Micro-Foundations: Anonymity, Mutual Indifference, and the Urban Interaction Order

This section examines how the urban interaction order is upheld through a symbiotic relationship of sorts between mutual indifference and anonymity. These terms are very much interconnected, so I distinguish them for heuristic purposes to the extent that doing so provides us with some useful ways to think anew about the fertile interactional space of the city. I will first deal briefly with anonymity and the urban interaction order, before moving to a more detailed discussion of mutual indifference.

I define anonymity as the condition or state of being unknown to others. While anonymity is an individual state, its genesis is wholly social and its sustenance is wholly situational. Being unknown is the condition of being unknown to or by someone: anonymity is always already social. Of particular interest here is the work that anonymity does in everyday urban life, especially as it relates to the most ubiquitous form of association we find in cities, that between strangers.

The urban interaction order refers to the order produced by and through the everyday copresence of strangers in cities. I call this an order for the simple reason that it is organized in ways that make ordinary urban life possible in the first place and because it is structured by specifiable principles and regularities of functioning. This order exists independently of sociological analysis.15 In line with the Durkheimian conception of the sui generis character of social reality and with ethnomethodological convention (Garfinkel 1967), I treat this order as an emergent feature of everyday social interactions between strangers and the generalized (but always tentative) stabilization of collective expectations around coordination and cooperation. This order is, of course, rule governed, even if its rules are implicit and are not necessarily formally articulated by ordinary members, except when these rules are breached. If breached, sanctions emerge from within that order rather than being imposed from without.16 With this concept, I draw on the later Goffman’s famous iteration of the ‘interaction order,’ whereby he foregrounds the centrality of social interaction and posits the ‘face-to-face domain as an analytically viable one—a domain which might be titled, for want of any happy name, the interaction order.’ This, he says, can be treated ‘as a substantive domain in its own right’ (1983: 2). It is worth quoting Goffman at length here:

It is a fact of our human condition that, for most of us, our daily life is spent in the immediate presence of others; in other words, that whatever they are, our doings are likely to be, in the narrow sense, socially situated [...] the fact of social situatedness can be expected to have some consequence, albeit sometimes apparently very minor. These consequences have traditionally been treated as “effects,” that is, as indicators, expressions or symptoms of social structures such as relationships, informal groups, age grades, gender, ethnic minorities, social classes and the like, with no great concern to treat these effects as data in their own terms (Idem).

Goffman continues:

Once individuals—for whatever reason—come into one another’s immediate presence, a fundamental condition of social life becomes enormously pronounced, namely, its promissory, evidential character. It is not only that our appearance and manner provide evidence of our statuses and relationships. It is also that the line of our visual regard, the intensity of our involvement, and the shape of our initial actions, allow others to glean our immediate intent and purpose, and all this whether or not we are engaged in talk with them at the time (Idem).

The interaction order is the situated social space within which we encounter one another in every part of our lives when we are copresent with others; it is a fact of collective life. Like Goffman, I afford primacy to the interactions between copresent individuals rather than individual- level characteristics. Whereas Goffman speaks of the interaction order in general, under analysis here is the urban interaction order.17 My addition of the modifier urban serves to specify a particular spatial and experiential domain that draws from those who populate and sustain it a range of personal adjustments and orientations, not necessarily generalizable to Goffman’s more all-encompassing interaction order. The urban interaction order is a more specific subset, involving the assortment of unceasing yet very ordinary and taken-for-granted encounters between anonymous individuals who are strangers to one another in cities. A focus on the urban trains attention on the ostensibly weaker, or at least more abstract, bases for solidarity that we find in cities—what Durkheim (1964) calls conditions of organic solidarity. I attend to interaction to see if we might discover how solidarity between strangers inhabits everyday urban life. More broadly, the study of interaction orders provides us with ‘a means and a reason to examine diverse societies comparatively, and our own historically’ (Goffman 1983: 2).

Anonymity and the urban interaction order are, of course, inextricably linked—the former is more or less essential for the sustenance of the latter. The question then remains as to what interactional mechanisms and processes maintain anonymity. The answer here lies in the specific form of orientation to others that characterizes and sustains the urban interaction order, what both Durkheim (1964: 298) and Simmel (1971: 334) call mutual indifference. This term has two elements: first, indifference, which is to be uninterested in, unconcerned with, or unmoved by the presence of other persons and, second, mutuality, which implies a shared orientation or a kind of reciprocity. These two different—but not opposed—terms significantly modify one another, so that mutual indifference is an attribute of social relationships in which both parties recognize one another but only in a vague or generalized (non-specific) way.

