Sunday, May 4, 2014

Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more. Peter G. Ossorio

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.  Bob Dylan

The Degradation Ceremonies of everyday life don’t look like ceremonies. Instead, they look like how we treat people as not one of us, how we deliberately or inadvertently assign the status that someone is not in good standing with what we believe we represent. 

Social interactions are framed by status assignments that address the place we have in each other's worlds.  Are you good enough, are you worthy of being one of us?  Am I?  
Harold Garfinkel

The ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, writing about the sociology of moral indignation, described Degradation Ceremonies as rituals that remove people from a valued place and restrict their eligibility within a community.  Social practices that a person could previously perform are now limited or forbidden. After a successful Degradation Ceremony, the degraded person is not one of us. They fail to meet our standards.

What counts as a degradation ceremony?  How do they vary? Let's employ a Paradigm Case Formulation (PCF). PCFs provide a method for capturing a wide range of related content in situations where simple definitions might prove inadequate.  A PCF consists of a description that all competent judges would agree contains all the necessary elements that mark the case in question. The goal is to provide a starting point of agreement.  Generally, it should consist of the most complex case, an indubitable case, or a primary or archetypal case.  It should be a sort of “By God, if there were ever a case of “X”, then that’s it.”  When the complete paradigm of a degradation ceremony is performed, there's little doubt that the degraded has undergone restriction. When less than the full case is employed, the outcome is less clear. I think the less than full case informs everyday engagement. While moving though the day with a welcome greeting or a dismissive glance, we let each other know where we stand. Whether obvious, subtle, intended or not, our stances and actions can degrade or accredit those we encounter.  

The full PCF identifies the "official" degradation ceremony. Altering the paradigm helps us understand other more mundane degradations as well.  

Here's the full paradigm:

Notice that degradations are social practices that involve a community's shared values. To be one of us in a particular role carries the expectation that we value certain states of affairs in a similar way. As fathers, we value our children; as police, we respect and enforce the law; as friends, we trust and go out of our way to engage and play with our buddies; as Boy Scouts, we are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And so on.  We all have varied roles and are members of multiple communities. I have a friend who was once a scout and is now a father and a cop. 

Some roles comfortably coexist, and some do not. Conflict is more or less inevitable. Life is complicated this way. I may feel degraded in some roles but not others. 

We play our roles and demonstrate our values through our actions. We take it that true membership requires more than lip service to these values. We walk the talk. Whether or not our performance reflects our true colors, the choices we appear to make define what others see as our character. 

In any community there are people who are obviously the real McCoy, who serve as exemplars of what it takes to be in good standing. They are the ones most eligible to denounce transgression and to witness, acknowledge, or enforce the transgressor's removal from privilege. In the classic ceremony, they perform these roles in public. 

Here's the paradigmatic ceremony:

Garfinkel's full ceremony is deliberately done out loud and in public, but it can be accomplished quietly, discreetly, silently, ambiguously, or perhaps unconsciously. It can be unintentional or performed by mistake. Certainly, two people can do this to each other. 

Since the ceremony involves social roles, a person can play the different parts. People can play this out by themselves and to themselves. I can recognize my transgressions, my own moral failings, denounce myself, and restrict myself accordingly. I might not be good enough for myself regardless of how you see me.

Some Effects of Degradation:

The degraded are prone to anxiety and depression.  They have lost something significant; their world of valued action is now smaller.   This depression corresponds to lost eligibility, the loss in esteem that reflects the restricted ability to do what the community values.  An important role cannot be fully performed. The experience of satisfaction that comes with the successful accomplishment of a valued role cannot be achieved.   Sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, guilt, emptiness, resentment, and other kindred moods and emotions are part of the package. 

Anxiety attends the insecurity of inhabiting an unfortunate place in the social world. This insecurity follows from being seen as incompetent to maintain the values of the community along with the expectation of an absence of support when confronting tasks that only members in good standing are permitted. Members in good standing have each other's back and are expected to be competent players. The degraded no longer have that support or opportunity.

When the degraded find themselves in the company of members of the valued community they often exhibit signs of inferiority and rejection. Encounters become awkward.  The recognition of stiltedness intensifies whatever anxiety is present. Since the rhythm of gesture and speech that flows among peers is broken, engagement is skew. 

The degraded may develop a paranoid expectation of harsh judgment, making social contact even more awkward and defensive.  It is no wonder they end up lonely.

Anger, hostility and rage may also be present and serve as a move to negate the degradation. To the extent I have nothing, I may have nothing to lose. 

