Robert Fuller: A New Voice in Sociology (June 22, 2008)

Robert Fuller: A New Voice in Sociology

Thomas J. Scheff

Professor Emeritus, UCSB

805 687 6145

Key words: dignity, humiliation, inequality, violence, social integration, solidarity alienation

Abstract: The work of Robert W. Fuller is hardly known in the social sciences, but it may make an important contribution. In particular, his approach to rankism and dignity may further develop social theory by clarifying the meaning of alienation and solidarity, the twin poles of social integration. His treatment of dignity and humiliation exactly parallels Goffman's central concern with facework, but is much clearer and more direct. Unlike Goffman's sole focus on social interaction, Fuller applies equally to the micro and macro worlds. For this reason, it can be inspire research on the sources of inequalities and of conflict, both at the interpersonal and collective levels. Finally, since Fuller's language is easily understood, it may help in the development of a public sociology.

In his early writing (1844), Marx suggested that the most basic human need as a species was connection with other human beings. He went on to discuss alienation from the means of production, others and self (Tucker 1978: 133-144). In his later writing, Marx made clear what he meant by alienation from the means. But he didn't clarify what he meant by alienation from self and others. Nor did he offer further definition of not being alienated (connectedness or solidarity).

Marx's early work implied that the human condition has two basic dimensions: rank and power, on the one hand, and, on the other, social integration: solidarity/alienation. He suggested that alienation is a structural feature of capitalism, and that solidarity would be a structural feature of socialism. His later work, however, was limited to the first dimension, power and class in political economies. Since then, scholarship has tried to include social integration in its purview, but has had uneven results.

There is a plethora of terms that refer to connectedness, the union of individuals into one entity, such as intersubjectivity, mutual or shared awareness, joint attention, empathic union, attunement and many others. Buber used the term -thou. Goffman struggled with this problem for most of his career. Some of his attempts were mere metaphors, such as "mystic union." He also tried joint focus of attention, mutual awareness, footing, and his last attempt, co-presence. Scholars have still not solved the problem of the terminology to use among themselves, let alone one that could be understood by the public at large.

The term alienation may be slightly less confusing, but it is also beset by a grave difficulty. Most users don't provide a definition. Among those who do, there is little overlap; each one is more or less unique. Although there are vast literatures on alienation and solidarity, the meaning of these terms is still unclear.

These difficulties seem to grow out of the individualism that is the hallmark of modern societies. The language of traditional societies focuses attention on social relationships rather than individuals. Modern societies have escaped from this flaw, but generated its opposite, a language that is inept about relationships.

The Struggle for Dignity

Robert Fuller's approach to what he calls rankism and to dignity may be a first step toward a language equally applicable to individuals and to social relationships. It has the great advantage of being stated so clearly that anyone can understand it. It is based on two dichotomies: dignity-humiliation, and legitimate versus abusive use of rank ("rankism" Fuller 2003; 2004; 2008). Lindner's work (; 2006) is also based on the dignity-humiliation dichotomy but doesn't include the concept of rankism. As will be discussed below, some such concept is needed in order to distinguish between two different kinds of mutual acceptance, solidarity and engulfment.

Fuller's analysis of dignity and humiliation is exactly parallel to what I take to be the main thread in Goffman's work (Scheff 2006). Almost all of Goffman's writings involve an exploration of "face" and facework, how people use impression management to save face. Fuller's analysis of the struggle for dignity parallels Goffman's impression management and Fuller's humiliation is equivalent to Goffman's embarrassment. Although Fuller dutifully cites two of Goffman's studies (Fuller 2003, p. 161), he seems to have developed his approach independently.

Fuller's analysis begins with the subjective feeling of being either a "nobody" or a "somebody." Surely this idea arose because of the extraordinary path that his own life took. When his career began, he was definitely a Somebody: first a Columbia University physicist, then Dean of the Faculty at Trinity College, then President of his alma mater, Oberlin College. During his stint as an administrator, Fuller lost touch with physics, and after leaving Oberlin, he helped define and build a new citizen diplomat movement during the Cold War. He helped organize and chaired the board of Internews, devoted to breaking down Cold War stereotypes on both sides.

