Real World 1: Degradation Ceremonies

In 1956 Harold Garfinkel published a paper called Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies, which provides eight hypothetical steps for achieving what the title suggests. It’s a fascinating paper that provides an interesting perspective for making sense of something we often witness but give little deliberate thought to. Unfortunately, Garfinkel seemed to think it necessary to place restrictions on what he meant by “degradation ceremony”, putting conditions on the conditions, and thereby limiting the imagination. In this post I’ve tinkered slightly with the original formulation, applying it to a more subtle everyday example which I call: the “Real World” spiel. I’ll start with an overview of this approach, and then consider it using Garfinkel. This post will be followed with a critique of the Real World spiel as being too unrealistic to take seriously in most circumstances. *For some extra thought, rather than being limited to the following example, feel free to apply what follows to a variety of issues – such as the treatment of certain ethnic, intellectual, or moral minorities in your community, country, or the media*

“Well that’s all well and good, but in the real world“.

The Real World refers to a realm of authenticity in which lived experiences take on a quality of legitimacy that the ordinary and thus less exclusive real world has failed to provide. At its best, appealing to this Real World provides a quick and easy way of sorting experiences and opinions in terms of truth and falsity, triviality and importance, privileged and actual, while simultaneously adopting the role of the “everyman”. The target who has been face with and excluded from the Real World (and there is always a target in some manner, as the Real World is an Othering technique) becomes strange to the many, with each reproach to follow bringing with it the risk of further exclusion and accusations of dickheadery. To say the least, the Real World spiel is an effective way for a person to be condescending in a generally acceptable manner that requires very little effort, while its rejection requires quite a bit of thought and care from an already disadvantaged target (imagine: a social ceremony that could ruin the sociologist may seem just as elegant as the viper that could kill the zoologist).

While this technique probably pops up all over the shop, my context means that I’ve seen it used most regularly on those involved in the higher education system. For instance, in the Murdoch university debates a young man successfully squashed a senior academic’s argument regarding the job market, asking the audience just how a man who has spent his life in the “ivory tower” could dare to talk of such things. A few months earlier I watched as the trials of a female post-graduate student approaching her mid-thirties were dismissed because she had resigned herself to the apparent safety of further study. In another fascinating example an academic invokes the idea of the Real World against himself in order to pre-emptively humble his position before a strange new audience. Finally, the entire higher education system can be treated as a target through questions that treat it as the Real World’s purgatory, in which people hide like children who won’t leave the locker room for fear of the game. We’ll consider the implications of such treatment later; for now let’s turn to Garfinkel.

Right from the start Garfinkel defines a degradation ceremony as “any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types”. This tells us that the point of the ceremony is the objectification of a person, to transform them from a single human being into a representation of something the audience looks down on or dislikes. Once this is done the audience will find it easier to notice or project negative qualities onto the person, find it harder to notice their positive qualities, and thus be less trusting, forgiving, and accepting of their points. The target who doesn’t notice this process quick enough will likely have their initial behaviour used as material by the accuser, meaning that they might naively solidify the initial accusations and contradict themselves when they later have to backtrack. The quick target may find themselves having to defend against this new accusation, rather than the initial accusation which triggered the event. This may take form in their attacking the accuser, who (as the steps to be discussed will show) will have positioned themselves in such a way that any attack against them can also be treated as an attack against the audience. The result in any event will likely be that the integrity of the target is further damaged and their esteem further reduced as the degradation ceremony gains momentum.

This seemingly extreme process can in fact be quite subtle, and partially occurs in the simple moments of everyday life: when an otherwise thoughtful person is ousted as a bigot in some regard, when otherwise thoughtful groups perceive their moral position as superior to others and descend into bullying tactics, or when someone mentions that they intend to vote liberal in the next election. More extreme examples might be when the partner becomes the promiscuous cheater, or the man the paedophile. All of these events share the same opening ceremony, that moment of realisation when the person becomes that person of those people. The transformation that accompanies the incantation: “Oh, it’s one of those“.


Garfinkel’s argument is that initiating and maintaining this transformation can be a refined act, and that the likelihood of its success can be improved according to eight conditions… Of course, whether or not there is some truth to this argument is another question. Academics need to publish and Garfinkel was an academic. Nevertheless, if these eight conditions were to be treated seriously, what would they look like? And how is this reflected in the Real World spiel? What follows is an at times quoted at times paraphrased summary of these conditions, for the more detailed original list see here.

