Moments and Their Men: Cultural Architectures and Interactional Ecologies of Belonging and Inequality

Scarborough, Roscoe, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Late-modern America is experiencing unprecedented inequality, heightened individualism, and pervasive neoliberalism. In a climate characterized by the erosion of traditional sources of community, provisional commitments, and institutional liquidity, our belongings have become feeble and ephemeral. As a recent proliferation of scholarly and popular literature reveals, the day-to-day experiences of inequality and belonging are less bound to macro-social identifications and are instead becoming increasingly contextual.

Following Erving Goffman’s recommendation that sociologists should focus on “moments and their men” rather than on “men and their moments,” this research is a micro-sociology of encounters. I conducted 4000 hours of participant observation and 45 interviews with participants in three contexts: a volunteer fire department, a CrossFit gym, and amongst physicians at an academic health center. This research design allowed me to examine variations in culture and qualities of encounters. I became a firefighter, fighting fire and socializing in the firehouse; I joined a CrossFit gym and worked out with other patrons; and I shadowed young doctors in a hospital and integrated into their informal social world. Participation in the extended day-to-day action of these groups allowed me to offer deep, descriptive accounts and to understand the visceral experiences of belonging and inequality.

I coin the terms “cultural architecture” and “interactional ecology” to explicate the social foundations of belonging and inequality in face-to-face encounters. Cultural architectures are meanings and practices of a collective. Interactional ecologies are characteristics and modes of interaction. Fulfilling Goffman’s prescription for sociologists to focus on interactions, I operationalize these concepts as qualities of encounters. When thinking about both culture and modes of interaction, I draw a distinction between institutional infrastructures and grassroots practices. Institutional infrastructures are imposed on those inhabiting encounters from positions of power and influence. These are central to upholding inequalities. Meanwhile, grassroots cultural practices emerge from the people constituting encounters and are central to creating and maintaining belongings. I argue that culture is central to sustained belongings, while qualities of encounters shape situational belongings in foundational ways. I conclude that cultural architectures and institutional ecologies function in dialogue to yield situational and sustained belongings and inequalities.

These belongings and inequalities not only develop amongst groups, but also operate in dialogue with broader systems of community and hierarchy. I assert that sociologists have much to gain by focusing on encounters, rather than individuals. Looking to encounters, we are able to better understand how belonging and inequality processes are negotiated and upheld by organizational constituents as they work, volunteer, and socialize. This dissertation highlights the unique cultural content that makes each group idiosyncratic, while also demonstrating that there are common qualities of encounters and culture that are binding and divisive across all groups.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Belonging, Cultural Sociology, Erving Goffman, Ethnography, Inequality, Symbolic Interactionism
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: