KEY WORDS Blumer, Dramaturgy, Frame Analysis, Impression Management, Mead, Symbolic Interactionism, Total Institutions
Erving Goffman was one of the most important sociologists in the twentieth century. The focus of his work was the organization of observable, everyday behavior, usually but not always among the unacquainted in urban settings. Using a variety of qualitative methods, Goffman developed classifications of the different elements of social interaction. The hallmark of his approach was the assumption that these classifications were heuristic, simplifying tools for sociological analysis that did not capture the complexity of lived experience. In addition to the study of everyday social interaction, Goffman retained a strong interest in the sociology of mental illness. This began in 1950s when he conducted ethnographic research at a large hospital in Washington D.C. He considered the study of everyday interaction and the study of mental illness as two sides of the same coin. The intellectual context of Goffman’s work was both the narrow sociological concerns of the 1950s and 1960s and the broad scholarly concerns of this era. This vantage point allows us to understand his work as an extension and integration of the perspective of symbolic interactionism, the methodological assumptions of Chicago Sociology and the sociology of Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel, both of whom he greatly admired.
However, his work should also be understood as a reaction against three dominant intellectual traditions of this time. The first is the ‘grand theory’ of Talcott Parsons, the second is the psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud and the third is the positivistic, quantitative trend of many social scientists of this era. Goffman’s work is therefore a response to these three gravitational pulls. Goffman made a concerted effort to engage in sociological research that did not acquiesce to the demands of these research traditions. In addition to the literary quality of his writings, the elegance of his formal sociology and the subtlety of his observations, the theoretical sophistication of his work has assured a continuing audience for his work after his death, even though there is to date no ‘Goffman School’ of sociology to extend his research.
Erving Manual Goffman was born on the 11th June 1922 in Mannville, Alberta, Canada, the second of two children. His parents, Max and Ann, were Jewish and among the 200,000 Ukrainians who moved to Canada between 1897 and the beginning of the First World War. Erving Goffman had one sister, Frances, who later became an actress. Max Goffman was a shopkeeper, Ann Goffman a homemaker.
They raised their family in Dauphin, near Winnipeg, where Goffman attended Saint John’s Technical High School. As befits a school with this name, Goffman’s first intellectual interest was the natural sciences. In 1939, while far away from the tumultuous events in Europe, Goffman enrolled at the University of Manitoba, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in chemistry.
Perhaps the beginning of Goffman’s interest in sociology occurred in 1943-4, when he worked temporarily at the National Film Board in Ottawa. In addition to the inherently sociological nature of film, as both a record and as an interpretation of social life, Goffman met Dennis Wrong during this time. This chance meeting with someone who will also be remembered as a key North American sociologist, was the impetus for Goffman to leave Manitoba and enroll at the University of Toronto, where he studied anthropology and sociology. Goffman was fortunate to study under two eminent social scientists at Toronto: C.W.M. Hart and Ray Birdwhistell. At this time he obtained a thorough grounding in the work of, among others, Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, Warner, Freud and Parsons. During his studies Goffman also developed a close friendship with Elizabeth Bott (now Elizabeth Bott-Spillius), who went on to become a leading Kleinian psychoanalyst, based in London.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1945 with a degree in sociology and anthropology, Goffman began graduate study in sociology at the University of Chicago, one of the centers of sociological research in the United States, and a department already with a rich tradition dating back to the mid 1890s. The University of Chicago was at that time a hive of activity, with its student numbers swelled to near breaking point by the G.I.Bill. Under these trying circumstances, the close mentoring of students by professors was almost impossible and was replaced by close intellectual friendships among students, who learned to rely on themselves (Fine 1995). Goffman did not initially thrive in this uncertain environment. However, gradually he settled into the rhythm of graduate school life, taking numerous courses, most notably Everett Hughes’ seminar, ‘Work and Occupations’. According to Burns (1992:101) it was here that he first encountered the idea of the ‘total institution’ that later became the conceptual cornerstone of Asylums (1961), his idiosyncratic ethnography of Saint Elizabeth’s hospital.
