Face Work from Zellweger to Goffman

The Daily Mail compared photos of Zellweger last week, aged 45, with photos from 2001, when she was 31.

The Daily Mail compared photos of Zellweger last week, aged 45, with photos from 2001, when she was 31.

Renee Zellweger received a ton of attention last week, not all of it wanted. The core of the story, if you haven’t been following along, is that the “work” (most insist her strikingly different new look must be the result of extensive plastic surgery) that Zellweger had done was so extensive that her fans and many others could no longer recognize the 45-year-old movie star. “She looked,” as the Washington Post quoted one fan, “different. Maybe not bad. Just not at all like herself.” Coincidentally, the reading for my “great books in sociology seminar” last week was Erving Goffman’s classic treatment of stigma.

Much of Stigma is about how people deal with various deformities and social blemishes in their daily lives (“the management of a spoiled identity” in Goffman’s dry, sardonic subtitle). That is, it’s actually not that pertinent to the Zellweger story. But there is this section about how variously famous and infamous people—actors or athletes, for example, or well-known criminals—try to disguise themselves so that they aren’t recognized in public. Goffman’s point is that publicly known and recognizable people must sometimes change their look so as not to be recognized as themselves—they must alter their appearance to transform their (public) identity and pass as someone else. Zellweger’s case, it seems to me, is kind of the inverse—she has changed her look,  the equivalent of her public self, to such an extent that she is no longer easily or entirely recognizable as the person the public knows as “Renee Zellweger.” She is, as the fan said, “not at all like herself.”

Another recent example is the actress Jennifer Grey—the young star of the original “Dirty Dancing” movie whose rhinoplasty removed her most distinctive feature. As she put it, “I went into the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous.” Grey’s life—or at least her career—was never the same. (Though it did involve a short-lived sitcom where she played, essentially, herself: a movie star who was no longer a star because no one knew who she was anymore.) Zellweger’s new look, surgical or not, is a public identity and recognizability problem.

Erving Goffman pictured throughout his career.

Erving Goffman pictured throughout his career.

I say this because there have been many other, different lessons and reflections on the Zellweger story. Some have seen it as an example of plastic surgery run amok. Indeed, the Washington Post story went on to point out that there were some 11 million such procedures in 2013—which was 12% more than in 2012 and six times the number of procedures performed in 1997. Others have seen Zellweger’s refresh (she says any change in her appearance is simply due to being well-rested, happy, and no longer working crazy film schedules) as an example of our obsession with looks and appearances. There is, obviously, a role and function for these analyses and interpretations. However, I think they easily miss the issues of identity and presentation of self and interactions with others that are at stake and in play here.

A lot of times we imagine our identities—and others’—to be fairly fixed and concrete. But Goffman’s larger oeuvre is full of ideas about impression management, the presentation of self, and interaction rituals that insist that all of us construct and remake our identities each and every day in our interactions with others. Thus, we are more plastic and malleable than we often care to realize. One of Goffman’s most famous explications is a chapter called “On Face-Work.” Goffman begins, “Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him [or her] either in face-to-face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line—that is, a pattern of verbal and non-verbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and… himself.”

Goffman then introduces the notion of “face:” the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line other assume he has taken during a particular contact.” We all work to present a particular persona or “face”  that fits the notion of ourselves we are trying to project and the image others have of us in any particular instance or encounter. But this face-work doesn’t always work the way we want. Sometimes we don’t present ourselves properly in/through our faces, other times our presentations are not accepted or, as in a case of misrecognition or plastic survey, not recognized at all. It can be awkward and unsettling to be reminded of all that, whether in our own daily lives or in our mediated interactions with celebrities and public figures like Renee Zellweger.

For what it is worth, Zellweger, at least in her public presentation of self, appears to be handling all of this face-work commentary and controversy quite well. As she told People, “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older? Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.” When Zellweger uses the term “different” the second time, I think, she is referring to a new look that better fits her own sense of self. Her look may be unsettling to her fans and the general public, but it is either the result of her happiness or something that makes her happy. These are the paradoxes and peculiarities of faces and identities in both public and private. It’s face-work in action.

