“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker

December 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mindhunter” makes it to Huffington Post’s list of the best shows you can stream in Netflix. I’m not sure what Hufflepuff’s criteria were, but obviously precision in sociological theory was not among them.

The show is set in the 1970s, and the mindhunter-in-chief’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford, is a sociology grad student at U Va. In Episode 1, she pretty much mangles Durkheim’s ideas about deviance.  (See “Debbie Does Durkheim”) Now in Episode 8, it’s Goffman.

In a scene in her apartment, Holden the mindhunter interrupts her studying – even though she has told him not to – to ask what she’s reading. Without turning from her desk she holds the book over her should to show him. It’s a classic – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Props to the props department for finding a copy with its original cover, though to be picky, Debbie probably would have bought it in paperback. After all, judging from the lighting, her budget doesn’t even allow her to use much electricity. Holden asks her to explain Goffman.


So far so good. Goffman argues that we can understand much about human interaction if we see it as drama. The question is why – why do we play these parts and play them in particular ways?


Oy. I dread any forthcoming episode when Debbie takes her qualifying exams. In Goffman’s dramaturgy we are motivated not by altruism or conformism. We are not primarily interested in making others feel good. Instead, we are trying to have others think well of us – or at least to have them form the impression of us that we want them to have. It’s not altruism so much as it is manipulation. It’s not conscious manipulation. We just don’t want others to get the wrong impression, which is another way of saying that we do want them to get the right impression. So we put on the costumes and speak the lines that will ensure that others think that we are the person we want them to think we are.

Confidence men and fraudsters provide the clearest example since their performance is deliberate, conscious, and cynical. But even the person who is sincere faces the same task of impression-management.

Let us now turn from the others to the point of view of the individual who presents himself before them. He may wish them to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels toward them, or to obtain no clear-cut impression; be may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud, get rid of, confuse, mislead, antagonize, or insult them. Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him.[emphasis added]

We “control the conduct of others” by playing our part.

This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. Thus, when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.[emphasis added]


For the presentation of self to work, it must be congruent with the setting. You’re going to have a hard time getting people to think you’re Willy Loman if the stage you walk onto is the set for “Wicked.” It’s Holden the Mindhunter, with zero sociology courses on his transcript, who is alert to this possibility.


The problem is not that Roger is a psychopath or pervert (though he may be). It’s that he’s giving the performance in the wrong setting. In fact, Goffman said something similar in Asylums, though I'm not really holding my breath waiting for Debbie’s summary.

Joan — An Old Name For a Young Pelvis

November 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name a mechanical vagina? It’s not a question most of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Or ever. But then, most of us are not trying to learn how to insert an IUD.

For her Vox podast “The Impact” Sarah Kliff recently visited a Delaware clinic for doctors and nurses who would be mastering the art of LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives). Inserting an IUD properly is an acquired skill – even gynecologists may be clumsy at first –  so the learners practice on artificial vaginas.  Ms Kliff, in the spirit of participatory journalism, was taking a stab at it. Here’s a brief excerpt from her attempt.  The “robotic pelvis” she was trying her hand on was named Joan.



LARCs are effective. After Colorado offered them free of charge in 2009, the rate of births and abortions among teens decreased by more than 40%. Among women 20-24, the decrease was 20%. (Source: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/cfpi-report)

The dramatic changes occurred mostly among Colorado’s youth. Very few of them were named Joan. Joan is not the name of a teenage girl. Teenage girls are named Emily, Hannah, Elizabeth, Taylor, Hannah. Among the young named Joan, boys outnumber girls by at least five to one. Joan used to be popular for girls. In the 1930s, it was consistently among the top ten. In her heyday, Joan accounted for 1-2% of all births, more than the most popular girls names today. Take that, Emma.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

That was the. For the past quarter-century, Joan hasn’t been in the top 1,000. The most common age for women named Joan is 78. Joans who might need an IUD or other LARC (green in the graph below) are far outnumbered by the Joans whose childbearing days are behind them. (I drew the fertility line at the generous age of 55.)


So why did the clinic in Delaware name their robotic pelvis Joan rather than Ashley or Madison (both in the top six among today’s 15-year olds)? I have no idea.

Special People

November 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I never thought that Trump’s “Pocohantas” joke was offensive. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought it was pretty good. It made fun of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to some slim strand of Cherokee lineage.

It’s as though, after one of Trump’s many statements about being highly intelligent (“I’m, like, a really smart person”), Sen. Warren had referred to him as “Einstein.” The slur is not against physicists. It’s against Trump for claiming to be something he is so obviously not.

At the ceremony to honor the Navaho code talkers yesterday, Trump hauled out the Pocohantas again yesterday at a its use-by date. But what was truly appalling yesterday was that he used the ceremony as an occasion to make a personal derogatory remark about a political enemy. Is that what the Navahos came for? Appalling, as I say, but not unexpected. And no doubt, Trump supporters will see it as more evidence that Trump is their kind of guy.

The more offensive line from Trump is what followed.

You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people. And from the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country.

Trump is being complimentary. But underlying the praise is the assumption that the Navaho are not like normal Americans. Imagine a politician addressing a gathering of Jewish leaders and saying, “You know, you Jews are special people. You’re incredible people.” My guess is that the Jews being honored might suddenly get kind of interested in their shoelaces.

“Special-needs” kids, “special ed” – we recognize these as euphemisms. But even when “special” is supposed to designate something positive, it still draws the line between “you” and “us.” And it’s “you” who are different.

When In Urfa . . . (Culture and Meaning)

November 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


A culture is a “meaning system.” A language gives meaning to sounds. A culture gives meaning to actions. What something means is a matter of interpretation. The same sound means different things in diferent languages. Ditto behavior.

When Elif Batuman walked around in Urfa, Turkey without a headscarf, she thought she was expressing her preferences in dress and perhaps her opinion about individualism, feminism, and the Turkish president. (See my post from earlier this week, “How Culture Works.” For Batuman to have worn the scarf would have meant that she was abandoning her ideas. That’s what it would have meant to her. To the people of Urfa, it would have meant only that she was exercising normal politeness.

Batuman herself eventually came to share this view, but only after she had been clued in by someone else – a woman of Turkish origin who was similarly secular, Westernized, and professional. Her mother.

Here is Batuman on “Fresh Air” describing the conversation.


Here’s the transcript.

The thought that I had in Urfa was what am I trying to show by going without a headscarf given that the people who see me without the headscarf have a completely different interpretation? Like, they don't know my ideas. They just know, oh, this is a person who is here and doesn't respect the way that we do things enough to, like, put this thing on her head.

Like it - and then it was funny because actually after I wrote that piece in The New Yorker, my mother read it. And I think of my mother as such a, like, a proud secularist person. And she's a scientist. And her mother studied literature. And I'm just so proud of her and of her mother. And she was like, I can't believe I didn't tell you to just wear a headscarf in Urfa.

And I was like, really? And she was like, of course. It's just - it's a common politeness. It's - they're people from the countryside. When you go there, of course you wear a head[scarf]. It's just a nice thing to do. And for her it was this thing about, like, niceness. And it wasn't this, like, anguished political thing that I'd been making it into

What does wearing a headscarf mean? Does it mean that the woman has abandoned her feminist beliefs, supporting the patriarchy, and endorsing a repressive, dictatorial president? Or does it mean that she’s just being nice?