Propaganda And Goffman’s Face-To-Face Interactions

While Erving Goffman expanded the scope and study of sociology to face-to-face interactions between individuals and small group gatherings, little has been said of the application of those ideas to propaganda on a personal level.  I will argue that Goffman’s study of frame analysis and impression management apply to propaganda of various types that he may not have considered, including the propaganda that occurs in public relations, advertising, marketing (terms that are used to avoid any negative connotation described below), “traditional” political propaganda, and “pure” personal propaganda (that is, not related to or influenced by any of the above, though this rarely happens today), that influence the personal propaganda that takes place in face-to-face networking groups, collectives and cliques, and Internet social networks, bulletin boards, and forums..

In this analysis, the application of expectation states theory is particularly relevant where external status characteristics, including age, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, education, race, and ethnicity are the externally created status differences that “determine the power-prestige order of the group whether or not the initial status differences are relevant to the group’s task.”  (Berger, et al:  149).  In every group or gathering, large, small, or Internet-based, these unspoken hierarchies exist, hierarchies that are based upon the above characteristics fueled and fed by culture, environment, and the reinforcement of generalities that allow us to distinguish ourselves from others, to separate ourselves from those that are different.  David Hume calls this general rules, the source of prejudice.

An Irishman cannot have with, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity, for which reason, tho’ the conversation of the former be visibly very agreeable, and of the latter very judicious, we have entertain’d such a prejudice against them, that they must be dunces or fops.  Human nature is very subject to errors of this kind. (Hume 2000:  99-100).

In his introduction to Presentation of the Self, Goffman explains this phenomenon further where an individual is judged, and an individual judges, a gathering or group when he/she enters their sphere, or frame as he defines in Frame Analysis, as the individual and collective subjective involvement within a defined situation is “built up in accordance with principles of organization which govern events. . . .” (Goffman 1974: 10).  The individual and the group judge each other based upon their socioeconomic status, trustworthiness, preexisting stereotypes and prejudices based upon those status differences that reinforce our personal and collective expectation states.

He explains further that an individual manifests “’true” or ‘real’ attitudes, beliefs, and emotions through his avowals or through what appears to be involuntary expressive behavior”.  As an example, he uses a salesperson offering a product for sale where group is more than likely to rely on the above impressions and stereotypes because they have nothing else to judge the character of the individual salesperson.  The individual also relies heavily on these impressions and his evocation of favourable impressions to control the thoughts and the conduct of others (Goffman 1959:  2).  He sees this means of managing the control of ideas of the group as impression management.  “Shared staging problems, concern for the way things appear; warranted and unwarranted feelings of shame, ambivalence about oneself and one’s audience. . . . .” (Goffman 1959:  237).  This is controlling an audience’s impression so that it is in line with the desired goals of the actor, whether conscious, subconscious, or unconscious. In other words, propaganda.

Because propaganda, at least in the United States, is inherently defined from negativity (The recent presidential election is a fine example of this where each candidate utilized negative propaganda to draw attention away from his opponent.), or opposition, rather than its actual neutrality, there is no standard definition that is accepted by all.  Here, it will be defined from that neutrality.   Leonard W. Doob defines intentional propaganda as “a systematic attempt by an interested individual (or individuals) to control the attitudes of groups of individuals through the use of suggestion and, consequently, to control their actions.  He defines unintentional propaganda as “the control of the attitudes and, consequently, the actions of groups of individuals through the use of suggestion.” (Doob 1935:  89).  Jacques Ellul admits that propaganda cannot be defined, given “the uncertainty among specialists on the question” (Ellul 1965:  xii).  However, he hazards a description where propaganda includes “techniques of psychological influence combined with techniques of organization, and the envelopment of people with the intention of sparking action.” (Ellul 1965:  xiii).  Philip M. Taylor confirms this lack of consensus when he states “much propaganda is accidental or unconscious”. (Taylor 2003:  6).  While propagandists can be either the conscious variety, where the propagandist is fully aware of what he is doing, or the unconscious variety, most propagandists fall into this latter category.  Thus, it becomes particularly intriguing when one considers the unconscious propaganda that happens in Goffman’s face-to-face and small group gatherings.

