|Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi,. After Pomp and Circumstance: High School Reunion as an Autobiographical Occasion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 203 pp., $US 39.00 cloth, $US14.00 paper.
What have you done with your life since high school? According to Israeli sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, this is a deceptively innocent question. When asked at high school reunions, it evokes emotions ranging from delight to despair, and often causes participants to rethink their lives as they try to answer it. Inspired by the interactionist traditions of Charles H. Cooley and Erving Goffman, Vinitzky-Seroussi digs deeply into reunions and their sociological meanings. Based on her participant observations at five reunions of classes of 1965, 1970, and 1980 from three east coast American high schools, Vinitzsky-Seroussi's thoughtful book builds through eight chapters to an understanding of reunions as fascinating micro-worlds where alumni returnees share hope, celebration, risk, affirmation, rejection, and embarrassment as their pasts clash with the present. Above all, we learn much about the symbolic and subjective machinery behind the making and molding of personal identity, and how the need for a sense of continuity in life remains strong despite a domineering consumer culture that glorifies endless change.
Vinitzsky-Seroussi elaborates four themes (sometimes, in my view, needlessly reiterated) that characterize reunions as sociological events. First, reunions require specific structural and material resources. For example, they are rarely held at the high schools, but rather at fancier locales such as banquet halls. Most are organized by committees of alumni who arrange formal presentations by past class presidents and displays of reunion photos and yearbooks.
Second, reunions create community. The past is not simply remembered or celebrated, but constituted in the present by way of people telling their personal accounts to a variety of audiences, the production of a collective sense of the class (even though reunions are only attended by part of the actual class), and a variety of crucial roles enacted by returnees, former friends, spouses (as props), close friends (as escorts) and class celebrities and stars. The resulting reunion community is partial, fragile, temporary and, to its members, invented in front of their own eyes (p. 4).
Third, reunions are sites for the informal exercise of social control. As returnees share personal stories they also competitively judge each other's lives according to conventional social and emotional standards of success. Indeed, non-returnees can be considered failures because their absence is taken to signal lack of success. Vinitzsky-Seroussi reminds us that both past high school and present adult value systems are resources for the exercise of social control. However, the convergence of the adult value system and the high school hierarchy provides the opportunity to challenge both systems of social control (p. 54).
Fourth, although reunions only last about five hours and are tightly ritualized, they can have lasting emotional consequences for returnees. For example, some fear not being recognized and hence not being affirmed as part of the class. Others are compelled to stir up long-settled memories when presented with new and possibly upsetting information. And for all participants, the reunion becomes a social mirror reflecting their struggle to maintain a sense of personal coherence and continuity over the lifecourse.
Reading After Pomp and Circumstance will edify students and practitioners of sociology as to how identities and intimacies become situated in the micro-contexts of high school reunions. But I imagine that readers would also be interested in understanding why professional and wealthy returnees are admired, and how the semiotics of success expensive clothes, diamond rings, and accompaniment by an attractive spouse say something about the role of school itself in the reproduction of status hierarchies. Readers may also wish to know how the reunion cohorts from 1965, 1970, and 1980 differ, and what their differences tell us about changing social values, domestic roles, work and occupations, and the construction of emotional success. Does the class of 1980 still value motherhood in the same way as the class of 1965? Does the predominantly white racial composition of classes matter differently to members of the classes of 1965 and 1970?
The absence of these kinds of questions points to the text's limited attention to the wider cultural and historical matrix in which reunions are situated, where American structural values based on race, class, gender and age emerge in the dramaturgical games played out in reunion banquet halls and surface in the dispositions of the different cohorts. This relative neglect of macro-contexts is also a consequence of Vinitzky-Seroussi confining her study to an interactionist framework, thus excluding other complementary theoretical domains such as those pioneered by Pierre Bourdieu on the lived worlds of social inequality, or the work on lifecourse narratives by gerontologists such as Jay Gubrium, or feminist studies of identity and gender, or even postmodern writings on subjectivity which Vinitzky-Seroussi so readily dismisses. These intellectual resources could have been helpful in forging a stronger, more timely micro-macro interface in After Pomp and Circumstance, thus fulfilling the book's promise to distill from the microcosm of the high school reunion the disjunctures between the personal and the social that today beset the making of collective identities.
Department of Sociology