TSP’s Sociology Roundup: Oct. 27, 2014

RU102714Ooh, it’s almost Halloween! That means it’s time to for a few classics, including the annual holiday roundup from Sociological Images. Here’s what we’ve been up to this week:

Office Hours Podcasts:

Michael Burawoy on Global Social Movements,” with Matt Gunther.

There’s Research on That!

Gender Pay Gaps: The Silicon Ceiling?” by Anne Kaduk.

Citings & Sightings:

NFL’s Domestic Abuse Prevention Team Drafts Sociologist Beth Richie,” by Amy August.

Scholars Strategy Network:

How To Increase Voter Turnout in Communities Where People Have Not Usually Participated in Elections,” by Melissa R. Michelson.

Teaching TSP:

Politics and Power, A Classroom Exercise.” Related, “Power, Sociologically Speaking,” by Vincent J. Roscigno.

A Few from The Community Pages:

Last Week’s Roundup

Sign up for the Roundup Email!

TSP Roundup: Oct. 22, 2014

Ru102214A week’s worth of sociology, at your fingertips! It must be the future.


‘Technological Optimism’: Egg-Freezing a Better Deal for Companies than for Women,” by Rene Almeling, Joanna Radin, and Sarah S. Richardson.

Teaching TSP:

Desistance and Reentry: An activity for the LCD classroom.”

Citings & Sightings:

Ebola Scares: When Panic is a Pathogen,” by Evan Stewart.

Pushing Secret Service Director Off the Glass Cliff?” by Matt Gunther.

There’s Research on That!

Tax Haven Mavens,” Erik Kojola.

Tactical Textbooks: The Politics of Teaching History,” by Jack Delahanty.

Linking Up with New Social Networks,” by Evan Stewart. (more…)

TSP Roundup: October 14, 2014

RU101414Just a taste of what we’ve been cooking up at The Society Pages!

In Case You Missed It:

Same-Sex, Different Attitudes,” by Kathy Hull. With the recent SCOTUS demurral, it’s worth a look at the lightning fast change in Americans’ approval of same-sex marriage; this article is just six months old, and the numbers have already shifted.


Re-evaluating the ‘Culture of Poverty’ with Mark Gould, Kaaryn Gustafson, and Mario Luis Small,” by Stephen Suh and Kia Heise. Sixties-era rhetoric still affects black Americans.

There’s Research on That!

Fast Food Strikes Bring Everyone to the Table,” by Erik Kojola.

Think Fast: Policing, Race, and Implicit Bias,” by Richie Lenne.

Falling Poverty Rates Leave US Hungry for More,” by Jacqui Frost.

Growing and Granting Genius,” by Evan Stewart.

Rockefellers Less Loyal to Oil,” by Erik Kojola.

Atheist Church: A Predictable Paradox,” by Jacqui Frost.

Back in Living Color? Diversity on TV,” by Stephen Suh. (more…)

new arrivals!

TSP's Jon Smajda, multi-tasking

TSP’s Jon Smajda, multi-tasking

Our brilliant web editor, Jon Smajda, has been working overtime to bring a new look and feel to The Society Pages. Jon’s been after us for years to de-clutter these pages and to make it easier for folks to navigate. The new design should work much better for our mobile and tablet readers (desktops accounted for 85% of our traffic in 2012, but only 55% today) and Jon’s also dramatically improved our search functionality. Rest assured that you’ll still find all the same great TSP feature content on the new site (at the same URL’s no less) — just scroll down to find a handy directory for TSP features, Community Pages, and Partners. We’ll be building out our topics pages and introducing other exciting changes in the next few months, so we hope you’ll bear with us! As always, we’d love to hear your ideas and feedback — and you can congratulate Jon on his *other* new arrivals.

Welcoming Contexts’ New Editors

claudes-2011bThe ASA kindly asked me to write up a little welcome for the incoming Contexts editorial team for the most recent issue of Footnotes. Since TSP is the online home of contexts.org, I’m a former co-editor of the magazine, and Phil Cohen and Syed Ali are fellow sociological travelers, how could I resist?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The new editors for Contexts, the ASA’s one-of-a-kind, accessible to a general audience publication, have been chosen. They are Philip N. Cohen of the University of Maryland and Syed Ali of Long Island University. Cohen and Ali will take their turn at helm beginning in January. They bring with them big ideas about sociology, tons of energy and experience with public engagement, and their own distinctive (and sometimes irreverent) sensibilities.

