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  You are Here:    Home          Contributing Reporters          Preparing Your Role Goffman Interrogates The Legitimacy Of The Academy

August 19, 2022

A grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility for removing it crosses men’s minds.

-Alexis de Tocqueville

A crisis faces the heart of the academy. The liberal civil rights movements and decades of intercultural and international migration have culminated in a multiplicity of emergent identity characteristics that have reshaped the nature of the interactional order – that set of intersubjective relations which meaningfully organize social situations, giving meaning to identities, interactions, and their constituent symbols (Goffman 1983, 1967; Scott 2016). Within this exploding reconfiguration of the interactional order, university administrators face the challenge of striking a balance between “free expression in the pursuit of knowledge and ensuring a respectful and welcoming environment for all” (Totes-Parkin 2017). If the academy, other institutions, their disciplines, and constituent knowledge are “not broad, not liberating, not open to diverse ideas, but simply the…mausoleum of dead white men” (Agresto 2016:150), that is, the product of imperialist patriarchal hegemony, then the mission of liberal education and its components can be conceived of as perpetuating oppression and systemic inequalities among people of color (POC), women, and other marginalized populations (Hughey, Rees, Goss, Rossino, & Lesser 2017). The systemic inequalities have always been of central interest to sociologists, but in the contemporary moment manifestations of inequalities are conceived of as taking a new, contested, and sometimes confusing form – ‘microaggressions’.

Academic work on ‘microaggressions’ has been largely confined to the psychological literature with a paucity of sociological work on the subject (Embrik, Dominguez, & Karsak 2017). The present work seeks to contribute to filling this void to propose a theoretical framework that could be expected to help mitigate the legitimation crisis facing universities today. Borrowing Collins’ (1998) conception of interaction ritual chains, this article argues for the utility of employing a Goffmanian (1983, 1967, 1963, 1959) theoretical framework for refining the concept of ‘microaggressions’ and their social relevance. The article proceeds in 4 sections. First, I present the definition of ‘microaggressions’, a brief history of the social conditions necessitating the conception of the term, and the contemporary climate surrounding it. Next, I turn to a Goffman (1983, 1967, 1959) inspired theorization of microaggressions as mutually constitutive presentations of self within a situated interaction ritual, which is, in turn, one link in a broader interaction ritual chain. This second section will discuss how systemic inequalities can be conceived of as not merely static structural components but outcomes of longstanding chains of micro-level interactional processes, which will hopefully assist in shifting the discussion of microaggressions away from affect-based subjective perceptions towards a more sociologically-based concept grounded in interactional patterns. The third section will propose how a Goffmanian theory of microaggressions could be expected to help resolve debates among academics as to the validity and applicability of the concept. Finally, this article will then turn to a critical reflection and concluding remarks.


The term ‘microaggression’ was first introduced in 1974 by Chester Pierce (1970), whose experiences as one of the first practicing black psychiatrists motivated him to develop a theory of the daily and cumulative micro-level assaults his patients expressed facing (Embrick et al. 2017). Defined as brief, subtle, even unintentional, verbal or nonverbal components of the interactive order that communicate hostility or negativity to a target group or individual (Campbell 2014; Embrick et al. 2017; Hughey et al. 2017), the term was recently popularized by Derald Wing Sue (2017) and other academics and activists seeking to bring greater attention to what they perceive as the subtle ways that stereotypes play out for marginalized populations (Campbell 2014). Whether verbal, behavioral, or structurally imposed indignities (Sue 2017), regardless of the severity of individual incidents it has been shown in a number of studies that the cumulative effect of microaggressions on the mental and physical health of members of marginalized populations can be quite severe (Campbell & Manning 2014; Hughey et al. 2017). Indeed, eminent scholars like Pierce (1970) and Sue (2015) have presented evidence that microaggressions might be a public health issue.

