The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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Voices off stage

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 23 December 2021, 07:30 Last update: about 3 years ago

In a contemporary classic textbook published twenty years ago, Canadian Sociologist David J. Cheal writes about the sociology of family life, impressively combining theoretical concepts and empirical evidence on our lived experiences as family members.

One concept which I find particularly useful, is the one he dubs ‘Voices Off-Stage’. When Cheal uses this term, the examples he gives includes fathers who no longer live with the mothers of their children and who do not have custody of the latter, consequently suffering considerable emotional stress. Another example he gives is of wives of military personnel who often experience loneliness in view of their husbands’ particular careers.


To the student of sociology, the ‘Voices Off-Stage’ terminology is reminiscent of the dramaturgical approach of Ervin Goffman, but in this article, I wish to show how we can use it to help understand our everyday lives.

To start off with Cheal’s own examples, only a few days ago, a number of fathers expressed their disgruntlement of being alienated from their children in a public demonstration in Valletta, which, for some reason or another, was not given the same press coverage as other issues which seem to be more equal than others. Indeed, it is heart-breaking to see how many parents and children do not have fair access to each other, and are often trapped in lengthy court processes, with all the intricacies and detours which are sometimes resorted to, whilst years pass by.

In this day and age of Covid, we can also refer to the increasing number of people suffering from mental illness, experiencing loneliness and/or living through ‘predictable unpredictability’, as the Economist magazine dubbed the current context we are experiencing. These may range from workers in precarious situations, social media junkies who present a totally different picture of themselves online, elderly people who are terrified of the consequences of catching Covid, and family members who are finding it increasingly difficult to physically meet their loved ones who live overseas.

We can also refer to migrants who are less connected to communities, which in turn can be self-inflicted and/or the result of exclusionary policies and practices. We can also refer to the victims of abuse, the poor and the sick, particularly when they are disconnected from society and have little means to improve their situation.

Indeed, various voices off stage can be identified through a lack of networks: whether political, social, economic, communitarian, mediational and so forth.

In particular, I wish to emphasize that in a day and age of post-truth and social media sensationalism, another voice off stage may be that person who is subjected to ‘trial by media’, without having the necessary media connections, capital or networks to defend their particular situation. In Malta, we also see examples of this when ‘a la carte’ crusaders act as judge and jury on matters which are under court deliberation, audit, or administrative investigation. This form of trial by media is not only unfair to its victims, but also puts undue pressure on judges, assessors, and other possible arbiters.

As we are experiencing the festive season, I appeal to readers of this article to consider the various voices off stage in society. For all we know, a voice off stage may be our neighbour, relative, friend or colleague.

I wish you all a Happy Christmas and New Year, and I thank the Malta Independent for giving me the opportunity to write every fortnight.


Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

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