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Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman (1922-1982) grew up in Manitoba, and worked briefly for the National Film Board of Canada before graduating in Sociology from Toronto. He went to graduate school in Chicago, though he did his fieldwork on Unst, in the Shetland islands: the observations he made in the hotel there formed the basis of his PhD and his first and seminal monograph The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). He moved to the National Institute for Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland in 1954, taught sociology at Berkeley 1957-1968 and then at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia until his death.

When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or to bring into play information about him already possessed.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

His books include the collections of papers Asylums (1961); Interaction Ritual (1967), Relations in Public (1971) and Forms of Talk (1981) as well the monographs Stigma (1963), Behaviour in Public Places (1963), Frame Analysis (1974) and Gender Advertisements (1979). He worked in a Chicago tradition of microsociology, informed by phenomenology and sociolinguistics and based in participant observation. His sociology unfolds in scenes and interactions we can picture, in domestic situations and in the street, on social occasions and in public places, as we follow them almost frame by frame.

The definition of the situation

Goffman, like Arendt, begins in interaction, in the encounter between human beings, noting that the encounter itself begins in uncertainty. As they are for Arendt, being and knowing, ontology and epistemology are bound together, though with a different twist.

Control [of] the conduct of others is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan… Together the participants contribute to a single over-all definition of the situation which involves not so much a real agreement as to what exists but rather a real agreement as to whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

When they meet, participants to an encounter must work out what’s going on; in order to negotiate it successfully, they must develop some shared if implicit understanding of the situation in which they find themselves. What’s at stake in meeting, then, is what Goffman called the definition of the situation.

In talking about ‘the situation’ – on the doorstep, in the corridor before a meeting, or during the meeting itself – people will refer mostly to something beyond themselves, such as the state of the local economy, someone’s leadership prospects or what happened last week. But Goffman is interested in the situation that exists between the speakers themselves, as determined by whether and how they greet each other, how they negotiate a topic and acknowledge, approve or contest their respective positions, whether and on what terms they risk an argument. What matters is how they establish the rules of the interactional game they seem to have begun, how their sense of each other and the relationship between them shapes and is shaped by their talk. It is not, in the first instance, the substance of what they say that matters, but how they find their way to and through a conversation about politics – although, inevitably, each of these will have some bearing on the other. In this way, Goffman introduces a dynamic to the encounter, a sense of difference and potential disagreement among participants which is understated in Arendt. Meeting itself has a politics, does politics.

State X orients to action according to the manner in which the particular situation is viewed by certain officials and according to what they want. The actions of other actors, the actor’s goals and means, and the other components of the situation are related meaningfully by the actor. His action flows from this definition of the situation.

Richard Snyder, H W Bruck and Burton Sapin, Foreign Policy Decision Making, 1962

Frontstage and backstage

So how do participants establish and maintain a definition of the situation? In performance, which means simply the character of action conducted in the presence of others. A performance, Goffman says, ‘may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants’, while ‘the object of a performer is to sustain a particular definition of the situation’. The encounter is ‘staged’, conducted consciously and deliberately with reference to those who witness it as well as to those who immediately take part in it. It is planned and prepared for, ‘produced’ we might say in the way a film or a play is produced, ‘put on’ and acted out.

The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die, it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

Persona in Latin signifies the disguise, or outward appearance of a man, counterfeited on the stage… a person, is the same as an actor is.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

This makes, in turn, for Goffman’s famous distinction between frontstage and backstage, or what he terms ‘regions’. A region is immediate, local, physical: ‘any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception’. Interestingly, the space in which the encounter takes place (‘frontstage’) is invariably connected to another space accessible to perhaps only some of its participants. ‘Backstage’ is where those participants talk about what is going on frontstage (Goffman developed the idea in watching the different exchanges taking place in a hotel dining area and its kitchen as staff moved between the two). The encounter or meeting, this suggests, has an infrastructure on which its ostensible functioning depends. In order to understand it, we may need to know what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’.

The dramas of the theatre state, mimetic of themselves, were, in the end, neither illusions nor lies, neither sleight of hand nor make-believe. They were what there was.

Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, 1980

Describing it in terms of performance is not saying that politics is somehow unreal, that political ‘actors’ are ‘just pretending’; it is, instead, a penetrating account of how social and therefore political life is necessarily pursued. For action to mean anything, for it to have any motive, purpose or effect, the situation must be understood and interpreted by those involved in it. What Goffman is interested in is how one definition of a situation is developed and sustained rather than any other; for if it weren’t this definition it would be another, and if there were no definition at all there would be no situation either.