The Preconditions for the Emergence of the Term and the Legitimacy Crisis it Poses

The cultural shifts in the 1960s included, if not centered around, the emergence of a new Left movement on college and University campuses across North America who advocated for ‘Free Speech’ and an overall societal reconfiguration that recognized that politics, knowledge, and ‘the social’ have largely been the province of white patriarchy (Agresto 2016; Scott 2016). These movements promised that “all that came before would be enriched, opened up, and made more inclusive under the banner of multiculturalism” (Agresto 2016:150) and sought to free students and civilians more generally from the yoke of unduly stratifying authority (Campbell & Manning 2014; Nieli 2016). Indeed, as Campbell (2014) adroitly notes, these civil rights movements have effected a decline in “racial, sexual, and other forms of intercollective inequality” (710).

Consequently, institutions experienced steady growth of agencies specializing in combatting racial- or gender-based offenses to achieve the social justice of equality and inclusivity, which has also ultimately resulted in the balkanization of university campuses (Subotnik 2016) into “enclaves of separatism: racial-ethnic-gender-specific departments, racially and ethnically separate living arrangements, monocultural and mono-racial centers, and ever heightened race-based affirmative action in admission, retention, and scholarship programs” (Agresto 2016:150). The project of achieving a more egalitarian society has managed to eliminate myriad inequalities through the bureaucratic regulation of confrontational methods of social control, directing conflict resolution instead towards agency partisanships (ibid.). These social trends have also increasingly atomized society and, perhaps more importantly for the purpose of the current work, the resulting elimination of many intercollective inequalities has resulted in what many scholars refer to as the ‘Tocqueville Effect’: as social conditions improve and opportunities increase, members of society become more sensitive to those inequalities which remain and social frustrations intensify (Agresto 2016; Nieli 2016; Scott 2016).

Although many manifest social inequalities have been or are in the process of being eliminated, the residue of systemic inequalities remains. Paradoxically, whereas the original campaigners for ‘Free Speech’ sought to purge universities of racist or misogynistic speech and inequalities that could lead to undue marginalization, some of the generation that followed now combat any speech or ideas that have the slightest potential to offend (Agresto, 2016; Campbell & Manning 2014). Additionally, social identity markers, traditionally consisting of characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, have multiplied. Now, individuals are welcome to claim more fluid, experientially-based identity characteristics, whether based in cultural habits or life-style preferences (Scott 2016). Consequently, this era of ‘identity-politics’ is experiencing a magnification of perceived interpersonal offences, slights, and assaults (Campbell & Manning 2014; Scott 2016), which is most readily apparent in the explosion of social justice movements on campuses across North America: from Yale, to Princeton, to the University of Michigan, increasing numbers of students are organizing campaigns to sterilize campuses from any communication or conduct which might be deemed offensive or hurtful to certain historically marginalized populations (Agresto 2016; Nieli 2016; Totes-Patkin 2017). The target of these neo-Leftist protests is not merely racist or insensitive comments or their commentators, but any view that is perceived to run contrary to the current progressive agenda, thus unduly limiting variations in speech, speakers, and dialogues – those key ingredients for vigorous intellectual projects – available and allowable on campuses (Iaonne 2016). Although noble in intent, this situation clearly poses a serious threat to the heart of the academy and its required devotion to open, free, and rational inquiry (Agresto 2016; Iaonne 2016; Scott 2015). Surprisingly, although microaggressions are arguably primarily social phenomena, there is scarce sociological research on this issue.