Within the frame, lies the social framework that Goffman describes as “guided doings” that control the agency of an individual “to standards, to social appraisal of his action based on its honesty, efficiency, economy, safety, elegance, tactfulness, good taste, and so forth.” (Goffman 1974:  22).  This social framework is exploited by standard propaganda to build a framework that makes propaganda possible because it is perpetuated by the group and the individual utilizing the internal “judge” within that social framework.  Goffman’s key is “the set of conventions by which a given activity . . . is transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else.” (Goffman 1974:  43-44).  Two of these keys are play and ritual whereby propaganda controls the activity of individuals through symbolic punishment and reward utilizing the “prestige” of ownership of the particular object, and “punishment” for non-ownership, that in turn influences others with the propaganda that they have been influenced by.  These controlling judgments by both the individual and the group is described by Doob as the principle of the arousal of related attitudes and the principle of auxiliary submissive attitudes where the propagandist reveals his aim after arousing related attitudes and attitudes associated with being associated with prestige (Doob 1935:  109-113, 132-135).  A crude but representative example of this happens when children play with toy objectifications of television show or movie characters and props, influencing other children in play activity, thereby influencing those children to convince their parents to purchase the toys that they see on television that they have played with other children.  This same phenomenon occurs with teens and adults with the prestige principle that is associated with wearing designer clothing and the ownership of expensive electronics, or Veblen goods, commodities that are desired for their higher price points.

This prestige-inducing stimulus (e.g. a celebrity-endorsed product or idea that someone in the group may possess) does not necessarily have to be mass-produced or mass-celebrity induced.  If one co-presenter has a level of local prestige or celebrity in the group, the others co-present will want to associate with him and his ideas.  Goffman, in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, even describes this as the personal fronts that people adapt, insignia of office or rank, clothing, sex, age, and racial characteristics.  Here we see the expectation states become manifest that most people utilize as programmed shorthand, whether their political beliefs are in line with the particular expectation state.  Goffman would readily add patterns of speech and slang that reveal education, socioeconomic class as well as racial characteristics and stereotypes.  All of this adds up to the aura of prestige that Doob discusses.  And when those co-present share similar characteristic attitudes they feel that they are a part of the same social or economic group and will therefore strongly associate with the prestige of the ideas (Doob 1935:  61-66), although that associative influence can and has moved freely back and forth across class lines depending upon the popular movements of the day (e.g. the Beats, Hippies, popular media celebrities) which we will come back to later.

Propaganda does not necessarily have to be mass-produced and directly subjected to the masses, millions at a time.  It is perpetuated by anyone interested in drawing individuals into his or her sphere of influence who are willingly believed by those in a group who are eager to be accepted by this individual as an intimate.   Goffman calls this fabrication, “the intentional effort of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what it is that is going on.” (Goffman 1974:  83) He elaborates further when he describes exploitive fabrications, “where one party containing others in a construction that is clearly inimical to their private interests. . . .” (Goffman 1974:  103). He cites advertising and police interrogation as examples of this. But remember that is a falsehood that propaganda must be a lie (referring back to it’s present association with a negativity).  However, the belief and the fabrication from that belief do not necessarily have to be false.  While the original concept may vary from what the fabricator intends, his interpretation of it may be just that, and his belief may be sincere.  Propaganda, in order to be effective, must contain an element of perceived truth. Fabrications exemplify this beautifully when an individual or a group utilizes the propaganda that it has been influenced by and perpetuates and subjects that propaganda on another individual or group.

Goffman’s theatrical frame incorporates a line that is “ordinarily maintained between a staging area where the performance proper occurs and an audience region where the watchers are located,” but it is also “. . . the obligation to show visual respect which characterizes the frame of ordinary face to face interaction.” (Goffman 1974:  124-125)  Within the social framework, the frame, the line, and the audience are never absolutely maintained.  They evolve and shift at any given moment depending upon the action and the actors. It shifts.  Even Goffman admits here that the “. . . theatrical frame is something less than a benign construction and something more than a simple keying.” (Goffman 1974:  138).  Thus the propaganda being advocated at the face-to face and group obviously shifts within the frame and the group as the conversation shifts depending upon the dominant and dominant propaganda being espoused.  This frame is also subject to shifts and moves, transformations or replicating processes,  or copies, ‘each capable of littering the world with a multitude of copies:  keyings and fabrications.  . . . . the ‘actual’. . . is something that is subject to these two modes of recasting.

