SOAN Fall 2022 Colloquium Series: A Public Talk by Mark D. Jacobs, PhD

Follow the Secret: The Forms of Scandal

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 10:30 AM to 11:45 AM EST
Horizon Hall, #6325 or Zoom Meeting:

Scandals are generally conceived as abnormal or extraordinary events of transgression and/or societal reaction.  In my research, I propose to challenge that conception, by demonstrating that we live in an “age of scandal,” in large part because scandal represents what Ginsberg and Shefter (1990) call “politics by other means.”  Scandal is—in Georg Simmel’s sense—a ubiquitous form of social interaction.  It is a compound interactional form, combining such other well-known Simmelian forms as conflict, exchange, domination, and (above all) secrecy, operating on and through the Simmelian “web of group affiliations.” The scandal is intrinsic to the elemental social-psychological process that Erving Goffman famously describes as the “presentation of self.”  (Indeed, Goffman’s monograph by that name can profitably be read as a gloss on Simmel’s seminal essay, written a half-century earlier, “The Secret and the Secret Society.”)  Drawing on a theoretical tradition that runs from Simmel to Goffman to  the contemporary political scientist John Thompson, and working within the broad framework of the sociology of culture to examine (in various degrees of detail) a sample of actual cases, I will suggest that despite the popular wisdom to “follow the money,” the better strategy of studying a scandal is to “follow the secret.” 
One of Simmel’s distinctive contributions (and one which Goffman adopted) is to insist that social interaction has a dark side:  “it is necessary to think of sociological relationships in general dualistically:  that is, concord, harmony, mutuality, which count as the socializing forces proper, must be interrupted by distance, competition, repulsion, in order to produce the actual configuration of society”;  part of “what makes society possible” is that “people live inside and outside it at the same time.”  As opposed to the other founding sociological theorists, Simmel was not so much a “moralist” as an “amoralist.”  In my own expansive Simmelian conception, scandals are ambiguous and suspenseful public dramas, in which the agonistic parties (which Goffman would call “teams”) contest each other’s morally charged narratives about an alleged secret transgression.  Scandals are a type of “social drama” (Victor Turner 1974) which—when gestated to full term—follows the stages of breach, crisis, redressive action, and resolution.  In Thompson’s definition, “scandals are struggles over symbolic power in which reputation and trust are at stake”;  and since the allegations, denials, and counter-allegations circulate in public, the agents of that circulation are themselves important protagonists.  In that sense, scandals are always mediated
The emergent forms of Trumpgate are of course still taking shape.  But agonistic Goffmanesque “teams” are already lining up along societal and cultural fault-lines, and the profound civic and public costs of this scandal are becoming obvious.  Secret meetings with foreign agents, advance knowledge of WikiLeaks, a regime of non-disclosure about public activities by staff, firing  the top officials of the Department of Justice,  money laundering, emoluments, withholding  tax returns, official stonewalling, perverting foreign policy for personal political interest;  Michael Cohen’s and Omarosa’s secret tapes,  opening the National Enquirer file cabinets, leaking classified investigatory material, revelations by whistle-blowers—all enter the collective memory and undermine the consecrated  legal and institutional order.  All demonstrate the need to “follow the secret.” 

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