Goffman, Erving

views updated May 14 2018

Goffman, Erving 1922-1983


Perhaps the most colorful of American sociologists, Erving Goffman, born in Alberta, Canada, led the turn to the micro-sociology of everyday life. He received a PhD in 1953 from the University of Chicago. Goffmans program began as a development of the work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, which set out to uncover the moral order that makes society possible. Where his predecessors, the British social anthropologists, analyzed religious rituals in tribal societies, Goffman examined the secular rituals of modern social interaction. He believed that such rituals construct the modern self, which he studied by examining the conditions in which it is threatened or blatantly manipulated. Goffman analyzed abnormal situations and institutions, including mental hospitals, confidence games, gambling, spying, and embarrassment in social encounters, to reveal the social conditions upholding conventional realities.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Goffman analyzed social life as a theater, divided into frontstage regions, where official definitions of reality are presented, and backstage regions, where dirty work is hidden and performances are prepared. Privileged occupations and social classes dominate frontstages and present idealized images of selves and institutions, whereas subordinated persons do much of their work backstage and are dominated by frontstage performers.

In Asylums (1961) and Stigma (1963), Goffman analyzed the extreme backstages of society, such as the schizophrenic wards of mental hospitals. Proposing the concept of total institutions for places where all aspects of life are subject to all-encompassing authority that allows no private backstages for the individual, Goffman argued that patients and other inmates engage in resistance through bizarre behavior aimed at supporting a sense of self beyond institutional controls. Thus, the official social processing of persons as deviant tends to promote still further deviance.

Mental illness, in Goffmans view, is not a characteristic of the individual so much as a social enactment, a spiral of violations of the ritual proprieties of everyday life. In Behavior in Public Places (1963) and Relations in Public (1971), Goffman made use of the violations exhibited by mental patients, as well as close ethnographic studies of pedestrian traffic and sociable gatherings, to develop a taxonomy of social situations and their tacit requirements and constraints. Unfocused interaction among persons in each others physical presence involves tacit monitoring and signals indicating a respect for personal space. Focused interaction carries implications of memberships in groups, however small or temporary, and involves devices for entry and exit into the focus of attention, as well as for guarding boundaries of intimacy and warding off offenses that violate respect for the relationship. In On Face-Work (1955) and The Nature of Deference and Demeanor (1956), and in Interaction Ritual (1967), Goffman applied the theories of Durkheim and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown to the polite ceremonies of greetings, departures, and conversation. The everyday situation is constructed out of efforts at ritual enactment, and the modern individual self is elevated into a Durkheimian sacred objectmuch as the tribal gods were situationally recreated by the worship of themthrough deference given in everyday rituals. There is therefore no essential self, but only an ongoing social construction.

Although Goffman did not contextualize his observations historically, his work casts light on the prestigeful pattern of the self in the late twentieth century. Goffman introduced the concept of role-distance (in Encounters, 1961), in which the actor claims superior sophistication by displaying signs of detachment from the demands of the social role. Games and entertainment, which take up an increasing portion of postmodernity, were seen by Goffman as producing a sense of fun and excitement by requiring the actor to display engrossment in an activity bracketed from ordinary mundane reality, while also courting risks that allow a display of coolness.

The ritualism of everyday encounters allows some actors to manipulate situations, engage in face-work contests to subtly embarrass others, or deceive them for criminal, business, or political purposes. These analyses have led some theorists to conclude that Goffman viewed the world as a Machiavellian contest of false reality-constructions. But Goffman argued that the social order is basically accommodative, and that situations involve ritual constraints that must be largely respected if any social reality is to be constructed at all. In Strategic Interaction (1969), he analyzed espionage and other self-interested manipulations of impressions, concluding that such behavior is limited by the inherent difficulties of sustaining complex deception. Social conflict and domination are possible only when placed upon the background of ritual solidarity enacted in most social encounters.

Goffmans later works, Frame Analysis (1974) and Forms of Talk (1981), take up the social construction of multiple social realities. Goffman adopted a moderate position, holding that complex social frames or definitions of reality are built up hierarchically, by bracketing or transforming activity at more basic levels of bodily action, human ecology, and social rituals. Highly laminated social meanings emerge situationally. For example, individuals (1) may make ironic backstage comments (2) during a rehearsal (3) for a commemoration of (4) a historical event, but if a fire breaks out during the rehearsal, all four levels are collapsed to the lowest level of framing, the fire. Language itself is built up through a hierarchy of framing devices. Talk is a move in the interaction ritual through which social membership is negotiated. It is built upon prior enactments and constrained by the framing or stage-work necessary to sustain or transform the current situational definition. Social reality, self, and language are all emergent phenomena, built out of the ritual constraints of the interaction order. Goffman died in 1983 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

SEE ALSO Behavior, Self-Constrained; Ethnography; Role Theory; Self-Concept; Self-Presentation; Stigma; Subject/Self


Burns, Tom. 1992. Erving Goffman. London: Routledge.

Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior. Chicago: Aldine.

Trevino, A. Javier, ed. 2003. Goffmans Legacy. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Winkin, Yves. 1988. Erving Goffman: Les Moments et leurs homes. Paris: Minuit.

Randall Collins

Goffman, Erving

views updated May 17 2018

Goffman, Erving (1922–82) The most influential micro-sociologist during the 1960s and 1970s, Goffman pioneered the dramaturgical perspective for sociology. The influences on his work were many. After completing his first degree at the University of Toronto he pursued graduate work at Chicago during the late 1940s. Here he came under the influence of the symbolic interactionists, especially Everett Hughes and Herbert Blumer; of the neo-Durkheimians, especially Lloyd Warner, Edward Shils, and Edward Banfield; and of social anthropology. In this way, his attention was drawn to the importance of symbol and ritual in everyday life, and to the research techniques of participant observation.

He conducted his first major fieldwork study on one of the Shetland Islands off Scotland (whilst based in Edinburgh). His observations of everyday life in this crofting community subsequently informed his highly influential The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) in which he outlines his dramaturgical framework. In this early work Goffman analyses social life via the metaphor of the theatre, and is concerned with the ways in which people play roles, and manage the impressions they present to each other in different settings. He also reveals his abiding concern with the interaction order—with what people do when they are in the presence of others.

His next two books continued his dramaturgical interest but applied this framework to the field of deviance. Stigma (1964) provides a formal analysis of the features of those who experience stigma, whilst Asylums (1961), reports on fieldwork inside a mental hospital, and traces the moral career of a mental patient. From this case-study, he developed a more general account of the workings of total institutions. Both these studies were also very influential in the development of labelling theory, the latter being particularly relevant to the critique of institutionalization, and perhaps having some impact in encouraging the process of decarceration.

Many of Goffman's other studies, including Encounters (1961), Behaviour in Public Places (1963), and Relations in Public (1971), pursued the themes of dramaturgical analysis, and provided a dictionary of new sociological concepts which facilitate understanding of the minute details of face-to-face interaction—‘mini concepts’ as one commentator has called them. These have influenced a whole generation of scholars interested in studying everyday life. But by the late 1960s Goffman's works also show signs of an increasing interest in phenomenology and sociolinguistics. Thus, in Frame Analysis (1974), there is an attempt to depict the organization of consciousness, and in Forms of Talk (1981) language becomes a major focus.

Although Goffman has had many followers he remains unique in the annals of sociology. He broke almost all the rules of conventional methodology: his sources were unclear; his fieldwork seems minimal, and he was happier with novels and biography, than with scientific observation; his style was not that of the scientific report but of the essayist; and he was frustratingly unsystematic. Likewise, he is very hard to place in terms of social theory. Sometimes he is seen as developing a distinct school of symbolic interactionism, sometimes as a formalist following in the tradition of Georg Simmel, and sometimes even as a functionalist of the micro-order, because of his concern with the functions of rituals (especially talk) in everyday life. He appears to have had a notoriously difficult temperament, which adds to the popular view of him as an intellectual maverick.

He has had more than his share of critics. Apart from the confusions raised above, he has consistently been accused of neglecting the wider macrosociological concerns of social structure, class, and the economy in his writings—a charge he accepted, saying that these were not his concerns, but they were more important than his concerns! Others accused him of conservatism, because of his emphasis on the importance of ritual, order, and (in his later works) gender, for preserving aspects of the status quo. In Alvin Gouldner's Coming Crisis of Western Sociology he is depicted as an apologist for capitalism, overly cynical, and far too concerned with the trivial. However, others found his work too radical, since its constant demonstration of the fragile nature of routine life seemed akin to anarchism or ethnomethodology.

Goffman's prime contribution lies in showing the deeply textured way in which societies are ordered through a multiplicity of human interactions. He developed an array of concepts to help us see this, and through his writings challenged the aridity of a methodologically sophisticated sociology lacking in much substance. He attempted ceaselessly to show that the interaction order was the bridge between the micro and the macro concerns of social life and sociology. His last paper, ‘The Interaction Order’ (American Sociological Review, 1983)
, lays out a summary of his major arguments. It is too soon to judge whether the corpus of his work, which was so widely influential in his lifetime, will become a significant influence on sociology in the future. See Jason Ditton , The View from Goffman (1980