These infinite recastings are easily recognised everywhere.  And they are recognised by and within several expectation states where propaganda within film and television programming and advertising or marketing, whether print, radio, television, or film, easily influences and perpetuates stereotypes, prejudices, and “subtle” and overt racism.  These recastings occur in media rekeyed from original media.  These can be copies whether they be advertisements paying tribute to or spoofing popular movies or other media that influence small groups through reinforcement of stereotypes from the original source, in small group gatherings in a locker room, in alternative groupings, whether of musical subgroupings of punk followers or another subgenre of popular music, or even anarchist groupings where younger followers emulate and copy older veteran followers.  As a result of the reinforcement of these stereotypes, new groupings can be formed to perpetuate new propaganda and new stereotypes, some of them positive and empowering, including the Riot Grrl, and Anarchists Of Color movements.  To take a current example from the media, there is the precarious and impending threat of closure of Hostess Brands where they have blamed the unions for their bankruptcy.  The media is reporting it as fact, and small group and face-to-face gatherings are recycling and perpetuating that propaganda generalization into other areas of their personal life without further inquiry, and thus influencing others to continuously repeat that generalization without question until it is accepted as “fact”.

But we also have to consider out-of-frame activity that Goffman describes where “participants pursue a line of activity—a story line— across a range of events that are treated as out of frame, subordinated in this particular way to what has come to be defined as the main action.” (Goffman 1974:  201).  This is the case when an out-of-frame actor is directly concerned with, as a temporarily absent actor, but denies within his current out-of-frame group where his main action is occurring, as in a deposed dictator temporarily out of the country on a diplomatic visit to obtain government financial support.  This is also the case where an out-of-frame actor forcibly enters a frame to cause a disruptive action whether physical or linguistic in a protest movement where a member of the main protest group forcibly becomes a temporary part of the main status-quo group that denies or ignores the protest group and protest movement’s validity or existence, such as the protests that surround the meetings of the WTO or national political party conventions.  Of course, the small group propaganda of each can and does influence other groups, whether it be to reinforce the belief that one group must cross pollinate another out-of-frame group’s belief structure or to reinforce their own belief structure by reinforcing their group as well as the expectation states that are dominant within that group.

The anchoring of activity is directly tied to ideas that Goffman introduced earlier in Frame Analysis.  “The question of how a framed activity is embedded in ongoing reality appears to be closely tied to two others, namely how an activity can be keyed and (especially) how it can be fabricated.” (Gofman:  1974:  250).  This idea is directly related to a question of the framing of social reality and what exists for each of us in the social world, rather than the metaphysical reality of the Hindus or Buddhists.  But even if it is just our social reality that we are analyzing, it calls into question whether or not the “reality” that we are seeing is what we see or a fabrication by those that want to dupe or mislead us into believing what is in front of us, be it a crude example of a mirage in a desert or the gambling speakeasy scene in Robin and the Seven Hoods, where, once the lookout spies the Feds entering the neighborhood, the scene changes to the interior of a religious chapel once the Feds break the door down.  This is propaganda nonetheless because it contains elements of a perceived truth discussed above, the front that Goffman describes as the props that make the frame credible to the individual and the group.  “The way in which strips of activity are geared into the world and the way in which deceptions can be fabricated turn out . . . to be much the same.” (Goffman 1974:  251).

This anchor includes the bracketing that occurs before and after the time of the activity to mark off the area of the collectively organised social activities from outside events and activities.  These occur in games, a gavel calling a court or meeting into session and vary across cultures and within society over time.  Within these brackets there are standard role conventions that differ between the individual person and the role the person is playing.  There are expectation states that are inherent within the bracketing conventions, including the hierarchic authority of a cult or a Communist Party general meeting or even a band.  Within these hierarchies, there is dynamic and varied personal propaganda that is reinforced and repeated to accomplish belief and compliance within that group.  These expectation states and the personal propaganda are obviously incorporated from outside of the group and the anchor, inherent in the individuals that make up the group and the activity.  However, there are expectation states and personal and group propaganda that are inherent in the group and the anchor.  They are not always independent of one another, and one will obviously influence the other.

