The issue of maintaining law and order is as old as the origins of civil society. While a large majority of the population are law abiding and conform to the social norms of the times, there is always an underbelly of disorderly conduct on part of a disturbed minority. As the process of urbanization takes off and more people start residing in major cities, the fissures start to appear within the apparent harmonious co-existence. There are several reasons why disorderly conduct on part of individuals and groups takes place. Sociologists have proposed numerous theories explaining this phenomenon. This essay will pertain itself to the contrasting viewpoints presented by the theories of Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault by citing real instances that support their theory.
Erving Goffman was an astute observer of society, who immersed himself in the social environment which he was studying. He carefully observed and recorded the ways in which people’s behavior and interpersonal interactions are carried out in everyday life. He notes that “people perform their social roles and, as they do so, they produce social order through their actions and the regular practices they engage in. Often these ways of acting and interacting are unnoticed and only become apparent when they are breached or broken. Not all social life is cooperative, some is competitive and sometimes there is conflict, but generally people are able to negotiate breaches and restore order” (Staples, et. Al., p.48). A prominent example of this theory in action is available to us from the works of Charles Dickens. His works are relevant to the discussion of contemporary Britain, for the process of modernization and urbanization of Britain was started during the author’s lifetime, aspects of which are reflected in his writings. Dickens too immersed himself in the social environment that he was observing and brought out astute insights into the nature of London street-life. Moreover, Dickens chose characters from lower strata of society for his stories, who are the most likely to engage in disorderly conduct (Alia & Bull, 2005, p.56)). In many ways, the nineteenth century London street-life described by Dickens, serves to validate the theory of Goffman and the latter’s view of social order and disorder.
It is no irony that as Britain’s empire expanded to all corners of the world in the nineteenth century, the city of London was taxed beyond its adequacy, subjecting itself to social disorder. As opposed to other prominent writers of the Victorian age, Dickens mastered the art of capturing London’s street life. Ugly, squalid and beneath dignity at times, life in London at the time was a real challenge. In the novels of Dickens, as well as in the memoirs of his own early life, one can clearly see the first instances of the problem posed by modernization. Dickens’ novels were as much works of fiction as they were documentations of the underbelly of the most prosperous empire of the time. Highly crowded slums such as St. Giles and Seven Dials were notorious for criminal activity. In this atmosphere of grinding poverty, congested dwelling places, unhygienic food sources and constant threat from criminals, such unsavory professions as prostitution are inevitable. Prostitution also played a role in easily spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Interestingly, these aspects of the greater London metropolis is as true today as it was during the nineteenth century, which suggests that the root causes of social disorder have remained more or less the same through these years (Alia & Bull, 2005, p.56). For example, while London during the reign of British empire has emigres from colonies across the world, in modern London one can see China Towns, Pakistani neighborhoods, Professional Indians’ suburbia, illegal East Europeans’ havens, etc. These communities try their best to remain secluded from the mainstream, creating problems for city administrators who are keen to assimilate immigrants into the mainstream. This aspect of social seclusion of certain minority groups is relevant in the context of Goffman’s assertion that “Sometimes people perform differently and new forms of coordination based on new rules and practices can arise. So, disorder is a breach or break in established ways of doing things and is something that gets repaired in the flow of the interactional order.” (Staples, et. Al., p.49)
A contrasting theoretical viewpoint to that of Goffman’s was presented by the French philosopher and social scientist Michel Foucault, who laid emphasis on the systemic and institutional settings within which social interactions take place. He asserted that to understand the micro-level functioning of society one has to look at wider levels, particularly questions related to power. In contrast to Goffman, Foucault examined “how social order is shaped and organised by authoritative knowledge, particularly forms of knowledge that are put to work in social and political institutions. Discourses and institutions are forms of power – the sovereign power of the state, the expert knowledge embedded in institutions and the surveillance they exercise, and the disciplinary power that arises when people internalise these discourses and govern themselves in ways based on individual self-control” (Staples, et. Al., p.49)
One such institutions that Foucault talks about is the mass media and how it wields its power in defining what is social order and disorder. A major cause of social unrest in the modern multicultural Britain is the issue of race and ethnicity. The British media – both print and electronic mediums – has also been criticized for its reluctance to discuss openly issues of race and ethnicity in its programmes. The advent of new mediums of communication too has not made a significant contribution toward racial conciliation in Britain. The tendency of the native British to maintain their unique cultural identity has had pervasive effects. In the political front, Britain is still holding on to Pound Sterling even as the rest of Europe is integrating economically and thereby becoming stronger. In the social realm, “the issue of racism has become a latent one, lurking behind media discussions and TV programmes such as the recent five-part BBC White Season” which focused on what the BBC termed ‘the disappearing White Britain’, and the media’s examination of the 40th anniversary of the infamous speech by the controversial Tory politician, Enoch Powell, who spoke about ‘rivers of blood’ if immigration into the UK was not halted” (Biney, 2008, p.89).
