Studies in Symbolic Interaction: Volume 28

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Table of contents

(32 chapters)

A luminescent purple glow expands, refracting holographic light in the background. As the perspective shifts, each color of the rainbow appears and disappears along multiple axes of a prismatic spray. Our Diva, Carolyn Ellis, sits alone on a stool in the midst of the purple glow, extending her hand, palm up, with outstretched tapered fingers, beckoning us to join her. “Don’t be afraid,” she smiles, “we are all the same.”

Larry looks at me and asks, “Do you know Carolyn Ellis?” Larry, like me, is a new doctoral student at the University of Texas. He says this so sweetly, so simply in his recently rediscovered Texas drawl that I am instantly dubious.

Shelley:I suppose we should explain the title.Douglas:“From Lingua Franca to Scriptio Animi”: Sounds so scholarly, eh? So learned.S:In an uptight, un-Carolyn kind of way.D:We first heard about her in that profile in Lingua Franca.S:I was teaching a qualitative research class. The idea of reflexive ethnography jumped off the page. She sounded so fascinating and courageous.D:And so close by! Living just across the swamp from us in Tampa. Was it then that you went out and bought Final Negotiations?S:Yes, and found myself drawn into her life and her writing in an intense way.D:How did reading her work change your approach to the research class?S:I became more and more interested in personal experience methods, and ultimately created a class devoted almost exclusively to autoethnography. I guess you could say Carolyn was a ghost member of our curriculum committee.D:Oh, I love the image of her hovering around us.S:She actually sort of entered my blood stream, and I’d never even met her yet, though I certainly wanted to.D:And during that same time, I happened to email this guy named Art Bochner to thank him for his amazing “Forming Warm Ideas” chapter in Rigor and Imagination (Bochner, 1981). He and I started corresponding back and forth, developing an online friendship, and all the while I didn’t have a clue that he and Carolyn were together.S:One day you came home and said, “You know Art, the guy I told you I’ve been chatting with via email? You’re never going to believe who his partner is!”D:The coincidence was wonderful! I was clueless!S:The Latin formality of the title is doubly ironic then. “Scriptio Animi.” Brother!D:How so?S:Well, for one thing, Latin is not the first language that jumps to mind for capturing the intimate, speaking-in-vernacular nature of Carolyn's scholarship.D:Right. Despite the fact that the term lingua franca has to do with speaking a common language and scriptio animi translates as “writing of the heart-and-mind-and-soul.”S:That's the first irony – using a dead language of disembodied scholarship to refer to Carolyn's lively and embodied first-person voice.D:And the second irony?S:The use of Latin makes us sound like we’re these all-knowing academics. But neither of us knows anything about Latin. In you’re words, we’re clueless.D:Absolutely. I was trying (and failing) to cobble together a meaningful phrase by working backwards in the O.E.D. Our friend John brought his expertise in classical languages to bear on my first few attempts and very sensitively suggested I torch them. Without him, we’d never have come up with “Scriptio Animi” (John Leeds, personal communication, March 9, 2003). A Liberal Arts colleague at the university, however, kindly normalized my ignorance: “Native Latin speakers,” he assured me, “are either dead for over a thousand years (in Rome) or in prison for child molestation” (Mark Cavanaugh, personal communication, March 7, 2003).S:Irony and our cluelessness aside, the title does a pretty good job of capturing the spirit of Carolyn's work. After all, she values “narrative soul” (Ellis, 2000, p. 274) – pretty close to the “writing of the soul” of “scriptio animi.”D:But irony and cluelessness shouldn’t be put to the side – they belong at the center. Carolyn's whole enterprise is grounded in the irony of knowing and the importance of maintaining a not-knowing stance.S:Okay, so the Latin stays. Besides, I like the reflexive paradox of the title, and Carolyn is nothing if not reflexive.D:Little did Lacan know that social science would go through its own “mirror stage,” using an ethnographic looking glass to encounter and transform the self-in-context.S:Right. Carolyn says reflexive stories should have “therapeutic value” – that they should change the reader in some significant way. Her stories, and her students’ stories, transformed me as a researcher and as a teacher. I invited personal experience into class discussions in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. After