The issue of maintaining law and order is as old as the origins of civil society. While a large majority of the population are law abiding and conform to the social norms of the times, there is always an underbelly of disorderly conduct on part of a disturbed minority. As the process of urbanization takes off and more people start residing in major cities, the fissures start to appear within the apparent harmonious co-existence. There are several reasons why disorderly conduct on part of individuals and groups takes place. Sociologists have proposed numerous theories explaining this phenomenon. This essay will pertain itself to the contrasting viewpoints presented by the theories of Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault by citing real instances that support their theory.
Erving Goffman was an astute observer of society, who immersed himself in the social environment which he was studying. He carefully observed and recorded the ways in which people’s behavior and interpersonal interactions are carried out in everyday life. He notes that “people perform their social roles and, as they do so, they produce social order through their actions and the regular practices they engage in. Often these ways of acting and interacting are unnoticed and only become apparent when they are breached or broken. Not all social life is cooperative, some is competitive and sometimes there is conflict, but generally people are able to negotiate breaches and restore order” (Staples, et. Al., p.48). A prominent example of this theory in action is available to us from the works of Charles Dickens. His works are relevant to the discussion of contemporary Britain, for the process of modernization and urbanization of Britain was started during the author’s lifetime, aspects of which are reflected in his writings. Dickens too immersed himself in the social environment that he was observing and brought out astute insights into the nature of London street-life. Moreover, Dickens chose characters from lower strata of society for his stories, who are the most likely to engage in disorderly conduct (Alia & Bull, 2005, p.56)). In many ways, the nineteenth century London street-life described by Dickens, serves to validate the theory of Goffman and the latter’s view of social order and disorder.
It is no irony that as Britain’s empire expanded to all corners of the world in the nineteenth century, the city of London was taxed beyond its adequacy, subjecting itself to social disorder. As opposed to other prominent writers of the Victorian age, Dickens mastered the art of capturing London’s street life. Ugly, squalid and beneath dignity at times, life in London at the time was a real challenge. In the novels of Dickens, as well as in the memoirs of his own early life, one can clearly see the first instances of the problem posed by modernization. Dickens’ novels were as much works of fiction as they were documentations of the underbelly of the most prosperous empire of the time. Highly crowded slums such as St. Giles and Seven Dials were notorious for criminal activity. In this atmosphere of grinding poverty, congested dwelling places, unhygienic food sources and constant threat from criminals, such unsavory professions as prostitution are inevitable. Prostitution also played a role in easily spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Interestingly, these aspects of the greater London metropolis is as true today as it was during the nineteenth century, which suggests that the root causes of social disorder have remained more or less the same through these years (Alia & Bull, 2005, p.56). For example, while London during the reign of British empire has emigres from colonies across the world, in modern London one can see China Towns, Pakistani neighborhoods, Professional Indians’ suburbia, illegal East Europeans’ havens, etc. These communities try their best to remain secluded from the mainstream, creating problems for city administrators who are keen to assimilate immigrants into the mainstream. This aspect of social seclusion of certain minority groups is relevant in the context of Goffman’s assertion that “Sometimes people perform differently and new forms of coordination based on new rules and practices can arise. So, disorder is a breach or break in established ways of doing things and is something that gets repaired in the flow of the interactional order.” (Staples, et. Al., p.49)
A contrasting theoretical viewpoint to that of Goffman’s was presented by the French philosopher and social scientist Michel Foucault, who laid emphasis on the systemic and institutional settings within which social interactions take place. He asserted that to understand the micro-level functioning of society one has to look at wider levels, particularly questions related to power. In contrast to Goffman, Foucault examined “how social order is shaped and organised by authoritative knowledge, particularly forms of knowledge that are put to work in social and political institutions. Discourses and institutions are forms of power – the sovereign power of the state, the expert knowledge embedded in institutions and the surveillance they exercise, and the disciplinary power that arises when people internalise these discourses and govern themselves in ways based on individual self-control” (Staples, et. Al., p.49)