In spite of London gaining a reputation for its cosmopolitan demography, the issues of race and ethnicity have not been superseded, thereby leading to tension between communities and even sometimes to hate-crimes. With the formation of the European Union and the attendant flux of immigrants from the Continent, British cosmopolitanism is met with an unprecedented challenge. Supporting Foucault’s view of the role of powerful institutions in defining social disorder, the mainstream media and right-wing political parties seem bent on perpetrating xenophobic fears among the native population. For example, these institutions have portrayed Eastern European workers in a particularly unfair way. Despite statistics from independent agencies showing that “Britain has accommodated the huge influx with comparatively few real, as distinct from perceived problems–and crime has actually fallen in England and Wales by 9% in the past recorded year” (Alia & Bull, 2005, p.25), newspapers carry disproportionately high reports on petty crimes committed by Eastern European workers, which is duly amplified by political rhetoric from Tory party-men. It is true that the erstwhile communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe have low literacy levels and that they come to Britain in search of low-paying manual work (Biney, 2008, p.87). But the British media and polity has unfairly extrapolated the low socio-economic profile of these ethnic groups to indicate criminal tendencies (Biney, 2008, p.87).
Similarly, some critics have asserted that the BBC is systematically biased in favour of Christianity and against Islam. This assessment was prompted by the public broadcaster’s dress code policy for newsreaders. According to Mark Thompson, the former Director General of the BBC, “the BBC does not object to newsreaders wearing small religious symbols, whether crosses, crescents or Stars of David. But we do not believe it would be appropriate for a newsreader to wear a veil over the face, not because we favour one religion over another but because we believe it would distract from the presentation of the news” (Thompson, 2006, p.42). To be fair to the BBC, the criticisms of ethno-religious bias in this case does seem far fetched. But such instances are exceptions rather than the rule and have to be evaluated in the backdrop of Foucault’s observation that “by looking at how discourses and institutions change, and the different forms of power they mobilise, the question of how social orders differ and change, and with what consequences for people’s lives, can be addressed directly. Further, people are not the authors of society, they are not even the authors of their own actions, as the scripts or discourses they are governed by are formed independently of anyone’s purposes”.(Staples, et. Al, p.50)
Finally, the aforementioned phenomenon of convenient type casting of entire communities and groups extends beyond the realm of race and ethnicity and into gender as well. For example, there is a tendency in British media to label young women who are found guilty of violent offences as ‘ladettes’. The media houses believe that this is a consequence of the new set of attitudes and behaviour adopted by some women characters in television programmes. It should be remembered that “these images explicitly portray female aggression as an instrumental act in contrast to the traditionally expressive stereotype of female aggression” (Muncer, et. Al, 2001, p.33). Hence, it does appear that the theory postulated by Michel Foucault is more robust and thorough than that proposed by Ervine Goffman. Neither of them purported to offer a general theory of social order, but
“for both it is a result of fragments ordered in different ways. For Goffman, the fragments are individuals in social interaction; for Foucault, the fragments are discourses that organise knowledge and power. And neither theorist thought that there was a centre of power purposefully directing society: for Goffman, the making of social order is distributed across a range of different contexts of social interaction; according to Foucault, the fragments are the discourses that govern us and which we internalise in governing ourselves” (Staples et. al, p.51).