With the end of the Cold war and the collapse of the USSR, Fuller looked back on his career and realized that he had moved up and down from being a somebody and a nobody, from the President of a leading college to an unaffiliated citizen diplomat. He wondered if his own responses to his rollercoaster status ride had any general significance. It occurred to him that in less extreme forms, these kinds of gyrations might be frequent occurrence for everyone.

For example, in intimate relations, falling in and out of favor with our nearest and dearest might be a similar experience (See Fuller's treatment of parent-child relationships 2003, p. 110-113). At times these shifts are obvious, but often they can be based only on subtle changes in mood and gesture. Fuller's first book on this topic (2003) begins with the idea that we all move back and forth between Somebody and Nobody feelings, up, down, and around.

Fuller's second step is to name the more general feelings that are associated with those specific to somebodiness or nobodiness: dignity goes with being a Somebody, indignity with being a Nobody. As already indicated, this step exactly parallels Goffman: saving face maintains one's dignity, losing it can lead to humiliation. Goffman's and Fuller's Everyperson is in a never ending struggle to maintain her or his face/dignity, but impression management often fails, leading to embarrassment or humiliation. Both authors allow that one can also try to manage impressions not only for one's own sake, but also for the sake of the dignity of others. This provision turns out to be important in practical application to the politics of dignity.

The next and final step in Fuller's model is the distinction he makes between rank and rankism. Rankism doesn't concern rank per se, only the abuse of rank. Some systems of rank are inherently arbitrary and therefore abusive: white over black, male over female, hetero over homosexual, Christian over Muslim, one nation over another, and so on. But even legitimate hierarchies, such as those in organizations, are often abusive; if not in principle, then in practice. Rankism is abuse of the power of rank (in the vernacular, "pulling rank") rather than being fair and just. It is only self-serving rather than serving both self and other. Inequality and Violence

One of the advantages of Fuller's approach is that it provides a distinctively sociological solution to the problem of inequality. That is, it doesn't concern economic rank or political hierarchy directly, but dignity and its opposite, humiliation. The idea of the legitimate and abusive use of rank also turns out to be important for distinguishing two different types of somebodies, a true and a false solidarity. This distinction, as will be suggested below, may help solve a problem that probably cannot be understood in strictly economic or political terms: gratuitous and/or interminable conflict.

Fuller's analysis of inequality begins with what he calls micro-inequalities, the withholding of dignity by one person from another. At work, if the boss continually interrupts conversations with you to take phone calls, it is a slight, a small indignity. But such slights add up. If they are frequent enough, one might feel like a Nobody. The boss may not intend it, but to be consistently slighted is humiliating.

Goffman was concerned only with face-to-face interaction, but Fuller extends the dignity/humiliation process up to the traditional problem of macro-inequalities between groups. All contacts between persons and between groups have an effect on the bond: it is either maintained, strengthened, or disrupted. Helping the other person or group maintain their dignity maintains the existing bond or strengthens it. Rankism disrupts it. There are no exceptions: contact cannot occur without affecting the bond. Secure bonds lead to cooperation, disrupted ones to conflict. When the bond is entirely broken by rankism, as is often the case, others can become mere objects.

Fuller's approach is powerful in several different ways. It is applicable to many ostensibly different fields: race, inter-ethnic and inter-nation relations, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. Rankism is the general term for all these different kinds of abuse.

Fuller's approach also implies a theory that may explain gratuitous and/or interminable conflict between individuals and between groups. For example, the Serbian attack on the Moslems in Bosnia in the 1990's can be traced back to a defeat of the Serbs by Moslem Turks hundreds of years earlier. The Serbs took this ancient defeat as a humiliation, and harbored vengeance until it became possible.

Similarly, France plotted for many years to regain their honor (read dignity) after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and Hitler won over the German people by promising to regain the honor they lost in the defeat in 1918 (Lindner 2006; Scheff 1994). Humiliation spawns humiliation, and it can strike deep. The dignity/humiliation framework seems to reach into the very core of human conduct.

