Wednesday, February 11, 2015

HaroldGarfinkel. Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology. vol. 61. no. 5. Mar 1956.


Communicative work directed to transforming an individual’s total identity into an identity lower in the group’s scheme of social types is called a “status degradation ceremony.” To reconstitute the other as a social object, the denouncer must get the witnesses to appreciate the perpetrator and the blameworthy event as instances of an extraordinary uniformity, in dialectical contrast to ultimately valued, routine orders of personnel and action. The denouncer must publicly claim and manage the status of bona fide representative of the group of witnesses. From this position he must name the perpetrator an “outsider.” Organizational variables will determine the effectiveness of a program of degradation tactics.

Any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types, will be called a “status degradation ceremony.” Some restrictions on this definition may increase its usefulness. The identities referred to must be “total” identities. That is, these identities must refer to persons as “motivational” types rather than as “behavioral” types, (2) not to what a person may be expected to have done or to do (in Parsons’ term, (3) to his “performances”) but to what the group holds to be the ultimate “grounds” or “reasons” for his performance. (4)
The grounds on which a participant achieves what for him is adequate understanding of why he or another acted as he did are not treated by him in a utilitarian manner. Rather, the correctness of an imputation is decided by the participant in accordance with socially valid and institutionally recommended standards of “preference.” With reference to these standards, he makes the crucial distinctions between appearances and reality, truth and falsity, triviality and importance, accident and essence, coincidence and cause. Taken together, the grounds, as well as the behavior that the grounds make explicable as the other person’s conduct, constitute a person’s identity. Together, they constitute the other as a social object. Persons identified by means of the ultimate “reasons” for their socially categorized and socially understood behavior will be said to be “totally” identified. The degradation ceremonies here discussed are those that are concerned with the alteration of total identities.
It is proposed that only in societies that are completely demoralized, will an observer be unable to find such ceremonies, since only in total anomie are the conditions of degradation ceremonies lacking. Max Scheler (5) argued that there is no society that does not provide in the very features of its organization the conditions sufficient for inducing shame. It will be treated here as axiomatic that there is no society whose social structure does not provide, in its routine features, the conditions of identity degradation. Just as the structural conditions of shame are universal to all societies by the very fact of their being organized, so the structural conditions of status degradation are universal to all societies. In this framework the critical question is not whether status degradation occurs or can occur within any given society. Instead, the question is: Starting from any state of a society’s organization, what program of communicative tactics will get the work of status degradation done?
First of all, two questions will have to be decided, at least tentatively: What are we referring to behaviorally when we propose the product of successful degradation work to be a changed total identity? And what are we to conceive the work of status degradation to have itself accomplished or to have assumed as the conditions of its success?


