Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Misbehavior in Mediated Places: Situational Proprieties and Communication Environments

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Misbehavior in Mediated Places: Situational Proprieties and Communication Environments

Article excerpt

Abstract: Goffman's notions about situational proprieties, such as the rule of "fitting in," can help us understand misbehavior in mediated situations, such as those involving the Internet or cell phones, communication environments that offer new modes of mediated interpersonal communication and that, in so doing, alter our norms for group interaction.


The work of sociologist Erving Goffman has long provided inspiration for scholars in a variety of disciplines, including media and communication studies. The scope and insight of his contributions have been praised by many, including urban sociologist Lyn Lofland, who commends Goffman as follows:

  Goffman almost inadvertently focused his enormous talent for
  microanalysis on numerous instances of public realm interaction. ...
  Goffman demonstrated eloquently and persuasively that what occurs
  between two strangers passing on the street is as thoroughly social
  as what occurs in a conversation between two lovers, that the same
  concerns for the fragility of selves that is operating among
  participants in a family gathering is also operating among strangers
  on an urban beach. (1998, p. 4)

Among Goffman's many investigations of the structure and dynamics of social interaction, several stand out as especially relevant for media and communication scholarship. Perhaps his best known and most often cited work is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), in which Goffman uses theatrical metaphors to explain the ways individuals manage the impressions they create and the performances they enact in social relationships. Media and communication scholars have also drawn on Goffman's 1974 volume entitled Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. My own favorite of Goffman's, however, is less frequently mentioned but equally worthy of attention: his 1963 book, Behavior in Public Places.

In Behavior in Public Places, Goffman examines the social organization of gatherings, focusing on rules of interaction in face-to-face environments, and emphasizing the patterns of interaction rather than the individuals themselves. The point, as he explains, is to bring group behavior into the foreground and examine "that aspect of public order pertaining to the conduct of individuals by virtue of their presence among others" (1963, p. 242). Suggesting that the significance of behavioral patterns in group interaction has been underestimated, Goffman describes the target of his research as:

  ... an important area of social life--that of behavior in public and
  semi-public places. Although this area has not been recognized as a
  special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for
  rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops,
  dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any
  community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social
  organization. ... the study of ordinary human traffic and the
  patterning of ordinary social contacts has been little considered.
  (1963, pp. 3-4)

Central to this research is the study of rules of conduct, what Goffman calls "situational proprieties." As he explains, "When in the presence of others, the individual is guided by a special set of rules ... situational proprieties" (1963, p. 243). These situational proprieties, or rules of "proper conduct," are "the regulations of conduct characteristic in ... gatherings" (pp. 20, 24). In examining the structure and function of such "social norms regulating behavior" (p. 17), Goffman distinguishes codes of situational proprieties--that is, rules of conduct appropriate for various situations--from other sorts of social regulations:

  When persons are present to one another they can function not merely
  as physical instruments but also as communicative ones. This
  possibility, no less than the physical one, is fateful for everyone
  concerned and in every society appears to come under strict normative
  regulation, giving rise to a kind of communication traffic order. … 
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