Much sociological research of the last several decades has viewed ordinary social behavior as problematic, revealing it to be the construct of artful assembly. These studies suggest that there are several layers of normative orders relied upon by persons to instruct their activities. Such normative orders are present in therapeutic dyads and therapeutic groups, both of which rely on some version of "transference" to accomplish their goals. Transference, like much else of what occurs within therapy settings, can usefully be examined in terms of role theory. These therapy settings reveal the prospect that there may be one basic and generic role which all social actors must play, that of a "person, as such"; what Schutz called the "grown-up, wide-awake man within the natural attitude". If this is the case, then therapy settings may be critical sites for the understanding of how such a fundamental and perhaps irreducible role comes to be constructed and acted upon.

The last several decades of sociological activity have focused a great deal of attention on areas of social life typically viewed as ordinary and mundane, and thus previously not seen as worth any sustained interest. This trend, perhaps most dramatically visible in the curious activities of the early ethnomethodologists, has focused on the commonsense and everyday activities of very ordinary people, viewing these activities as sociologically problematic and thus deserving of attention. To use the language of gestalt psychology, this approach reverses the relationship between "figure" and "ground" in what has long been accepted and taken for granted as the basic sociological perspective. Illustrating this shift from a phenomenological perspective, Peter Berger aptly observed in 1963 that "the fundamental sociological problem is not crime but the law, not divorce but marriage, not racial discrimination but racially defined stratification, not revolution but government."1

One of the most prolific and penetrating observers to precipitate this shift in American sociology was Erving Goffman. Although often getting to the ordinary only by way of the unusual, Goffman's work has done much to popularize this extensive questioning of the taken-for-granted in American sociology. It is curious, although ultimately logical, that Goffman's work was largely stimulated by his participatory research inside mental institutions.2 In these and other out of the way social settings (an isolated island community, a Las Vegas gambling casino), Goffman3 found social realities, the social construction of which effectively illuminated the subtle and often hidden fabrication of the common-sense world of everyday life. It was through his carefully elaborated juxtaposition of the unusual and the mundane that Goffman informed us of the nature of our ordinary social worlds -- worlds we take for granted but which both profoundly and unwittingly shape and constrain our thoughts and actions.

While Goffman almost single-handedly made studies of everyday experience from within, a growing number of investigators, invoking strange new techniques of ethnomethodology, began to explore this sediment of phenomena more experimentally. They developed a more contrived and interventionist approach, one well illustrated in a collection of papers published by Harold Garfinkel,4 who has come to be regarded as the founding father of this radical approach. These experimental or (as Garfinkel would say) "demonstrative" procedures were less comprehensive but more controlled and exact accomplishments of Goffman's comparative analyses.

What both approaches share and rely upon heavily for their heuristic gain is the examination of social situations in which some ordinary normative aspect of behavior is disturbed, distorted, absent, or removed. How the social world is constructed is subsequently revealed both by the ways in which the world then tends to collapse, as well as by the processes of shoring it back up and making it over which suddenly and automatically are brought into play among the parties to the situation. This genre of studies have revealed to sociologists that the social world is an elaborate and fragile artifact compellingly constructed by its constituent members in what can accurately be described as an implicit, unconscious collusion. This conclusion applies not only to those formal labyrinths of rule and regulation which we label institutions and which seem to be imposed from without, but even to the most casual and fleeting social happenstances, which we generate almost spontaneously. All the world does turn out to be a stage (or, in Goffman's words, "a wedding"). Modern sociological consciousness has expanded to include in the drama not only intricate and stylized formal productions, but momentary happenings as well.

It is easy to conclude from these studies that every form of human behavior is implicitly bounded by a normative order, a set of guidelines and prescriptive definitions of behaviors which are appropriate and legitimate, and which if -- and only if -- observed, will produce the events in which the actors want to participate. Further, these studies imply that this normative order is contained within some even larger, more inclusive "meta-normative order", and this suggests a sort of unconscious but commonly shared social epistemology. Beyond this second level of the meta-normative there may be a third level, that of the culturally-bound, metaphysical order of birth and death. Exactly how these nesting systems all fit together is not clearly understood, although the mapping of this complex terrain has occasionally been attempted.5

The idea of a meta-normative order seems to be helpful in at least two ways: first, it gives us a sort of sociological basket in which to collect the rules of assembly for social reality; second, it provides an indication that some normative order, of necessity, covers all events, even if it is only the normative order of contingent expectancies.6 The first normative order tells us that we will likely encounter rules for assembling every social situation or occasion. The second normative, or meta-normative, order tells us that there is yet another set of rules -- the meta-system -- which informs actors that a particular type of occasion should or is about to occur and which enables them to seek out and find the appropriate rules to which they must then conform.

Two sorts of social events especially seem to reveal a great deal about both of these normative levels. At the same time, they also provide relatively direct access to an important and curious "bottom line" of sociological analysis which has been little noted but which seems basic to the taken-for-granted world of ordinary life. The reference here is to what can best be described (however awkwardly) as the creation and maintenance of a person "as such"; what we often and much more academically refer to as the "social actor". The events or occasions which provide this revelation are the therapeutic relationship of dyadic psychotherapy and those small interaction events variously labeled encounter, sensitivity, training, or human potential groups.

