Anders Persson

Anders Persson

, Professor (educational sciences), Dr. (sociology), Professor (sociology), Professor emeritus

Personal profile


My primary research areas are power-exercising in school and social interaction respectively. In 1991 I defended a doctoral thesis in sociology wherein the internal dynamics of power-exercising in school and wage labor where analyzed. By dynamics I refer to a play of forces – even a game – where actors inside a place are kept together and act on each other. More precisely: they interact, get into tensions and conflict or just exist side by side indifferently. The actors are involved in interactions that can result in both intended and unintended consequences.

Compulsory schooling provides an unusually clear illustration of the dynamics of power-exercising. Through education acts, curricula and other politically decided documents, a power is exercised that aims at getting young people to be in school (but not elsewhere), to learn some things (but not others) and to internalize a set of fundamental values or, in other words, certain values and points of view (but not others).

Statistically, schools are most successful when it comes to the being in school. According to a survey made by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate in 2015, a total of 262 pupils out of roughly one million (0,3 per thousand) were invalidly absent during a period that amount to a period between one semester and a full school year. As far as learning is concerned schools are not as successful. Roughly 15 % of the pupils in the nine-year compulsory school have, in their ninth year not learned what the political decision makers has stated that every pupil should have learned. To what extent schools succeed in transmitting fundamental values to the pupils, is harder to capture in figures.

Pupils, parents, teachers, headmasters, school politicians may have differing school experiences. But since all have attended school, individual school experiences are seldom completely unique. When someone in the public debate claims that there should be “order in the classroom” or “early grading” or ”more knowledge in school” – all examples from Swedish school debates – these claims call upon our school experiences and in interaction with others comparisons are made and temporary definitions of school are crystallized. The result can be varying ways of framing, understanding and doing school. While some experienced school as learning that was rewarded with high grades, others experience school the other way around. Others experienced school as a place where they met their friends, while others met their bullies there. Some, always had to navigate to be able to combine their own extreme political views with the fundamental values of the school, while others used the same values when challenging their parent´s religious fundamentalism. Others experienced the school primarily as a prison, while others felt safe and secure thanks to constantly repeated routines. The manifold and contradictory nature of the school – illustrated by the former mentioned tensions between the different ”assignments” of the school – become everyday individual and social conceptions of how school is and ought to be.

I have used this understanding of school – a kind of school sociology – in different studies, for example of school leadership in different school cultures, work environments in school, teacher´s views of change and, recently, headmaster´s varied assignments containing both steering, “bossing” and leadership.

When it comes to my research on social interaction I have, among other things, studied the phenomenon “social competence,” which I define as the individual ability to handle relations between her-/himself, the others and society. This competence has been emphasized so strongly since the mid-1990s in job ads, educations, EU key competences and in everyday life that “social competence” seems to have become the means to talk about, assess and correct actual or alleged individual shortcomings in social interaction. This became unusually evident in a participant observation that I conducted at the end of the 1990s focusing mobile phone talking in public places. These places for a while became characterized by intimacy among strangers and the rules of etiquette soon included “mobile etiquette”. Another study focused on front and backstage in social media and a similar tendency appeared: ingrained ways of regulating the relation between frontstage – where individuals present themselves in reasonably accordance with prevalent norms for social interaction – and backstage – where individuals, to a lesser degree, need to manage others’ impressions of themselves - are being exposed to a change pressure. In social media spaces are created and ruled by norms that do not completely agree with norms that regulate interaction face-to-face. A third study shows that the chess game – with rules and etiquette that has been stable for hundreds of years – may radically change when played persona to persona on the Internet. The game chess is the same, but the gaming of chess may change when it comes to, among other things, the social interaction between the players which, in some game situations, may be less respectful on the Internet than face-to-face.

My studies of social interaction and later studies of schooling and education, are, to a great degree, inspired by the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982). My Swedish book "Ritualisering och sårbarhet"/”Ritualization and Vulnerability” (2012) is a thorough account of both Goffman himself and his sociological research, which I´m not going to repeat here but rather reproduce some concluding remarks from my book (pp. 376 and 378):

“Have you ever been sober among drunken people? Then you know that it can be like watching an absurd theater. The drunken ones think that, at least to a certain level of intoxication, they are their usual selves, but, as the sober bystander, you will notice the difference. A lot of things are revealed that wouldn’t have been exposed in a sober condition: confidences, assurances of friendship, nastiness, truths, hugs and a little more. As a party participant it is not always pleasant to be sober among drunken people – as a sociologist, however, it can be rewarding because you are given an opportunity to observe a social interaction performed in a situation where the boundary between front- and backstage has been blurred and the individuals impression management hard to predict.

What is the meaning of sober? Except being unaffected by alcohol there are (at least in Swedish) several other meanings: restrained, clear-headed, sensible, uninfluenced, cool, objective, reflexive and dispassionate. When reading Erving Goffman´s colleagues, acquaintances and friends descriptions of him interacting socially one get the feeling that he observed ongoing interactions precisely as a sober among drunken people. His sociological studies have this kind of character too. Goffman was soberly empirical, analytic, cynical and a bit melancholically humoristic – a little sociologically noir. One might say that he was cool, /…/

The word intoxicated has, in Swedish, a lot of synonyms but not so many other meanings except enchanted and enthusiastic. If one can believe the stories of Goffman he didn´t seem to be enchanted by social interaction, didn´t open up and seemed seldom absorbed to the extent that he flooded out and made a fool out of himself or forgot to uphold the boundaries between front- and backstage. He probably noticed what others didn´t because he did not become enchanted and enthusiastic by social interaction. In this regard he seemed to have been in accordance with the individual he presented in his studies: always “on”, even in sexual intercourse which Goffman assumed was framed by notions of “what is insufficient and what is too much”. And in the essay “Fun in games” his fascination over the rules of irrelevance in games is unmistakable. These are rules that enable concentration on the game and makes everything else irrelevant and Goffman sees them as “a great tribute to the social organization of human propensities”. As Goffman seldom became absorbed in social interaction he could sometimes devote himself to social disruptions, which many of his acquaintances still talk about. These disruptions was directed towards the vulnerable interaction order but was also a prerequisite for penetrating and exposing observation of that order.”


Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 4 - Quality Education

UKÄ subject classification

  • Social Sciences
  • Humanities

Free keywords

  • sociology
  • educational sciences
  • social interaction
  • Erving Goffman
  • school and power
  • exercise of power
  • compulsory school attendance
  • education
  • knowledge
  • school leadership
  • social competence, social skills
  • mobile telephone calls
  • social media


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