In 1949 Goffman successfully completed all the requirements for his Master’s degree, including a thesis. This unpublished manuscript played an unexpectedly large part in his intellectual development, as it is his only research project that employed interview, survey and quantitative data. In the thesis, Goffman analyzed interview responses from middle class Chicago women to a then popular radio soap opera called ‘Big Sister’. Following the lead of his advisors, Goffman attempted to use – and failed by his own estimation – a then popular measure called the Thematic Apperception Test. His dissatisfaction with his own findings grew into general dissatisfaction with the analysis of variables, marking a significant moment in his intellectual development (Smith, 2003).
For his doctoral dissertation Goffman chose to study rural life in the Shetlands Islands. This was a far cry from the hustle, heterogeneity and sprawl of Chicago life. Instead, in December 1949, Goffman arrived on the Island of Unst, a small, static community. In his published work, Unst is often referred to as ‘Dixon’. His research was sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and the Committee on Social Science Research at the University of Edinburgh. While masquerading as a student of agricultural techniques, Goffman actually studied social interaction among the islanders. After initially suspecting that he was a spy, the islanders warmed to Goffman, who stayed there until May 1951.
For reasons that are no longer clear, Goffman did not return immediately to Chicago, but moved instead to Paris, where he spent a year preparing the first draft of his doctoral dissertation. Upon returning to the United States, Goffman married the 23 year-old Angelica Choate, whom he had met earlier at the University of Chicago, where she was pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology. Unlike his own modest upbringing, Angelica came from a prominent American family, some of the members of which were significant shareholders in media companies. Erving and Angelica had one child, Tom, who was born in 1953, the same year that Goffman was awarded his doctorate from the University of Chicago. Although Goffman was at this time far from being an influential sociologist, his personal transformation was striking. He was no longer a boy from a poor and under-educated family. Through both education and marriage, he was now part of an intellectual and economic elite.
Goffman’s dissertation was a mixture of observations and classifications: part case study, part general theory. As such it was the forerunner to nearly all his later work. It was also perplexing to his examiners, who had expected a traditional community study. Nevertheless, the dissertation was approved and soon after Goffman began working for Edward Shils. In 1955 Goffman left Chicago and moved with his young family to Washington, D.C. where he conducted ethnographic work at Saint Elizabeth’s hospital. This project was one of several qualitative sociological studies funded by the National Institutes on Mental Health (NIMH) at this time, and it was impossible for anyone to know then that the ensuing book – Asylums (1961) – would become one of the most influential pieces of sociology in the 20th century.
On 1st January 1958, Goffman began work at the University of California at Berkeley, at the invitation of Herbert Blumer, who had himself moved to California from Chicago. Goffman’s academic career progressed very rapidly and he became a Full Professor in 1962. In the decade from 1959-69 Goffman published seven significant books – a remarkable achievement. In addition to his considerable academic success, Goffman also showed himself to be a knowledgeable and successful investor on the stock market. In his spare time, he collected antiques and enjoyed playing poker and blackjack, the former badly, the latter well. Goffman’s social interest in blackjack later became a scholarly one: he returned to school to earn certification to become a blackjack dealer, a position he occupied periodically at the Station Plaza Casino in Las Vegas, where he was later promoted to Pit Boss. This experience was intended as research for an anticipated ethnographic project of the social world of the gambler. However, nothing was ever published, although his paper ‘Where the Action Is’ touches upon the topic.
Although the 1960s were a time of intellectual and career success for Goffman, he also experienced tragedy. In 1964, his wife Angelica killed herself after struggling with mental illness. Goffman’s reflections on his own experiences of living with someone who is mentally ill are captured, albeit in a detached way, in his 1969 paper, ‘The Insanity of Place’.
In 1966, Goffman spent a sabbatical year at the Harvard Center for International Affairs, at the invitation of Thomas Schelling. During this year Goffman prepared two papers on game theory, which were published together in Strategic Interaction (1969). In 1968 Goffman resigned from Berkeley in order to accept a Benjamin Franklin Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Faculty in the sociology department opposed his appointment, and Goffman was initially housed in an office of the Anthropological Museum, whose letterhead he happily used. He continued to be a very productive scholar, publishing Relations in Public (1971) his hoped-for magnum opus, Frame Analysis (1974), Gender Advertisements (1979) and Forms of Talk (1981).
