Remembering Erving Goffman

Alvin Gouldner

(Alvin Gouldner, “Other Symptoms of the Crisis: Goffman’s Dramaturgy and Other New Theories.” The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1970, pp. 378-390.)

Goffman's is a social "dramaturgy" in which appearances and not underlying essences are exalted. It is a dramaturgy in which all appearances and all social claims are endowed with a kind of equal reality, however disreputable, lowly, and deviant their origin may be. In short, unlike Functionalism, it has no metaphysics of hierarchy. In Goffman's theory the conventional cultural hierarchies are shattered: for example, professional psychiatrists are manipulated by hospital inmates; doubt is cast upon the difference between the cynical and the sincere; the behavior of children becomes a model for understanding adults; the behavior of criminals becomes a standpoint for understanding respectable people; the theater's stage becomes a model for understanding life. Here there is no higher and no lower.

Goffman's avoidance or rejection of conventionalized hierarchicalizations has, however, important ambiguities to it. On the one side, it has an implication of being against the existent hierarchies and hence against those advantaged by it; it is, to this extent, infused with a rebel vision critical of modern society. On the other side, however, Goffman's rejection of hierarchy often expresses itself as an avoidance of social stratification and of the importance of power differences, even for concerns that are central to him; thus, it entails an accommodation to existent power arrangements. Given this ambiguity, response to Goffman's theories is often made selectively, the viewer focusing on that side of the ambiguity congenial to him, and thus some among the rebellious young may see it as having a "radical" potential.

Goffman's is a sociology of "co-presence," of what happens when people are in one another's presence. It is a social theory that dwells upon the episodic and sees life only as it is lived in a narrow interpersonal circumference, ahistorical and noninstitutional, an existence beyond history and society, and one which comes alive only in the fluid, transient "encounter." Unlike Parsons, who sees society as a resilient, solid rubber ball that remains serviceable despite the chunks torn from it, Goffman's image of social life is not of firm, well-bounded social structures, but rather of a loosely stranded, criss-crossing, swaying catwalk along which men dart precariously. In this view, people are acrobatic actors and gamesmen who have, somehow, become disengaged from social structures and are growing detached even from culturally standardized roles. They are seen less as products of the system, than as individuals "working the system" for the enhancement of self. Although disengaged or partly alienated from the system, they are not. however, rebels against it. In Goffman's social world, it is not the moral code (or "respect") but "tact" (or prudent sociability) that cements. Such social order as exists for Goffman depends upon the small kindnesses that men bestow upon one another; social systems are fragile little floating islands whose coasts have daily to be shored up and renewed. In

Goffman's view of the world (to borrow George Homan's phrase), men are coming back into the picture-tricky, harassed little devils, but still men-and the sturdy social structures drift away into the background. There is communicated a sense of the precariousness of the world and, at the same time, of zest in managing oneself in it. Rather than conceiving of activities as a set of interlocking functions, Goffman's dramaturgical model advances a view in which social Life is systematically regarded as an elaborate form of drama and in which-as in the theater-men are all striving to project a convincing image of self to others. Here men are not viewed as trying to do something but as trying to be something. (The "third estate" is still trying to be "something"; now, however, it is taking short cuts.) If life is a "countinghouse" for the Republican Bostonian of "comparatively wealthy family," for whom the essential relation is one of exchange, for Goffman it is a theater where all are engaged in a perpetual play and all are actors. (Actually, however, Goffmn's dramaturgy is based upon a limited type of theater; it takes its departure from what might be termed the "neo-classical" drama, which is quite different from, say, the "guerrilla" theater or the "living" theater, both of which commonly portray strong passions and arc openly infused with moral purpose.)

Goffman thus declares a moratorium on the conventional distinction between make-believe and reality, or between the cynical and the sincere. In this all-the-world's-a-stage world, what is taken to be real is not the work that men do or the social functions they perform. Rather, human conduct is seen as essentially concerned with fostering and maintaining a specific conception of self before others. The outcome of this effort, moreover, is not seen as depending on what men "really" do in the world, on their social functions, or on their worth, but on their ability skillfully to mobilize convincing props, settings, fronts, or manner. A man's value in this world, then, depends upon his appearances and not, as it had to the classical bourgeois, on his talents, abilities, or achievements.

While Goffman's theory may be viewed as a kind of "microfunctionalism," concerned to identify the mechanisms that sustain social interaction, he fails to ask the central questions that a functionalist would pose, concerning the presentations of self that are made. He does not explain, for example, why some selves rather than others are selected and projected by persons, and why others accept or reject the proffered self. That is, seeing this largely as a matter of maintaining a consistent image of self, he does not ask whether some selves are more gratifying in their consequences, to self and other, and whether this shapes their selection and acceptance. Nor does he systematically clarify the manner in which power and wealth provide resources that affect the capacity to project a self successfully.

At the same time, however, Goffman's dramaturgy is plainly not an expression of aristocratic insouciance or of disdain for bourgeois industriousness. Aristocrats believe in what they are and its worth; Goffman's actors are busy contrivers of the illusion of self. What has happened, then, is not that we have left the world of the bourgeois, but that we have entered deep into the changed world of the new bourgeois. The dramaturgical model reflects the new world, in which a stratum of the middle class no longer believes that hard work is useful or that success depends upon diligent application. In this new world there is a keen sense of the irrationality of the relationship between individual achievement and the magnitude of reward, between actual contribution and social reputation. It is the world of the high-priced Hollywood star and of the market for stocks, whose prices bear little relation to their earnings. Dramaturgy marks the transition from an older economy centered on production to a new one centered on mass marketing and promotion, including the marketing of the self. It betrays the change from a society whose heroes, as Leo Lowentha13 has put it, were Heroes of Production, to one where they are now Heroes of Consumption. In this new "tertiary economy" with its proliferating services, men are indeed increasingly producing "performances" rather than things. Moreover, both the performances and products they produce are often only marginally differentiated; they can be individuated from one another only by their looks. In this new economy, then, sheer appearance is especially important.

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Goffman's is a social theory appealing to men who live in or must deal with large-scale bureaucracies that have a juggernaut momentum of their own and are little amenable to the influence of individuals. Thus Goffman does not deal with how men seek to change the structure of these organizations or of other social systems but, rather, with how they may adapt to and within them. It is a theory of the "secondary adjustments" that men may make to I the overpowering social structures that they feel must be taken as given. His theory of "total institutions" clearly communicates his sense of the crushing impact of organizations on persons whose individuality is viewed as protected largely by wiliness. In modern and large-scale organizations, individuals become more readily interchangeable, and their sense of worth and potency becomes impaired. Having little impact on the organization as whole, they focus on the management of impressions, seeking to be noticed and differentiated from others, and attempting thereby to establish their individual worth and potency. In a large-scale organization, men are closely dependent upon the responses of others, and they know that they are. Those who are more dependent, and more I sensitive to their dependence, will be more concerned to manage the impression of self they communicate. The management of impressions is a strategy of survival more likely to be emphasized by persons whose assumptions remain individualistic and competitive, but who are now dependent upon large-scale organizations. Goffman is, in effect, depicting and defending the wily strategies by which such persons protect themselves and seek to maintain I a sense of their own reality and potency under these conditions.

This newer middle class 1s not a social stratum that, cushioned by independent means and appreciably independent" of others, can say: let the public be damned. The new bourgeois world of ''impression management" is inhabited by anxious other-directed men with sweaty palms, who live in constant fear of exposure by others and of inadvertent self-betrayal. The management of impressions becomes problematic only under certain conditions : when men have to work at seeming to be what others expect them to be. But why should men have to work at this, unless they are no longer spontaneously disposed to do or be this? In short, the moral code shaping social relationships has become less fully internalized in them; while remaining a fact of social reality, it tends to become a set of instrumentally manageable "rules of the game" rather than deeply felt moral obligations.

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For Goffman, what counts is not whether men are moral but whether they seem moral to others; it is not morality as a deeply internalized feeling of duty or obligation that holds things together, in Goffman's view, but rather as conventional rules required to sustain interaction and treated much as men do the rules of a game.

In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. . . . But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing these standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realized. Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern in these moral matters. Asperformers we are merchants of morality. [Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956, p. 156]

Moreover, it is not the utility of men or their activities-and, indeed, not even the appearance of utility-that is held to matter. What counts is whether the appearance is acceptable to or desired by others (in short, whether one can sell it), and not whether the appearance bears any relation to an underlying usefulness. We might say that Functionalism was based upon a conception of men and their activities as "use-values," while dramaturgy is based upon a conception of them solely as "exchange values." (I remember one occasion after a long negotiating session with a publisher for whom Goffman and I are both editors. I turned to Goffman and said with some disgust, "These fellows are treating us like commodities." Goffman's reply was, "That's all right, Al, so long as they treat us as expensive commodities.") Dramaturgy reaches into and expresses the nature of the self as pure commodity, utterly devoid of any necessary use-value: it is the sociology of soul-selling.

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Dramaturgy thus premises a disenchantment with the older utilitarian culture. It uses the new utilitarian culture as a standpoint for an implicit critique of the old, and in this, enables men to disengage themselves and maintain emotional or role distance from it. Bennett Berger deftly lays this matter open in characterizing Goffman's as a "demonic detachment." It is demonic-or Goffmaniac, if you will-in that, while it denies a distinction between appearances and reality, by insisting on taking appearances seriously, it must also devalue, as just one more "appearance," those things that men have conventionally prized. Thus loyalty, sincerity, gratitude, love, and friendship are seen as forms of maudlin sentimentality. Goffman's is a demonic detachment, for the way of life that it celebrates is a form of "camp"; even those who relish its precious cleverness remain visitors to it. Goffman lays bare the elaborate strategies by which men ingeniously contrive to persuade others to buy a certain definition of the situation and to accept it at face value. It is thus deeply ambivalent toward the status quo. It is a clever unmasking of the clever and, at the same time, a how-to-do-it manual of the modern utilitarianism of the new middle class. It is an invitation to the enjoyment of appearances. Goffman is to the sociology of fraud what Fanon is to the sociology of force and violence.