About the New Editors

Philip Cohen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park, where he received his PhD in 1999. He returned to his alma mater in 2012 after stints at University of California-Irvine and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Cohen specializes in family demography, gender inequality, and labor market disparities and has published widely and in all the leading journals of the field. His most recent writing has been devoted to communicating sociological insights to bigger and broader audiences, largely through his prolific and widely read “Family Inequality” blog, which can be found at familyinequality.com, and his forthcoming book, The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change (W.W. Norton & Co.).

Before settling on sociology, Cohen explored unsuccessful careers as a bagel server, journalist, and rock star. As his online followers and fan club well know, Cohen spends a great deal of his free time blogging. Instead of the rock-star life he once imagined, he now muses about families, inequality, sociology, and demography. “I enjoy research, teaching, and learning, and I’m happy to pursue those interests while satisfying my desire to argue about politics on the Internet,” said Cohen, who lives with his wife and two children in Takoma Park. He is also proud to have always worked at state universities (though he does admit to applying for a few private school jobs along the way).

Syed Ali is Associate Professor of Sociology at Long Island University-Brooklyn. His research interests center around migration, assimilation, ethnicity, and religion. He has conducted ethnographic research among Muslims in Hyderabad, India, South Asians in the United States, and migrant workers in Dubai. Ali is perhaps best known as the author of Dubai: Gilded Cage (Yale University Press 2010) but also has a new book (co-authored with yours truly) due out in January under the title Migration, Incorporation, and Change in an Interconnected World (Routledge/Taylor-Francis).

Ali spent his early childhood in rural West Virginia, but was uprooted to New York City once his parents realized, as he put it, “we were brown.” He returned to the South for graduate work at the University of Virginia, and then bounced back to Brooklyn where he now lives with his wife and two children. Once a late-night country radio DJ (under the unassuming moniker “John Thomas”), Ali now moonlights as a potter and Ultimate Frisbee player. His team finished 6th in the men’s grandmasters (40+) division at the recent national championships in Florida. More important than the result, however, Ali reports that “no one got hurt.” (more…)

Cohen on Distracted Driving, Distracting Data, and the Dangers of Driving

Another quintessential Philip Cohen take-down appeared this weekend. Cohen’s target this time was Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Cohen hasn’t even read the whole book yet, but what set him off was Richtel’s promotional tweet claiming that texting causes “more than 3000″ teen deaths a year (more than alcohol). That number, according to Cohen, is not only not accurate, it isn’t even plausible. Cohen explains: “In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.” No, it does not.

As those of us who read him regularly well-know, this kind of fear-mongering with bad statistics is the bane of Cohen’s existence. But at least in this case, Cohen is more interested in is how the attention to texting and distracting driving (accurate or inaccurate as the  data and debate may be) actually distracts us from the deeper, more basic danger of driving itself–or as he puts it, “our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).” Indeed, this is the real focus of the analysis and data he develops in the rest of the post.

Judging by the comments that have appeared so far, I’m not sure that everyone really understands or is ready for Cohen’s attempt to refocus attention to our modern reliance on driving for transportation. They continue to want to debate the dangers of texting or drinking or whatever. Or they find Cohen’s attention to mere driving as uninformative, disingenious, or even tautological. The typically dry, ironic way Cohen frames his argument probably doesn’t help . (The “shocking truth,” Cohen suggests, is that “the most important cause of traffic fatalities is …driving.”) But the bigger problem, I think, is that so many of us take driving so much for granted, that we can’t see it as a problem. We can’t see driving as a factor that can be causal, or a variable that could be manipulated and changed.

This whole situation reminds me of a thought experiment Joseph Gusfield posed in his brilliant, if under-appreciated 1981 book on drinking driving and the culture of public problems (a book, not incidentally, I have chosen for my “great books” graduate seminar this fall). Gusfield asks his readers to imagine that some all-powerful god has come to America and offers to give us a new technology that will make our lives immeasurably better by allowing us to go wherever we want, whenever we want, faster than we have ever gone before. The only catch? The god demands that we as a society sacrifice 5000 of our citizens every year for the privilege of this great technological innovation. Do we take that bargain? Would you? With our reliance on the automobile, Gusfield says, we already have. In rejecting the conventional wisdom and moralistic outrage about texting and bringing new data to bear on the dangers of just being in traffic on the roads, I think Cohen is just trying to force us to grapple with this consequences of this collective decision more honestly and directly.



