An Interview with Stefan Timmermans and Iddo Tavory
Stefan Timmermans (ST): We have both been working on abduction in a methodological context as an analytical mode of inference for theory discovery. We drew on abduction from Peirce, as an alternative to the induction debate discussed in grounded theory. That opened up our reading to Peirce; because we are both interactional sociologists, we became intrigued by his semiotic framework. We looked around in sociology for people who have been using this kind of semiotic approach, and there’s been very little work. Most of the semiotics in sociology is influenced by the French de Saussure school. We started to think about Peirce’s analytic potential. We wanted to use Peirce’s conceptual framework and ideas, bring them into sociology, and see how far we can stretch them.
This is a paper that has been rewritten perhaps 25 times. In one early version, we actually used a hypothetical example. We had an example of somebody dropping a towel and a partner making a comment after taking a shower, and then we showed how this imagined interaction escalated. But we became dissatisfied, so we looked for a real case study. This was a time when racist rants were really in the news and we immediately started thinking how the Peircian ideas could be applied to that. Then we dived deep into the racial discursive literature and we saw an opportunity to build and add another set of conceptual tools that could be really useful.
Once we got into that, we also noticed that there is a feedback loop. There’s a way that the racial discursive literature highlights ingrained power differences that semioticians might not be sensitive to and that are absolutely critical because, as we show in the paper, if you downshift as a police officer, or if you downshift as a person being targeted by the police, the semiotic opportunities for doing that successfully are radically different. That’s how these pieces came together.
PE: You state in your paper that sociology is currently undergoing a “pragmatist revival” (297)? What led to this revival? We are curious to learn how you would situate your own work, specifically the paper we are discussing today, within this revival?
Iddo Tavory (IT): There are a few different streams in this pragmatist revival. American sociology has strong pragmatist roots evident in early Chicago school, and then in interactionism, but we can also see pragmatist resonances in American sociology of culture. Think, for example, of Ann Swidler’s metaphor of the cultural toolkit.
Nowadays, one important avenue is the attempts to get at causal pathways that underpin social phenomena. Pragmatism offers ways to get at such processes by offering a theoretical relationship between problem-solving, habit and creativity. Writers such as Neil Gross, Robert Jansen, Hans Joas, or Eliasoph and Lichterman have really productively focused on the idea of problem situations and how people live through them.
Then, another current stream is a methodological one, which leads us to think about what we are doing as social scientists. Here we can think about writers such as Richard Swedberg, and ourselves; this is a reconceptualization of epistemology and methodology of social sciences.
This work, for many sociologists, also fits well with the interest that people have in the work of Bourdieu and the question of the construction of habit or habitus, which is, for a lot of cultural sociologists, an incredibly important resource. Pragmatism offers a much more flexible and perhaps more useful way of thinking about habit. In a way, that’s part of what we are reacting to in the article -- many researchers nod to “pragmatism” ritualistically, but then immediately turn to Bourdieu. That’s fine, but it’s a missed opportunity. So, in that regard, what we are trying to do in this paper is to see how far we can push our thinking on problem solving in action if we remain within the pragmatist tradition. We found we can push it pretty far and see things that we can’t see otherwise, which, to us, makes it worth it.
ST: There’s also a Dewey stream that has always been very strong and that is not as much pragmatist theoretical, but pragmatist substantive, as in education research and some of the social welfare research. The Dewey school is not part of the revival, but this stream has always been present. You can also find strong traces of semiotics in Bruno Latour’s work; he doesn’t use the vocabulary necessarily, but there’s a strong semiotic pragmatist streak running through his work. I think this is also one of those places where there are opportunities for a much more explicit engagement.
PE: We are most often used to reading about/thinking about pragmatism in relation to action, and not so much in relation to interaction, and your paper lays out very clearly how a pragmatist semiotic analysis of interaction can take place, and the realm of possible explanations that it opens us. Do you see a difference between the two – action and interaction? And if yes, how would your theory relate to action in particular?
IT: Pragmatism, especially for Peirce and Mead, is interactional. For Peirce, it’s the idea that part of the semiotic process is how it's taken up by ourselves and by others. The unfortunate term he came up with, the “interpretant,” denotes this kind of movement. For Mead, that’s obvious in the conversation of gestures, the development of the self etc. This is something that is important for both of us. Theoretically, this is part of who we are, and how we were trained: Stefan through Leigh Star; myself through Stefan and Jack Katz.
So, to put it a bit strongly, the problem of a lot of current sociology is that it assumes that the most important social processes always happen before we get there. Whether it is because we assume that the early formation of self is crucial, or because of the historical development of the structures that constrain and enable action, the social dynamics that we are interested in are always pushed to the past. I think this is a very, very powerful kind of blinder that we put on ourselves. It’s not that early formations of habit or structural constraints aren’t important. They are. But if we take seriously the idea that things happen in interaction, not only as an instantiation of socialized actors’ moment of action, but actually in the interaction, then we need to show it. So this is another impetus for the paper, showing how that kind of situated interactional analysis works. We are not alone in that, but what we are trying to do here -- and this is our contribution to interactionism -- is to specify generalized kinds of processes that we can see in these racist interactions, like these processes of upshifting and downshifting, that have been talked about but never in a precise way that allowed interactionists to really get traction on them.
