Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more. Peter G. Ossorio
Nemo me impune lacessit. The Order of the Thistle

The Degradation Ceremonies of everyday life don’t look like ceremonies. Instead, they look like how we go about treating people as one of us or not, how we deliberately or inadvertently assign the status of whether someone is in good standing with what we believe we represent.

The ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, writing about the sociology of moral indignation, described Degradation Ceremonies as rituals that remove people from a place of value and confine their range of eligibility within a community. Social practices that a person could previously perform are now restricted or forbidden. After a successful Degradation Ceremony, the degraded person is in some significant manner no longer one of us in good standing. They fail to meet our standards.

Paradigm Case Formulations are useful conceptual devices for capturing a wide range of related content. When the full paradigm case of a degradation ceremony is effectively performed, there’s little doubt that the degraded has undergone restriction. When less than the full case is employed, the outcome is less clear. I think the less than full case informs everyday engagement. As we move though the day, we let each other know where they stand with a welcome greeting or a dismissive glance. Whether obvious or subtle, deliberate or not, stances and actions create an organizing dynamic that can degrade or accredit.

Understanding the full paradigm may help us understand aspects of more mundane interaction.

Here’s the full paradigm:

Notice that degradations are social practices that involve a community’s shared values and specific social roles. To be one of us in a particular role carries the expectation that we value certain states of affairs in a similar way. As fathers, we value our children; as police, we respect and enforce the law; as friends, we trust and go out of our way to engage and play with our buddies; as boy scouts, we are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And so on. We all have varied roles and are members of multiple communities. I have a friend who was once a scout and is now a father and a cop.

Some roles comfortably coexist and some do not. Conflict is more or less inevitable. Life is complicated this way. I may feel degraded in some roles, but not others.

We play our roles and demonstrate our values through actions. We take it that true membership requires more than lip service to these values. We walk the talk. Whether or not our performance reflects our true colors, the choices we appear to make define what others see as our character.

In any community there are people who are obviously the real McCoy, who serve as exemplars of what it takes to be in good standing. They are the ones eligible to denounce the transgressor and to witness, acknowledge or enforce the transgressor’s removal from privilege. In the classic ceremony, they perform these roles in public. Here’s the paradigmatic ceremony:
Garfinkel’s full ceremony is done out loud and in public, but it can be accomplished quietly, discreetly, silently, ambiguously, or perhaps unconsciously. Certainly two people can do this to each other.

Since the the ceremony involves social roles, a person can play many parts. People play this out by themselves to themselves. I can recognize my own transgressions, my own moral failings, denounce myself, and restrict myself accordingly. I might not be good enough for myself regardless of how you see me.

The Ceremony May Be Taken As A Natural Order of Things.

Degradation can be taken for granted as the moral superiority or inferiority inherent in a community or as stigma passed down through generations. Given the broad community of man, racism, sexism, ageism, tribal and ethnic chauvinisms, the indoctrinated values of virulent religion and nationalism can carry an inherited stance of the degraded status of self or other. We may see ourselves or others as naturally born to loose.

Some Effects of Degradation.


A common result of a successful degradation is that the degraded acts and feels anxious and depressed since they have lost something significant; a world of previously valued action is now restricted, made smaller. Depression follows from lost eligibility, the loss in esteem that attends restriction and the ability or disposition to do what the community values. A pervious and important role can no longer be performed with satisfaction. Feelings of shame, loss, failure, regret, guilt, emptiness, resentment, and other kindred moods and emotions are part of the package.

Anxiety attends the insecurity of inhabiting an unfortunate place in the social world. This insecurity follows from the acceptance of personal incompetence along with an expectation of the absence of support when confronting tasks that only members in good standing are permitted. Members in good standing have each other’s back and are expected to be competent players. The degraded no longer have that support or opportunity.

When the degraded find themselves in the company of members of the valued community they may exhibit signs of inferiority and rejection. Encounters become awkward with recognition of stiltedness intensifying whatever anxiety is present. The rhythm of gesture and speech that flows among peers is broken. Engagement is skew. It is no wonder that the degraded end up lonely.

Anger and hostility, in contrast, may also be present and serve as a first move to negate the degradation.

It is no wonder that threatened degradation elicits self-affirmation. Attempts to attack the integrity of the denouncer or blind the witness are a reasonable response to attempted degradation. Excuses that the so-called transgressive performance is misunderstood, not in character, or a result of mitigating or coercing forces are understandably attempted. It is not for you to say, or I had no choice, may follow the threat of being degraded.

In the paradigm of the degradation ceremony the denouncer describes the act in value laden terms. Appropriation is theft, death is murder, an absence of assertive response is cowardice, and so on. The perpetrator has reason not only to disown the offending act but to re-describe it as something else. It is not what you are calling it.

What Is The Degraded Left To Do?

If the degradation is successful and accepted by the community and perpetrator, the fundamental problem for the degraded is how to regain status. Since the paradigm case involves the claim that the transgressive acts were in-character, one path for the perpetrator is to show the deplorable deeds were not in character or that the character of the perpetrator has changed. Since we generally hold that character is stable over time, this presents a fundamental barrier to regaining a favorable place. It will take time.
One first step in regaining status is to show that the actions may have reflected a transgression of the community’s values, but these values, none the less, remain important for the perpetrator. Acknowledgments of guilt through penance and restitution, accompanied by the acceptance of punishment, are forms of action that may be required. Non-recidivism is key but may be difficult to demonstrate since the opportunity to continue in the valued role has been restricted. Time will tell. Different judges have different criteria for what passes as sufficient demonstration of dues paid and character changed.
The questions asked, is the transgression an aspect of a stable through-line, is it a one-off event, has a new line of character been established?
I’ve barely examined the subtle ways we degrade each other. We treat people as invisible, dismissible, of no consequence. As inferior, not worthy of attention, as tools, sources to an end only worthy of desire and use. We degrade people through our transferences and stereotypes, when we treat them as known and pegged.

A degradations may be just or unjust, but when it follows from unexamined pre-judgment, it is inherently unjust. Degradation is a natural companion to not seeing people, all people, as I to Thou. In some social interactions this may not matter much. While in line at the counter, I need only to be polite, maybe kind. But with people I engage with frequently or intimately, where our inter-dependence counts, where we are in members of a common community, it always matters. The erosions of frequent encounter grind us down. Here a fuzzy line that draws the boundary of community should not be taken lightly or for granted. I should be careful not to assume you aren’t my brother or sister or peer.
I wish I could claim success in not degrading others, but like kindness and the attention to empathy, it’s a work in progress. It takes practice.
These days, the concept of “micro-aggression” is in vogue. I think degradation covers a similar but broader terrain since it is not restricted to aggression. But if by aggression we mean the assertion of privilege to put others in their place, the territories are the same.
*Later, I hope to take up the nature of accreditation ceremonies and the role of attention, empathy, negotiation and moral dialog in their practice. My earlier thoughts with commentary on the role of these ceremonies in psychotherapy can be found in my essay, Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of Passage, Psychiatry, 1979. Also note Harold Garfinkel’s Conditions for Successful Degradation Ceremonies, American Journal of Sociology, 1956.

I have discussed the use of Paradigm Case Formulations in the entry, Empathy and the Problem of Definition.

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.

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