Tag Archives: Dramatism

Living A Life of Ideas

The presence of a powerful organizing principle can fuel a lifetime of exploration. 

These days our heads mostly in the material world.  We spend a lot of time managing our things. But there are rewards for anyone willing to explore a system of ideas that can shine light on generative human impulses.  Many of us can recall a transformative moment when the lights of understanding suddenly grew brighter: when so much of the strangeness of the world yielded to understandings that made sense.  In most cases the trigger is usually some sort of panoramic explanation of social or physical phenomena. Anyone can cite some famous benchmarks that lead to profound insights:  perhaps relativity theory, or a discovery as revolutionary as Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, or the grounding assumption of sociology that individuals are best understood within communities.

Even so, while we still pay lip service to “the life of the mind,” it is hard to use that phrase in mixed company without producing some half-smiles hiding disbelief.  “How quaint” might be the response of our friends, if they had less tact. Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc (1972) perfectly captures the common stereotype of a socially inept and forgetful academic totally absorbed in the labyrinth of his or her own theory. The academic is presented as at least a century too late for the world he inhabits. In our time large epistemic questions have been replaced even in academia with more mundane “hard skills” that suggest the more modest aspirations of a trade school: Will this skill set make me employable?  How will this course look on a resume?

We usually allow religious believers their one big idea—that Jesus was the son of God, or Joseph Smith was a latter-day prophet—but academics buoyed by a single system of thought are now apt to be seen as lost in a box canyon with no exit. As an undergraduate I remember a very good professor enthused by the ideas of General Semantics, among them: that misunderstandings can be disentangled once and for all. The idea that was popular in the 60s proposed that we can actually fix the natural ambiguities of meaning: a view that no longer carries much weight with people studying natural languages.  But I still think about how he lit up when he talked about this vision.


Good ideas can help us put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places.


As a 25-year-old I was captured by the writings of sociologist Erving Goffman and the literary critic, Kenneth Burke: two men working in two very different traditions who shared the view that human action is best understood with reference to the language of the theater.  We are “actors,” “playing roles,” managing performances,” “learning scripts,” and so on.  There’s more to this “dramatistic” perspective, but you get the idea. For me, it put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places, and it is a catechism of analysis I still excitedly pass on to my students. I’m probably the typical case of an academic acolyte, more animated by the possibilities of a single system than the comparatively pale subjects of everyday conversation.

I would hope every student could go through this kind of ‘secular conversion.’ It fires the passion to see beyond a limited horizon.

The idea of creating a future around a core organizing principle sprang to mind while reading Tara Westover’s best-selling memoir, Educated (2018)She describes harrowing years trying to outgrow the low horizons of her survivalist family in Idaho.  Westover lived a nearly feral existence where events and ideas like the Holocaust or the civil rights movement were  total unknowns.  Because her father was imprisoned by a fringe interpretation of his Mormon faith, the much larger world of books, schools and civil society were kept at a distance. Survivalists tend to thrive on these self-made islands of reductionism. His only big idea was that divine guidance interpreted through him would sustain his large and unruly family.

Westover goes on to describe her unlikely journey into the life of the mind, eventually winning a graduate degree in History from the University of Cambridge.  What revelations she must have discovered in that journey!  Unfortunately, we never really given a sustained glimpse of what they are. Her story fades when it slights topics that fueled her ambition.  It’s not the same kind of memoir of ideas given to us years ago in Robert Pirsig’s popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (1974).

By contrast, her father’s big idea remains static and sealed off from development. He begged her to quit the university even after she showed real academic promise

Faith can take take that route to a dead-end. As a form of thought it can protect its owner from new experiences and better understandings. And that’s a problem for all of us. Faiths can thrive on small ideas, dangerous ideas, false ideas and beliefs that disenfranchise. They can poison what might otherwise grow.

So there’s the rub.  Ideas can justify a kind of smug stasis. But more dynamic starting points can be paths to understanding and innovation.

Social Intelligence


A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘antennae’ that are strong enough to  be a guide for what will give another more comfort than pain.

We are used to thinking of “intelligence” as a single entity.  But it’s not so simple.  To be sure, we have IQ scores and other measures of a person’s capacity for understanding abstract ideas and processing information.  But traditional measures of intelligence are notoriously imprecise.  The term itself is difficult to operationalize, something that must happen with any “objective” measure.  It’s thus problematic to saddle an individual with a number that is supposed to stand as a representation of their cognitive skills. It’s not unlike establishing the overall worth of a car by the time it takes it to go from 0 to 60 mph.  People put a lot of stock in both kinds of numbers.  But to do so is mostly a fool’s errand.  By contrast, there surely is something of value in the idea of social intelligence, even though it also will not easily yield to social science metrics.

Broadly speaking, social intelligence is a capacity to “read” others and various human environments with an ability to adjust to relevant norms.  In practical terms, this turns out to be mostly a function of a person’s skill in knowing how to respond in a given environment.  Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘theory of mind” as the related capacity to be able to anticipate what is going on in another person’s life, making adjustments that are more empathetic than indifferent.  We know it when we see it, as when another person has said what seems like just the right thing to a needy friend.

As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. 

In actual fact, there are assorted ways we can sense another person high social intelligence: their abilities to self-monitor impulses that might be awkward, a willingness to engage even with strangers, the capacity to listen to another and respond appropriately.  A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘social antennae’ that are strong enough to  grasp what will give more comfort than pain to another.

The phrase “social intelligence” is perhaps most clearly associated with the psychologist, Daniel Goleman, and his best-selling book under the same name (Bantam, 2006).  The book is a worthwhile study, even if its subtitle badly oversells the subject as a “science of human relationships.”  And there’s the rub.

Years ago a less flamboyant sociologist, Erving Goffman, reminded us that social relationships are predicated on functional presentational skills.  He talked about “impression management” and role taking as skills situated at the core of our relational world.  The model he adopted was less “scientific”–meaning capable of precise measurement–and more properly seen as “dramatistic.”  We are actors creating responses appropriate to a given scene.

The shift in perspective makes a big difference.  As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. There is no single standard or set of norms or skills, but infinite possibilities.

This is why the dominant art form in our lives is film in all of its variations and platforms.  Seeing individuals act in the presence of others is always a potential touchstone.  Comedy generally lets us see people behaving badly, or at least inappropriately.  Our laughter flows from a recognition of violated social codes.  And drama puts us in close to see moments when lives can be transformed.  It isn’t the transformation itself that grabs us. It’s a character’s response to the problem that precipitated it. Their reactions are how we come to know the features of their character, especially their aptitude for rising to meet social circumstances fraught with complexities.

In a sense we are all critics of performances, using personal preferences and floating standards to assess the responses of others.  This more open-ended dramatic framework gives us the kind of pluralism of potential responses we need to understand the marvels and occasional disasters that unfold in social encounters.