Relations in Public
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Relations in Public

Microstudies of the Public Order

Donald Davidson, Erving Goffman

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Relations in Public

Microstudies of the Public Order

Donald Davidson, Erving Goffman

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Until recently, to be in a public place meant to feel safe. That has changed, especially in cities. Urban dwellers sense the need to quickly react to gestural cues from persons in their immediate presence in order to establish their relationship to each other. Through this communication they hope to detect potential danger before it is too late for self-defense or flight. The ability to read accurately the informing signs by which strangers indicate their relationship to one another in public or semi-public places without speaking, has become as important as understanding the official written and spoken language of the country.In Relations in Public, Erving Goff man provides a grammar of the unspoken language used in public places. He shows that the way strangers relate in public is part of a design by which friends and acquaintances manage their relationship in the presence of bystanders. He argues that, taken together, this forms part of a new domain of inquiry into the rules for co-mingling, or public order.Most people give little thought to how elaborate and complex our everyday behavior in public actually is. For example, we adhere to the rules of pedestrian traffic on a busy thoroughfare, accept the usual ways of acting in a crowded elevator or subway car, grasp the delicate nuances of conversational behavior, and respond to the rich vocabulary of body gestures. We behave differently at weddings, at meals, in crowds, in couples, and when alone. Such everyday behavior, though generally below the level of awareness, embodies unspoken codes of social understandings necessary for the orderly conduct of society.

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The Individual as a Unit

I Introduction

In discussions of face-to-face interaction, the term "individual" (or an equivalent such as "person") is inevitably used, as I shall also. However, this easy and necessary use covers multiple sins of imprecision.
For example, in talking about a social setting such as a suburban residential street or a fashionable New York store, it is possible to speak of someone present as being properly or improperly dressed for the time and place. It will be half understood that clothing as an aspect of decorum pertains to the scene as a whole, being a sign of respect (or disrespect) for it. An individual could, of course, dress in a particular way with malice aforethought, because he anticipates a conversational encounter with particular others, but if he does, and wants to be effective, he may have to disguise his intent, since dress is defined as not properly pertaining to what occurs in conversations. Obviously, however, there are matters that properly pertain to encounters. There are rules for taking and terminating a turn at talking;1 there are norms synchronizing the process of eyeing the speaker and being eyed by him; there is an etiquette for initiating an encounter and bringing it to an end.2 Here, too, we can speak of an individual conducting himself properly or improperly, but this time relative to encounters, not set tings.3 The "system of reference" has changed and so, I believe, do the constitutive units to which the system applies. It is too easy to say merely that the individual plays different roles. The somethings that participate in different systems of activity are in some degree different things.
With the idea in mind, then, that in interaction studies the individual can be different things, I want in this paper to briefly consider two things an individual can be: a vehicular unit and a participation unit.