“To be successful,the denunciation must redefine the situations of those that are witnesses to the denunciation work. The denouncer, the party to be denounced (let us call him the “perpetrator”), and the thing that is being blamed on the perpetrator(let us call it the “event”) must be transformed as follows”:

1. Both event and perpetrator must be removed from the realm of their everyday character and be made to stand as “out of the ordinary”.

This is achieved through the act of splitting the world in two: the Real World inhabited by the denouncer, and the other world inhabited by the perpetrator. The added bonus of this spiel is that this achievement is marked by the denouncer successfully formulating “the ordinary”.

2. The preferences must not be for event A over event B, but for event of type A over event of type B. … The unique, never recurring character of the event or perpetrator should be lost. The audience must appreciate that these preferences present them with a side they must choose, and the denouncer must be aware of and in control of this process.

The details of the academic working in the arts, such as their field, teaching and research work load, expertise and values, potential for career development, family life and other non-professional responsibilities are removed as they become a privileged academic in the ivory tower. Likewise, the corresponding details of the denouncer are removed, as they become a representative of the Real World, and thus the Everyman.

3-7. The denouncer must make his position not as a privately motivated person, but as a participant and representative of the interests of the audience. They must also appeal to the audiences’ sense of dignity by mentioning and supporting their values as being self evident. Most importantly, as far as possible the denouncer must be viewed by the audience as a fair representative of these values and thus justified in defending them.

As the representative of the Real World, the denouncer doesn’t publicly acknowledge that they’re presenting a subjective world view as an objective one. For them and the audience, their Real World constitutes a reality where participants make certain career choices over others and face the corresponding challenges, and treat certain issues as worth thinking about and others as irrelevant to the needs and interests of their Real World kind. Of course, the exception to this would appear to be the student or academic who denounces themselves as not having entered the Real World (as is becoming common practice around my campus); while it is enough in this instance for the denouncer to make their belief in the Real World plain, this will likely be the more challenging condition of the ceremony if they were to attempt to take it seriously and thus be treated seriously.

8. The denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order … he must be defined as standing at a place opposed to it. He must be placed “outside,” he must be made “strange”.

How could a man who has spent his life in the ivory tower dare to preach about life out there in the Real World? (Here at sociyology we don’t like to pointlessly overcomplicate things…)

Garfinkel mentions that he only cared to consider the more obvious conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. Those listed shine an interesting light on the Real World spiel that I find illuminating. There are of course numerous other possible ceremonies that I haven’t cared to mention; I’m sure you can think of many yourself, and will maybe even spot some more out there in the social wilderness. Maybe you’d like to go through the steps again and see how they reflect the treatment of certain ethnic groups in Australia. Maybe you’ll use Garfinkel’s conditions or discover some of your own. For this post however, I’m satisfied to put the Real World spiel on the list of real world degradation ceremonies of the here and now. At the bottom of what some might consider to be a rather dark paper, Garfinkel’s last sentence points out that knowing how to construct successful degradation ceremonies provides the potential to render them useless. The next post will attempt to go further than this by providing a brief argument for why the Real World spiel should be challenged whenever possible as being poorly placed at best and sinister at worse.

“I don’t think he ever even was a sheep”
“It’s fine, he’ll learn his lesson when he gets out into the Real Field”

Thank you for your time.

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4 Responses to Real World 1: Degradation Ceremonies

    • Haha, just wait for the next post, Roland. I hope people keep in mind that pointing out the different spiels people use isn’t the same as condemning every dimension of the spiel and person. But then again… blank cheque apology accepted. Thanks for reading 🙂

  1. Jay says:

    Thanks for the insightful article. The ‘real world’ appeal is good little rhetorical weapon used against academics. I would suggest that it follows the theory-practice schism, which is the narrative (or myth?) that academics have their heads in the clouds (theory) and are not in touch with the ‘real world’ (practice).

    I’m guessing it emerged to counter the presumption by academics that non-academics are misinformed about the true nature of things, hence serving a levelling effect. In this respect, it probably has a relation to class conflict.

    • Cheers for the thoughtful response, Jay. I think you’ll enjoy the next post, in which I’ll break apart the Real World spiel. Though I’m sure you’ve already a few steps ahead of me in a lot of ways. Stay tuned!

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