Notes on: Goffman E (1990) Role Distance. In D Brissett & C Edgeley (eds) Life as Theatre: a Dramaturgical Sourcebook. 2nd edn, AldineTransaction

Dave Harris

Riding a merry-go-round horse can be frightening, and it requires participants to keep command of themselves — execute physical movements and receive and transmit communications. Poise has to be maintained, and other participants can sometimes help safeguard it by managing contingencies. These competencies exceed actual qualifications and permissions to participate We can also see the sort of behaviour in surgery wards.

Riders can take the role seriously play with verve and engagement, even let go and wave — 'a "playing at"' (102). An earnest execution of the role requires an attachment to it (admitted or expressed); a demonstration of qualifications and capacities; an active engagement, 'a visible investment of attention and muscular effort'. Together these can be called 'embracement', where embracing the role means 'to disappear completely into the virtual self available', to be fully seen in terms of the image and to confirm acceptance of it. Other examples include team managers during games, traffic policeman, landing signal officers on aircraft carriers and anyone doing directing, especially by gestural signs.

Participants can also affect to embrace the role or even express visible disdain for it. This helps prevent psychological dangers of attachment. They can sometimes embroider — for example young boys on the merry-go-round forbid their parents and do not hold on, or show their 'utter control' by riding hands-off, standing in the saddle or whatever. The child is saying in effect "'whatever I am, I'm not just someone who can barely manage to stay on a wooden horse."'. The whole role is being challenged, by actively manipulating the situation. This might be 'intentional or unintentional, sincere or affected, correctly appreciated by others present or not' (103), but it produces a wedge between individuals and roles. This is role distance, where the individual is 'actually denying not the role but the virtual self that is implied in the role for all accepting performers'.

Other behaviour may not directly contribute to the task for, but role distance expresses actors' attachments in ways that can be seen by others. It can express disaffection or even resistance. People may sometimes lapse from their capacity to sustain a role, or even reject it altogether — neither of these are role distance, which expresses 'special facts about self'. Older riders indicate that the ride is now beneath them, by riding hands-off or testing limits, generally 'handling the task with bored, nonchalant competence'. Increasing awareness of maleness may make it even more difficult to show 'creative acts of distancy', and require things like 'defining the whole undertaking as a lark, situation for mockery'. Fully adult riders have more techniques — pretending to follow all the safety precautions, or complaining about the cold [for women], all showing a particular interest in other riders. The adult controller reveals 'a fine flowering of role distance' (104) — performing with great competency and generally showing that the ride is just an event [a job?].

Role distance in these cases show that 'a full twist must be made in the iron law of etiquette: the act through which one can afford to try to fit into the situation is an act that can be styled to show that one is somewhat out of place… That one does not belong'. The audience is also very important, and sometimes may be required. There are two different means of establishing role distance in these cases — the individual isolates himself as much as possible from being contaminated by the situation, denying emotional engagement for example. Or individuals can project a particular self — a childish fully engaged self, for example combined with little  withdrawal gestures 'signifying that the joking is gone far enough'. These are ways of slipping 'the skin the situation would clothe him in'.

There are more serious and general examples. For example teenage girls can '"do" horseback riding' (105) and illustrate their distance from the role to emphasise that they are not taking it as seriously as other members of social classes and regions might do so — in his example, not wearing the fully prescribed kit, pretending to want to go home, mocking their horses or other people, pretending to ride sidesaddle, pulling off branches, laughing, becoming visibly bored. It shows that some roles are taken seriously for some people, but not for everybody. Groups of similar people strengthens role distance, and the willingness to show it. It does not always work, depending on the evidence – sometimes, wearing the wrong kit makes people feel 'hostile, resentful, and un-confident'. These are the defensive functions of role distance, providing room for manoeuvre, insisting that people are not to be judged by this particular performance, avoiding being humbled by better performers. This works by 'exposing themselves in a guise to which they have no serious claim' (106).

It is sometimes difficult to 'distinguish role-playing from playing at', as when men deliberately get clumsy or self mocking if they are acting out of character [he seems to anticipate Garfinkel by suggesting that we create these situations experimentally]. Some patients of psychoanalysts apparently show role distance when they resist, refused to provide relevant associations, or refuse the therapists role [with an example of the patient trying to break out of role asking about leisure interests of the therapist, or trying to render the therapist as an appreciative audience of some particular competence]. The therapist played along with these distancing moves to get more information about hidden roles — and in the process 'put the patient in her place, back in role'.

There are interesting cases if an individual is in occupation that 'he feels is beneath him', with an example of a student in a summer job [watching his replacement apparently sneering to separate himself from the job, expressing contempt, winning moments of freedom, mixing in literary references with the spiel]. In other cases a subordinate has to take orders or suggestions. A common response is not to threaten authority, but just to show that 'he is not capitulating completely… sullen, muttering, irony, joking, and sarcasm' indicate that something outside has not been constrained or brought under jurisdiction.

So 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 by some particularity of the individual, in his biography or  psychology. But there is a sociological means of dealing with divergence. For one thing it can some times be predicted on the basis of 'gross age – sex characteristics'. Sometimes a typical role, rather than a normative one reveals role distance. Role distance may not even have a direct influence on conduct, 'especially since the means for expressing this disaffection must be carved out the standard materials available in the situation'. Together we have a sociological way of looking at roles, and how people play them. The trappings of a role can be extensive, but this can give 'more opportunity to display role distance' (108), especially if 'personal front and social setting provide precisely the field an individual needs to cut a figure in — a figure that romps, sulks, glides, or is indifferent'.

We can test the generality by turning more to an activity like surgery. Here, 'we should find performers flushed with a feeling the weight and dignity of their action'. There is even a 'Hollywood ideal' of heroic surgeon, working quietly, in permanent jeopardy, abdicating his role at the end for others to take over and close up, for example. He has observed some activity.

Junior participants can act in the ways we have already discussed. They are often indicated as marginal by rebuke by more senior colleagues, or being given rather homely tasks to do. They may not be committed to surgery, and some  who once have been known to be committed, now scathingly describe it — 'a plumbers craft exercised by mechanics who are told what to look for by interns'. To cope, such people are often 'not prepared to embrace their role fully' and exhibit role distance. 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, become a jester [an example follows of some light badinage, 109].

The chief surgeon is a better example, perhaps. Even he shows considerable role distance. For example in medical etiquette, where the custom is to thank the assistants, but 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'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 [insisting on Dr Williams], or pretending to be like and naive interrn. THis can also reassert authority. We need to research this further

Notes include his own material on interaction during surgery, although he admits that he has not worked in the most formal hospitals. Some of the interns had institutional support for their lack of interest in surgery — by being able to do a stint in a mental hospital, for example.

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