Counter to common understanding, these gatherings are much more sociological than they are psychological. They are, in fact, sociological rich both in their amenability to explanation in the vocabulary of conceptual sociology and in their potential for producing sociological relevant knowledge.

If we approach these therapeutic, reconstitutive occasions at the behavioral level, unencumbered by a doctrinaire psychologistic vocabulary, their sociological nature becomes immediately apparent. Consider for example, the sine qua non of Freudian analysis, transference. In sociological terms, this is a role relationship in which one individual (the client) imposes upon another (the therapist, behaving in ways conducive to such imposition) a counter role which, in reality (i.e., external to the therapeutic relationship), the therapist does not have and which (in terms of that extra-therapeutic reality) may be totally inaccurate, inappropriate, or impossible.

The therapeutic quality of this relationship inheres, at least initially, in this very discrepancy -- in the ways in which the client acts and reacts toward the therapist in terms of roles which are, situationally, neither called for nor real. In fact, the client is often encouraged in such behaviors to better effect diagnosis and treatment. What is appropriate and inappropriate within the therapeutic setting must be learned by the client, especially since some behaviors most inappropriate outside the therapeutic world are considered quite appropriate within it.

A primary method of teaching this knowledge is for the therapist to present him or herself to the client as an apparently neutral "role-other". This presentation of self by the therapist is often inscrutable and verbally unexplained. The therapist deliberately allows the client to remain in technical ignorance of the process he or she is participating in and the social events which the client is covertly encouraged to conspire with the therapist unwittingly to produce. The meta-normative order remains relatively uncommunicated and unknown to the client, leaving him or her with an "empty occasion" into which will be transferred the assumptions, projections, interpretations, and resulting behaviors the client is presumed to have been practicing in his or her extra-therapeutic social situations. All this, of course, is according to the meta-normative ideology of psychotherapy itself.

It is the pressing void of the therapist's role which precipitates this transference. What the client does in response to this void is that most fundamental sociological activity of all, defining the situation. By defining the situation, the client enables him or herself to determine what social expectations should be observed so that, conjointly with the therapist, the client can produce the socio-psychopathological happening which he or she needs, expects, or desires.

Initially, the therapist is substantively unreciprocal to this effort since the therapist too is in ignorance. The therapist's ignorance is not of the therapeutic norms but of the role into which he or she is being cast by the client. Thus the therapist is attending to the information which the client is "giving off" in regard to client's difficulty. In fact, the therapist is learning from the client what he or she will endeavor to teach back to the client in the course of therapy. Sociologically, then, the client can be described as invoking his or her own normative order, which when viewed externally permits or even requires erratic, idiosyncratic, or dysfunctional behaviors, in a situation in which the role-other (the therapist) is abiding by a still more comprehensive meta-normative order (that of psychotherapy).

Two additional points remain to be considered. First, the therapist's role is not and cannot be neutral since it is, at the least, intended to be both provocative and supportive of a certain kind of behavior (i.e., the kind of psychological cue-emitting behavior the therapist is looking for). Second, and more important from a theoretical point of view, is the fact that this whole occasion is contained within a system to which both participants are committed and bound. There are, in social fact, permissible limits for the roles of client and therapist beyond which neither can go without "breaking role".7 Thus both client and therapist covertly rely upon these bounding norms for the very efficacy of their occasion. Both have implicitly agreed to produce this serial playlet, complex and difficult as it may seem from the outside.

The characteristics which have just been described, with some important qualifications, are equally applicable to those social gatherings known as sensitivity, encounter, training, or human potential groups. In these gatherings, the meta-normative order is usually not so fully institutionalized in an arcane or inaccessible ideology as is often the case with psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Usually, in fact, what is described here as the meta-normative order is widely disseminated, at least in some popularized or bowdlerized form, among the participants of such groups, most of whom, as in therapy, have self-selected into the encounter.

In these gatherings group members have a greater effect on and control over the therapeutic process than in the dyads just described. This is partly a result of the fact that group members have more informed notions of "what the name of the game is" that they are playing. In addition, group members outnumber the leader or facilitator, who is in a position only partially analogous to that of the therapist in the dyadic situation. And finally, the whole process is bounded by a less rigid meta-normative order; there are fewer ideologically bound expectations about how such gatherings have to occur in order to be termed appropriate and successful. Still, these gatherings are at least as existentially bounded as therapy dyads, and perhaps because of their greater social weight even more so.8

The concentration on and facilitation of behaviors in such groups is much the same as dyadic therapy in terms of theoretical emphasis. For example, such groups often start out with the leader abdicating or declining any active leadership (a primary situation-defining role) thus leaving members to define the situation as they will. Again, this is done in behavioral terms. As in psychotherapy, only one member of an encounter, sensitivity, or training group is (or should be) playing out a fully meta-normative role. What is different, however, is that each regular participant is enjoined by the meta-normative order to provide "real" behaviors for the other members to respond to, thus eliminating the need for artificial occasions of transference. This also removes "transference" from a subjective, biographical, and external context and places it in the immediate presentational situation of the "here and now". Given an adequate mixture of persons in the group (a wide enough cast of characters, if you will), such groups operate with the fairly realistic expectation that all the "required" parts will come to be contemporaneously, spontaneously, and authentically played. No one has to remain in a neutral role, once the group is underway, and everyone (usually including the facilitator) is encouraged and often enjoined "to be" his or her real feelings and thoughts in the situation of the moment.

