalent to Goffman’s embarrassment.
analysis begins with the subjective feeling of being either a “nobody” or a
“somebody.” It seems likely that this idea, which is the basis for all
subsequent steps, didn’t come from reading Goffman. It probably arose, rather, because
of the extraordinary path that Fuller’s life took. When his career began, he
was definitely a Somebody: first a world class
physicist at Columbia and Princeton, University
Dean at Trinity College,
then President of his alma mater, Oberlin
College. During his stint
as an educator, however, Fuller lost interest in physics.
he left Oberlin, Fuller experimented with new directions, such as several years
of graduate school in economics at the University of Chicago.
He found a new niche when he became a leader of the citizen diplomat movement
during the Cold War, and Chairman of the Board of the giant organization
Internews. He was also one of the organizers of LinkTV. Both channels set up
program exchanges between the US
and the USSR.
But he dropped out when it became obvious that these efforts were successful,
both in peace-making and financially. He was now on the road to becoming an
wondered if his own responses to his rollercoaster status ride had any general
significance. He had dropped from being
a college President, a very high status, down to a mere graduate student, an
unaffiliated peacemaker, and finally an independent agent. He thought that in less extreme forms, these
kinds of gyrations might be frequent occurrences everyone’s life.
example, in intimate relations, falling in and out of favor with our nearest
and dearest might be a similar experience (See Fuller’s treatment of
parent-child relationships 2003, p. 110-113). At times these shifts are
obvious, but often they can be based only on subtle changes in mood and gesture.
Fuller’s first book (2003) begins with the idea that we all move back and forth
between Somebody and Nobody feelings, up, down, and
second step is to name the more general feelings that are associated with those
specific to somebodiness or nobodiness: dignity goes with feeling like a Somebody, humiliation with feeling like a Nobody. As already
indicated, this step is exactly parallel to Goffman: saving face maintains one’s dignity, losing it can lead to humiliation. Goffman’s
and Fuller’s Everyperson is in a constant struggle to maintain her or his
face/dignity, but impression management often fails, leading to embarrassment
or humiliation. Both authors allow that one can also manage impressions not
only one’s own sake, but also for the sake of the dignity of others. This
proviso turns out to be important in practical application to the politics of
next and final step in Fuller’s model is the distinction he makes between rank
and rankism. Rankism doesn’t concern rank per se, only the abuse of
rank. Some systems of rank are inherently arbitrary and therefore abusive:
white over black, male over female, hetero over homosexual, Christian over
Muslim, one nation over another, and so on. But even legitimate systems, such
as those in organizations, are often abusive; if not in principle, then in
practice. Rankism is “pulling rank” rather that being fair and just.
of the advantages of Fuller’s approach is that if provides a distinctively
sociological solution to the problem of inequality. That is, it doesn’t concern
economic rank or political hierarchy directly, but dignity and its opposite,
humiliation. The idea of the legitimate and abusive use of rank also turns out
to be important for distinguishing two different types of feeling Somebody, a true and a false solidarity. This distinction,
as will be suggested below, may help solve a problem that probably cannot be
understood in strictly economic or political terms: gratuitous and/or
analysis of inequality begins with what he calls micro-inequalities, the
withholding of dignity by one person from another. At work, if the boss
continually interrupts conversations with you to take phone calls, it is a
slight, a small indignity. But such slights add up. If they are frequent
enough, one might feel like a Nobody. The boss may not intend it, but to be
consistently slighted is humiliating.
was mainly concerned only with face-to-face interaction, but Fuller extends the
dignity/humiliation process up to the traditional problem of macro-inequalities
between groups. All contacts between persons and between groups have an effect
on the bond: it is either maintained, strengthened, or
disrupted. Helping the other person or group maintain their dignity maintains
the existing bond or strengthens it. Rankism disrupts it. There are no
exceptions: contact cannot occur without affecting the bond. Secure bonds
lead to cooperation, disrupted ones to conflict. When the bond is entirely
broken by rankism, as is often the case, others, even vast groups, can become
approach is powerful in several different ways. It is applicable to many
ostensibly different fields: race, inter-ethnic and inter-nation relations,
gender, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. Rankism is the general
term for many different kinds of abuse.
approach also implies a theory that may explain gratuitous and/or interminable
conflict between individuals and between groups. For example, the Serbian
attack on the Moslems in Bosnia
in the 1990’s can be traced back to a defeat of the Serbs by Moslem Turks
hundreds of years earlier. The Serbs took this ancient defeat as a humiliation,
and harbored vengeance until it became possible.
