Remembering Erving Goffman

Randall Collins

(Randall Collins, “The Rising of Intellectual Generations: Reflections on the Death of Erving Goffman.” Sociological Theory. 1986, Vol. 4, No, 1, pp. 106-113).

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Goffman is justly famous for his analysis of “frontstage” and "backstage", for his picture of how the confidence man is not merely a picturesque criminal, but is an aspect of all of us. But although this has given Goffman the reputation of being a Machiavellian, an ultra-sophisticated analyst of the arts by which people negotiate their social identities, Goffman's own theoretical claim was always the opposite kind. It is society that forces people to present a certain image of themselves, to appear to be truthful, selfconsistent, and honorable, when in fact the same social system, because it forces us to switch back and forth between many complicated roles, is also making us always somewhat untruthful, inconsistent, and dishonorable-in short to be actors rather than spontaneously the roles that we appear to be at any single moment.

Goffman was always much more conservative than most of his public thought him. Because he exposed the backstage of the self and wrote about alienation and embarrassment, everyone thought he was sympathetic to the plight of the individual and a critic of the falseness of frontstage society. Far from it: Goffman started from a Durkheimian viewpoint which made society primary, and the individual nothing more than a modem myth. Because Goffman wrote of the way that insane asylums and other “total institutions” stripped away the individual's identity and labelled the person as “deviant” or “mentally ill”, we thought Goffman was uttering a cry of protest. But although Goffman created the “labelling theory” of deviance, his purpose was not to expose and reform the mental health profession. Asylums itself, like Goffman's other writings on mental illness, explicitly says that the mental hospital and the social pressures towards conformity are functionally necessary for the protection of society's roles as a whole. Because Goffman wrote about the artificiality of the "stage" of public life and about the multiply-embedded frames of experience, it was easy to take him for a predecessor of the hippies and their consciousness-expanding drugs. On the contrary: Goffman was scornful of those who thought that life was only a stage of the mind that could be easily blown away in a moment of enlightenment or the shock of a guerilla theatre “happening.” Even if the world is a stage, Goffman reiterated. it is a stage made out of real boards and real curtains: to recognize the way multiple realities are constructed does not mean that they are any less real or necessary.

I am making Goffman seem as if he were a defender of the status quo: if not perhaps a Reactionary, at least a believer in the external social order of the center. And so he was. But it must have been no accident that so many people thought he was a radical, a defender of individualism, a kind of existentialist rebel, a protester and even a mind-blowing hippie. For Goffman was a genius at the arts of self-presentation. He knew how to write so that he could have it both ways. And personally, in fact, Goffman was an extreme individualist and iconoclast. There are hundreds of stories from those who knew him about his idiosyncracies, his pranks and exploits. Goffman was an individualist in an era when individualism was the ideal. When the avant-garde went to all sorts of extremes to set themselves off from others. (I am thinking of the 1950s, when existentialism and the “beat-niks” were in vogue, as well as the hippies of the 1960s.) Goffman was never content to be a "conventional" individualist like everyone else. When everyone else was being a critic and a radical, he set himself up intellectually as a Durkheimian conservative-and yet managed to appear nevertheless as a more radical expose-artist than almost anyone else.

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One other aspect of Goffman’s early intellectual stance is worth mentioning. At Toronto he was quite interested in Freud. The 1930s and 40s were the period when Freud was in his greatest vogue in North America. Goffman never pursued these themes in his sociology, but nevertheless it may have left some effect. Everett Hughes mentioned to me, late in his life, that when Goffman first came to Chicago Hughes felt he was a young know-it-all, a Freudian with a superior insight into the motivations of everyone. Hughes at the time was the empirical research leader of the Chicago school symbolic interactionists; characteristically for the intellectual relationships involved, he tended to be rather hostile to Goffman’s work. Hughes reviewed one of Goffman's books (Interaction Ritual, which is certainly one of Goffman’s most central books) in quite a hostile vein, commenting that Goffman was impolitely intruding into the privacy of other people's lives. Goffman, on the other hand, always spoke warmly of Hughes and gave him credit for great intellectual influence on his own development. When I mentioned this to Hughes, he replied in a way that indicated that Hughes had always found this tribute from Goffman to be annoying and insincere. Such were the complexities of Erving Goffman’s intellectual persona.

There were other early intellectual influences. Goffman’s old classmates tell me that he was very much impressed with the literary critic Kenneth Burke, who wrote about the social stances of rhetoric and espoused the notion of everyday life as a kind of theatre. One can see these themes clearly enough in Goffman, although once again he buries the intellectual genealogy. In this case, perhaps his lack of tribute was appropriate, for if one reads Kenneth Burke and then Erving Goffman, the superiority of the latter in sociological lucidity (as well as in his Durkheimian theoretical base) is clear. But Goffman always retained a sharp eye for literary elements. What he does in Frame Analysis, in Gender Advertisements (which is really a book about the visual organization of social expression rather than about sex), and in Forms of Talk show that Goffman could have been a literary and art critic of the first rank. In fact, I believe that there is a major theory of literary form contained in Goffman's works, waiting for exegesis. In this day when literature professors have turned towards theories of structure and representation, Goffman's literary theory is yet another buried treasure to be discovered.

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To sum up Goffman's intellectual career is necessarily an oversimplification. Roughly, one may say it went through 3 phases. In the first phase, Goffman took the social anthropology of Lloyd Warner, together with the empirical studies of the Chicago school, and produced his studies of the rituals of everyday life. This is the period of the self as a sacred object, worshipped by the interaction rituals of everyday life. This period lasts through the 1950s into the middle of the 1960s. It also includes Goffman's special concerns with mental illness, stigma, and mental hospitals. It was this work that brought Goffman his first fame: the labelling theory of deviance, and what was thought to be the critique of the total institution. Here Goffman might be seen as continuing the themes of Freud, but now with sociological rather than psychological tools. Goffman had recanted Freud’s form of analysis, and had instead created what one might call “social psychiatry.” But some deep parallel with Freud remained. Both thinkers regarded the conscious self as something of an epiphenomenon, resting upon deeper processes. Goffman was more radical than Freud in this respect. Freud recognized the power of the Id and other components of the unconscious, but his slogan was always to increase the power of the Ego: “Where Id is, there Ego shall be.” Goffman however believed that the conscious Ego was merely a social self, and therefore a myth. For Goffman, the unconscious cannot be exorcised, even in principle, because it is not an individual substratum at all, but consists of the structural underpinnings of society itself.


* International Biography and History of Russian Sociology Projects feature interviews and autobiographical materials collected from scholars who participated in the intellectual movements spurred by the Nikita Khrushchev's liberalization campaign. The materials are posted as they become available, in the language of the original, with the translations planned for the future. Dr. Boris Doktorov ( and Dmitri Shalin ( are editing the projects.