In some of my previous news edits, I have discussed how Harvey Sacks’ (1995) Membership Categorisation Analysis is a useful methodological apparatus for social psychologists wishing to examine the deployment of identity categories and the practices that get them produced. In this news edit I want to briefly outline one element of the ‘viewer’s maxim’ and suggest, some pieces of Banksy’s satirical graffiti trade on challenging its ‘relevance rules’.
Sacks argued that the everyday use of categories rely on some ‘relevance rules’. One of these is ‘that it proposes that for an observer of a category-bound activity, the category to which the activity is bound has a special relevance for formulating an identification of its doer’ (Sacks, 1995: 259). In other words, the identity (category) of the doer can be ascertained from seeing a category-bound activity being done.
Suppose you were to observe a person throwing flowers. You might expect the identity of the flower thrower to be a member of the category ‘romantic person’ or perhaps a ‘festival goer’ (e.g. The Lotus Throwing Festival in Bang Phli, Thailand). It is probably unlikely that you would expect to see a person dressed like the one in Banksy’s ‘flower thrower’ (see inset picture), presumably a member of the category ‘rioter’.
Since specific activities tend to be associated with particular category members, for the ‘viewer’s maxim’ to work, observations of these in practice necessarily produce expectations of normative behaviour. When a disjuncture occurs between activity and doer, we hold the doer accountable for their non-conformative behaviour. Of course with artwork, we can only question the motive of the artist for challenging what we expect to normatively see.
Social Psychology and Discourse
The Handbook of Discourse Analysis
The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory