The legal courtroom is a place of high drama. This is something we learn from media representations in popular culture as well as North American empirical studies. In the European context, however, criminal justice may look somewhat different, and Nordic cultures in particular provide an interesting alternative to research. Lisa Flower’s ethnography of Swedish law courts, based on fieldwork observations of 50 criminal trials and interviews with 18 defence lawyers, offers a fascinating glimpse into a social world with different norms and values. Swedish culture is concerned with moderation (lagom), understatement, politeness and order; demonstrative drama is discouraged and identity performances are muted. Flower remembers writing in an early field note how bored and frustrated she felt because seemingly, ‘nothing is happening!’ (p. 7). Sweden, therefore, presents a puzzling and curious case. How and why is the emotional drama of criminal trials enacted in such a calm and gentle way, and what social mechanics operate in this ‘subtle theatre of the awfully modest?’ (p. 27).
The theoretical framework is ambitious, bringing together ideas from symbolic interactionism, Goffman’s dramaturgy and the sociology of emotions to explore the ways in which legal professionals manage impressions and define situations in this particular context. Drawing on Reddy (2001), Flower argues that the courtroom exhibits a local ‘emotional regime’, comprised of three constitutive social orders: the interactional, ceremonial and emotional. These ‘supportive pillars’ (p. 38) shape the identity work and talk performed by defence lawyers in their routine professional practice. Flower also draws on my own sociology of nothing (Scott, 2019) to understand how actors underplay their identity performances and minimise their scenes, using indirect speech, muted gestures and neutral, unrevealing demeanours. They perform what I call ‘non-emotion work’ by consciously choosing not to react and strategically do nothing.
Flower argues that the show of criminal justice is interactively accomplished by a Goffmanian team of actors; each player contributes a distinct role performance that embodies a key guiding principle. For the defence lawyer, this is loyalty, conceptualised by Goffman (1959) as a social bond of reciprocal dependence. Defence lawyers interpret, enact and discursively create the meaning of loyalty through their encounters with various team-mates: not only the defendant (their client), but also the judge, the prosecution and the wider legal system. The majority of the book is then devoted to examining how this social process unfolds through the observable events in the courtroom, as well as how it was narrated in the interview accounts. Three substantive chapters explore the dramaturgical techniques of facework, emotion work and teamwork.
Defence lawyers use defensive, protective and collective facework to support their own self-presentation, that of others and of the performance team as a whole. Flower describes how they attend to the ‘face threats’ imposed both externally (by rival teams) and internally (by their own team-mates). For example, the prosecution may ask a ‘fatal question’ that leaves the lawyer floundering, or a defendant may discredit their own testimony by revealing ‘destructive information’ (Goffman, 1963). Such mistakes threaten not only to embarrass individual actors, but also to disrupt and undermine the whole show. Flower invites us to see what happens when the mask slips: how deviant exceptions to normal proceedings are anticipated, managed and usually repaired. A key concept she introduces is ‘dramatic reductions’, an inversion of Goffman’s ‘dramatic productions’. These are symbolic, communicative gestures that turn down the volume of emotive expressions, imply non-observance and deflect attention elsewhere. Flower observed lawyers pretending not to react to their clients’ blunders, feigning nonchalance by doodling, unwrapping sweets and checking their mobile phones. They honed the performance of ‘Stoneface’, a facial expression of indifference and unemotional neutrality. Outside the courtroom, interviewees used ‘loyalty talk’ to emphasise their peaceful commitment to upholding the interaction order (Goffman, 1983). This involved distinguishing themselves from other, more adversarial lawyers through the device of associational distancing (Snow and Anderson, 1987).
In the chapter on emotion work, Flower describes how defence lawyers observe the feeling and display rules (Hochschild, 1983) that constitute the courtroom’s emotional regime. The active production of situationally appropriate emotions and – more commonly in the Swedish context – suppression of inappropriate ones, helps to uphold the ceremonial order on which interactional justice is based. Lawyers explained that they switched off and bracketed out private feelings in response to dramatic moments in court: for example, suppressing anger and disgust when viewing gruesome photographic evidence from crime scenes. They also attempted to conceal emotions of surprise, irritation and disappointment that arose when clients made a blunder and they risked losing the case. It was refreshing to read about these relatively mundane states of feeling that are often overlooked within the sociology of emotions. Flower convincingly argues that milder, soft and subtle members of the cultural feeling palette play an important role in performing the meanings of justice.
The final chapter uses Goffman’s (1959) concept of teamwork to show how defence lawyers cooperate with others, understand their relative positions and enact a set of mutually supportive responsibilities. The main performance team is the lawyer and defendant, who must present a united front and adhere to their agreed party line. Nevertheless, this implicates other legal professionals and players who share an interest in upholding the three orders of the scene. As an audience of witnesses, they informally sanction deviations with gestural ‘rule reminders’, such as frowning and head-shaking. Flower documents how teamwork occurs through routine encounters that take place in both of Goffman’s theatrical regions. Frontstage in the courtroom, lawyers cover up clients’ mistakes, communicate in non-verbal signals and use coded language to avoid explicitly acknowledging destructive facts. Backstage in private offices and secluded waiting areas, lawyers coach, plan and rehearse with their defendants, using ‘staging talk’ to ensure that they will ‘get their story straight’.
Interactional Justice earns its place within the ethnographic canon by offering a rich and vivid insight into a unique social world. It is a fascinating portrait and an engaging discussion, which draws us into wanting to learn more about the field. Flower writes in a clear and accessible, lucid manner, shining interpretive lights onto complex and ambiguous social processes. This text will hold particular appeal to scholars with an interest in micro-sociological theory and the sociology of emotions. Students will also enjoy the empirical material, making it a welcome addition to taught courses on qualitative research methods. I highly recommend this book to every curious reader.
Scott, S. (2019) The Social Life of Nothing: Silence, Invisibility and Emptiness in Tales of Lost Experience, London: Routledge.
Snow, D.A. and Anderson, L. (1987) Identity work among the homeless: the verbal construction and avowal of personal identities, American Journal of Sociology, 92(6): 1336–71. doi: 10.1086/228668