Whereas Sue (2017) and other scholars insist that microaggressions are pervasive, ubiquitous, and necessarily subjective (and primarily anecdotal) manifestations of “the pain and suffering of oppression [which] does not lend itself easily to objectivity and control of variables without separating people from the group, science from spirituality, thoughts from feelings, observer and observed, and man/woman from the universe” (171), this view seems a spiritualized stretch toward reifying individual affective responses into objective, generalizable scientific concepts (Lillenfield 2017). That is, the validity of ‘microaggressions’ as a testable scientific construct is dubious. As Lillenfield (2017) points out, the concept fails to withstand psychological and sociological scrutiny insofar as it does not connect to well-established principles, relies too heavily on affect as a heuristic, and remains what he calls, an “open concept…characterized by (a) intrinsically fuzzy boundaries, (b) an indefinitely extendable list of indicators, and (c) an unclear inner nature” (ibid.:143). Consequently, while some psychologists claim they can test the physical and mental health effects of ‘microaggressions’ and thereby validate their existence as more than mere slights or insults (Embrick et al. 2017; Hughey et al. 2017; Sue 2017; Williams & Fredrick 2015), other scholars claim that there is insufficient pragmatic and theoretical work done that can legitimate microaggressions as a sound scientific concept or driver of institutional policy change (Lillenfield 2017). Thus, scholars call for more sociological research on the social essence of microaggressions; their structure and effects (Embrick et al. 2017). Theoretically, one could turn to Du Bois’ (1903) seminal analysis of the experiences of POC that introduced many concepts, such as double-consciousness, into the sociological lexicon, within which, arguably, ‘microaggressions’ played a large part. However, a Du Boisian inspired analysis might neglect a crucial aspect of microaggressions. A common thread throughout the microaggressions literature, outside of their cognitive effects, is that they are primarily ‘interaction-based’ relational patternings of moral conflict. Enter Goffman.

Microaggressions within Interaction Ritual Chains – 1. The Object

By situating microaggressions within a Goffman inspired theoretical frame of interaction ritual chains (Collins 1998), a number of insights and directions for future sociological research become available. First, we gain a clearer view of and firmer foothold on the gradual accumulation of subjectively experienced alienation and discreditability that characterize microaggressions. In other words, we can move beyond the ubiquity of structural accounts where “the entire macro-social structure…has the feel of externality; it seems thing-like, compulsory, resistant to change” (Collins 1998:28-29) to envision microaggressions within chains of interactions; from Du Bois’ (1903) observations of how “the liberalizing tendencies of the latter half of the eighteenth century brought, along with kindlier relations between black and white, thoughts of ultimate adjustment and assimilation” (39) straight through to the Yale and Princeton student protests targeting perceived microaggressions and demanding institutional reconfiguration to ensure marginalized populations are free from these cumulative, subtle, and normalized interactional components that threaten identities and powerfully damage emotions (Embrick et al. 2017; Scott 2016; Totes-Patkin 2017). That is, as Goffman (1967) notes

Of the various types of object the individual must handle during his presence among others, one merits special attention: the other persons themselves. The impression he creates through his dealings with them and the traits they impute to him in consequence have a special bearing on his reputation, for here the witnesses have a direct personal stake in what they witness. (168)

Here we can grasp how the reputations of actors engaged in interpersonal communication are shaped by their immediate dealings and by interactions between actors who precede the moment. While this may seem self-evident, that the past shapes the present, it allows for an interpretation of microaggressions beyond the fatal flaw which plagues the possibility for advancing any theories on the concept, that “a focus on merely a singular interaction as an instance of microaggression seems to limit the ability of respondents, particularly whites, to understand both the symbolic and physical toll of racism as a systemic and ongoing effect as well as see microaggressions as manifestations of systemic and symbolic violence towards People of Color” (Hughey et al.:327-328). In other words, by capturing the object of microaggressions as the interactors themselves, as the interaction, we can avoid the pitfalls of primarily identifying victims and perpetrators, or of framing microaggressions as pervasive and ubiquitous; instead our attention is called towards how the mutual constitution of individual identities and reputations in situ is the basic structure of those subtle variations in the social order, including examples of microaggressions (Hughey et al. 2017; Goffman 1967). I am not suggesting that in order to better understand microaggressions it is necessary to perform a genealogy of the objects of interaction. Such a project would be entirely impossible. Rather, I suggest that by grasping the concept as a kind of interaction consisting of situated actors we can avoid prescriptions of ubiquitous social forces and individualized emotional effects and instead take a sociological view of microaggressions as interactional outcomes and accomplishments.

Microaggressions within Interaction Ritual Chains – 2. The Subject

Just as the object of these interactions is crucial to our theoretical framework here, so too is the subject. This, I contend, is best examined as the roles of interactors. In other words, both perpetrator and victim, the interface between the unique savoir-faires brought into each situation, the conditions of interaction. As Goffman remarks

Usual objectives, such as gaining face for oneself, giving free expression to one’s true beliefs, introducing deprecating information about the others, or solving problems and performing tasks, are typically pursued in such a way as to be consistent with the maintenance of face. To study face-saving is to study the traffic rules of social interaction (12).

To claim that the perpetrators of microaggressions are insensitive such-and-such types of people, that the victims are over-sensitive such-and-such types of people, or, indeed, to claim that there are victims and perpetrators at all fails a sociological analysis in a number of ways. It privileges microaggression claims-makers and helps foster a culture of victimhood, that is, a culture wherein being a victim is seen as a virtue which thereby raises the status of the aggrieved and makes it especially likely that aggrieved parties will adopt a victim identity (Campbell & Manning 2014). This is not inherently problematic, because it can enable disadvantaged populations to claim an active political identity seeking change. However, the magnification of interpersonal offences, such as, for example, a false rape claim, and the ostensible authoritarianism of student protests for neutralizing all potentially offensive dialogue could be conceptualized as an ourobouros: where protestors become “examples of the very oppression they seek to expose and eradicate” (ibid.:p.706). This ‘victim-status romanticism’ moves beyond pity and compassion to conceive of victims as morally and spiritually superior human beings (i.e., Marx’s poor and oppressed workers as saviors of mankind) that insulates their claims and demands from any critical judgment (Nieli 2016). Hence, by eschewing a dichotomous classification of the subjects (i.e., victim/perpetrator), the concept of microaggressions achieves greater theoretical utility by observing as subject the roles of interactors in the situation. I contend that this overcomes Lilenfield’s (2017) critique of the concept that any subjectively experienced slight could be deemed a microaggression because analysts must examine the situated role expectations for actors. Further, without detracting from the very real emotional impact, this also undermines Sue’s (2017) somewhat metaphysical claim that microaggressions cannot be observed except through the eyes of the individual experiencing them. I expand on these two conjectures in the third section of this article.

Choosing roles over identities for this theoretical framework shifts the focus away from the individualization of experiences towards the social enactment of subjectivities. Highlighting a perpetrator or victim of microaggressions is a sociological disservice insofar as it takes our attention away from the interactional negotiations of dignity undertaken by both sides of such a confrontation (Hughey et al. 2017). Additionally, by presupposing a power dynamic within a given situation, one only reinforces that power dynamic more generally and risks overlooking the enactment of asymmetries in situ. That is not to say that we must dismiss the historical injustices that have besieged marginalized populations, but rather that we cannot enable the transposition of those injustices over particular situations else we risk losing sight of the actualities of interaction. Using the Yale protest as an example (see Toles-Patkin 2017), are the Christakis’s deserving of being called exemplars of historical white hegemony? Are they in fact the perpetrators? Is the university itself?

Instead of assuming or imposing the roles of the actors involved (perpetrator or victim), the subject at hand for the sake of this proposed theoretical venture are the roles being played by each situated actor saving face within that peculiar situation, their ‘presentation of self’ as such within the confines of the incidental scene (Goffman 1959). By avoiding presuppositions or attributing historically derived value, the attitudes of participants can be derived from the mechanics of the interaction and the sociological function of microaggressions becomes available: microaggressions are a discursive boundary-making tool to delineate social categories across a social landscape wrought with mechanisms that contribute to the reproduction of inequalities. In other words, whether purported perpetrator or victim, microaggressions are the interactional means through which actors maintain community cohesion by defining themselves against some outgroup (Hughey et al., 2017), that is, they are the situated recognition of, challenge to, reification of, or resistance to an actor’s perception of their position, in relation to some other, within a socially overstratified society (Campbell & Manning 2014).

