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Born in Mannville, Alberta, Canada, to Jewish migrants from Ukraine, Goffman obtained degrees from the universities of Toronto (BA 1945) and Chicago (MA 1949; PhD 1953). His doctoral studies included fieldwork on the remote Shetland island of Unst. Following research posts at Chicago and at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, DC, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley from 1958 to 1968. Goffman then relocated to the University of Pennsylvania, where his work became increasingly sensitized to sociolinguistic and gender issues. He remained there until his death in 1982 from cancer.
Goffman demonstrated how the elements of the interaction order – the talk, gestures, expressions, and postures that humans constantly produce and readily recognize – were responsive not to individual psychology or social structural constraints but to the locally specific demands of the face-to-face social situation. This analytic aim was pursued through a number of papers and widely read books, including The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Asylums (1961), Stigma (1963), and Frame Analysis (1974).
Goffman’s sociological project bore the imprint of his training at the University of Chicago’s famed sociology department. While Blumer was busy codifying ”symbolic interactionism,” Goffman critically absorbed its sources, often showing more regard for the thought of C. H. Cooley and J. Dewey than the ideas of G. H. Mead. Simmel’s pioneering ”sociational” conception of society that prioritized interactions between persons over large-scale structures and institutions was taken up by Goffman, as was his core method of extracting the ”formal” features of sociation, which translated into analyses of a variety of forms of the interaction order, such as ”face-work,” the forms of alienation from interaction, or the stages of remedial interchange. Goffman creatively adapted the ”symbolic” Durkheim of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) to identify the ”interaction rituals” everywhere present in social life. At Chicago Goffman was also influenced by literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s method of ”perspective by incongruity,” evident in the many irreverent comparisons and unexpected contrasts that became a Goffman trademark.
Goffman saw his project as exploratory and provisional. Interaction analysis was at a stage where key conceptual distinctions were needed to chart this sociologically unexplored territory. While his writings displayed clear systematic intent, the drive to build a single system was absent.
Goffman burst onto the scene with the 1959 US publication of Presentation of Self, a book that breathed new life into the ”all the world’s a stage” metaphor. Goffman brilliantly analyzed the ”dramaturgical” aspects of the expressions humans constantly ”give” (through talk) and ”give off” or exude (through tone, posture, gesture, and facial expression) when in the presence of others. Using a wide range of illustrative materials – ethnographies, histories, memoirs, popular journalism, novels and his own acute observations of human conduct -Goffman showed how interactional details could be sociologically understood as ”performances” fostered on an ”audience” requiring cooperative ”teamwork” among performers to bring off a desired definition of the situation. A recurrent theme in his writings was that successful interaction needs not Parsonsian role-players but rather ”interactants” skilled in ”the arts of impression management.”
The social self was for Goffman an abiding sociological referent. Critics sometimes complained of Goffman’s ”cynical” or ”Machiavellian” view of human nature. Yet his ritual model, a secularized version of Durkheim’s theory of religion, offered contrasting imagery centered upon the expression and control of the interactant’s feelings towards both self and others. Here Goffman showed how greetings and farewells, apologies and avoidance practices all illustrated the need for persons to monitor their conduct when in the presence of that sacred deity, the self.
Goffman’s analyses constantly distinguished out-of-awareness features of encounters that, once identified, become instantly recognizable. For example, a rule of ”civil inattention” governs the conduct of unacquainted others on the street, persons silently walking past each other being likened to passing cars dipping their lights. Civil inattention belongs to a special class of social rules that regulate interaction known as ”situational proprieties,” departures from which Goffman found especially instructive. Situational improprieties were less a matter of psychopathology as they were an expression of alienation from social establishments, social relationships, and encounters.
Goffman arrived at this conclusion following his monumental study of the plight of mental patients in Asylums, and his psychologically astute analysis of the identity implications of departures from normality in Stigma. The mental hospital belonged to a larger class of ”total institutions” that included prisons, concentration camps, and monasteries. Social processes of ”mortification” were common to them all. Mental patients underwent shared changes in self-conception – a shared ”moral career” that was at once cause and consequence of their current predicament as they were sucked into a ”betrayal funnel.” Patients developed an underlife, rich in ”secondary adjustments,” which created space for conceptions of self at odds with those officially prescribed. Asylums, however, was not simply an influential critique of mental hospitals. It remains a vivid exploration of resistance to authority and the social sources of selfhood under extreme conditions.
Stigma also drew acclaim from outside academic sociology. It provided a careful analysis of normality and those temporarily or more extensively excluded from full social acceptance. The book anticipated contemporary identity politics and presented a powerful moral message.
Goffman deepened his perspective in his longest book, Frame Analysis, which provided a modulated phenomenological dimension to his sociology. Frames are perceptual principles that order events, sustained in both mind and activity. The theme reappeared in his last book, Forms of Talk (1981), where the concept of ”footing” captured the shifting alignments of persons to their own and others’ talk.
One of the more readable -and certainly one of the most quotable – of sociologists, Goffman’s deceptively accessible writings can be understood in many ways. His sociology attracted extremes of assessment from extravagant commendation to outright dismissal. Goffman’s writings conveyed a novel analytic attitude, a spirit of inquiry, and a highly distinctive voice that marked him out as one of the great figures of twentieth-century sociology.
- Branaman, A. & Lemert, C. (eds.) (1997) The Goffman Reader. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Fine, G. A. & Smith, G. W. H. (eds.) (2000) Erving Goffman. Sage Masters of Modern Social Thought, 4 vols. Sage, London.
- Smith, G. W. H. (2005) Erving Goffman. Routledge, London.
- Waksler, F. (ed.) (1989) Human Studies 12 (1-2). Special Issue: Erving Goffman’s Sociology.