ST: The key word of the people we associate with is “emergent” or “situational.” The actual analysis of social life “while it is happening.” For instance, in my field of medical sociology, research has made a lot of assumptions about what happens in the doctor-patient interaction based on just talking to patients or just talking to doctors, and not seeing what actually is happening in the interaction. Extrapolating from that field, what we’re interested in this particular case, is how is racism being done in the moment? What are the mechanisms by which racism, interactionally, gets constructed? What is the interactional ease by which racism gets accomplished, and what is the interactional difficulty by which it gets countered? We show that to upshift without any tenuous links between one side and another side is, from a semiotic perspective, much easier than to draw out specificity from the situation: to define yourself as a specific human being with specific characteristics, rather than being lumped in by a group. And so it’s like, what’s happening in the turn-by-turn, signification-by-signification moment that allows these racist rants to be so disturbingly powerful?
PE: What possibilities for future change does your approach anticipate? If people are always upshifting and downshifting to construct racist interactions, does that mean that those racial conclusions are being remade in every conversation, which suggests that all conversations are a new opportunity for racial upshifting not to happen? If that’s the case, then why are these racial narratives still so durable over time?
ST: That’s a really good question. Obviously, even within the interactional, if you’re going to do this fine grained analysis of questions like, “when does something become a type or token?” or “when does something move from an index to a symbol?” you’re going to talk about cultural tropes to which these racist actions are speaking to. So, it’s not purely emergent in that particular kind of sense, it is already out there, but what we are interested in is how it is activated within interaction, and how it is very powerful within the specifics of the situation. Because there are lots of other things that are out there that are countervailing cultural tropes and narratives, but it’s not that every person invents racism in that particular moment. It’s out there, and the Trump administration has taught us anything, it’s out there very strongly and it’s deeply institutionalized. In one of the first examples we show in this paper, what’s interesting is how cutting in line, or a perceived cutting in line because one person was already at the register and the other person comes in and adds more merchandise to the pile, triggers this entire racist rant, and the specifics of how that gets treated and how that builds onto itself, I think that’s where this semiotic analysis is extraordinarily powerful and useful. But it doesn’t do everything, and it doesn’t explain what that woman is drawing from. We don’t know anything about her except what’s in the video, we don’t know her biography, we don’t know what community she is part of. There is more to it. But, of course, no bystander in the interaction knows her biography either. These are strangers in a store who have to make sense of this racist outburst. We show that by paying very careful attention to what’s happening in the moment, you can get a lot of leverage on the social mechanisms behind racism. We don’t necessarily explain the durability, we talk very little about the durabilities in terms of the police officers and their institutionalized power, but that's what we are gesturing to. We are not going and digging into every aspect of, you know, where does this doctrine of presumed immunity come from etc. But of course that is going to play a role.
IT: We are obviously not saying, and I don’t think any interactionist is saying, that meanings are created ex nihilo in every situation. People are obviously drawing on habits, available tropes, and specific institutionalized power relations, including the resources that police have at the tips of their fingers that people they are stopping do not. There’s an interaction that we analyzed, and it’s very hard to get at in the analysis... It’s a guy in Philadelphia being stopped and frisked and accused of being a drug dealer . It’s very obvious that he is incredibly afraid. I mean, police officers can and sometimes do shoot. There is a gun in the interaction. That’s one thing. The other thing is that, of course, racist categories -- and here we really drew a lot on Ann Morning’s work -- are crucial. So, in our paper, on the one hand, saying, “I’m just a person” is downshifting to a particular person, but on the other hand being “just a person” puts you in a general unmarked category of the ordinary citizen. So, it’s not exactly downshifting, is it? That’s something that interacting with whiteness studies allowed us to see, and interactionists might lose sight of too easily. So, there are powerful cultural typifications that people are drawing on and sometimes struggle to break free of. But, then again, what they can and can’t choose, and how things unfold, cannot be explained simply by recourse to these resources.
PE: What can the pragmatist semiotic approach to racial interactions tell us about police violence today? Can the concepts of upshifting and downshifting help explain the dynamics of what/who is perceived as potential violence, and the reactions to that anticipation of violence, which then do result in actual physical violence?
IT: We know that black people are stopped a lot more, are seen a lot more as threats, are targeted a lot more by police. The question that we ask is, how do these kinds of interactions unfold? I think that part of what we are showing, and this may be important for thinking about police violence, is how difficult it is to counter these forms of upshifting--of making specific cases “stand for” more general cases. I think the example that, for us, was really powerful was the guy saying, “I work in a restaurant, I’m a server.” And the police officer says, “A server? Serving weed?” Which has nothing to do with what the guy was just saying. But it’s so easy to take this attempt to downshift and upshift it back, and it’s so incredibly hard to counter these forms of upshifting. So that’s one.
