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The Ubiquity, Functions, And Contexts Of Bullshitting

Abstract: Bullshitting is an essentially social phenomenon worthy of investigation. In support of this view, I provide a definition that provides the basis for suggesting the ubiquity and diverse functions of bullshitting, and how it occurs in and is structured by a wide range of interpersonal and social contexts. Drawing upon illustrations from research, everyday life, and classical and contemporary theories, I argue that the study of bullshitting can inform and be informed by social theory. In so doing, an illustration is provided of Merton’s (1973:59) observation that investigation of seemingly trivial social phenomena can yield insight not only into these phenomena but also into basic dynamics of social behavior.

We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. . . . Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain . . . not only unanswered but unasked.

— Harry Frankfurt (1986:81)

This paper investigates “bullshitting” as a social phenomenon. Since the topic seems self-evidently trivial, the question emerges: Why study it? At least three reasons present themselves. Bullshitting merits study because of its apparent ubiquity — it is present in almost all aspects of society and yet remains largely unstudied (Frankfurt 1986). As importantly, bullshitting is a quintessentially social phenomenon that can be shown to serve a variety of social functions and to occur in and be structured by an equally wide variety of interpersonal and social contexts (Mukerji 1978; Frankfurt 1986). Most importantly, the study of bullshitting provides an opportunity to illuminate fundamental aspects of social life. In so doing, it also illustrates Merton’s (1973) observation that the “seemingly self-evident triviality of the object under scrutiny” should not be confused with the “cognitive significance of the investigation” (59).

This paper proceeds first by reviewing literature on bullshitting. I then provide the definition of bullshitting that guides the subsequent analysis, and include a description of its key features. A brief discussion of the ubiquity of bullshitting also is provided. Drawing on related research, illustrations from everyday life, and social theory, I next explore the functions of bullshitting and the interpersonal and social contexts in which it occurs and that structure its occurrence. My goal, following Goffman’s (1959) lead, is to establish a coherent conceptual framework “that ties together bits of experience the reader already has and provides . . . a guide worth testing in case-studies of institutional social life” (xii; see also Barnes 1994:165-67).

What Is “Bullshitting”?

Few satisfactory definitions exist of “bullshitting” or its linguistic cousin, “bull” (the derivation of one from the other is not documented). The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that to engage in “bullshit” is “to talk nonsense” or “to bluff one’s way through something by talking nonsense.” “Bull” is defined as the act of “befooling, mocking, or cheating,” or as “informal conversation or discussion.” The definitions, however, provide little guidance about how exactly bullshitting is different from the enumerated acts, what constitutes “nonsense” or “informal conversation,” or what other possible meanings and uses of the term might exist.

Further, the definitions miss a fundamental aspect of bullshitting — namely, that frequently there may be a particular intensity behind the putative “nonsense” and “informal conversation.” Echoing these concerns, Frankfurt (1986) observed, for example, that “the characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life — for instance, religion, politics, or sex” (91).

From this perspective, bullshitting appears to be about something more than simply informal “talk for talk’s sake,” nonsense, or bluffing. This “something more” is suggested in part by Perls’ (1969) facetious eschatological classificatory scheme in which a variant of bullshitting (“elephantshitting”) is held to entail high level discussions on religion, philosophy, and other such matters.[1] Yet Perls’ (1969) descriptive schema belies the notion that when people engage in bullshit in day-to-day settings that there is an undercurrent of seriousness, one that may vary according to social context and that may serve different functions depending in part on the given context. The latter idea is reinforced by conversation analysis research (see, e.g., Garfinkel 1967; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974; Malone 1997; Heritage 1999), which highlights that in even the most casual conversations a structured and dynamic turn-taking process occurs that can serve non-trivial social functions, including the “construction and maintenance of our social identities and social relationships” (Eggins and Slade 1997:279).

A somewhat more precise account of bullshitting is provided by Frankfurt (1986). Although the term never actually is defined in his discursive analysis (save to define by description), bullshitting appears to be synonymous with deliberate misrepresentation:

[The bullshitter’s] only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. . . . [What] we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor [as with the liar] to conceal it. . . . The bullshitter . . . is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. (96-97)

Frankfurt’s (1986) distinction between lying and bullshitting is not clear, save that lying appears to be more obviously intentional or narrowly tailored toward denying a particular truth or reality, whereas bullshitting appears to be more diffusely focused. That is, in Frankfurt’s view the goal of bullshitters appears to be one of “getting away” with misrepresentation. Accordingly, their concern with “truth” or “reality” is minimal to non-existent. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (Frankfurt 1986:90).

