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Stephen Harold Riggins “The Power of Things”

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Riggins, Stephen Harold 1990. The Power of Things: The Role of Domestic Objects in the Presentation of Self. – Riggins, Stephen Harold (ed). Beyond Goffman: Studies in Communication, Institution and Social Interaction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter: 341-368

Both Goffman and symbolic interactionists stress the ’negotiation’ of social experience by people whi are in each other’s immediate presence. The meaning of an object is thus established through human interaction primarily in situations in which the object is used and conversely the meaning of interaction can be mediated and/or structured by artifacts. (343)

The analysis of material artifacts draws one’s attention beyond the immediate present to the influence of people absent in intimate situations, to the past, and to signs which are more than self-referential. (346 – mutual presence/interaction without being physically copresent)

Categories of symbols (Goffman):

1)      Status objects – For Goffman, status symbols have significance because they ’express’ a style of life and cultural values. As symbols of prestige, they represent the social solidarity of one group and the exclusion of others. Practically any material artifact can be classified as a status object because nearly all objects convey information relevant to status ranking. (347-348)

2)      Esteem objects – Esteem symbols show hoe well a person fulfills general duties irrespective of rank. […] In terms of domestic objects, this category would include displays of occupational achievement awards, but it could be expanded to include exhibits of achievement in the intimate spheres of life. Publicly displaying greeting cards and art by relatives and friends would be examples. (349)

3)      Occupational objects – Given the crucial role work plays in the identity of many people, this is an important category even though it would probably not include many domestic artifacts. Tools displayed in the home of someone who uses them professionally would be an example. (349)

4)      Indigenous objects and exotic objects – […] an object-saturated environment of indigenous objects can also function in the same [status-representing] manner if it indicates an exceptional knowledge of a region or long-term residence. A mixture of the indigenous and cosmopolitan may say as much about reference groups and attitudes to the local society as about prestige. (350)

5)      Collective objects – This category refers to artifacts which represent community ties. (350)

6)      Stigma objects – Material artifacts are associated with identities which are ‘spoiled’, in either a moral or physical sense, by deviant activities or physical disabilities. Examples would include: crutches, canes, books in Braille, syringes. (350)

7)      Disidentifying objects. – To be able to publicly present the self through objects implies the possibility of deliberate self-misrepresentation. This can be accomplished in part by displaying disidentifying symbols, objects which disassociate a person from any undesired attribute. (350-351) – scholarly looking spectacles worn by illiterate people.

8)      Alien use – Goffman distinguished between the ‘official’ and ‘alien’ uses of objects. The former is the original use objects are intended to have by their makers; the latter is any unintended use such as a lamp fashioned out of discarded plumbing. (351)

9)      Social facilitators (G: ‘safe supply’) – A safe supply is an activity involving objects, such as knitting or smoking a pipe, that people use to fill potentially awkward silences in group interaction. (351)

Intrinsic qualities of individual objects (Beyond Goffman):

1)      Time indicators. – The passage of time through a domestic environment can be traced in several ways, first through time or timing devices (clocks, timers, metronomes), second by various natural or conventional temporal indices. […] The term temporal homogeneity can be used to refer to an environment in which artifacts appear to have been produced at about the same time or made to appear that way. Temporal heterogeneity is the mixing of objects manufactured at different times […] (352)

2)      Size and proportions. – The meanings of objects are affected by size because users/viewers apparently compare them to their customary dimensions. They can be assessed with respect to two extremes: miniaturization and monumentality. (353)

3)      Way of production. – handmade vs mass production (353)

4)      Modes and degrees of agency. – Mode refers to whether an object requires an action as its complement (active) or does not (passive). (353)

Even if each individual object can be viewed as being endowed with intrinsic qualities, it should not be forgotten that objects are never perceived in isolation. It is therefore necessary to set forth a secondary category of dimensions of objects: that of display syntax or how objects are displayed in relation to each other. (354)

1)      Co-location. – […] the placement of two or more objects in the same perceived space […] (355)

2)      Highlighting and understanding. – The term highlighting will be used to refer to display technics which attract attention to individual objects or to groups of objects. Understating is defined as deflecting attention from artifacts. (355)

3)      Clustering and dispersing.

The final sets of dimensions are more global than the preceding ones; they are general mood-setters for a range of interactions. (356)

1)      Status consistency. – A democratic ethos can be conveyed by the display of objects chosen primarily for sentimental reasons or by treating objects of widely varying value in the same way. An adherence to elitism can be conveyed by avoiding objects of primarily sentimental value and publicly displaying only prestige artifacts. (356)

2)      Degree of conformism. – By exhibiting objects in domestic settings owners display conformity or non-conformity to the current or traditional rules of interior decoration. (356)

3)      Referencing and mapping. – It appears that two general procedures are followed when speakers tell stories about their domestic objects. In one case artifacts are used by the speakers to qualify the self as knowledgeable. […] Alternatively, speakers may give stories in which objects are continually related to themselves. […] The term mapping refers to this type of verbal account. Mapping may be seen as a subcategory of referencing in that it consists of referencing the self. Only humans can map objects. But objects can reference other objects in the sense that they provide information that allows one to construct meanings. As mapping and referencing deal with objects and relations which are absent, they are the opposite of co-location, a concept dealing with artifacts which are in one another’s proximity. (357)

4)      Flavor. – […] a global category which summarizes the general intuitive impression of an inhabited room […] (357) The term flavor has the advantage of referring to a range of identifiable but elusive qualities whose reality is undeniable. One might distinguish between the deprived, minimal, or bohemian flavor of a home, to mention only houses with few objects. Flavor is the broadest category in this paper. All other categories should be seen as its subcategories […] (358)