Friday, April 6, 2007

Violence as a Technique of Social Control in "The Office"

“The Office” often portrays violence as a technique of social control. Whether they are physical or verbal, violent actions are frequently used as tools to gain superiority and make others feel subordinate. These tactics are employed especially by Michael Scott, who is the manager of the office. He commonly uses verbal violence against his employees to boost himself up in the hegemonic hierarchy and keep them below him. In one episode in particular he uses physical violence to accomplish this same task.

Verbal violence as a tool for gaining social control is evident in many episodes of “The Office.” This verbal aggression is portrayed mostly through Michael Scott towards both male and female employees. One example can be seen in the Episode, “The Alliance,” in which Michael discusses a party with the party planning committee, which is made up of three of his female employees. During this discussion he refers to them as his “party planning biatches.” In doing this he is using verbal aggression to subordinate them, and therefore gain social control over them, in two different ways. First, he is identifying them as his. He is bringing to light the fact that they are below him in the hegemonic hierarchy, both as females and as his employees, and are therefore his property. Second, he refers to them as “biatches,” something other than human, something below himself. In referring to them as both his property and something less than human, he is making sure they know that they are his subordinates and he has social control over them.

Other examples of verbal violence can be seen on several occasions when Michael uses terms like idiot and stupid to put down Dwight. As his second-in-command, Dwight is closest to Michael on the hegemonic hierarchy of the office. Therefore, to maintain social control over Dwight and make sure that he stays below him, Michael needs to constantly use verbal aggression to put him down. Calling him stupid no doubt makes Dwight feel subordinate, which is exactly what Michael intends to do. He needs to make sure that Dwight knows that he is well below him on the hegemonic hierarchy.

Another technique of social control that is portrayed in “The Office” is physical violence. Physical violence as a technique of social control is especially evident in one particular episode, entitled, “The Fight.” In this episode Dwight brings his karate belt to the office to let all of the employees know that he can physically dominate them. As a result, everyone starts to tease Michael, saying that Dwight is tougher than he is. This causes Michael to feel that he is physically subordinate to Dwight, and consequently his social control over Dwight is challenged. To regain control over Dwight by proving that he can physically dominate him, he challenges Dwight to a fight. They go to Dwight’s dojo to prove once and for all who is tougher. Michael ends up beating Dwight, and Michael returns to the office feeling physically dominant, while Dwight returns feeling subordinate. After having his physical domination challenged, Michael needs to prove that he is stronger than Dwight. In accomplishing this he maintains social control over the office by showing his physical toughness.

Verbal and Physical violence are often used in our society as techniques of gaining and maintaining social control. As Terry A. Kupers states, “Free men do a lot of toughening, too. If it is not the physique it’s the mind, or it’s the reputation or the financial empire, but men are always building something that they believe will keep them off the bottom of the heap, out of range of those who would ‘shaft’ them” (Kupers, 500). This toughening is frequently portrayed on “The Office,” as is evident in the previous examples. To stay on top of the hegemonic hierarchy, Michael uses both verbal and physical violence towards his employees. Through these tactics he is able to maintain social control over the office by making others feel subordinate.


Kupers, Terry A. (1992). “Homophobia in Straight Men” from Revisioning Men’s Lives: Gender, Intimacy, and Power. Guilford Press.


Jessie said...

Spencer- Great job with this analysis; I think that you've done an awesome job weaving together violence, social control, masculinity, and homophobia. The piece you sited from Kupers was quite well suited for this assignment and you've clearly uncovered what may be satirical (on the show) but might also be missed by someone watching this show. Nice work!

Randy said...

I recently was required to write a paper on racial stereotypes in "The Office," and I referenced this article in it.

Michael Scott, the boss at Dunder-Mifflin, is described by the show's creators as a boss that “with unshaken enthusiasm...believes he is the office funnyman, a fountain of business wisdom, and his employees' cool friend. He has no clue that his employees tolerate his inappropriate behavior only because he signs their paychecks. (NBC)” From the beginning of season two, Michael Scott is shown as naïve and immature, trying to relate to his employees through any means necessary, even if it involves resorting to racial stereotypes. In the eighth episode “Performance Review,” Michael is responsible for interviewing members of the office and determining if their performance had been satisfactory for the year. More concerned with a phone message from a love interest, Michael asks the opinions of each employee in place of their review. Stanley, the middle-aged father and only African-American in the office is asked what he thinks of the message. His response is reproduced below:

Stanley: Sometimes women, say more in their pauses, than they say in their words
Michael: Really? (listening intently, hands over his mouth)
Stanley: Oh yes, let's listen to it again, and this time really listen to the pauses.
Michael: God Stanley, that's fricken brilliant. How do you know that? Did you learn that on the streets? (stutters and shakes head) I'm sorry.
Stanley: Oh, it's ok. I did learn it on the streets. On the ghetto in fact.
Michael: (camera zooms in on Michael, who is honestly interested) No kidding.
::Screen changes to a “talking head” of Stanley::
Stanley: It's ALL about my bonus.

Interestingly, the roles in the scene, which are actually part of a trend throughout the entire series: although Michael Scott is indeed the manager of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company, he is rarely in control and often under the influence of any one of his employees. In the “Performance Review” scene for instance, the body language of the two characters speak for themselves: Stanley is comfortably resting on his chair, while Michael leans across his desk, hanging on every one of Stanley's words. Once Michael, who asks the “did you learn that on the street” with genuine interest, realizes he made a rash generalization, he immediately shakes his head and apologizes. Stanley sees this as an opportunity to boost Michael's self-confidence and through this, his own standing, assures Michael that “it's ok” and that he “did learn it on the streets.” adding “on the ghetto in fact” in an overly proper and sarcastic tone, which Michael immediately falls for and replies “no kidding.” Watching the entire scene play out, the joke is obviously not that since Stanley is black, he's from the streets, rather, it's that Michael is foolish enough to believe what Stanley says, not recognize the sarcasm, and in the end, be treated like a child by his employee.

There are some groups who take the opposite view of Michael's role as a boss, stating that the stereotypes used by Michael aren't a result of a naivety but, instead, a tool to stay in control. In a popular blog (entitled “The Office and Popular Culture”) started by a college professor and maintained by his twenty-eight students, the show is analyzed for its messages relating to sexism and racism. A recent post described the use of violence as a form of social control in the workplace, which is not limited to simply physical violence, but verbal as well. The professor goes on to say that Michael “commonly uses verbal violence against his employees to boost himself up in the hegemonic hierarchy and keep them below him” (Spencer), a statement that directly contradicts the idea that Michael is naive, instead suggesting that he consciously uses racism as a tool against his employees.

The side that the professor takes by saying that Michael uses racial stereotypes to “boost himself up in the hegemonic hierarchy” is one that some viewers may lean toward when only taking a cursory glance at the show. Throughout the first twelve episodes of the second season, the audience is constantly reminded of how Michael just wishes to be liked by his employees, going so far as to change important executive decisions simply to please those who work for him. In the fifth episode of the second season entitled “Halloween,” Michael is forced to fire one of his employees and asks a secretary “If you were getting fired, how would you wanna be told so you could still be friends with the person firing you?” Later in the episode, Michael decides to fire Creed, who like Stanley, takes advantage of Michael’s impressionability by convincing his boss that he “doesn’t want to fire” him. I believe that to boost oneself up in a hierarchy, specifically in an office setting, there is a need for a certain amount of maturity and control, characteristics that Michael does not exhibit.

Randy said...

This was only a small part of it