hearing her perform her story of her brother's death, I found that her voice was often with me in the classroom; it was very powerful.D:Therapeutic not only for the reader, but also for the writer. Last fall when I was traveling back and forth to Calgary while my mom was dying, I started writing an autoethnographic account of what I was going through. Carolyn and Art were in my head and my heart a lot as I storied my experience.S:Yes, I remember. And Carolyn's stories about her mother's illness and her many trips to West Virginia to be with her became entwined with your stories.D:Yeah. And something odd happened – something that unsettled me at the time and that cries out for a Carolyn consultation. It was like I couldn’t put down my pen. At some of the most tender, most difficult, most intimate times, I was composing sentences in my head, wondering how I could best grab the color and texture of what I was living. But in doing so, I felt removed from it. There I was, in the moment, crafting sentences rather than breathing life, forming descriptions rather than facing death.S:Carolyn talks about how writing autoethnographic texts has intensified her living (Ellis, 1996, p. 243).D:Maybe she isn’t plagued like me. Maybe she can have the experience without being interrupted by the anticipation of setting it down.S:She certainly recognizes that “written reality is a second-order reality that reshapes the events it depicts” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 26).D:Sure, but I’m troubled by the reshaping that was going on in the moment. It wasn’t a forced thing; it happened automatically. I was (and am) still struck by, and stuck on, the irony of it all.S:Still more irony? What do you mean?D:Let's say when I complete my narrative, I give it to Carolyn, and it manages to engage, evoke and provoke (Ellis, 2000, p. 274) her. Her reading will allow her to immerse in an experience that I, because I couldn’t turn off my goddamn autoethnographic eye-and-ear, felt distant from. So what's with that? She – or any reader – ends up being able to drink in my experience more than me? That's a hell of a price to pay. Rather than being with the fear in my mother's eyes, rather than being with the words and short phrases coming out of her mouth, expressions I hadn’t heard in forty years and so were transporting me back to my childhood, rather than being with the dry thin skin on her hands, rather than being with her sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night, scared to death, rather than being with her, I was a step ahead of both of us, getting it all down in my head so I could later transpose it to paper so some reader I don’t even know could get a handle on what it was like. But how the hell could I write what it was like if I was so damn busy writing what it was like, I wasn’t quite there? A curse! I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.S:The curse of rendering experience.D:Exactly! Rendering in both senses of the word. When you render something personal [writes in the air], you render it [rips the air apart].S:Carolyn points out that “the world as we ‘know’ it cannot be separated from the language we use to explain, understand, or describe it” (Bochner & Ellis, 1996, p. 20).D:Maybe the “known” world can’t, but how about the felt world, the sensed world?S:Which is where “not knowing” comes in.D:Another link to our way of approaching therapy. It's about engaging in discovery, not about imposing what you think you already understand.S:We’ve brought autoethnography to our therapy students as a way of enhancing their ability to understand their own and their clients’ experiences – a mirror inversion of Carolyn's bringing “therapeutic sensitivity” to her autoethnography students.D:Right. She tells her students that one of the goals of writing about their lives “is that they should become their own therapist…. Writing can help them have insights about themselves, help them work through problems themselves” (Flemons & Green, 2002, p. 116).S:Carolyn is right about stories having “therapeutic value,” but I think Carolyn herself – the in-person-Carolyn – does, too. Her way of being embodies her work. Because she is so intrigued by personal experience, she brings a unique intensity to her relationships. Her curiosity and genuine not-knowing stance allow her to know others deeply.D:And care about them. For someone who has done so much self-reflection, she's the least self-absorbed person I know.S:Autoethnography as a method has been criticized as a form of narcissistic self-indulgence (Sparkes, 2002), but that is the antithesis of what Carolyn does as a person and a scholar.D:She reaches in, but also out.S:Both personally and professionally, she touches us.

