Discussion: Denzin and Goffman – dramaturgy or subjective creativity in the modern university?

Dave Harris


This piece begins with reviewing a classic debate between Goffman and Denzin (and Denzin and Keller) on the relevance of dramaturgy to explain human action. There could be no way to test the different views by concrete research,  since ‘positivism’ would be an acceptable consequence for Goffman but not for Denzin. Instead, it is proposed that we focus on a common area of experience – the modern university as a workplace – if not as a rigorous testbed, then at least as a source of shared experience (assuming academics are the main readers of this piece). 

As a stimulus for reflection, published work on modern university life can be summarised and compared drawing on a variety of methodological approaches including non-participant observation, questionnaires and coding, classic participant-observer ethnographic studies and autoethnographic accounts.

Academics are supposed to be both creative and able to play roles, but these dimensions might have become much more difficult to reconcile in the neoliberal university. Overall, I think that Goffman’s approach is far more useful to explore this. The constant assertion of and reliance upon ‘creativity’ as a source of ethical and political commitments to various versions of social justice seems to have not developed as much of a challenge to neoliberalism.

Early debates

For advocates of ‘affirmative’ forms of argument, this exchange might be a bit of a shock, because the participants are scholarly but rather critical of each other's work, and Denzin ends one contribution by saying that Goffman’s work is now redundant. 

Denzin’s early dispute with Goffman traces the unwarranted privilege given to the notion of framing, and to the dramaturgical setting. Briefly, Denzin and Keller (1981), focus on the implicit links with French structuralism and its problems in the most general notion of a frame, and question Goffman’s understandings of writers such as Bateson or Schutz.  Instead,  human creativity exceeds frames:  'selves, meaning, motive, and intentionality cannot be confined to depictions of the human flow of interaction found in [various popular texts cited by Goffman] and in frames', (1981 p.55), and we should not freeze this flow into a single frame or single answer to describe what is going on. 'Self reflexive and self-aware individuals  ... experience more than one thing at a time' (p.57). I think Denzin is implying that this self-reflexivity and self-awareness are universal, since to suggest otherwise would be elitist. If we see variable stocks of cultural capital as required, different implications follow as we shall see

Goffman replied (1981) by contesting the readings of Bateson, Schutz and the others, and denying any allegiance to French structuralism, stressing instead the work on cultural codes by Durkheim and Malinowski. The main argument, however, is that the almost unlimited possibilities of interaction in principle are in practice constrained by social rituals, developed and located outside the awareness of current individual performers,  including ‘access rituals’.  Frames get turned into specific forms of spatial organisation — ‘brackets’ in his terminology at the time – supported by his own early work on the spatial dimensions of mental illness (Goffman 1969) and with clear links to the better-known Stigma (Goffman 1968). Of course, those examples refer to ‘total institutions’, however.   Denzin and Keller might wish to stress the unlimited and unruly creative or individual possibilities instead of these more ordered and functional groupings, but face-to-face interaction both undermines and confirms  'widely institutionalised enterprises'. Individuals certainly do bring something of 'what they are and know', but 'there are rules of etiquette and reference for guiding this importation' (1981, p.68) and agreed constraints on interaction are required to manage any breaches.  It seems that Goffman is assuming some implicit functionalism here, some powerful trend towards social conformism (although the discussion on ‘role distance’  admits that conformist ‘etiquette’ can be rejected in some circumstances – see below)  The emphasis in Denzin and Keller suggests to Goffman that they  also 'have paradigms to grind… a broad perspective to defend and promote' (p. 68). This gives them an equally 'stilted sense of social reality'.

In a later piece, Denzin (2002) suggests that Goffman’s notion of performance in dramaturgy is too limited, compared to the expanded notion of performance that he wants to embrace: ‘organised by real people doing the work of interaction… There are no originals against which illusions are measured, no imitations, only new experience’ (2002, p.108).  Performativity refers to both agency and, citing Butler, offers a challenge to ‘”the power of discourse to reproduce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”’, implying some conscious enactment. This takes us beyond the notion of performing scripts written for us by staged situations of the kind we might find in ritual performances and more into a struggle to enact discursive regulation, sometimes subversively. Goffman offers no transformational insights, unlike the best sociologists, including his contemporaries Mills or Strauss. By failing to focus on the concrete political dimensions of performance Goffman is in danger of unknowingly acting out a script written for him as ‘the requirements of the local and global capitalism erased class, race, and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature’. His work is already being overtaken by a growing ‘emancipatory discourse that speaks to the forms of life under neoliberal forms of democracy and capitalism’(p. 116). We need a new radical vision like that of Mills, ‘a commitment to connect cultural sociology to issues surrounding justice and equity; participate in cultural policies; and radical, democratic cultural politics’ (p. 117). Goffman’s contribution must be acknowledged but abandoned ‘if sociology is to make a difference in this new century’.  As elsewhere discussed (in another discussion paper/file by me), political activism becomes a major way to solve epistemological disputes.  It should be said that later work by Denzin does indeed still use some of the central metaphors of dramaturgy as we shall see.

Denzin demonstrated the power of human creativity not by examining work or therapeutic organisations but with reference to theatrical or televisual performances. His own complex reactions to an avant-garde performance  of  Shakespere evidently led him to think of  links with other texts, including the biographies of the actors, and to note the effects of audience reactions on the actors.  In a way, this is emblematic of the problems of autoethnography and its self-concerns, however – by not suspending disbelief, and remaining in the conscious present,  Denzin might have missed a chance to learn about Shakespeare’s world instead of polishing his understanding of his own. In particular, he was impressed that there seemed to be no backstage, since the actors remained in public view when they walked off the actual stage and remained in full view of the audience. The example has some other obvious limitations, however, in that we know very little of the reactions of spectators other than those of a professor of cultural studies with impressive cultural  capital. Further this is a non-work example, where any scripts are likely to be looser than for the examples of work mainly discussed by Goffman.

The pleasure of seeing actors ‘offstage’ might also have been a deliberate effect in the show, a way for the producer and actors to demonstrate their version of reflexive meta-comment. Goffman suggests as much with his own comments on Denzin’s reading of an episode in a TV soap opera. Scripts need not be simple monologues operating in one register, although, strangely, Denzin’s own scripts for actors in his  own pedagogical performances often are, sometimes a heavily didactic one,and sometimes with pauses for audience ‘participation’ (often inviting agreement or acclaim).

Creativity and the media

This might be a bit of a diversion from the main argument, but Denzin’s expertise as a cultural theorist extends to an interest in the mass media, and there we find some interesting parallel dilemmas and paradoxes about the creative viewer. These are well-known in British Cultural studies (BCS) too (see Harris 1992). The paradox is that the media have to be seen as a powerful conservative or ideological force, crucial in maintaining hegemony, but at the same time, the hegemonic project can never be complete, and creative potential  to resist remains. Elite cultural critics have always been able to ‘deconstruct’ media texts, but the issue is whether non-specialists can do so.  On the one hand, they must be taken in by the ideological wiles of the media especially by characteristic (realist) narratives and (oppressive) representations, and this would be to imply the absence of any inherent critical ability to read media texts differently. But these have to be assumed if Cultural Studies is not to become just an elitist academic worldview, rather like classic English literary criticism. The problem was not helped by the emergence of new forms of media. Traditional forms might easily be convicted of operating with obviously ideological narratives and stereotypes (although even there this required a determined ‘centred reading’), but new ‘postmodern’ forms – reflexivity, metafiction, parody/pastiche --  raised serious problems.  Critics realised that advertisers read Barthes and  ‘Hollywood reads Screen’ (Hebdige 1988) [Screen was a serious left-wing critical academic journal). For me, a good example is the transition of the Bond film from simple narratives of  British cultural capitals overcoming American brashness and Soviet brutality into the self-referential pieces actively mocking that earlier form (even more so since Harris 1992 was written).