Degradation ceremonies fall within the scope of the sociology of moral indignation. Moral indignation is a social affect. Roughly speaking, it is an instance of a class of feelings particular to the more or less organized ways that human beings develop as they live out their lives in one another’s company. Shame, guilt, and boredom are further important instances of such affects.
Any affect has its behavioral paradigm. That of shame is found in the withdrawal and covering of the portion of the body that socially defines one’s public appearance prominently, in our society, the eyes and face. The paradigm of shame is found in the phrases that denote removal of the self from public view, i.e., removal from the regard of the publicly identified other: “I could have sunk through the floor; I wanted to run away and hide; I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.” The feeling of guilt finds its paradigm in the behavior of selfabnegation-disgust, the rejection of further contact with or withdrawal from, and the bodily and symbolic expulsion of the foreign body, as when we cough, blow, gag, vomit, spit, etc.
The paradigm of moral indignation is public denunciation. We publicly deliver the curse: “I call upon all men to bear witness that he is not as he appears but is otherwise and in essence (6) of a lower species.”
The social affects serve various functions both for the person as well as for the collectivity. A prominent function of shame for the person is that of preserving the ego from further onslaughts by withdrawing entirely its contact with the outside. For the collectivity shame is an “individuator.” One experiences shame in his own time.
Moral indignation serves to effect the ritual destruction of the person denounced. Unlike shame, which does not bind persons together, moral indignation may reinforce group solidarity. In the market and in politics, a degradation ceremony must be counted as a secular form of communion. Structurally, a degradation ceremony bears close resemblance to ceremonies of investiture and elevation. How such a ceremony may bind persons to the collectivity we shall see when we take up the conditions of a successful denunciation. Our immediate question concerns the meaning of ritual destruction.
In the statement that moral indignation brings about the ritual destruction of the person being denounced, destruction is intended literally. The transformation of identities is the destruction of one social object and the constitution of another. The transformation does not involve the substitution of one identity for another, with the terms of the old one loitering about like the overlooked parts of a fresh assembly, any more than the woman we see in the departmentstore window that turns out to be a dummy carries with it the possibilities of a woman. It is not that the old object has been overhauled; rather it is replaced by another. One declares, “Now, it was otherwise in the first place.”
The work of the denunciation effects the recasting of the objective character of the perceived other: The other person becomes in the eyes of his condemners literally a different and new person. It is not that the new attributes are added to the old “nucleus.” He is not changed, he is reconstituted. The former identity, at best, receives the accent of mere appearance. In the social calculus of reality representations and test, the former identity stands as accidental; the new identity is the “basic reality.” What he is now is what, “after all,” he was all along. (7)
The public denunciation effects such a transformation of essence by substituting another socially validated motivational scheme for that previously used to name and order the performances of the denounced. It is with reference to this substituted, socially validated motivational scheme as the essential grounds, i.e., the first principles, that his performances, past, present, and prospective, according to the witnesses, are to be properly and necessarily understood. (8) Through the interpretive work that respects this rule, the denounced person becomes in the eyes of the witnesses a different person.


How can one make a good denunciation? (9)
To be successful, the denunciation must redefine the situations of those that are witnesses to the denunciation work. The denouncer, the party to be denounced (let us call him the “perpetrator”), and the thing that is being blamed on the perpetrator (let us call it the “event”) must be transformed as follows: (10)