This view neglects the possibility that bullshitting may involve intense emotions or emotional investment and that it may serve specific and intentional goals or functions. This observation actually can be found elsewhere in Frankfurt’s (1986) article, where “bull sessions” are characterized as involving “very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life” (91). And in one of the few analyses of this topic, Mukerji’s (1978) study of hitchhikers suggests that bullshitting (which is left undefined) provides a means by which hitchhikers can manage self-image and adolescent identity problems.

Departing from this observation, an alternative view of bullshitting suggests that this activity, like attempts to “mis-(re)present” reality generally (Goffman 1959), involves a profound concern with reality and especially with those aspects centering about one’s sense of self and reality. Admittedly, the concern may not be obvious — misrepresentation seemingly is aimed at avoiding reality, suggesting in turn a potential lack of concern about what is “real.” Frankfurt (1986), for example, noted: “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit . . . has deeper sources in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are” (99). The concern with self and reality may be obscured, too, by the fact that frequently a certain playfulness attends to bullshitting, as when a bullshitter is “caught in the act” and responds, “I’m just kidding.” Mukerji’s (1978) study of bullshitting among hitchhikers identifies, for example, an undercurrent of playfulness, what she conceptualized as a type of sociability (Simmel 1950), underlying much of their “road stories.” However, the playfulness does not contradict the possibility or even the probability that these stories involve serious concerns or issues.

As these accounts suggest, a potentially more accurate or conceptually productive view of bullshitting likely is one that views it as involving an abiding concern with developing and maintaining the contours and boundaries of self and reality. It is, from this perspective, more than simply a diffuse strategy aimed at deception for deception’s sake or for disguising or misrepresenting particular truths or aspects of self and reality. Indeed, that “self” and “reality” are ever in need of clarification and subject to manipulation is a sine qua non of social relations: “Our conduct is based upon our knowledge of total reality. But this knowledge is characterized by peculiar limitations and distortions” (Simmel 1950:310; see also Schutz 1962; Garfinkel 1967). Thus, it is to be expected that a type of communication would exist aimed at discerning, highlighting, creating, maintaining, and manipulating “self” and “reality.”

A Definition Of Bullshitting

Proceeding from these premises and drawing upon suggestive accounts from various sources, I adopt an explicit definition of bullshitting that highlights neglected or omitted dimensions of apparent relevance. This definition will be used to guide the subsequent discussions and analyses. Bullshitting, as defined here, is the attempt by an individual (a) to question, change, or otherwise affect or control their own and other’s, impressions of “self” or “reality,” (b) by relying on a strategy of deliberately and playfully creating misleading yet possible, though frequently improbable, accounts or impressions of “self” or “reality,” (c) for instrumental, expressive, or other less obvious or conscious reasons, and (d) only becomes bullshitting when it is so defined by or recognized as such by participants or observers.

Several points bear emphasizing. First, bullshitting is defined here as a general type of playful behavior that encompasses many specific types of social behaviors. It can, for example, be constituted through an enormous range of interactions, including engaging in bull sessions or idle talk (“shooting the breeze”), lying, deceiving, telling tall tales, gossiping, teasing, etc. As with other social phenomena, what distinguishes a given act as “being” one thing or another involves recourse to a conceptual frame of reference (Parsons 1968; Goffman 1974). In this instance, what transforms various interactions into bullshitting — above and beyond also representing specific kinds of interactions as defined by other frames of reference — is whether the people involved define it as such. It therefore is both possible and probable that frequently a given interaction may “be” more than one thing (e.g., both an act of teasing and an act of bullshit), depending upon the frame of reference and how the participants define it.

The definition of bullshitting provided here represents one frame of reference, one that is purposely broad and that suggests an underlying unity behind a range of behaviors in a range of contexts. Although a voluminous literature in psychology, communication, and conversation analysis exists on lying and deception (see, e.g., Barnes 1994; Eggins and Slade 1997), these terms often are defined in a manner that precludes conceptualization of their linkages to one another. For example, lying generally refers to an attempt to deny something that is true whereas deception generally refers to an attempt not necessarily to deny something but to lead others away from the truth (Frankfurt 1986; Barnes 1994).[2] As emphasized above, bullshitting can include not only these techniques but others as well. Moreover, the goals and functions of bullshitting can be considerably broader and more diffuse than simply denying or obscuring a particular truth; they also can include fabrication of entire events and contexts. Frankfurt (1986:96) echoed this argument in stating that “a person who undertakes to bullshit” has a focus that is “panoramic rather than particular” and creates entire contexts in addition to specific points of “fact.”

Second, it should be emphasized that the focus on self and reality is important because it underlies a basic tension present in most social contexts that is belied by the playful nature of bullshitting — namely, concern about what exactly the “self” and “reality” “are” and how these are constructed and maintained (Simmel 1950; Blumer 1967; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974; Eggins and Slade 1997). An understanding of self or reality is a prerequisite of effective social interaction. As importantly, because the “self” and “reality” generally lack a fixed or definitive character, their interpretation is subject to ongoing negotiation and interpretation, and, thus, manipulation (Schutz 1962; Garfinkel 1967).

The potential for manipulation of self or reality is captured by Simmel (1950), who noted that “we base our gravest decisions on a complex system of conceptions, most of which presuppose the confidence that we will not be betrayed” (313) and, further, that “relationships being what they are, they . . . presuppose a certain ignorance and a measure of mutual concealment” (315). Both the “complex system of conceptions” and the “ignorance” and “concealment” endemic to social relations present a limitless range of possibilities for “framing” self and reality. Furthermore, as Barnes (1994:13) observed:

People, as social actors, communicate with one another in a variety of ways, and not only with words. They cannot read each other’s minds, and hence communication is always less than perfect; indeed they may be misled about what is going on in their own minds. Given this imperfection, all messages may be or may become distorted, either deliberately or unintentionally. Different contexts, however, provide different possibilities for deceit.[3]

It is notable, for example, that judges and juries generally do not discover an established “truth” in deciding a case or determining an individual’s character; rather, they convince themselves of what “really” (probabilistically) must be “true” (Kalbfeisch 1992). It is this observation that led Justice Holmes’ (1897) to his famous statement that the “law” consists not of time-eternal, absolute, objective truths but rather “the prophecies of what the courts will do in fact” (461). This concern with reality is reflected in part by the vehemence with which we may on occasion confront someone (“That’s bullshit!”) who we believe is misleading us, presenting a false “self,” or “playing with reality,” especially when the issue is of an especially personal or meaningful nature. The salience of the fluidity of self and reality (Schutz 1962; Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1974) will become more apparent in the subsequent discussions.

Finally, it should be noted that I employ the term “bullshitting” rather than some neologism for several reasons. It is a term derived from common parlance and thus that may be more readily understood. In addition, reference to a commonly used and understood term derived from everyday interaction reinforces the idea that what bullshitting “is,” as with many forms of social interaction (Eggins and Slade 1997; Malone 1997), is fundamentally determined by the socially constructed meanings emergent in particular social interactions (Mukerji 1978:241). That is, while it is possible a priori to identify analytical dimensions constitutive of bullshitting, it is not possible a priori to identify when specific interactions will become bullshitting.

Stated more strongly, interactions become bullshitting only if the interactants or observers view them as such. Anecdotally, this view is supported by attempts, during conversations with friends and colleagues, to elicit examples of bullshitting and to identify dimensions or features that uniquely identified the examples as bullshitting rather than as instances of other types of interactions (e.g., lying, deception). Indeed, the only such marker to emerge was this: Whether a given pattern of interaction became bullshitting seemed to be exclusively a function of how the act was viewed and interpreted dynamically (i.e., as an ongoing process) in particular social contexts.

The Ubiquity Of Bullshitting

It has been observed that “one of the most salient features of [U.S.] culture is that there is so much bullshit” (Frankfurt 1986:81). Yet, bullshitting, like many forms of communication, is ubiquitous not necessarily in the sense of prevalence (e.g., the number of individuals per 100,000 who bullshit), incidence (e.g., the numbers of cases of bullshitting per 100,000), or even per person frequency in a given population. Such estimates may be ideal but conceptual and data limitations to date preclude their determination (Heritage 1999). Rather, it is ubiquitous in much the same way that the types of interactions through which bullshitting is created are ubiquitous — that is, they occur in all walks of life and under a wide variety of social conditions and circumstances. For example, it has been argued that “the propensity to lie varies widely within communities and across communities, and within and across specified domains of social life” (Barnes 1994:7). Simmel (1950) rendered a similar observation, writing that “sociological structures differ profoundly according to the measure of lying which operates in them” (312-313; see also Simmel 1906). More recently, Kagle (1998) emphasized both the embeddedness of deception in everyday social life and the diverse contexts in which it occurs. Others have argued that gossip is one of the most popular and powerful integrative forces in society (Eggins and Slade 1997:279). And Goffman (1974:87) noted that “in all societies there exists . . . the practice of what can called ‘playful deceit,’ namely, the containment of one or more individuals for the avowed purpose of fun.”

As will be illustrated, bullshitting also can occur in a wide range of contexts — among individuals and groups, in courtrooms, bars, legislative hallways, classrooms, workplaces, and conferences, among various racial/ethnic, gender, and cultural groupings, etc. These contexts, moreover, structure the opportunities and motivations for, as well as the functions of, bullshitting (Frankfurt 1986; Barnes 1994).

It should be emphasized that though the ubiquity of bullshitting can be asserted (Frankfurt 1986), it is another matter to demonstrate that the assertion, like those about interactions generally (Heritage 1999), is true. The attempt here will be to show in passing that it is probable, while focusing primarily and conceptually on the functions of and contexts in which bullshitting occurs. The broader goal is to demonstrate that the study of bullshitting can teach us about fundamental aspects of social life.

The Functions And Contexts Of Bullshitting

Socialization

A primary function of bullshitting is the socialization of children, teaching them the verbal and social skills necessary for successfully understanding, traversing, and surviving social environments. Bullshitting, as a general strategy of self/reality negotiation, can provide a basis by which not only to discern self and reality but also to “play” with and manipulate them. Jumping briefly from the arena of human interaction, we might note that tiger cubs engage in considerable biting, clawing, and mini-“attacks,” if not outright instances of what might be termed “tricks” and “games.” Such play helps to develop skills that will be needed later in life (Mills 1997; Hauser 1998). From an evolutionary standpoint, it may be viewed as a selective socialization mechanism, enabling those who play well to survive longer and eventually to reproduce (Trivers 1985; Barnes 1994:147-65). Application of an evolutionary perspective to bullshitting is a logical extension of similar approaches in analyses of lying and deception (Barnes 1994). Palmer (1993), for example, has provided an intriguing analysis, through reference to evolutionary theory, of the uses of deceit among commercial lobster fishers. In his study of radio conversations among fishers in two harbors, Palmer (1993) found that fishers were less deceitful in the harbor where there where was greater integration based on reciprocally altruistic relationships.

The key insight from these examples, and those below, is that what at first glance appears to represent diverse social behaviors can be conceptualized as potential instances of a general type of behavior — bullshitting. For example, the practice among lobster fishers of playful deception on a daily basis — of pretending to be the greatest fishers or having knowledge of the best fishing spots — constitutes a daily and ongoing vehicle for bullshitting. The participants know well that there is little truth to the stories or that the truth is hidden in the stories. But to those well-versed in the art of bullshitting, there is an ability to define oneself and to achieve particular goals. For novice lobster fishers, learning how to bullshit, through deception, lying, and other means, can mean the difference between “being” a certain type of fisher and of learning about or concealing the best fishing spots.

Evolutionary perspectives do not exhaust the possible views on socialization. Rather, and as constituted through such acts as lying, deception, and teasing, bullshitting can provide a means by which to learn, manage, and manipulate social norms as well as how to act under a wide range of interpersonal and social contexts (Cooley 1902; Mead 1934; Goffman 1959; Piaget and Inhelder 1969; Thorne 1993). Barnes (1994:103-12), for example, has identified considerable anthropological, linguistic, and psychological research emphasizing the role that these activities — here broadly construed as diverse potential manifestations of bullshitting — have in the socialization of children. This research suggests that through creating fantasies, lying, deceiving, teasing, and, in general, being playful, children acquire much of their knowledge about reality and how its construction is subject to nuances of social context.

A child, for example, tells her mother she saw an elephant in the living room. The mother replies calmly, “That’s interesting.” Observing that her mother has not rejected the possibility of an elephant, the child says, “It was a pink elephant.” The mother replies, querulous and hesitantly, “Oh, really?” The child, recognizing she’s entered a borderland where plausibility is being stretched, says, “Yes, but it was a nice pink elephant!” The mother stares at her daughter. The daughter squirms and says, “Well, actually I didn’t see any elephant.” In this example, the child grasps that there are ways of framing and playing with reality, but that there also are limits to how far one can go. Yet how far the framing is allowed to go clearly is a function of how far the mother is willing to play along until eventually and non-verbally confronting her daughter with a stare that says “That’s bullshit, honey.” Such examples clearly can be extended to numerous other contexts and yet hardly touch on the ways in which children learn to interpret and construct the social world in which they exist (Barnes 1994).

Exploration of the “Self”

Bullshitting can assist individuals to explore who they are or may or can be. As Frankfurt (1986) noted:

In a bull session . . . the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say. It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it. (91; emphasis added)

In these contexts, bullshitting allows individuals to engage in a free-form presentation of self in which the possibilities of what was has been, is, or could be are rehearsed, challenged, modified, or discarded. It allows individuals to transcend the everyday sense of self and potentially tap into possibilities for creating new and different “selves” (Goffman 1959, 1974). For example, in many countries, team sports provide a social context in which youths learn, among other things, to try on new or untapped personalities, frequently adopting unrealistic or exaggerated traits — that is, bullshitting about who they “really” are — while at the same time learning to recognize and confront others who appear to be doing the same (Wankel and Berger 1990; Sage 1998).

Expressing Feelings

Bullshitting can provide a means by which people indirectly express their feelings about others. It provides an informal technique for expressing sentiments that otherwise might be too uncomfortable to state explicitly. For example, one person may tease another about something that seems inappropriate or risky to comment upon (e.g., physical appearance). But he or she may do so in a way that is understood in its own way, defined and constructed between the interactants, to be reassuring, as if to say, “See, I can express your worst fear and you know that I don’t ‘really’ think this way about you, and that ‘really’ you are okay to me.”