Like therapy, this constructed reality is also bounded, bracketed off from other realities. Yet (again like therapy), its intent is to break down those boundaries to some extent. Members are encouraged to develop, modify, or replace their typical behaviors, and to adopt and then transport these group-fostered behaviors back into their other social "realities", spheres of their lives which they occupy more regularly and fully than they do such therapeutic encounters.

Even though both of these two types of therapeutic and sociological situations are intended to be re-constructively self-revealing, they still remain heavily constricted. Both are contained and constrained by other social realities (or fictions) which all of us, as social actors, almost never fail to construct, apparently because we are either unable or loathe to do otherwise. Even in the most supportive, permissive, and intimate of situations (as individual and group therapy strive to be) individuals seem intent on maintaining themselves as persons in some minimal sense. Once assembled through the arduous and still incompletely understood process of socialization, people seem able to "disassemble" themselves only so far and no farther.

Sociological terminology, perhaps happily, seems to exhaust itself at this point of analysis. Yet this is a crucial level of sociological investigation and understanding. The social gatherings of encounter, sensitivity, and human potential groups, because of their informality and the absence of any absolutely binding ideology, may provide important sites at which the limits of personal disassembly become amenable to study. Substantial research at these sites could result in what might be called an "intra-ethnology" of person construction.

Such an ethnology can be defined as the attempt to answer the question: What is required for people to maintain themselves as "persons-in-general"? Stated another way, the sociologist would ask: How do people, in fact and in practice, distinguish between whatever is meant by "child" (a yet-to-be complete person) and whatever is meant by "adult" (a complete and fully-functioning person), independent of such strictly chronological and physical evidence as size, proportionality, social reputation, and voice pitch?

A more subtle and practical question follows: In order to have certain behaviors accepted by others as appropriate and unquestioned, is additional effort required to maintain oneself as a person? If so, what kinds of effort seem required, practiced, and successful? Asked another way, would a more rigorous form of person maintenance help counteract skeptical responses to the behavioral expression of a questionable role?9

All of this suggests that the term "person" connotes a generic role, what Alfred Schutz called the "grown-up, wide-awake man [sic] within the natural attitude".10 It was not apparent that such a role existed (much less of what it consisted) until such researchers as Goffman and Garfinkel demonstrated the lack of its fulfillment in individuals who met chronological and physical requisites for full person status but who had never or now no longer demonstrated the appropriate social requisites.

There does seem to be some final and culturally pervasive normative order which must be implicitly unquestioned and explicitly obeyed and into which there is no readmission if one should withdraw too far. The paramount rule of being a fully-functioning adult person may well be that one cannot behaviorally admit of any alternative to this baseline of behavior without forever after being suspect in a way that disqualifies one from ever really being accepted as a fully-functioning person again.

Such suspicion as this is profound. It is to think of or treat a person as undeserving of some basic rudimentary modicum of unqualified social trust at the level of social being itself. It seems that such lack of trust comes not so much from insidious anxieties regarding the unpredictability of another's behavior, although certainly these are often present. Such hesitation comes much more from a tacit realization that to reaccept someone who strayed so far from the norm of the fully-functioning adult person would be to reduce to relativity what must always remain a final, inviolate, and nonnegotiable parameter of social reality.

Within the necessarily intricate normative and meta-normative orders that apply within the frames of dyadic therapy and various kinds of therapy groups, there is the intent, sometimes overt, sometimes covert, to strip away more superficial social roles to discover the real self, or the true person. These therapeutic activities embody mutual and reciprocal efforts, and with the proper care they do provide responsible researchers with opportunities to discover how persons are constructed, as well as the legitimate therapy for which they are convened. But the limits of person construction are not well understood, and while it would be helpful to understand them more completely, there may well be limits beyond which social investigation, and perhaps therapy as well, is dangerous, unethical, and even existentially immoral. Recognizing that reality is socially fabricated, we may also need to recognize that there might be limits beyond which none of us should be allowed to go.


1 Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books), p. 23.

2 Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books).

3 Goffman's other major works referred to here are Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959) and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967).

4 Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

5 See especially, Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, Volume I: The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967).

6 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967), especially pp. 21-28. The possibility of surprise itself requires a background of that which is taken-for-granted.

7 Goffman's discussion of role distance is relevant here. See Erving Goffman, Encounters (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961).

8 Philip Slater, Microcosm: Structural, Psychological and Religious Evolution in Groups (New York: John Wiley & Son, 1966).

9 For a particularly insightful discussion of this point, see "The Building of Identity" in David Matza, Becoming Deviant (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).

10 Schutz, Collected Papers, p. 25.