In 1981 he married the linguist, Gillian Sankoff, with whom he had one daughter, Alice. Tragically it was a short marriage, as Goffman developed a stomach cancer that killed him on the 20th November, 1982, aged 60. In the year of his death he had been elected President of the American Sociological Association. One of his duties as such was to give the Presidential Address. He had prepared this ahead of time, but spent his final weeks revising the manuscript. He chose a nostalgic title, ‘The Interaction Order’ which was the title of the conclusion to his dissertation almost thirty years earlier. It symbolized the unity and consistency of his intellectual interests. In keeping with his detached and reflexive manner, Goffman anticipated the posthumous reading of his paper at the upcoming annual meeting and added a Goffmanesque preface concerning the difficulties of such presentations.
(1) The Interaction Order
Goffman’s overarching theme is the investigation of face-to-face interaction, primarily among the unacquainted. At the beginning and end of his career (but not in the middle) he referred to this as the study of the interaction order. The burden of this investigation was the classification of the different elements of face-to-face interaction. The subsidiary tasks involved the use of theatrical and game metaphors to explore deception in the social world, and an analysis of the role of reflexivity in sociological investigation, particularly as revealed by the ‘framing’ of social life. In addition, Goffman made significant contributions to the related fields of the sociology of mental illness and the sociology of stigma.
Goffman’s primary ambition was to establish the study of face-to-face interaction as a substantive concern in its own right. This flew in the face of both grand theorists, such as Parsons, who – while admiring Goffman’s analyses – nevertheless wanted to absorb this and other fields into a larger theory, and of politically minded sociologists of all persuasions who judged Goffman’s analyses to be as trivial as those of his intellectual predecessor, Georg Simmel. The subtlety of Goffman’s observations was largely lost on the former, whereas the quiet tone of moral outrage was lost on the latter.
The interaction order is a conceptual map to each and every occasion of face-to-face interaction. This map is therefore intended to cover behavior in, among other places, restaurants, elevators, stadiums and dinner parties. Literally speaking, all face-to-face interaction requires the ‘co-presence’ of participants; that is, people must sense that others are close enough to them to be able to register whatever it is that they are doing. In Behavior in Public Places (1963:13-22) Goffman distinguished three types of co-presence: the ‘gathering’, the ‘situation’ and the ‘social occasion’. For Goffman, a gathering is simply a coming together of two or more people, a situation occurs whenever there is ‘mutual monitoring’ and a social occasion is bounded by space and time and is likely to involve props or special equipment. Thus, a social occasion such as a birthday party becomes the background against which gatherings and situations can occur. For each of these types of co-presence there are distinctive patterns of ‘communication traffic order’ which Goffman called ‘’situational proprieties’ (1963:24). These patterns are ‘focused’ when there is a single focus of attention and ‘unfocused’ when there is not.
Focused interaction occurs when people ‘extend one another a special communication license and sustain a special type of mutual activity’ (1963:83). This involves ‘face-work’ of various kinds among friends, acquaintances and, under special circumstances, the unacquainted. The initiation and continuation of unwanted focused interaction was for Goffman an interesting topic in its own right.
Unfocused interaction predominates in urban settings where people are unacquainted with each other. Even if efforts are made to slow down the flow of information, people ‘read’ each other through ‘body idiom’ and perceived ‘involvement’. Through our body idiom people glean information about us by judging us against conventional standards. Our body idiom therefore consists of impressions that either we willingly ‘give’ or inadvertently ‘give off’ (Goffman 1959: 13-14). Involvement refers to the attention we give – or fail to give – to the social situations in which we find ourselves. It is an internal state that other perceive through observable, behavioral markers. Frequently, people simultaneously manage both a ‘main’ and a ‘side’ involvement, as when a student listens to a lecture and doodles on a notepad at the same time. The group and the present situation determine what constitutes a ‘dominant’ involvement. By contrast, a ‘subordinate’ involvement is whatever the group tolerates once appropriate respect is shown for the dominant focus of group attention.
