Remembering Erving Goffman

Herbert Blumer

(Herbert Blumer, “Action vs. Interaction: Relations in Public – Microstudies of the Public Order by Erving Goffman.” Society, 1972, Vo. 9, pp. 50-53.)

Erving Goffman has gained well-deserved recognition as an innovative scholar of high order. Through a series of noteworthy publications he has shown himself to be the dissector par excellence of the close inter play between human beings in face-to-face association. His forte is the minute analysis of the social positioning of participants as they take heed of each other, inspect each other, address each other, move toward or away from each other, parade before each other, lay claims on each other, insulate themselves against each other and make a range of varied adjustments to each other. With his gifts of sensitive perception, creative imagination and adroit conceptualization he can take an area of intimate human interplay which appears to us as flat and humdrum and show it to be intricate, dynamic and dramatic. Further, he forces us to see order in such areas of complex interplay – an order that is seemingly rooted in the generic requirements of human association. His analyses are made from the perspective of sociology and social psychology and must be recognized as contributions to these disciplines.

The general characterization of Goffman's scholarly work applies to the present volume, Relations in Public. This volume carrying the subtitle Microstudies of the Public Order consists of six interrelated articles with an illuminating preface and a lengthy appended essay. The common area of the studies is the "field of public life" which Goffman identifies as the "realm of activity that is generated by face-to-face interaction and organized by norms of co-mingling – a domain containing weddings, family meals, chaired meetings, forced marches, service encounters, queues, crowds and couples." Goffman's special concern is with the ground rules (the "norms of co-mingling") that regulate face-to-face contact in this field of public life. The ground rules establish "public order." Public order consists of the "patterned adaptations" to such rules, "including conformances, by-passings, secret deviations, excusable infractions, flagrant violations, and the like." At the cost of omitting a great deal of the insightful observations made in this book by Goffman, the gist of his analysis can be summarized in the following points.

1)In their face-to-face relations in the public arena human beings are engaged in scanning or reading each other and, in turn, presenting themselves through externalization so that they are read in appropriate ways by others who are scanning them. The interplay that takes place in public situations occurs through such externalization and scanning.

2) Human beings bring a series of territorial claims into their public relations. These territorial claims or "preserves" are represented by such forms as "personal space," "the turn" (as in forming a queue at a ticket window) and the "stall" (a well-bounded space such as a chair or a beach mat). In their association in public situations human beings are engaged in staking out their preserves, in meeting the encroachments of others on their respective preserves and in avoiding intrusion into the preserves of others. The interplay of territorial claims constitutes a very important dimension of the public order.

3) In their face-to-face encounters and contacts human beings employ interpersonal rituals (such as gestures of recognition, greeting ceremonies and inquiries as to one's health) which serve to open access to each other, establish the degree of such access, link persons to each other in given ways, maintain or reestablish contact with one another, and place people in proper position to each other. Goffman calls these interpersonal rituals, "supportive interchanges." They permeate public life, introducing-a highly important dimension of order.

4) The maintenance of public order (as defined above) is not, as it would seem, a mere matter of obedience to social norms but involves an employment of "remedial interchanges" which allow for the reestablishment of relations that have been breached by the infraction of norms. These remedial interchanges take the form chiefly of "accounts" (explanations which strip the infraction of its offensive character), "apologies" and "requests" (solicitations for permission to perform the infraction). The use of accounts, apologies and requests define the infraction in such a way as to leave intact the integrity of the social norm that has been violated. Remedial interchange is a constant feature of interaction in public life, providing an organizational means of sustaining the public order in the face of its violation.

5) Of great importance in the arena of public life are "anchored relations" – those between individuals who know each other and know that they know each other. Such individuals in each other's presence in a public gathering reveal the nature of their relationship by the use of posture, gesture and vocal expression. Goffman calls these indications of anchored relationship "tie-signs." Tie-signs represent both the existence and the functioning of an important part of the social order; they enable observers to classify one another, and they provide self-assurance to those who recognize that they are tied together.

