No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Erving Goffman

From his earliest papers, the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) 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.

Application to the management of safety

The concept of 'face' can be used to understand how employees present themselves in relation to safety practices and behaviours. For example, employees may be motivated to put on a positive "face" by adhering to safety protocols and procedures to avoid appearing incompetent or careless.

By analyzing the frames employees use to understand safety, organizations can design safety messages and training that resonate with their employees and are likely to be more effective in promoting safe behaviors.

Using Goffman's concept of "stigma", one can explore the ways in which negative stereotypes or associations can influence the perception of safety among different groups of employees. For example, if certain groups of employees (such as those lower down the organizational hierarchy or in less powerful positions) are seen as less involved in safety or more prone to accidents, this can create a stigma that affects their perception of safety and their willingness to report safety concerns.

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

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.

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