The Glamour of Motives: Applications of Kenneth Burke within the Sociological Field

Robert Wade Kenny, University of Dayton

When it comes to one’s intellectual standing, all publicity is not good publicity, for a simple citation can trivialize, misrepresent, and even scandalize a reputation. Consequently, the appearance of one’s name within a text, or lack thereof, is no measure of the role one has played in the construction of the authoring scholar’s work,1 nor does it adequately represent one’s significance to the field from within which that scholar produces. In sociology, for example, one could easily publish a document as long as this essay, composed only of the titles of texts in which Kenneth Burke’s name, or one of his ideas, is mentioned. On such occasions, however, the usage may be a misrepresentation (Kuhn, 1967a, p. 56, 1967b, p. 180, Blum and McHugh, 1971, p. 102, Dibble, 1975, p. 114)2 or a trivia (Hazelrigg, 1989, p. 43, Jasper, 2004, p. 237). Equally it is the case that the absence, or near-absence, of Burke’s name within a text does not mean he played no role in its creation (Edelman, 1977; Goffman, 1961, 1963, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1974, 1981, Brown, 1977). For such reasons, a citation-based assessment of Burke’s impact in sociology might be misleading. All the same, it is possible to take a general look at the persistence and depth of acknowledged Burkean thinking in sociology, to get a feeling of where Burke and Dramatism stand in relation to Marx, Weber, Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, Talcott Parsons, and more recently Anthony Giddens and Jeffrey Alexander. To ask this question in a meaningful way, however, we need to begin with a brief examination of what sociology is, as a discipline, of what it does.

Sociology is predicated on the notion that human action is neither random nor mystical, and this sets up the initial condition necessary for an inquiry into the motivating principles that give rise to social order and disorder. Of course, this sociological predication can only be correct if the actions of individuals are not so unique and spontaneous as any actor might otherwise assume – forces that significantly direct the behavior of individuals must be in play, even when they operate at a level below the acting agent’s conscious recognition. In Marx, for example, there is an assumption that the structural characteristics of the economy play a significant role in social order; and a Marxian sociologist might therefore assume that a person’s family of origin is a more powerful predictor of that person’s ultimate socioeconomic status than, say for example, a person’s virtuous character or strength of will. However, for sociology, this is not a matter of presumption or theoretical bias, in that the credible sociologist must establish those conditions necessary for determining whether such educated guesses actually stand up under empirical investigation. In this way, proceeding from theoretical reflections, to methodologies of assessment, to data of verification, sociologists engage in those inquiring strategies they treat as the conditions necessary to legitimate any formal articulation of the social world, and consequently strategies also regarded as mandatory for ideas to contribute, not only to public knowledge, but also to the public good, through the impact of sociological insights in matters of social justice, social work, policy analysis, and the like. Thus, sociology is not simply the name for a subsection of the intellectual life, for it is a praxiology as much as it is an ideology. When one meets a sociologist, in particular a field sociologist, one is always conscious of meeting a type – of meeting someone with an ethos as specific as might be found in a police officer or a dentist. Indeed, sociologists recognize each other more concretely through the sociological ethos than they do the sociological genius; and, in this way, in part, the sociological community maintains those elements of exclusivity that are associated with it. Kenneth Burke was, of course, an intellectual who was distinctly outside that sociological ethos.

The sociological presumption that agents are motivated by general forces they insufficiently comprehend implies that actors must both understand and not understand the reasons that they do what they do at the same time. Social agents are thus characterized by an anamnesis. This concept, used by Plato to describe the soul’s remembrance (and forgetting) of the pre-birth world, was also fundamental to Freud’s theory of hysterical neurosis. The sociological version of the notion is, fortuitously, much more palatable – it simply suggests that social agents are motivated by conglomerations of forces that they rarely comprehend; that agents have more of a competency for appropriate social action than they have a competency for accurate explanation of their social action. A fourteen year old boy might for example, display those competencies necessary to steal a pair of sneakers from Walmart, but he would be hard pressed to afterward explain the conditions that gave rise to the theft (social inequity, reference group relations, Merton’s typology of deviant action, peer answerability, etc.) – indeed he might even have only limited awareness of those performance competencies (normative dress, normative body movement, risk-answerability discernment) that he exploited in order to perpetrate the crime. The fundamental task of the sociologist, then, is to justifiably characterize the unacknowledged conditions that are specific to social actions, and this is predicated on the notion that there are such conditions, that there is a logic governing human action even when social actors cannot articulate it. Sociology is thus able to compose a general narrative of social life only because social agents are already and unwittingly living in a rule-governed reality, a “lifeworld”, even before the sociologist investigates or articulates it -- the script of social existence emerges within this lifeworld, a lifeworld that constitutes the social experience itself; and only thereafter does the sociologist makes sense of it, and only then because it was active prior to the initiating moment of sociological investigation.3

Given that the notion of the lifeworld is now in play, it should be noted that the success of The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, was certainly foretold by the writings of lifeworld phenomenologist Alfred Schutz (who is regularly cited alongside Burke by sociologists). Schutz had co-authored with Luckman in the past, but it was Berger’s sociological ethos as well as his sociological vocabulary that brought the issue of the lifeworld into explicitly sociological formulation.4 Perhaps it is worth noting, then, that the Burkean scholar Trevor Melia, also a late friend of Burke’s, was a reviewer of the Berger and Luckman book,5 for Melia saw a direct relationship between what Berger and Luckman called “reality” and what Kenneth Burke called “ontology”. Melia imagined that one might attribute to the “socially constructed reality” a collection of acknowledged, organizing principles found in Kenneth Burke’s writing, specifically, the pentad.6 He believed sociologists might examine social space in the same way a critic might examine theatrical space, because social actors were already self-motivated by the pentadic lifeworld that they ongoingly co-created, just as actors were dependent upon the pentadic forces that the writer and the director had used in the creation of the theatrical production. Unfortunately, sociologists, and Burke scholars in general, have resisted this relatively harmless insight.7 The tendency among sociologists who apply Kenneth Burke, excepting Duncan and Perinbanayagam, is to avoid Burke’s Dramatism, focusing instead on Burke’s treatment of rhetoric as a form of symbolic interaction or strategic discourse. Of course, this is an appropriate usage, but Burke’s Dramatism also needs to be applied in the context of general social action and performance if it is to gather the attention it deserves within the sociological field.

Burke hoped for more; and, indeed, spent decades trying to introduce his thinking to sociologists. I believe it was his limited grasp of how sociology functioned as a discipline which left him unable to identify the steps necessary and the language necessary to make his primary contribution within that community. For most sociologists, statements such as “Logology is my epistemology and Dramatism is my ontology,” or “Dramatism is literal,” confound, more than clarify, the significance of Dramatism to sociological investigation. Things would have been much clearer had he said:

Where some presume that structural forces order social life, and others presume that social life is best explained in terms of functional features, I argue that social life is ordered by dramatistic forces, under the general conditions I set forth for their emergence, perpetuation, transformation, and decline.