6)The conditions of living for human beings, as for animals, require individuals to be constantly on the alert for happenings that seem unnatural, dangerous or wrong Thus, the activity of humans falls into two modes: going about their business and being at the same time on the watch for alarms, threats and dangers. This latter mode of activity constitutes an important dimension of human conduct in face-to-face association, with participants having to be ready to detect the unusual and the abnormal in the appearance or acts of others. The interplay of participants thus embodies a recurring scanning of the actions of others for signs of threats and alarms and a concealing of signs of one's own actions that might lead others to suspect something unusual or abnormal. Goffman borrows the term "Umwelt" from animal ethology to stand for the area of potential alarm, and then he classifies the sources of alarm; is they exist in the Umwelts of human beings. The public order consists of a process of participants forming and maintaining their respective Umwelts. As mutual trust and the sense of normal presentation become shaky in face-to-face association the public order deteriorates.

The foregoing bare-boned six-point digest necessarily ignores the rich imply of treatment contained in the work under review. But the digest is sufficient to allow us to make a critical assessment of the approach to sociology and social psychology which the book reflects. Such an assessment is definitely in order in the light of Goffman's prominence in these disciplines and of his growing influence on sets of disciples.

The assessment should begin with the reminder that Goffman is dealing with the area of human group life that is constituted by face-to-face meetings and association. He regards this area as having a distinctive makeup, with its own structure of relations, its own forms of interaction, its own sets of norms and its own array of investments by the human "self." It thus constitutes in its own right a domain for study. This preoccupation with the area of face-to-face relations provides both the strength and the weakness of Goffman's analyses.

We need not dwell on the positive side of Goffman's work. It is sufficient to note that his penchant for probing into face-to-face relations has led him to dig out and treat seriously what social scientists, pretty much across the board, never see or at the best regard as trivia. Who among them, for example, would be likely to take such a commonplace matter as the utterance of greetings and show its important role in social interaction? Or who would seek to analyze the social role of hand-holding in American society - a matter which Goffman has done in a most discerning and illuminating manner? In showing, through his perceptive analyses, the important role which these includes of matters have in human group life Goffman forces social scientists to include what hey have been notoriously prone to neglect Alfred North Whitehead has written somewhere words to the effect that genius in scientific scholarship consists of subjecting to minute inspection objects which are taken for granted just because they are under our noses. In terms of this criterion Goffman's work ranks high.

In the opinion of this reviewer an additional word of commendation is in order – in this instance with regard to Goffman's research procedure. In the true spirit of a scientific pioneer he is ever ready to probe around in fresh directions in place of forcing his investigation into the fixed protocol so frequently demanded in contemporary social science research. Fortunately, his interests are in untangling the empirical world rather than in paying obeisance to some sanctified scheme for doing so. Through the use of choice accounts of human experience he cuts through to important observations that are not yielded by hosts of stylized findings.

Now for the weaknesses. The weaknesses in Goffman's approach stem from the narrowly constricted area of human group life that he has staked out for study. He has limited the area to face-to-face association with a corresponding exclusion of the vast mass of human activity falling outside of such association. Further, he has confined his study of face-to-face association to the interplay of personal positioning, at the cost of ignoring what the participants are doing. Valid questions are set by each of these two lines of restriction. Let me explain.

In the case of the first restriction one may ask how realistic it is to treat face-to-face association as a distinctive domain, with a makeup independent of the group activities in which the face-to-face interaction takes place. Despite a theoretical position which stakes out face-to-face association as such a conceivable separate domain, Goffman wavers on this matter in his actual treatment – as in confining several of his face-to-face analyses in the present book to American society. The issue here, however, is more than the old question of the relation between culture and face-to-face association; it is rather a matter of ascertaining how concrete ongoing group activities affect the face-to-face interaction involved in them and how, contrariwise, the face-to-face interaction influences the ongoing activities. Goffman's scheme deters him, indeed theoretically excludes him, from addressing this vital question. Thus, the framework of the present book rules out a consideration of how the public order, which he narrowly conceives in terms of the ground rules of face-to-face association, interacts (if at all) with the wider public order conceived of in terms of the interplay of organized groups and institutions. Unless Goffman and his followers address empirically the question of the relation between face-to-face association and the wider context of group activity in which such association is lodged, his type of study will remain on a question-begging premise.

