Remembering Erving Goffman
(Peter Manning, “The Decline of Civility: A Comment on Erving Goffman’s Sociology.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 1976, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 13-25.)
. . . .
The critical success and continuing impact of Goffman's writing does not rest solely on its content, a content shared with others who have written on similar issues (deviance, complex organizations, mental illness). Although the writing is not invariably clear, it radiates verisimilitude. One sees oneself playing social games, being clever or witty, and sometimes suffering embarrassment. Therefore, the writing has impact. One of the principal functions of literature is served: self and society, linked, are mirrored. How does Goffman achieve his original, jarring, and often startling effect? Clues to his force and his present fame may be uncovered by an analysis of his literary style, especially an investigation of his use of metaphor. He employs metaphor to describe at length (allegorically, one is tempted to claim), persons, social organizations, and places in terms conventionally reserved to describe other objects, persons, social organizations, and the like. It creates powerful images and evokes painful effects. He uses what Burke terms 'perspective by incongruity.' Who else but Goffman would call psychiatrists 'Tinkerers,' or call Durkheim 'He' using capital letters normally used to indicate members of the Holy Trinity, or classify as analytically equivalent absence of vision, a leg, and sphincter control?
Two features of this method may be pinpointed. First Goffman creates incongruitywhen in the same sentence he juxtaposes two dissimilar ideas or concepts (1) we must all carry within ourselves something of the sweet guilt of conspirators (PSEL: 105); (2) those who break the rules of interaction commit their crimes in jail (ASY: 40); (3)the world in truth is a wedding (PSEL: 36) (affirming a poetic claim).
Secondly, his use of metaphor and choice of a particular metaphor is not simply a matter of convenience, artifice, or duplicity. I believe that it is a conscious, deliberate choice of weapons by which to confront the fictional facades that constitute the assumptive reality of conventional society. He claims that that which we take to be 'reality' or the outlines of the possible is quite simply the result of socialization within a given social structure. To this conventional wisdom he juxtaposes the weak, uncertain, somewhat befuddled human possessing the potential for humanity and dignity. Socialization, however, modifies humanity: 'universal human nature is not a very human thing’ ( OFW: 23 1). That is, once we learn to accept conventional assumptions, and define events within that frame of reference, we lose a degree of humanity and we are able to accept constraints, orders, persuasion, and even humiliation. We learn to accept what by a transcendental moral standard of judgment would be unconscionable. To dramatize the extent to which we are victims of our own social worlds, he specifically marshalls what to many sociologists are absurd, extreme examples in order to construct excessive contrasts. In so doing, he always retains a sense of the socially sanctioned nature of the examples – they are meant to be more significant because they are so 'common.' He meticulously selects (a) that which is to be transformed (for example, a person with problems of managing interpersonal relations) and (b) that to which it is tramformed(such as an 'official self,' or 'paper self,' a compressed version of a previously alive being now lying dehumanized in the files of a mental hospital). By this literary means he can convert persons lacking full bladder or sphincter control into 'brave little troupe of ileostomies [who] make their appearances disguised as nice, clean people . . .' (W: 55 1-2) .
By tearing these items from one context and placing them in another, or, by contrast; making an absurdity of what appears to be quite 'reasonable,' he is reproducing for our appreciation the same process by which conventional society moulds, shapes, and in many cases dehumanizes powerless individuals. He consciously employs stark metaphors to show how brutally and inappropriately people are used in American society. If his rendition of the consequences of society's vicissitudes violates our sensibilities, what might (should) the experience produce for individuals who actually suffer them? For example, Goffman implies in a that family members condemn a little familial appreciations and affirmations and calling him mentally ill, for doing what is the human thing to do. 'Public life is entered through its least guarded portals; volunteer work; letters to politicians, editors and big corporations; celebrity hunting; litigation. Critical national events, such as elections, war policy statements, and assassinations are taken quite personally' (RP: 370).
Thus Goffman underscores the relativity and quite arbitrary nature of the interest of those who posses the authority to define humanity and propriety and provides a warrant for attempts to alter structures to produce more authentic human relationships: '. . . and there are a multitude of reasons why someone who is not mentally ill at all, but who finds he can neither leave an organization nor basically alter it, might introduce exactly the same trouble as is caused by patients' (RP: 387) . Discussing the occupation by students of the office of Grayson Kirk, the then president of Columbia University, and Kirk's remark upon seeing the disorder in his office, 'My God, how could human being do a thing like this?' Goffman says: 'the great sociological question is, of course, not how could it be that human beings would do a thing like this, but rather how is it that human beings do this sort of thing so rarely. How come persons in authority have been so overwhelmingly successful in conning those beneath them into keeping the hell out of their offices?' (RP: 288, n44). He conscientiously attacks with consummate indignity that most legitimate of social institutions, medicine, and is able to show the horror introduced by the profession's tendency to treat (literally and figuratively) deviation from all norm as qualitatively comparable. He juxtaposes the meanings that psychiatrists attribute to deviants from: (a) judgments of varieties of social conduct (that is, mental illness) with (b) judgments of variations in indices of altered bodily structure and function.
A person with carcinoma of the bladder can, if he wants, die with more social grace and propriety, more apparent inner social normalcy, than a man with a harelip can order a piece of apple pie (RP: 53).
When an amputee fails to rise to greet a lady, it is perfectly evident that this failure is only an incidental and unintentional consequence of his condition; no one would claim [as they do in the case of mental illness] that he cut off his legs to spite his courtesies (RP: 354).
This shocking effect is achieved by extending the medical model such that its most profound implications are not concealed by our own acceptance of conventional wisdom. He specifically underscores the devastating effects medicine, especially psychiatry, can create in willing human beings when he argues that the psychiatrist-patient relationship is a kind of grotesque of the service relationship (ASY: 340-95). This metaphoric work has the intended effect of producing shock in the reader but, more significantly, it acts to corrode the social construction of reality created and maintained by the power of conventional institutions.
It has at least two other effects. His style virtually always teeters near hyperbole, excess, grotesquerie, a seamy voyage into the absurd. At times he admits his own penchant for exaggeration – 'now it should be admitted that this attempt to press a mere analogy so far was in part a rhetoric and a maneuver' (PSEL: 254). Secondly, there is a degree of ambiguityinherent in metaphoric communication. Which of the features of psychiatry resembling 'the tinkering trades'? Are all mental hospitals 'total institutions' (or to what degree are they)? Could it be that he meant the idea to apply only to the large federal hospital that he studied? Are people 'really' (always and in essence) 'sacred social objects'? It is difficult to attempt to delineate the intention of the concepts, their logical interconnections and to ascertain whether the concepts are ‘primitive’ (simply assumptive or stipulative) or analytic, intended to be applied to other instances of 'the same thing' (Psathas, 1973).
His perspective contributes to his analytic vagueness. Because, as Rock (forthcoming) writes, 'sociology is not set of tests of correspondence,' much of what is taken as truthful, accurate, or careful proof of a sociological argument is in fact only coherent explication. Goffman represents a tendency of interactionists to substitute a stylized rendition of the world, full of detailed commentary based upon an appreciation of a microsegment of social life, for an abstract analysis. Further, Goffman's formalism is latent rather than specific and acknowledged; it is 'unobtrusively woven into the larger reporting (ethnographies) so that it may retain some semblance of intimate connectedness to that subjective life' (Rock, forthcoming). The style becomes the medium and the message since other criteria are specifically eschewed by Goffman. The dilemmas and rich promise of Coffman's style are sensitively summarized and pointedly criticized by Rock.
Much of interactionist writing is thus governed by a stylistic delicacy which suggests faithfulness that is actually lacking. The rhetoric and phrasing practiced by the members of the school is as important as the more obvious features of their work.
It is in this sense that a successful piece of symbolic interactionism is prestigious art, blending artifice and illusion with the trappings of simplicity and naturalism. As an artistic accomplishment, it defies analytic dismemberment. Its basic appeal is to the sensibilities of its reader, being capable of enlightening him without appearing to radically disfigure the social life it describes. (Rock, forthcoming).