In one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of a bull session describes a session as “an informal conversation or discussion, especially of a group of males.” The definition suggests the possibility that these types of sessions provide an opportunity for males to express feelings that in other contexts might be proscribed or otherwise sanctioned. The bull session, as with stereotypical male locker-room settings, formally establishes the expectation that much of what is said is assumed to be untrue or exaggerated.

In both examples, it is notable that the social context establishes clear parameters structuring whether and how communication will become or be interpreted as bullshitting. For example, bullshitting via informal conversation likely will not occur when others are present who might misconstrue its meaning. Similarly, in cultures where expression of emotions or feelings may be discouraged among certain groups, including males, it is to be expected that indirect channels of emotional/affectual expression will emerge (Chodorow 1978; Best 1983).

“Passing Time”

Bullshitting, through such means as joking and the use of humor (Koller 1988; Davis 1993; Graham 1995), can provide a means by which people pass time together and, in so doing, engage in a type of free-form sociation. In Simmel’s (1950:43) view, sociability consists of a type of “being together” that “is freed from all ties with contents” and that “exists for its own sake and for the sake of the fascination which, it its own liberation from these ties, it diffuses.”

This function is far from trivial, yet our understanding of how exactly individuals become familiar and comfortable with each other, much less how exactly they “pass time” with one another, is underdeveloped (Eggins and Slade 1997; Malone 1997). In one of the few studies of bullshitting, Mukerji (1978) has documented that hitchhikers bullshit (tell “tall tales” and “road stories”) “to entertain themselves [and] forget their boredom with the scenery” (241). Bullshitting may also serve as a vehicle by which not only to “pass time” but also to develop connections — or “weak ties” (Granovetter 1973) — with others. These connections can lead to interpersonal rapport, which in turn can contribute to the social bonds that are either necessary for or can contribute to group solidarity and action.

Such observations raise questions about the precise conditions under which bullshitting occurs and how and to what extent it enables individuals to bond with one another or simply to “be” with one another. Despite the considerable attention that has been given to the processes through which social interaction occurs, we as yet have little understanding about these types of questions as they apply to bullshitting (see, however, Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1974; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974; Eggins and Slade 1997; Malone 1997). By focusing directly on interactions, and especially on how bullshitting is socially constructed between people, we have an opportunity to illuminate part of what is occurring when people talk to each other — during “informal” moments (e.g., riding an elevator), for example, and times in which we perform specific duties (e.g., at work, school, play, etc.) as well as during those instances in which we are engaged in menial, routine, or ceremonial tasks with others.

Resolving Personal or Interpersonal Strain

Bullshitting can serve to resolve personal or interpersonal strain, or even physical pain. For the individual, bullshitting may begin initially as a playful act of role-playing (Catalano 1990; Barnes 1994; Wilkes 1994) that may solidify into an image of oneself that perhaps is more satisfactory. For example, in her study of hitchhikers, Mukerji (1978) found that bullshitting provided a means by which to present a worldly identity: “Unlike many types of travelers, hitchhikers play on the risks of their mode of travel to produce a positive self-image” (245). Similarly, in her study of deception, Kagle (1998) noted that frequently deception, including playful deception (bullshitting), can serve to help individuals resolve inner conflicts, to create personal identities more in keeping with some ideal, or to develop a sense of personal empowerment. And Matz and Brown (1998) have reviewed research suggesting that humor, which arguably represents a particular type of bullshitting, can significantly alleviate pain.

In interpersonal situations in which strain is evident, bullshitting can allow an individual to defuse the strain. This may be done by suggesting that the situation is potentially malleable or, more simply, by introducing an element of light-hearted-yet-serious humor. John comes home from work and reports that he has been fired. Jane, his wife, responds, deadpan, “I guess we’ll have to put one of the children up for adoption.” John, literal-minded, responds, “Are you bullshitting me?” Jane says, “Yes.” They laugh, and perhaps all is well for the time being. In this case, Jane registers concern for John’s, and by extension her own, situation, but does so in a manner that puts the problem in a larger context or frame (Goffman 1974). In doing this, she defuses a situation that otherwise might feel overwhelming.

Impression Management

Almost one hundred years ago, Cooley (1902) coined the phrase the “looking-glass self.” The phrase was used to describe the idea that who we “are” is largely the result of the views others have, or that we think that they have, of our “selves.” This idea was considerably elaborated on by symbolic interactionist theorists (e.g., Mead 1934; Blumer 1967). But it is Goffman’s (1959) analyses that perhaps most clearly capture the significance that this idea has for understanding bullshitting as a performance. This performance is aimed at impression management — that is, as a means, as research on deception suggests (Mitchell 1996; Kagle 1998), by which to control the perceptions that others have of oneself or even of themselves and, by extension, to control “reality.”