TSP Weekly Roundup: September 23, 2014

RU092314Here at The Society Pages, we work to bring a little something for everyone, whether your primary interests lay in race, politics, culture, crime, inequality, or gender. Take a gander, share and comment, and, as always, let us know (gently!) what you think we’re missing or what you’d like to contribute!


Race, Spanking, and Shame: Dimensions of Corporal Punishment,” by Jennifer Lee. If nearly 80% of all Americans believe spanking is sometimes appropriate, why do we focus on racial groups and presumed practices?

The Editors’ Desk:

Notes on Race, Football, and Spanking,” by Doug Hartmann. Facts and sociological commentary on decoupling stereotypes and social phenomena.

More on Spanking: Race, Men, and the South,” by Doug Hartmann. A need-to-read link.

There’s Research on That!:

Good Kids Gone Guerilla: Why Flee to Fight?” by Jack Delahanty. Western youths seem to be flocking to the Middle East to join jihads. What are their aims? And who’s to blame? (more…)

More on Spanking: Race, Men, and the South

If you were at all interested in the ideas about race, football, and spanking I passed on yesterday, then you have to read this, from the next editor of Contexts magazine, Phil Cohen’s Family Inequality blog. It’s got a kind of weird title (“Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking”) and is a little long, but, wow, does it cover a lot of ground and brings some fascinating, on-the-spot data and analysis to bear these topics.

Notes on Race, Football, and Spanking

The news out of the NFL has been brutal these past few days, but certainly good evidence of my long-held conviction that sport is a powerful and important “contested terrain” for all manner of social issues, especially those pertaining to race. The issues and questions about corporeal punishment, race, and culture raised by the indictment, suspension, reinstatement, and re-suspension of Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings are at the top of that list of complicated social issues to which sport can help bring attention. But it is, as we sociologists like to say, really complicated. Below are a few brief but useful points and insights–the first, snippets from a 2012 New York Times commentary by Maryland sociologist Rashawn Ray; the second from a recent facebook post by Joe Soss, a sociologically-inclined political scientist who works in the public policy school here at the University of Minnesota.

First, a few empirical points from Ray’s 2012 commentary on race and spanking:

–”Blacks are more likely to spank their children.”

–”These punishing methods [also] differ by region and class.”

–”…corporal punishment in schools is allowed in Southern states;” and “…whites in the South more likely to spank than whites in the Northeast.”

–”Although some argue that spanking leads to physical aggression or passive-aggressiveness, the evidence is inconclusive.”

–”Altogether, spanking without communication is problematic and should not be used as the primary form of punishment.”


And this from Soss:

“In the wake of Adrian Peterson’s indictment, it’s remarkable how quickly the discussion has coalesced around the idea of a “racial divide” in cultures of parenting and corporal punishment. Some of the articles have been terrible; others have used the issue to say some smart things about race and ethnicity in America. But the focus of the conversation itself is a striking example of “racialization” in action. I’m not saying we should ignore the modest but persistent racial differences in opinion on this issue. But somewhere around 80% of *all* Americans say that spanking is sometimes appropriate. And depending on which polls you look at, the opinion gaps associated with racially identified groups are often smaller than differences associated with partisanship, ideology, religiosity, region, and age cohort. There is a lot going on here, it seems to me. But I’m reminded of something Ta-Nehisi Coates has often urged us to do: Pay close attention whenever widespread societal phenomena are reframed, for African Americans, as expressions of something distinctive to Blackness. Reflect on the ways this narrative implicitly exempts and exonerates Whiteness. Investigate how it moves from observations of small differences to claims of opposing group cultures. Ask what role it plays in constructing and reproducing understandings of racial otherness.”


None of this, I should note, is about the Peterson case itself; rather, it is about one of the larger sets of issues and debates that this case has given rise to.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...