Research Seminars

Research seminars

Wednesday 28th September 2016

The alarming trajectory of a mundane courtroom hearing: a Goffmanian perspective (as a contribution to the Soto project).

 Jim O’Driscoll (University of Huddersfield)

Using video data, this talk examines a pre-trial hearing in Florida involving a young woman who has been charged with possession of a restricted drug. During this encounter, the judge first sets bail at $5,000, then increases it to $10,000 and finally sentences the accused to 30 days in jail. This incident (plus its wider fallout in mass media) is presently being examined by a group of scholars each taking different perspectives relating to (im)politeness and social interaction (Price & Wilson forthcoming).

How did such a normally routine procedure end up with such a serious real-world outcome? One way of approaching an answer to this question is through a Goffmanian perspective, which means starting with the bare fact of people being in each other’s presence, and the wider circumstances which brought them together, and then examining the moves they make.  Accordingly, it involves the notions of frame (Goffman 1974) and footing (Goffman 1981), plus those of face, deference and demeanour (Goffman 1967) when they seem useful.

The socially constituted background to this encounter inscribes, of course, a stark power asymmetry. But in addition, the behaviour of the participants creates an interactively constructed one too, in which the accused, Penelope Soto, is cast as a ‘profane person’, one to whom normally expected ritual deference is not accorded. And although she is a canonically ratified participant, various moves by other participants serve to perform a kind of de-ratification on her, reducing her to an overhearer in the talk (or, alternatively, what Levinson 1988 calls a ‘target’).

As the encounter progresses, both Soto and the judge move back and forth between interrogation style and conversational style, slipping in and out of two mutually exclusive frames, that of the court hearing and that of the social encounter. The two of them create together the shifting footings and trajectory of the encounter. A close examination of the data from this perspective can reveal the trigger points at which this trajectory seems to increase its momentum.



Goffman, Erving. (1967) Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Penguin

Goffman, Erving. (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Peregrine Books (Penguin)

Goffman, Erving. (1981) Forms of Talk. Blackwell.

Levinson, Stephen. (1988) Putting Linguistics on a proper footing. In P. Drew & A. Wooton (eds.) Erving Goffman: exploring the interaction order.Polity Press, pp.161-227.

Price, Hazel & Jack Wilson (eds.) (forthcoming 2017). Special issue of Journal of Politeness Research.