Threatened degradation elicits self-affirmation. Attacking the integrity of the denouncer or blinding the witness are reasonable responses to attempted degradation. Excuses that the so-called transgressive performance is misunderstood, not in character, or a result of mitigating or coercing forces are understandably attempted. It is not for you to say, and I had no choice, may counter the threat of being degraded. 

In the paradigm of the degradation ceremony the denouncer describes the act in value laden terms. Appropriation is theft, death is murder, an absence of assertive response is cowardice, and so on. The perpetrator has reason not only to disown the offending act but to re-describe it as something else. It is not what you are calling it. You don't know what you're talking about. You've got it wrong, that's not what I did. 

The Ceremony May Be Taken as The Natural Order of Things (Or As Already Happened).

Degradation can be taken for granted as the moral inferiority inherent in a community or as stigma passed down through generations. The chauvinisms of sexual orientation, physical appearance, gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, and the indoctrinations of virulent religion and nationalism convey status inherited and degraded. Children who see their parents as occupying an unfortunate social place may see themselves as "born to lose".  Or they may be seen as such, regardless of their merit. 
Community chauvinisms establish the additional barrier of some people being inherently ineligible to acquire full good standing. No matter what you do, you are never really one of us.

If people are born into an untouchable condition, a position of shame and degradation can seem the natural order of things with the choices people make reflecting this unjust status assignment. Rarely is the world a level playing field, but for some the rules are unfair from the get-go. 

Some people simply know their place. And some look around and say fuck you. If I start life degraded, maybe I'll rise up and rebel or perhaps I'll accept my degradation and make the best of it, whether you like it or not. I might find a community where I'm welcome while keeping in mind the degradations foisted on me by yours. I need a place where I belong. We both might suffer the consequences. 

What Is The Degraded Left To Do?

If the degradation is accepted by the community and perpetrator, the fundamental problem for the degraded is how to regain status or tolerate the status assigned. Since the paradigm case involves the claim that the transgressive acts were in character, one path for the perpetrator is to show the deplorable deeds were not in character or that the character of the perpetrator has changed. Since we generally hold that character is stable over time, this presents a fundamental barrier to regaining a favorable place. It will take time.  

It is also possible for the degraded to reassign the significance of what is valued. What was once desirable or transgressive no longer matters that way. This can look like sour grapes or gay pride.

One first step in regaining status is to show that the perpetrator's actions may have reflected a transgression of the community's values, but none the less, these values remain important to the perpetrator. Acknowledgments of guilt, through penance and restitution, accompanied by the acceptance of punishment are forms of action that may be required. Non-recidivism is key but may be difficult to demonstrate since the opportunity to continue in the valued role has been restricted. Time will tell. Different judges have different criteria for what passes as sufficient demonstration of dues paid and character changed. 

I've hardly mentioned the varied ways we degrade each other. We treat people as invisible, dismissible, of no consequence; as inferior, not worthy of attention, as sources to an end worth only our desire and use. 

When we treat strangers as already known and pegged, we degrade them by our transferences, typecasts and stereotypes. When we invalidate, we degrade. 

A degradation may be just or unjust, but when it follows from unexamined pre-judgment, it is inherently unjust. Degradation is a natural companion to not treating people, all people, I to Thou. In some social interactions, this hardly matters. While in line at the counter, I only need to be polite, maybe kind. But with people I meet frequently or intimately, where inter-dependence counts, where we share common community, it always matters.  The erosions of degrading encounter grind us down. The fuzzy line that draws a boundary of community should not be taken lightly or for granted. I should be careful not to assume you aren't my brother or sister or peer.

I wish I could claim success in not degrading others, but like kindness and my attention to empathy, it's a work in progress. It takes practice. 

The concept of micro-aggression has meanings similar to the degradation ceremonies of everyday life. Degradation covers a broad terrain not restricted to aggression, but if by aggression we mean the assertion of privilege to put others in their place, the territories are the same. 

Later, I hope to take up accreditation ceremonies and the function of attention, empathy, negotiation and moral dialog in accreditation and affirmation. My earlier thoughts with commentary on the role of these ceremonies in psychotherapy can be found in the essay, Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of PassagePsychiatry, 1979.  Also note Harold Garfinkel's Conditions for Successful Degradation Ceremonies, American Journal of Sociology, 1956.  And see, Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner's Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 2010.

