Garfinkel Degradation Ceremonies

Garfinkel, Harold "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies," AJS 61:420-424.

Degradation ceremonies. Moral indignation — social affect. Any affect has its behavioral paradigm; for shame it is withdrawal and taking cover. For moral indignation it is public denunciation. Point is ritual destruction of the person denounced, transformation of his total identity, what he is as a social object, destruction of one object and creation of another.

"Now, it was otherwise in the first place." — former identity stands as accidental; the new identity is the "basic reality."

Garfinkel's question is: What is required for a good denunciation? Here are the things the denouncer must do:

  1. Get the witnesses to appreciate the perpetrator and the blameworthy event as instances of an extraordinary uniformity, that is, not as unique instances but as an example of a type;
  2. The type must be shown to be devalued by contrasting it with its dialectical opposite. Two ingredients are essential — the obviousness of the opposition and the goodness, desirability or sacredness of the opposite. Don't let the witness choose — which is good and which is bad has to go without saying.
  3. The denouncer has to speak not as a private individual but as a representative of the social community. He delivers his denunciation in the name of the supra-personal values of the group.
  4. The denouncer must show that he has a right to speak for the group, that he himself is a supporter of the values in question.
  5. The denouncer must fix his distance from the denounced and do the same for his witnesses.
  6. The denounced person must be ritually separated, made an outsider, made strange.

The ideal type of degradation ceremony that Garfinkel describes is closest to the loud public denunciation we sometimes see when, say, a politician falls from grace in a scandal. Limited versions of these ceremonies occur all the time in uncivil arguments and in sleazy newspapers. And, the article reads like a how-to manual for negative political campaigning.

Usefulness? In analyzing rhetoric and rhetorical strategies of moral entrepeneurs. Also, as he notes in his closing sentence, a schema like this shows us both how to construct an effective denunciation, and how to render a denunciation useless.

Might be interesting to compare the steps outlined by Garfinkel with the processes behind one of the steps in Harold Bloom's The Poetics of Influence.