With the above characterization of Dramatism’s relationship to sociology in mind, it is worth mentioning that sociology is now subject to a “cultural turn”, a period in its history when culture and ritual are treated as ordering forces (Alexander, 1988; Alexander and Seidman, 1990; Alexander, Eyerman, Giesen, Smelser, and Sztompa, 2004; Alexander and Smith, 2005; Alexander, 2006; ). Burke has wandered into the background of these inquiries, already; but he might have a better position if it were generally understood that he not only recognized the role of symbols in social life but also created a grammar for the examination of how those symbols orchestrated the motivating forces specific to structured social action, and that he had developed a dialectic method which also facilitated any explanations for how such structured social orders, nevertheless and ultimately, transformed. Regularly, Burke’s pentad has been treated as the researcher’s explicit vocabulary rather than the social agent’s pre-reflective categories for the intuition of experience. Of course, the pentad is both: experts can regularly parse discourse and social action in terms of its pentadic characteristics, but it is equally true that social actors (even the most naive of them) regularly engage in non-thetic attunement to the proportions governing the act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose within whatever they experience; and that they are motivated to act based on what they intuit. In Burkean parlance, one would say that the world is experienced as a dramatistic configuration that impels motivated action. For example, let us imagine that a patron shouts “Time to die!” and jumps up in a movie-theater with a chainsaw. If I am there, I will run out the exit, not because it is a movie theater (scene), not because he is a patron (actor), and not because he jumped up (action) -- I will run because he has a chainsaw and because he has announced that he is intent on killing (an agency-purpose ratio).8 As I run, I will no doubt notice other people, who have never read Burke dashing for the door, some even ahead of me. Few of them will later discuss the nature of the agency-purpose ratio, but all would have known what to do when they saw the chainsaw and heard the words. Sociologically speaking, running from a movie lobby is not a norm, however it is quite normal, under the specified circumstances. What then would be the sociological vocabulary for explaining such subtleties of human motivation? This is precisely the question that Kenneth Burke answers. He makes clear that it is insufficient to explain human conduct in terms of norms, and he offers a complex, dialectical, dramatistic characterization of human motives to replace the much more general vocabulary that it is wont to use. His is a descriptive method that characterizes social action with more precision than norms can offer, a significant sociological contribution that might shake the foundations of social determinism, featuring the significance of pattern (ritual) and pattern reading by social actors, challenging both functional and structural explanations of human action, indeed rendering far more complex and representative any symbol driven theory of social action as well. This is, of course, the foundation of the emerging “cultural turn” in sociology, which relies so heavily on the writings of Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Erving Goffman.

There are many other rich contributions that Kenneth Burke might make to the study of sociology, but the general failure to characterize this one clearly has moved Burke toward the exclusively discursive side of that discipline. While this may be a disappointment to Burke scholars, it is perhaps the greater loss for sociology, for Burke’s ideas remain as relevant to the field as ever. In truth, Burke never obtained a critical and central position within social studies; his status fragmented and marginal even at his perigee. Attitudes Toward History, Permanence and Change, A Grammar of Motives, and A Rhetoric of Motives emerged in print while American sociology carved out approaches that, though similar to Burke, were partly motivated by each author’s attempt to distinguish himself from the literary critic whose work had been pressed upon them during their Chicago years. Consequently, Burke’s writing remained on the margins in a manner that allowed sociologists to occasionally perform status-elevation by indicating their knowledge of it, while also making it clear that they were not dependent upon it. How could it be otherwise for a discipline that was intent upon distinguishing itself, not only in terms of its theoretical articulations, but also in terms of its methods of investigation?

In terms of philosophical foundations, Burke’s relevance to sociology is associated with his neo-Kantian sensibilities. Having rejected the notion that human thought was linked to a supersensible realm which provided ideal mental objects, he was forced to find some other strategy to account for both the origins and purposes of human thinking and human action, including the mystical sentiments that often found themselves linked to social practices. It was for this reason that Burke developed his method of socioanagogic inquiry – a method that directed criticism toward the ways that social forces generated principles managed as if they were trans-phenomenal and eternal (1969, p. 220). Given this method, Burke’s fundamental discoveries are quite similar to those we find in Émile Durkheim, particularly his text The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1966). Durkheim, for example, was very concerned, in that text, to characterize the manner collective energy was driven into objects as a condition for their symbolic representation and group affiliation.9 His depiction of this process resonates with Burke’s notion of consubstantiality; and, while it has some features that consubstantiality does not address, any characterization of conscience collective could also benefit from some of the subtleties that Burke’s consubstantiality offers. All this goes unnoticed at the center of the sociological community, however, which reproduces its discourse, on a generational basis, through readings and re-readings of three figures that are sacred to that field: Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, a tendency that became more pronounced entering the 1960s, as the works of those authors became more available in English translation, thus strengthening European influences in the American context.10

While the roots of Burke’s relevance to sociology remain largely unnoticed, the branches of Burke’s study are regularly plundered. Having spent almost a century considering human motivation, absent any initial or ongoing heavenly nudge, Burke ultimately theorized a universe of secular forces meant to account for human action – such forces as trained incapacity, occupational psychosis, the dancing of an attitude, the thinking of the body, the symbolic of property, the pentad, and more generally the complete motivorium. Many of these ideas, and some others, have found their way into the writings of sociologists at one time or another, albeit they arise as accessories to a non-Burkean model developed from other sources, including the sociologist’s own reflections. Typically the sociologist who references Burke is not a Burke scholar and does not think the social world through Burkean spectacles. Burke himself made some explicit contributions to sociology (Burke, 1946), but scholarship is a finite endeavor – he could not do everything.

The only sociologist who operated from within a universe of Burkean sociology was Hugh Dalziel Duncan. Indeed, in reference to Communication and Social Order, “anyone who has read his Burke and this book knows how difficult and futile it is to separate the Burke from the Duncan.” (Rueckert, 1969, p. 357) Of Duncan, Rueckert says, “he has written more about Burke, used him more completely, and absorbed him more profoundly than anyone else I know of. All of his many books have been about or have been applications of Burke and have been parts of a lifelong attempt to develop a methodology and working model (in the scientific sense of theoretical construct) from Burke for the study of society.” (Rueckert, 1969, p. 260) Even sociologists recognized that Duncan’s greatest acknowledgment “was to the literary critic-teacher Kenneth Burke. Duncan often referred to Burke as ‘the master’.” (Cuzzort and King 1976, p. 299) The pair had met in 1938, during Burke’s initial tenure at the University of Chicago, where Duncan took a course in the English department entitled “The Psychology of Poetic Form.” (Elkins, 1986) Duncan was then affiliated with both the English department and the sociology department, and Burke had built connections in sociology consequent to a prominent review he had written in 1936, treating Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, which was, of course, instrumental in his later development of A Rhetoric of Motives. Louis Wirth, Duncan’s mentor, who was then a sociologist at the University of Chicago, had translated and prefaced the Mannheim text that Burke reviewed, and Wirth shortly thereafter published a review of Permanence and Change in 1937.11 Wirth’s review appeared in The American Journal of Sociology, and Wirth wrote that Burke’s text “is a book to put some of the authors and publishers of sociological textbooks to shame. It contains more sound substance than any text on social psychology with which the author is familiar.” (Wirth, 483) Clearly Wirth saw great sociological value in Burke’s thinking, as did other members of the department, like Edward Shills.12 All of Wirth’s many students were, therefore, inclined to read Burke (Goffman in Verhoeven, 1993, p. 321), and as they later split into fabricated or labeled categories of sociology, such as ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and social psychology, Burke, was, in one measure or another, both carried along and abandoned.

