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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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 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.
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.
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.