Central to Goffman’s (1959) view of impression management is the notion that who we are involves constant performance:

A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well-articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is none the less something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized. (75)

In essence, if we are to “be” we must constantly perform not only those positions we currently occupy but those to which we aspire.[4] The failure to do so is to risk losing one’s “self,” or losing control of one’s “self,” and, ultimately the possibility, borne of a fundamental ontological insecurity, of psychosis (Laing 1960:42). At the less extreme end of the continuum, however, are the daily social acts of presenting our “selves,” with all the numerous opportunities to provide accurate and inaccurate self-accounts (Barnes 1994:19). Mukerji (1978), for example, has observed that “bullshitting is the kind of sociability that hitchhikers engage in most frequently, in part because they are continually meeting strangers and want to appear interesting” (245).

More generally, individuals are presented daily with opportunities to create a “self” that capitalizes on the complexities of social interaction (Eggins and Slade 1997; Malone 1997). They may present, for example, as more competent at some activity than perhaps they “really” are and yet the competence may be plausible, even if improbable. Mukerji’s (1978:249) observations again are to the point:

Hitchhikers take pride in the unpredictability and difficulties of their travels much as loggers, fishermen, and other workers take pride in work with similar characteristics. They do this by translating problems into challenges and boredom into opportunity — by creating a non-ordinary reality in their stories. People who bullshit create heroic images of themselves; they can only do this by consenting to a reality in which activities become more worthwhile as they become more frustrating or challenging.

In a similar vein, Frankfurt (1986:99) has emphasized that “the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more extensive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” Perhaps the most glaring example of this type of bullshitting involves politicians, who are confronted daily with opportunities to display both an understanding of and an authoritative opinion about complex social issues. Indeed, this situation contributes to public mistrust of politicians’ statements (Barnes 1994).

The opportunities for controlling the impressions others have of certain people are ubiquitous in everyday life. Extending the focus on politicians, it is clear, especially during elections, that a wide variety of bullshitting techniques (lying, distortion, misrepresentation, etc.) are employed to create negative impressions of other candidates or groups, or, conversely, to create the impression that certain politicians or groups support the candidate more than they really do. As such, bullshitting, as a tool for impression management, can yield significant political dividends (see below).

This discussion of impression management raises the question of how individuals use bullshitting to present themselves or behaviors as “moral.” Goffman’s (1959) remarks are again to the point:

In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and so pervasive, the individuals who are performers dwell more than we might think in a moral world. But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing these standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realized. Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern with them. As performers we are merchants of morality. (251; emphasis in original)

In short, bullshitting, as with the creation and maintenance of secrets in everyday life (Simmel 1950; Gunthner and Luckmann 1998), can serve as a particular strategy for appearing more “moral” than perhaps we really are.

Gaining Social, Political, or Economic Leverage

Bullshitting can provide a means by which to influence or control perceptions of reality and in turn with a means to achieve specific social, political, and economic goals. Viewed in this manner, bullshitting might also be conceptualized as a social control attempt (Gibbs 1986). In this instance, it is an act aimed at achieving specific goals through the manipulation of reality.[5] The idea is reflected in the so-called Thomas theorem — that is, the view that if situations are defined as real they have real consequences (Thomas 1966:301). Politicians, for example, frequently vie with one another, through manipulation of the media and public relations (“spin”), to take credit for policies for which in reality they had little or no responsibility. Barnes (1994) noted that “those who spend their lives in [politics] become skilled at lying; it is a requirement for occupational success” (30). He might more aptly have stated that to succeed politicians rather must become skilled at bullshitting as a general type of communicative device (Alexander and Sherwin 1994).

Bullshitting affords greater flexibility in how reality is defined and in determining one’s responsibility in various social roles. It allows, for example, one to deceive rather than to lie. And why lie, and risk criminal investigation, when one can simply evade the truth or create the impression — without being per se untruthful — that one has done something that really one has not? Many who followed the investigation of President Clinton may observe, for instance, that it arguably was less the U.S. President’s putative evasiveness or misleading testimony (i.e., “bullshit”) that led to his almost-impeachment, but rather the charges of perjury (lying) leveled against him (Posner 1999).

In informal social contexts, the advantage of bullshitting, as constituted through acts other than lying or narrowly focused deception, is also evident. Research shows, for example, that in social situations there is a potentially greater level of accountability associated with being untruthful rather than evasive (Adler 1997). Following the logic outlined above for legal proceedings, in informal social contexts why risk being caught in a lie or being deceitful, and the attendant sanctions that follow, when one can simply create a different frame of reference that diverts attention to other topics and contexts (Goffman 1974)?

