The Gift of Erving Goffman: The Micro-Drama of Everyday Life

“He who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore”

(Goffman 1974:14).


Pierre Bourdieu shortly after Goffman’s death thus aptly described him as the ‘discoverer of the infinitely small’.


The Importance of the Everyday


The 1993 film Groundhog Day, voted as a classic American Film captures the power of the “everyday” comically. The word “groundhog” became a popularly used term for the unpleasantness and repetitiveness of the routine everyday. In 2006, the film was added to the United States National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. In the movie, protagonist Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), an arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman who is sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney. He hates this assignment because it means going into a small town to report on an insignificant event. He finds this an insult to his capability and perceived stature as a newsman. To his dismay, the protagonist finds himself in a time-loop, waking up to and repeating the same day again and again. He is frustrated because he is the only one who seems to know that he is repeating the same day everyday. After indulging in pranks, hedonism and numerous suicide attempts, he begins to re-examine the everyday encounters with greater humanity; he approaches the same everyday with humility and respect for the other actors and players in this repetitive everyday life. By changing the way he behaves with the other actors everyday, he becomes a popular person in that town, wins the girl, and also re-examines his own life and priorities.


The “everyday” has always been an important component in all religions, which focus on human actions at a micro-level. However, in our time and era, it seems that economists, environmentalists and electioneering-politicians have become extremely interested in the everyday. The shift in economics towards consumerism in the past few decades necessitates an examination of the everyday habits of consumers. Companies have the mission of increasing sales and hire top-end marketers and advertisers to ensure that their products become a part of the everyday life of their consumers. With billions of people using chemicals, plastics, and fossil fuel, saving the environment requires that people change their everyday behaviours. With the rampant spread of elections (now conflated with democracy) in all parts and countries of the world, politicians are keen on promising a better “everyday” for their constituents whatever be the cost to the national budget or the environment.




Most of social science, according to C. Wright Mills, is known for its “grand theories” and “abstracted empiricism”. The work of sociologists about social life often seems unreadable and incomprehensible to most common people who live in that same society. However, thanks to the pioneering work of one post-World War 2 sociologist, many young social scientists are examining the “everyday” through their sociological lenses.


A Canadian-born sociologist who died in the month of November in 1982; Erving Goffman is considered as one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. The Times Higher Education Guide (2007) listed him as the sixth most-cited author in the humanities and social sciences behind prominent names such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Albert Bandura and Anthony Giddens, but ahead of equally significant contributors to social thought: Jürgen Habermas, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud.


Throughout a career spanning three decades Goffman sought to rectify the gross neglect of ordinary social life and interactions in the study of sociology. Pierre Bourdieu shortly after Goffman’s death thus aptly described him as the ‘discoverer of the infinitely small’.


Towards the end of his life in an interview labelling himself an “ethnographer of small entities” (Verhoeven 1993:322) he summarised the entire essence and mission of his work in the statement:


“the gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest thing of all” (Goffman 1967:90-91).


How the study of the trivialities that were perhaps not so trivial after all provided an important in-road into understanding more comprehensive social processes and more essential features of social life than were previously attempted. Erving Goffman’s sociology had the unique ability to spot and to refine the analysis of that which no one else seemed to take any serious notice of. He had a keen eye and an incisive sensitivity towards seeing the meaningful and important in the apparently trivial and unnoticed features of everyday situations.


image asylums


Goffman’s ability to capture this familiar and trivial world was described by Alasdair MacIntyre as a way of seeing “the familiar with the eyes of a stranger, while at the same time retaining his familiarity with what is being viewed.” Randall Collins (1981) termed him a ‘hero-anthropologist’, an ‘explorer of our social unconscious’.


The general public came to know of Goffman’s work from a feature article in Time Magazine that labelled him “one of the most illuminating – and disturbing – cartographers of that shadowy terrain where man plays at being a social animal without fully understanding exactly what he is doing” (Time Magazine 1969:50).