1. Both event and perpetrator must be removed from the realm of their everyday character and be made to stand as “out of the ordinary.”
2. Both event and perpetrator must be placed within a scheme of preferences that shows the following properties:
A. The preferences must not be for event A over event B, but for event of type A over event of type B. The same typing must be accomplished for the perpetrator. Event and perpetrator must be defined as instances of a uniformity and must be treated as a uniformity throughout the work of the denunciation. The unique, never recurring character of the event or perpetrator should be lost. Similarly, any sense of accident, coincidence, indeterminism, chance, or monetary occurrence must not merely be minimized. Ideally, such measures should be inconceivable; at least they should be made false.
B. The witnesses must appreciate the characteristics of the typed person and event by referring the type to a dialectical counterpart. Ideally, the witnesses should not be able to contemplate the features of the denounced person without reference to the counterconception, as the profanity of an occurrence or a desire or a character trait, for example, is clarified by the references it bears to its opposite, the sacred. The features of the maddog murderer reverse the features of the peaceful citizen. The confessions of the Red can be read to each the meanings of patriotism. There are many contrasts available, and any aggregate of witnesses this side of a complete war of each against all will have a plethora of such schemata for effecting a “familiar,” “natural,” “proper,” ordering of motives, qualities, and other events.
From such contrasts, the following is to be learned. If the denunciation is to take effect, the scheme must not be one in which the witness is allowed to elect the preferred. Rather, the alternatives must be such that the preferred is morally required. Matters must be so arranged that the validity of his choice, its justification, is maintained by the fact that he makes it.” The scheme of alternatives must be such as to place constraints upon his making a selection “for a purpose.” Nor will the denunciation succeed if the witness is free to look beyond the fact that he makes the selection for evidence that the correct alternative has been chosen, as, for example, by the test of empirical consequences of the choice. The alternatives must be such that, in “choosing,” he takes it for granted and beyond any motive for doubt that not choosing can mean only preference for its opposite.
3. The denouncer must so identify himself to the witnesses that during the denunciation they regard him not as a private but as a publicly known person. He must not portray himself as acting according to his personal, unique experiences. He must rather be regarded as acting in his capacity as a public figure, drawing upon communally entertained and verified experience. He must act as a bona fide participant in the tribal relationships to which the witnesses subscribe. What he says must not be regarded as true for him alone, not even in the sense that it can be regarded by denouncer and witnesses as matters upon which they can become agreed. In no case, except in a most ironical sense, can the convention of true-for-reasonable-men be invoked. What the denouncer says must be regarded by the witnesses as true on the grounds of a socially employed metaphysics whereby witnesses assume that witnesses and denouncer are alike in essence. (12)
4. The denouncer must make the dignity of the suprapersonal values of the tribe salient and accessible to view, and his denunciation must be delivered in their name.
5. The denouncer must arrange to be invested with the right to speak in the name of these ultimate values. The success of the denunciation will be undermined if, for his authority to denounce, the denouncer invokes the personal interests that he may have acquired by virtue of the wrong done to him or someone else. He must rather use the wrong he has suffered as a tribal member to invoke the authority to speak in the name of these ultimate values.
6. The denouncer must get himself so defined by the witnesses that they locate him as a supporter of these values.
7. Not only must the denouncer fix his distance from the person being denounced, but the witnesses must be made to experience their distance from him also.
8. Finally, the denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order, i.e., he must be defined as standing at a place opposed to it. He must be placed “outside,” he must be made “strange.”
These are the conditions that must be fulfilled for a successful denunciation. If they are absent, the denunciation will fail. Regardless of the situation when the denouncer enters, if he is to succeed in degrading the other man, it is necessary to introduce these features. (13)
Not all degradation ceremonies are carried on in accordance with publicly prescribed and publicy validated measures. Quarrels which seek the humilitation of the opponent through personal invective may achieve degrading on a limited scale. Comparatively few persons at a time enter into this form of communion, few benefit from it, and the fact of participation does not give the witness a definition of the other that is standardized beyond the particular group or scene of its occurrence.
The devices for effecting degradation vary in the feature and effectiveness according to the organization and operation of the system of action in which they occur. In our society the arena of degradation whose product, the redefined person, enjoys the widest transferability between groups has been rationalized, at least as to the institutional measures for carrying it out. The court and its officers have something like a fair monopoly over such ceremonies, and there they have become an occupational routine. This is to be contrasted with degradation undertaken as an immediate kinship and tribal obligation and carried out by those who, unlike our professional degraders in the law courts, acquire both right and obligation to engage in it through being themselves the injured parties or kin to the injured parties.
Factors conditioning the effectiveness of degradation tactics are provided in the organization and operation of the system of action within which the degradation occurs. For example, timing rules that provide for serial or reciprocal “conversations” would have much to do with the kinds of tactics that one might be best advised? to use. The tactics advisable for an accused who can answer the charge as soon as it is made are in contrast with those recommended for one who had to wait out the denunciation before replying. Face-to-face contact is a different situation from that wherein the denunciation and reply are conducted by radio and newspaper. Whether the denunciation must be accomplished on a single occasion or is to be carried out over a sequence of “tries,” factors like the territorial arrangements and movements of persons at the scene of the denunciation, the numbers of persons involved as accused, degraders, and witnesses, status claims of the contenders, prestige and power allocations among participants, all should influence the outcome. In short, the factors that condition the success of the work of degradation are those that we point to when we conceive the actions of a number of persons as group-governed. Only some of the more obvious structural variables that may be expected to serve as predicters of the characteristics of denunciatory communicative tactics have been mentioned. They tell us not only how to construct an effective denunciation but also how to render denunciation useless.