A hint of those  exponents of that tradition appears in occasional references to Stuart Hall, and in an early Denzin and Lincoln Handbook  contribution. Fiske’s contribution to Denzin and Lincoln (Fiske 1994) raised the issue of the audience in a familiar way – the audience is too dynamic and interpretive to be grasped by standard positivistic forms of audience research. Yet there are still, indeed must be, hegemonic effects. Fiske develops the problem by referring not so much to critical  individuals as to ‘reading formations’.  This concept enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in Cultural Studies, for example in Burgin et al (1990) tapping into social and cultural allegiances which shaped and shared individual readings. This was accompanied by the discovery of the ‘active’ viewer (Fiske 1989b), especially the oppositional readings available to  some black women (hooks 1999) that can minimise the hegemonic gaze of ideological forms. Yet this is not simply individualistic subjective creativity, more a transformation of existing cultural resources themselves framed to varying degrees.  Similarly, there is a reference in Denzin’s work  (2001) to Willis’s (1990) praise for popular transformations of commercially provided goods, although again, not without contradiction since these activities also embrace consumerism and are chronically open to being scripted by advertisers and others ‘adding value’ to them (see Harris 2005).

‘Creativity’ is actually not  that well developed in Denzin’s work. He does better when he is criticising theories stressing social order and social patterns.  Creativity could arise as a residual quality of humanity akin to consciousness or subjectivity,  taking on a subversive role in threatening some excess of meaning that cannot be contained by normal social arrangements. Even if so, we still need an explanation of the circumstances in which it comes to the fore and is restrained. The assumption might be that existing social arrangements  fail to satisfy a restless longing for completion, an awareness of ‘lack’,  the desire to overcome alienation of self, as in the work based on  classic traditions in Hegel or Marx (criticised by writers like Deleuze and Guattari or Butler 1990).  This dissatisfaction might be expressed by the  clash between how people are actually treated  and their own experience of more liberating possibilities , especially in non-work time (Ranciere) or in mundane daily social interaction (de Certeau).  This would explain why particularly oppressed  groups can be highlighted as leaders of subjective revolt

 Ambiguities persist even there, though.  Early Denzin (1990) stressed the endless creativity of cultural texts, their indeterminate meaning, their constant unfolding in Derridavian différance, and used this to rebuke Griswold’s quantitative content analysis. Griswold replied that the project to totally explode determinate meaning was too ambitious, compared to her own task of identifying several alternative readings of a text. She points out that whatever critics might do, actual readers themselves construct determinate meanings.  Ignoring these and pursuing infinitely deferred meanings is both apolitical and ‘a sociological nonstarter’ (1990,p. 1581) , and indeed, would disqualify  any ‘scholarly debate’ (1990, p.1583). Denzin has offered determinate readings of her work (and many others) of course, without noticing the paradox of offering the determinate meaning that there are no determinate meanings.

Later Denzin seems to shift, in the classic oscillation back to hegemonic texts where 'Those who control the media control a society's discourse about itself...'a majority of Americans know and understand the American racial order through media representations of the black ethnic other… There is no empirical world beyond the worlds of the "small screen". (1996, p. 329).  He is  thus more ready to see audiences as ‘cultural dopes’, easy victims to the ideological representations and narratives about black people . The international media has a notion of universal human nature  that 'erases race' (p. 323) and, interestingly,  Goffman’s work is recommended as a way to denaturalise and unmask this. Denzin sees the problem of recuperation with black youth culture in the USA  as  the media are 'constantly folding blackness into the existing repressive systems of gender and class'. Later, he was to suggest a need for intervention by,  or at least support from, qualitative researchers, undertaking  ‘critical interpretetive consumer research...disclosing, illuminating, and criticising’ constraints and commodification (Denzin 2001, p.325).

Later still, the same arguments appeared in discussions of indigenous culture, this time swinging back to the anti-hegemonic potential  to resist western imperialism, again requiring support from  critical qualitative researchers (Denzin  2010).  The aim would be to 'to open up the Academy to non-Western forms of wisdom, knowing, knowledge, and knowledge production'  (p.297). Scholarly work would take on a new form: 'evaluated by participant driven criteria, by the cultural values and practices that circulate… Including metaphors stressing self-determination, the sacredness of relationships, embodied understanding, and the priority of community over self...agency and presence in the world’  (p. 301). Dangers of recuperation are discussed in a warnings about 'the legacy of the helping Western colonising other',  and there will be a need to transform 'the institutions, machineries and practices of research' (p.298), but anti-colonialism can prevail if universities adopt a genuinely foundational commitment to these new approaches. This could be utopian thinking again, although there may well be good commercial reasons for making indigenous scholars welcome in universities, if that is not too cynical a point for those who wish just to be ‘part of a moral community where a primary goal is the compassionate understanding of another's moral position' (p.299).  The whole issue is discussed further in my other paper/file on Denzin.

Finally, some  actual interventions seem to require little prior research or scholarship, however, and turn instead on the forceful expression of authoritative opinion and rhetoric, indicative of the turn to ‘ethics’ as the only support for qualitative research (as in the other discussion paper on Denzin).  These arise with particular emergencies that attract official and ideological commentary.  Denzin provides expert politicised readings of the symbolism of the impact of Hurricane Katrina (2007), for example, to counter Bush’s public relations efforts. The argument is supported mostly by articles in the New York Times (and even brief examples of official quantitative data), although Denzin also shares a personal childhood memory, possibly of New Orleans. There is also a whole collection of commentary on 9/11 (Denzin and Lincoln 2003) which seems to have been assembled rather quickly  : ‘We felt that the moment require critically informed responses from the academy...critical reflexive responses... To not do so is to turn the immediate responses to such events over to the journalists and the media’ (xiii—xiv). There is also a concern for ’ the implications for an interpretive social science’, although ‘We did not ask contributors to write from the perspective of a scholarly discipline’. It seemed enough to claim the authority of academic analysts in the qualitative research ‘community’, probably a bit of an echo chamber,  to demonstrate  their creative responses, with the clear risk that the events of 9/11 were to become seen as a pretext, not really worthy of substantive exploration.

Performing ethnography in the wilderness

 Performing Montana (the extract in Denzin 1999) is the one that raises particular problems for me, although I have not read the whole of it. In the sections I have read, Denzin (and a companion?) walk(s) in the wilderness of Montana, appreciates the beauty, even sublimity of nature, and speculates upon the meaning of it all.
'Our little corner of Montana is a sacred place… Where wonderful things happen, and they happen when we perform them'. We 'bring a sacred self into place. We enact nature through the very act of walking in the forest', creating 'an embodied relationship to this natural world'. Nature enacts itself 'showing me how to be one with her' (1999, p. 516). Rawlins is quoted for romantic stuff about how the wind brushes past, a bird calls, a doe and a fawn steps into the meadow 'and, "somewhere lawless animals cross boundaries without a blink"'. The performer(s) 'watch in wonder' as a moose appears with her young. Nelson is cited to remember that people moving in nature are never truly alone. Presumably, this means that there are always animals present as well, although for me it recalled Deleuze's (2013) remark about the painter Francis Bacon having to deal not with blank canvasses at the start, but with ones already covered with an invisible host of imagined images wanting to impose themselves, and requiring a good mental clean up first. Denzin  thinks of this while daringly fishing illegally and watching four deer. He struggles to put words to these images. He remembers a photo of his grandparents in a park, fishing. He enjoys the mountains because he grew up on the prairies. They often flooded and these waters were destructive, reminding humans this was not their territory. He dreams himself back into his grandfather's photo. He watches the river. He watches kayakers. He likes looking at maps of how the rivers empty into each other and this brings him back to his childhood again.

The problem is that it all reads as if Denzin had never encountered the notion of the romantic gaze. There are clear links with romantic writing about nature and wildernesses, which have been going since at least the 18th century, with the same kind of themes, about the sacred nature of the wilderness. These writings together with the emergence of modern tourism [I believe trips were organised to Yellowstone in the 1880s] mean that Denzin is not just simply recording his own unique personal creative experience. All experience of the wilderness is now mediated, and often romantic mediations appeal particularly to intellectuals, so Urry (2002) suggests, who find in them a critique of modernism, and have been doing so ever since the first stages of the modernist era.

Discussing how Urry's 'romantic gaze' has attached itself to the notion of wilderness in Iceland, Karlsdottir (2013) notes that the romantic gaze is individual but also socially organised and systematised, and
directed to features of sceneries (landscape, townscape etc.), which separate them from everyday experience.  As a result, such places have become canonised or made sacred, perhaps with Durkheimian connotations where the sacred is that which is set apart, assumed to be universally compelling and is unable to be questioned. That notion also implies an ideal form of society too, of course. Although the gaze is socially organised it can look as if it is entirely individual matter:  ‘solitude, privacy and a personal, semispiritual relationship’ with the object of the gaze are emphasised. In such cases, tourists expect to look at the object privately or at least only with ‘significant others’, an empiricist delusion as we have suggested.