This is the proposed structure of microaggressions for this theoretical frame, the contents of which may vary considerably depending on the environment and constituent actors. However, certain necessary components determine the particularized contents: the degrees of variation in the kinds of cultural capital accrued throughout these rituals and the emotional energy, or kind of strength, individuals derive from these encounters (Collins 1998).


Let us turn to some of the propositions above and clarify with a recent case. Taking the Yale incident as an example, were the Christakis’s playing the role of microaggressor? Was Yale University administration? Were the students saving-face within an interaction characterized by slights, slurs, or insults of the systemic variety? (Toles-Patkin 2017) I insist that the answer to each of these questions through the framework provided here is ‘no’. It is true that all parties involved were challenging the microaggressive qualities inherent in the kinds of cultural appropriative costumes that students may choose for Halloween, but no microaggression occurred, except, perhaps, towards the Christakis’s. If we adopt the frame proposed in this article, then we are provided some clarity. Focusing on the Goffmanian (1967) object of this incident, the interactors and how their mutually constituting identities shape the situation, it is quite clear that this particular incident is an interaction wherein protestors define themselves in terms of an outgroup of oppressors, thereby imputing the role of oppressor on the Christakis’s; a clear example of how microaggressions serve as a boundary-making tool within social interaction. Moreover, protestors seek to accrue, stabilize, and exercise cultural capital to move through or augment the current opportunity structure of the campus (Collins 1998; Toles-Patkin 2017) and clearly carry a powerful charge of emotional energy accumulated throughout a long-term interaction ritual chain characterized by varying degrees of rejection from a moral economy of dignity (Collins 1998; Hughey et al. 2017).

While the Yale protestors sought to condemn and remedy attitudes towards cultural appropriation, by examining the object, that is, the ‘other’ persons themselves, this situation exemplifies the kind of flip-over occurring among neo-Leftist university students: what was once  advocation for ‘Free Speech’ on campus has transformed into fierce condemnation and sterilization of any platform that could be perceived of as emotionally injurious (Scott 2016). Moreover, this situation demonstrates how unidimensional ideas, such as those held by these protestors towards cultural appropriation, undermine critical reflexive thought on the nature of the argument and the roles of the actual actors themselves (Toles-Patkin 2017), something which the present work seeks to remedy. Arguably, examining the Goffmanian (1967) object – the interactors – highlights that within this incident and regardless of historical transgressions both parties are playing the role of bully, but only one is disguised as progressive thought (Campbell & Manning 2014). “Has no one told them that freedom of speech applies only when it is reciprocal, that is, if we don’t respect the rights of others to express their views and opinions, what we are doing is not exercising our freedom of speech but asserting our will to power?” (Iaonne 2016:114). Employing “the other persons themselves” (Goffman 1967:168) as a key conceptual component enables a sociological analyst to outline the structure of microaggressions, which reveals in the case of the Yale protest, microaggressions arise that demand silence and recantation from both parties within the situation (Iaonne 2016); from Christakis’ condescension towards students’ ‘feelings’ to protestors’ imputation of a perpetrator identity.

Tracing this as an interaction ritual chain, microaggressions serve as a boundary-making tool for marginalized populations to define their group in opposition to an oppressor, but also as the vehicle by which POC and marginalized populations might transgress perceived interactional boundaries depending on accrued and available cultural capital and emotional energy (Collins 1998). Du Bois (1903) certainly outlines this “double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, [which] must give rise to double words and double ideas, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism” (145). But it is our duty to move sociological theory beyond this bounded doubleness into a Goffmanian tale of situated selves that locates microaggressions as identity symbols derived from “their own histories of ritual participation…[and] loaded with membership significance” (Collins 1998:29), towards which interactors either conform and selves are confirmed, or commit infractions and selves are disconfirmed. Variations in these interactions depend upon, again, accrued and available cultural capital and emotional energy (ibid.). To Goffman (1967),

these resources determine interactors’ knowledge of face-work and…experience in its use. In our society, this kind of capacity is sometimes called tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, or social skill. Variation in social skill pertains more to the efficacy of face-work than to the frequency of its application, for almost all acts involving others are modified, prescriptively or proscriptively, by considerations of face. If a person is to employ his repertoire of face-saving practices, obviously he must first become aware of the interpretations that others may have placed upon his acts and the interpretations that he ought to place upon theirs. In other words, he must exercise perceptiveness. But even if he is properly alive to symbolically conceived judgments and is socially skilled, he must yet be willing to exercise his perceptiveness and his skill; he must, in short, be prideful and considerate (13-14).