1.      Acknowledgment is gratefully made to Erving Goffman, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland, and to Sheldon Messinger, Social Science Research Council pre-doctoral fellow, University of California, Los Angeles, for criticisms and editorial suggestions.
2.      These terms are borrowed from Alfred Schutz, “Common Sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (September, 1953).
3.      Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils, “Values, Motives, and Systems of Action,” in Parsons and Shils (eds.), Toward a General Theory of Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).
4.      Cf. the writings of Kenneth Burke, particularly Permanence and Change (Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1954), and A Grammar of A Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945).
5.      Richard Hays Williams, “Scheler’s Contributions to the Sociology of Affective Action, with Special Attention to the Problem of Shame,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. IT, NTo. 3 (March, 1942).
6.      The man at whose hands a neighbor suffered death becomes a “murderer.” The person who passes on information to enemies is really, i.e., “in essence,” “in the first place,” “all along,” “in the final analysis,” “originally,” an informer.
7.      Two themes commonly stand out in the rhetoric of denunciation: (1) the irony between what the denounced appeared to be and what he is seen now really to be where the new motivational scheme is taken as the standard and (2) a re-examination and redefinition of origins of the denounced. For the sociological relevance of the relationship between concerns for essence and concerns for origins see particularly Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives.
8.      While constructions like “substantially a something” or “essentially a something” have been banished from the domain of scientific discourse, such constructions have prominent and honored places in the theories of motives, persons, and conduct that are employed in handling the affairs of daily life. Reasons can be given to justify the hypothesis that such constructions may be lost to a group’s “terminology of motives” only if the relevance of socially sanctioned theories to practical problems is suspended. This can occur where interpersonal relations are trivial (such as during play) or, more interestingly, under severe demoralization of a system of activities. In such organizational states the frequency of status degradation is low.
9.      Because the paper is short, the risk must be run that, as a result of excluding certain considerations, the treated topics may appear exaggerated. It would be desirable, for example, to take account of the multitude of hedges that will be found against false denunciation; of the rights to denounce; of the differential apportionment of these rights, as well as the ways in which a claim, once staked out, may become a vested interest and may tie into the contests for economic and political advantage. Further, there are questions centering around the appropriate arenas of denunciation. For example, in our society the tribal council has fallen into secondary importance; among lay persons the denunciation has given way to the complaint to the authorities.
10.   These are the effects that the communicative tactics of the denouncer must be designed to accomplish. Put otherwise, in so far as the denouncer’s tactics accomplish the reordering of the definitions of the situation of the witnesses to the denunciatory performances, the denouncer will have succeeded in effecting the transformation of the public identity of his victim. The list of conditions of this degrading effect are the determinants of the effect. Viewed in the scheme of a project to be rationally pursued, they are the adequate means. One would have to choose one’s tactics for their efficiency in accomplishing these effects.
11.   Cf. Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch, Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1951), pp. 212-27.
12.   For bona fide members it is not that these are the grounds upon wvhich we are agreed but upon which we are alike, consubstantial, in origin the same.
13.   Neither of the problems of possible communicative or organizational conditions of their effectiveness have been treated here in systematic fashion. However, the problem of communicative tactics in degradation ceremonies is set in the light of systematically related conceptions. These conceptions may be listed in the following statements: 1. The deainition of the situation of the witnesses (for ease of discourse we shall use the letter S) always bears a time qualification. 2. The S at t2 is a function of the S at t1. This function is described as an operator that transforms the S at ti. 3. The operator is conceived as communicative work. 4. For a successful denunciation, it is required that the S at t2 show specific properties. These have been specified previously. 5. The task of the denouncer is to alter the S’s of the witnesses so that these S’s will show the specified properties. 6. The “rationality” of the denouncer’s tactics, i.e., their adequacy as a means for effecting the set of transformations necessary for effecting the identity transformation, is decided by the rule that the organizational and operational properties of the commuriicative net (the social system) are determinative of the size of the discrepancy between an intended and an actual effect of the communicative work. Put otherwise, the question is not that of the temporal origin of the situation but always and only how it is altered over time. The view is recommended that the definition of the situation at time 2 is a function of the definition at time 1 where this function consists of the communicative work conceived as a set of operations whereby the altered situation at time 1 is the situation at time 2. In strategy terms the function consists of the program of procedures that a denouncer should follow to effect the change of state St1 to St2. In this paper St1 is treated as an unspecified state.

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