The social elements are also clear. The roots of the romantic gaze lie in the emergence of nineteenth century romantic desires that led to the development of scenic tourism, with an emphasis
on the private and passionate experience of beauty and the sublime aspect of nature (citing Urry, 2002). According to the ideology of Romanticism, humans could feel emotional about the natural world and scenery. Emphasis was placed on the idea that individual pleasures were to be derived from an appreciation of impressive physical sights. Another related influential idea that continues to mark tourism is that residents of the newly emerging industrial towns and cities could greatly benefit from spending short periods away from them, viewing or experiencing nature. Thus, the place of Romanticism
in the history of tourism is not least that it led to the development of ‘scenic tourism’ and nature-based tourism since the 1970s.

Wildernesses are generally conceived as the ‘most natural’ environments, despite the fact that there is today no wilderness on earth untouched by humanity, either directly or indirectly. Thus, wilderness has become an important arena for today’s tourists who want to come into touch with natural environments and seek adventures and mental and physical experiences different from those to be had in everyday urban environments, and serve as an important resource for nature-based tourist industry. 
The Romantic Movement in the 18th and 19th  centuries urged those who could do so to go out of the polluted and crowded cities and towns and get in touch with beautiful or even sublime nature, appreciate it and expand their emotional senses and experiences. Strong emotion was seen as an authentic source of, or at least confirmation of, aesthetic experience, especially such emotions as fear, horror and awe, and especially when experienced in confronting wild, untamed nature and its sublime qualities. Karlsdottir (2013) says. Strands of this romanticism can be found in nationalist movements of the 20th century, and the current green politics movements, but in later periods, the notion of an 'untouched' wilderness became increasingly hard to sustain. Some tourist companies still offer access to the untouched, but it is increasingly a managed or staged environment. Holyfield (1999, p. 18) describes the key role played by the tour guides in her wilderness trip: they need to provide each guest  'with the pleasurable, yet challenging and adventurous experience', while disguising the more commercial aims of the company. They need to mediate the dangers of the trip, and regulate the amount of information that the guests need. They have to manage their own slight contempt for the customers as well. They also have to time the trips, since  'The goal of the choreographed event is for no commercial trip to see another, giving the impression of a wilderness experience'.

These days, health and safety limitations are also likely to present, even if 'backstage' (Kane & Tucker 2005). As Barad reminds us, the wolves roaming naturally in Yellowstone National Park were reintroduced by humans,and are not actually the same species as the original. 

Denzin is well aware of the rise of the simulacrum in 'postmodernism', but does not mention the concept here,  one of its major appearances for many other analysts.

Experiencing the wilderness sometimes involved adventure, an outdoor lifestyle, pioneering trips away from safety, heroic self-sufficiency -- maybe illegal fishing. We now know this sort of adventuring is probably a masculine form of heroics, argues Beezer (1995) where the hero overcomes all the survival problems and returns triumphant and refreshed.  The wilderness tourist probably has to develop a special selectivity in her gaze  to maintain the image of the wilderness as a pristine environment, ignoring the many signs of human activity in the area, at least in Iceland, while others, familiar with the simulacrum, might not think it matters, or engage in a more playful heroism
. Kane & Tucker ( 2005, p.231) noted the importance of being able to generate social support  for the stories about the experience so that:
'The audience of the storied images will authorize and authenticate the reality of the participants' tour experience' (231).  It was necessary to distinguish 'real' from 'provided' adventures

Urry (2002) has  done much to show the impact of photography on the romantic gaze as well. A media theorist like  Denzin would have seen the effects of mediation if he decided ever to take a photograph of his surroundings, particularly if he used the modern DSLR. He would have been invited to select among several options to construct his representation — composition,  focus, aperture, speed, filter. He doesn't mention photography, but this can leave the naive impression that eyeballing nature somehow avoids photographic conventions. He must have seen lots of photographs of wildernesses, and documentaries and films as well, ranging from early Disney efforts [partly inspired by the ready supply of skilled wildlife photographers] to modern documentaries warning of ecological catastrophe. He cites a photograph of his grandfather as having an influence on his preferred interpretation -- but there must have been many others.

The point is not to expose Denzin as naive or  as an unknowing dupe of the tourist industry, more to suggest that personal and subjective experiences are deeply entangled with commercially produced and enhanced  ones. The romantic gaze was not entirely produced by commercial companies and it still resonates in some way with people even if they are aware of its socially constructed nature. I am well aware of the romantic gaze in local tourism promotion yet I am still genuinely moved by walking on Dartmoor. Yet these feelings are not the product of great personal creativity alone. There are even rather limiting aspects of romanticism. Overall, it is tempting to think of Latour's description of machines as so deeply entangled with human purposes and goals that it makes no sense to continue to distinguish them, and the same might be said of the relationship between Denzin's performances and the scripts of the tourist industry

Contradiction in the modern university

Returning to the specifics of the debates with Goffman, it is possible that work and non-work situations might show different possibilities.  In work at least, people might simply  be following clear and unambiguous scripts. It is more likely, however, that behavioural scripts are never complete and compelling, except, maybe, in total institutions. There will be room for discretion and a certain amount of performance in the Butler sense, (see below) but without any necessarily subversive consequences. Goffman (1990) himself comes close to this with notions such as 'role distance', and we develop some implications of this notion at the end. Activity can be subdivided itself. Some will actively support, extend, and complete scripts, offering full compatibility and a derivative individualism, as in ‘positioning theory’ (see Harris 1992 especially ch. 7). Some non-scripted activity will be subversive, offering open resistance  or at least creative alternatives that challenge the legitimation claims of organisational or social scripts. There can be ambiguous cases where much depends on the audience and its capacities, and whether or not there have been critical interventions by researchers. 

Rather than opt for one of these possibilities on the basis of a theoretical commitment, it might help to consider specific organisations and actions within them as case studies. Goffman cheerfully accepts that this might lead to 'positivism', which Denzin could not support of course, but there might be a possibility for informal contributions at least. We might turn to an area of experience shared by and available to a wide range of participants, both supporters of Goffman and Denzin, and, following the trope of the 'incomplete text' discussed by Marcus, (1994) the same area might well be available to most of the readers of academic articles as well, enabling a particularly informed debate. We could focus on the modern University and the activities in it.

There seems to be a consensus among all researchers and academics that the modern university is a highly contradictory place. On the one hand, it seems to demonstrate all the unpleasant characteristics of modern neoliberalism, with its audit culture and managerialism, consumerism, and stress on exchange values. At the same time, though, it upholds what might be seen as use values, the importance of freethinking academic research and creativity, which can even lead to the critical and liberatory politics espoused by followers of Denzin. This contradiction between a use value oriented side and exchange value oriented side is found in other institutions in welfare states and has been analysed by Offe (1985) for example.  Educational establishments might also be particularly 'loosely coupled' (Weick 1988), with a fair degree of autonomy necessarily granted to some areas in order to pursue innovation or research. We still need to bear in mind possible connections between this autonomy and more regulated functions. These connections are explored in criticisms of 'human relations' approaches to management, for example, or of various 'quality' regimes where the creativity and subjectivity of the workforce , or appeals to its ‘professionalism’, are turned into self-discipline. We might also consider  the view that this contradiction is central to at least elite universities because of the peculiar role they play in social reproduction, having to appear humanistic,  value oriented, otherworldly and distant from modern capitalism and thus appearing as disinterested in the reproduction of privilege (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990): this contradiction might be best revealed in comparing teaching and grading activities, for example

In some cases, the tensions seem to have led to open conflict and the removal of one of the parties. Critical qualitative researchers have experienced resistance from university management. Richardson (1997) describes the  unpleasant attempts to marginalise her, and Sparkes (2007)  gives an account of the punitive way in which qualitative research outputs are evaluated prior to the UK Government’s variously named research assessment exercises: ‘The CV as an autobiographical practice and presentation of self is a risky business on days like this’ (p.527).  After one such evaluation, a Vice-Chancellor in Sparkes's story openly warned that failure to publish the requisite number of articles in the time provided would have consequences: ‘any member of your School who is not submitted to the RAE will either have their contract terminated or be put on a teaching-only contract.’ (p.528). Sparkes himself was to leave Exeter University because his turn to qualitative work in Sport Science was not seen as appropriate or valuable.