From an economic standpoint, it has been observed that lying and deception constitute primary strategies through which business and advertising transpire (Barnes 1994). Thus, it would be surprising if other forms of bullshitting, too, were not a primary means through which financial gains were achieved or business operations organized. In the latter instance, the use of bullshitting need not necessarily be rational or contribute to desired outcomes, but rather can be an institutionalized practice with little utility but to maintain the life of an organization. One need only recall Weber’s (1978) accounts of bureaucracy to imagine, for example, the encrustation of various policies and procedures that no longer serve any purpose save to employ the individuals who ensure that the policies and procedures are followed.

Similarly, bullshitting can serve as a form of institutional or political discourse whose “latent” function (Merton 1968) is to obscure or maintain social structural inequality (Barnes 1994:30). In the Academy-Award winning movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), we are shown, for example, how institutional rules are used to subjugate and even abuse the mental hospital residents, who in turn complain bitterly of the “bullshit” with which they are confronted daily. In addition, for politicians, bullshitting, what some would term “ritual deception” (Beahrs 1996) that everyone knows to be such, may assist in coalition-building through creation of perceived shared interests among groups with conflicting agendas (Kagle 1998).

Defining and Creating “Reality”

Long ago, Durkheim (1982:98-104) argued that crime serves to maintain knowledge and agreement about collective sentiments/values and, furthermore, that it can shape their evolution, in part because they exist in a “state of plasticity” (102). Borrowing Durkheim’s (1982) language, it can be argued that bullshitting and bullshitters, like crime and criminals, play “a normal role in social life” (102). The bullshitter, for example, who is caught and sanctioned may serve to highlight specific values and norms deemed appropriate in particular contexts. Moreover, the bullshitter may illustrate how tenuous “reality” is in specific contexts and thereby draw attention to the potential need to buttress the perceived fixity of “reality” in these contexts.

The bullshitter thus engages in a type of breach experiment (Garfinkel 1967:58), pushing and pulling at the boundaries of what is viewed as real or important, and in so doing serves to illuminate the frequently unidentified aspects of social life that govern interaction. As Garfinkel (1967:37), extending Schutz’s (1962) work on the “attitudes of daily life,” noted: “For [the] background expectancies [attitudes of daily life] to come into view one must either be a stranger to the ‘life as usual’ character of everyday scenes, or become estranged from them.” Similarly, bullshitting might be seen as an ethnomethodological attempt to highlight and shape the “background expectancies” of social interaction.

One of the more amusing literary examples of this use of bullshitting can be found in John Kennedy Toole’s (1980) Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, constantly rails against what he perceives to be senseless and superficial patterns and trends in society. Frequently, he creates elaborate descriptions, to anyone who will listen, of possible but generally not plausible accounts of social life. In one scene, for instance, he takes a job as a hot dog vendor, proceeds to eat all of the hot dogs, and then fabricates a story to his supervisor about “a member of the vast teen-age underground [who] besieged me on Carondelet Street” (175) and who then consumed all of the hot dogs. The supervisor responds, “You’re full of bullshit,” to which Ignatius retorts:

I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon society. The youth, crazed by suggestive television programs and lascivious periodicals had apparently been consorting with some rather conventional adolescent females who refused to participate in his imaginative sexual program. His unfulfilled sexual desires therefore sought sublimation in food. I, unfortunately, was the victim of all of this. (176)

More than avoiding responsibility for the missing hot dogs, Ignatius here is intent on testing the boundaries of reality, even referencing the idea that his account is “sociologically valid.” He highlights how tenuous our understanding of reality can be and how easily, in the hands of one skilled in the art of reality production, it can be shaped and modified. Although the example is intended to be humorous, it should suggest that bullshitting can serve to challenge our notions of what is “real” and to highlight the background expectancies that guide and create these notions.

Conclusion

This paper has examined the diverse functions and interpersonal and social contexts of bullshitting and, in so doing, suggested the ubiquity of bullshitting as a social phenomenon. Harking to Merton’s (1973:59) observation that investigation of the trivial may lead to important insights, the present investigation sought to demonstrate that bullshitting represents a neglected area of inquiry that is amenable to study and that can illuminate fundamental aspects of social life. No attempt was made to demonstrate systematically and empirically all contexts in which bullshitting exists, that it is highly prevalent in variously specified social contexts, or whether or to what extent it actually serves the functions discussed here. Such research of course needs to be conducted. But to conduct research, it is no small advantage to know what questions need to be asked. Thus, given the dearth of studies in this area, the goal was to draw on related investigations, experiences from everyday life, and classical and contemporary sociological theory to present a coherent conceptual framework for future research (Goffman 1959:xii; Barnes 1994:165).