Goffman's procedure is to first contrast (a) what is taken for granted in a situation with either (b) what can be shown to occur in a series of encounters when a particular perspective or metaphor is used by those in power or by himself (two examples are found in the tinkering trades 'analogy' and in viewing the path to the mental hospital as a 'betrayal funnel') or (c) what occurs in selected vignettes culled from plays, biographies, short stories, novels, or ethnographies (for example, the recently returned seaman who asks his mother to 'pass the fucking butter')
By selecting precisely these types of shattered frames (or shattered/repaired) frames, Goffman shows that the focus of his attention is the problematic features of everyday life. This technique can result in misreading Goffman's aim, as Messinger, Sampson, and Towne (1962) point out, for it is possible to infer that Goffman's analytic actors are like stage players, actors always conscious of the threat of disruptions, failures, mistakes, and the like and therefore in some sense always well prepared (rehearsed) in order to avoid or minimize their possible effects. If people were actors in this sense, they would be 'on' or acutely self-aware of the need to appear 'normal.' According to Messinger, Sampson, and Towne, only mental patients constantly question what others assume will be/is taken for granted as normal behaviour. Goffman assumes people are not self-aware in this way. As a result, they continue to place themselves at risk. Goffman seeks situations which will make problematic what is assumed with an observer's perspective; he does not intend to demonstrate in detail how people actually do drama,that is, what makes it possible for an actor upon the stage or others to concur with or consciously set aside everyday assumptions."
His abiding concern is with making apparent the implicit structure and nature of everyday experience as it is enacted in routine permutation of mutually shared activity. He gives small attention in his writing to the way given persons might live through or manage a sequence of, or combination of, encounters. Since encounters have a variety of features, and his conceptual framework changes, he does sociology much as one does a puzzle. Having arrayed a variety of examples, he peers at the pieces (encounters) first in one way and then in another, and in so doing is able to apprehend that first this piece and then that one might be fitted together. When looked at differently, they may more properly fit in another place to form still another pattern. He is not, therefore, as much concerned with developing one inclusive set of tools or concepts as with what any single set of concepts, adopted for a purpose (analysis of stigma, or strategic interaction, or face work) can produce. The introduction to Relations in Public reveals his ambivalence towards presenting a logical structure integrating or systematizing his sociology. An author's note claims that the papers bear on 'a single domain of activity,' were intended to be published together, and are sequentially related, '. . . except for the two on interchanges – each develops its own perspective starting from conceptual scratch and taken together, the six do not purport to cover systematically, exhaustively, and without repetition what is common to them. I snipe at the target from six different positions unevenly spaced; there is no pretence of laying down a barrage.' His method owes much to Simmel. It manifests the outlines of formalistic analysis in which an event, occurrence, or rule is stipulated as being in the world, for example in a segment of the essay 'On Face Work' (Goffman, 1967:213-21), one finds the following social forms:"
3 types of face;
4 consequences of being out of or in the wrong face;
2 basic kinds of face work;
5 kinds of avoidance processes;
3 phases of the corrective process;
5 ways an offering can be accepted.
Such lists of items do not fall out so neatly in a text; in fact, they to accrue in an almost shadowy fashion. The purpose of these lists is unstated and often elusive. He does not infer or deduce form them, doe not claim that these types are exhaustive, explicate in any way the degree or kinds of possible logical interconnections between them, nor set out in the usual 'academic' fashion to relate his current efforts to previous ideas of himself or others. (Goffman's footnotes frequently indicate ritual debts, friendship ties or marks indicating intellectual predecessors. They have highly variable utility as informational sources.) His formalistic version of analysis is accomplished: (1) Goffman looks for the shape of an activity - the encounter - a single class or type of event involving face to face involvement and the exchange of verbal or non-verbal communication; (2) he delineates subtypes or near versions of the same thing; (3) he notes sources of tension, disruption, or intrusion (4); he points out permutations of moves or
tactics involved in maintaining a state of affairs - roughly equilibrium; and (5) he lists kinds or types of consequences. This analysis is not dependent, it should be emphasized, upon the substantive content of the examples - blindness, racial, age, or sexual identity, a lost nose, a harelip, or flatulence may all be seen as stigmatizing by someone, sometime, someplace. A waiting line operates as a mechanism for assigning turns whether people are waiting for a bus or for gassing at Dachau; apologies are expected and must be adequate whether a person runs over another's line in conversation, his foot, or his dog.