Goffman’s is a radically unromantic vision of things, acrid and bleakly knowing, and one which sits rather poorly with traditional humanistic pieties. But it is no less powerful for that. Nor, with its uncomplaining play-it-as-it-lays ethic, is it all that inhumane.

Clifford Geertz, ‘Blurred genres: the refiguration of social thought’, 1980

Whatever it is that generates the human want for social contact and for companionship, the effect seems to take two forms: a need for an audience before which to try out one’s vaunted selves, and a need for team-mates with whom to enter into collusive intimacies and backstage relaxation.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

Goffman matters to our understanding of politics because his treatment of ‘performance’ is the study of attempts to define situations one way or another, that is to produce and sustain authoritative representations of the world in interaction with others, in encounters of different kinds.

Arendt and Goffman seem to speak, respectively, to the principal traditions of political thought: the Aristotelian (Arendt) and the Machiavellian (Goffman), albeit from different disciplinary positions and perspectives. While Arendt is ultimately concerned with ‘power to’, with the capacity of the collective, Goffman is interested in power over, ‘control [of] the conduct of others’. Goffman introduces a dynamic to the encounter, a sense of difference and potential disagreement among participants which is understated in Arendt. Common to both is the sense that power and politics are realised in interaction between people: from Arendt we learn why the encounter happens, from Goffman why it happens in one way rather than other.

A man standing, looking away to his left.
Erving Goffman, source unknown

Sherry Cavan includes this photograph at the end of her account of ‘When Erving Goffman was a boy’, and references it simply as ‘photographer unknown’. There’s no date, and he’s no longer a boy, though there’s something boyish about him. The photo is of a young man, and the setting seems institutional; Goffman would have been 30 in 1952, and still in graduate school; 35 in 1957 and somewhere between a psychiatric ward for an NIMH study and the campus at Berkeley.

We’re uncertain about what’s going on here, though there’s a sense that the young man knows he’s being photographed. He’s looking away from the camera: not in order to look at anything else, particularly, just in order to look away from the camera. He’s relaxed, laconic, trying to find something else to do with the slight awkwardness he feels by the camera raised at him. He’s cool. He’s presenting himself in a certain way, giving off an impression he wants us to form; he’s performing.

The carefully composed idiosyncrasy of style was matched by the equally painstaking eclecticism of the sources he used for purposes of illustrative quotation: sociological studies of occupations, books of etiquette, diplomats’ reminiscences, descriptions of manners and customs in Britain and elsewhere, memoirs and autobiographies, newspaper articles, and the like.

Tom Burns, Erving Goffman, 1992

Writing a book is also a kind of presentation of self, and writers sometimes seek to define the situation as they begin, often by means of a preface or foreword, which might set out where the work has come from, its intellectual and perhaps personal origins. For publication, by definition, is a matter of relations in public, and is beset with uncertainty. One of Goffman’s principal concerns, having given a summary explanation of what The Presentation of Self was intended to do, was to account for the array of sources it used. For he knew very well he was writing sociology differently.

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied… The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalizations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between… The justification for this approach (as I take it to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case-studies of institutional social life… The introduction is necessarily abstract and may be skipped.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday, 1959. Page references here are to the 1971 edition published in the UK by Penguin: ‘When an individual enters the presence of others…’ is p 13; ‘Control [of] the conduct of others…’ pp 15 and 21

Richard Snyder, H W Bruck and Burton Sapin, Foreign Policy Decision Making, An approach to the study of international politics, New York: Free Press, 1962; ‘State X orients to action…’ appears in the ‘Revisited’ edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp 58-9

‘The self, then, as a performed character… ‘ is Goffman, op cit, p 245, and ‘Whatever it is that generates the human want…’ p 201; in-text references are from pages 26, 90 and 109

‘Persona in Latin…’ is from Hobbes’s Leviathan, chapter XVI ‘Of persons, authors and things personated’

‘The dramas of the theatre state…’ is from Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980, p 136: it’s cited by Emma Crewe (2010) ‘An anthropology of the House of Lords: socialisation, relationships and rituals’, Journal of Legislative Studies 16 (3) 313-324, p 323. ‘Goffman’s is a radically unromantic vision…’ is Geertz, again (1980) ‘Blurred genres: the refiguration of social thought’, The American Scholar 49 (2) 165-179, p 170

On Goffman’s understanding of power, see Jenkins, R (2008) ‘Erving Goffman: a major theorist of power?’ Journal of Power 1 (2) 157-168

Cavan, S (2011) When Erving Goffman was a Boy, in Dmitri N Shalin, Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives 1-34

‘The carefully composed idiosyncrasy of style…’ is Burns, op cit, p 5; ‘I mean this report…’ is from the preface to The Presentation of Self