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The social world is a stage, and our actions are symbols

The social world is a stage, and our actions are symbols

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 23, 2020 (Week 5)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/2.2.0

Required readings

Becker (1953)

Supplemental readings

Goffman (1973)

Are emic concepts names for things?

  • When thinking of an example of an emic category from their own culture, people often reach for something they know that other people don’t.
    • Easter around the world
    • “Aussie” slang
  • This would suggest that only some things need to be seen in an emic perspective, and everything else is the same.
  • The emic perspective is imponderable; we all use our own culture’s emic perspective, but we don’t have to be aware of it as a perspective.


In my lecturing for this week, I want to take off from Malinowski’s claim that fieldwork should collect the “imponderabilia of actual life” (Malinowski [1922] 1932, 24).

It’s not entirely clear exactly what Malinowski means by this term. It’s very evocative though, and I choose to interpret it creatively.

It seems like he is talking about the actions and practices that are not idiosyncratic but are also not captured by survey questionnaires, because an outsider would never think to ask about them, and an insider being interviewed would never think to talk about them.

Imponderabilia tell us about nonverbal communication

What I would like to argue is that the imponderabilia of everyday life is a kind of communication among people in a community that relies on their shared tacit knowledge.

Breaching experiments

Harold Garfinkel, a student of Erving Goffmann, is very interested in thinking about society as a system of communication, including behavior in everyday life as nonverbal communication.

Around the same time that Goffman and Garfinkel were thinking about social action as communication, the psychologist Solomon Asch was conducting experiments to demonstrate the role of social pressure in people’s thinking and perception. He showed for instance that people would say they perceived the length of a line to be longer than it was if everyone around them also said this.

Asch’s experiments got taken up by pop culture. The TV show Candid Camera restaged several of them. One is well-known. Several actors enter an elevator and stand backward, facing the back. The other passenger was originally facing the door, and suddenly has a pained, awkward expression. Slowly, tentatively, he turns around to match what the actors are doing. Peer pressure is powerful.

Garfinkel has a different idea of how society works. His method is for an observer to deliberate break with the normal pattern, and through this “[make] commonplace scenes visible” (Garfinkel 1967, 36). These are often called breaching experiments.

For instance, Garfinkel asked his student to pretend that they were guests in a bed-and-breakfast when they went home to visit their parents. How do you think the parents reacted. They laughed, they got upset… They thought something was seriously wrong.

The students also felt intensely uncomfortable doing this because they thought they were doing something wrong by behaving like a stranger.

For me, these experiments don’t tell us about the pressure to conform. They show us how we communicate with each other through behavior, and that people notice behavior that does not match the normal pattern.

Personal space

Rick and Morty: Personal Space. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm5OVg50swY.

Breaching experiments, imponderabilia, and the emic perspective

  • The emic perspective is an “insider’s” perspective
  • People detect a breach in normality because they have this perspective and they assume that everyone else does too.
  • Yes, people feel pressure to conform. An anthropologist would emphasize the reaction to the breach, rather than people's conformity. When people react, they also communicate to the breacher that they did something abnormal.


A symbol is—generally speaking—something that stands for, represents, means, expresses something else.

We can make a provisional distinction:

  • natural signs, e.g. when we see smoke, we think there's something burning.
  • conventional signs, e.g. the flag (and indeed the Southern Cross) makes us think of “Australia,” and the OK sign means “OK” for English speakers.

Each person's cultural worldview clearly teaches them about conventional signs (Gal et al. 2018). But many supposedly “natural” signs, like facial expressions, need to be learned too. Our cultural worldviews teach us how to read everything we see.

Everything that is, is a symbol of something else.

We see the world through symbols

People do not simply see things; they read everything they see as signs (symbols) of something else.

  • Wearing a Socialist Alternative t-shirt says that you are member of Socialist Alternative.
  • Wearing secondhand clothing from Vinnies says “I am a hipster” even if the wearer does not mean to say this.
  • Actions are symbols, too. When you spread your legs across your seat on the bus (Dunne 2016, Fitzsimmons 2014) (or, for that matter, place your bag on the seat next to you), this is read as a statement about you, even if you don't intend to state this statement.
  • The Busboy Show is symbolic action: I am “willing to work” (Gomberg-Muñoz 2010).


Becker, Howard S. 1953. “Becoming a Marihuana User.” The American Journal of Sociology 59 (3):235–42.

Dunne, Carey. 2016. “Vintage Subway Etiquette Posters Reveal Manspreading Has Always Been Annoying.” Hyperallergic (blog). August 29, 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/319245/vintage-subway-etiquette-posters-reveal-manspreading-has-always-been-annoying/.

Fitzsimmons, Emma G. 2014. “A Scourge Is Spreading. M.T.A.’s Cure? Dude, Close Your Legs.” The New York Times, December 20, 2014, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/nyregion/MTA-targets-manspreading-on-new-york-city-subways.html.

Gal, Shayanne, David Anderson, Matthew Stuart, and Mark Abadi. 2018. “5 Everyday Hand Gestures That Can Get You in Serious Trouble Outside the US.” Business Insider Australia, December 8, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/hand-gestures-offensive-different-countries-2018-6.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Goffman, Erving. 1973. “Introduction.” In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1–16. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press. http://books.google.com?id=032vnQEACAAJ.

Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2010. “Willing to Work: Agency and Vulnerability in an Undocumented Immigrant Network.” American Anthropologist 112 (2): 295–307. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01227.x.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1922) 1932. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. http://archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp.

“The Power of Conformity: 1962 Episode of Candid Camera Reveals the Strange Psychology of Riding Elevators.” 2016. Open Culture (blog). November 7, 2016. http://www.openculture.com/2016/11/the-power-of-conformity-1962-episode-of-candid-camera-reveals-the-psychology-of-riding-elevators.html.

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