Pelias (2004) has one of the best accounts here contrasting life outside the academy – his experiences in sport and in the war in Vietnam – with the dull  and stressful clericalism of academic life. In the insightful  Chapter 12, he describes what pursuing the critical life actually amounts to in practice – making endless to-do lists, assembling materials for records and committees and above all being judged and making judgments: ‘Judgment permeates the academy. Judgement permeates home life. Judgment permeates the corporate world. Every day is judgment day ‘ (p. 118).

There are several published accounts where people cope with contradictory roles by careful stage management, using Goffmanian terms.  Techniques to cope might include making sure that audiences with contradictory expectations are separated as far as possible for example, say in keeping bureaucratic committee work with colleagues and managers separate from academic audiences when doing more creative experimental work in teaching, researching, or attending conferences (we discuss a feminist version of this, Charteris et al. 2019 in more detail below).  Self-conscious stage management in turn clearly requires impression management and the use of props to appear credible in front of the different audiences. Participant observers would be well placed to note such activities.

Earle Reybold and Halx (2018) pursue a  Goffmanian dramaturgical analysis to explain how participants actually implement institutional ethical frameworks. It is not just a matter of individual academics developing a code of ethics, they insist, since  'professional ethicality is more than personal; it is also public and social' (p. 274) . Alongside official codes is a '"hidden curriculum" of expected ethical behaviour' (p. 286). This requires 'a social performance, one that is determined and understood in a complex arena in which ethics are staged and enacted for an audience'  (p. 274). They found 'four dramatic techniques: scripting, staging, performing, and interpreting' (p. 275) to be used in analysing the dimensions of this public performance, occasions where ethical conduct is  'constructed during the dramatic action itself'.  Staging is essential to create a cohesive ethical culture. Theatrical frames have to be managed to interpret action. This requires daily performances, as participants have to interpret and localise the general ethics script. Mostly, the two levels of scripting can be reconciled by an agreement that official codes can be understood as a general injunction to ‘do the right thing’, leaving local participants to operate their own understandings. On their part, university managers are content to make ethics codes part of their general attempts to maintain a a credible public appearance, a ’spectacle’, rather than police them vigorously –although there are some disturbing recent examples where they have indeed been policed, as we shall see

On a smaller scale, Jones (2006) discusses the impression management required to operate as a football (soccer) coach managing his own speech dysfluency.  The approach clearly draws on Goffman and the management of stigma, although, curiously, it does not discuss the ‘etiquette of disclosure’ of stigma in Goffman (1968) . All coaches have to conceal weakness and project a particular persona, Jones argues. Coaching is a 'a performance aimed at managing the impressions of others', and relying  'less on the mechanics of how or what to coach and more on who is coaching, their perceptions of how coaches ought to act' (p.1019).  Impression management proceeds by first going through some familiar routines to get started -- using 'safe, well-trodden discursive ground. Clichés', (p.1014), and avoiding obvious 'speaking blocks'.  Jones hints at the work on role distance in his point that it is important to maintain 'a virtual as opposed to an actual social identity' in interaction. although this is discussed as a coping strategy.  After the ordeal, he comforts himself by seeking support from a colleague, and reassuring himself that he can repair any remaining damage. As is common with sports people, all the anxieties disappear as soon as the referee's whistle blows to start the game.  Jones uses an autoethnographic approach, claiming that fictional writing like this aims at 'evocation as opposed to "true" representation'. The events are recognizable if dramatized. However, there is also an ability to generalize from personal experience, and also to link with sociological theory, via a reference to Goffman’s ‘marginal strategy’ (Goffman 1968)  -- that the interactions of marginals can help illuminate interaction in general and its taken-for-granted features.

Non-coaching pedagogues might recognise some resonances with their activities. They also have to project a particular persona, an enthusiastic slightly nerdy one,perhaps, sometimes while making their activity seem relaxed and ‘natural’.  As Goffman notes, everyone gets stigmatised by being compared to the standard of youthful beauty of students, and this provides a chronic problem of impression management, to remain credible and acceptable generally.  The tutors’ role gives them special interests in effective interaction, including, as Goffman (1968)  notes, the expert diagnosis of novel forms of inadequacy in students as they encounter more demanding work. Student impression management might also easily be seen as  Goffman‘s ‘passing’ or ‘covering’, or following tactics of partial disclosure -- ‘disclosure etiquette’. The whole pedagogic process of impression management might be much more difficult in universities in current times, however., as definitions of ‘normal’ and ‘stigmatised’ are changing

Current identity politics

The UK Office for Students regulatory body offers a general statement of their policy: ‘ We stand for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech: anything within the law.’ but promptly qualifies their own definition:
English law restricts speech in some ways. It prohibits harassment, or incitement to hatred. But it does give people the right to say things which may shock or offend.
We want to make sure that students feel safe and are free to express themselves.
There is no place for violence, intimidation or criminality on university campuses. We also believe that censoring or marginalising some groups to protect others is not appropriate.
However, recent disputes in UK academic circles have shown the strain encountered in practice by general statements like this which obviously require interpretation to distinguish between a right to shock and offend and the duty to keep students safe and free to express themselves at the risk of further shock and offence.  As identity politics has spread in universities, ethical issues have become  (micro)politicised. There have been several controversies reported in the press over matters such as safe spaces,  ‘no-platforming’,  the use of pronouns, the need to provide ‘trigger words’ and use inclusive language. Denzin (2007) recognises the modern university as one of the most-surveilled sites in modern society, but his ethics and politics are far too abstract to resolve these difficult cases.

Times Higher Education (2019) reports several cases: students demanding  that a speech by a  visiting Brexiteer be vetted; at the University of Sheffield, a law lecturer was advised not to use "cross-dressing" as an example of when an injunction might be sought; at Keele University, a tutor stopped teaching a novel that referred to the Hillsborough disaster; at Leeds Beckett University, a lecture on "suicide terrorism" was replaced with "alternative content" ; at Oxford University a female academic required security after she was threatened for suggesting that, historically,  lesbians sometimes dressed as men to gain an occupational advantage (BBC news 25 January 2020) . There is an obvious danger that university managers seem willing and able to exploit the vagueness of some ethical scripts to construct disciplinary offences.
To avoid possible disciplinary action, academics may have to police their own language. I discovered recently that the terms ‘Frankfurt School’ or ‘cultural marxism’ had become suspicious signs of anti-semitism in some quarters  and had led to public criticism of people using the terms (Murray 2019).  I have used these terms in lectures and in print, but now I know they are controversial l would certainly monitor my own speech in future and signal and explain my use of the terms.

Denzin himself publicly discussed a dark side to academic creativity while reviewing an account of the  micropolitics of the collaboration between Gerth and Mills. Interestingly, he uses some of Goffman’s terms:  'This is a valuable reading, for it takes us into the backstage [sic]  regions of the Academy; it shows us just how ugly things can be. And this is sad'  (Denzin 2000, p. 681). The letters exchanged between Gerth and Mills 'revealed a backstage [again] , private side of their academic relationship' (p. 673) and 'the place of power knowledge in… collaborative relationships; the dynamics of collaboration, including competition over credit and… precedence… the use of collaboration as a vehicle of self-promotion; the place of deceit and concealment in the production of academic reputations; the importance for academic careers of third parties, such as publishers, editors, and influential colleagues'. (p. 674). The account revealed that 'an ethic of academic career management turns on a set of dramaturgical practices  [sic] that specify acceptable goals, interactional practices, and ways of concealing information and intentionality'. There is a hint that  system constraints and ethics might be responsible rather than individual flaws.  Academic recognition is still measured in terms of 'the individualistic, utilitarian model' with the consequence that there is 'the potential of introducing conflict and competition into the collaborative relationship'. For  institutionalised ‘utilitarianism’ (a.k.a. neoliberalism) there can be 'no communal or collective publications', none which 'refuse to name specific authors', none which embrace 'communitarian, feminist, or multiracial, postcolonial perspectives' (p. 681).  The situation seems beyond reform and we can only 'imagine a version of the Academy where things are done differently.  In that utopia collaboration would be a different thing' (p.680). Denzin’s ethics seem unable to  offer any practical guidance on managing  the relations between communitarian personal relations and the actual conditions that produce insightful scholarly work in actual universities.