Defining Social Integration

Fuller's approach also implies a unique path into the study of social integration. Feeling like a Somebody or a Nobody can be used as a subjective indicator. The Somebody feeling can be taken as a signal of mutual acceptance, having an identity that is fully accepted by the other(s). A complication in the path toward solidarity will be discussed below. The Nobody feeling, however, can be taken as a direct signal of alienation, of being rejected by the other(s). This usage might be a preliminary step toward clarifying the theory of social integration.

There is a difficulty in seeing solidarity/alienation as a simple dichotomy that Fuller doesn't address directly, yet his idea of rankism provides for it. Many authors have noted that mutual acceptance occurs in two different forms, one of which is not true solidarity.

There is a form of mutual acceptance that is sometimes referred to as solidarity, but has only its outward appearance. This form involves one or both parties giving up vital parts of their own identity in order to be completely loyal to the relationship. The traditional marriage is an example; the wife subordinates her own needs and views to those of her husband. In family systems theory (Bowen and Kerr 1988 ), this form of relationship is referred to as a fused or engulfed bond.

The opposite relationship, in which the parties subordinate the needs of the other(s) to their own is deemed to be isolated. In a secure bond, both parties give equal value to their own needs and views and those of the other, no more, and no less. Elias (1987) made the same division: he called solidarity interdependence, being neither dependent (engulfed) nor independent (isolated). Note that the concept of engulfment further develops the idea of alienation from self that Marx mentioned without explaining what he meant.

Fuller's idea of rankism is relevant to the issue of engulment as a false solidarity. All forms of mutual acceptance that are based on rankism, the arbitrary disparagement of another person or group, are not forms of true solidarity, but engulfment. Mutual acceptance of whites because they are not black, or gentiles because they are not Jews, of males because they are not women are instances.

The distinction between isolation and engulfment suggests that alienation occurs in two opposite forms: alienation from others (isolation) and from self, (engulfment). This idea also requires that a secure bond (solidarity) maintains a balance between self and other: one identifies with the needs and viewpoint of the other(s) as much as with self, no less and no more.

Genuine love can be defined as a type of solidarity (Scheff 2006, Ch. 6) The late Robert Solomon wrote: " [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self ....Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity [find] their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE." (1981,; see also1994, p.234-238).

This kind of definition of love as unity can be found in the poetry and song of most world cultures, and by many authors. But like Solomon, these portraits usually fail to include the balance between too far (isolation) and too close (engulfment) as explained above. An exception was the social psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan (1945) who suggested that love involves valuing the other as much as self, but no more or less.

It is important to distinguish between true and false solidarity, since both social science and ordinary language often confound them. Most Western scholarship that compares Asian and Western societies has idealized Western isolation and individualism by confounding it with solidarity based on rational outcomes (Durkheim's description of organic solidarity), as Markus and Kitayama (1991) have charged. But it seems likely that they have made an equal and opposite error, idealized Asian (unity-based) societies by confounding engulfment with solidarity.

An example of this usage in ordinary language can be found in Norwood's study (1985) of abused women. Many of them reported that they stayed with their husbands because they loved them too much to leave. Their language confuses engulfment, in this case, passive dependency, with genuine love, a true solidarity. Fuller's approach avoids this practice.


Fuller's politics of dignity provides a new approach to defining the poles of social integration: alienation and solidarity. It also suggests an accessible theory of the causation of two complex processes: the causal chains that lead to inequalities and to violence, both at the interpersonal and group levels. Unlike many abstract social theories, Fuller's is so clearly stated that it might help resolve theoretical knots, and can also be tested empirically. To the extent that it is supported, it can be applied to solving real world problems. Fuller's work has the added advantage of being stated in ordinary language, so that it can be understood by the public. It is heartening to think that learning to be aware of and helpful with the dignity of individuals and groups could provide a path toward cooperation and peace based on dignity and justice for all.


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