As a weekend golfer who is also an anthropologist, I've been struck by how well Tiger Woods' recent travails fit into one of my profession's standby concepts: the "social drama."
According to this model, developed by the great Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, every society undergoes crises that unfold in a culturally ritualized form. Turner identified four typical stages: breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration.
Even though Turner's scheme was based on his study of traditional African tribes, it applies surprisingly well to the world of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, including its celebrity scandals.
In the most recent example, Tiger Woods' alleged affairs breached our culture's conventions. Crisis followed: The headline-grabbing SUV crash, followed by allegations of his involvement with a cocktail waitress and other women, and then by another late-night ambulance visit to his home. Both the real life of Tiger Woods the man and the bland corporate profile of Tiger Woods the brand seemed to crumble almost overnight.
Then came the third stage, an attempt at redressive action. A Woods Web site posted a statement apologizing for "transgressions" and the harm done to his family.
And now we approach the potential fourth stage in this anthropological drama: reintegration, or repair of the breech that has opened between the star golfer and his fans.
It's a sequence we've seen before with other sinning superstars, such as Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod's confession of steroid use, followed months later by his strong performance in the postseason, seemed to lead many fans to embrace him with real affection for the first time.
However, as Turner and other anthropologists have noted, social dramas can also end not with the crisis resolved, but with a permanent schism.
It's already clear that Woods will not easily regain his place as one of the planet's most ubiquitous pitchmen and a cultural hero. Nowadays, redressive action seems to work only if one is willing to squirm and suffer a bit in front of the cameras. As much as it goes against the control-freak personality of the man who named his yacht "Privacy," Woods may have to face the ritual humiliation and penitence of a Barbara Walters interview or a teary news conference to refurbish his brand.
For now, Woods occupies the space we anthropologists call liminality - the wilderness between one status and another. He is no longer the role model whose triumphs on the golf course seemed to be matched by his rectitude and familial bliss off of it. But as he remains secluded from the public eye, neither do we know just what he will become, much less whether he will save the marriage apparently endangered by his caddish behavior.
During my research for a forthcoming book about golf's role in American society, I followed Woods around at the U.S. Open several years ago. A crowd of 30,000 kicked up dust while it trailed this man as if he were Gandhi or some other prophet.
Woods radiated charisma, but I also felt something icy and almost selfish about his capacity to shut out the world in pursuit of the low score. And I was struck by the nervousness within the gallery - the fear that Woods might direct his withering displeasure at someone who coughed or moved during his swing. Woods was like Apollo - a brilliant yet frightening god.
I understood then how important Woods' intense focus was to his success, and I hope today that he will continue to thrill us with his athletic genius. But the anthropologist side of me also hopes he will find a way to let us in a bit more.
The great golfer would not be lessened by stopping now and then to slap the hand of a little boy or smile to the crowd. As his aura of otherworldliness diminishes, in other words, perhaps he can find a way to replace it with something that will better integrate him into society. The rest of us mortals know he's human now, and I'm rooting for him - not only on the golf course, but in life.
By Orin Starn
Orin Starn is a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. His blog, "Golf Politics," is at golfpolitics.blogspot.com.
Fayette Front Page
Georgia Front Page