Remembering Erving Goffman

Eliot Freidson

(Eliot Freidson, “Celebrating Goffman.” Contemporary Sociology. 1983, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 359-362.)

I believe that there is an unfathomable mystery in the relationship between biography and the work of creative people. I do not want to speculate about that in Goffman’s case, and I certainly do not want to engage in some highbrow version of reminiscent gossip. Rather, what I want to do is to comment about what I see in his work in and off itself. I shall address myself to his early work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums and Stigma. And I want to make three points. First, Goffman’s early work is focused on the individual self, in a world that at once creates and oppresses it. Second, Goffman’s work is intensely moral character, marked by passionate defense of the self against society. And third, Goffman’s work has a systematic relationship to abstract academic theory and provides no encouragement to attempts to advance such theory. What gives Goffman’s work a value that will endure longer than most sociology is its intense individual humanity and its style.

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Goffman's language in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is very cool, with sufficient irony on occasion to seem more amused than sympathetic. There is a sense of detachment, not engagement. The very use of the vocabulary of the stage gives the impression of insincerity and contrivance on the part of the participants. So it is no wonder that this work is often characterized as cynical by naive commentators. Few are likely to see it as a celebration of the self; more likely is the view that it is at least neutrally a dissection, or more actively an expose of social manners. But such reactions are superficial and unjust because in this book Goffman analyzes the ordinary, everyday people in everyday life, circumstances in which personal ruin is more literary than real, in which the price to be paid for failure is not much greater than embarrassment, circumstances in which efforts to sustain creditable selves are largely successful.

In contrast, there are circumstances in which the self is profoundly threatened, in which it is attacked and discredited and its actual survival put to doubt. It is in those circumstances that Goffman shifts his stance and creates an eloquent and passionate assertion of the dignity and value of the self and a defense of its right to resist the social world even when, from the observer's point of view, it resists what may be for its own good.

. . . .

In everyday life in a civil environment-that is, in the home world-one can work at sustaining one's identity with one's cohabitants of social establishments because, by and large, they collaborate in the enterprise and honor one's efforts to do so. But in the total institution the inmate is separated from ordinary collaborators and interacts with a staff that requires different terms for collaboration. Inmates are subjected to a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of their selves and a withdrawal of all the physical and social supports that once sustained them.

The process is carried out in the name of God, or Country, or in the name of Justice or Cure, all exalted names and exalted goals. Decent people cannot contest the goal of transforming the slack, casually sinful civilian into a dedicated servant of God or Country or the People, nor can they disapprove of the reformation of the criminal and the cure of the insane so that they can be returned to everyday life as "useful" citizens. Nor does Goffman disapprove. What he documents, however, is the self as resistance to its stripping. The self struggles against its transformation, it perversely insists on preserving some portion of its familiar substance. He points out that inmates practice secondary adjustments that do not directly challenge the staff of the total institution but that, by seeking forbidden satisfactions, assert that they are still their own persons, still with some control over their environment, control apart from God, Country, Party, or whatever.

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Goffman's stance is not cool or cynical here. It is one of morally absolute outrage. Like the opponent of capital punishment or torture, he does not defend the inmate's prepatient sins and argue bum rap. Instead he argues the absolute inhumanity of the treatment. He argues that no matter how crazy or murderous a human being has been, to strip the self from the person without allowing some expressed distance is as inhuman as it is to flay the skin from the body, or to hang, shoot, electrocute, or gas the body. Such means of punishment or treatment cannot be justified by the goal of retribution or even salvation.

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Everyone knows that Goffman is indeed a cool analyst of the self, of the way it sustains itself in the everyday world, and of the way it forges itself by setting itself apart from and against the world. "Impression management," "managing spoiled identity," "secondary adjustments," and "ways of making out" are all phrases of his dealing with the sustenance and assertion of the individual's self in interaction with the others who both create and threaten it. We all know that. But what is much less often acknowledged is Goffman's deep moral sensibility, the compassion he displays for those whose selves are attacked, whose identities are spoiled, whom the social world, through its ordinary members and its official agents, seeks to shape to its convenience. In all this Goffman is as much moralist as analyst, and a celebrant and defender of the self against society rather than, as might be expected of a sociologist who cites Durkheim, a celebrant of society and social forces. And this brings me to my last point. When all is said and done, I believe that Goffman's work lives and will live not as a contribution to the development of systematic sociological theory but rather as a contribution to human consciousness. Though his work creates and plays with sociological concepts rather than character, plot, mood, or consciousness, it is as concrete and revelatory as fiction. To take Goffman as a source for abstract and systematic theory is false to the substance and spirit of his work. . . . I see no reason to believe that this stance toward theorizing changed in Goffman's later work. Indeed, in his most recent work, his Presidential Address, he is quite clear in his rejection of the value of "deep systematic analysis," and of the "engaging optimism of taking one of a number of different sources of blindness and bias as central to curing the ills of sociology." We are left with Erving Goffman's own self-as-sociologist, not a theory or even the basis for a theory. We are left with his struggle to assert his self as sociologist against the seductive resistance of the conventions of the world. We see him employing with imagination and passion any resources that seem useful to illuminate aspects of human life that most of us overlook and to show us more of humanity there than we could otherwise see.