Examine the view that Erving Goffman’s work focuses on forms of social interaction but ignores social structure. Erving Goffman was born on the 11th June 1922 in Mannville, Canada. In 1939, Goffman enrolled at the University of Manitoba where he pursued an undergraduate degree in chemistry; however he then took an interest for sociology while working temporarily at the National Film Board in Ottawa.
This was the motivation that he then needed to go on and enrol at the University of Toronto where he studied anthropology and sociology, then after graduating with a degree he began a masters in sociology at the University of Chicago, which was one of the centres’ of sociological research in the United States. In the decade from 1959-1969 Goffman published seven significant books, this was a remarkable achievement, and so has been considered as the most influential sociologist of the twentieth century. The focus of his work was the organisation of observable, everyday behaviour, usually but not always among unacquainted in urban settings.
He used a variety of qualitative methods; he then developed classifications of the different elements of social interaction. The assumption of this approach was that these classifications were heuristic, simplifying tools for sociological analysis that did not capture the complexity of lived experience. Goffman was heavily influenced by George Mead and Herbert Blumer in his theoretical framework, and went on to pioneer the study of face-to-face interaction, elaborate the “dramaturgical approach” to human interaction, and develop numerous concepts that would have massive influence.
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Goffman mainly concentrated on the detailed analysis of encounters and the norms governing these encounters, therefore the evaluation of face-to-face interactions, paying close attention to the small details of these interactions and discovering things that may seem insignificant yet actually are what structure behaviour and behaviour norms. In doing so, Goffman investigated gestures, such as shaking hands or placing a hand on someone else’s shoulder and facial expressions during interactions. These types of gestures came to be known as ‘grammatical structures’ of social interactions.
Social interactions create the world to be a predictable place and saw interactions as rituals, in the sense that ‘interaction order’ as Goffman called it is a social order, when we disrupt interaction we disrupt society. Goffman argued that our interactions give us a sense of our social belonging and our sense of inviolability of people. When discussing social interaction Goffman uses notions from the theatre in his analyses. The concept of social role originated in a theatrical setting. Roles are socially defined expectations that a person in a given status, or social position, follows.
Goffman sees social life as though played out by actors on a stage, as how people act depends on the roles that they are playing at that time. Goffman then suggests that social life is divided into regions and back regions. The front regions are social occasions or encounters in which individuals act out formal roles; they are essentially, ‘on stage performances’. An example of this would be within the family between a husband and wife who may take care to conceal their quarrels from their children, preserving a front harmony, only to fight bitterly once the children are safely tucked up in bed.
The back regions may resemble the backstage of the theatre, where people can relax and open up about their feelings and styles of behaviour they keep in check when on stage. Back regions permit ‘profanities, open sexual remarks, elaborate griping, use of dialect or substandard speech’. (Goffman, 1959). Thus, a waitress may be the soul of quiet courtesy when serving a customer, but become loud and aggressive once behind the swing doors of the kitchen. Goffman (1959) argued that performance teams routinely use backstage regions for such purposes.
This approach by Goffman is usually described as ‘dramaturgical’; that is, it is an approach based on an analogy with the theatre, with its front and backstage regions. However, Goffman is not suggesting that the social world really is a stage, but that, using the dramaturgical analogy, we can study certain aspects of it and learn more about why people behave in ways they do. (Giddens: 268: 2009). In The Presentation of Everyday Life (1959), Goffman outlined a conceptual framework in which any occasion of face-to-face interaction can be interpreted as a theatrical performance.
Expanding the ideas of Kenneth Burke, who pioneered a ‘dramatist’ approach. Burke identifies five elements that have to be taken account of in any discussion or analysis of social interaction. The first being act, which refers to what is done. Typical acts such as telling jokes, drinking a cup of coffee and so on are all interpreted, all symbolic displays communicating to the audience of what’s going on. Then the scene, it is the situation, the context, the setting and the props and it is what the actors relate to. The agent relates to the ndividual that carries out the action, they act but with an identity, with an image of self that is presented to the audience. Burke argues image of self is going to relate to the acts that have been carried out and the context in which the act is being carried out. He states that self’s are not things which are not fixed, they are something presented to the audience. Purpose, why do people do things? One reason being because they have motives, they are taken very seriously and are the reason for people’s behaviour. Purposes are not fixed; they depend on what is being carried out.
Finally the last element which Burke discusses is agency which is the theoretical points, he claims that the whole lot is realised through language. From these elements Goffman then went on to develop his own ‘dramaturgical’ investigations based on six themes: the performance, the team, the region, discrepant roles, communication out of the character and impression management. Nothing of Goffman’s dramaturgical world is quite what it seems. Rather, people are all portrayed as performers enacting rehearsed lines and roles in places that are carefully constructed in order to maximise the potential of deception.
He then goes on to suggest that as performers people both ‘give’ and ‘give off’ impressions. It has been suggested that Goffman’s dramaturgical world is thus one of misdirection in which general suspicion is necessary; he developed an interest in espionage practices mainly because he recognised these as extensions of everyday behaviour. Goffman then went on to identify five moves in social interaction which are the ‘unwitting’, the ‘naive’, the ‘covering’, the ‘uncovering’ and finally the ‘counter uncovering’ move (1959: 11-27).
Each of these moves is designed either to achieve some advantage directly, or to reveal the strategies of other players. These moves are used in social worlds, or as Goffman called them, ‘situated activity systems’. Each is regulated by adopted norms known by system’s members. Rather than concentrating on the production of meanings, the definition of the situation and relevant symbols, as Bulmer advocated, Goffman proposed the study of ‘strategic interaction’ using the vocabulary outlined above.
However, for reasons which are uncertain, neither Goffman nor anyone else developed this proposal, and the relationship between symbolic interactionism and strategic interaction has been largely ignored. For Goffman, the concern between the individual and society was through ritual. Goffman’s use of ritual was indebted to Durkheim; arguing that the ‘self’ in modern society becomes a sacred object in the same way that the collective symbols of more primitive societies, operated in Durkheim’s “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”.
The ‘self’ as “sacred object must be treated with proper ritual care and in turn must be presented in a proper light to others” (1967:87). The rituals of modern social life that individuals perform for each to maintain, “civility and good will on the performer’s part” and acknowledge the “small patrimony of sacredness” possessed by the recipient are ‘stand ins’ for the power of supernatural entities described by Durkheim (Goffman, 1961:62).
As Goffman put it, “Many gods have been done away with, but the individual himself stubbornly remains as a deity of considerable importance” (1967:95). In Asylums (1961), Goffman analysed the extreme backstages of society, such as the schizophrenic wards of mental hospitals. He proposed the concept of “total instituations” for places where all aspects of life are subject to all encompssing authority that allows no private backstages for the individuals.
Goffman argued that patients engage in resistance through bizarre behaviour which is beyond insitutional controls. Thus, the official social processing of persons as deviant tends to promote further deviance. Mental illness, in Goffman’s view, is not a characteristic of the individual so much as a social enactment, a spiral of violations of the ritual properties of everyday life. Therefore Goffman drew upon his fieldwork to make a point that one becomes labeled as mentally ill because one persistently violates minor standards of ritual proriety.
He claims that these mentally ill patients are deprieved of backstage privacy, props for situational self-presentation, and most of the other resources by which people under ordinary conditions are allowed to show their well demeaned selves and their ability to take part in the reciprocity of giving ritual deference to others. This research is familiar to that of Durkheim’s research on suicide, not so much to show why people kill themselves but to reveal the normal conditions that keep up social solidarity and give meaning to life. George Simmel was another major influence for Goffman.
Goffman looked at the details of everyday life not simply as illustrations or data for theoretical abstractions, but to provide an accurate description of the social world. Simmel’s concept of “pure sociation” established the study of interaction as basic to sociological analysis. Goffman continued this tradition in his insistence that face-to-face interaction comprised an independent area of sociological analysis. “My concern over the years has been to promote acceptance of this face to face domainas an analytically viable one” (1983b:1).
These methods that Gofman has used of incorporating the Simmelian micro level of interaction and the macro level analysis of Durkheimian ritual behaviour have been described as empirically electric, for example, in his book “Behaviour in Public Place”, Goffman noted that the data which he used came from different studies which he had carried, they included ones of a mental hospital, a study of a Shetland Island community and even some from manuals of etiquette which he had kept in a file of quotations that he found interesting. 1963:4). His approach was basically identifying the ways in which individuals in a variety of social contexts accomplished interaction. Thus, he paid attention to speech as well as silence. Goffman expected Frame Analysis (1974) to be his crowning achievement. In this book he stated that he was concerned with “the structure of experience individuals has at any moment of their lives” and made “no claim whatsoever to be talking about the core matters of sociology-social organisation and social structure” (1974:13).
However, this does not mean that Goffman or integrationists generally ignore society and social structures. Goffman’s position was that the nature of society and its structures or institutions is discovered in the behaviours of individuals. He suggested, “If persons have a universal human nature, they themselves are not to be looked to for an explanation of it. One must look rather to the fact societies everywhere, if they are to be societies, must mobilise their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters. Fundamentally what Goffman is saying is that society frames interaction, but interaction is not dependant on macrostructures. Furthermore, interaction can have a transformative impact on social structures. There is a key point in Goffman’s work, which is that he rejected the classical sociological opposition between the individual and social structure that still retains credibility in current sociological theory. For Goffman, “individual and social structure are not competing entities; they are joint products of an interaction order sui generis” (Rawls 1987:138).
As people in their daily life spend in the presence of others, people are then socially situated and so this social situatedness gives rise to “indicators, expressions or symptoms of social structures such as relationships, informed groups, age grades, gender, ethnic minorities, social classes and the like”, these ‘effects’ should be treated as “data in their own terms” (1983b:2). Furthermore, social structures are “dependent upon, and vulnerable to, what occurs in face-to-face encounters” (1983:246).
Although social structures don’t determine displays such as rituals and ceremonies, they do however “help select from the available repertoire of them” (1983b:251). Thus, there is a sense of “loose coupling” that lies between that of interaction and social structure. An example which can be used to explain this is that of a small number of males, “such as junior executives who have to wait and hang on others’ words” in a manner similar to that of women involved in informal cross-sexed interaction (1983:252).
What this observation allows Goffman to do is create a role category of subordination that “women and junior executives share” (1983b:252). It can be said that Goffman does not intentionally ignore social structure; he just does not provide any definition of it, other than to point out their constructed and framing nature. Frames can be seen as basic assumptions enabling people to understand what is going on in any encounter or situation and the interaction enabling the individual to respond appropriately.
Frame Analysis is an investigation of what occurs when individuals ask themselves and others, “what is going on here? ” (1974:153). Meaning that Goffman is not dealing with the structure of social life but with the structure of experience that individuals have at any moment of their social lives, when they believe they understand “what is going on”, they will “fit their actions to this understanding and ordinarily find that the on-going world supports this fitting” (1974:158). Goffman believes that everyday activities carried out by individuals are “framed” in different ways, although they are performed sequentially.
In conclusion it can be said that Goffman’s work cannot be easily “placed” in any on theoretical tradition. His work was and remains a constant source of renewal in many different directions for sociological theory, which have been discussed throughout the duration on this essay. Goffman described his work as the promotion of the “face-to-face domain as an analytically viable one-a domain which might be titled…the interaction order- a domain whose preferred method of study is microanalysis” (1983b:2).
However, Anthony Giddens (1984) pointed out that Goffman’s sociological analysis still needs to bridge the divide between the micro and macro, between face-to-face interactions and social structures. As his contribution to social theory consists in the idea of an interaction order sui generis this derives its order from constraints imposed by the needs of a presentational self rather than social structure. There are errors in the interpretation of Goffman’s work which have contributed to the misunderstanding of this contribution.
Firstly, while the notion of presentational self has presumably been understood, it has nevertheless been re-embedded in the traditional dichotomy between agency and social structure. Consequently Goffman has been interpreted as documenting the struggle between the two; secondly, because of the attention Goffman gave to strategic action, it is assumed that Goffman considered this to be the basic form of action.
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