Burke taught in the English program at the University of Chicago on two occasions. On the second (1949-1950), he presented portions of his then unpublished A Rhetoric of Motives, which heavily relied on the Mannheim volume.13 Indeed Burke expressed regret that publication deadlines did not allow him time to incorporate insights gleaned from his Chicago visit (Burke, 1969, p. viii), so we can assume that it was again a productive adventure. By the time of that second visit, Duncan had already completed a manuscript entitled An Annotated Bibliography of the Sociology of Literature, with an Introductory Essay on Methodological Problems in the Field (1947). This volume was self-published: mimeographed, bound, and distributed to those who showed sufficient interest,14 a labor that, in itself, says something about the tremendous energy and passion that Duncan brought to the academy. He was a prodigious writer, who would also author Language and Literature in Society, Culture and Democracy, Communication and Social Order, Symbols and Society, Symbols and Social Theory, and perhaps the largest volume of letters to Burke himself – thousands of pages, published and unpublished, despite a foreshortened intellectual lifespan. Duncan’s work was both indebted to and reflective of Burke in a manner that no other sociologist has been since, for he sought to author a distinctly Burkean vision of sociological theory, rather than merely apply or incorporate some elements of Burke into his vision, as did C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman, and Talcott Parsons. Burke fully understood the significance of Duncan to his future in sociology, and he indeed carved out a niche in Burke mountain for Duncan, giving the sociologist charge over Dramatism’s comic mode (Wilder, 1985, p. xxiii), purification having been treated through tragedy in the Grammar (consequently, Duncan devoted almost two hundred pages of Communication and Social Order to an examination of comedy). Burke’s faith in Duncan is perhaps best evidenced in his request that Duncan pen an introduction to a later edition of Permanence and Change, which Duncan did in 1965. This is the only occasion in Burke’s corpus when another author has written on Burke’s behalf, a privilege that arose, in part, because Duncan’s project was meeting with some success: thus, in 1976, Cuzzort and King devoted one of thirteen chapters in their sociological theory textbook Humanity and Modern Social Thought to the sociology of Hugh Dalziel Duncan, describing his opus Communication and Social Order as “the most sophisticated book on social theory in print today.” (p. 299) Considering that these words were written in a prominent text dealing with social theory, taught in undergraduate sociological theory courses across the United States and North America, the endorsement is both striking and indicative of the sort of respect that Burke’s ideas might gather, should sociology commit itself to a study of his work. As many of us realize, however, the politics of such endorsements are complex and not reducible to the value of the work cited -- thus, it comes as little surprise that the next edition of the Cuzzort and King collection bears no reference whatsoever to Duncan, the chapter devoted to him completely eliminated, in that Duncan’s rising prominence within the field of sociology rapidly deteriorated with his untimely death. While it remains the case that Duncan had completed much of the intellectual work necessary to move Burke into the center of sociological inquiry; he did not live long enough to complete the political work that would be necessary to solidify the effect -- here we see the difference between the idea and the idée-force described by Bourdieu (2005, p. 39): The representation of Burke’s thought in Duncan’s sociology never rose to the point that it was “dominant and recognized as deserving to dominate.” (Bourdieu, 2005, p. 39) Working at the University of Southern Illinois, outside the hub of sociological powerhouses, Duncan’s access to exceptional graduate students was limited, and he had few opportunities to secure an intellectual legacy through them. Charles Elkins and Valerie Bentz, who were his students, have had successful careers, but not careers devoted to either Burke or Duncan. Like other scholars, one assumes, they allowed market forces specific to publishing opportunities and career management (one might otherwise say “circumstances”) to shape the nature of their intellectual production; or perhaps they simply got interested in other things --at any event, their careers have neither been given over to Duncan nor Burke. And so it goes.

Part of Duncan’s problem, it must be admitted, has to do with the quality of his writing. Burke, who reviewed Communication and Social Order for publication, pressured for revision after revision and finally settled for an edition he still regarded as problematic. Similarly, Duncan’s Symbols in Society, obtained the following review comments in The American Journal of Sociology:

Duncan is confused and confusing, and argumentative without being persuasive… the book is filled with hyperbole, value judgments, and sheer, joyous bull. (Grimshaw, 1960, p. 960)
Subsequently Duncan’s writing appeared without Burke’s counsel – one book, for example, composed of nothing but axioms and theorems.

In terms of direct, acknowledged, and thorough examination of Burke’s sociology, treating social action as Dramatistic, Duncan is seconded by Robert Perinbanayagam, particularly in his text Signifying Acts: Structure and Meaning in Everyday Life (1985),16 which attempts to think symbolic interaction as the condition for the construction of meaning in the social sphere, a thesis that is re-emerging in sociology with neither Burke’s name nor Perinbanayagam’s attached.17 In Perinbanayagam’s text, the author claims that Mead’s reliance on the concept of role reached its apotheosis in the writings of a number of eminent thinkers -- most of them were sociologists, but Burke appears first on Perinbanayagam’s list. Fred Davis, who penned the forward, characterizes Burke as “symbolic interactionism's favorite savant.” (Davis in Perinbanayagam, 1985, p. xi). The text is stylistically esoteric in a manner that is reminiscent of Burke and makes a nice introduction for anyone interested in Burke’s relationship to sociology, in particular because the author does penance to all the appropriate sociological precursors for his argument. Perinbanayagam reads Dramatism alongside Dramaturgy, initially stressing Burke’s concern for the arrangement of terms, as opposed to Goffman’s concern for the arranging of situations (Perinbanayagam, 1985, pp. 66-70) He goes on, however, to suggest that Goffman’s situations “have not only a rhetoric but also a grammar,” (1985, p. 70) and he follows this with perhaps the most telling passage in the Grammar, for anyone who would treat Burke in the manner proposed in my present essay. From Perinbanayagam (as he, for the most part, quotes Burke [1945, p. 11]) then:

The scene-agent ratio demands a congruence between the nature of the agent and the situation where an action is taking place. Burke mentions a "tiny drama enacted in real life" to illustrate this principle. At a committee meeting, one member found herself in sharp disagreement with the direction in which the discussion was going. Hence, Burke writes, "as unnoticeably as possible, she stepped outside and closed the gate. She picked up her coat, laid it across her arm, and stood waiting. A few moments later, when there was a pause in the discussion, she asked for the floor. After being recognized by the chairman, she very haltingly, in embarrassment, announced with regret that she would have to resign from the committee." Burke goes on to conclude that "she had strategically modified the arrangement of the scene in such a way that it implicitly (ambiguously) contained the quality of her act" (Perinbanayagam 1962:11).
This is not the place to examine the similarities and differences between Dramatism and Dramaturgy; but Perinbanayagam’s claim for intuitive dramatic engagement with the world should be noted, as should his claim that Goffman’s work “is founded on a dramatistic ontology.” (Op. cit., p. 81)

Having studied English literature in Ceylon, Perinbanayagam learned of Kenneth Burke’s work within a sociological context from Gregory Stone, his mentor when he moved to the United States and studied at the University of Minnesota. Stone would go on to influence Marvin Scott and Alan Blum (who will be discussed later), when he gave seminars on motives as a visiting at Columbia in 1969. 18 From Burke, Perinbanayagam initially took the idea of language as symbolic action; and he was publishing on Burke in sociology as early as 1971, with his essay on charismatic leadership in the Sociological Quarterly (Perinbanayagam, 1971). His various books, while they sometimes challenge the limits of sociological investigation (his literary sensibilities have never disappeared), contain regular, accurate, and general citations of Burke, as well as an ongoing characterization of Dramatism in human relations. Of recent years his prominence as a Burke scholar has increased, although his status among symbolic interactionists and sociology is long-standing, having received the G. H. Mead Award and the C. H. Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, as well as the Theory Award from the American Sociological Association. The reasons Perinbanayagam did not, in an earlier period, such as the 1980’s, capture the attention of, for example, my mentor, as he completed (with Herb Simons)the collection The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, given the nature of Perinbanayagam’s pursuits (he did know both Overington and Gusfield), is an essay in itself. Given the limits of this paper, I can only understate the significance of Perinbanayagam, with regard to the future of Kenneth Burke in sociology. Those interested in Burke and sociology overlook this author to their own peril.