The room is packed. I mean jam packed. Carolyn is beaming. Just five minutes’ till show time, all but a few seats are taken. As I place my file folder of notes on a seat next to Carolyn, I look around to see people lining the walls, some ducking in to claim the floor in front, and still people keep filing in. Carolyn dressed in flowing purple and green mingles, continuing to beam as she says hello with her sparkling eyes. For just a moment, Art and I scowl at each other with a knowing look of “How could they have put us in such a tiny room!”. But Carolyn, well she beams brighter. Christine and I jump to action, pilfering through an adjoining room searching for just a few more chairs. None to be found. I tell a passing hotel staff member “We need more chairs, please.” “Yes, sure.” the automatic reply came with the look of “I’ll get on that right away – tomorrow.”

Norman Denzin organized the Urbana SSSI Stone Symposium, where I first met Patricia. He and I share the dual identities of sociologist and communication scholar. Given all he has published as well as the publishing opportunities he has provided others, Norman has done more for interpretive social sciences and symbolic interaction than anyone I know. He has been instrumental in my career, especially when I was a young scholar. The first person to identify my work as schizophrenic, Norman said I made a plea for interpretive, imaginative inquiry, and then turned hard science against it. This was a transforming moment, a moment in which I stopped judging my creative work by the standards of traditional science and instead focused on articulating what my work contributed to understanding emotionality and meaning in our lives. As a colleague and friend, Norman's role in my life is personal and political.

In the spirit of celebrating the wonder that is Carolyn Ellis, I considered developing a David Letterman-style “Top Ten List” of the most powerful lessons I have learned as a student, colleague, co-author, and friend of Carolyn. However, when I got quiet inside and poised my fingers over the keyboard to begin constructing my list, I imagined Carolyn pulling up a chair beside me, wearing something fabulous and purple, of course. When I look over at her, she smiles knowingly.

America's on-ending war against terrorism is in its 75th week, day 525. America continues its permanent war against the world. My depression deepens. I’m addicted to CNN and its permanent report on the war against terror. Somehow I think the televised images of the Iraqi war will discredit Bush and his administration, and its doctrine of preemptive strikes against nations in the Axis of Evil. But such is not the case.

Carolyn Ellis and I have been partners for more than a decade. Shortly after we met in 1990, Carolyn sent me a draft copy of a book manuscript she had written entitled Final Negotiations (Ellis, 1995). The book described in detail the history of Carolyn's nine-year relationship with Gene Weinstein who died of emphysema in 1985 (Ellis, 1995). As I read through the chapter in which Carolyn told the story of her brother's death in an airplane crash, I felt as if all my senses were being pricked. I had never before read a social science article in which the researcher wrote from the source of her own grief, openly expressing what it felt like to be stricken so suddenly, refusing to gloss the layers of conflicting feelings, the exciting rush of adrenalin countered by the deadening fog of numbness, the waves of hope and despair, and finally, the struggle first to choke down, then to grope toward an understanding of the meaning of her suffering and loss.

This lecture series on Symbolic Interaction, Sociology, and Changing Society is designed to present productive and provocative scholars who have addressed critical issues in creative ways and offered new directions to pursue. Professor Michael Schwalbe (North Carolina State University) was chosen to be the second speaker in the series because of his insightful, imaginative, and important scholarship on inequality.

By the term “identity stakes” I mean all the side bets (Becker, 1960) that ride on being able to convince an audience that we are who and what we claim to be. These stakes are both material and psychic. Getting a monthly paycheck from my university depends on having convinced a host of people in that organization that I am indeed Michael Schwalbe, professor of sociology. Many more side bets ride on getting that check every month.

This paper enfolds and builds upon an earlier text (Giardina, 2003) which sought to bring personal understanding to the events of 9/11/2001. Comprised of separate yet interrelated and intersecting “writing-stories” (Richardson, 2000), the narrative collages that follow are caught up in the curve of time – a future nostalgia of bemused irony – that reflect the events of the last year against my own history and lived textuality as a white, liberal, middle-class graduate student at the University of Illinois. My goal is to uncover “new” versions of “truth,” new fictional (re)tellings of our experience(s) that adhere to a (post)-performative moral ethic of interpretation, care, and social change.

