Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revisiting Goffman's Interaction Order (Just For Fun!)

Goffman’s (1982) Interaction Order is a probing but thoughtful paper and probably the most complete reference to his conceptual model of the interaction order, as it explicitly takes into account his motivations and impetus for practice – something he regularly hides in the majority of his academic writing. Perhaps this is because, at the time, there was contention over his initiative that this piece is so explanatory.

My concern over the years has been to promote acceptance of this face to face domain as an analytically viable one – a domain which may be titled, for want of a better name, the interaction order – a domain whose preferred method is microanalysis. My colleagues have not been overwhelmed by the case. (Goffman 1982: 2)

The Interaction order is a name given to a body of theory that was developed over a substantial period of time in Goffman’s career, but in itself it raises many questions about the design of face to face interaction and the order in which that interaction is achieved.

Face to face interaction is an inclusive reference point for Goffman who believed that spatial and temporal zones of interaction had to be taken into account to make analytical sense. The contextual implications of activities occurring ‘secondary’ to conversational interaction are central to Goffman’s argument; surrounding actions may impact on how interaction takes place. He did not presume context but forced the issue of context to interactional discourses (1981:188-91). In addition, the interaction order was a world beyond speakers and participation was not the sole requirement for membership in conversation. His position called for a greater understanding of the socially situated experiences of daily life, of cognitive states and bodily orientations(Goffman 1966).

The interaction order for Goffman is not at the will of dominant social structures, in fact he took great care to describe many processes where the social structures were dependant on face to face encounters (1982: 8-9). He felt that sociological discourse was confusing ritualised interactions with structures of power and authority in western culture. Those sociological inquiries of race, gender and hierarchy in conversation were negating the experience of face to face conversations. While he noted the importance of such fields of study he suggested that the local order of face to face interaction must be the primary goal before other issues (such as authority or power structures). His main concern was that the micro interaction would become lost in the macro discourse and local regularities of face to face communication would inadvertently be interpreted as part of macro discourse. His suggestion was to seek the micro study first, then progress to the macro discourse and marry the two concepts later.

Perhaps for Goffman it is the order, not the interaction itself that analytically means more. The presence of the interaction order is to illuminate the ‘what’ in interaction; what does a particular gathering, a particular conversation, a particular celebration allow for? What does the structure of interaction, as a collaborative activity, permit its participants to do? The interaction order provides a multitude of resources to ask questions of and provide answers to the above.

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