Goffman is known in academic social theory circles for his study of symbolic interaction, which took the form of dramaturgical analysis. One of his earlier books The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) captures Goffman’s approach to the study of society. Gofffman’s work lies in the area of the sociology of everyday life, social interaction, social construction of self, social organization (framing) of experience, and particular elements of social life such as total institutions and stigma. Other major works include Asylums (1961), Stigma (1963), Interaction Ritual (1967), Behavior in Public Places (1963), Strategic Interaction (1969), Where the Action Is (1969), Frame Analysis (1974), Gender Advertisements (1979) and Forms of Talk (1981).


Enigmatic and Creative Micro-Sociology Beyond Politics and Structural Analysis


One of the most distinctive and noted features of Goffman’s work – particularly if one recalls the time in which his career took off (in the fifties and sixties) – was his largely apolitical mentality. Contrary to many scholars at the time, Goffman remained unmoved in his work by political or ideological motives. Marshall Ledger recalls an exchange of words between Goffman and a colleague discussing politics.


When the colleague declared that “all the world will eventually be Marxist.” 

Goffman drily – and characteristically – replied: 

“I’m not denying that. But tell me one thing: Do Marxists brush their teeth in the morning?” 

(Ledger 1982:42). 


Goffman’s legacy was inspired by a variety of classical social thinkers and traditions such as Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, the early Chicago Sociologists, American pragmatism, ethology, existentialism and the work of Norbert Elias. Moreover, Goffman’s own ideas also went on to inspire as well as provoke many contemporary social thinkers, among them Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Collins and Judith Butler. However, Goffman was almost allergic to macro-theorizing, grand theories and the almost vain use of social science theory to rouse people out of their stupor and use sociology as a means of awakening people. William A. Gamson quotes a story of how someone once asked Goffman about his politics: “[Goffman] seemed momentarily taken aback by the question:


“My ‘politics’?” (pause), I don’t think I have any ‘politics’. (Another pause). If anything, anarchist” 

(Gamson 1985:605). 


Gamson went on humorously to suggest how, “in the eternal hunt, Goffman ran with the hares (rather than the hounds)”.


Goffman himself poignantly declared in one of his books – especially aimed at those believing that social science should work as a vehicle for political purposes and sympathies:


“He who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore”

(Goffman 1974:14).


The topics that Goffman chose to examine had the potential of becoming political diatribes, however, Goffman wrote about sensitive topics such as stigma, institutionalization, deviance and other latently or manifestly political matters without political declarations. And perhaps this apolitical observance contributed to the continued relevance of his work within contemporary studies of minorities and the downtrodden. However, being apolitical does not amount to being without conscience or concern, or without analytical depth and sophistication, but as Goffman showed it requires that the sociologist understands that the task of social science is to generate knowledge not to provide ideological gun-fire for political campaigns. In the case of Goffman, indeed this knowledge creation is also innovative, thought-provoking, counter-intuitive and even dangerous and disliked knowledge.


He was an enigma because he provocatively sat astride many of the dogmatic barriers erected to keep things theories, paradigms and approaches apart. He was an eclectic well before eclecticism became fashionable.


Goffman presented himself as a detached, hard-boiled intellectual cynic, the sociologist as a 1940s private eye. His was a hip, existential, cool, essentially apolitical (at least in terms of prevailing ideologies) personal style. As a Canadian Jew of short stature working at the margins (or perhaps better, frontiers) of a marginal discipline, he was clearly an outsider (Marx 1984:653).


As should be evident, Goffman was neither unsympathetic to power nor politics – but his politics were not Politics with a capital P but rather politics as an integral part of everyday life and human intimate togetherness, a sort of personalised politics or body politics, as it were. Thus, although it on the surface seemed a distanced attitude to politics – which to the naked eye perhaps even seemed excessively uninvolved and dismissive – it was nevertheless an attitude reflecting a painful awareness of the fact that not everybody made it in the world. Books such as Asylums (1961) and Stigma (1963b) certainly testify to this and Bennett M. Berger emphasised how Goffman’s sympathies, despite his own success, for the losers was part of “the role distance which is obliged for the deviantly successful out of loyalty to all the beautiful losers who never made it” (Berger 1973:361).