Six Feet Under is one of HBO's most unlikely success stories, which in its third season in 2002 was nominated for ten Emmy awards. Let's say you are the CEO of HBO and I come in proposing to do a series on a family of morticians, living in their funeral home. Dad dies in the pilot episode (although he makes cameo appearances from the great beyond). Ruth, the mother, is a repressed housewife who smothers her family. David, the son who takes over at dad's death is a closeted gay, who comes out in the second year of the series. Nate, the elder son, is a Birkenstock-style floater, who, after an Oregonian vegan experience, finds himself caught at home by his father's death, suddenly a partner in the family business. His teenaged sister Claire, suffers from the angst that characterizes her cohort, angst intensified by growing up and living in a funeral home. You, as the CEO of HBO are likely to say: You want to do what? We’ll call you, don’t call us. However, then, you learn that my name is Alan Ball, and that I just won the Oscar for writing American Beauty. I get to do the unlikely series about morticians and burials.

As I’ve talked with people about my studies in graduate school – at the University of Illinois and The University of New Mexico – I’ve always been hard-pressed to answer the question, “Why race?” I remember always being interested in race, but I’m not sure why. I remember my parents being strident anti-racists. They were always telling me and my four siblings how wrong racism was, that people who thought that way didn’t know any better. Growing up in almost all-white Montana, most of what we learned about blacks and other minorities came from comments made by others (many who had never known any) and from television and movies. Our parents often reminded us that what we saw and what we heard was not true, that people didn’t know what they were talking about and what we saw on television were not accurate depictions of blacks or other minorities. Our parents always stressed that they were “just like everyone else,” and in the few times I would come in contact with them during our almost yearly trips back to California, I never had any reason to believe differently.

Because I want the next generation of women to be set free from the birdcage of racial, gender and class stereotypes, a place from which my mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers never had the chance to escape, it is a personal and political choice to rupture the experiences of racial prejudice that bind us into phobic races within various shades of hatred. I am both digging a new place to find “truth” and criticizing an essential part of who I am or what I was taught to believe about our black and indigenous heritage. An epiphanic moment combines past, present and future moments into an act of doing and becoming. In honoring the first “queen” in my family, I wrote the following non-fiction children's story about my great grandmother Bernarda in three languages. Although I have never seen a picture of Bernarda, I feel her Chibcha blood burning inside of me and within every awkward phrase that I piece together as I fumble through grammatical structures, reviving memories into performative language. I wrote the first draft in English and later translated it into French and Spanish.

We view novelists as people who work alone through the night typing away at their keyboards while deeply absorbed in thought. Although no novel could be published without the performance of the solitary role of the writer, the publication of a novel involves far more than merely the performance of this one role. Book agents must screen writers’ novels for possible representation by their agency, acquisition editors must screen them for possible publication by their publishing houses, and production editors must prepare them for distribution; therefore, the publication of a novel is a genuine “social act.” Nevertheless, a novel's publication is a distinctively creative social act because it affords greater opportunity than most social acts for people to express their “selves” or, more precisely, “phantom communities,” which are etched from their past “significant social actions.” A novelist's phantom community primarily discloses itself through the “voice” in which she tells her story. Thus, the “voice” that an author uses while writing her novel can provide telltale signs of not only her phantom community, but also of the past significant social actions in which she has and has not participated during the course of her life.

While Hemingway noted that all stories end in death, this story begins with a death in the family. I recount my mother's (Ma's) death from a sociological point of view, making use of an autoethnographic perspective. Such a perspective encourages a frank portrayal of my involvement in the story as well as more detached reflection of various behaviors (enacted by Ma, her children, her grandchildren, and her friends). I also focus on Ma as a child of the Depression, a young adult during World War II, and a casualty of a middle class lifestyle. Her death, while unwanted, allowed her to create and construct authentic encounters with her children, grandchildren, and friends – encounters that she had avoided while living the middle class life. Her story allows me to reflect on her death as encouraging an authentic understanding of my emotions.