The deficiencies set by the second line of restriction are more decisive and profound. Goffman does not treat the content of face-to-face association in its natural breadth but picks out, instead, a narrow portion of it as his domain of study. This portion is restricted to the personal positioning of the participants to one another as they observe each other and thus ignores, essentially, their acts or what they are doing. Goffman recognizes that the participants in face-to-face interaction are engaged in doing something; he refers repeatedly to this something as "their business in hand." This business in hand must be seen, in the opinion of this reviewer, as the activity which initiates and sustains face-to-face association. Yet it is precisely this central strand of activity in face-to-face association that Goffman casts aside. Goffman states his position nicely in two sentences, "The individual does not go about merely going about his business. He goes about constrained to sustain a viable image of himself in the eyes of others." Goffman is concerned with the area represented by the second sentence and is unconcerned with the area represented by the first sentence. This restriction of concern has highly important implications that should be specified and discussed briefly.

First, it follows that Goffman covers only a part of the social interaction that takes place between human beings in their face-to-face association. Indeed, he leaves out what is most central in social interaction, namely, the fitting together of the respective acts of the participants as they endeavor to do what is called for in their group or joint action. To restrict interaction to the niceties of personal interadjustment is to swerve far from the process which George Herbert Mead has made the keystone of his profound analysis of social interaction. What Goffman elects to reject - the interaction of people as they go about their business, as they fit their lines of action to one another – is precisely what Mead sees as the prime stuff of human association, whether it be face-to-face or more remote association. Human interaction, as Mead emphasized, consists fundamentally of efforts of the participants to grasp what each other is doing or plans to do and then to direct one's own act in the light of this knowledge. Instead, to treat face-to-face interaction as though it consists of efforts to create and sustain personal impressions is to misrepresent its true nature.

The interdependency of the interaction with others and the interaction with oneself is inescapable in the case of human begins – that is what a "self" means. Consequently, the severe constriction that Goffman has imposed on social interaction necessarily distorts in turn, the extent and the manner in which he sees the human being as handling himself in face-to-face association. There can be no doubt that beginning with his early notable book, The Presentation of the [sic]Self in Everyday Life, Goffman sees the human being as preoccupied with the kinds of impressions he is making on others. This theme runs through his works, including the book under review. Without minimizing the fact that human beings in one another's presence are sensitive to how they are being regarded, it is farfetched to assume that this form of self-awareness constitutes the major concern of the human being in handling himself. People in association just do not go around with their attention constantly focused on how they are being regarded and on how they can influence the way in which they are regarded. At various times they do this, and some people do it more than others. But this does not constitute the central content of what the person does in interacting with himself. Instead, self-interaction is concerned primarily in guiding oneself in what one does. The scanning of others and the externalization of oneself, to which Goffman gives such a conspicuous place in face-to-face association, are much more than ascertaining or controlling how one is being regarded by one's associates; such scanning and externalization are primarily a matter of ascertaining what one's associates are intending to do and of indicating to them what one intends to do. In his treatment Goffman has shifted self-interaction away from the construction of action by the actor to meet the actions of others; instead, he has put in its place the much narrower form of self-interaction concerned with self-regard. This leads to a one-sided treatment of the "self" and gives an inadequate and inaccurate picture of how the human being handles himself in face-to-face interaction.

Let me turn from the deficiencies that stem from the failure of Goffman's perspective to cover certain vital dimensions of the empirical world he is addressing. In the final words of this review I would like to note an additional weakness that lies strictly within the domain to which he has limited himself in the present book. This domain, as he states, consists of the "patternedadaptations" (my emphasis) to the "norms of co-mingling" in face-to-face association. Even the infractions of these norms come in the form of patterned adaptations. This view of the domain of co-mingling as already organized sets up a static world; theoretically, it shuts out consideration of how norms and the patterned adaptations to them either come into being or deteriorate and pass away. Yet,the norms and the patterned adaptations to them must obviously have a history and be subject to transformation in the course of their careers. This aspect ofhis domain is left untouched by Goffman. One would hope that Goffman would bring his fertile mind to bear on the weaknesses that have been outlined.