Goffman’s work emerged on the sociological scene at a time when quantitative methods and macro-oriented analyses were regarded as the apex of social scientific creativity and when either structural (such as functionalist and later Marxist) or highly individual perspectives (such as behaviourism, exchange theory or psychoanalysis) prevailed. Studies of the everyday, social interaction and social occasions were generally regarded with great suspicion and not seen as desirable routes for aspiring academic candidates. Goffman’s critical comment about the status of the – at that time – sociological priorities perhaps says it all:


Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms and kitchens. To be sure, one part of ‘collective behavior’ – riots, crowds, panics – has been established as something to study. But the remaining part of the area, the study of ordinary human traffic and the patterning of ordinary social contacts, has been little considered (Goffman 1963a:4).


Despite his theoretical sources of inspiration (such as primarily Durkheim, Simmel and Sartre), and despite his intensive periods of naturalistic fieldwork and data collection, Goffman was neither an armchair/theoretical sociologist nor a naturalistic/empirical one either. He was a hybrid, a man with the ability to mix traditions, techniques and ideas into his own unique and eclectic position. His humorous disdain for those engaged only in airy or abstract theorising – what C. Wright Mills (1959) in Goffman’s own lifetime famously termed ‘grand theory’ – is well-known and he, according to Robin Williams, once described such theorising as:


“two thirds corn flakes, one third taffy” 

(Williams 1998:157) 


In the Preface to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life he even warned his readers:


“the introduction is necessarily abstract and may be skipped.” 

(Goffman 1959:vi) 


This humorous disdain was counter-balanced by an equal amount of dissatisfaction with statistical or empirical fetishism (what C. Wright Mills had labelled ‘abstracted empiricism’) – without anchor in anything but numbers, scorecards and diagrams; the types of information and reporting that were hardly ever used by Goffman himself.


Goffman’s books and writings continually jostle the reader into chuckles, smiles or broad laughter” (Lofland 1984:19). Goffman consciously developed a refined written style. A man with a flair for words, he succeeded in enticing readers with eloquence and elaborated language games. Arnold Birenbaum and Edward Sagarin commented that Goffman “reminds us of no other social thinker so much as he does of great men of letters, perhaps Marcel Proust or Franz Kafka” (Birenbaum and Sagarin 1973:3-4).


Goffman’s much-publicized mastery of prose and language, his ironic attitude, his vivid essayism and his poignant examples from everyday life made it an exquisite pleasure to read his books compared to the often technical writings and abstract reasoning of many of his sociological colleagues. Also the reader would almost immediately identify with Goffman’s texts and in them recognise events and experiences from his or her own everyday life encounters – something a bit more difficult with the often abstract writings or sophisticated terminology of many structural functionalists or Marxist scholars.


Goffman, despite his outsider position within the social science circles of his time, left the discipline with a treasure trove of insights. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why his work remains so alive and kicking within the social sciences. One of the major conceptual inventors of the discipline of sociology in the 20th century; he left behind a mind-boggling conceptual arsenal of taxonomies, schemes of classification, neologisms and gave worn-out words new meanings. Collins reports the following list of central concepts developed by Goffman:


Face-work, deference and demeanor, impression management, and the presentation of self; frontstage and backstage, teams and team-work, discrepant roles; a typology of secrets: dark, strategic, inside, entrusted, and free; moral careers, total institutions, and ways of making out in them; commitment, attachment, embracement, engagement, and role distance; focused and unfocused interaction, face engagements, accessible engagements, situational proprieties and improprieties, and the tightness and looseness of situation rules; vehicular units and participation units; territories of the self; personal space, use space, turns, information and conversational preserves; territorial violations; markers and tie-signs; supportive interchanges (access rituals) and remedial interchanges (accounts, apologies, body gloss); frames, keyings, fabrications, frame-breaking and out-of-frame activity 

(Collins 1981:222)


Robin Williams and Susan Jane Birrell’s hard work sorting out and indexing Goffman’s many concepts developed and utilized throughout the years point out that Goffman may have invented close to one thousand concepts (Williams 1988:88n). He was to microsociology what Aristotle was to philosophy or Linnaeus was to botany as he created schemes of classification, taxonomies and a wide range of immediately recognisable sensitising concepts to describe the micro-world of face-to-face interaction.