Within the frame, Goffman considers everything, “straight” activity, where all participants share the same understanding of a key, and one that involves an outer construction that leads to deception.  He calls this ambiguity, where there are two groupings, “those in the know and those taken in, and each will have a different view of what it is that is going on.” (Goffman 1974:  301).  This recalls Abraham Lincoln’s saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.” This also recalls what I clarified before, depending upon the size and scope of the audience:  effective propaganda must contain an element of perceived truth to be effective.  Granted there are ambiguities here where the actions are careless and uncalculated and there is no overt fabrication intended by one group or individual, such as a pilot landing on the airstrip of enemy territory, but there are others, including events that are staged for publicity.  While an “event” may be suspect for some, I disagree with Goffman’s assessment that most people would be suspicious of the sincerity or the veracity of the event or even doubt it.  Most people will accept it at face value or ”ignore” it, meaning that they will overtly dismiss it, but internally accept it.  This occurs with the Red Bull Brand races that are sponsored by the brand.  While people attend and participate, and even drink Red Bull, they accept it as a bona fide event rather than a publicity stunt.  In the case of overt and covert political propaganda where politicians enter speaking engagements where they cast doubts on their opponent using negative linguistics and negative information, most in the audience, granted they are supporters, will believe what they are being told.  But there are those that have not “decided” who to support, who misread these fabrications without perceiving their ambiguity, who may start casting doubt over the opponent as the “better” choice.  Repeated often enough, the white lie becomes a “truth” that is difficult to dispel.  This occurred in the recent general election and several of the previous Republican primaries.

The frame can occasionally be broken when the borders of that frame are stormed and the activity is halted, say by an audience member storming a stage to directly address the actors in character.  This can be the manufacturing of negative experience, a deliberate attempt of an individual within frame acts to drive the audience members into a frenzy, perhaps to cause a few to react negatively to sell the event propaganda as something spectacular to the present audience and to future publicity for repeated performances in other locations, say during a small riot at a music festival or concert.  This gives the propaganda more veracity and much more value to the concert going public and, thus, increases the opportunities of selling more tickets, and attendees will certainly participate in this face-to-face propaganda telling their friends and acquaintances to attend the next night.  This can even be performed where an actor in frame will “break frame” to address the audience directly to express pleasure, indignation, shock, and any other variety of emotions, designed to increase audience interest and credibility in the propaganda.

For Goffman, the vulnerabilities of experience are a matter of interpretation.  The actors involved will, of course, interpret people and their personal events differently, whether positively, negatively, or neutrally. Take Goffman’s example of appearance. “He who cleans off his dinner plate can be seen as starved, polite, gluttonous, or frugal.” (Goffman 1974:  440).  This framing will depend upon the varieties of gender, socioeconomic class, race, ethnic background and other expectation states of the observer.  Camera angles are another area of interpreted frame interpreted from local, national news, documentary film, and Hollywood film where the high angle implies inferiority status and a low angle implies superiority.  A similar framing can occur with the placement of lighting where lighting placement can imply menacing evil or benign goodness.

Linguistics is the personal propaganda of the actor, the words that he uses to describe the action, and the manner in which it is interpreted.  People experience words differently and thus different words, whether innocuous can imply racial or sexist stereotypes and varying forms of prejudice. It is in the context of Frame Analysis of Talk and the choice of particular words in face-to-face interactions that carry specific weighted terms that are understood as positive, negative, and (rarely) neutral.  This includes the language used in everyday conversations that refer to women, men, whites, blacks, Jews, Italians, Hispanics, and the Rroma.  Racism in this context and in all contexts, really, is understood differently where those subject to the racism judge individuals by their actions and those practicing racism understand it by the intent or use of very specific words rather that other coded words that are used to avoid using the word in question.  Such conversational linguistics and emphasis, whether intentional, unintentional, or misunderstood, can influence those individuals in the small group with propaganda the same way that mass media utilises propaganda to influence anything from the smallest and innocuous news stories about a minority teen to a major regional or national election.  In most cases, the reporter involved is just as unconscious of the tone and effect of the language as the person repeating the story to his or her friends (Goffman 1974:  496) unless there is some known or unknown intent where the speaker intends to influence but declaims responsibility for what he or she is about to say (Goffman 1974:  512)

All propaganda, like all information, is self-interpreted and self-interested, even in the mind of the propagandist.  “. . . while men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a ‘question,’ they do not believe there are two sides to what they regard as a ‘fact.’” (Lippmann  1997:  82).  We rely upon our own generalities that develop or devolve into cultural expectation states that lead propagandists to reinforce those elements that become perceived truths in the propaganda. In a group as well as in the face of interpreting mass propaganda, we are left to our own biases that are reinforced by the propaganda, whether to believe and obey the government, purchase a deodorant or a computer device, sign up for life insurance, or become friends with the new group member that will give us the prestige that the presenter so adamantly and convincingly claims.  This is no different in the small group gatherings, in the co-presenters, in the fronts that Goffman presents us with, especially given that anyone can be influenced by the infinite varieties of propaganda.   Additionally, Goffman adds frames where formal situations are deliberately manipulated by a performer or performers to have a certain effect (Drew and Wooton 1988:  506).