I have discussed the use of Paradigm Case Formulations in the entry, Empathy and the Problem of Definition.  The Descriptive Psychology concept of "community" is central to an understanding of the context of social roles and gives actions their particular meaning. Anthony Putman's essay, Communities, Advances in Descriptive Psychology, 1981, clarifies this vital concept.

Consider this Harvard Study on Depression and Discrimination:

But here's a song by John Hiatt, asking, is anybody there? Are you good enough?  It resonates.


  1. Wynn: A wonderful job of getting across the concept and its importance. Keith Davis

  2. Nice, thorough discussion. I offer couple of small objections or clarifications, and one example from fiction I recently found very illuminating.

    The complaint: you talk about inhabiting an unfortunate position as a matter of personal incompetence. It's not a matter of competence at all; competence refers to skills. The degraded person does not lack the skills to engage in practices now outside their eligibility; their competence has not changed. What they lack is, specifically, the eligibility to live some aspect of their lives. They are not *allowed* to do those things (either by themselves, their community, or both).

    It would be better, I think, to not refer to the person's world as the "social world." That makes it sound like a person has two worlds, one social, one something else (personal?). Not so. A person has one world, and only one, though of course it included publicly visible social practices and others with no visible performance (much like mental arithmetic has no visible performance). A paradigm case degradation succeeds in changing the person's public standing negatively AND in changing what *they* consider their standing to be. Talking about "social world" blurs that picture, and the lack of clarity is harmful.

    The fictional story: a book by David Marks depicts a young woman whose world is essentially devoid of anything she finds meaningful or satisfying. To bring some kind of thrill or enjoyment to a life that looks like an endless Chicago winter, she engages in every kind of sex, in sex clubs and thought online hookups. Encountering a guy in a normal situation, who tries to establish a normal friend/dating relationship, she is confused and at sea, with no idea what to make of it. It's an extraordinarily effective portrayal of life *as* a thoroughly degraded person. What struck me is that woman does not experience herself as having lost something; to her, this is simply how the world *is* -- and always has been. And that's the hallmark of the accepted degradation: "I am *and always have been* this kind of person."

  3. I have been talking a lot lately about how one of the sources of anger for PTSD is degradation entailed in living with PTSD, beyond whatever degradation was involved in the traumatic experience itself. People with PTSD experience themselves as being treated as though they were crazy or liars, as their world does not make sense to the people who they interact with (and are appraised by). Ralph Wechsler

  4. Having had a little more time to think about this, I'll amend my earlier comments. Though Garfinkel identifed the degradation ceremony, to see the full power of the concept you need the reformulation by Ossoro in terms of the full articulation of the concept of community, and especially of World. Specifically, the devastating power of degradation stems from the fundmental fact that a person has a world and a place in it, and a degradation is a loss of one's place or, equivalently, a loss of a part of one's world. It's incorrect to refer to that as the person's "social world." It's their world, period. Your discussion would be much stronger if located within Descriptive Psychology, not where it originated.

    I's also suggest revising some of the language, because it obscures the real issues. For example, "roles" and "playing our roles" is misleading social psychology jargon. In the ordinary case, people act as what their are -- act on their statuses in communities they're members of, That is not the concept of "role," other than perhaps as a term of art in social psych. Roles are taken up or put aside; one does not take up or put aside what one is. We do not perform roles; we act as what we are.

    Through-line language is equally unfortunate; it is a misleading abstraction that obscures the actual question, which is, "What sort of person is this?" That's not a through-line question. It's a question of character.

    Finally, a couple of things need correcting. Depresson does not *follow from* loss of eligibility; depression **is** lost of eligibility. Self-esteem is self-concept, the position one takes oneself to occupy in one's world; it does not "attend" the degradation, it's the direct result of degradation. And the fundamental problem for the degraded is how to get their status back; it's how to live, in their newly acquired status. Sometimes that may mean acting to "get their own back." But only sometimes.

    1. Joe, I think you are identifying a set of issues that I will underscore and then leave alone for a bit. The first is that basic interdependent Descriptive concepts, if fully (or at least more so) articulated, provide better conceptual elegance and technical precision. But as you point out, this would require the full articulation of the concepts of "Community" and "World", neither concept having been adequately explored in either this writing or elsewhere in this blog. I will post a place where the reader can go to get a better handle on these key concepts. "Status" has also not been throughly articulated.

      That said, I suspect that the use of concepts such as "social world" and "roles" are useful and have enough shared meaning that readers understand the idea without distortion.

