How Our Aligning Behavior Shapes Everyday Life

Aligning and realigning actions either affirm or change the definition of the situation.

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Sociologists recognize that people do a lot of unseen work to make sure that our interactions with others go as we wish them to. Much of that work is about agreeing to or challenging what sociologists call "the definition of the situation." Aligning action is any behavior that indicates to others the acceptance of a particular definition of the situation, while a realigning action is an attempt to change the definition of the situation.

For example, when the house lights dim in a theater, the audience typically stops talking and turns their attention to the stage. This indicates their acceptance and support for the situation and expectations that go with it and constitutes an aligning action.

Conversely, an employer who makes sexual advances to an employee is trying to change the definition of the situation from one of work to one of sexual intimacy — an attempt that may or may not be met with an aligning action.

The Theory Behind Aligning and Realigning Actions

Aligning and realigning actions are part of sociologist Erving Goffman's dramaturgical perspective in sociology. This is a theory for framing and analyzing social interaction that uses the metaphor of the stage and a theater performance to tease out the intricacies of the many social interactions that comprise everyday life.

Central to the dramaturgical perspective is a shared understanding of the definition of the situation. The definition of the situation must be shared and collectively understood in order for social interaction to happen. It is based on commonly understood social norms. Without it, we wouldn't know what to expect of each other, what to say to one another, or how to behave.

According to Goffman, an aligning action is something a person does to indicate that they agree with the existing definition of the situation. Simply put, it means going along with what is expected. A realigning action is something that is designed to challenge or change the definition of the situation. It is something that either breaks with norms or seeks to establish new ones.

Examples of Aligning Actions

Aligning actions are important because they tell those around us that we will behave in expected and normal ways. They can be totally commonplace and mundane, like waiting in line to purchase something at a shop, exiting an airplane in an orderly fashion after it has landed, or leaving a classroom at the ringing of the bell and heading to the next one before the next bell sounds.

They can also be seemingly more important or momentous, like when we exit a building after a fire alarm has been activated, or when we wear black, bow our heads, and speak in quiet tones at a funeral.

Whatever form they take, aligning actions say to others that we agree with the norms and expectations of a given situation and that we will act accordingly.

Examples of Realigning Actions

Realigning actions are significant because they tell those around us that we are breaking from norms and that our behavior is likely to be unpredictable. They signal to those we interact with that tense, awkward, or even dangerous situations may follow. Importantly, realigning actions can also signal that the person making them believes that the norms that typically define the given situation are wrong, immoral, or unjust and that another definition of the situation is required to repair this.

For example, when some audience members stood and began singing at a symphony performance in St. Louis in 2014, the performers on stage and most audience members were shocked. This behavior significantly redefined the typical definition of the situation for a classical musical performance in a theater. That they unfurled banners condemning the killing of young Black man Michael Brown and sang a Black spiritual hymn redefined the situation as one of peaceful protest and a call to action to the mostly White audience members to support the fight for justice.

But, realigning actions can be mundane as well and can be as simple as clarifying in conversation when one's words are misunderstood.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "How Our Aligning Behavior Shapes Everyday Life." ThoughtCo, Nov. 7, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, November 7). How Our Aligning Behavior Shapes Everyday Life. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "How Our Aligning Behavior Shapes Everyday Life." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).