Given that Duncan was Burke’s most loyal advocate in sociology, it is something of an irony that the sociologist Duncan railed against, Talcott Parsons, ultimately became Burke’s most powerful connection to the field; and Burke’s best chance for breaking out of the mold of symbolic interactionism, which under-represented the theoretical potential (sociologically speaking) of his work. Parsons, who had established the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, and who also served as president of the American Sociological Association (as had Louis Wirth) was arguably the most prominent sociologist in America at the time that he met Kenneth Burke. His domination of the theoretical arena was largely understood under the rubric of structural functionalism. In 1957, Burke met Parsons at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. It was in their roles as fellows that they realized their mutual interest in the foundations of human behavior transcended any field specific sensibilities. Parsons informed the Center’s Director that “the most notable single contact I made there which has proved intellectually fruitful to me was with Kenneth Burke. This is the more nota¬ble in that the level of interest in his work I developed was quite unexpected to me. The big thing for me is that Burke more than anyone else has helped me to fill a major gap in my own theoretical interests, in the field of the analysis of expressive symbolism.” (Parsons in Doubt, 1997, p. 528) Burke visited and presented at the Department of Social Relations at Harvard in 1958, and Parsons also visited Bennington. Libby Burke befriended Helen Parsons, forming a personal bond that the husbands also shared (Doubt, 1997) on occasions such as their vacation at the Parsons’ farm in New Hampshire. While this friendship record suggests a strong bond, the relationship did not result in an intellectual confederacy that made Burke a sociological force of reckoning. For the most part, the collaboration is reducible to a pair of passages in which Parsons mentions Burke in Theories of Society, a massive, two volume collection of theory (a boxed set that looks like two volumes of an old-fashioned Encyclopedia), edited by Parsons and another prominent sociologist who was a longstanding acquaintance of Burke (through Louis Wirth), Edward Shills. Parsons refers to Burke in his own essays -- he references “On the First Three Chapters of Genesis,” as it appeared in Daedalus and says it represents “a classic analysis of the structure and implications of the conception of meaningful order.” (Parsons, 1961, p. 970, see also p. 971) Parsons also credits Burke with recognizing the “multiplicity of references in the same symbol and symbolic concept,” (Parsons, 1961, p. 987) and ads that Burke’s discussion of this issue in the unpublished Poetics “seems one of the most highly sophisticated analyses both of the elaborate ramifications of the association of meanings on several different levels, and of the importance of the factor of generalization.” (Parsons, 1961, p. 1987) The former comments were included in a section where Parsons dealt with “Language as a Groundwork of Culture,” while the latter comments appeared when Parsons was discussing “The Problem of Cultural Accumulation”. Burke was also granted space in the volume; and, therefore, the section from Permanence and Change entitled “An Incongruous Assortment of Incongruities” was published in the work (1961, pp. 1200-1204)19 . Given that the full text of this collection runs 1448 pages, however, this is both scant mention and scant inclusion. Nevertheless, a photo of a young Kenneth Burke adorns the box cover, alongside 72 other social thinkers who are the subjects of this, “the richest sourcebook on social theory ever published.”(1961, cover commentary) In fact it is Parsons, Durkheim, Simmel, Marx, Mead, Spencer, Smith, and Freud who dominate the work, some of them taking up to one hundred pages individually. Thus, while the picture of Burke proposes that Burke is an axial figure in American sociology, this status is not well-served in terms of the actual content on the pages of the text. Most sociological theory texts and compilations, then and now, do not reference Burke, nor do they include passages from his writing.

Edward Shills, a colleague of Wirth’s and a friend of Burke’s, who served as a co-editor of the Theories of Society volume was also an Associate Editor of The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 20 published in 1968, another volume in which Burke contributed, authoring a passage that situated Dramatism within the more general sociological category of Interaction, for which an entire section had been devoted. The achievement is worth noting because the text broke the topic of Interaction into six sub-headings, where Dramatism stood alongside such other prominent theoretical perspectives as “Social Interaction” Talcott Parsons), “Symbolic Interaction” (Guy E. Swanson), “Social Exchange Theory” (Peter M. Blau), “Interaction and Personality” (William C. Schutz), and “Interaction Process Analysis” (Robert F. Bales). Burke, who would later (1982) win the George Herbert Mead Award for Lifetime Achievement, given by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionism, must have been particularly pleased with this organizational frame, which neither reduced him to the category of Symbolic Interactionists nor situated him within Goffman’s Dramaturgical perspective (which remains a common error). No doubt Parsons, who saw the greater relevance of Burke’s work to action-theoretics in general, had much to do with this; and Burke notes in his own essay that Parsons, in an early work, structures action much in the manner it is structured by the pentad (Burke, 1968, p. 447). But this acknowledgment of Parsons was probably more tactical than collegial, included to inform readers that Dramatism offered a general sociological approach to questions of action (1968, p. 446). At the time that he wrote the Dramatism essay, Burke was recognized as a second-tier, founding figure for the community of professional sociologists who carried the banner of Symbolic Interactionism. These authors typically grounded their identity in the work of George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, while claiming their difference through the occasional citation of, or elaboration upon, Kenneth Burke, making Burke the vocabulary of innovation, and thereby distinction for various members, internal to the community. But Burke did not think that Dramatism was merely a form of Symbolic Interactionism (which would be more the case for Dramaturgy); and it appears that, through his contact with Parsons, he came to understand that the general problems of action and order that had plagued social thought from Thomas Hobbes, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to Adam Smith and on to figures like Herbert Spencer and later Max Weber (problems usually treated within some paradigm of a rationality used to organize the social realm, whether or not agents intended to be rational) was better suited to Dramatistic investigation and explanation than it was to rational exegesis. The Dramatism essay remains the greatest source of ongoing influence among sociologists, albeit it does not obtain the status that Burke sought.21 Jeffrey Alexander, for example, gives it brief reference as one of many texts relevant to “the historical origins of theatrical performance and dramaturgical theory.” (Alexander, 2006, p. 30) If Dramatism is to have a future in sociology, it will occur when sociologists recognize that dramatistic framings are superior to rational models, whether those models be the sort specific to a philosophy of consciousness (Max Weber) or to more recent models of communicative rationality (Jürgen Habermas). The Yale studies currently underway, characterized as both social performance theory and cultural pragmatics might be receptive to such an analysis.

In many ways, the thinker who most successfully combines influence within the sociological community with indebtedness to Kenneth Burke is Erving Goffman, although the debt goes largely unacknowledged. Anyone familiar with Goffman’s dramaturgical approach will note the similarities to Dramatism. Even in his late work, Frame Analysis, one can see the conversion of Burke’s basic principle of scope and circumference into a methodology for the interpretation of human performance -- effectively, Goffman’s analysis of social action, under the rubric of frame, exploits a scene-act ratio as an explicandum of human action, something he also exploits in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. All the same, one only finds Burke mentioned in the earlier and more famous publication of 1959, The Presentation of Self -- a citation of the scene-act ratio on page 25 to warrant the claim that “we expect, of course, some consistency among setting, appearance, and manner;” (1973, p. 25) a reference to mystification as an explanation of how “restrictions placed upon contact…provide a way in which awe can be generated and sustained in the audience;” (1973, p. 67) an extended citation from Permanence and Change to elaborate upon the notion that “When individuals witness a show that was not meant for them, they may, then, become disillusioned about this show as well as the show that was meant for them;” (1973, p. 36) an extended citation that concerns the doctor’s performance of his role as a doctor, taken from A Rhetoric of Motives (in Goffman, 1973, p. 164-65); a reference to initiation rituals under the term “hazing” found in A Rhetoric of Motives (in Goffman, 1973, p. 175); and, finally, a confession that, “This chapter draws heavily on Kenneth Burke, who clearly takes the sociological view in defining courtship as a principle of rhetoric through which social estrangements are transcended,” (1973, p. 194) in order to discuss the social performance dynamics of partners who enter an interaction with differing levels of sexual and social capital. The social connection with Burke is obvious when one notes that Goffman had studied with Wirth at the University of Chicago, and was the recipient of moneys from a Ford Foundation grant administered by Shills for the purposes of writing The Presentation of Self. It is interesting to note, however, given the strong roots Goffman initially locates in Burke, and the ways his later books mirror his earliest text, that no other Goffman text cites Kenneth Burke or even references him. For Goffman, citation is an art: “one looks around in writing one’s stuff for references for authentication, authority, and the like, and so one dips into things that one might affiliate oneself with.” (Goffman in Verhoeven, 1993, p. 321) But Goffman did not believe any sociologist should either think or write from within the intellectual boundaries of any other thinker: “I think that’s plain bad hero worship… treating the corpus of a scholar’s writings as the ultimate data of social life.” (Goffman in Verhoeven, 1993, p. 343) Thus, Goffman, who also was elected president of the American Sociological Association, never again chose to transfer a portion of his sociological capital to Burke, in order to grant the literary figure a more central seat at the sociological table -- certainly, one can understand the philosophical statements he makes as the fundamental reason, but like all the other students of the Chicago school who emerged to take on prominent sociological careers, Goffman faced the daunting task of distinguishing himself from his professors and his peers. Burke had been a primary source of his earliest work, and this might motivate any ambitious writer to distance his ideas from the ideas of Kenneth Burke, that he might be treated as a person with ideas at all. There is no doubt that Goffman is his own thinker: an impeccable stylist with a wonderful imagination, a penchant for the minutiae of daily circumstance, and a genuinely sociological ethos. He certainly stood, and persists, as an intellectual in his own right. Nevertheless, one cannot read him without recognizing the massive impact of Burke upon both his thinking and, ultimately, his success. Again we see signs of the issue of identity and difference, suggested by Bourdieu, and pointed out above (1991, p. 34-35). Part of being a great scholar who stands on the shoulders of giants, involves developing a talent for making the giant disappear.

