Data Type: Journal Article

Socialization, command of performance, and mental illness.

Becker, Ernest. (1962). Socialization, command of performance, and mental illness. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 67, No. 5, pp. 494-501.

This article, dating back to the early 1960s, discusses an early sociological view of social behavioral malfunction. The author urges sociologists to understand the importance of the “ego” in human beings, and its “anxiety-buffering” functions. The piece elaborates upon the earliest concepts of ‘social performance,’ insisting that in order to function properly within a society, an individual must act in accordance with specific social rules and rituals in order to successfully interact and perform socially.

Rather than using a quantitative analysis, the author relies on previously established theoretical arguments to create his own theory. This article is not empirically-driven, but rather a primarily theoretical/conceptual piece. The piece acts primarily as an explication of social performance and, in clarifying the concept, seeks to define it as a result of individuals participating in the process known as socialization. The process of socialization, therefore, is argued to in fact be a sort of ‘training’ of the individual to become a ‘performer’—one who, by means of fictional performance, will be able eschew anxiety and abide by and uphold the cultural and social norms imposed on them with total conviction. Finally, the author stresses how social performance can be used as a frame to analyze and understand social behavioral malfunction. The article asserts that, especially in research dealing with the social behavioral malfunction of mental patients or other stigmatized bodies, studies can be better carried out or understood when seen through the sociological lens of ‘performance.’ The author argues that socialization is merely the act of training an individual to manage social anxiety to such an extent that they take on a social role and begin a performance which adheres them to a set of projected social rules and allows them to sustain the social fiction of mutually shared and understood rituals. The article insists that society is continually fabricated through these performances, nourished and validated by the masses. This process of individuals engaging in performance reinforces the perceived positive value systems, which imposes meaning on the world through mutual support with other individuals performing in a society.

This article is relevant to the sociological study of mental illness as it addresses the sociological concept of ‘performance’ and provides a framework to begin interrogating social behavioral malfunction among deviant social groups (e.g., those with mental illnesses). Those interested in the history of social psychology may also be interested in the piece, which marks an early moment in the history of the discipline when scholars were shaping some of the earliest theories and methods that would be used to explore mental health from a deviance and/or performance perspective. Individuals act as fictional performers in order to successfully engage and interact with their society and other individuals within it. The author discusses how social behavioral malfunction can potentially be tested or evaluated when an individual’s ability to perform and adhere to socially-upheld value and communications systems is measured. If an individual becomes overtaken by social anxiety, their ability to maintain their performance can be seen beginning to falter, in which case, psychiatric treatment or in some cases psychological treatment is likely to be sought out by a subject or recommended to them by a medical professional to alleviate the anxiety and return the subject to a state of social equilibrium. The author attests that social behavioral malfunction can be explained first and foremost through the understanding of the sociological concept of performance.

Categories: Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness
Publication Date: 1962