Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was a distinguished sociologist whose work shed light on the complexities of social interaction and human behavior.
Goffman was born in 1922 in Canada. In 1939, he commenced his academic journey with studies in Toronto, Canada. From 1945 to 1953, Goffman continued his education in Chicago, specializing in both sociology and anthropology. In 1950-1951, he embarked on fieldwork on the Shetland Islands, located north of Scotland. In 1953, Goffman completed his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago based on his research from the Shetland Islands. Goffman also engaged in participatory research at a major psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC.
Goffman started his academic career in 1958 at the University of California, Berkeley, initially as a lecturer and later as a professor from 1962. From 1968 until his passing in 1982, he served as a professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In 1981-1982, Goffman held the position of President of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
Goffman's Key Works: include:
"The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" (1956):In this work, Goffman introduced the dramaturgical perspective to analyze human behavior. He likened social interactions to a theatrical performance, where individuals act as performers and their everyday lives as stages. Goffman emphasized the role of impression management, where people carefully shape how they are perceived by others. He explored how individuals use various fronts and settings to control the impressions they make, such as in public places or during encounters. Goffman's work underscored that our social interactions are characterized by a continuous interplay of revealing and concealing aspects of ourselves.
"Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates" (1968):This work examined the experiences of individuals in total institutions, such as mental hospitals, where they are isolated from the outside world. Goffman introduced the concept of total institutions to describe these highly regulated and controlled environments. He explored the loss of personal autonomy and privacy within such institutions and how individuals adapt to these conditions. Goffman discussed mortification, which refers to the process by which individuals are stripped of their individuality and forced into conformity. "Asylums" played a role in shaping the field of medical sociology and challenged the treatment of those in institutional care.
"Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity" (1963):In this work, Goffman wrote about stigma, which refers to the negative attributes or labels associated with individuals. He examined how individuals with stigmatized identities manage their public appearances and attempt to pass as normal. Goffman introduced the idea of spoiled identity, which occurs when a person's stigmatized attribute becomes the dominant aspect of their identity. The book explored various strategies people employ to cope with stigma, such as retreating into subcultures or trying to conceal their stigmatized status. Goffman's insights on stigma contributed significantly to the understanding of identity and the social consequences of being labeled as different.
Erving Goffman's contributions to sociology, particularly through these works, continue to influence the study of social interaction, identity, and institutions.
From his earliest papers, Erving Goffman employed a heuristic strategy, which consisted of uncovering what happens in trivial and mundane, peripheral or bizarre, corners of social behavior, depicting the mechanism and its workings in almost painful detail, and then peeling off more and more of the veil of seemingly normal behavior and relationships to reveal similar or analogous structures and processes at work across the entire order of society (Burns,1992).
Goffman is known for:
- his concept of 'face' or the public image that individuals present to others in social situations; Goffman argued that people are constantly engaged in the process of "impression management," trying to present themselves in a way that is socially acceptable and meets the expectations of others;
- his concept of 'frame analysis', a method of studying how people interpret and understand social situations; humans use frames or mental structures to understand and interpret the events and interactions that take place in social situations;
- his concept of 'stigma', which refers to the negative associations and stereotypes attached to certain groups of people, which can have a profound impact on the lives and opportunities of those labeled as stigmatized.
The study of social interaction
Goffman was involved in micro-sociology; the study of social interaction. Social interactions rely on shared implicit assumptions and rules in order to be meaningful and stable. When these rules are broken, it can cause upset and disrupt social order. Conversation analysis looks at the mechanisms and rules of conversations, which may not always be grammatical but are still important for social interactions. Tact, or the ability to avoid causing embarrassment or discomfort, is an important aspect of social interactions. Impression management, or the way in which individuals present themselves to others, is also important in maintaining social interactions. Goffman's research on impression management highlights the role of both verbal and nonverbal expressions in creating and maintaining a favorable impression. In general, social exchange theory suggests that social interactions are based on the principle of reciprocity, in which people seek to maximize their own rewards and minimize their own costs in relationships.
Focused and unfocused interactions
In social situations, people can engage in both focused and unfocused interactions. Focused interactions are when individuals directly address each other and pay attention to what the other person is saying or doing. Unfocused interactions occur when people are in the presence of each other without directly interacting, and can still involve nonverbal communication. Personal space, or the physical distance that individuals maintain between each other during interactions, varies depending on cultural norms and the nature of the relationship. Social interactions also involve bracketing, or the marking of the beginning and end of each episode of focused interaction, as well as the separation of each encounter from the background of unfocused interactions. Turn-taking, or the structured way in which individuals take turns speaking in a conversation, is an important aspect of social interactions. It involves both verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate that a speaker has finished and it is the other person's turn to speak. Social interaction can also involve rituals, or prescribed patterns of behavior that serve to establish and maintain social relationships.
Platitudes, or commonplace expressions that are used in everyday social interactions, are important in allowing people to communicate efficiently without requiring much thought or emotional effort. These expressions, such as "How are you today?" or "I'm fine," are often used as signals or gestures to initiate or maintain social interactions, and their literal meaning is often not important. Platitudes allow people to interact with each other smoothly and routinely without having to constantly reflect on the attitudes of others or anticipate the course of interactions. They also enable social interactions to take place without mutual identification, reflection, or empathy. In this way, platitudes are essential to the routine structures of everyday social life, and avoiding their use can put a strain on relationships. However, platitudes can also be used in deceptive or manipulative ways, and it is important to be aware of these potential uses in order to better understand and navigate social interactions.
Front and back regions
Individuals use a variety of resources to initiate, maintain, and order social interactions. These include interpreting the behavior and expressions of others, engaging in impression management to present oneself in a favorable light, setting up a "back region" where interactions are more relaxed, respecting personal space, clearly delimiting interactions through bracketing, and using platitudes.
Social roles, or the behavioral expectations associated with a particular social position, are a particularly important tool for managing social interactions. They allow individuals to reduce the uncertainty inherent in social interactions by following predetermined patterns of behavior. Social roles also provide a sense of identity and purpose, and they can be used to convey status and power. However, roles can also be constricting and limiting, and individuals may struggle to balance the demands of different roles. It is important to be aware of the role that social roles play in shaping interactions, and to be mindful of the potential consequences of adopting or rejecting particular roles.
Burns, T. (1992), Erving Goffman, London: Routledge.
Weyns, W. (2017), Inleiding tot de sociale wetenschappen, Antwerp: Universiteit Antwerpen.