Goffman’s close encounters

image: GIF from D. Witt (link)


George Herbert Mead’s approach to social psychology is an important contribution to the new pragmatism in sociology (link). Mead puts forward in Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist a conception of the self that is inherently social; the social environment is prior to the individual, in his understanding. And what this means is that individuals acquire habits, attitudes, and ways of thinking through their interactions in the social environments in which they live and grow up. The individual’s social conduct is built up out of the internalized traces of the practices, norms, and orientations of the people around him or her.

Erving Goffman is one of the sociologists who has given the greatest attention to the role of social norms in ordinary social interaction. One of his central themes is a focus on face-to-face interaction. This is the central topic in his book, Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. So rereading Interaction Ritual is a good way to gain some concrete exposure to how some sociologists think about the internalized norms and practices that Mead describes.

Goffman’s central concern in this book is how ordinary social interactions develop. How do the participants shape their contributions in such a way as to lead to a satisfactory exchange? The ideas of “line” and “face” are the central concepts in this volume. “Line” is the performative strategy the individual has within the interaction. “Face” is the way in which the individual perceives himself, and the way he perceives others in the interaction to perceive him. Maintaining face invokes pride and honor, while losing face invokes shame and embarrassment. So a great deal of the effort extended by the actor in social interactions has to do with maintaining face — what Goffman refers to as “face-work”. Here are several key descriptions of the role of face-work in ordinary social interactions:

By face-work I mean to designate the actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent with face. (12)

The members of every social circle may be expected to have some knowledge of face-work and some experience in its use. In our society, this kind of capacity is sometimes called tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, or social skill. (13)

A person may be said to have, or be in, or maintain face when the line he effectively takes presents an image of him that is internally consistent, that is supported by judgment and evidence conveyed by other participants, and that is confirmed by evidence conveyed through and personal agencies in the situation. (6-7)

So Goffman’s view is that the vast majority of face-to-face social interactions are driven by the logic of the participants’ conceptions of “face” and the “lines” that they assume for the interaction. Moreover, Goffman holds that in many circumstances, the lines available for the person in the circumstance are defined by convention and are relatively few. This entails that most interactional behavior is scripted and conventional as well. This line of thought emphasizes the coercive role played by social expectations in face to face encounters. And it dovetails with the view Goffman often expresses of action as performative, and self as dramaturgical.

The concept of self is a central focus of Mead’s work in MSS. Goffman too addresses the topic of self:

So far I have implicitly been using a double definition of self: the self as an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking; and the self as a kind of player in a ritual game who copes honorably or dishonorably, diplomatically or undiplomatically, with the judgmental contingencies of the situation. (31)

Fundamentally, Goffman’s view inclines against the notion of a primeval or authentic self; instead, the self is a construct dictated by society and adopted and projected by the individual.

Universal human nature is not a very human thing. By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, build up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without. (45)

Moreover, Goffman highlights the scope of self-deception and manipulation that is a part of his conception of the actor:

Whatever his position in society, the person insulates himself by blindnesses, half-truths, illusions, and rationalizations. He makes an “adjustment” by convincing himself, with the tactful support of his intimate circle, that he is what he wants to be and that he would not do to gain his ends what the others have done to gain theirs. (43)

One thing that is very interesting about this book is the concluding essay, “Where the Action Is”. Here Goffman considers people making choices that are neither prudent nor norm guided. He considers hapless bank robbers, a black journalist mistreated by a highway patrolman in Indiana, and other individuals making risky choices contrary to the prescribed scripts. In this setting, “action” is an opportunity for risky choice, counter-normative choice, throwing fate to the wind. And Goffman thinks there is something inherently attractive about this kind of risk-taking behavior.

Here Goffman seems to be breaking his own rules — the theoretical ones, anyway. He seems to be allowing that action is sometimes not guided by prescriptive rules of interaction, and that there are human impulses towards risk-taking that make this kind of behavior relatively persistent in society. But this seems to point to a whole category of action that is otherwise overlooked in Goffman’s work — the actions of heroes, outlaws, counter-culture activists, saints, and ordinary men and women of integrity. In each case these actors are choosing lines of conduct that break the norms and that proceed from their own conceptions of what they should do (or want to do).  In this respect the pragmatists, and Mead in particular, seem to have the more complete conception of the actor, because they leave room for spontaneity and creativity in action, as well as a degree of independence from coercive norms of behavior. Goffman opens this door with his long concluding essay here; but plainly there is a great deal more that can be said on this subject.

The 1955 novel and movie Man in the Grey Flannel Suit seems to illustrate both parts of the theory of action in play here — a highly constrained field of action presented to the businessman (played by Gregory Peck), punctuated by occasional episodes of behavior that break the norms and expectations of the setting. Here is Tom Rath speaking honestly to his boss. (The whole film is available on YouTube.)


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