As the Gerth and Mills episode indicates, It might be possible to detect some impression management in published work as well.  We could clearly see all the usual conventions of publication in this light. The (auto) biographical notes that accompany articles display conventional achievements.  Qualitative researchers seem to be unable to resist these being included in their own publications, and even intext. One egregious example arose in the great debate on autoethnography in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography between Anderson  (2006) on the one hand and Ellis and Bochner  (2006) on the other. 

The text contains transcripts of conversations, which appear as spontaneous, and sometimes have quotation marks around them, but they surely must be edited: no one interrupts or talks over each other, there are strange bits where the flow is interrupted to quote a source or academic reference. In another example, Ellis says  'As a woman and a feminist [Bochner hasn't noticed?] I think it's important not to lose sight of the politics of autoethnography' (p.436).  It is obvious that the reader is being addressed there in the interests of impression management. The authors say they are avoiding conventions of academic realism and they acknowledge that they are writing a story, but they still imply the quoted remarks are data. They also pursue a classic technique of ‘emotional realism’ where the emotions are validated as somehow more authentic or more deeply real than mere cognition (see Clough 1992).

The examples which follow clearly show attempts at impression management in my view :
[Art Bochner says] I'm a professor of communication, so words matter to me: terms matter" (p.434)

[Ellis] sometimes I get tired of trying to explain what we do to analytic sociologists... [I am] more predisposed to realist ethnography the new because of my history. After all, my first book, Fisher Folk, was, for the most part, a realist ethnography. (p.445)

[Art] I think it was Victor Turner (1986) who use the terms "co-activity" and "co-performance" (p 434)...It reminds me of the article written by Carol Blair and her colleagues, that I was reading the other day (Blair, Brown and Baxter 1994, 389). Hold on, let me get it from my desk (442).

[Ellis]  You often write theoretical pieces, and many of my autoethnographic stories include traditional analysis (Bochner 1997, 2001, 2002; Ellis  1998, 2002b). (p. 443)

There are also attempts to claim moral or ethical authority as a sympathetic human being as they watch TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina

[Ellis] I can only imagine how the people there feel… I should be in my study, working on our response to Leon Anderson's article… But it's so hard to get into that frame of mind right now with all that's going on in the world — it's amazing how much impact personal stories have… I'm an addict getting my fix and TV news. I can't pull myself away from stories and images" "I don't want to be pulled away. I want to get as close as I can," Art responds… "If we were on sabbatical or this was summer we'd go there and help… I feel obligated to… Give some sign, however inadequate, that somebody is listening, somebody cares, somebody really wants to know"

[Ellis] "[I wanted to develop]. You know, a 'hold hands,', 'the more the merrier,'… Approach" [Art] 'No surprise there. Your impulse almost always is to try to get along even with our harshest critics' (p.432).

[As they watch an interview with the Mayor of New Orleans]
 Art and I wipe tears  These people feel all alone, I say. Somebody's got to show them that we are all in this together. (p.447)
There is a bit of classic academic symbolic violence directed at Anderson:
"I'd want to call what Leon [Anderson] wants to do 'aloof autoethnography'," Art says with a grin on his face' (p. 434)..

"At first, Leon's view of autoethnography seemed innocent and harmless enough, but then I remembered the suspicions you raised about a hidden agenda… But I got to thinking: I know Leon, and I've admired his work for years, and he might not do this intentionally… Analytic Autoethnography may be an unconscious attempt by realists to appropriate autoethnography and turn it into mainstream ethnography (p.432)

[Art] "...on this point, however, Leon timidly sidesteps…[Ellis] do you think he missed the narrative turn?  Maybe he was turning the other way.  (p.440)...

'That's an interesting metaphor', I say, laughing out loud. 'I can hear them saying, poor Leon he never lived up to his promise as a sociological analyst' (p.442).

'In all fairness, I don't think Leon is intolerant… He's done a lot of good work and I think he is genuinely trying to find ways to build on our work' (p.445)

'… It is interesting that most of our staunchest critics are older white men — it reminds you of the article written by Carol Blair and her colleagues… Where they discuss what they call the male paradigms which they say is characterised by impersonal abstraction'… 'That sounds a lot like Leon's conception of analysis and generalisation', Art says (p.442).

Impression management might be required by autoethnographic work in particular, because conventional claims to possess authority and legitimacy are different with this approach (and see Sparkes below) . In particular, as Hammersley (1992) has argued, qualitative research places particular emphasis on the qualities of the researcher. The researcher decides many methodological issues, in particular how to code everyday experience, even if it is our own. This is necessary if connections are to be made with wider social theory and research traditions.  With the exception of a particular 'confessional' genre 'elaborate subjectivist accounts of fieldwork experience' began appearing in anthropology, (Marcus in Denzin & Lincoln 19945, p.569).  it is not common to illustrate any particular flaws in the analytic powers of the writer. There tends to be a focus, not exclusive, on what might be seen as the 'good' emotions and feelings as well — empathy and sympathy,  love and solidarity, a desire for creativity and liberation. This is also developed in ‘diffractive’ readings as in Murris & Bozalek 2019 (discussed in another paper/file). There can be some confessions of fear, guilt about disloyalty, and acknowledgements of pettiness, but common human emotions such as anger, resentment, and jealousy seem to be absent. This tendency is emphasised, possibly by the neglect of any discussion of a Freudian unconscious. Denzin has deployed Freudian argument in his attempt to expose some hidden text in Garfinkel, but otherwise, the subject that writes or speaks in qualitative research is the subject of normal self-aware consciousness. It is quite possible to see this absence as obedience to the emerging restraints on what counts as approved communication in the modern University.

The extensive collaborative writing project undertaken by Gale and Wyatt, (as in for example Wyatt et al.,  2017) described in the latest version of the Denzin & Lincoln Handbook, is clearly and openly edited, that is, not ‘natural speech’. The authors do not appear as themselves, but as avatars, who happen to have the same forenames. Wyatt & Gale (2011)  deny that these avatars represent more authentic selves, but it is not clear exactly what they do represent and why they are necessary. They could be produced by performances in either sense. Strong positive emotions are clearly to the fore: 'each found ourselves passionately and vividly alive' (Wyatt et al 2017, p. 742).  Generally, however, the creativity appears to be sparked by non-work activities – walks in the countryside, holidays, emotional emails and meetings.  The pressures of academic work are very much in the background, appearing as, for example, slight anxiety about producing conference papers.

This piece also demonstrates the dead hand of the neoliberal university affecting even collaborative writing of this creative and exuberantly subjective kind.  Gustafson et al . (2019) say: ‘Too often participatory action researchers must adhere to scholarly writing conventions that may be at odds with the epistemic stance and discursive claims of the feminist researchers who produce them.’ Handbook entries seem to have their conventions too, and turning to the obligatory(?) section on ‘recommendations’, Wyatt et al. (2017) decide after all to conform to university requirements and abandon any ‘avant-garde’ authorial  alternatives to replace excessive individualism,  like those they have been discussing and supporting. Instead, the whole team should decide about authorship: who has made a major intellectual contribution; who has made the major running on organizing the project; who has taken the lead in writing up the project for publication; who is 'most in need of first authorship at this particular point in their academic career' (2017, p.748).  The team should make this agreement, 'preferably' in writing  – the final triumph of social relations based on contract.

Neoliberal individualism even seems to resist any attempt to displace it in personal writing:
"In the writing of these words so far, I have consciously avoided the use of "I". In the vibrant and always momentary animation of sense, I am aware of the multiplicity of this collaborating self. I am aware of "allotropic variations" and sense that there are many intensities that I will not be aware of as I type for a life. This writing seems to exist in relational space. This is a space, perhaps a sense of space that can be described as collaborative and yet, as I write, it seems to be with the collaborative vitality and energy that is not bounded or formed by a knowing of what "collaboration" is or of the human bodies about/with/to whom I am writing.
I could find no discussion (always a risky statement) about the possibility that University students might also be engaged in creative responses to the university environment in the form of impression management. That topic has long been researched by members of different traditions, often in terms of the psychological factors involved in ‘cheating’. Amusingly, some essays appear on the Bartleby Research (nd) site, where they might be plagiarised.   The issue is older though.  Bourdieu and his team (Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Educational Studies, 1980;  Bourdieu et al. 1994) investigated academic discourse as a peculiar performance constrained, in elite universities, by the need to conform to the judgements buried in the elite habitus. They considered how students might react to this kind of discourse, and noted that although some enjoyed the experience of 'entering into grace', others were forced to develop rather desperate coping strategies. These included attempts to echo professorial discourse by stringing semantic atoms together, learning to display favourable student characteristics by attending the university library (while not actually using it), and advocating a 'prophylactic relativism' in their assessed work, so that no answers could be judged as definitively wrong. Bourdieu (1988) has also examined how the elite lycées in France coach their clients to give the right impression at the necessary entrance oral examination — simulate aristocratic disinterest, discuss it as colleagues and so. My own view is that modern forms of electronic plagiarism are the tactics available to the non-aristocratic ‘student from unconventional backgrounds’.

