Collective Facework: A Study of Community Relationships in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Kayla Thomas, Yale University

This ethnographic study of identity-based conflict in contemporary Crown Heights, Brooklyn finds that actors may strategically employ primordialist notions and lean into group identities, in part to protect themselves from perceived discrimination. Elaborating on Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, I find that actors perform collective facework to counter incidents that threaten ‘face’ (one’s honor, dignity, and position in the social world). The preservation of face melds into a collective effort when the incident is interpreted as discriminatory in nature, or tied to group identity in a fundamental way. When an incident is particularly difficult to overlook, the participants are likely to give it accredited status as an incident- something that deserves direct official attention. In the two Crown Heights examples that I present, one is granted accredited status, while the other is not. This difference in treatment results in outcomes that further demonstrate that primordialism may be a performance often used to compensate for perceived neglect by larger state or community structures. Thus, what may be lacking in constructivism may be a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which actors strategically perform primordialism.

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 Presented in Session 154. Performance, Resistance, and Segregation: Race, Space, and Place