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The presentation of (celebrity) self

The history of sociological thought locates Erving Goffman within the tradition of symbolic interactionism pioneered by George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley and W.I. Thomas, which in turn drew inspiration from the pragmatist philosophy of William James and C.S. Peirce (Blumer, 1986). If there is a central proposition which marks out the distinctive stance of this tradition, it is that social reality is defined by the meanings we collectively attribute to it. Our social- and self-identities are formed through the meanings we and our actions are given by others. This is captured most clearly in Cooley’s famous conceptualisation of what he calls the ‘looking glass self’ - ‘[I]n imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, characters, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it’ (Cooley, in Yeung and Martin, 2003: 844). In other words, we imagine how others see us, react to how we imagine others judge us according to how they see us, and in turn come to develop our sense of self through those judgements. This ongoing process of meaning attribution takes place in the process of social interaction - the exchanges and encounters that make-up the daily business of social life. Thus, for interactionism, who we are (how others define us and how we think of ourselves) is a social accomplishment created through our ongoing dealings with each other. The meanings others attribute to us and our behaviour are not random or arbitrary, but draw upon shared cultural codes and repertoires - what Goffman would latterly call ‘frames’, the structured ways in which we organise experience and make sense of the social world (Goffman, 1974). As reflexive subjects, we are aware of these codes and criteria, and strategically use them, giving off ‘cues’ that will hopefully encourage others to see us as we wish to be seen - for example, as trustworthy, honest, likeable, personable, friendly, reasonable, fair, intelligent, competent, professional, authoritative and so on. This strategic use of cues is what Goffman (1990) refers to as ‘impression management’, the ongoing activity of social performance needed to establish and sustain our ‘character’ on the public ‘stage’. Goffmans sociology maintains that the practice of social life is in essence a ‘dramaturgy’ - a series of performances directed towards the audience of others, an audience that judges our presentation of self so as to make inferences about our character - about who we are, how they should feel about us, and how they should respond to us.

The techniques of impression management may be unconscious - learned behaviours that become embedded as habits, for example looking at a speaker and nodding so as to communicate ‘attentiveness’. However, they may also be consciously engineered so as to negotiate a social encounter and guide it to the desired outcome. An example would be to ‘talk down’ what we are asking for when requesting a favour from another - ‘oh by the way ... ’, ‘just a small thing, but I was wondering if ... ’ and so on. Conscious or unconscious, verbal or non-verbal, these techniques amount to an ‘attempt to control images that are projected in real or imagined social interactions’ (Schlenker, 1980: 6). The inevitable counterpart of such impression management is the constant possibility of its failure. For instance, the cues offered may be taken by an audience as ‘fake’ and insincere - such as the ‘forced smile’ that fails to successfully communicate pleasantness or welcome. Similarly, the intended impression may be rejected - such as the joke that ‘falls flat’ and fails to amuse or even offends its hearer. The presentation of self may be disrupted by ‘unmeant gestures’ that are deemed inappropriate at the time (Goffman, 1990: 203) - such as yawning while someone is telling a story, or laughing when one is told something serious. In such situations, one may seek to repair the performance through a variety of communicative manoeuvres - for example, the hasty correction (‘I meant to say that ...’), the apology (‘sorry, that was inappropriate ...’), the excuse (‘apologies, I’m really tired - didn’t get much sleep’), the distraction (‘hey, did you hear about ... ?’) and so on. Additionally, successful impression management requires not only the effective mobilisation of communicative cues, but also the concealment of information that could discredit the performance were it to be known to the audience - the drunk who covers the smell of alcohol with a mint, the barroom Lothario who removes his wedding ring before ‘chatting up’ a stranger, or the reformed offender who conceals his gang tattoos beneath long sleeves and a high collar. We will explore the issues of concealment, covering and discrediting further in relation to stigma and spoiled identity.

Goffman’s analysis places emphasis upon face-to-face interaction in which both performer and audience are co-present. However, as Leary and Kowalski (1990: 34) note, impression management may also be undertaken by a third party who mediates impressions on behalf of a performer who is not immediately co-present with the audience. A commonplace example would be the friend who plays romantic matchmaker - ‘you should meet my friend John - he’s smart, interesting and funny - I think you’d like him.’ Celebrities, of course, take this impression management via third parties to a professional level, employing a host of specialists (spokespersons, publicists, managers and stylists) whose job it is to painstakingly finesse the presentation of self. Celebrities engage in carefully prepared public performances that are strategically used to convey the desired character - these include interviews with journalists, press conferences, public appearances, photo opportunities, as well as use of new media tools such as social networking and micro-blogging sites like Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, careful selection of commercial endorsements, as well as the charitable commitments already discussed, serves to further create clear associations between the celebrity and the traits, qualities and characteristics with which they wish to be identified. Visible association with other well known personalities (be they from the same or different profession) also plays a part in conveying a particular impressions of the individual. Finally, consumption practices are used as a means of social communication, effective ways of making claims about character - for example, the movie star who collects art communicates ideas about cultural literacy and ‘sophistication, or the pop star who holidays ‘off the beaten track’ without the benefit of luxuries demonstrates that they are ‘down to earth, ‘grounded’ and ‘unspoiled by success,

In their study of US college basketball players, Adler and Adler (1989) offer an insightful account of how rising sports stars construct a ‘glorified self’ - an identity ‘which arises when individuals become the focus of intense interpersonal and media attention, leading to their achieving celebrity’ (299). The self-as-sports-star becomes the object of aggrandisement and valorisation, coming to define how others see the individuals and which equally reshapes their own self-concept. Media portrayals hone and consolidate the contours of this public self, with journalists playing to the ‘human interest’ angle in which additional socially esteemed characteristics are projected onto the athletes - for example, the emerging stars in the Adlers’ study were depicted as ‘shy, quiet, religious, diligent ... illustrating how they regularly went to class, were humanitarian, and cared about graduating’ (302). The research found that this sporting self, alongside the virtues and qualities associated with it, became a ‘master status’ for the athletes, dominating not only how others saw them but also how they came to see themselves and behave accordingly. Alongside this glorification they experienced a ‘constriction’ of the self - aspects of their identity unrelated to the master status of sporting celebrity were pushed increasingly to the periphery, increasingly ignored by others and the athletes themselves. The importance of these findings hinges on how, for sports stars, the celebrity persona becomes the bedrock and foundation of their self and social identity. So long as its performance can be successfully managed and publicly sustained, the individual benefits from the attention, recognition, esteem and status that it attracts (although maintaining the performance can on occasion be of considerable stress, requiring constant reflexive self-monitoring and self-censorship, and demanding that they forgo any behaviour that might contradict the master status). However, the failure of this performance can have a profound disintegrative effect on the self, undermining the basic underpinnings of identity, contaminating the interpersonal and public assessment of the individual until such point that they are thoroughly ‘discredited’ and all aspects of their performance are summarily rejected. Like the ascendancy to celebrity and glory, this ‘fall’ is played out under a remorseless mass media scrutiny that leaves the disgraced individual nowhere to hide.

 
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