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Monday, October 25, 2004

And so he plays his part...

Those who are in sociology are already familiar with the concepts of roles and scripts. For those who aren't, and we can pretend for a moment that non-sociologists read this blog, a role is a set of behaviors and understandings that people assume in certain circumstances to facilitate interaction. For instance, when you enter a retail outlet you probably assume the role of consumer. Similarly, most store employees will assume compatible roles as salespeople.

These roles, which often come in mutually-reinforcing groups (i.e. husband/wife, salesperson/consumer, teacher/student, etc.), come equipped with sets of scripts. Scripts act as pre-set routinzed sets of behaviors used for accomplishing interactions. Do you need to think about how to go about buying something? Not really- and that's the beauty of a script. They give us a framework of expectations for how an interaction will play out, as well as a set of signs and counter-signs used to accomplish various parts. When you go to a counter to buy a pack of gum, you need not wonder how the process will go- you know the script, and thus can accomplish your purchase with little or no active thought. Amusingly, (And this is a duality that the sociologist Georg Simmel would have enjoyed) scripts can act both to facilitate interaction and to insulate us from it. On the one hand, they make it easier for us to engage in some sort of exchange with other people. On the other hand, they make those exchanges more impersonal because they may require no active thought or participation from us, just adherence to a set of behaviors. Anyone who has ever responded to the greeting, "Hey!" with, "Oh, I'm okay," understands what I mean here. "Oh, I'm okay," would be the appropriate counter-sign to "Hey, how are you?" but the obvious disjoint between question and answer in the former case serves to illustrate just how impersonal this exchange of pleasantries is.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, simply because we have some great examples of roles and scripts in popular media right now. On the subject of roles and scripts, we have a series of comics on Sinfest that are nicely sociological.

It begins with the strip's fundamentalist-Christian character, Seymour, declaring "I have a hat" to the strip's main protaganist, Slick. Slick, being the deep guy that he is decides that he, too, wants a hat.

On the next day we find that Slick has not obtained a hat to match Seymour's, but has instead one-upped him with a cape. He uses a small electric fan to strike a dramatic pose with his cape, leaving Seymour feeling dejected.

When next we join our intrepid characters, they are madly shifting to ever more ridiculous garb, shouting out the roles that they are assuming. At last, the humanoid-pig Squigley asks them, rather pointedly, what the hell they think they're doing. Now things are about to get interesting...

Squigley goes and describes what Seymour and Slick were doing to Criminy, an intellectual character, in the next installment. Criminy, however, observes that perhaps the game of dress-up was an attempt to counterbalance restrictive social roles, in the process allowing each participant to expand their sense of identity. Squigley remains skeptical.

Yet, Criminy perseveres and makes the point that sociology makes: we are all of us playing characters, painting ourselves into roles that define us to ourselves as much as to other people. The oddity in Slick and Seymour's behavior was not the assuming of roles or costumes, but that they were searching actively for new ones, rather than simply accepting the ones assigned by society.

So, it is reasonable to ask, how do we know that these roles and scripts really exist? Couldn't this just be some sort of elaborate, but ultimately fallacious, explanation? Sure! This is always a concern in science. Yet, we have some additional proof in the form of the breaching experiments pioneered by Harold Garfinkle. Garfinkle was curious what would happen if people deliberately violated scripts and roles, essentially throwing our carefully routinized social machine into disarray. What he found was, to say the least, interesting. People tend to respond by either ignoring the breach to whatever extent possible, clinging to the ruined script as though to a life preserver, or with hostility and anger. And there can be no better example of breaching experiments than this video clip.

What's so great about this clip? Well, first off, it's funny as hell. It's "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog" going to after the third presidential debate. Yet, why is it funny? Well, at least in part, because we have political figures giving an interview to a dog puppet. On the one hand, the roles for interviewer/interviewee are being fulfilled, but in another sense, they aren't. Puppets are not a part of any political script, and their use would normally seem to disqualify someone from taking on one of those roles. So, how do the pundits respond?

Well, see for yourself, but what is remarkable is the frequency with which these spin-doctors try to push forward with an interaction in the way demanded by the script, despite the fact that their partner is regularly violating their complementary script. Why should they adhere to any set of rules when their partner is in such drastic violation of them? Simple: we are all so dependent on scripts, we often don't know what else to do.

William Shakespeare once said:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...


He might as well have been writing just for Garfinkle and the sociologists. We are, all of us, players in the show of life. We trade social clothing as actors change costuming, and our own performances depend on the skills of our fellow thespians. Yet, the amusing thing to me is not the changing of costumes, or the memorizing of lines. What amuses me is that even knowing about roles and scripts, even understanding their dual purpose in life, and even when those scripts are violated, one thing remains as true in "real life" as it does in dramatic theater:

The show must go on.

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