The need to perform courteously and ethically as an academic critic can be found in recent  feminist qualitative research stressing the need to be ‘affirmative’ rather then pursuing  negative ‘critique’ (Juleskjaer & Schwenessen 2012 ; Murris & Bozalek 2019). Critical analysis is so controversial, it seems, that it might be best to avoid taking sides in disputes, even when invited to do so. This is how  Huber and Mirowsky (1997) saw Denzin’s intervention in the dispute over Whyte’s classic Street Corner Society: in an equivalent to student  ‘prophylactic relativism’, Denzin 'found the broad question of validity neither important nor answerable' thanks to his allegiance to 'existential sociology and the post-modern creed of multiple realities'  (1997, p. 1427). There might be symbolic violence, which is still acceptable as long as it is euphemised, since it involves a claim that Whyte and his major critic Boelen are both outdated in offering a ‘cultural voyeurs' project' (Denzin 1992, p.131).  Both are trapped in realist epistemology, and so the debate between them can be transcended according them both equal (but limited) merit within a flawed paradigm.

The strong moral commentary about, and attempts to police, plagiarism as the most serious of all academic crimes now extend to academics themselves, best of all, perhaps in the new crime of ‘self-plagiarism’, ‘which in a saner world would be regarded as an ordinary exercise of the author’s copyright’ (Fuller 2020). Fuller goes on to record that ‘law professor Brian Frye has observed, plagiarism’s taboo status in academia has turned the university into a modern police state, based on principles that would not be out of place in medieval feudalism.’  Fuller says that ‘Academics worry endlessly about both being plagiarised and being accused of plagiarism’, and are faced with ‘intellectual vigilantism’. Some ‘appalling pedagogy’ has resulted, prioritising clericalist adherence to arbitrary rules and producing ‘a weird kind of ventriloquism, sometimes called “dummy citation”. This is the practice, routinely found in both student and academic writing, of crediting “leading figures” with discipline-based truisms in order to demonstrate one’s own worthiness to contribute to the field.’ Fuller concludes: ‘Many if not most academics fancy themselves as “anti-capitalist”, but that may be because they are the last feudal lords. They alone take the metaphors “domain of knowledge” and “field of research” literally’. I think that publishers also encourage an unpleasant atmosphere of suspicion with those required declarations of ‘originality’, and increasingly clerical referencing conventions: writers now have to provide page numbers for any quotes, for example, presumably so someone can check them.

Researching academic life

We might expect particular insight from current qualitative researchers here, who perhaps more than most now have to operate in an increasingly consumerist environment which attempts to regulate ‘creativity’. They have discussed some aspects of the issue in terms of criteria that might be used to judge qualitative work. They seem less capable of seeing that student assessment criteria clearly demonstrate some of the worst aspects of positivist coding, reducing in unclear ways, the creative outpourings of students to a single number grade, and then sometimes manipulating those grades as if they were reliable data that could be collated, or averaged. It is rare to find any commentary on these processes, but no shortage of recommendations for more qualitative assignments, although these are often inspired by ‘intuition’ or unexamined notions of ‘good practice’, and rarely subsequently analysed for unintended effects.

The criteria that Sparkes (2018) has identified for reviewers and editors of qualitative research assessing autoethnographic work are informative here.  There are several versions of published lists. They seem to guide how one reads qualitative research, or writes at postgraduate level. They all display mixtures of conventional ‘academic’ qualities (‘substantive contribution’, ‘making contributions to existing research’, ‘reflexivity’, representational adequacy’), and what might be called content specific to qualitative enquiry (‘embracing vulnerability with a purpose’, ‘aesthetic merit’, ‘a demanding standard of ethical self-consciousness’,  ‘demonstrate that they care’ ‘[depicting] ways that show me what life feels like now and what it can mean’. Some seem openly personal to the evaluator: ‘A story that moves me, my heart and my belly as well as my head’, ‘wanting to feel the flesh and blood emotions’. Some stress the need to develop cultural political implications: ‘an obligation to critique, evocation and emotion as incitements to action, engaged embodiment as a condition for change' , ‘[showing writers are] political, functional collective and committed’ , [grounded in] ‘womanist caring , able to  ‘engender resistance and offer utopian thoughts about how things can be made different’.  An intention to engage the audience is also common: ‘invites moral and ethical dialogue while reflexively clarifying their own moral position’ ,’creating a reciprocal relationship with audiences in order to compel a response' ; ‘strategies for dialogue ...debate and negotiation’. One at least requires something like psychotherapy: ‘unsettle, criticise and challenge taken for granted repressed meanings’. 

As an assessor myself, I think these lists are still vague, and leave much room for argument .I  found that lengthy lists could not be conveniently operated in marking sessions – or sometimes not even remembered. Some of the most ambiguous are those that refer to supposed effects on readers – which readers? Some seem impossibly ambitious – how easy is it to move professors to visceral engagement? In my experience, where student assessment was double marked, ambiguous  criteria have permitted colleagues to justify almost any grade they choose – if the piece is strong on ‘caring’, say, that will overwhelm any weaknesses in ‘representational adequacy’.  Some colleagues have even insisted on criteria of their own, not even on any lists. These disputes have been resolved by a variety of procedures, ranging from meetings that might resemble attempts to gain intercoder reliability to referring the cases to arbitration, sometimes accompanied by attempts to persuade the arbiter privately.  Sometimes I have just been over-ruled or sidestepped sometimes in the name of some higher interests such as the ‘need to use the whole range of grades’ or not give ‘too many’ high grades.  These operations have sometimes been carried out only at the most senior level, the Examination Board, behind closed doors. It is obviously much less stressful to work with like-minded colleagues or have a hierarchy to settle disputes, and I can only assume that this was the context for actually operating many of those criteria too.

Sparkes (2018) points out that these lists are not to be taken dogmatically, as mechanistic, linear ,fixed and inflexible, becoming quality appraisal checklists. They should not be used to exclude controversial publications or research proposals – but valuing personal feelings and political commitments of assessors must make that difficult. They might need to be varied over time, as new interests emerge or as contexts change. In the specific case of grading students, Sparkes says these options inevitably become politicised. The most intense polemics occur 'in academic departments among dissertation committees over graduate student projects'  says Marcus (1994 p. 568). Even ‘reflexivity’ has a number of classic styles, and these have been 'institutionalised in interdisciplinary centres across American academia' (1994, p. 569). Sparkes (2018)  agrees that criteria are often ‘contested, overlapping and contradictory'.  He says much depends on ethical and fair conduct, and ‘connoisseurship’, the ability to 'make fine-grained discriminations among complex and subtle qualities… The art of appreciation'  (p. 265). He worries that this might become  'a romanticised "intellectual flight from power"',  but an additional danger is, surely, that connoisseurship also reproduces cultural capital. Sparkes says staff and students should be aware of politics and power at various levels, including Faculties, and how they are used to sort out good from bad – but in my view, this is one of the last ‘secret gardens’ in academia, and access to juniors is unlikely

Being aware of power is not the same as being able to manage it, of course. Sparkes (2018) has written of the rebirth of ‘paradigms wars’ threatening even qualitative research itself in an aggressive way, fueled by neoliberalism, audit cultures and New Public Management. He quotes Smith and Brown (2011)  that some people have been  '"bullied out of departments"'  (Sparkes might have been one of them). In a particular irony, that is also mentioned by Denzin (in the other paper), '"we live in an era of relativism"' and that this apparently allows the expression of '"opinions, ideologies emotions and self interests"' in judgement.  These have clearly worked against qualitative research and qualitative judgements generally. What Sparkes  (2000) calls ‘methodological fundamentalism’ in the USA and the UK has led to real pressure on qualitative research and this has affected  the very notion of self for academics, who can come to think of themselves as psychotic, schizoid or as zombies.