The other thing, and we really saw this in the case of the Chauvin trial, is how incredibly, incredibly, difficult it is to indict. Partly this is because, after the fact, when the entire institutional power is on the side of the police, when the police says, “well, no, it’s not because he is black, it’s just because of this particular situation” – they are downshifting the situation. In terms of the legal system, this is hard to counter. The case of the George Floyd murder was a very unique situation in which the entire thing was filmed and in where the violence was, in some sense, static. The knee on George Floyd’s neck was not moving, even though there was intervention after intervention. But even there the guilty verdict came as a surprise to many, and in 99% of the cases, it’s incredibly hard to counter police’s arguments, or police’s forms of downshifting.
ST: I think what’s really critical of what we show is how extraordinarily wide the power gap between police and victim is. At the very elemental semiotic level, there are so many institutionalized and enacted inequities that demonstrate the pervasiveness of the kind of police violence that we’ve now been sensitized to. So I think rather than offering a solution of how to counter this, we just show how incredibly difficult it is, from a semiotic perspective alone, to just reverse or neutralize the situation. And one of the examples that we use a part of, and it’s also striking, is the work of Forrest Stuart, who was part of a social advocacy group on Skid Row that aimed to take video recordings of police when they were stopping and frisking. What his broader work shows is that the police basically turn the camera around and start acting in front of the camera rather than getting this “gotcha!” moment of the police doing something wrong. The police become actors in front of the camera and start to narrate particular events that are, of course, supportive of their actions. Thus, even being recorded on camera can be turned against the victims and can be used to reinforce their power. Again, a semiotic approach shows you how exactly this is being done. So, what we are showing is the enormous gulf between how the police, even on the semiotic level, can get the upper hand compared to people they stop and frisk.
IT: I think that, for me, this paper challenges arguments like, “well, add cameras.” We can see why it’s probably not going to work. The changes have to be more radical. It has to be about different actors doing different things. I do think that what the paper shows is that if you want these things to change, it’s not small incremental things such as cameras, or classes on sensitivity, that are going to do it.
ST: Just to make it clear, we also are not saying to get rid of the cameras either – the cameras are not sufficient but the cameras should be part, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction. But it’s so easy to turn it against the purposes of surveillance turned against the victims.
PE: In the last 25 years, studies of race in sociology have been grounded in the idea of ‘structural racism,’ introduced in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s (1996) article, “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” How does your theoretical approach incorporate or depart from the ‘structural racism’ concept as it seeks to draw attention to the “interactional work done at the level of meaning-making by individuals who engage in racist actions and their targets” (Timmermans and Tavory 296).
ST: I think we are very similar there. Bonilla-Silva’s exemplary work is one of the models we kept in mind when writing this paper. He based his analysis of color-blind racism on hesitations to people’s questions. He did his interviews with white students about race, and they were presenting these very open minded perspectives, and then he brought these personal questions: Would you date somebody from a different race? And there was always “uhhs” and “umms” and flustering and escapism. That becomes the center of his discursive analysis, which he links to more of a structural approach. We are, I think, in tune with that kind of an analysis. Instead of looking at a more discursive level, we are looking at a more semiotic level, but we also are showing that there is a deeply institutionalized, structural power imbalance that supports the ease by which the police can both upshift the situation and downshift.
IT: We are hugely indebted to people such as Bonilla-Silva, Philomena Essed, Ann Morning, and others. What we are trying to do in this paper is to add this tradition by developing a way to analyze what happens within interaction. But, hopefully, we are very much working within this tradition.
PE: An important part of your theory is its ability to take into account dynamics of power. Yet, you only refer to Bourdieu’s symbolic power (who can say what, and to what effect) when you address this dynamic. How would your theory relate to other forms of power such as instrumental power, for instance?
IT: We actually thought through a number of different analyses of power. I was talking a little bit with people like Steven Lukes about the paper, and we thought about Isaac Reed’s three forms of power. Again, I think the question we are after in this regard is “how does one specify forms of power?” In part, this is a question about institutional resources that one has, and in part we draw on Reed’s notion of performative power. But, then again, we wanted to bring it down to a more semiotic question of mechanisms. The question is that of the semiotic processes through which power is exercised and the possibilities that these semiotic processes afford.
For another paper on Peirceian semiotics that’s coming out soon, we take an example from John O’Brien’s book Keeping it Halal. In the book, he describes the lives young Muslim kids in a mosque in LA and, in one interaction, they are practicing how they would counter anti-muslim stereotyping and harrassment. Reading it makes you realize just how difficult it is to do so. A counselor is trying to teach them what we would describe as techniques of downshifting they can use when somebody accuses them of being terrorists. And, of course, the suggestions wouldn’t work because there is no easy way to downshift. And what we show is that what the kids do there is much more semiotically sophisticated. They are saying things like “Well, I’m a terrorist? But you look like Chewbacca!” And it sounds funny, but if you think about it semiotically it’s much more sophisticated than what their counselor is saying, with retorts such as “no, I am an individual person, and not a terrorist…”. So, again, when you’re thinking about power you also have to think about the kind of affordances that semiotic structures have, what one can and can’t do with such semiotic structures. If we want to get a purchase on the enactment of power, we really have to think about these things.