Ritual regard for the unacquainted is preserved in unfocused interaction through ‘civil inattention’. This involves initial eye contact among the unacquainted and then a studious looking away. The function of civil inattention appears to be to display mutual regard and the absence of threat. It is as if the person were to say: ‘look at me, remember my face if you wish because I will not harm you in any way’.
Goffman extended the analysis of the interaction to the presentation of relationships in public settings. Understood thus, we are ‘sign vehicles’: our body idiom conveys information about ourselves and our social relationships. This will often be sensitive material that has to be handled delicately by others, with appropriate ritual care. In Relations in Public (1971) Goffman used an ethological perspective to analyze how people negotiate their way around often packed urban spaces, mark their territories while so doing, signal their relationships to others by various ‘tie-signs’ and manage their appearances so as to appear normal or unremarkable. By these elaborate means we all contribute to what Herbert Spencer called in the prominent quotation given at the beginning of this book the ‘government of ceremonial observance’. To fail to do sounds alarm bells for others because it threatens the predictability and routinization of everyday encounters. Thus, Goffman was able to show the interwoven complexity, necessity and fragility of ordinary behavior.
Goffman’s analysis of the interaction order presents a set of classifications with which to continue the investigation of face-to-face interaction. He assumed that there would be both further conceptual and classificatory refinement and increasing levels of empirical detail. Particularly through the work of ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts, some of whom trained with Goffman, empirical specification has occurred, but the former project of conceptual refinement has not seen the same level of progress, or even interest.
(2) The Sociology of Mental Illness and Stigma
Goffman began fieldwork in 1955 at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, a large facility housing about 7000 patients. It is important to remember that this research was conducted at a time when psychiatry was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, just before the rise of psychopharmacology. Psychoanalysis and psychiatry were therefore interwoven fields at the height of their prestige. Sociology was then a small but emerging discipline thought to have connections to the study of interpersonal difficulties. Goffman was, then, unwittingly ideally placed to study the final moments of the mental hospital as it was then understood. Goffman’s perspective was somewhat different: as a product of the Chicago School of Sociology, he understood himself to have a special obligation to side with the ‘underdog’ and to criticize institutionalized authority. Curiously, while he conducted research at Saint Elizabeth’s, Michel Foucault was conducting similar research at a mental hospital in Paris, although the similarities between Goffman and Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power were not to become evident until much later.
Goffman spent about a year and a half at Saint Elizabeth’s, collecting the ethnographic data that informed Asylums (1961). As with his dissertation, this book is highly unusual: it provides very little detailed information about the hospital; rather it conveys a ‘tone of life’ (Fine and Martin, 1990:93). Goffman investigated the characteristics of ‘total institutions’, of which he took Saint Elizabeth’s as an exemplar. All total institutions sequester inmates, set schedules and monitor behavior. Inmates are subjected to ‘batch living’ and its attendant indignities. Goffman drew on both his own data and research from other total institutions, such as monasteries, prisons and boarding schools to produce a general theory of the characteristics of the total institution.
Asylums promises an analysis of the pre-patient, in-patient and ex-patient phases of the ‘moral career’ of the mental patient; in point of fact it only delivers the first two. Goffman provided a subtle and moving account of the process whereby a person can become a candidate for institutionalization. Pre-patients pass through a ‘betrayal funnel’, as the people they trust most – family and friends – conspire against them, reporting their questionable actions to physicians and other members of the ‘circuit of agents’ who often play a decisive role in the decision-making process.
Once institutionalized, inmates experience ‘civil death’ as they lose many of the freedoms that had taken for granted. There is a further ‘mortification of self’ as patients are standardized: they are given regulation clothes and subjected to a myriad of indignities. Uncooperative patients are punished by being placed in an unpleasant ward, ostensibly for their own good. Patients may advance through the ward system only through good behavior, taken by the psychiatrists as indicative of improving mental health.
Over time, patients at Saint Elizabeth’s – as at other total institutions – are offered ‘privileges’ for good behavior, as shown by following the ‘house rules’. In its own way, acquiescence to privilege is as demeaning as the mortification of self. Both phases of total institutional life demonstrate to inmates that they are less than they took themselves to be. As Goffman put it, the total institution is a ‘forcing house’ for changing people. In the face of these overwhelming challenges, inmates must either accept a massively diminished sense of self or insulate themselves from the social psychological threat posed by the total institution itself. The latter is achieved without direct confrontation by what the patients at Saint Elizabeth’s called ‘playing it cool’ (1961:62-3). This consisted of a set of strategies designed to restore a sense of autonomy and self-worth to the patient. Ironically, Goffman suggested, hospital personnel often misunderstood these strategies, mistaking them as further evidence of mental illness.
