Sociology of Information Gaffes

Much has been made of VP candidate Joe Biden’s capacity to put his fut in his mouth. In this morning’s paper, reporter John Broder (“Hanging On to Biden’s Every Word”) reviews the issue and highlights a few recent events. In one of them, Biden either did not know or forgot an important bit of information about someone:

In Columbia, Mo., this week, Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be recognized. “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you,” Mr. Biden shouted to State Senator Chuck Graham, before realizing, to his horror, that Mr. Graham uses a wheelchair.

“Oh, God love ya,” Mr. Biden said. “What am I talking about?”

How is this kind of gaffe is different from those which amount to inelegant diction or impolitic revelations? The “offense” here is certainly not anti-disability bigotry or insensitivity, and the sociologist of information should not get distracted by (either republican or disability-rights) activists who might want to make hay about the event. Rather, it’s a failure to be aware of, or keep track of, a relevant piece of information about someone. As such, it is, before all else, relationally revealing : a basic norm of relationships is to keep track of relevant information about the other. When one utters the phrase “my friend,” even if it is ritualized political speech, it triggers some informational expectations. When these aren’t met, we find it jarring or even offensive (consider the simple case of getting a form letter that mis-addresses you as Mr. or Ms. — it quickly becomes even junkier mail than it already was).

Normally, politicians can synthesize relationships such as “my friend…” because their handlers can remind them of information-you-ought-to-know-about-the-other as they make their way toward a handshake. Getting such things right may not mean anything in an objective sense, but in terms of the relational work it does, it can certainly be consequential.

The take-away is that relationships, even those created artificially for the purposes of the moment, always come with informational expectations and obligations.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

One thought on “Sociology of Information Gaffes”

  1. To generate material for the Goffman part of the course I used to ask students to write down an incident of embarrassment they’d experienced first hand. Several of these fit the Biden model — not having all the relevant information, e.g.,amking a derogatory comment about some neighborhood not realizing that the other person lives there, joking about how cool someone looks with his head shaved not knowing that it had been shaved for medical reasons.

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