Drawing from this, Protestors at Yale showed little consideration and inordinate pride in an “aggressive use of face-work…to neutralize a particular threat” (ibid.:24). Here we can grasp the contours of the social structure of microaggressions as “catalogs [that] are a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer from them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy” (Campbell & Manning 2014:709-710).

As an interaction ritual chain, we can grasp how, in addressing potential microaggressions, the Yale protestors: carried a heavy charge of emotional energy, albeit a largely negative one; sought greater access to cultural capital by exercising the cultural capital they had already accrued; and performed a microaggression of their own by attributing blame to the Christakis’s for potentially experiencing the emotional consequences of cultural appropriation. As potential victims – a morally and spiritually superior identity (Nieli 2016) – protestors were positioned to introduce more favorable information about their group and unfavorable information about the others “in such a way that the only reply that the others will be able to think up will be one that terminates the interchange in a grumble, a meager excuse, a face-saving I-can-take-a-joke laugh, or an empty stereotyped comeback of the ‘Oh yeah?’ or ‘That’s what you think’ variety” (Goffman 1967:25). This is the threat inherent in microaggressions, that blanketing historical injustices over situated interactions will eliminate critical dialogue and thus the mutually constitutive nature of face-to-face interaction, “limit interracial discussion by stifling curiosity and driving underground counterveiling sentiments” (Subotnik 2016:201), and, at the heart of the current article, the potential transformation of campuses “into a politicized dictatorship – not of the Left’s once honored working class, but of loud, strident, intolerant…activists” (Nieli 2016:174) producing the very environment they claim to revile: “a unidimensional marketplace of expression on campus [that] eliminates the opportunity for students to practice critical thinking skills in discussions, fosters a superficial comprehension of issues, and misinforms students about the experiences of living in a free society” (Toles-Patkin 2017:93).

We cannot dismiss the subjective experiences of protestors and the historically marginalized populations of which they are a part as these are determinants of the intensity of the emotional energy they bring to and from these kinds of interactions. But we must also frame these experiences in terms of their immediate role expectations, as opposed to abstractions. That is, these protestors, like many of those who employ the concept of microaggressions to emphasize facts favorable to their position, also belong to mostly affluent and educated families (Campbell & Manning 2016), thus affording them the cultural capital to engage in such interactions whatsoever. The Yale protesters are not those same racialized peoples who did not “have little recourse and did not have full access to the moral economy of ‘dignity’ in which whites participated freely” (Hughey et al. 2017:328), but are students at an elite university seeking to acquire that previously denied moral status through the virtue and blamelessness of victimhood (Campbell & Manning 2016).


The present framework can overcome both Lillenfield’s (2017) critique of how the current conceptualization of microaggressions enables its application to any slight or insult and the limitations of Sue’s (2017) conceptualization of microaggressions as just that, any interaction subjectively experienced as a slight or assault on an individual or reference group. Regarding the former, I concur with Lillenfield (2017) that the strength of the claims and assertions regarding microaggressions is not proportionate to the strength of the scientific evidence. This could be attributed to the fact that the majority of research on microaggressions is psychological and individualistic in nature, examining their effects on individuals rather than their substantive social form and contents (Embrick et al. 2017). As such, although his discussion and recommendations are sound, advocating for further research, Lillenfield (2017) falls short of an adequate sociological examination. He claims that “the term ‘microaggression’ conflates the outcome of a behavior with its intent” and that “the very idea of an unintentional act of aggression is almost certainly oxymoronic and misleading, as aggressive actions are virtually by definition intended to produce harm”; supported by the statement, “there is no research evidence that microaggressions correlate with indices of either aggression or prejudice in deliverers” (163). This perspective of the concept responsibilitizes actors and individualizes the concept, thereby entirely neglecting the well-supported claims that microaggressions are ‘interaction-based’.