The primary story of Burke’s contribution to sociology would not be complete without some discussion of Joseph Gusfield, who launched a significant effort to solidify Burke’s contribution to sociology by editing Of Symbols and Society, published by the University of Chicago Press in the famous Heritage of Sociology series.23 Gusfield’s edited collection is excellent, with passages in which Burke treats symbolic action, the dramatistic method, identification, order and hierarchy, and ideology – all critical topics within sociology. In addition, Gusfield includes other aspects of Burke’s work that might more subtly engage a sociological imagination, including Burke’s treatment of irony, motivational vocabularies, terministic screens, and dialectic. A compact and representative edition, it is an ideal source for anyone seeking a general familiarity with Burke’s writings and style, and it is also an instrumental text for anyone who might attempt to borrow Burke over to sociology. Gusfield’s text emerged in a context that also saw the publication of Frank Lentrichia’s Criticism and Social Change (1985), Stephen Bygrave’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology (1993), and Jameson’s various discussions of and with Burke (1978, 1978, and 1981). Whereas none of these authors commands attention in the sociological community, however, rumors of a Burkean renaissance in that discipline would have been precipitate – overall, “KB's influence on sociology was “‘sporadic and fragmented’. It was no ‘school project’.”24

Years earlier, Gusfield had done Burke another great service in sociology by dedicating the culminating chapter of Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement(1976) to the development of a dramatistic theory of status politics. Indeed, Gusfield, there, characterizes Kenneth Burke as “perhaps the greatest analyst of political symbolism.” (Gusfield, 1976, p. 170) In a subsequent book which treated drunk driving discourse in terms of a problem of symbolic order in the public sphere, Gusfield states that Kenneth Burke’s “writings are a major source of ideas in this book.” (Gusfield, 198, p. 53) His treatment of Burke is perhaps the most important of all those in sociology, for Gusfield earned his wings as a sociologist in the true setting of social studies, the sphere of cultural production (writers like Duncan and Parsons, wholly theorists themselves, fall short of the general sociological ethos mentioned early in this essay). Indeed, if Burke were to dominate sociology in a disciplinary sense, it would take thirty scholars as prominent as Gusfield to do it –thirty sociologists vigorously treating relevant social issues from within a Burkean framework of explication, like Peter K. Manning, who has examined the contrast between police roles and policing myths (1977), the Dramatistic influence of policing technologies (1992b), and a dramatistic reading of risk (1999), or Barbara Czarniawska and her work on organizational identity as a dramatic performance (1997) and organizational action as dramatistic (1999), although it should be mentioned that Czarniawska is not a sociologist. Throughout his career, Gusfield honored Burke both in his applied research and in his direct accolades. He characterized Burke’s work, for sociologists, as “an immensely valuable mode of thought and a perspective toward the study of behavior and society that has for too long not received sufficient recognition.” (Burke, 1989, p. 2) Gusfield is also one of those sociologists to initiate the reflexive turn in sociology, again following Burke’s lead, where Burke writes “the Rhetoric can serve as a bridge between sociology and literary criticism, (except in so far as sociologists and literary critics fail to ask how the Rhetoric can be applied even to their own field).” (Burke, 1973b, p. 96) Gusfield’s treatment of “social science as literature,” (Gusfield, 1989b, p. 21), his attempt “to read research as if it were literature” (Gusfield, 2003, p. 26) follows from this idea, as it emerges in Burke; and the idea was also the cornerstone for Richard Harvey Brown’s A Poetic for Sociology (1977). Brown, who was as charming as he was brilliant, will be missed. In his work, he also took his cues from this passage in Kenneth Burke, and thereby anticipated, to some extent, the reflexive sociology, grounded in the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins, that is so prominent even now.

Another sociologist who applied the insights of Kenneth Burke to explicit research questions was Murray Edelman, who wrote about the social and symbolic dimensions of the political sphere. Like Gusfield, Edelman attended to Burke’s notion of political rhetoric as ‘secular prayer’ (Edelman, 1964, p. 33). He relied heavily on the scene-act ratio (Edelman, 1964, pp. 95-113) and used it, in part, to characterize policy bias (Op Cit., p. 55). Edelman also quotes Burke’s characterization of propaganda (op. cit., p. 124); and, perhaps most poignantly (given the context of the current presentation), he identifies a passage in which Burke, sounding very much like the prominent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, states that “even the dispossessed tends to feel that he ‘has a stake in’ the authoritative structure that dispossesses him.” (Burke in Edelman, 1964, p. 185)25 Clearly Edelman was significantly influenced by Kenneth Burke; nevertheless in 1977 he published Political Language: Words that Succeed and Policies that Fail without a single mention of Burke or his relevance to the study. Thus, the sociologists to consistently apply Burke, with some success, and to consistently acknowledge him were Joseph Gusfield, Peter K. Manning, and Perinbanayagam.

Gusfield and Edelman were two well-respected American sociologists, like Goffman, who invested some of their own cultural capital in an attempt to mobilize Burke in sociology – of course they also used Burke’s cultural capital to mobilize themselves, intellectually and socially, for the most part early in their careers. Regardless whether one looks at the strategy in one way or the other, however none of these authors wrote as Burkean sociologists (as did Duncan), none of them depended upon Burke to build a sociological career, and none successfully launched Burke into the center of sociological research, despite their efforts and the significance of their work. This speaks to the generally acknowledged notion that social relations dominate scholarly attention and reputation, exerting effects that exceed the intellectual significance or merits of a body of work (Bourdieu, 1988; Collins, 1998; McLaughlin, 1998).

A well-known sociological essay on Burke is C. Wright Mills’s essay entitled “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motives,” which appeared first in the American Sociological Review in 1940, later to be anthologized in the popular Symbolic Interaction: a Reader in Social Psychology (1967, pp. 355-368). Nelson Foote’s related and excellent article on identification first appeared in 1951 but was also anthologized in that volume (1967, pp. 343-354), next to the essay by Mills. Mills used Burke’s characterization of the agent’s motivational ambivalence, taken from Permanence and Change, in order to develop a notion of context-determined, rather than role-dictated, social action (Mills, 1967, p. 357). Foote, on the other hand, read from both A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives in order to develop a more flexible sociological model of motivated performance, one that does not so heavily rely upon the notion of “role” identities, which he finds unsatisfactory given the “apathy in the performance of conventional roles, when these are on the verge of abandonment or accepted only under duress. Roles as such do not provide their own motives.” (Foote, 1967, p. 343) Although they do not cite Foote’s essay, Scott and Lyman do cite the Mills essay in their famous essay “Accounts”, which investigates forms of talk used to restore equilibrium after unanticipated or untoward behavior (Scott and Lyman, 1968, p. 46). These authors also reference Kenneth Burke, but only to remind readers that Burke was but one instrumental figure in Mills’ creation of the notion of accounts, along with Weber and Mead -- they do not directly credit Burke as a source for their own insights. The literature on motives evolved into a tradition of research, based on these essays, one with which Alan Blum and Peter McHugh are also connected. Indeed, Blum and McHugh have authored the closest argument to the Burkean sociological perspective I am suggesting in this paper, stating explicitly that a motive belongs to an actor “as part of his commonsense knowledge, a motive to which he was oriented in producing the action… how a behavior is socially intelligible…. To talk motives is to talk grammar.” (Blum and McHugh, 1971, p. 100) However, Kenneth Burke is not the person to whom credit for this notion is directed. Instead, they say that Burke never “grasped the analytic character of motive,” (Op. cit., p. 102) specifically in that he fails “to explicate the grammar of motive, in more than a metaphoric sense” (Op. cit., p. 02) -- these words, despite Burke’s avowed claim, published in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in 1968, that “drama is employed, not as a metaphor but as a fixed form…it is certainly as literal to say that ‘people act’ as it is to say that they ‘move like mere things’.” (Burke, 1968, p. 448)26 Such a rhetorical strategy sits well with Bourdieu’s general notion that professionals within a field must both connect and disconnect with the scholarship of others in order “to affirm their difference in and through a form endowed with every sign needed to make it a recognized form…which implies reference to the field of philosophical stances and a reasonably conscious grasp of the implications of the position which it itself occupies in that field.” (Bourdieu, 1991, pp. 34-35) It is because of such strategies, exercised regularly in sociology but also literary criticism, history, and other fields27 where Burke’s influence might be more definitively felt, that Burke has achieved a citation status, without generating a school of thought. A research-engaged tradition in social psychology that studies motives and ascriptions of motives emerges from Mills, Foote, Scott and Lyman, Blum and McHugh and their sources, for example “The Rhetoric of Motives in Divorce,” by Joseph Hopper, who traces back to the Mills essay and to Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change when discussing the rhetorical flavor of language used by divorce initiators and non-initiators.28 The talent that some of these authors exercised in order to put Burke on the margins of their own study should not go unnoticed, however. It is very reminiscent of Goffman and others, perhaps even more overt.