Asylums remains a controversial book. It is a provocative new approach to ethnography, in which the traditional case study is transformed into comparative analysis, producing an ethnography not of a place but of a concept, in this case, that of the total institution (Manning 1992). Goffman’s findings are also controversial because they suggest that psychiatrists may have weak clinical knowledge. The central issue for Goffman is that although everyone commits ‘situational improprieties’, only some of these cases of inappropriate behavior are considered by psychiatrists (and others) to be ‘symptomatic’ of mental illness. Psychiatrists need but lack a ‘technical mapping’ that could distinguish symptomatic from non-symptomatic situational improprieties. Thus, the occasionally transparent, often latent, message of Asylums is that psychiatrists lack a scientific understanding of mental illness and rely instead on lay interpretations. As a result, Goffman thought that psychiatrists routinely misunderstood the behavior of their patients. This aspect of Goffman’s work put a special burden on his analysis to demonstrate how sociological knowledge can undermine psychiatric knowledge. Probably he failed to do this; however his analysis of Saint Elizabeth’s did contribute positively to the reevaluation of psychiatry and the treatment of the mentally ill (see Manning 1999a, 1999b).
In the early 1960s Goffman also analyzed the interpersonal management of stigma. Stigma (1963) emerged out of lectures he gave at the University of California at Berkeley. Goffman defined a stigma as a ‘deeply discrediting’ attribute in the context of a set of relationships (1963:3). He distinguished three types: abominations of the body, blemishes of character and tribal stigmata (1963:4). The focus of his analysis was primarily the stigmatized person’s techniques of ‘information control’ by which discrediting, undisclosed, information could be managed. Goffman recognized that the management of potentially damaging information was critical for three aspects of our identity: the ‘personal’, the ‘social’ and the ‘ego’. Our personal identity is what makes each of us unique; it consists of ‘identity pegs’ (such as fingerprints) and life histories (1963:57). Our social identity is what others understand about us by virtue of the groups to which we belong. Our ego identity refers to what we think about ourselves. Goffman introduced the term ‘identity politics’ to characterize the interactions between the stigmatized, the ‘normals’ and the ‘own’ (who understand the world of the stigmatized without being stigmatized themselves). In the latter part of Stigma Goffman suggested that we are all, to some degree, stigmatized. At best we are ‘discreditable’ if we are not already ‘discredited’. Thus, there is a continuum rather than a binary opposition between normals and the stigmatized. Among the stigmatized are ‘normal deviants’ who share the perspectives of normals and ‘social deviants’ who rebel against conventions.
(3) Metaphorical Investigations: The Dramaturgical and the Game Theoretic
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) Goffman outlined a conceptual framework in which any occasion of face-to-face interaction can be interpreted as a theatrical performance. Expanding the ideas of Kenneth Burke, who pioneered a ‘dramatistic’ approach, Goffman developed his own ‘dramaturgical’ investigations based on six themes: the performance, the team, the region, discrepant roles, communication out of character and impression management. These themes had initially been explored in his dissertation. Here they are separated from a case study and presented instead as general theory. The Presentation of Self offers re-descriptions of familiar events in which there is a heightened sense of suspicion. Nothing in Goffman’s dramaturgical world is quite what it seems. Rather, we are all portrayed as performers enacting rehearsed lines and roles in places that are carefully constructed in order to maximize the potential for deception.
Goffman suggests that as performers we both knowingly ‘give’ and unwittingly ‘give off’ impressions. Because nearly all of us are skilled in the arts of impression management, we monitor all aspects of the behavior of the people we encounter. Goffman’s actors seek to deceive others while seeing through the deceptive practices of others. Even when among team members in backstage areas, our performances are not necessarily more authentic, although there we often ‘knowingly contradict’ (1959:114) our front stage behavior. Goffman’s dramaturgical world is thus one of misdirection in which general suspicion is necessary. In fact, Goffman developed an interest in espionage practices precisely because he recognized these as extensions of everyday behavior. This way of thinking was perhaps part of a broader cultural shift in the United States: the safe assumptions of mainstream Americans in the 1950s were being challenged by the radicalized generation of the 1960s. To some degree, Goffman gave expression to this emerging sentiment.