To view the world as "drama" is to resonate the sentiments that we normally direct at theatrical drama. Although the dramaturgical model assures us that acting is very serious work, nonetheless, to commend a view of life as a kind of play is still, for most of us, an invitation to view it as an arena of limited and tentative commitment. After the play or game is over, normality returns. "Normality" is an arena characterized by cumulating commitments, where our previous efforts either fail or pay off, either limit or extend our future opportunities. But a single drama does not encumber the next; each opening night is a new beginning. Dramaturgy, then, is a solution to the problem of how to charge life with renewable excitement even when there is no real hope for a better future; it is a way of getting "kicks" out of the present. Insofar as this model embodies an ideology, rather than being only a limited research heuristic (and the ideology is usually disguised in the method), it must inevitably activate and trade on the pathos with which we ordinarily regard dramas. Which is to say, it refines our capacity to make commitments tentatively and thereby to maintain our distance from things. It enables us, in short, to keep our "cool." The dramaturgical model allows us to bear our defeats and losses, because it implies that they are not "for real," or at least allows us to define them as such after their occurrence. In this respect the dramaturgical model itself is-to use one of Goffman's early formulations-a way of "cooling the mark out," of accommodating losers to failure. However, it may also undermine the satisfaction of winning or of desirable outcomes, because, by the same token, the dramaturgical model implies that our victories too are not for real. Thus winning and losing both become of lesser moment. It is only the game that counts.

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In effect, then, the dramaturgical model invites us to live situationally; it invites us to carve a slice out of time, history, and society, rather than to attempt to organize and make manageable the larger whole. In this respect it is vastly different both from the more traditional religious standpoints of Western society and, for that matter, from the more classical evolutionary social philosophies and the theories of total society that emerged in Western Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. Rather than offering a world view, the new model offers us "a piece of the action."

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From one standpoint, we might say that Weber was less hypocritically pious about morality and more "realistic," having "hardened" himself against Rousseauian "sentimentality." Like Rousseau, he believed that men should consult their consciences in choosing their paths; unlike Rousseau, however, he stressed that the pursuit of one value might undermine realization of another. Men need, therefore, to steel themselves to violate some of their own values if they are to achieve others: men must be "hard" in order to endure. There was, in short, no promise of an essential harmony in the world, but, rather, of an intrinsic disharmony: the world was seen as demonic. For Goffman's "merchants of morality." however, this dilemma simply does not exist; all conflicts may be remedied by the manipulation of appearances.

Goffman's dramaturgy is one more effort to resolve the tension between utility and morality; it responds to this dilemma not by doggedly holding on to both of its horns, but by releasing both. Goffman, simply and deftly, sidesteps the issue, substituting the standpoint of a sociological aesthetics for both morality and utility. Despite this, however, his solution premises the continued existence of individualistic and social utilitarianism as well as of the social strata on which they rest. Dramaturgy is, as it were, an interior decoration that provides a new look to these older furnishings.

The sociology of Erving Goffman is, in my view, a complexly articulated theoretical expression that resonates the new experience of the educated middle class. This new experience has generated new conceptions of what is "real" in the social world, along with a new structure of sentiments and domain assumptions that are dissonant with the kind of utilitarianism once traditional to the middle class. Most particularly, the middle class now lives in a world in which conventional conceptions of utility and morality are less and less viable; in which rewards often seem to bear little relation to men's (or things') usefulness or morality; in which men can get ahead without the conventional talents or skills necessary in the old production-centered middle-class economy. In short, the new middle class has become sensitized to the irrationalities of the modern system of rewards. These irrationalities have at least three distinct forms. First is an heightened market irrationality, in which "stars" and other highly advertised and speculative commodities reap enormous gains, soaring to great heights one day and sometimes collapsing the next. Asecond and increasingly pervasive form of reward irrationality, which might be termed bureaucratic irrationality, draws totally arbitrary lines between those who "pass" and "fail" – and thus between those who are admitted or promoted and those who are not-often doing so on the basis of the most minuscule distinctions in performance. (Contemporary student revolts are, in some part, exacerbated by this form of bureaucratic irrationality.)

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Goffman's sociology corresponds to the new exigencies of a middle class whose faith in both utility and morality has been gravely undermined. In this new period, traditional moralities and religions continue to lose their hold on men's faith. Once sacred symbols, such as the flag, are mingled defiantly with the sensual and become, as in some recent art forms, a draping for the "great American nude." "Pop art" declares an end to the distinction between fine art and advertising, in much the same manner that dramaturgy obliterates the distinction between "real life" and the theater. The "Mafia" become businessmen; the police are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the rioters except by their uniforms; heterosexuality and homosexuality come to be viewed by some as akin to the difference between righthandedness and lefthandedness; the television program becomes the definition of reality. The antihero becomes the hero. Once established hierarchies of value and worth are shaken, and the sacred and profane are now mingled in grotesque juxtapositions. The new middle class seeks to cope with the attenuation of its conventional standards of utility and morality by retreating from both and by seeking to fix its perspective in aesthetic standards, in the appearances of things.