Whereas the literature mentioned above, in particular the essay by Nelson Foote, suggests that motivational systems are more sociologically meaningful than roles, it is an irony that Merton’s notion of role-set theory (Merton, 1964) continues to hold some authority in sociology, while Burke’s concept of identification never rose to comparative prominence. We should keep in mind, in this regard, that Robert King Merton, prominent Columbia University sociologist, had been a student of Pitrim Sorokin, and also had Talcott Parsons on his dissertation committee – if position helps one market one’s ideas within a field, then Merton was more than adequately situated.29 Once more we see, as we would see in any discipline, that discourse within the sociological field is dominated by those who exercise capital within the field.

Merton also mentioned Burke in his writing, specifically the essay “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality,” which first appeared in the journal Social Forces (1940)30, later to be anthologized within the pages of his greatest work, Social Theory and Social Structure (1949, revised and enlarged in 1957). In that essay, when examining the relationship between bureaucratic structure and personality, Merton leaned upon Burke’s notions of “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” in his discussion (Merton, 1957, p. 198), going so far as to illustrate with the famous example of the chicken slaughter, used by Burke (Burke, 1984, p. 7). Indeed, Merton’s entire essay is grounded in these notions, but he remains sensitive to the sociological fidelity that is expected from him by his audience, and he painstakingly attributes these notions to the sources Burke claimed to be writing from (Veblen, an economist, and Dewey, a philosopher, respectively), albeit he does not cite the location at which either notion can be found in the earlier authors’ works. Clearly, Merton exploits the ethos of Veblen and Dewey, which would make the ideas seem more salient to sociology than they would coming from the pen of a literary critic, in order to give a scientific aura to the notions that he is discussing, thus distancing the concepts from any original interpretation which Burke gave to them. Merton also quotes Burke in an earlier essay (1936) that also appears in Social Theory and Social Structure (Op Cit., p. 575), when discussing the impact of the Puritan ethos on the advancement of science studies in the seventeenth century. The quote is originally from Permanence and Change (Burke, 1984, p. 29), although Merton does not designate his source. Even Harold Garfinkel, who also had an illustrious career in sociology, finds reason to direct readers to A Grammar of Motives and Permanence and Change (unspecified locations) when characterizing that sort of retroactive identity constitution we engage in when we say things such as “What he is now is what, ‘after all,’ he was all along.” (Garfinkel, 1968, pp. 207) Anselm Strauss read Burke thoroughly and cited him often (1959, 1993), suggesting, for example, that “One of the best theoretical analyses of the mechanics of disintegration, and therefore reconstruction, of symbolic universes is by Kenneth Burke in his Attitudes Toward History.” (Strauss, 1993, p. 156) Alvin Gouldner characterizes Burke as “a gifted sociologist who obstinately calls himself a literary critic.” (Gouldner, 1965, p. 16)32 Again, the comments made by these authors are incidental ones – some of them report brilliant insights that Burke made, but they do not bring Burke to the plate in the manner that Duncan, Perinbanayagam, Gusfield, and Manning do.

If we drop one tier in the status of social thinkers considered, we find a number of other scholars who have brought Kenneth Burke’s ideas to the distinctly sociological forum. Michael Overington, for example, began his career by publishing two well-respected articles on Kenneth Burke as a social theorist (Overington, 1977a, 1977b). Overington’s move toward organizational theory (with Ian Mangham) was instrumental in bringing Burke into that discourse, and Burke has played a prominent role in the literature on management as theater, popular in Europe. Mangham, who recently went forth ahead of us, spent thirty years merging theatrical and managerial performance. Even when writing his dissertation, he knew of Burke, but felt that Goffman was channeling him (Mangham, 2005, p. 943). When he met Overington in the late seventies, he turned to Burke more directly, through their many publications. In the last paper he wrote before his death, he characterized Burke as “a colossus, a figure that bestrides both literary and sociological studies.” (Mangham, 2005, p. 953) Taline Voskeritchian (1981) wrote her dissertation on Burke, Duncan, and Goffman, much as Delaney wrote on Burke and Parsons (Delaney, 1979). Thomas Meisenhelder published an essay which applied Burke’s notion of social action to a characterization of law (1981) as well as an essay on Duncan’s treatment of symbolic action and social order (1977), before drawing to a close his research on either figure.33 Ann Branaman published a credible essay for The Sociological Quarterly (1994) in which she suggested how Burke’s ideas might figure within sociology as it considered the question of identity. Valerie Malhotra Bentz and Wade Kenny (1997) published the most prominent recent essay within sociology, on Kenneth Burke, in that it appeared in Sociological Theory. That essay is cited in three recent sociological theory texts, (Adam and Sydie, 2001, Adams and Sydie, 2002, Bentz and Shapiro, 1998) as well as a number of essays, some of them by the present author,34 whose most recent publication in sociology (Kenny, 2007) also cites Burke, albeit incidentally.

Indeed, most citations of Kenneth Burke within sociology are incidental, and that is worth mentioning because a scholar’s ability to access the professional resources that are specific to the field of sociology is understandably contingent upon that scholar’s willingness to eschew, for the most part, non-sociological references and to exploit the ideas of authors who are already internal to the field. For this reason, a general reliance on Kenneth Burke would ultimately hinder, rather than advance, a sociologist’s professional career. Bourdieu makes this point succinctly when he says, “To enter the sociological field nowadays – most sociologists don’t realize this, still less the nonsociologist – you need a lot of capital. It’s only when you have this capital, which enables you to cross the barrier to entry, that you can attain autonomy with respect to crass social demands.” (Bourdieu 2005, p. 46) The aspiring scholar’s problem thus becomes Burke’s problem, as it is a problem for any intellectual who attempts to either contribute to or participate within a field. It is a problem that is associated with community and power.