There is a clearly a literary quality to all of Goffman’s published work, and this in part explains their success. The broad appeal of his investigation of everyday conduct is a version of Freud’s appeal – and in fact Goffman emerged at the peak of American interest in Freud and psychoanalysis. In this sense, all of Goffman’s work involves the elaboration of apt metaphors. Nevertheless, theatrical and game metaphors are given pride of place.
Goffman clarified the main terms of game theory, establishing appropriate definitions for ‘players’, ‘moves’ and ‘rules’ (1969). Players can represent themselves or others. They may be ‘pawns’ that may be sacrificed or merely ‘tokens’ who express a position. A player may be a ‘nuncio’ who can only represent a party or a ‘procurator’ who can negotiate for a party but cannot represent it. Goffman identified five basic moves in social interaction: the ‘unwitting’, the ‘naïve’, the ‘covering’, the ‘uncovering’ and the ‘counter-uncovering’ move (1969:11-27). Each is designed either to achieve some advantage directly, or to reveal the strategies of other players. These moves are used in social worlds, or as Goffman called them, ‘situated activity systems’. Each of these is regulated by internalized norms known by each system’s members.
Goffman speculated that game theory was a possible successor to Blumer’s symbolic interactionism. Rather than focusing on the production of meanings, the definition of the situation and relevant symbols, as Blumer advocated, Goffman proposed the study of ‘strategic interaction’ using the vocabulary outlined above. For unclear reasons, neither Goffman nor anyone else developed this proposal, and the relationship between symbolic interactionism and strategic interaction has been largely ignored.
(4) Frames and Reflexivity
Goffman expected Frame Analysis (1974) to be his crowning achievement: the 586 page book took a decade to prepare and marked a subtle departure from his earlier work. In this project, Goffman emphasized reflexive aspects of social life – that is, the ways in which what we think about what we do affects the performance of the activity itself. This was showcased in the book’s preface, in which Goffman interrogated the idea of writing a preface itself.
Goffman defined a frame as a way of organizing experiences: we use frames to identify what is taking place. For example, a story may be a joke, a warning, a lesson, an invitation and so on. Frame analysis is therefore the study of the ‘organization of experience’. The most fundamental frameworks are ‘primary frameworks’ which reveal what is ‘really’ happening either in the natural or social world. The meaning of a primary framework can be challenged in various ways. It can also be ‘keyed’:
this occurs when its meaning is transformed into something patterned on but independent of the intiial frame. For example, a keying may convince us that what appears to be a fight is in fact just play. However, caution is needed because every keying can itself be re-keyed. In addition to keys, there are ‘fabrications’. These are frames that are designed to mislead others. Fabrications are ‘benign’ when they are for the benefit of the audience or ‘exploitative’ when they are for the benefit of the fabricator. In an attempt to prevent the keying, re-keying and fabrications of frames, we often attempt to ‘anchor’ them so that audiences can accept them as real.
Goffman extended this analysis into an investigation of various kinds of talk. These essays were published together as Forms of Talk (1981). The central theme of the five essays was the ‘footing’ of talk. This referred to the participant’s projected self during a conversation. Thus, we can change footing by re-aligning ourselves. This is simply another way of discussing a change in the relevant frame for events. Goffman gave the example of then President Nixon commenting on the dress style of the reporter, Helen Thomas. Goffman argued that this interlude was intended by President Nixon to be a brief time-out from the formal duties of the day, a moment in which he could reveal himself as an ordinary, if sharp-witted man who could thrive without the protection of presidential authority. Goffman suggested that in this President Nixon failed, as his performance was too wooden, and his jokes were laughed at only out of respect for his office. This small example, taken from one of his final projects, epitomizes his overall concern: the development of general classifications to be used to understand concrete examples of the interaction order.
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