The Importance of Everyday Life and the Inherent Drama


Historian Eugen Weber once aptly captured the necessity of understanding the often invisible ‘petite histoire’ of social life:


A lot of life is about things so trivial that we do not bother to record them – only sometimes note their absence, as with manners. But the petite histoire is made up of details, and it can surely help to make vaster and more important processes clear (Weber 1986:80).




Erving Goffman’s greatness consisted in his perceptive and courageous interest in conducting research into this ‘petite histoire’ – the intricacies of everyday life – which to most of his scholarly colleagues seemed dull and unimportant and to real people living everyday life appeared so familiar that they were blind to its analytical dimensions. Thus, in a sense Goffman was the quintessential essayist who (to paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman) de-familiarized the familiar. Goffman went against the grain of traditional social science schools of thought and ventured into a territory that everyone thought was quite useless for the advancement of the science. In order to do this Goffman not only started by studying marginal groups but also had to literally become marginal himself.  Thomas J. Scheff wrote:


Since there don’t seem to be any new Goffman on the horizon, perhaps we all need to practice his art of deconstructing taken-for-granted assumptions in social science, not just the Western fascination with the individual. To be as effective as Goffman, we need to be marginal persons, like him (Scheff 2006:31).


In his first best-selling book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) Goffman used the imagery and metaphor of theater to portray the importance of human and social action and interaction. This has since been referred to as the dramaturgical model of social life. Goffman argues that social interaction may be likened to a theater and people in everyday life to actors on a stage, each playing a variety of roles. The audience consists of other individuals who observe the role-playing and react to the performances. In social interaction, like in theatrical performances, there is a front region where the actors are on stage in front of an audience. There is also a back region, or back stage, where individuals can be themselves and get rid of their role or identity that they play when they are in front of others. Concepts in the “dramaturgical framework” are similar to those in theatre such as performance, setting, manner, appearance, front, and front stage, back stage, off stage.

Image 2 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life - Erving Goffman


Grimshaw has written how “Goffman’s gift was a facility to point out things about social life at once completely new and instantly recognizable” (Grimshaw 1983:147).


Javier Treviño in his introduction to Goffman’s Legacy summarizes some key aspects of Goffman’s sociological perspective as attention to the routine and seemingly trivial matters of everyday life; the use of a rich array of metaphors, rhetorical techniques and conceptual schemes; and powerful, yet unarticulated, qualitative research methodology.


Goffman’s great contributions were also to sociological methodology, observational methods and to the poetics of presenting scientific material even of the apparently most unscientific nature. He was one of the first sociologists to give serious academic attention to the micro-social world. And–the special way in which he communicated his scientific findings made Allen Grimshaw (1983) call him as the ‘genuine original.’



Goffman’s Perspective


“Not, then, men and their moments. Rather moments and their men”

- (Goffman 1967:3).


Goffman was an enigma and like a piece of creative work – his writings are constantly and continuously open to interpretation. This is what made him difficult-to-digest for traditional academics and sociologists. In that sense, Goffman was an academic rebel in a suit and without the motorcycle.  There is no one right way of reading, approaching or appreciating Goffman and there is no one correct or authoritative interpretation of his work. On his part, Goffman did not aspire to – provide sociology with a systematic ‘theory’, a ‘method’ or a ‘paradigm’. He provided the discipline with a ‘perspective’ that contained multiple theoretical, methodological, investigative and conceptual insights into a variety of aspects of social life.