Instead, a Goffman (1983, 1967, 1959) inspired perspective overcomes this somewhat reductionist stance to address what Hughey et al. (2017) suggest are the salient questions facing sociological research on microaggressions: how do they affect attitudes? And what is the power of different variations? First, the current framework would sidestep Lillenfield’s (2017) critique by highlighting the social essence of microaggressions; that the intent of a behavior is not easily separated from its outcome. As Goffman (1967) would have it, even solitary cases of misconduct where responsibility cannot be traced to the offender can have social consequences because of their effects on the offender’s conscience, but this is the pyschologistic reduction from which much current research suffers. Even when “the effects of the misconduct are ephemeral (as in gestured acts of contempt)…occur in a social situation – when, that is, witnesses are present – than these standards become immediately relevant and introduce some risk, however low” (ibid.:168). As such, it is not that intent and behavior are conflated that poses a problem for theorizing on microaggressions, but rather considerations of how intent represents the assessment of risk in interactional milieux. In other words, no intent is pure. It is always contingent on situational factors that shape and affect the behavior(s) enacted.

Second, although much of the academic literature insists that an act of aggression necessarily must be intended to produce harm, how many interactions have occurred the world-over that are perceived by others as aggressive, yet the identified aggressor sincerely claims no intent to cause harm? We need only look to crimes of passion popularized in the media for myriad examples. Within interactions, one’s social identity need not align with one’s personal identity in much the same way that a criminal might take an alias to detach himself. That is, although “an individual constructs his image of himself out of the same materials from which others first construct a social and personal identification of him…he exercises important liberties in regard to what he fashions” (Goffman 1963:106). In other words, in the case of the Yale protestors, one can identify personally as a righteous civil rights activist fashioning her identity from the vestiges of the civil rights movement, but within the actual interaction order become socially identifiable as the aggressor taking recourse to “dictatorial ultimatums, intimidation tactics, and out-right bullying” (Nieli 2016:175). The present work intends to contribute to gaining purchase on the objective and intersubjective nature of these hostilities, however subjectively experienced, which indeed requires consensus on the objective characteristics of hostility, aggression, and harm.

Third, with respect to correlations between microaggressions and the subjective experience of aggression or prejudice in deliverers: would a young college student dressing for a Halloween party as a ghost with a white hood and eye holes necessarily begin his evening with a reading of David Duke? Would a young woman naively dressing for the same party as the Disney character Pocahontas necessarily begin her day blogging about the benefits of the Keystone pipeline? Clearly, Lillenfield (2017) neglects the social nature of aggressions in favor of individualized psychologistic correlations. While we cannot continue a research project based entirely on subjective experiences of aggression, which is the main problem with Sue’s (2017) framework and to which I turn next, we also cannot rely on the intent of aggressors. Instead, I contend, microaggressions are most adequately conceptualized within interaction ritual chains that account for actors’ immediate negotiations of meaning and the history of interaction-based transgressions preceding them.

Turning to Sue’s (2017) claim, he provides a compelling argument but with serious problems. Confirming Pierce’s (1970) claim that microaggressions are indeed a public health issue because they impact black’s life expectancy (Embrick et al. 2017), he has done society a great service. His continuing polemic for the primacy of experiential reality is noble insofar as he advocates for focusing on “those voices [that] tell stories of the many hurts, humiliations, lost opportunities, need for change, and the often unintentional microaggressions endured as they struggle against an unwelcoming, invalidating and even hostile campus climate and society” (Sue 2017:171). However, there are a number of issues with Sue’s (2017) perspective. First, he claims that microaggressions are not objectifiable, yet superobjectifies the concept through what Franz Fanon calls ‘thingification’ – the reification of a concept as having a presocial existence as a “psychoanalytic force that controls actors’ words and behaviors…lurk[ing] in everyone just beneath the surface” (Hughey et al. 2017:307). Second, if the shape and content of microaggressions are solely determined by subjective experience, then they will remain forever ambiguous and out-of-reach of even the most advanced sciences. No fruit will be born where anything can be a microaggression. As Karl Popper so rightly pronounced, ‘if a concept explains everything, it explains nothing’. Perhaps this is why Time magazine proclaimed that the concept is “neither profound nor complex – it’s just bullying disguised as progressive thought” (McWhorter 2014).