Georg Simmel described how a person can be a stranger, a member of two cultures but belong to neither (1950). Being a stranger though, goes beyond belonging. Strangeness goes to the soul of who we truly are: it defines our beliefs, delimits our practices, and gives depth to our everyday lives. Strangeness allows and sometimes forces us to cross the borders from the safe confines of our normal lives into the murkiness of the unknown social reality beyond it.

The Reformation, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch maintains, which redefined the relationship between the individual and God as a personal one, “took pains to regulate the relationship of man to alcohol,” and in so doing laid “an essential foundation¦…¦for the development of capitalism.” In the earlier Rabelaisian world, the Church constituted the major site of popular culture. Virtually all work was seasonal in character punctuated by carnivalesque church feasts that numbered over one hundred yearly. Although generally accepted as a safe means to vent communal anxieties, drink comprised an essential element of these festivals, with drunkenness the socially acceptable outcome.16 However, as the Reformation progressed and new modes of aristocratic behavior developed, reformative efforts to separate the secular and the sacred within the church resulted in attempts to abandon the popular culture of the lower classes. A broad consensus emerged that too much drunkenness amounted to social evil, and that alehouses represented an “increasingly dangerous force in popular society.”17 As the influence of the Church declined in the early eighteenth century, Carnival resurfaced in the form of gregarious carnivalesque village and town feasts: “the grotesque body of carnival was being re-territorialized” and writers such as Swift and Pope “perpetually identif[ied] the scene of writing with the fairground and the carnival.”18 Conversely, in keeping with the symmetrical component inherent in the Carnival/Lent theme, Lent transmuted into organizations such as The Society for the Reformation of Manners, which attempted to reduce drunkenness, cursing, swearing and whoring – all tropes of carnivalesque gregariousness. So, during this period, a contradictory cultural dissonance was being enacted. On the one hand, we find a resurgence of Carnival, but on the other hand, we see “a conservative desire on the part of the upper classes to separate themselves more clearly and distinctly from these popular activities.”19

This article takes stock of the current promises and problems of postmodern-informed interactionism. It points out that postmodern interactionism may go the way of ethnomethodology unless it is more reflexive about its practices. The article examines the present trends in postmodern informed interactionism, then speculates about future paths for it, by creative various analytic categories for postmodern interactionisms. Present trends include personal ethnographies, subdivided into autoethnographies, polyphonies, and impressionistic stories. Other present trends are cooperative ethnographies, performances, and power/knowledge ethnographies. Future paths are divided into the building block approach, the blending approach, the empathetic approach, and the divisive approach. The article summarizes the pros and cons of postmodernism for interactionists. The author notices that postmodern interactionism lacks clear criteria of evaluation and points to the possible courses to follow to rectify the problem.

This paper has two purposes. First, I offer a reading of interpretive biography (Denzin, 1989a) as an alternative method for understanding how individual lives are rendered meaningful in postmodern communication processes. Second, given the importance of many rock performers as cultural heroes, I present an interpretive biography of Pete Townshend, chief songwriter and most visible member of the classic rock band the Who. This method of inquiry is grounded in the more general tradition of interpretive interactionism (Denzin, 1989b, 1990a) and has its roots in C. Wright Mills's (1959) concept of the sociological imagination. Its guiding question is this: How is the postmodern self (or stated more accurately, selves) created within and sustained by the mass media? I argue that as postmodern cultural symbols, Townshend and the band (however ambiguously) mirror a collective search for identity on the part of audiences and society-at-large.

