OAC Online Seminar: A cultural analysis of the Lance Armstrong "reality show"

The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) is continuing its online seminar series with its latest installment (#17), a paper by Lee Drummond that takes on the Lance Armstrong phenomena (or debacle), using it as a lens for understanding American society.   The seminar is well underway, and will be open for comments and questions until September 21.  Here’s a bit from Drummond’s abstract:

Victor Turner and others (including Arnold Van Gennep, Mary Douglas, Erving Goffman, Harold Garfinkel) have suggested that the analyst can best get to know a particular society / culture by focusing his attention on events that challenge or disrupt the normal arrangement and flow of social life. Rather than describe in meticulous detail the intricate way in which social things fit together (in tidy four-ply Parsonian boxes), one takes a close, dispassionate look at how things fall apart, at how, sometimes just for a moment, sometimes for an extended period, sometimes, in the case of revolution, forever, the fabric of society is torn and thereby reveals the separate threads of its composition. I think this approach is particularly well-suited to the cultural analysis of contemporary American society, for its 24/7 cable news networks have the nearly magical power to single out an isolated event and magnify it instantly to national or even global proportions.

It is this orientation, a predisposition to attend to the edges or boundaries of social phenomena, that fired my interest in the spectacular event of Lance Armstrong’s confession on a January 2012 airing of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Armstrong admitted the truth of long-standing allegations that he had used “performance enhancing drugs” during multiple Tour de France races. That confession, made before the millions who watch Oprah, triggered an avalanche of commentary, almost all of which was in the vein of hand-wringing, soul-searching despair and outrage: We, the great American public, had been lied to, deceived by a son of the soil whom we had elevated to the status of hero. A small army of lawyers and government agents rushed in to redress the grievous wrong with lawsuits, penalties, revocation of awards. Surveiller et punir; monitor and punish.

My essay argues that the public outcry should be regarded as a lens through which the dispassionate observer may identify and explore the basic values of American society that underlie the outpouring of righteous indignation. In the course of that cultural analysis, those values are found to be shot full of contradiction and ambivalence. Seen in this light the Lance Armstrong affair exposes deep, and largely irreparable fault lines in American society. Particular loci of those fault lines are spectator sports and the recent phenomenon of reality television.

Drummond’s paper is here.  So head over to the OAC, read the paper, and jump on in to the discussion.  You have 8 more days to get in on the action.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.