Management have succeeded in producing a suitable language to make meaningful opposition to policy 'strictly impossible' (Sparkes 2108, p. 447). Managers own the necessary vocabulary. This leaves  options for resistance that are very limited. Individual withdrawal 'is the most common form of resistance and also an effective means of protecting values and identity'  (p. 448). It may be accompanied by non-cooperation and/or with what Barney apparently refers to as ordinary cowardice or  ‘complicitous silence’ (2018, p.448).  There can be various ‘ideational’ forms of resistance, what Denzin apparently calls, ‘a hope for fruitful dialogue’  (Sparkes 2018, p. 457) varying from developing new transdisciplinary research programmes, trying to work with colleagues, or generally arguing that what affects one department now can affect them all.

More promising in my view, as we shall see is awakening ‘the possibility of us not being that which we perform'  possibly a reference to role distance. We also need to avoid our own cliches and platitudes and comforting views of the world. We should continue to criticise 'the vapid, cliche ridden "qualipak"'  (2018, p. 456) [by taking it seriously I think], we should continually ask 'what do you mean?' to hold managers accountable, to challenge their use of managerial language, even '"make a point of not playing the game, of not reciting the rhetoric on queue [sic]"' [quoting Loughlin].

The article actually ends by revealing what Sparkes does at least where he can control practice, in his assessment of students. He talks students through the criteria and encourages them to explore  them and even think of alternatives. He is also a realist and recommends they adopt a political strategy of their own: develop strategies 'for defending and promoting their interests in various contexts'. One context might be a PhD viva: here it may well be 'correct, acceptable and in the student's interest… To express the view that passing judgement… Is a matter of embodied interpretation, with lists of criteria being fluid and changing, open-ended and context specific, leaving us with only multiple standards and temporary criteria'. But this would not do for a job interview 'where the majority of the selection panel is composed of positivists or post positivists' who probably are not connoisseurs (p.266). In other words, Sparkes seems to be advocating impression management as a survival technique, to prepare students 'in the dark arts of conceptual self defence and strategies of self-preservation', 'learning to play the criteria game', as a strategy 'to respond and act within, rather than being "worked over" in hostile situations' (p.266). It would be strange if academic staff did not do the same.

It might be important at this stage to insist that Goffman's work on impression management does not imply total cynicism on the part of the actors. Some might be cynical, and I have encountered such people myself, although again this could have been a performance for my benefit. Others however are in the familiar dilemma of having to respond to contradictory demands with pragmatic action. There is no doubt that people have to act with the maximum amount of integrity and consistency in impossible situations. We need more autoethnography that focuses on these dilemmas to illuminate them and get them discussed. I would be especially interested in  that range of behaviour from survival strategies to micropolitical resistance

Sparkes has discussed individual withdrawal as the most common strategy, and we could add the  ‘escapes’ Charteris et al (2019) make as determined efforts to change the neoliberal university with its reified social relations and instrumental culture when they arrange and attend feminist conferences. These seem to be  joyous moments of artistic creation, sharing collective biographies and writing poetry.  In their case, reading Deleuze and Barad seems to have helped first diagnose the problem then develop pleasurable activity with fully posthumanist sensibilities,claiming it as serious research: ‘Through collective biography, diffractive choreography, and poetry, we map systems of entrapment that manifest power relations in the academy....We share pedagogic moments of intra-activity in higher education. Particular consideration is given in this article to affectivity and the value of pedagogic performance in education research. ...Affect exceeds the humanism of advanced capitalism' (2019, p.5) .

But this form of escape runs risks too, as can be seen with ‘escape holidays ‘or cinematic escapism (see Harris 2005). Briefly, it is difficult to leave behind ‘normal life’ altogether, and examples here might include finding oneself at conferences discussing research or publication proposals, job hunting, arranging appointments as Externals or attending to gossip and rumour about jobs. There is often a strong attempt to recuperate escapes, to make them part of the job after all – making conference attendance a metric to add to the ‘qualipak’ , insisting staff must offer a paper if they want to get expenses, or write a report (I was once asked to deliver a report detailing how my attendance had related to the courses I was teaching). Permitting attendance ticks a ‘resources for staff development’ box for managers. It can provide a qualified recreation or therapy to remoralise staff, in the interests of greater efficiency, a functional escape. Charteris et al. seem to have escaped all these constraining factors, and I have attended some where there has a refreshing ‘management free zone’, but obviously, not all conferences escape altogether. The mundanity of work always recurs after the fantasised ‘invisible college’ of conference.

Role distance, performance and micropolitics

Better solutions to feeling empowered and resisting bureaucratic numbness might be found in ongoing micropolitics. Again, to return to the main themes, Goffman provides more insight than some supposed resource of undying ‘creativity’ and abstract denunciations in Denzin. As well as notions like impression management and presentations of self, Goffman has ‘role distance’.,which might have some usefully critical implications. This  is not very well developed, at least so Stebbins (2013)  argues, and is contained in a rather brief chapter. There are only two main examples, although the implication is that the phenomenon is widespread. Among all the concepts, it has been the one least developed and applied. Stebbins himself wants to say that if we disentangle the notion of 'activity' from that of 'role', we can find a broader application of the concept, in his case to 'serious leisure'. That would take it away from the functionalist connotations of roles in organisations.

Looking at the section in Goffman himself (1990, p. 107) , it is clear that he is aware that  role distance lies 'between role obligations, on one hand, and actual role performance, on the other' and this distance has often been ignored, or explained away (it can even be assumed not to exist by managers).  At the same time, we should not confuse it with raw performances that look similar, including lacking capacity to sustain a role, or rejecting it altogether (withdrawal or escape might be included here) . What role distance particularly focuses on are 'special facts about self', a way of demonstrating that the self is not entirely captured by the official self defined in the role ('embracement', p.102) . In the hypothetical example developed in the article, people may ride a merry – go- round while making a number of other signals about their own relatively detached involvement in the activity such as  'handling the task with bored, nonchalant competence' (p. 107), or,with more experience, not capitulating completely [appearing]...… sullen, [offering] muttering, irony, joking, and sarcasm' (p.107). The actor deliberately flouts the far more common  'iron law of etiquette: the act through which one can afford to try to fit into the situation' (p.104).

The examples derived from Goffman's own observations of surgical operating theatres show a wide variety of role distancing possibilities.  Uncommitted interns might scathingly describe surgery as  'a plumber's craft exercised by mechanics who are told what to look for by interns'. They may assume an expression on their face that says this is not the real me, sometimes they allow themselves to drift off, to show 'occupational disaffection' followed by chagrin on being involved again. They may rest in a contrived manner, or become a jester, and an example follows of some light badinage (p.109). The chief surgeon is a better example, perhaps. They can show considerable role distance. For example in medical etiquette, where the custom is to thank the assistants, this may be done in 'an ironical and farcical tone of voice', especially if they have all worked together for a long time. Routine checks may also be 'guyed' by parody, 'homely appellations' (p.109) for parts of the body used instead of the technical terms, or technical terms used in parody, when describing the dress of nurses, for example, or mockery of stern rebuke, or self satirisation, or pretending to be like a naive intern. Sometimes this serves as a way of reasserting authority.
There are different audiences in mind for the role player. There is the authority figure who has an ideally conforming subordinate in mind from which a distance is being established -- 'slipping the skin the situation would clothe him in' (p.105).  There is an actual audience who might be present and be able to react to the distance being displayed. There even seems to be a virtual or imagined audience, since an actual audience need not be physically present. Audiences can also vary in their grasp of role distance. They can sometimes misread the performance, or impose their own interpretations of it, as when horseriding adolescent girls flout dress conventions to indicate their distance, but this is seen by one audience as just social incompetence. Audiences can also attempt to prevent the behaviour, or at least particular authority figures can, as we saw above, as when a medical practitioner rebukes a junior operating theatre attendant, or a therapist refuses to engage in the diversions offered by the patient which are intended to distance the patient from the role.