This is also the case with latter day social networks, albeit with the potential for several hundreds or millions more co-presenters that Goffman may not have envisioned but certainly the presentation and framing of an Internet social network, if not the front, is that of a very personal gathering where most participants associate with like-minded individuals and co-presenters.  The idea of prestige and celebrity whether local, national, or international is certainly valid here when one can become “friends” with sports, television, film, and musical celebrities and “like” what they individually “like” to be more like one’s favorite celebrities.  Corporate propagandists know this and take advantage of it as much and as often as possible when various companies in the side bar of a web site ask you to personally like them as your closest contacts have already.

Face-to-face and small group interactions inherently incorporate expectation states and the influence of propaganda whether it is personal propaganda or the result of mass media propaganda that infiltrates the small group.  In some cases, it is easier to distinguish the source, but in others, the origin becomes a little more difficult to trace, given the permeating nature and effectiveness of the propaganda or propaganda campaign in question.  Consider alternative and “non-mainstream” groups such as punks where conversations turn to local punk bands, festivals, and local styles of clothing (pre-media popularization of punk culture) where the thoughts, ideas, trends, lifestyles, clothing, and music of one member influences the varieties of style choices in another and vice versa. Although this occurs primarily on the Internet now, it is still valid for small group interactions and is usually referred to as social commerce, social media that supports social interaction and user contributions to assist in the online buying and selling of products and services.  Local and independent music fans of underground bands that few have heard utilize small group propaganda in such a way that one fan passes her or his favorite underground band to another internet friend, whether middle school, high school, college or beyond, and makes a fan of that person.  This cycle can be infinite without the aid of mass media propaganda or availability of the music in the local chain music store.

The physical proximity to media capitols such as New York City or Los Angeles should also be considered where the denizens of a metropolis influence smaller cities throughout the remaining areas of the country (and now the world) and sometimes vice versa.

. . . in the case of class barriers, a happy innovation which has happened to originate and make its way in a lower class, does not during periods of hereditary aristocracy and physiological inequality . . . spread further, unless the advantage of adopting it appear plain to the higher classes; but, . . . innovations which have been made or accepted by the latter classes easily reach down. . . to those lower levels which are accustomed to feel their prestige. (Tarde 1969:  190)

Mainstream media propaganda is also a source of influence of popular music upon elementary, middle school, and high school children who influence less popular classmates who are influenced by their more popular classmates and mirror the popular musical tastes of those of the popular peer group.  This face-to-face influence, of course, also influences less popular classmates to seek out mainstream media propaganda that in turn influences others in their peer group or proximate peer groups that they want to impress.  Or consider, bar room conversations, high school and other cliques where conversations turn to iPhones, brand name clothing, shoes, TV shows, movies, and even politics where not only face-to-face conversation influences thought and action but the style of dress, brand of clothing influence the consumer choices of others in an effort to emulate friends and even to fit in to a particular clique.  

While Goffman did not specifically include propaganda from a gathering or co-presenter level, it would be hard to believe that it did not cross his mind a few times, given his in depth analysis that encompasses several sociological and psychological characteristics of speech, of groups, of gatherings, of fronts.  We all utilize speech patterns, we all gather in groups, and we all utilize fronts to interact with others in public, in private, and we engage in conversations where we are either convincing others of our viewpoint or convinced by another’s viewpoint.  This is nothing more or less than propaganda at a base level, propaganda on a personal level.

 

Sources:

Berger, J., Wagner, D. G., & Zeldeicth, M., Jr. (1985). Theoretical and metatheoretical themes in expectation states theory. Micro-Sociological Theory: Perspectives on Sociological Theory, 2, 148-168.

Doob, L. W. (1935). Propaganda: It’s Psychology And Technique. New York: Henry Holt And Company.

Drew, P. (Ed.). (1988). Erving Goffman: Exploring the Interaction Order. Boston: Northeastern.

Ellul, J. (1965). Propaganda: The Formation Of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Doubleday.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: an Essay On the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hume, D. (2007). A Treatise Of Human Nature. D. F. Norton & M. J. Norton (Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lippmann, W. (1997). Public Opinion. New York:  Free Press Paperbacks

Tarde, G. (2011). On Communication and Social Influence: Selected Papers (Pbk. ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Taylor, P. M. (2003). Munitions of the Mind: a History of Propaganda, Third Edition (3rd ed.). New York: Manchester University Press.