Furthermore, Sue (2017) contradicts a vast swathe of scholarship (including DuBois (1903) and Pierce (1970)) that insists that society will be better served by examining the relational character of microaggressions rather than conceiving of them as pervasive and ubiquitous (Agresto 2017; Campbell & Manning 2014; Hughey et al. 2017; Subotnik 2016). The latter risks neglecting how aggressors may deny their role (Hughey et al. 2017), the role of preexisting biases in the interpretation of symbolic interactions (Haidt 2017), and, perhaps most importantly, how current organized responses to microaggressions are having increasingly negative effects on Canadian and American Universities and the core components of liberal education (Agresto 2017; Haidt 2017; Nieli 2016; Scott 2016). This article advances the former, contending that an analysis of these issues is best served by a Goffmanian interactional approach, which can account for the situatedness of microaggressions and the central influence of role expectations of interactors.


Because I believe that the term has great potential utility for sociological analyses, I hope to re-center the discussion on microaggressions as social phenomena so as to prevent the concept from falling into psychologistic oblivion. As such, this proposed Goffmanian interactional theory of microaggressions is an attempt to contribute to the development of a more sociological approach to these increasingly emergent incidents on campuses across North America. In sum, the current work presents 4 theoretical struts for building further sociological analyses of microaggressions. First, they are primarily and fundamentally ‘interaction-based’ relational patternings of moral conflict (Embrick et al. 2017; Hughey et al. 2017), which avoids isolating the phenomena to merely effects or experiences and thus avoids the traps of remaining an ‘open concept’ with fuzzy boundaries, indefinite indicators, and an unclear inner nature (Lilenfield 2017). Second, these patternings are best conceptualized as interaction ritual chains which account for how interactors negotiate meanings within immediate environments and “the personal repertoire of symbols loaded with membership significance” (Collins 1998:29), historically derived, that constitutes their perceived role expectations and upon which they build within interactional situations. Third, microaggressions serve as boundary-making tools that demarcate increasingly varied social categories, that is, they are the recognition of and challenge to stratification. Fourth, they are both the outcomes and accomplishments of the mutual constitution of identities which shapes and furnishes the situation. In other words, “the occasionally precarious and the constantly precarious form a single continuum, their situation in life analyzable by the same framework” (Goffman 1963:127). As we drift away from the liberal founding stone, this kind of egalitarian analysis is necessary. And finally, that the situated roles of interactors must supersede subjective abstractions. This last point, I admit, will be the most challenging aspect of any analysis of microaggressions as it calls for consensus on their objective characteristics. Yet I contend it is the most sociological.

A number of media projects and websites have been documenting experiences of microaggressions for some time now (Campbell & Manning 2014), which could serve as an excellent source for developing valid constructs for scientific inquiry. However, even this kind of inquiry is under threat of challenging the newly emergent status quo of neo-Leftist ‘Free Speech’ and ‘political correctness’, that by merely inquiring into the validity of the concept and claims of microaggressions one could face accusations of being racially insensitivity or even racist (Subotnik 2016). As Scott (2015) remarks, “although sensitivities and vulnerabilities should be respected, there are clearly limits of the extent to which they can be indulged if free and vigorous intellectual inquiry is in danger of being seriously inhibited…so the best approach is a pragmatic one, to balance free expression with mutual respect case-by-case” (419). This is what I hope a theory of microaggressions within a Goffmanian interaction ritual chain can provide to sociological analyses.


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