In a final complication, Goffman urges us not to mistake role distance for other similar activities such as 'playing at', (p.107) although he uses that term himself to describe role distance earlier in the article (p.102).  There are times that role distance may be perceptible only to the observing sociologist. Sociological descriptions of typical roles rather than idealised ones (say in official job descriptions) might reveal it; there might be sociological variables involved such as 'gross age-sex characteristics' (p. 107)  Even more confusingly, individuals might be attempting to demonstrate role distance but be unable to do so in particular situations where they lack sufficient resources or props . Nevertheless, role distance is chronically  present 'intentional or unintentional, sincere or affected, correctly appreciated by others present or not' (p.103).

Goffman urges us to undertake more research, but the discussion is so ambiguous that it is difficult to know how to actually put this concept into research practice. Should we look at practices or intentions? Look at wider patterns or detailed interactions? Take individuals at their word, or reread them as either irony or as a social control procedure, for example? Stebbins (2013) reviews some attempts to ‘apply’ the concept – often in educational settings, although there are also studies of funeral attendants and customers for pornography. One of the educational studies cites Sigrid Luchtenberg (1998) who ‘concluded that, in multicultural Germany, identity education must focus on the importance of being able to take role distance during presentation of one’s identity’ ( 2013, p.4).

More generally, Stebbins suggests some theoretical clarification and further development. For him, there are major and minor aspects of role, for example: major refers to 'highly threatening expectations' associated with a prominent identity. Minor ones can involve appearing 'trivially different from others...[eg] Liking expectations generally defined as boring, difficult, or physically uncomfortable' (p.1), and together they produce a ‘salience hierarchy’.  'True role distance behaviour' arises where expectations are genuinely disliked and this is clearly signalled, while 'false role distance behaviour' involves an impression that an actor holds an attitude of distance while actually being 'attracted to the expectations' (p. 2).  To generalise the concept, we might think of splitting of 'work, leisure, or nonwork obligations' bearing in mind that Stebbins is famous for creating the notion of ‘serious leisure’ which combines aspects of work and leisure. The most radical implication is that we should also distinguish between roles and activities, Role expectations are generally 'abstract directives' but activities are 'understood by the participants in terms of what they must actually do to reach their goals' (p.6) , and as the more dynamic  behaviour that enacts roles.

The other main advantage of considering activities other than tightly prescribed ones is that we glimpse a positive aspect of role distance. Role distance can help to neutralise 'self demeaning role and activity requirements'. It not only handles threats to self-esteem but can become more positive, 'a way to make life worthwhile' (p.8). It helps us develop ecstasy, standing outside the routines, while remaining in the situation, with no need for physical escapes, to give us a new perspective which can be 'exhilarating'.

This certainly extends the scope for research, although Stebbins warns us that we will require 'an intimate knowledge of the group'  (p. 3). But to generalise the concept to non-work activity makes it very similar to the presentation of self generally. Goffman’s example of Preedy at the beach is a good example. Is he presenting a series of selves or showing distance from informally defined roles like ‘proper swimmer’? In work, there are formal definitions and punitive management regimes to raise the stakes, even in universities,  as we have seen. Material on proletarian resistance in factory regimes might be of interest here – DeCerteau (1984) or Ranciere (2011), say

We are close to ‘performance’. I am tempted to describe what follows as a ‘diffractive reading’, but I have expressed doubts about identifying those in the discussion paper on Barad. Nevertheless, there are clear parallels here with the more fashionable notions of performance, which Denzin recommends. There may also be actual difficulties of researching performances in Butler, parallel to those identified in applying Goffman. How do we study them empirically? It seems we uncover performances by examining ‘discursive traditions’ instead (Butler 1990) and see how repetitive performances  solidify sexual/gender identities. But actual performances are examined only via various drag routines, especially those on film (Butler 1993). Possibly as a result of focusing on drag, Butler sees parody or pastiche as the most effective 'strategies of subversive repetition’,and claims these are so effective that they challenge the very foundations and fantasies at the root of conventional identities.

This is still a pretty abstract analysis, and it might be extended by considering Goffman’s examples of mockery, self-mockery, inappropriate literalness and false sincerity – unless these are all to be subsumed under parody. It is not clear whether Goffman’s examples show sufficiently challenging repetition to weaken the very foundations of the role definition – or help people cope with it. The reverse might be said of Butler’s belief in the radicalism of drag performances: they have radical potentials for her, a skilled feminist analyst, but they might just be occasional light entertainment, self-mockery or partial escape for other members of the audience.

Performance carries philosophical weight because it is intended to replace older ontologies, especially naturalistic ones, or even to do away with ontology altogether. There is no outside ontology for gender, says Butler (1990) because it always works inside established political contexts, determining what qualifies as sex, for example or how sexed or gendered bodies should be made intelligible — 'ontology is, thus, not a foundation, but a normative injunction that operates insidiously by installing itself into political discourse as its necessary ground' (p.148). However, as discussed in other papers, Barad on the other hand uses performativity to extend ontology, especially Böhr’s phenomenology. Of course, both presumably mean that they are criticising older forms of ontology that claim to describe a reality outside of performance (or intra-action). Performance is itself a foundation. It is not clear if either Barad or Butler are claiming some privileged access to this reality – Barad draws heavily upon the authority provided by the marvelous scientific investigations of the quantum world – or whether their views are produced by performances in philosophy of their own.

Academic micropolitics – some anecdotal examples

In a long career as an academic, I have noted several encounters with managers claiming expertise, in various institutions, and attempting to redesign our work along more rational  lines. These examples, all arose during the early stages of the turn to New Public Management, where there was some insecurity among managers, especially if they were newly converted from academic roles. These conditions might apply no longer.  I have colleagues who have felt unwilling to reject openly these early managerial efforts, not only from timidity, but because they want to  hear the arguments. As Sparkes  (2013) has pointed out, some managerial terms do look legitimate, although their meaning has since been openly captured by mangerialism, and many now realise that  managerial discourses can ‘pervert into their opposites concepts such as efficiency, quality, transparency, accountability and flexibility' (p.452) . Some colleagues had already withdrawn, partly because, as Sparkes (2013, p. 448, quoting Barney) says micropolitics can seem unpleasant or even  '"pathological"'and involve 'onerous work that is disruptive, antagonistic, risky and dangerous', so it is not surprising if academics remain as '"ordinary cowards"'.  Some colleagues saw an advantage in cooperation with the new regimes, say if they worked in STEM disciplines which seemed to be supported. Sparkes (2013, p. 456) notes some forms of resistance: 'the possibility of us not being that which we perform'; continually ask managers 'what do you mean?'; hold managers accountable, to challenge their use of managerial language; '"make a point of not playing the game, of not reciting the rhetoric on queue [sic]"' [quoting Loughlin]. 

I have suggested that these examples might describe role distance, or perhaps follow from it.  All  remarks were delivered in a helpful and positive tone, designed to clarify issues, and managers could not rebuke anybody, but all were disingenuous from what I can see.

A staff training day to explain the new managerialism:
Manager: So you see the University is a bit like a petrol engine. The students are the fuel, the staff are the oxygen We [managers] are the carburettors who combine things to get an efficient burn.
Audience member: So what exactly is the exhaust?
Another training day introducing the new standardised referencing system required on all course documents:
Manager: We are adopting our own version of the Harvard system and everyone must now use it. It  is universal and once you get used to it you will see that it will fit any academic discipline.
Audience member: So how do I reference the Bible in Harvard? Is there an author, and if so is it God? [she actually knew the answer – but the manager didn’t]
A follow-up: What about the Gospels — do I have to give surname and initial for St Matthew?
At an internal review of new course proposals
Course team member reading critical comments on a course submsission document:  If we cannot accept books on the booklists that are older than five years, does that mean we can no longer suggest Plato?
At a general meeting to press the ‘skills agenda’ and vocationalism
Manager: Can you suggest how to address the skills agenda in your academic discipline?
Audience member: Spend the whole module on the Merchant of Venice?
Finally, I have just been made aware of an excellent paper by Erickson et al (2020) reporting the results of  devising a staff satisfaction questionnaire (along the lines of the National Student Satisfaction [NSS] questionnaire) and distributing it to staff in universities in the UK. The overall results showed very low levels of satisfaction with management ranging from 36.6% to 0% (mean 10.5%). Given the seriousness with which managers treat NSS data, they do not have a leg to stand on. The comments are well worth reading too. The whole project is called  'statactivism'. Long may it flourish!

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