At this point, any discussion of Burke’s impact within sociology would degenerate into a collection of citations. References continue to appear and disappear within sociology, and it is no doubt the case that the finest sociological minds will have reason to visit the writings of Kenneth Burke for quite some time. Dramatism has not become a sociological school, however.35 Instead, sociology retains a pale and largely unacknowledged facsimile of it in the writings of Erving Goffman, which are once more returning to prominence (I hope to have suggested in this essay, that most people who treat both Burke and Goffman don’t seem to recognize that there is a difference between Dramaturgy and Dramatism – that or they reduce the difference to a cliché). Largely, the cultural pragmatics movement will repair Goffman in ways they would not need to repair Burke; but that will generate productive action for the manufacturers of discourse within the field. Moreover, one must admit, that the ambiguities in Burke’s writing make it stylistically repugnant to sociologists, who tend to seek a fairly high level of precision in their work – a name and address for every concept, so to speak. Indeed, Dramatism will only take a seat next to sociological models, such as functionalism and structuralism, in the context of a social movement within the intellectual field -- it will not arise as an intellectual movement independent of those social forces necessary to provide scholars with academic appointments, tenure, promotion, research funding, publication and the like. If that were to happen, it would have occurred already. There is a lesson to be learned in this, and it is a simple one. The intellectual life does not emerge from the forehead – it emerges from within a community of thinkers who recognize that each time they severally provide opportunities for their others, they build that social capital which will also provide opportunities for them (Bourdieu, 1988; Collins, 1998) and for their ideas. One hearkens to the title of Coe’s (1986) well-known essay, “It Takes Capital to Defeat Dracula” – if only because the title reminds us that Burke’s preeminence within a field will be the result of the cultural capital he brings to that field. Effectively this means that Burke scholars must rally behind their own, if they are to advance their mentor.


During my own tenure in graduate school, Pierre Bourdieu’s name gained significant cultural capital. Unfortunately, being who I am, this was a sufficient reason for me to avoid reading him. In the past six months, however, I have gone through most of his works, and I have discovered that nothing surprises me, that Bourdieu’s way of seeing things has been in me all along. I suspect that a similar oral process shaped many of the sociologists in Chicago in the days of Duncan, Goffman, and Gusfield – some variation of an oral tradition in the academy that creates a way of seeing that could impact a generation who might not even know they have been affected -- this, and we must also consider the degree to which it was also in the interest of those students, and the ones who followed, to pull away from Burke.

Somewhere in the voluminous writings of Northrop Frye, two relevant, casual remarks are made: The first is a comment about the transformative effects that result when one inserts oneself completely within the thinking of a great mind (as Frye did with William Blake). The second suggests that the stature of a work is indicated not by its relevance in its own time, but by its ability to stand in time (Frye illustrates this point through Gibbons’ Decline and Fall). Both these points are worthy of a reader’s reflection as this essay reaches its conclusion -- the difference between a scholar who is oft-cited and one who is well-cited (i.e., one who constructs a dominant worldview within a field) is the difference that Frye addresses in the first quote above, and the worth of the thinker is reflected in the second. Such issues would seem negligible only to those concerned with Burke’s status, irrespective of his influence.

Paradoxically, it often seems to be the case in sociology that writers who have regularly and significantly used Kenneth Burke’s ideas only occasionally mention him by name, while others who are careful to include Kenneth Burke’s name in their essays seldom rely on him for anything of central importance. Thus people may be writing essays that are heavily dependent upon their foreknowledge of Burke, and not crediting him, while others, who actually give him credit, may merely be name dropping, or dabbling, or honoring a friendship (Duncan, Gusfield, Perinbanayagam, and Manning aside). And then there are the occasions when Burke is explicitly cited, yet completely misunderstood or partially misrepresented. Such things suggest that the question of Burke’s relationship to sociology is a problematic one that could stand redress through the careful work of serious scholars, if there were sufficient intellectual concern to take up the task.

Is it a betrayal of Kenneth Burke and the community of Burkean scholars to suggest that Kenneth Burke is yet to play his most significant role in the field of sociology, and to suggest that, because of factors that have nothing to do with the merit of the ideas he provides, he indeed might never do so? The answer depends, one assumes, on what it means to admire Kenneth Burke. To the extent Burke represents an orientation toward intellectual life, his status in sociology is best described in terms that give rise to clarity and reflection. To the extent Burke represents a source of professional legitimacy, however, the answer is a little more complicated, because no team wants to hear the ways it is losing during the mid-game pep-talk. For myself, I find it reassuring to know that sociology is an incomplete discipline and that Burke has not yet fulfilled his potential within it -- these are signs that there is more to be done; and, as a productive scholar, I always find that reassuring. The comments made here in no way challenge the merits of Burke’s scholarship, rather they direct readers toward the nature of value, usage, and prestige within the intellectual community and they suggest that there is a gap between Burke’s merits, status, and usage in sociology, as a field.


"For Richard Harvey Brown (1940-2003), sociologist, friend to Burke, and friend to those who studied Kenneth Burke"

1 Readers need only reflect upon occasions that they have been inadequately, inappropriately, or irrelevantly cited to recognize the validity of this claim.

2 Kuhn equates Dramatism with Dramaturgy, and he suggests that Dramatism is a “role driven” theory of human motives. Blum and McHugh say that Burke never “grasped the analytic character of motive,” (1971, p. 102) because Burke fails “to explicate the grammar of motive, in more than a metaphoric sense.” (Op. cit., p. 02) Dibble treats Burke as a crass essentialist in a text that assesses the sociological significance of Albion Small, who started the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, indeed the world’s first sociology department. The reference in that context (Dibble, 1975, p. 114) is to Burke’s distinction between “action” and “motion”, however it leaves readers with the distinct and inaccurate sense that these terms are fixed opponents in Burke, no consideration to notions of action-minus, motion-plus (Burke, 1966, pp. 63-80) is presented.

3 This is a critical point made by Vito Signorile in his Burke essay of 1989. Signorile says that the, “nonlinguistic realm of symbolic experience is familiar to us in the form of the irrational. The irrational is not just the illogical but, in a more positive sense, the non-discursive. Irrational motives, if they are truly motives, come from the operation of presentational symbols.... While the rational tends generally to be a conscious activity, the irrational action compelled by nondiscursive symbols is primarily subterranean, subconscious.” (Signorile, 1989, p. 80)

4 In truth the idea could already be found in Durkheim, but it is not unusual for an idea to rise to prominence decades after it has been made known, indeed at the tip of someone else’s pen.

5 Personal communication, University of Pittsburgh, 1993.

6 See also Perinbanayagam, 1985; Signorelli, 1989; and Bentz and Kenny, 1997.

7 In rhetoric, Bryan Crable (Crble, 2000) is a noteable exception. Gusfield, however, distinguishes between Burke and Goffman in a number of locations (Gusfield, 1989a, pp. 36-39, 1989b pp. 17-20, 36-37)), suggesting that Burke’s focus is on language and interpretation (Gusfield, 1989a, p. 37) while Goffman focuses on deception(1989b, p. 22). I tend toward a more charitable reading of both authors, treating them in terms of symbolism, writ large. Thus, in Burke, all action is symbolic action (and therefore subject to dramatistic examination), and in Goffman all action is performance (and therefore not reducible to deception (since there is no more of a “space” in Goffman for an authentic deceiver than there is “space” in George Herbert Mead for a non-objective “I”).

8 If, for example, the madman did precisely the same thing, only from within a prison cell, I would not run, assuming he was locked in, and I was outside. In this case, a scene-purpose ratio would probably be the determining motive.

9 Burke does not cite Durkheim, but he certainly cites one of Durkheim’s sources, Sir James George Frazer, when he says “In any case, Freud (like Frazer) gives us ample grounds for trying never to forget that, once emotional involvement is added to symbolism’s resources of substitution (which included the invitations to both compensation and displacement) the conditions are set for the symbol-using animal with its ailments both physically and symbolically engendered, to tinker with such varying kinds of substitution as we encounter in men’s modes of penance, expiation, compensation, paying of fines in lieu of bodily punishment, and the cult of the scapegoat.” (Burke, 1973, p. 8) This passage has distinct relevance to the new directions currently being taken, using Durkheim to develop a theory of cultural pragmatics.

10 According to Goffman (Goffman in Verhoeven, 1993, pp. 325-326), his generation of sociology students at Chicago were not well versed in other languages and were therefore quite welcoming, almost two decades later, of those translated editions of Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel that began to emerge through the Free Press, in the late 50’s and 60’s. By association, this would mean that sociologists trained in the United States would have a tendency to read each other as well as sources like KB, at a time in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s when they were comparatively limited in terms of work from within their own field.

11 Elkins errs when he claims this review was published in 1935(1986, p. 47). Wilder (1985, p. xiii) makes the same mistake.