A central and most enigmatic feature of Goffman’s sociological perspective was his preferred way of dealing with and describing his favourite research focus: face-to-face interaction in ordinary everyday settings. As many interpreters have pointed out, he described the grammar of social life through three perhaps four main metaphorical frameworks – the theatre, the ritual, the game and the frame.


Whereas his theatrical or dramaturgical metaphor was in part inspired by his devouring of novels and crime stories with dramatic plots and in part shaped by Kenneth Burke’s (1945/1969) idea of ‘dramatism’, his ritual metaphor was clearly informed by the writings of Durkheim and functional anthropology. And whereas the development of the game metaphor was to a large degree inspired by personal experiences as a dealer in a Las Vegas casino as well as his reading of the game-theoretical work of Thomas C. Schelling, his last frame metaphor (although perhaps not really a metaphor) was clearly informed by Gregory Bateson and the cognitive turn in the social sciences. The purpose of Goffman’s many metaphors was, as is often the case when invoking such literary-poetic devices in the social sciences (Rigney 2001) – to dress social reality in new, powerful, colourful and re-contextualised conceptual garments.


Goffman’s perspective was that of qualitative sociologist meets literary-poetic sociologist. As a qualitative sociologist, he believed in participant-observation, using all his senses – systematically as well as impressionistically – to capture face-to-face interaction and as a literary-poetic sociologist he used metaphors, novels, short stories, newspaper clippings and movies as creative sources of inspiration to concoct a sociological storyline about his research topic. Goffman’s insightful descriptions and conceptual delineation of face-to-face interaction was indeed an interplay of informal and flexible metaphorical ideas with a constant flow of impressions from everyday life events – all occurring in the backdrop of his immense knowledge of and inspiration from classical sociologists.


As a qualitatively-oriented sociologist, his preference for participant observation is well-known and celebrated and pertains both to the formally conducted fieldwork sessions in the Shetland Islands and in a mental asylum as well as to a generally observant and curious attitude to everything that went on around him. These events, incidents and observations of everyday life were then strategically used as evidence or examples in most of his books.


Goffman obviously enjoyed submerging into and subjecting himself to the micro-ecological universe of everyday life and he believed that the direct observation of events was indeed important to understanding. In this way, Goffman was a participant observer of all facets of social life and everyday life (around him) and as he commented on participant observation in the posthumously published reflections on fieldwork:


“It’s one [technique] of getting data, it seems to me, by subjecting yourself, your own body and your own personality, and your own social situation, to the set of contingencies that play upon a set of individuals” (Goffman 1989:125).


His books never contained lengthy methodological discussions or descriptions of what he actually did, how, when, why and to whom. Howard Becker commented on this reluctance to provide or reveal methodological guidelines by stating:


[Goffman] felt very strongly that you could not elaborate any useful rules of procedure for doing field research and that, if you attempted to do that, people would misinterpret what you had written, do it (whatever it was) wrong, and then blame you for the resulting mess. He refused to accept responsibility for such unfortunate possibilities (Becker 2003:660).

Direct interviewing – another favourite method among qualitative sociologists – was not a technique practiced by Goffman (perhaps apart from in his master’s thesis); neither was focus group interviewing or other means to extract meaning from people by way of their own accounts and explanations. Was this perhaps due to his suspicion that people refrain from telling the truth if interviewed or hide their actual opinions behind a variety of impression management games. Instead of asking people to say what they do or think, Goffman preferred to watch them.


“I don’t give hardly any weight to what people say, but I try to triangulate what they’re saying with events” (Goffman 1989:131).


In many ways, Goffman’s research strategy – or perhaps anti-strategy – embodied Ken Plummer’s notion of the AHFA Principle – the ‘ad hoc fumbling around’ with its emphasis on the impressionistic, pragmatic, tentative and explorative as compared to more systematic sampling procedures and coherent research designs. Most of his books consciously bear subtitles containing notions such as ‘essays’, ‘notes’ or ‘studies’ (see Goffman 1961, 1963a, 1963b, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974) signalling something merely tentative, preliminary or suggestive rather than systematic theoretical treatises.