II Vehicular Units

Of the various sets of ground rules that provide the normative bases of public order, one class will concern us here: traffic codes. The matter at issue was nicely formulated at the turn of the century in the opening paragraph of a famous book by Ross:
A condition of order at the junction of crowded city thoroughfares implies primarily an absence of collisions between men or vehicles that interfere one with another. Order cannot be said to prevail among people going in the same direction at the same pace, because there is no interference. It does not exist when persons are constantly colliding one with another. But when all who meet or overtake one another in crowded ways take the time and pains needed to avoid collision, the throng is orderly. Now, at the bottom of the notion of social order lies the same idea. The members of an orderly community do not go out of their way to aggress upon one another. Moreover, whenever their pursuits interfere, they make the adjustments necessary to escape collision and make them according to some conventional rule.4
That is probably enough theory for the time. What is needed now is description. Take, for example, techniques that pedestrians employ in order to avoid bumping into one another. These seem of little significance. However, there are an appreciable number of such devices; they are constantly in use and they cast a pattern on street behavior. Street traffic would be a shambles without them. Yet until very recently no student anywhere gave them a thought, most being involved in studies not subject to modest, naturalistic observation.
A vehicular unit is a shell of some kind controlled (usually from within) by a human pilot or navigator. A traffic code is a set of rules whose maintenance allows vehicular units independent use of a set of thoroughfares for the purpose of moving from one point to another. The arrangement is that collision and mutual obstruction are systematically avoided by means of certain self-accepted restrictions on movement. When adhered to, a traffic code provides a safe passage pattern.
Thoroughfares may be in the air, on the land, on water, under the waves, on ski slopes, and soon, no doubt, in outer space. Vehicular units themselves vary according to the thickness of their skins. There are ships, submarines, trains, and armored cars, all of which have thick skins, being guided by men who are well hidden and in some ways well protected. There are buggies, open cars, sedan chairs, rickshaws, bicycles, and sporting devices such as skis, surfboards, toboggans, kayaks, skates, and skateboards, which leave the navigator relatively exposed. The more protective the shell, the more, on the whole, the unit is restricted to simple movements. Note, a road and its traffic will support shells of somewhat different kinds—cars, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, and, of course, pedestrians. Viewed in this perspective, the individual himself, moving across roads and down streets—the individual as pedestrian —can be considered a pilot encased in a soft and exposing shell, namely his clothes and skin.
Road traffic has interesting features: relative uniformity of rules across regional and national boundaries, and this in spite of the limited span of particular police jurisdictions; relative lack of differentiation of rights by sex, class, age, race, or wealth; relative explicitness and exhaustiveness of rules accompanied by strict, formal social control; a widespread sense that it is all right to break a rule if you can get away with it. In addition, road traffic rules serve as something of an ideal case in arguments regarding the nature and value of ground rules.
Road traffic, of course, has an interface with sidewalk or street traffic, officially at crosswalks and driveways. And the two systems have points of similarity. In both cases what is ordered is passings-by of unacquainted pilots—or at least ones who need not be acquainted—thus providing one source of material for the study of the social relations binding strangers.5 In both cases, the participant must trustfully put himself into the hands of others. And in both cases, as will be seen, something like the same informally patterned routing practices are employed.
Differences between the two kinds of traffic are obvious. On the road, the overriding purpose is to get from one point to another. (The minor exceptions would include joyriding, pickup cruising, and police surveillance.) On walks and in semi-public places such as stadiums and stores, getting from one point to another is not the only purpose and often not the main one; individuals who are vehicular units will often be functioning in other ways, too, for example, as shoppers, conversationalists, diners, and so forth, and the social order sustained by walkers provides a basis for all of these activities, not merely that of moving from point to point. Also the role of unintentional physical contact differs in the two systems, collision apparently being a matter of more concern on the road than on the sidewalk. Pedestrians can twist, duck, bend, and turn sharply, and therefore, unlike motorists, can safely count on being able to extricate themselves in the last few milliseconds before impending impact. Should pedestrians actually collide, damage is not likely to be significant, whereas between motorists collision is un-likely (given current costs of repair) to be insignificant.6 Further, a pedestrian who walks aggressively or drops in his tracks or collides with another can hardly produce a traffic jam, although, of course, he can produce a considerable audience. Those who want to pass almost always will have room to do so, and, in any case, they can take to the road or the fields if need be. Cars, of course, are more easily held up. So, too, an improperly conducted motorist is likely to be in unobstructed sight of an offended party longer than an improperly conducted pedestrian is in sight of those he offends. Road traffic, in consequence, seems a more competitive, less fore-bearing system than does street traffic, the one compensation being that a driver can avoid eye-to-eye confrontation relatively easily simply by staying in his car, looking straight ahead, and moving off when traffic allows, knowing that he can hardly be chased after effectively by anyone other than the police. Note, in road traffic, formal understandings seem central, although, of course, many informal understandings are operative; in pedestrian traffic, informal understandings dominate, often appearing to copy loosely the formal rules of road traffic.
