A generation ago, a group of anthropologists and sociologists engaged in a flurry of research and publication that changed, enhanced and, in some instances, revised their disciplines. Their work could enrich the growing scholarship of public relations. But so far it hasn’t.
I am thinking about the work of Erving Goffman, who approach sociology and anthropology from a literary and dramaturgical perspective, beginning famously with the publication of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in 1959. That public relations scholars have not considered Shakespeare’s views on perception and reality particularly relevant to their concerns doesn’t surprise me, although as a Eng lit Ph.D. I can’t help seeing the missed opportunity — the disconnection between applied social science and humanistic literature. But for PR scholarship to have missed seeing and developing the connections between Goffman’s work on perception strikes me as a much larger and less rationalizable failure on the part of PR scholarship.
To these gaps and failures in the scholarship of public relations I should add all the work of the generation of cultural and literary-minded anthropologists, perhaps starting with Clifford Geertz.
And so I’ve buried the lede down here in paragraph 4 — that the crisis du jour, served up Tiger Woods and his cuckolded, five-iron-wielding spouse — would be far better interpreted through the scholarship of Goffman’s dramaturgy, Richard Schechner’s performance theory, Clifford Geertz’s literary anthropology and Victor Turner’s theories of ritualism and liminality than by the knee-jerk crisis communication monologues that have been seen on cable TV, the Internet, talk radio, and in the tabloid, mainstream and magazine press.
Not that it’s not a guilty pleasure — the obsessive and generally salacious attention to the visual, sexual, marital and financial angles. But after the crisis com experts utter the simplistic mantra (and I’m among the muttering utterers): Tell it now, tell it all, tell the truth — what’s there left to say? We can blather on about the possible deterioration of Tiger’s brand — more or less a moot point best left to the judgment of short-term and medium-term history. But in the final analysis, what have the crisis experts told us that we haven’t known since God knows when? Very little.
The most important thing we may know about Tiger’s infidelities, his spouse’s anger and society’s outrage, support and obsessive attention is that it’s what the anthropologist Turner long ago recognized, observed, analyzed, theorized and interpreted as a breach — an incident of expectation reversal which, if it is unchecked, widens into a crisis that can destabilize the social structure and even lead to the disintegration of the community. For this reason, as Turner observed in the field of certain African villages, the community had at its disposal a series of rituals that were performed prescriptively to remediate, negotiate and arbitrate the social threat. When a handsome young warrior committed a sexual indiscretion with a high-ranking village elder, the prescription called for the performance of a drama in which the high-status elder got to inflict some physical damage on the offending young man who knew better than not to accept the punishment, lest his social offense be deemed worthy of a far harsher punishment. But a spear in the leg, some blood — thankfully, that could be regarded as sufficient recompense for the offense. As a result, the community could avert the disruption and even violence and chaos that such an offense could generate.
For Tiger Woods and his countless offenders, the parallels are obvious and apparent. Public and publicized apologies. Renegotiations of prenuptial agreements that enrich the offended spouse. Rounds of mildly or moderately humiliating appearances on television talk shows. Grudging acceptance of the continuing series of unflattering profiles in the media. Two weeks at an addiction clinic.
What threatens society is not necessarily social and political chaos — at least, not in the short term. We are more concerned about threats to the heroic and triumphalist narratives that underpin public opinion which, in turn, supports the consumption of products, services, brands, polilticians, leaders, experts that comprise the better part of our belief system.
And for this reason — our concern lest we lose our heroes and beliefs — society has established the ritual of redemption under which formerly tarnished leaders such as former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, are after a relatively brief media purgatory and exile, back in public favor, their sins and crimes generously attributed to the unarguable fact that they’re only human.
Yet for what this ritualistic consciousness may have to tell us about the way we communicate, persuade, negotiate and form opinions and beliefs, public relations scholarship has said precious little, preferring to drill down into the life of organizations, out into the bright and edgy world marketing. PR’s obsessions aren’t sociological or anthropological or even sexual; they’re economic, organizational, technological, ethical and statistical.
Which, come to think of it, matches up very nicely with the explosively growing industries of sports and education — both of which consume a larger and larger share of the national mind.
In this piece I have had nothing to say about the rich potential for PR scholarship that might accrue from closer attention to our sister disciplines in the social sciences, not to mention the all-but-ignored treasury of thousands of years of literature. But in future pieces, I will begin to explore that treasury with a view toward the possible enhancement of what we think about when we think about PR.