“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker

December 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mindhunter” makes it to Huffington Post’s list of the best shows you can stream in Netflix. I’m not sure what Hufflepuff’s criteria were, but obviously precision in sociological theory was not among them.

The show is set in the 1970s, and the mindhunter-in-chief’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford, is a sociology grad student at U Va. In Episode 1, she pretty much mangles Durkheim’s ideas about deviance.  (See “Debbie Does Durkheim”) Now in Episode 8, it’s Goffman.

In a scene in her apartment, Holden the mindhunter interrupts her studying – even though she has told him not to – to ask what she’s reading. Without turning from her desk she holds the book over her shoulder to show him. It’s a classic – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Props to the props department for finding a copy with its original cover, though to be picky, Debbie probably would have bought it in paperback. After all, judging from the lighting, her budget doesn’t even allow her to use much electricity. Holden asks her to explain Goffman.


So far so good. Goffman argues that we can understand much about human interaction if we see it as drama. The question is why – why do we play these parts and play them in particular ways?


Oy. I dread any forthcoming episode when Debbie takes her qualifying exams. In Goffman’s dramaturgy we are motivated not by altruism or conformism. We are not primarily interested in making others feel good. Instead, we are trying to have others think well of us – or at least to have them form the impression of us that we want them to have. It’s not altruism so much as it is manipulation. It’s not conscious manipulation. It’s just that we just don’t want others to get the wrong impression, which is another way of saying that we do want them to get the right impression. So we put on the costumes and speak the lines that will ensure that others think that we are the person we want them to think we are.

Confidence men and fraudsters provide the clearest example since their performance is deliberate, conscious, and cynical. But even the person who is sincere faces the same task of impression-management.

Let us now turn from the others to the point of view of the individual who presents himself before them. He may wish them to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels toward them, or to obtain no clear-cut impression; be may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud, get rid of, confuse, mislead, antagonize, or insult them. Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him.[emphasis added]

We “control the conduct of others” by playing our part.

This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. Thus, when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.[emphasis added]


For the presentation of self to work, it must be congruent with the setting. You’re going to have a hard time getting people to think you’re Willy Loman if the stage you walk onto is the set for “Wicked.” It’s Holden the Mindhunter, with zero sociology courses on his transcript, who is alert to this possibility.


The problem is not that Roger is a psychopath or pervert (though he may be). It’s that he’s giving the performance in the wrong setting.  Giving the wrong performance in the wrong setting leaves people confused. In fact, Goffman said something similar in Asylums, though I'm not really holding my breath waiting for Debbie’s summary.

2 comments:

Pamela Oliver said...

Good blog!

Bas Surmont said...

The blog awakes certain curiosity in my sociological imagination. Can't wait to check the show and watch it with socio glasses ;)