So the terrible events of Hurricane Harvey in Texas are on everyone’s mind this week, and justly so. While the extent of the disaster could not have been predicted or prevented, human action (and inaction) unfortunately exacerbated the damaging effects. Climate change and global warming, city infrastructure problems, the lack of city planning, a disconnect between the science and research about the probable effects of the flood and local officials’ knowledge about the potential dangers, the list goes on.
However, what interests me most in this calamity is the effect of the breakdown of social order on the individuals affected. Disasters force all sorts of privations on their victims, lack of food, clean water, shelter, and medical care would seem to be the hardest to bear. These are primal, physical needs that need to be satisfied for humans to survive. However, something (rather morbidly) interesting was revealed during the previous catastrophic flood in New Orleans in 2005, most notably in the Superdome. Even when physical survival isn’t imminently in danger (there were no deaths attributed to starvation or dehydration), the breakdown of social order can create an environment that feels like, in the words of one reporter, a hellhole. On the other hand, the breakdown of social order also fosters acts of heroism, both by individuals and groups of coordinated strangers.
The extremes of human behavior that emerge from these types of situations display how social organization provides channels for our impulses, emotions, and behaviors that are generally helpful to human flourishing yet also sets limits on what we can do. When order breaks down, both remarkably destructive and constructive behaviors can break out in individuals.
Two sociologists who address these issues in an interesting way are George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman. In his “Mind, Self, and Society,” Mead traces the development of the individual self out of social interaction, arguing that there can never be the latter without the former. Mead argues that it is the ability to create and understand symbols that distinguish us from other creatures. Language is the primary symbolic system that organizes, precisely: mind, self, and society. Through language the infant learns to make things happen with the repetition of sounds that s/he has observed having made things happen before (“No!” being a notable example). Symbols are what give us our sense of time – we draw from our past experience to inform an action in the present that is designed to make something happen in the future. According to Mead (and others) symbolic formation is the first stage in human development; that is, learning to speak (to use symbols) sets the building blocks for the rest of our individual and social development. One we have a grasp of symbols (around 2 years of age), children can begin to observe that these symbols are organized in different ways by the different people in their lives. It is not a coincidence that the first games kids play is “house”; for Mead, this is evidence of the first understanding of social roles. Here children act out their observation that the symbols mother and father use are specific and organized – they say things that the others in their lives don’t and (of course this is all implicit) what they say implies a specific role for the child as well. The next stage of development is the “game” stage. Children about 7 years of age start to play actual games, with multiple players and a set of rules that everyone must follow. For Mead, this is the final stage in the development of the self, where children learn to interact with multiple roles and understand their place within this system, and are also able to understand that there is a system of rules (the “Generalized Other”) that everyone must follow. For Mead, playing games is a serious matter: it is practice for life. Games prepare us to follow the norms of our social group and manage interactions with others as adults.
When disaster strikes, social roles are not totally eliminated, but they are substantially flattened out. Of course you are never without a social role, but in a crisis such as Harvey or Katrina, society is reduced to a large part to two roles: victim and rescuer. Now this leads to Erving Goffman….
Goffman is best known for his “Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life” in which he uses the dramaturgical perspective to analyze everyday interactions, that is, to quote a very famous playwright, in life “all the world is [indeed!] a stage…” Most interesting for us here is his idea that every role a person plays puts some behaviors on the “front stage” (what people see), while relegating other behaviors to the “back stage,” not to be shown to your interlocutor while inhabiting your role. Now this is a fascinating way to look at human interaction. It explains embarrassment, for example, which happens when behaviors that are supposed to be safely shut away on the back stage slip out onto the front stage (bodily functions being perhaps the funniest example and Turrets’ syndrome an unfortunately perfect example of this phenomenon as a disease). So put these two theories together and you get a thought-provoking explanation of what happens during extreme situations such as natural disasters.
People are not familiar with the roles of victim or rescuer (apart from professional rescuers, who, interestingly enough, formed the minority of rescuers for both Katrina and Harvey). Therefore their management of backstage and frontstage is imperfect. Emotions, both good and bad, rush out, no longer locked in from years of socializing. Deep, intense bonds can be forged because of this, and shocking violence can also emerge.
This breakdown of established social roles, elimination of hierarchy, and ambiguity about how to inhabit one’s new role doesn’t only happen in disasters. Political rallies and protests, summer camps, and cults are all examples of situations when a person slips out of the social roles s/he inhabits in their everyday life and joins a group linked mainly horizontally, as equals, with no clear set of conventions to follow. This can release a sense of exhilaration, as people can re-invent themselves, discover new aspects of themselves, and feel free and open and connected with the group. The military (boot camp), colleges (orientation week full of “trust falls” and other bonding activities, and companies (office retreats) all draw from these sociological principles and seek to harness the benefits of the increased enthusiasm and energy and social connection for their own purposes.
Generally, this level of energy cannot be sustained, as individuals soon carve out more predictable roles for themselves: constant improvisation is exhausting. However, these types of experiences often have lasting consequences and can be identity-changing. The Quaker camp I attended during the summers when I was 11 to 14 gave me a taste of this sociological process – I became quite a different person as a camper among campers, freed from my roles of bossy big sister, sulky daughter, reluctant prep school student… and became (I think) more adventurous, more trusting, and happier with myself, having seen parts of myself that had had no avenue of expression in my everyday life.
How about you? In your experience, do these sociological principles hold? Have you ever been in a situation where you shed all your everyday roles and surprised yourself with what you could be and who you could connect with?