Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Accounting for Everyday Incivility: An Australian Study

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Accounting for Everyday Incivility: An Australian Study

Article excerpt

Introduction

Much of daily social life in modern societies is experienced in public settings inhabited by unknown others. Whether catching the train, shopping at the supermarket or going to the movies, it is more than likely that we will usually find ourselves in the midst of strangers. Sociological analysis has an established interest in the question of how we live among strangers in the course of going about our everyday lives. A predominant concern has been to examine the achievements of the individual in rendering daily life among unknown others possible. However, less attention has been directed towards investigating questions of failure. Taking this neglected aspect of everyday life as an important point of reference, this study aims to describe how the individual person understands and makes sense of a commonplace form of interactional breakdown, incivil relations with strangers.

How to deal with strangers encountered in everyday life situations has been a key concern in 20th century sociological thought. Goffman's (1963) civil inattention, Simmel's (1997) blase attitude and Benjamin's (1997) flaneur have emerged as vital ideas for thinking about being in public among unknown others. What these types of orientation share in common is a way of seeing the stranger that is intellectual, un-emotional and non-critical (Bauman, 1995). In highlighting such attitudinal forms, these analyses emphasize the manner in which the individual under conditions of modernity had adapted successfully to living among strangers. Yet, consistent with the more optimistic vein of theories of modernity, more generally, these studies have given less consideration to the regulated ways in which failure has continued to manifest itself within this domain of everyday life. Bearing out a diminished emphasis on the dark side of daily life among strangers, there is a distinct absence of analytic concern in these formulations with the conditions under which the cool and distant urban attitude finds its limit.

In contrast to this earlier body of work, the problem of living with strangers has in recent times started to develop gradually as a more explicit theme in sociological research and analysis. For Bauman, it is the postmodern condition that has emerged to render the stranger as an irreducible problem. Whereas in the modern environment it was reasonably evident what social category the stranger was in and how to act towards them accordingly, in the postmodern setting this clarity had faded away. Rather than being able to label a stranger as a familiar neighbor or an alien and conduct ourselves towards them in kind, we now confront an irresolvable and constant problem in everyday life, 'it is never quite clear who they are' (Smith 1999, pp. 161). As we are unable to pre-emptively label them with certainty, the morally distant stranger has the capacity to live and act physically close by, lurking unrecognizable within our immediate bodily proximity. It is only then through their actual conduct towards us that we are able to know how ethically remote they are from us. Yet, by then, it may be too late to forestall or avoid their treatment of us (Bauman, 1995, 2001).

Bauman's observations about the suitability of current social conditions for the experience of troubling social encounters with strangers would seem to be prescient in light of the recent appearance of dedicated empirical and policy-oriented studies on the challenges of going about everyday life in the company of unknown others. This body of work has developed in a general climate where commonplace rudeness, disrespect and selfishness among strangers has been seen more and more as a social problem (Carter, 1998). Surveys have documented the level and forms of everyday incivility in contemporary societies (Phillips and Smith 2006), and the seriousness with which the general public view the phenomenon as a problem in their daily lives (Farkas et al., 2002). …

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