This article presents a typology of the medicated self, as developed through in-depth interviews with twenty-two social work students and practitioners. Utilizing an interactionist perspective, the experience of taking psychiatric medication is examined in both samples, using a comparative analysis. Emphasis is placed on the impact of taking psychiatric medication on the sense of self. The data suggest that the development of a medicated self is complex and varied, and includes a small number of those who feel that medication led to an improved self, and the majority who felt damaged by their experience with medication, and expressed varying degrees of ambivalence about its use. Despite this ambivalence, most of our respondents seemed to develop an altruistic, empathetic self geared toward helping others. This self emerged in spite of respondents saying that their self was damaged. Implications are presented, and conclusions and suggestions for further work on the impact of psychiatric medication use on the self are presented.

Scheff (1990, p. 4) describes the maintenance of bonds as the most crucial human motive. He argues that while “money, power, sex, and other such externals may appear to be motives in themselves,” the “fundamental” motive even in these cases is “maintenance or enhancement of one's standing in the eyes of others” (Scheff, 1990, p. 8). From this perspective, people who want money usually don’t want it to buy a hot tub or a car, but so that their friends and family members will be proud of them. People don’t want power to influence policy decisions, but so that they can attain the respect of their fellows. People don’t look for sexual release in their relationships with others, but want to be loved.

Focusing on an interview conducted with a Bedouin respondent on the subject on genetic counseling, this paper offers a symbolic interactionist framework for juxtaposing theory and practice, research and implementation, observation as well as intervention. The analysis exposes the interview as an arena for negotiation using constructs such as performance, impression management, micro-politics, weak and strong languages, and cultural difference.

Nearly every monograph and textbook that discusses the work of G. H. Mead considers the “game” as one of the important concepts with which he worked. Wittgenstein in his work too used the concept of game to illustrate his claim that the meaning of a word is its place in a language-game which is a “form of life.”

As a general response to Gary Alan Fines article, The Sad Demise, Mysterious Disappearance and Glorious Triumph of Symbolic Interactionism, this performance narrative account of a dialogue between G. Fine (Dr. Gary Alan Fine) and Sowsh Stud (Sociology student) intends to explain the subtleties of the current state of Symbolic Interactionism through the use of hip hop/inner city gangster terminology; drawing many parallels between Symbolic Interactionism as a discipline and street gang cultures to show that Symbolic Interactionism as a “gang” and Symbolic Interactionists as “gangsters” embrace the same gangster mentality, as they continuously try to find an identity and role within the gang (S.I.).

How can we account for the vicissitudes of sociological concepts? In a case study of the subject, I asked myself: what is happening to the concepts of folkways and mores? Acting on the impression that these formulations by William Graham Sumner are on the path to extinction, I looked into possible trends in their use by authors and editors of reference works and certain textbooks (including those for courses on symbolic interactionism). A curious pattern of use became evident: while a few types of works showed no decline over the years, most types showed decreasing use. I offer speculations about the differences. Examination of Sumner's writings in the two areas of social change and human conduct in general reveals probable sources of the observed declines. Moreover, another source is probably certain changes in the social characteristics of sociologists.

Gay men in the New York City metropolitan area were interviewed from 1990 to 1991, during the period of the AIDS epidemic. Using an interview schedule, they were asked questions about “coming out of the closet” and other identity issues: their experiences of “difference,” beliefs about monogamous or “open” relationships, and their views about sex and commitment. The study's focus was on the men's “moral discourse” or their relationship to the “good,” including ideas of the self, other(s), friendship, love, sex, and commitment. The study yielded a consistency in the men's responses: they did not wish to impose on other gay men their own convictions about being gay, sex, and intimate relationships. Their talk was tentative, localized, highly personal, and “nonjudgmental” on a range of identity and moral issues. These findings are discussed by relating the men's life experiences to the gay culture they shared: their unwillingness to judge others reflects their own formative experiences of “coming out” in a society that judged gay men harshly and who, in later years, lived at the time of the AIDS crisis.

It's official – my sister is black. It says so in the second paragraph of the autopsy report – “The body is that of a normally developed obese black female whose appearance is compatible with the recorded age of 41 years.” OK, the obese part we knew – but black? This finding was confirmed on her death certificate as well: there in black and white the word “Black” in the Race category. It's ironic that my sister achieved in death what had eluded her in life: an official, unambiguous racial identity.

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