Goffman the Man


John Lofland’s (1984) wonderful and insightful ‘tales of Goffman’ reveal a man with a wholehearted ability to joke about himself and others. Many of these tales also contributed to the almost mythical status that Goffman obtained especially after his death:


  • Passing by a group of old friends in a hotel lobby at a sociologists’ convention, he was heard saying loud and clear: “If I can’t find anybody more important to talk with, I’ll come back and talk with you …
  • A line he used frequently: “In the time I’m talking to you, I could be writing a paper”.
  • At a sociology department party where he encounters an assistant professor who has just been denied tenure and who is angry and bitter about it: “After all, all of us aren’t good enough to teach here” …
  • Asked why he stood for the Presidency of the ASA, his instant one-word reply: “Vanity” …
  • Replying to a student who is suggesting that the dignity and integrity of the self are moral concerns that permeate his work: “I only put in all that self stuff because people like to read about it” (Lofland 1984:20-21).


Throughout his life, Goffman remained – and perhaps even nurtured an image of himself as – a marginal figure. In general, he was opposed to the pigeonholing and ‘boxing’ of intellectual ideas and he defiantly declined any direct affiliation with or membership of any school of thought or paradigm. As he according to Dell Hymes once stated when reviewing an article for a journal:


“I’m getting very tired of slogans and flags and kinship acknowledgements and membership badges”

(Hymes 1984:626).


Later, in Frame Analysis, he revealed even more of the nature of his own sporadic, impressionistic or anecdotal research approach and the data material involved in his analyses:


By and large, I do not present these anecdotes, therefore, as evidence or proof, but as clarifying depictions, as frame fantasies which manage, through the hundred liberties taken by their tellers, to celebrate our beliefs about the workings of the world. What was put into these tales is thus what I would like to get out of them. These data have another weakness. I have culled them over the years on a bit-or-miss basis using principles of selection mysterious to me which, furthermore, changed from year to year and which I could not recover if I wanted to. Here, too, a caricature of systematic sampling is involved (Goffman 1974:15, emphasis added).


Contrary to several other important sociologists writing at his time, Goffman did not establish a school of thought and did not leave a paradigm for his followers to praise or maintain. He was not a Pied Piper parading as paradigmatic founder or intellectual father figure. In Robert W. Friedrichs’s (1970) famous separation between ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ modes of conducting sociological research, Goffman clearly belonged to the latter group as he seemed to have no aspirations to found a congregation of disciples worshipping his work. He rather wallowed in his status as a marginal figure because such a position luxuriously relieved him of the burdening obligation and expectation to conform to the mainstream. Also in this way, as in many others, Goffman was an enigma.


A commonly shared understanding is that Goffman was a mercurial persona, but also a complex human being. He lived a life far away from public spotlights and his appearances as keynote speaker at conferences or other public events were few and far between. He was not fond of the floodlight being turned on himself and contrary to many of his contemporaries who eagerly took part in public debates in the media or took the platform at political rallies, Goffman never showed up.


Goffman “never gave interviews to the media, he never allowed his publishers to release pictures of him and he never appeared on television” (Winkin 1999:19). Goffman was opposed to the “low form of hero worship, an attempt to humanize the field and insulate the sociologist from the study of society” (Goffman in Davis 1980:7) evident in the publication of book after book dealing with academics as if they were celebrities and superstars. He probably would not have liked this article because it places its human object on a pedestal and puts too much emphasis on the individual genius behind the ideas. As Marshall Berman observed:


“Wherever [Goffman] has been, he has been virtually anonymous. He has taken no part in political or cultural affairs. He does not speak at conferences or appear on talk shows. He almost never allows himself to be photographed … In his books, as in his life, he projects a persona of utter impersonality” (Berman 1972/2000:267).