12 Shills translated Mannheim’s next book, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, which first appeared in English in 1940. That volume included a seventy page bibliography of suggested readings for scholars concerned with social policy and social work in an age of transformation (WWII). Burke’s Permanence and Change is included as part of that bibliography, in Section 5: New Dimensions in Cultural Life (p. 450). In that regard, it is worth noting, however, Mannheim’s expressed gratitude to translator Shills, who “supplemented the bibliography which I have been collecting for many years with some kindred items.” (Mannheim, 1966, p. xxii) Thus it appears that Shills brought Burke’s ideas to Mannheim’s attention as well, another instance of social relations influencing intellectual production.

13 This is also when Burke met Gusfied during an initial get-together for faculty (personal communication from Joseph Gusfield, December 12, 2007).

14 When I met Michael Overington in 1993, he was kind enough to give me his copy.

15 That book, Symbols and Social Theory, though it has been harshly reviewed, has some merit for anyone who would do sociological thinking. Particularly appealing is Duncan’s notion that communication is expressed hierarchically (The topic is discussed in Communication and Social Order as well, but is more succinct in Symbols), a conception that predates Bourdieu on the same topic. Duncan maintained such a distaste for Marx, however, that it remained impossible for him to exploit the full significance of this claim, as it would effect general social performance – something we can find in Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives. Because of the sheer volume of Duncan’s oeuvre, there is no equitable manner to present the Burke-dependent ideas in Duncan. Duncan himself wrote “I owe so much to Burke that I read what I write with the guilty sense of a thief.” (Duncan in Elkins, 1986, pp. 55) Readers who would know of this relationship may peruse the Duncan texts listed in the bibliography. The connection between Burke and Duncan was to have been this author’s dissertation project; however, after studying the work of both authors, it became clear that some fundamental principles in Burke needed to be clarified in order to properly exercise the study. An introductory chapter on this topic thus turned into a 350 page manuscript on Burke that ultimately functioned as the entire dissertation. Elkins (1986, p. 60) indicates that Valerie Bentz has written an essay on Hugh Duncan’s sociology – to my knowledge it remains out of print. Overington and Voskeritchian wrote their dissertations on the connection between these authors as well. The marginal status of a genuinely Burkean sociology is well-represented in the fact that Duncan has now gone out of print with little expression of regret. On the one hand, scholars of Kenneth Burke (though perhaps interested in the relation between Burke and the social sphere) are not typically interested in problems specific to the sociological field, while on the other hand sociologists are typically uninterested in the vocabulary of literary critics, outside the context of a sociology of literature, for example. David Blakesley is to be commended for organizing and annotating some part of the Burke-Duncan correspondence, but that project, while it is of interest to Burke scholars, is not one that will figure in the development of sociology as a field outside a more general project that would demonstrate and apply Burke toward the solution of sociological problems. Duncan’s sociology is no more than a gloss of what Kenneth Burke’s sociology might be; however, the conditions that would give rise to the triumph of that sociology within the sociological community simply have never arisen.

16 See also Perinbanayagam, 1982, 1991, and 2000. According to Perinbanayagam “it is in my last three books Discursive Acts, The Presence of Self and the recent Games and Sports in Everyday Life that I make more explicit use of Burke, particularly his literary-critical ideas.” (personal communication by email, December 30, 2007.

17 See Jeffrey Alexander’s The Meanings of Social Life, in which neither Burke nor Perinbanayagam are mentioned, although Burke has been mentioned in other texts by Alexander, as mentioned elsewhere in this essay.

18 Personal communication by email from Robert Perinbanayagam, January 4, 2008 – matters of fact, concerning the circumstances for Perinbanayagam are taken from this email and one other sent December 30, 2007.

19 Burke would return the favor by referencing Parsons in the famous “Dramatism” essay that appeared in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, discussed below.

20 Noted living sociologist and recipient (from William Jefferson Clinton) of the National Humanities Medal, Robert N. Bellah also wrote a summation of Burke’s treatment of religious language as symbolic action in Volume 13 of this collection (p. 412). Volume 18, which appeared in 1979, includes a biography of Burke, by J. Hillis Miller (pp. 78-81); and Volume 19, which appeared in1991 includes three quotes from Permanence and Change, and notes that the sentence A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing – a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B “has come to be known as ‘The Burke theorem.’” (Volume 19, p. 32)

21 In a letter to Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Burke points out the irony in Duncan’s characterization of the “dramatistic form” as one studied by Cooley, Mead, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. He says “I made up that word as a deliberate trade name of my particular wares.” (Burke in Wilder, 1985, p. xviii) The irony that Burke points out was not complete at that point, however, and continues to this day. Soon Goffman’s term Dramaturgy would largely replace, and occasionally substitute for (Alexander, 2006, p. 30), Burke’s term Dramatism, while contributing little, if anything, to a deeper understanding than Dramatism would allow. Now, Goffman’s Dramaturgy is read into cultural pragmatics and interaction rituals, where Burke’s Dramatism might have been, at least, as useful.

22 Within sociology, there is some attempt to distance Burke from Goffman by claiming Goffman is about deception and Burke is about language (Cuzzort and King, 1976, p. 237; Gusfield, 1989a p. 37, 1989b, p. 22). Neither claim is, in the final analysis, supported by the breadth of each author’s work, although both have been supported in terms of the general understanding of how they can be appropriated in the field.

23 The Heritage of Sociology series, which rejected an application from Valerie Bentz to edit Hugh Dalziel Duncan’s now completely out-of-print writings, provides readers with compilations of the most important works of the most important thinkers in the sociological tradition.

24 Joseph Gusfield, personal communication by email, December 12, 2007.

25 "The dominated apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear natural…Symbolic violence is instituted through the adherence that the dominated cannot fail to grant to the dominant.” (Bourdieu, 2001, p. 35)

26 Burke’s style of writing comes home to roost on this occasion, for he writes on the same page that, “Strictly speaking, then, dramatism is a theory of terminology.” (Burke, 1968, p. 448)

27 But not, of course, rhetoric.

28 Readers might also consult Hopper if seeking some characterization of prominent literature in the sociology of motives, following Mills; Foote; Scott and Lyman; Blum and McHugh, up into the 1990’s.

29 Merton’s lifespan fell just short of ninety-three years and he was active through most of them. Like Burke, he had that long tenure among intellectuals, so necessary for a broad impact.

30 Social Forces, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1940, pp. 560-568.

31 “Puritanism, Pietism, and Science,” Sociological Review, Vol. 28, 1936, pp.1-30.

32 The authorial moments of many such citations (Garfinkel, 1956, Straus, 1959, Merton, 1957, Gouldner, 1965) is worth noting, however – it is in the era that Burke was commanding the attention of many other sociologists, including Duncan, Garfinkel, Merton, Parsons, Goffman, Edelman, and Gusfield. The generation that follows these thinkers has not been so attentive or lavish in its praise.

33 Personal communication, 1993.

34 As is often the case, the citations do not show any genuine recognition of the significance of the essay, itself, nor do they suggest any comprehension of the claims the essay makes regarding Burke’s potential in the field. With the application of Burke to the consideration of social process, it is also worth mentioning an essay published by this author in Health Communication (Kenny, 2001), which applies the dramatistic paradigm to characterize death rituals as “rites of passage” that are essentially symbolic and social processes. The essay represents a rare application of dramatism in non-discursive social action, and has obtained some notoriety: cited, anthologized (Bauman and Peterson, 2005), catalogued in both centers for ethics and neurological institutes, and taught in a variety of programs ranging from nursing, to science, to English programs. Although it is a precursor to “cultural pragmatics” and “social performance theory” it has not gathered attention in sociology, while articles by this author published in sociology have – again the volume of literature and the limited attention-opportunities specific to a discipline exert an oppressing effect on any migration of ideas between fields.

35 The possibility for such a school lingers in the dedicated work of Perinbanayagam, but that potential will not be realized outside a variety of conditions which have not yet been realized and are, practically speaking, unlikely.


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