All the world is not a stage and life is not a performance

Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

Okay, someone writing a crime script analysis should probably not be saying this but here we go.

One of the lightulb moments in teaching sociology is when you introduce Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It tells on us. In a compelling way it shows what we are like when we act in front of an imagined audience. It shows the pose of normality and agreeableness demanded by modern social life. It is immediately tangible because it feels like everyone does it – poses while waiting to meet someone in public, gives off ‘I’m not suspicous’ signals when talking out of a shop past the eletronic detector. It’s why everyone around the Queen tries to sound posher than her.

The language of drama, scripting and front/backstage is very compelling. It is a bit harder to sustain as an exciting revelation when this is not a revelation at all but an explicit feature of the technology of life. I picture a billion Insta users saying ‘well, duh! Filters!’. As with all good sociological ideas it has been generalised to within an inch of its life. There is a tendency to code everything as performance – data, sex, nations, emotions, it is all a performance. There is a constant presence of explicit impression management tools in our social media and validation of impression management in British culture. Be yourself! but the better self, with the nicer complexion y’know. That beguiles us into thinking that these practices are typical and fundamental to social life.

What do contemporary writers mean by performance? They make several implied claims that are not the same and do not in face validate each other. These are:

  1. People act into their socially defined role, beyond what is necessary to fulfil its functions.
  2. A lot of work is put into a kind of ‘demonstration of the self as suitable to this function’
  3. There is a fundamental dramaturgical structure to social life, for example, gender is only ever a performance with no ground floor in biological sex. Yes I know Judith Butler says gender is a performative in the speech-act sense but we all know they do not really mean that.
  4. Meaning that the world is a text.

Here is an example of one way performance appears a lot of the time. I have taken this from Holt and Lee’s (2021) crime script analysis of purveyors of forged documents. They do not make claims about performance, this is just a good bit of data for me. In it a vendor of counterfeit documents says: ‘After we receive your message, our support team will get in touch with you directly with all the necessary follow up and complimentary details for the transaction.’ I noticed a lot of text used in online crime transactions of this type are used to give the impression of a honed, complex professional operation at work. It is an open question how incidental these elements are to the crime script.

Whether in the case quoted by Holt and Lee that is true we do not know. Criminal operations adopt the customer care language of the service economy. In part this is grease on the wheels, which is intended to make the transaction more trustworthy in the eyes of the buyer. In part, it becomes a part of the culture: you just talk in that way because that is how it is done. As a previous generation of criminals would be adapt in the language of intimidation so the new generation of service criminals are adept at the global language of human resource management. But at its heart they still need to know how to inveigle, deceive, manipulate and sometimes bring violence to bear on a target. The right performance might help them do that, and it might have evolved as the way of doing things in that context. But it does not make sense to say that the essence of what we are looking at is a performance.

Holt, Thomas J., and Jin R. Lee. 2020. ‘A Crime Script Analysis of Counterfeit Identity Document Procurement Online’. Deviant Behavior 1–18. doi: 10.1080/01639625.2020.1825915.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.