      I also continue to see the "through-line" concept as identifying aspects of character not identical to a full characterization of character. This is why there can be a dynamic interplay among "through-lines". Again, as I stated above and explore further in my 1979 publication, degradation has an uneven effect on a person. Some roles and their significance are relatively independent of others, some antagonistic, in conflict, or complementary. This is why degradation creates a personal "status dynamic" as I wrote about back in 1979 and elsewhere in this blog.

      My use of "follow from" and "attend" does not seem to me to be logically incorrect and does feel empirically proper. Social eligibility can be restored in the eyes of the community with all abilities intact, while the person still feels and acts depressed. Depression is tricky. And the degraded have a variety of problems from how to tolerate life in their new unfortunate place to how to regain the lost standing either though some sort of rehabilitation or by acquiring some other valued significance.

    2. Having thought a little more about this, Joe's comments regarding the use of "follow from" and "attend" have resulted in my editing my statement about depression to reflect his conceptual insight. Thanks, Joe.

    3. Since I have removed the paragraph that concerned "through-lines" from this entry, a continuation of the discussion between Joe and me can be found at the end of April's "Through-Lines, the Dramaturgical Pattern and the Structure of Improvisation: A work in progress."

  5. Thank you for this article. I am currently in a situation that is making me explore situations to try and seek balance and justice for a previous 'degradation ceremony' that is now occupying my thoughts and this article that I stumbled upon has come some way in helping me see things from a different perspective as in what has occurred, but I am looking for a way forward and am having some confusing reactions. Perhaps I should explain.
    I live in a small seemingly friendly seaside town on the S.E. coast of England. We have a town council and a town Mayor and these are all elected by the people. Over the years the same people are in and out of office and it ticks along without to much notice. The Councillors and mayor have day jobs (if of an age) or are retired. Many of the Councillors also sit of the board of trustee's for local charitable organisations. 4 years ago 3 Councillors (one being the chairman of a board of trustee's, the other 2 being trustees of a local charity) made a terrible decision when they boarded up an 82 year old widow in her home of over thirty years. The town was outraged and the response from all the Councillors was to set about in the ''biggest degradation ceremony this town ever saw. They spoke in the press and the chairman made statements on T.V. and in the museum window with the most horrid comments which later proved to be lies following a legal challenge. A group of people decided to look at every thing they said and done and after 6 months had come up with so much evidence of wrong doing, not following the rules etc and eventually the legal case The lady was proven innocent and they had to compensate her. She was a reasonable woman and didn't want to bankrupt the charity, she just wanted her right to light and legal right of way restored which she got, but they did have legal fee's to pay which they passed on to the charity and the charity is struggling to pay the loans back for the legal fee's. The trustees were booted out of the museum but remained on the council but kept there heads down so to speak. Two weeks ago however, the council made the decision to select the ring leader of those terrible events to be the Mayor of our town. To me this is just another degradation ceremony against the justice that was finally found. Not that the old lady really benefited, her health was affected so much she was put on antidepressants had huge anxiety issues and eventually had to remain in the nursing home her twilight years robbed robbed from her. What I find worse is that the people of the town still accept these terrible decisions. Bystander apathy at its worst. A petition was started and basically all it was about was asking the council to make a public record of the fact that we disagreed with their selection of mayor as it was seen as an honourable position and this man had behaved dishonourably. Trying to get people to sign it has proved slow. Despite the townsfolk never hearing the full facts as the local newspaper doesn't like to get involved politically, a stand in the town for 6 months that regularly showed 3rd party independent evidence of facts had been well visited so people did know the truth. Why would they want to honour him. I see it as a smack in the face to just and the old lady.

  6. I cannot find how to edit my post, the last line was meant to read ' I see it as a smack in the face of justice and the old lady.

    See my blog for further details.

  7. Interesting post. What you describe as a "degradation ceremony" seems to me to be the human moral system in action. I see this from a very different perspective then you or most of your readers because I'm interested in the origins and foundation of morality in humans. Being empathetic to the victim, and living in modern society we tend to see this exclusion and stereotyping as a negative phenomenon. Now we have many social institutions to deal with these issues to protect people from the negative effects of these degradations, such as psychotherapy.

    Originally this might have been what made us human - the ability to collectively punish and isolate wrong-doers. Because, if we didn't have some way to temporarily or permanently exclude wrong-doers, society would not have been viable. All the rest that came with it - the loss of social status, the damage to one's identity, the psychological breakdown, and the powerful motivation not to commit wrongs - are all part of the original moral system package. I think that this part of our social nature goes back a long way, meaning millions of years.