Goffman “discouraged writing about himself” and how he when confronted with the intentions of publishing a book (The View From Goffman) in his honour – according to the editor Jason Ditton (1980) – was “totally against the volume”.


According to one close acquaintance to Goffman, his unimpressive height (he was apparently not very tall, close to 5 feet 4 inches) of which he was consciously aware – apart from occasionally making him the victim of colleagues’ joking – however also made him an almost unnoticed and impressive observer of all those apparently trivial things that took place before his very eyes. His own inconspicuousness thus turned advantageous when observing others and made him specifically alert and sensitive to the way people appeared to each other.


And not only personally and socially, but also academically and politically did Goffman refrain from taking or claiming centre-stage. Collins has noted that “Goffman seems hyper-reflexive; he himself manifests an extreme form of role-distance, separating himself from any clear, straightforward position, be it theoretical or popular. In this sense, he appears as the epitome of the 1950s intellectual – hip to the point of unwillingness to take any strong stance, even the stance of his own hipness” (Collins 1981:253).


Despite little doubt about Goffman’s genius and his gift for writing interesting, witty and thought-provoking sociology, he was not equally popular in all camps or circles of academic life. Everett C. Hughes, Goffman’s teacher at the University of Chicago, in a book review testified to the potential for opposition against Goffman’s observations:


Observation of this measure of intensity is indeed a threat to the face of the observed subjects, if they are moral beings. Laden with guilty embarrassing knowledge, Goffman saves the face of all who are content to let themselves be considered normal, fallible human beings. Those who cannot take his analysis are no doubt tempted to do away with him (Hughes 1969:426).


Erwin (1992) has speculated that Goffman “learned about interaction more by watching than by participating”. Without doubt Goffman was more of a voyeur than an exhibitionist and the fact that he was an entertaining and shrewd social choreographer is well beyond argument and Laurie Taylor (2000:239) dubbed him a ‘licensed voyeur’ wallowing in the watching and observing of people’s attempts to present themselves to each other.


Goffman was not good at dealing with criticism – either he seemed to ignore it or, in a few instances, provided comprehensive and biting counter-replies. One of these latter instances occurred when Norman K. Denzin and Charles Keller (1981) in the early 1980s critically assessed his position and perspective. Goffman carefully commented on their understanding of his work in an extended, sophisticated and irascible reply (Goffman 1981b).


Not Politics with Capital P but a Careful Examination of Power at the Micro-Level of Everyday Life


Sociological research always seeks to strike a balance between distanced or disinterested investigation of social life on the one hand and social engagement on the other. A “sociology” that is too distanced and disinterested runs the risk of becoming irrelevant to people and the world. A “sociology” that openly embraces political ideology or activism ends up diluting its own scientific potential. Traditionally sociology has often been associated with liberal or left-wing political observations. This was also – and perhaps particularly – the case during Goffman’s lifetime. However, if one attempts to find support for specific political ideas in the work of Goffman, one would have searched in vain. In his writings, Goffman remained clinically apolitical and even seemed to find pleasure in joking about his lack of convictions.


Goffman’s ‘politics’, if understood as his personal sympathies or worldview, were those – as so many other students of symbolic interaction, deviance and other morally debatable topics in those days – of an open-minded and tolerant man. Goffman never saw himself as a spokesperson for any political movement or aired macro-political visions, but as books such as Asylums (1961) and Stigma (1964a) clearly indicate, Goffman was clearly sympathetic to the plight of mental patients, deviants and the underdogs.


Goffman’s view on power and politics was therefore much more ‘bottom-up’, with an emphasis on how the less powerful – in institutional and non-institutional settings – resist surveillance and stigmatization and create a meaningful and viable sense of self (Alaszewski and Manthorpe 1995:39). In a micro-sociological and micro-political sense he was thus a very sensitive person – far from the politics concerned with state deficits, war campaigns, poverty, racial inequality or nuclear disarmament.