The main argument was that bullshitting serves any of a wide range of functions, including but not limited to: socialization; exploration of the “self”; expression of feelings; “passing time”; resolution of personal or interpersonal strain; impression management; gaining of social, political, or economic advantage; and the definition and creation of “reality.” It also was argued that bullshitting can be constituted through a wide range of actions (lying, deceiving, teasing, telling tall tales, etc.) but that it is, in the final analysis, determined interactively. This argument in turn suggests that there may be considerable theoretical gain to be had by linking the diverse literatures on lying, deceiving, teasing, as well as conversation analysis (e.g., Eggins and Slade 1997; Malone 1997; Heritage 1999).

An obvious next step is to conduct investigations that examine whether and how the functions identified here are operative; how they are delimited by particular social contexts; how people learn to engage in, recognize, and create bullshitting, regardless of the specific communicative vehicle; and how bullshitting is constituted in specific social contexts. Bullshitting is an interactional, co-constructed enterprise. The question, then, arises: How exactly do individuals recognize and perform the act of bullshitting in diverse social circumstances? That is, how do interactants (or observers) know when particular acts of communication cross the line from regular, “straight” conversation to bullshitting, and how do they inhibit or facilitate this transition?

The study of bullshitting, while of interest in its own right, is also of interest because it can contribute to theoretical development generally. In this regard, perhaps the most conspicuous issue to arise from the present study is the need for considerably more research on identifying the conditions under which, and the ways in which, the self, other, and reality can be manipulated and created (Goffman 1974; Malone 1997). The relative inattention to this issue is ironic in that while social theory has its origins in attempts to identify “reality” vis-à-vis “social facts” that themselves require explanation (Durkheim 1982), the validity of many of these “facts” — how they are created, sustained, and manipulated — remains largely unexamined (see, however, Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1974; Malone 1997; Eggins and Slade 1997; Heritage 1999). It is time to rectify this situation by more systematically addressing the functions and contexts of bullshitting, and, accordingly, the capacity of social theories to account for self and reality construction in everyday life.

Notes

[1]”Chickenshit: small talk, exchange of clichés. Bullshit: rationalization, explanatoriness, talk for talk’s sake. Elephantshit: high level discussion on religion, Gestalt therapy, existential philosophy, etc.” (Perls 1969:210).

[2]Research and philosophizing on lying and deception cover a wide range of issues of generally indirect relevance to the present study. These include such issues as the developmental progression among children of the ability to lie in various settings (Faust, Hart, and Guilmette 1988; Chandler, Fritz, and Hala 1989; Ruffman, Olson, Ash, and Keenan 1993; Keating and Heltman 1994; Chandler and Afifi 1996), detection, behavioral correlates, and uses of deception under different conditions (DePaulo and DePaulo 1989; Neuliep and Mattson 1990; Zimmerman 1992; McKelvey 1994; Stiff, Corman, Krizek, and Snider 1994; Millar and Millar 1995; Thomas, Booth-Butterfield, and Booth-Butterfield 1995; Mitchell 1996; Battista 1997; Feeley and deTurck 1998; Heinrich and Borkenau 1998; Rowatt, Cunningham, and Druen 1998; Gordon and Miller 2000), interpersonal deception as a function of relational familiarity (Burgoon, Buller, Dillman, and Walther 1995), and the philosophical significance and meaning of lying to oneself or to the public (Catalano 1990; Englehart and Evans 1994; Wilkes 1994; Jones 1998).

[3]Simmel’s (1950:334) insights into the nature of secrecy also are relevant in this context:

The sociological significance of the secret . . . has its mode of realization . . . in the individual’s capacity or inclination to keep it to himself. . . . Out of the counterplay of these two interests, in concealing and revealing, spring nuances and fates of human interaction that permeate it in its entirety.

[4]Goffman’s (1959:75) discussion involves reference to the following apt characterization from Sartre (1956), capturing how it is that individuals are caught in a series of, as it were, pre-established scripts that are more or less successfully fulfilled or manipulated:

Let us consider the waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the café plays with his condition to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesman. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. . . . There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition. (P. 59; emphasis in original)

[5]In a related vein, Simmel (1950:314) has stated of lying: “The lie which maintains itself, which is not seen through, is undoubtedly a means of asserting intellectual superiority and of using it to control and suppress the less intelligent.”

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Author: Daniel P. Mears is a Research Associate with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He conducts evaluation research on a range of crime and justice programs and policies. In his spare time, he ponders subjects that might charitably be viewed as significant but more aptly as mundane. Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Bruce Kruger, Matthew Carlson, Eliza Evans, Lee Smithey, and Emily Leventhal for their encouragement to discern both the whimsy and deeper significance of everyday life. John Kennedy Toole’s work provided ongoing inspiration. The author wrote this article while a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. All views expressed herein are his and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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