A few comments about pedestrian traffic seem possible.7 In American downtown streets, traffic tends to sort itself out into two opposite-going sides. The dividing line is somewhere near the middle of the sidewalk but is subject to momentary shifting (to accommodate sudden bunching of traffic in one direction) and to longer term displacement caused by the tendency for the journey to and from work to involve a large volume going in one direction in the morning and the reverse at night. As in road traffic, the side going in one's direction tends to be on the right of the dividing line. However, pedestrians on either side who desire to walk quickly sometimes move to the curb and there manage two-way flow. The innermost part of the street tends to be slowest, perhaps because of the obstruction produced by window shoppers and those entering and leaving buildings.8 Apart from these considerations, lane formation within the right-or left-hand side tends not to be marked, although when an individual momentarily shifts from a lane to facilitate traffic flow, he is apparently likely to shift back into it after the interference is past.9 It might also be added that at crosswalks the side-division tends to break down, and those going in one direction will take up both sides at the curb, thus facing across the street a broad front of others ready to come toward them.10 Contrariwise, there are steps and tunnels that physically mark and thereby consolidate two-lane flow.
When routing by divided two-way flow is not used to avoid collision during opposite-direction passing, pedestrians tend (in America) to use the road traffic device of veering to the right,11 although this practice is breached for many reasons, among which are the principled ones that males should take the road side when passing females 12 and that pedestrians have the right to cut across the sidewalk at any point, there being no full equivalent of periodic road intersections.
The workability of lane and passing rules is based upon two processes important in the organization of public life: externalization and scanning.
By the term "externalization," or "body gloss," I refer to the process whereby an individual pointedly uses over-all body gesture to make otherwise unavailable facts about his situation gleanable. Thus, in driving and walking the individual conducts himself—or rather his vehicular shell—so that the direction, rate, and resoluteness of his proposed course will be readable. In ethological terms, he provides an "intention display." By providing this gestural prefigurement and committing himself to what it foretells, the individual makes himself into something that others can read and predict from; by employing this device at proper strategic junctures—ones where his indicated course will be perceived as a promise or warning or threat but not as a challenge—he becomes something to which they can adapt without loss of self-respect.13
The term "scanning" does not have to be defined, but the way it is done in pedestrian traffic needs to be described. When a pedestrian in American society walks down the street, he seems to make an assumption that those to the front of a close circle around him are ones whose course he must check up on, and those who are a person or two away or moving behind his sight-line can be tuned out. In brief, the individual, as he moves along, tends to maintain a scanning or check-out area. (By angling his own head so as not to be directly obstructed visually by the head of the pedestrian ahead of him, he can ensure his maintenance of this view.) 14 As oncomers enter the individual's scanning range—something like three or four sidewalk squares away—they are commonly glanced at briefly and thereafter disattended because their distance from him and their indicated rate and direction of movement imply that collision is not likely and that no perception by them of him is necessary for his easily avoiding collision. A simple "body check" is involved, albeit one performed more circumspectly (at present) by women than by men. This check tends to occur when the individual making it can introduce a large directional change through a small and therefore undemeaning angular correction.15 Once others have been checked out satisfactorily, they can be allowed to come close without this being cause for concern. Thus the individual can generally cease to concern himself with others as soon as they have come close enough abreast of him so that any interference from them would require a very abrupt turn. And further, since he apparently does not concern himself with oncomers who are separated from him by others, he can, in dense traffic, be unconcerned about persons who are actually very close to him. Therefore, the scanning area is not a circle but an elongated oval, narrow to either side of the individual and longest in front of him, constantly changing in area depending on traffic density around him. Note that even as the individual is checking out those who are just coming into range, so they will be checking him out, which means that oncomers will be eyeing each other at something of the same moment and that this moment will be similarly located in the course of both; yet this act is almost entirely out of awareness.16
When an individual deems that a simple body-check is not sufficient, as when a collision course is apparent or there is no clear indication of the other's course, then additional assurances are likely to be sought. He can ostentatiously take or hold a course, waiting to do this until he can be sure that the other is checking him out. If he wants to be still more careful, he can engage in a "checked-bod-check"; after he has given a course indication, he can make sure the signal has been picked up by the other, either by meeting the other's eyes (although not for engagement) or by noting the other's direction of vision, in either case establishing that his own course gesture has not likely been overlooked. In brief, he can check up on the other's eye check on him, the assumption here being that the other can be relied on to act safely providing only that he has perceived the situation.17 Finally, a brief face engagement may be initiated in which one party signals what he proposes they do and the other party signals agreement. (A strategic device here is to signal a collaborative routing in which the other has a slight advantage, this usually assuring agreement.) In all of this maneuvering, two special moments can be found. First, there is the "critical sign": the a...