POPULAR CULTURE
FALL 2014
ROBERT WONSER
1
THE
SOCIOLOGY
OF
CELEBRITY
WHAT ARE
CELEBRITIES?
Celebrity is the site of a surplus of
contemporary society’s
charisma—by its very nature it
involves individuals with special
qualities
2
Mills: celebrity is the “American
form of public honor”
CELEBRITY AND ITS
PUBLIC
• Celebrities aren’t necessarily more talented,
skilled, intelligent etc., just better packaged,
promoted and thrust upon hungry gullible
masses
• Celebrity is dangerous and fans and the rest of
society is damaged by their contact with it
• Celebrities are narcissists
• Fans’ “celebrity worship” linked with negative
traits: dependency, “game-playing” in romantic
relationships, shyness, loneliness,
3
Scant social science attention except as “celebrity
as pathology”
CELEBRITY AS
COMMODITY
4
In line with critical theory approach;
(Horkheimer and Adorno), when citizens
give themselves up to the easy pleasures
of capitalism (like mass media,
consumerism, celebrity) they are more
readily controlled by tyrants.
Fans and consumers have been duped by
capitalism into fancying something
worthless and unhealthy
Pacify and squelch dissent inducing
somatic complacency
CELEBRITY AS
COMMODITY
Celebrity as replacement god
Opiate of the masses
5
Carrier of ideology
CONSUMPTION OF
CELEBRITIES
We consume them; celebrities both sell and are
sold
What happens to celebrities (their
commodification) is just more explicit of what
capitalism does to all of us; turns us into things to
be bought and sold
Celebrities embody 2 dominant Western
ideologies: individualism and market capitalism
6
• They serve as signs through which these
ideologies get passed onto the population
CELEBRITY: INTERACTIONAL
APPROACH
Microstructuralism approach: Cultural
norms are built into the context of each
interactional situation and the actors’
behavior either conforms to or deviates
from these norms.
7
“negotiated order” perspective: norms are
not necessarily fixed but are often
negotiated interactionally as situations
emerge and develop
8
REGULAR GUY PRETENDS
TO BE A CELEBRITY IN
TIMES SQUARE
FANS AND CELEBRITY
“illusion of intimacy”
One-sided; imbalance of power
Asymmetrical
What about Twitter and FB?
9
Celebrities as “intimate strangers”
•Celebrities = strangers
• Friends, family, colleagues =
intimates
THE MORAL ORDER OF
CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS
Celebrity sighting provide
insight into the everyday
rules of interaction that
govern mundane
encounters
“We’re not worthy!
We’re not worthy!”
10
Status differentials when
normal people rub elbows
with the famous  Presence
of a celebrity represents a
“situational impropriety”
something is out of place in
a situation (Goffman 1963)
THE MORAL ORDER
OF CELEBRITY
SIGHTINGS
Etiquette of these encounters based on “civil
inattention” which involves looking at someone and
then quickly looking away as you approach them
on the street, but not giving them any further
attention or acknowledging them in any way
When we approach someone we know we engage in
“Deference rituals” in which the approached
person’s status is acknowledged overtly through the
greetings and gestures of the approaching person
(1967:72)
So… which interaction rules should be used?
11
Rituals serve to preserve the status of those deferred
to, and their violation threatens it
MORAL ORDERS
Moral order is a shared set of values and
norms, prescriptions and proscriptions,
punishments and rewards that create and
maintain social cohesion, community and
solidarity.
Are celebrities intimates or strangers? Does
how we proceed depend on the answer to
this question?
12
• Functions of the moral order: facilitates social
cohesion, provides a form of social control, offers a
set of rules of behavior for which persons are held
accountable, and furnishes guidelines for
managing conflicts when they arise
INTERPRETIVE WORK OF
CELEBRITY ENCOUNTERS
Two types:
Recognition work:
• When seers present themselves to the
celebrity, engineering the encounter to
create a particular definition of the
situation
13
• When seers struggle to define and
comprehend the presence of a
celebrity in their ordinary world
Response work:
INTERPRETIVE WORK:
RECOGNITION WORK
• Double take – recognition may begin with a
sense of familiarity (somehow recognizable)
• Great expectations – celebrities don’t always
look the way we expect them to look (eg:
shorter in person)
• Proof positive – after recognition is made we
seek some evidence to authenticate that who
we are seeing is really who we think it is (eg:
that knowing smirk…)
14
Recognition work – recognition of a celebrity is
not automatic and the process of recognition is
problematic specifically because the presence
of the extraordinary challenges routine
assumptions about ordinary experience
INTERPRETIVE WORK:
RESPONSE WORK
Response work - attending to the presentation of our ordinary self in
the presence of the extra ordinary star
15
• Staying cool – can take the form of playing it cool… (easiest
course of action to take)
• Preserving the celebrity's privacy is part of the moral order,
but so is avoiding your own embarrassment by sticking to the
situational rules
• Your biggest fan – the recognition of a celebrity and the gushing
over them exposes you and the celebrity to potential
embarrassment, so mitigate it with accounts of excuses (“biggest
fan, I had to!”)
• Two thumbs down – when celebrities encounter non-celebrities in
public, they themselves are expected to do their part in upholding
the moral order of the situation
• What do we expect of celebrities in public?
• Too flashy? Boo…
CONCLUSION
“minor ceremonies” (Goffman 1967:91) of
celebrity sightings underscore and reproduce
the contemporary secular moral orders of
status, fame and reputation in everyday life.
Special kind of encounter with its own rules for
interaction
16
Emergent rules of celebrity sightings uphold
and police various boundaries: ordinary
versus extraordinary, obscurity versus fame,
stranger versus intimate.
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