France plotted for many years to regain their honor (read dignity) after defeat
in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and Hitler won over the German people by
promising to regain the honor they lost in the defeat in 1918 (Lindner 2006;
Scheff 1994). Humiliation spawns humiliation, and it can strike deep. The
dignity/humiliation framework seems to reach into the very core of human
approach also implies a unique path into the study of social integration.
Feeling like a Somebody or a Nobody can be used as a subjective indicator. The
Somebody feeling can be taken as a signal of mutual acceptance, having an
identity that is fully accepted by the other(s). A complication in the path
toward solidarity will be discussed below. The Nobody feeling, however, can be
taken as a direct signal of alienation, of feeling rejected by the other(s).
This usage might be a preliminary step toward
clarifying the concept of social integration.
is a difficulty in seeing
solidarity/alienation as a simple dichotomy that Fuller doesn’t address
directly, yet his idea of rankism provides for it. Many authors have noted
that mutual acceptance occurs in two
different forms, one of which is not true solidarity.
is a form of mutual acceptance that is sometimes referred to as solidarity, but
has only its outward appearance. This form involves one or both parties giving
up vital parts of their own identity in order to be completely loyal to the
relationship. The traditional marriage is an example; the wife subordinates her
own needs and views to those of her husband. In family systems theory (Bowen
and Kerr 1988 ) this type of relationship is referred to as a fused or engulfed
The opposite relationship, in which one
party subordinates the needs of the other(s) to their own
is termed isolated. In a secure bond, both parties give equal value to
their own needs and views and those of the other over the long haul. Elias
(1987) made the same division: he called solidarity interdependence, being
neither dependent (engulfed) nor independent (isolated). Note that the concept
of engulfment further develops the idea of alienation from self that Marx
mentioned without explaining what he meant.
idea of rankism is relevant to the issue of engulment as a false solidarity.
All forms of mutual acceptance that are based on rankism, the arbitrary
disparagement of another person or
group, are not forms of true solidarity,
but engulfment. Mutual acceptance of whites because they are not black, or
gentiles because they are not Jews, of males because they are not women, are
all instances or rankism and therefore of false solidarity.
distinction between isolation and engulfment suggests that alienation occurs in
two opposite forms: alienation from others (isolation) and from self,
(engulfment). This idea also requires that a secure bond (solidarity) maintains
a longterm balance between self and other: one identifies with the needs and
viewpoint of the other(s) as much as with self, no less and no more.
Genuine love can be defined as a type of
solidarity (Scheff 2006, Ch. 6) The late Robert Solomon wrote: “…love [is]
shared identity, a redefinition of self ….Two people in a society with an
extraordinary sense of individual identity [find] their way into a relationship
that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a
complex ONE.” (1981, p.xxx; see also1994, p.234-238).
This kind of definition of love has been
offered by many authors, but like Solomon, they usually fail to include the
balance between too far (isolation) and too close (engulfment) as explained
above. An exception was the social psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan (1945) who
suggested that love involves valuing the other as much as self, but no more or
It is important to distinguish between
true and false solidarity, since both social science and ordinary language
often confounds them. Most Western scholarship that compares Asian and Western
societies have idealized Western isolation and individualism by confounding it with
solidarity based on rational outcomes (Durkheim’s description of organic
solidarity), as Markus and Kitayama (1991) have charged. But it seems likely
that they have made an equal and opposite error, idealized Asian (unity-based)
societies by confounding engulfment with solidarity.
Norwood’s (1985) women who love
too much provide an example of engulfment. Many of them reported that they
stayed with their abusive husbands because they loved them too much to leave.
Their language confuses engulfment, in this case. passive
dependency, with genuine love, a true solidarity. Fuller’s approach avoids this
Fuller’s politics of dignity has many
advantages over Goffman’s analysis of facework. It provides a new approach to
defining the poles of social integration: alienation and solidarity. It also
suggests an accessible theory of the causation of the causal chains that lead
to inequalities and to violence, both at the interpersonal and group
levels. Unlike many abstract social
theories, Fuller’s is so clearly stated that it might help resolve theoretical
knots, and can also be tested empirically. To the extent that it is supported,
it can be applied to solving real world problems.
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