Notes on: Stebbins, R (2013). Role Distance, Activity Distance, and the Dramaturgic Metaphor. In C Edgeley (Ed) : The Drama of Social Life: A Dramaturgical Handbook, Edition: 1st, Publisher: Ashgate,  pp.123-136 On;ine version

Dave Harris
This is going to lead to a discussion of the dramaturgy metaphor, and extend it to include activities in general rather than just role.

Role distance is probably the 'most original and insightful' of Goffman's insights (1). But it has been 'logically vague and ambiguous'. The original definition is actually not that helpful, and we need to collect other elements to make it more coherent. It develops in line with the status of identity and role expectations. People can disassociate themselves from these expectations if they threaten 'self – conception'. This is assisted by audiences or others who criticise the role player ('reference others', page 2) for enacting the expectations. It is not a refusal to play them out but rather 'an adaptive strategy, whereby the performer can more or less fulfil the role obligations while maintaining self-respect'. There may be a difference between attitude and actual behaviour.

There can also be a difference between major and minor role distance. 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'. These identities can occupy a 'salience hierarchy' within a total set of identity and statuses, and these can be situationally rearranged. Stebbins has use the term 'true role distance behaviour' 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 being 'attracted to the expectations'.

One application talks about behaviour before customers, trying to get them into the store, but here the customers are 'not reference others' and therefore not used to convince the employee of the need to repair self-esteem. Stebbins himself has repaired some of these inadequacies, including those by Ford, Young and Box (1967) [J Ford -- on schools] who argue that you need skills to step outside the rules, and many 'lower class people' are content to receive rules not interpret them, especially if they are supported by 'total interpersonal relationships' (3). That close connection would only prevent openly 'dissimulative behaviour', which is not the same as the 'genuinely held attitude'. It is also common even with the most rules defined activities to also develop a distance towards other expectations [more reference to his own work], and even lower class people can learn techniques to manage expectations as they learn about the expectations.

It might be difficult to study empirically since modes of expression of role distance vary. It requires 'an intimate knowledge of the group', usually gained by PO. It may be a rare phenomenon, not worth studying on its own: he usually appears in wider studies of occupations.

Between 1970 and 2001, the concept was much cited [with a list page 3], and was even seen as a necessary quality showing flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity. Pornography patrons showed a continuum of stances from role distance to role identification. Studies of consumers have shown they might do it, and so might funeral directors especially when embalming bodies. Slow learners do it as well, although again there was a suggestion that being able to do role distance decreases with ability. Other studies have been on bartenders or social workers.

Some studies raised doubts — some seminary students had to be both egalitarian with others in the community but professionally distant from punters, and sometimes 'jocular humour' which could be denied was apparent. Role distance began to appear in popular self-help literature. It can help reduce stigma, for example in the funeral industry again, and Auster and MacCrone (1994) found that 'faculty members occasionally took role distance when interacting with students and that this was correlated with the gender of both groups'. Similar findings were found in multicultural settings, where role distance is necessary while presenting one's own identity. Other studies have seen role distance as a part of 'rituals of resistance' to employers. Again humour is sometimes needed. Australian men use role distance when discussing 'gender scripts'. Teacher dress codes can also indicate either role embracement or role distance.

There have also been several theoretical papers [one of which compares Goffman and Schutz, while another compares Durkheim on suicide and Goffman on role distance. There is also a link with structuration theory in Giddens] but generally the concept is not central to social science.

The dramaturgical perspective is metaphoric and it has led to useful knowledge of human interaction and its 'expressive nature (5). Sometimes this  is overlooked however, and the metaphor is not explored as fully as it might be. In social sciences it can be used in open-ended and exploratory investigations, to suggest some paths to follow, to orient thought and research via metaphor, in the form of 'sensitising concepts'. Metaphor is important in grounded theory. This is what role distance actually needs. The problem is that there is no systematic linkage between the studies [what Stebbins calls concatenation]. Some dramaturgical concepts have not developed their potential.

Role is the most celebrated derivative from theatre, and Goffman extends the notion to talk about front stage, backstage and prop. Role distance is not technically found in theatre terminology, but it goes together with impression management and presentation of self. The concept of role has been developed theoretically, for example in terms of a set of '"normatively expected behavioural enactments in social situations, revealing reciprocity between actors"' (6, quoting Wilkinson and Erickson), but theoretical tidiness can limit exploratory potential.

The dramaturgic metaphor also necessarily omits some aspects. One is the activity, where people think do something 'motivated by the hope of achieving a desired end'. They can be both pleasant and unpleasant, 'work, leisure, or nonwork obligation'. Sometimes they refer to behaviour, sometimes to role, and Goffman has distinguished them — 'people riding a merry-go-round and those riding a real horse'.

Activitiy is more abstract and broad than role, which are associated with particular statuses. Not all activities are. As a result, those that are not have been relatively overlooked — including sleeping or eating lunch. Roles are static but activities dynamic [despite the usual definition that sees roles as dynamic aspects of status]. Generally, roles have inactive expectations for behaviour. We see the effect of motives better with activity, and better study 'invention and human agency' including role distance where people 'thumb their nose at established expectations of them' (7).

We can further specify core activity, distinctive actions that must be followed to achieve the outcome. These are pursued in work and leisure, seen best of all in serious leisure. Even in casual leisure, core activities are required — holding sociable conversations, savouring beautiful scenery. Core activities can have their own motivational value, for example when the activity is itself agreeable.

They can be simple or complex. Thus casual leisure has relatively simple core activities, but the complexity increases if we are, for example, playing organised games or serving as a casual volunteer, even developing our own 'sensual experience of touristic sites' [as 'middle-class Canadian mass tourists' do]. The attractions of complexity is basic to leisure, especially of the serious kind — playing an instrument, volunteering as a medical worker, even driving in city traffic (8).

The definition of activity does not fit some things — involuntary eg coerced behaviour. There are middle cases where people are volunteers, but feel 'compelled to participate', following the law, for example. The key is that these are pursuing the ends of others, involving a lack of agency. It is impossible to take role distance in these cases. In most social sciences, activity means broad behaviour, but we should refine it, ideally by looking at leisure studies and sport studies.

Goffman suggests that people can distance from activities as well as roles. So we can now see that role distance involves 'dislike toward all part of a set of role or activity requirements' (8), especially those that threaten loss of respects or support for one's self conception [but there need to be 'reference others present in the situation']. Activities can be institutionalised, subject to obligation, but reveal better than roles what is actually being done. They consist of acts some of which might be role distance behaviour. 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'. Thus riding a merry-go-round is an activity even if not a role, but people can still distance themselves [for example by not holding on too tight]

The focus on agreeable activities is 'the cornerstone of a positive sociology', not just an add-on but an important new sensitising concept. It sensitises us to interaction. It helps people 'find positive things in life' which have to be blended and balanced with the negative things.

Role distance can help increase positivity, and 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'. It helps us develop ecstasy, standing outside the routines to give us a new perspective which can be 'exhilarating'.

Intellectual interest in role distance seems to have reached a plateau, lacking a research programme centre or prominent individuals, which might codify and extend into grounded theory. A first step might be to link it to dramaturgical sociology and thus symbolic interactionism, especially if we see it as a route to positivity. This will lead us to investigate leisure activities and how they are articulated with work and nonwork.

back to social theory