Incivility: The Rude Stranger in Everyday Life

Les Gofton finds insufficient illumination in this particular bid to 'reorient incivility research'

November 25, 2010

Back in the 1980s when the world was young, and I was much younger, I was assigned to teach organisational theory to a class of 120 agriculture students. I'll give you a second to take in the full horror of that task. Being young and feisty, and raised on a diet of engineering apprentices in a further education college, I went fearlessly into the biggest lecture theatre in the university to deal with them, at 9am on a Monday in mid-January.

Pretty soon, the battle lines were drawn; my adversaries launched a standard serial-coughing thrust, with synchronised spasms breaking out across the expanse of the hall. I let it go twice; the second two-minute sequence was accompanied by guffaws. I gave 10 seconds of silence after it finished, and then with a very (I thought) even but menacing tone, announced that the next person to cough would be excluded from all future lectures for the remainder of the term. For the rest of the session, the audience was silent. As I gathered my slides, an ashen girl wrapped in a massive scarf limped to the front of the hall. "I really have a bad cold; that was cruel," she admonished before sneezing off into the morning.

I turned to Incivility: The Rude Stranger in Everyday Life with the expectation that I might find some alternative strategies on offer. Alas, the cupboard was not bare, but there wasn't much here to illuminate my problem. My experiment with zero tolerance was never repeated. It is fashionable again now, of course, particularly since it appears that the movement based on "Broken Windows", an article written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling for The Atlantic magazine that launched this movement in 1982, is now being re-examined. Tony Blair's "respect agenda", the quip that launched a thousand Asbos, has been transmuted into a cost-cutting measure by our present leaders. Someone noticed that Rudy Giuliani's "miraculous" transformation of New York from Homicide City into Toytown was accomplished alongside a reduction in police numbers.

Interesting though this debate may be, the book refers to it only en passant; the real business is to "reorient incivility research", to rescue it from the curse of "policy-driven" concerns, research that sees incivility as involving drunken youths, physical attacks, vandalism and verbal abuse. No, this incivility is concerned with, the authors inform us, the "democratic" experience of incivility in everyday life, the micro-experiences of interactions with others, wherein rudeness is brought into being. At one point, we are informed that this is to be a "post-Positivist" enterprise, inspired by Max Weber's Verstehensoziologie. And somehow, by the final chapter, it becomes a how-to manual on what to do about rudeness.

To describe what is actually on offer may be the kindest form of dispatch. There is a cursory encounter with the literature (with namechecks for Zygmunt Bauman, Norbert Elias, Bruno Bettelheim, Max Weber, Harold Garfinkel and, saints preserve us, Jean-Paul Sartre, with improbable claims that their theories form the grounds for this work) before the body of the book concerns itself with recounting the minutiae of a telephone survey conducted in Australia and concerned with individuals' personal experiences of rudeness. Erving Goffman is referred to on other occasions, but there is little evidence of the flair and imagination that make his oeuvre such a joy.

Other thinkers are similarly treated. Apparently, Elias in The Civilizing Process found that rudeness led to disgust; Bauman's work on modernity and its consequences is reduced to "mixophobia" and fear of strangers, while the suppposed Weberian/interactionist "interpretation" of individual experiences that is given so much importance in the framing of the project comes down to sets of tables based on survey responses. When marking dissertations, I would usually tell students to include such data as appendices, rather than in the body of the text.

The publisher's puff quotes one distinguished sociologist as saying: "This book pushes in alongside Goffman's Relations in Public as a classic of interactional sociology." That may be a joke in more senses than one. All I know is I'll never get back the afternoon I spent reading it. Harrumph, and bah, humbug!

Incivility: The Rude Stranger in Everyday Life

By Philip Smith, Timothy L. Phillips and Ryan D. King

Cambridge University Press

230pp, £55.00 and £18.99

ISBN 9780521895514 and 719803

Published 26 August 2010

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