Goffman’s programme

Erving Goffman has had wide influence on American and French sociology, and I find his work highly interesting.  But it is hard to characterize, because it doesn’t fit easily into the standard categories of sociological research and theory.  It studies individuals, but it is not individualist.  And it is evidence-based, but it is not empiricist.  In earlier posts I’ve characterized it as a particular kind of local knowledge, a sort of ethnography for micro-sociology (link, link).  But there is certainly more to say than that.

One key part of his work can be described as “close observation of individual behavior in social context.”  This has two ends — individual behavior and social context.  And Goffman wants to shed light on both poles of this description.  In particular, he almost always expresses interest in the social norms that surround action — the expectations and norms through which other people interpret and judge the individual’s conduct.

Consider these programmatic statements from several of Goffman’s books:

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant.  A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, preface)

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life — that of behavior inpublic and semipublic places. Although this area has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.  Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. (Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, 3-4)

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his ‘social identity’ – to use a term that is better than ‘social status’ because personal attributes such as ‘honesty’ are involved, as well as structural ones, like ‘occupation’. (Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 11)

Within the terms, then, of the bad name that the analysis of social reality has, this book presents another analysis of social reality. I try to follow a tradition established by William James in his famous chapter “The Perception of Reality,” first published as an article in Mind in 1896.  Instead of asking what reality is, he gave matters a subversive phenomenological twist, italicizing the following question: Under what circumstances do we think things are real?  (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 2)

In 1945 Alfred Schutz took up James’ theme again in a paper called “On Multiple Realities.” … Schutz’s paper … was brought to the attention of ethnographic sociologists by Harold Garfinkel, who further extended the argument about multiple realities by going on (at least in his early comments) to look for rules which, when followed, allow us to generate a “world” of a given kind. (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 5)

I have borrowed extensively from all these sources, claiming really only the bringing of them together.  My perspective is situational, meaning here a concern for what one individual can be alive to at a particular moment, this often involving a few other particular individuals and not necessarily restricted to the mutually monitored arena of a face-to-face gathering. I assume that when individuals attend to any given current situation, they face the question: “What is it that’s going on here?” (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 8)

The study of face-to-face interaction in natural settings doesn’t yet have an adequate name.  Moreover, the analytical boundaries of the field remain unclear.  Somehow, but only somehow, a brief time span is involved, a limited extension in space, and a restriction to those events that must go on to completion once they have begun…. The ultimate behavioral materials are the glances, gestures, positionings, and verbal statements that people continuously feed into the situation, whether intended or not.  These are the external signs of orientation and involvements — states of mind and body not ordinarily examined with respect to their social organization. (Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1)

There are several orienting themes among these statements and within Goffman’s work — frames, we might call them.

  • There is the idea of face-to-face behavior, in private, in public, and in everyday life.  
  • There is focus on the social setting within which local behavior takes place — the norms and constraints that are embodied in the group and constraining of the individual.  
  • There is emphasis on the particulars of the place — the factory, the asylum, the hotel.
  • There is the social-cognitive situation of the individual — the way in which he or she answers the question, “What is going on here?” 
So Goffman starts much of his work with fine-grained, detailed observations of behavior — elements as subtle as the bodily signs of embarrassment in a conversation.  Second, he wants to discover some of the structures of mental processing through which individuals act in social settings — the frames, scripts, and rituals that guide social perception and action for individuals.  Third, he wants to tease out the social judgments and norms that provide the normative and guiding context for the actor’s movements — the judgments surrounding “saving face,” embarrassment, shame, pride, and proper performance.  

There is also a psychiatric dimension of Goffman’s work: “abnormal behavior” and the description and contextualization of unexpected patterns of behavior are frequent elements of Goffman’s discourse.  For example, in Stigma:

The term stigma and its synonyms conceal a double perspective : does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable.  This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations. I will begin with the situation of the discredited and move on to the discreditable but not always separate the two. (14)

And psychiatric examples permeate Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings as well.

The Erving Goffman Archive at UNLV has some very useful materials relevant to Goffman’s intellectual project (link). The site is of great value and is worth studying in detail.  Here is a link to one of Goffman’s course reading lists from 1970.  The list is titled, “The Ethnography of Symbolic Forms: Frame Analysis,” and is dated Fall 1970.  The list is very interesting, and particularly valuable is the first section on “Basic Materials.”  This gives us an idea of some of the most important formative influences on Goffman.  Included on the list are several phenomenologists (Husserl, Kockelmans); several ethnomethodologists (Garfinkel, Schutz); a handful of analytic philosophers (David Shwayder, J. L. Austin, Nelson Goodman), and a playwright (Pirandello).

The 1960 reading list is also of interest; link.  This syllabus is titled Communication and Social Contact.  Goffman describes the course in these terms:

This course deals with face to face interactions in natural settings.  Interest will center on the components of the communicative act, the variables and models of interaction analysis, and the natural units of interaction for which a literature is available.

The syllabus breaks the course into a series of topics: Sign Processes, Expressive Behavior, Interaction, Substantive Areas, Conversation, Task Meetings, Two-Person Psychotherapy, Performances, Play-Games, Public Behavior, and Social Occasions.  This list has some of the surprising conjunctions evident in the 1970 list as well; for example, there is a significant amount of attention to game theorists (Von Neumann and Morgenstern, Schelling, Luce and Raiffa), as well as Freudian psychology.

Here is how Pierre Bourdieu distilled Goffman’s originality (link):

The work of Erving Goffman is the product of one of the most original and rarest methods of doing sociology — for example, putting on a doctor’s white coat, in order to enter a psychiatric asylum and thus putting oneself at the very site of the infinity of minute interactions which combine to make up social life….  Goffman’s achievement was that he introduced sociology to the infinitely small, to the things which the object-less theoreticians and concept-less observers were incapable of seeing and which went unremarked because they were too obvious, like everything which goes without saying.  These entomologist’s minutiae were bound to disconcert, even shock, an establishment accustomed to surveying the social world from a more distant and more lofty standpoint. (“Erving Goffman, Discoverer of the Infinitely Small,” Theory Culture & Society 2:1 1983, 112)

This is a nice description of Goffman’s work.  It leaves out an important dimension, however, namely, the social and contextual side of Goffman’s gaze. Goffman was always interested in the nuances of social expectation, norm, and script within particular social settings.  And this makes his work thoroughly sociological.


3 responses

  1. This is a nice description of Goffman's work. Actually the quoted passage (as well as your entire post) is a pretty good description of how Goffman did his work. I don't know anything at all, however, about his actual work: what he actually discovered or concluded.

  2. BB — thanks for the feedback. I don't think I could summarize Goffman's discoveries in a thousand words. My best effort is provided in the bullets : Goffman's research almost always takes the form of detailed descriptions and interpretations of limited social spaces that permit answers to one or more of these questions. My own sense of his most important contribution is what he has to say about the mental structures that guide social action — the scripts, schemes, frames, and orienting sets of social assumptions that he infers from the observed behavior. But other readers would possibly pace the emphasis elsewhere — for example, on the specific insights he sheds on the locales of behavior — mental hospital, village, factory floor, restaurant.

  3. Although Goffman investigated many important issues of social psychology, it seems that the research progress of social psychology is slow now. It is slow in terms of buidling up a research paradigm; it is fast in terms of coming up with solutions to social problems. Although human behavior is much more complicated than behavior of any other objects to study, we might need to take a new perspective to do research in social psychology, a perspective in addition to perspectives of Popper and Kuhn.

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