The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric

By Frank Schimmelfennig | Go to book overview

9    Rhetorical action

The strategic conception of rules: Goffman’s
social theory

The hypotheses of habitual and normative action started from the assumption that social actors take community and organizational norms and values for granted or internalize them.1 By providing meanings and motives for action, norms and values affect social action at the dispositional level of cognitions and preferences. These hypotheses follow the cognitive and normative conceptions of institutions, rules and culture that have traditionally dominated sociological institutionalism. There is, however, an alternative, strategic conception of rules2 in sociological theory on which the mode of rhetorical action is based.

In the account of Robert Edgerton (1985: 7–14), the strategic conception of rules originated in anthropology and sociology as a reaction to the “oversocialized view of man” and the “over-integrated view of society” (Dennis Wrong) that dominated social analysis following the normativist theories of Durkheim and Parsons. “From the slave of custom in the normative model, man came full circle to become the strategic master of rules – artful, dissembling, posing, deceiving and calculating for his own advantage” (Edgerton 1985: 12–13). In the strategic conception, rules are not motives for action, nor are they merely constraints, they are “resources for human strategies” in social interactions and they “are used not followed.”3

The seminal work in this tradition is the social theory of Erving Goffman. Depending on the writings one draws on, Goffman’s

1 This section builds on, expands, and slightly revises, earlier conceptualizations and applications of the rhetorical action concept (Schimmelfennig 1995: 38–43, 292–302; 1997: 221–34).

2 Note that, according to my earlier definition of rules as institutionalized culture, rules comprise values, norms, and identities (see chapter 3).

3 Edgerton (1985: 14). For similar ideas on the concept and study of “culture,” see Swidler (1986) and Laitin (1988).

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