By Karl Johnson
Academics have long been fascinated by island communities. In turn, islanders have expressed a broad spectrum of responses, ranging from pleasant bewilderment to polite inconvenience.
The Shetland Islands appear to be a particular favourite. Linguist Jakob Jakobsen studied the use of Norn in Shetland dialect; social anthropologist Anthony P. Cohen spent much of the 1970s and 80s in Whalsay; Professor of historical sociology Andrew Blaikie explored how photographs help mythologise Northern Isles culture, and criminologist Anna Souhami recently joined the local constabulary on their rounds.
The most interesting case though, for me personally, is that of sociologist Erving Goffman’s fieldwork in Unst between 1949 and 1951.
Then a PhD student at the University of Chicago and using the University of Edinburgh as a ‘base camp’ and sponsor, Goffman went to Shetland to conduct research on the economics of island farming, or so he told locals. His real purpose was to record and understand the behaviour – both seen and unseen – involved in everyday social interaction, especially in conversation. He did this while working as a kitchen porter and observing daily life in a generally stand-offish manner, with local accounts describing him as a strange, solitary figure. Sharp dresser, though.
Referring to Shetland as ‘Bergand’ and the Unst village of Baltasound as ‘Dixon’ in his thesis Communication Conduct in an Island Community (1953), Goffman quickly realised that “In many ways ... Berganders form a society unto themselves”. Sites of observation mainly included the Baltasound hotel and the community hall, with the hall billiards room, dances and fortnightly socials proving of most interest to him.
It was apparent to Goffman that ‘Dixon’ was a community whose shared history, culture and dialect, and self-conscious strategies for maintaining harmony in everyday life, could serve as a micro-example of how social order was perpetuated across the wider world. His findings formed the basis for his famous text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), a still-influential work on ‘dramaturgy’.
Goffman used a theatrical metaphor to describe social interactions as taking place on a front-stage; exploring how people, as actors, tailor their behaviours to suit the audience and environment they find themselves in. Information communicated verbally, or symbolically through expressions and gestures, are chosen to simultaneously meet the audiences’ expectations, avoid upset on either side and uphold the status quo – thus ensuring harmonious community life.
For example, Shetlanders appeared to habitually communicate modesty in frustrating and unwanted events, calmly describing such instances as “awkward” to exert some control over the reactions of others and prevent worsening situations. Similarly, helping others with laborious tasks, such as hauling boats ashore, was generally done without complaint, making certain the help would be reciprocated in future in the name of communal equality.
Unspoken rules in employing discretion and tact were followed when discussing personal or controversial matters (referred to as “sore points”); saving the embarrassment of one another being an everyday necessity. One note states “crofters express that Dixon is a fine place but everyone knows too much about everyone else”.
Seemingly mundane rules and rituals of social etiquette came especially into force at hall socials, indeed Goffman saw an inherent value in the repetitive predictability of dances, whist drives, Sunday teas and billiards games.
“The pattern [of these events] helps to solve the organisational problems for many other large-scale … undertakings that occur in the community”, he wrote, and “consolidate the feeling that all [locals are] socially equal with one another, and that no one will desert the hard life of the island or their identification with crofters”.
Those (presumably men) who regularly played billiards were observed to also be informally conducting village business – thus deflecting any local confrontation to the game – and individuals regarded as community leaders would pass on their knowledge and experience to the younger generation in a form of ‘training’. Leisure time, it was determined, was rarely simply about enjoying oneself.
Thankfully, Shetlanders could relax back-stage at home, where privacy afforded them the chance to be a truer version of themselves and express their feelings more freely. The relative lack of trees was said to help in this regard as islanders could see their neighbours approaching in plenty of time to compose themselves.
While this may all seem obvious to us now, Goffman’s writing was and remains hugely influential in social science. His fieldwork in Unst directly informed his noted career in studying human interaction and the social world, including; issues of positive self-image in On Face-Work (1955), mental health and institutionalisation in Asylums (1961), shame and discrediting identity in Stigma (1963), and how shared experiences are understood and explained in Frame Analysis (1974).
70 years after Goffman first set foot in Shetland, the performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex has been working with young people from Unst on a project called The World is a Wedding, the Presentation of Unst in Everday Life, as part of the Year of Young People and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Futureproof festival.
Their performances in Lerwick and Unst in October will present their own research findings (with a song or two apparently), having applied Goffman’s insights at Unstfest over the summer. Perfect for the man who gave academic backing to Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”.
Indeed, due to the significance of everyday ritualistic behaviour in sharing norms and values, Goffman himself proposed that “The world, in truth, is a wedding.”