If anonymity is a socially sustained individual state diffused throughout the urban interaction order, then I take mutual indifference to be the core characteristic of social relationships between anonymous individuals that sustains that order. More than this, mutual indifference is the relational mechanism by which both anonymity and the urban interaction order are maintained. In sum, then, anonymity is individually experienced but socially and situationally sustained. The urban interaction order is supra- individual but dependent on individuals in general for its sustenance. And mutual indifference is an entirely intersubjective achievement; that is, it exists only in and through interaction.

In mutual indifference, we find a social relationship (Weber 1968: 27-28), albeit a somewhat confounding one. In cities, strangers are complicit in agreeing to only interact in an aloof, disattentive way (Lofland 1973: 155). Indeed, part of learning to become comfortable in a city involves learning how to negotiate the unspoken agreement that, for the most part, spatial proximity will not lead to overt social contact. What

Goffman famously called ‘civil inattention’ (1963: 83-88) is the individual orientation required to secure the specifically urban relationships of mutual indifference—what I call strangership.

As an implicit pact between individuals to not engage one another as specific individuals, mutual indifference then establishes a social relationship that demonstrates to us that even amongst anonymous individuals, some modicum of social solidarity can be discerned. This is not to imply that cities are perfect social forms whose interaction order should be taken as a guide for all but rather that the collective maintenance of the urban interaction order suggests to us that even the most apparently alienating or isolating places do harbour some kind of social solidarity. Such solidarity is based on the complicity of urban dwellers in working to make it apparent that they are indifferent to one another, a ‘minimal courtesy’ (Goffman 1963: 84) that is jointly offered and mutually honoured.18 This both sustains their anonymity and upholds the urban interaction order. Mutual indifference, then, is a necessary but insufficient basis for solidarity in a society of strangers.

Mutuality is, of course, key to social solidarity in more intimate settings, but for a moment I want to delve a little deeper into the work that indifference does by specifying some of its operations in urban settings. Mutual indifference works at two levels, at least: that of the individual and that of the collective. At an individual level, indifference is borne in large part out of the dominance of instrumental rationality as a response to the experiential and interactional density of city space. It is in this sense functional, since:

[t]he greater the extension and the greater the density of a group, the greater the dispersion of collective attention over a wide area. Thus, it [the group] is incapable of following the movements of each individual [...] The watch is less piercing because there are too many people and too many things to watch. (Durkheim 1964: 298)

Similarly, for Simmel, indifference is a necessary individual attitude given the potentially overwhelming nature of urban experience, what he calls ‘the intensification of nervous stimulation’ (1950: 410). As found in Durkheim and Simmel, indifference is one part—an important part, but still only one part—of the repertoire of dispositions best suited to the intensity of urban life. In this respect, relations with anonymous individuals must mostly be characterized by indifference.

At the level of the collective, as I have suggested, mutual indifference gives us the basis for urban social order. Rather than bringing us towards disintegration and disorder, the ability of individuals to live and persist among strangers makes city life possible in the first place. The capacity for copresence amongst strangers is foundational to the modern city’s existence and persistence as a social form. It is the generalized distribution and diffusion of this capacity across the social space of the city that gives social solidarity in the city its peculiar character. Individual action and social interaction within the urban interaction order are organized by an implicitly shared commitment to the maintenance of that order.19 As an interactional mechanism, then, mutual indifference is essential to the generic social process by which the urban interaction order is collectively produced.

What, on the face of it, appears as individual inaction addresses not only other social actors but also expresses a shared commitment to the collective production and protection of individuality and anonymity through mutual indifference. As I have suggested, the abundance of copresent strangers in urban environments makes for a particular kind of interaction order. Simmel (1971: 143) states that the stranger is physically close but socially distant. She is one who is both far and near, a generalized part of the city’s social landscape whose particularity is irrelevant and/or ignored. Similarly, drawing on Coffman, Lofland notes that strangers are ‘categorically identifiable’ (1973: 29); they are, by definition, not oriented to in their particularity. In thinking about mutual indifference, then, we are oriented in the most general way to the stranger, for the stranger is one to whom we are indifferent. Thus, the urban interaction order is constituted by the cluster of orientations of indifference that strangers both organize around and organize amongst themselves.

However, where mutuality presupposes a principle of symmetry—if not structural, at least interactional—not all urban social relations can be said to be organized around this principle. Thus, we need to consider the phenomenon of asymmetrical recognition.

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