Peter L. Berger has talked about Goffman’s ‘demonic detachment’ – his own as observer of the micro-social world as well as the general attitude of those who inhabit and get by in this world and most of Goffman’s books were indeed written with this kind of ‘double’ detachment as a conscious and integral part of the plot. Regarding Goffman’s detached political stance (or rather anti-stance), T. R. Young also aptly captured the crux of the matter by stating that “Goffman neither celebrates the priest nor castigates the prostitute” and commented how Goffman was persistent in insisting that “the points of view of psychiatrists, salesmen, professors and police have no prior moral claim on the loyalty of the sociologist than do the points of view of the patient, the customer, the student or the criminal” (Young 1971:276).


The general apolitical nature of Goffman’s work was also noted by Alvin Gouldner who critically stated that his work is “a social theory that dwells on the episodic and sees life only as it is lived in a narrow interpersonal circumference, ahistorical and noninstitutional, an existence beyond history and society” (Gouldner 1970:379). Goffman’s work may be seen as apolitical only in a conventional understanding of ‘politics’ but that his work in fact had political connotations, repercussions and capacities for understanding the micro-battles and micro-conflicts which, every now and then, surface in social gatherings and situations.


Obviously, Goffman’s politics were not the macro-politics of nation-states and organised political parties but the micro-politics unfolding in episodic everyday encounters and in snapshot situations of stigmatisation and struggles to maintain face. Although power as a macro-phenomenon, as the possession of specific social positions or the privileges of particular offices, was almost entirely absent from his analyses, power as a micro-phenomenon permeated most parts of his work (Rogers 1977). In this way, Goffman’s view inspired many later attempts to theorise politics (and especially emotional politics) within micro-settings


Goffman also admitted that people in power positions enjoy privileges unavailable to other social groups and his very last words ever published in his presidential address touched – humorously and succinctly – upon the importance of investigating those segments of society apparently immune to sociological analysis and paid tribute to the continuous importance of sociology as a curious, inquisitive and obnoxious enterprise:


I’ve heard it said that we [the sociologists] should be glad to trade what we’ve so far produced for a few really good conceptual distinctions and a cold beer. But there’s nothing in the world we should trade for what we do have: the bent to sustain in regard to all elements of social life a spirit of unfettered, unsponsored inquiry, and the wisdom not to look elsewhere but ourselves and our discipline for this mandate. That is our inheritance and that so far is what we have to bequeath. If one must have warrant addressed to social needs, let it be for unsponsored analyses of the social arrangements enjoyed by those with institutional authority – priests, psychiatrists, school teachers, police, generals, government leaders, parents, males, whites, nationals, media operators, and all the other well-placed persons who are in a position to give official imprint to versions of reality (Goffman 1983:17).


What a shame he was unable to deliver this provocative speech in person – it may perhaps have given his critics a different view of his work instead of claiming that he was entirely negligent of or indifferent to central and conventional sociological themes such as social power, inequality and stratification. As Collins recollects, even the manner of the cancellation of the presidential address – to which so many looked forward, some perhaps more anxiously than others – was typically Goffmanesque:


“Everyone wondered what he would do for his presidential address: a straight, traditional presentation seemed unthinkable for Goffman with his reputation as an iconoclast, yet to be merely iconoclastic in a public forum was too easy, passé, a mere imitation of earlier cultural forms. I would have predicted yet another multi-levelled public address, polity and conventional on the surface but filled with esoteric claims for the cognoscenti and veiled put-downs of everyone else. Instead we got a far more dramatic message:


Presidential address cancelled, Goffman dying.


It was an appropriately Goffmanian way to go out.


Meadows 1


© Michael Hviid Jacobsen (with editing inputs from The Essayist)


This piece is abstracted and reworked from Michael Hviid Jacobsen (ed.): The Contemporary Goffman. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought. New York: Routledge, 2010, 396 pp.

Link to BIBLIOGRAPHY (Goffman)

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