This formalistic style, like that of Mauss and Simmel, can be captured in propositions. Many are buried in Goffman's work (Lofland, 1971).
I/ If persons are to abide by the rules of interaction and treat one another relatively well, then they must treat each other as ritually sacred objects (OEW:227).
2/ If a fostered impression is to survive, then the audience must exercise tact in receiving it (PSEL: 229 - 34).
3/ If a situation does not allow a person to present any of his selves appropriately, then there will be an oscillation of selves presented and this oscillation will give rise to embarrassment (ESO).
Even if one can tease out propositions, they alone do not necessarily lead to or constitute a theory. Nor will a set of categories (taxonomy) or a frame of reference alone provide the basis for explanation. The task of testing, verifying, or establishing these notions (even if it were possible) would require a different sort of enterprise than that in which Goffman is engaged. A value of the work for sociology as a scientific discipline lies not exclusively in its rich potential as a source of ideas for hypothesis testing or in providing an outlines of a nascent positivistic theory. It is at once a social critique and a stylized enterprise juxtaposing 'man' and 'structural context,' thus revealing the lacunae of arid and dessicated 'structural sociologies,' and the errors of excessive neoreductionism and mathematical hyperbole.
. . . .
Goffman's sociology has much to tell us about the relationships between social order and the affirmation of self. In mass societies the importance of civility is that it protects and maintains the self. 'Many Cods have been done away with, but the individual himself stubbornly remains as a deity of considerable importance' (DD: 95). It is implied, especially in the later works of Goffman (after 1961), that although individuals are torn between loyalty to an order, and to their view of a self, it is the latter and not the former which is the basis for civility. 'What the individual is for himself is not something he invented. It is what significant others have come to see he should be, what they have come to treat him as being, and what, in consequence, he must treat himself as being if he is to deal with their dealing with him' (RP: 279) . He notes that 'in addition, people must appear 'disattendable' in the sense that they do not threaten others, and that one has 'no sense of self that is deeper' (RP:279). Again, we are presented with the dilemma of whether Goffman intends person or social order to be viewed as the most significant source of self-affirmation. The weight of emphasis seems to be upon 'external' structures such as ritual and social organization. Goffman implies that in many respects Anglo- American society is now nearing the state of minimal respect between citizens (that is, they have become so fearful that one of the deepest selves is provided by their sense of not being a threat to someone else). His examples suggest that a microcosm of the decline of civility is found in public encounters in large American cities.
In earlier work, social interaction was envisioned by Goffman as an encounter, a game, or a gamble where men knew little of the consequences of alternative realities or trivialized them because the social world was relatively stabilized through a thin veneer of reciprocity. Now society, if we believe him, may be in the process of shedding this thin and weakly binding veneer. This shift seems to reflect Goffman's interpretation of the implications of taking seriously alterations in the mood and tone of American life in the last ten years (Lyman, 1973). America represents the postindustrial dramaturgical society much as Victorian England represents the epitome of the industrial society. The Victorian pattern, set about 100 years ago and replicated in middle-class urban America of Anglo-Saxon proclivities, is no longer holding. This slate of affairs can be seen to flow logically from tendencies revealed in the contradictions (private vs public) inherent in Victorian morality. In the Victorian age middle-class notions of morality, decency, and appropriate behaviour were cast, primarily within the family. In the family, what G.M. Young called 'a stable and fortified center,' (1953), notions of hierarchy (from relations between generations), sociallocation (from relations within class and sharply delimited relations between classes), and order (from rigid segregation of home, work, and school) were promulgaled and learned. Victorians developed structural segmentation, the tendency to make public one's virtues, to conceal or make private one's vices (especially by sequestering secrets securely within the fa111ily and 'back stage' regions), and to maintain this rigid distinction in the face of potentially contradictory evidence (cf. Motz, 1965).
The consequences of the growth and erosion of Victorian morality are reflected in the moral chaos depicted in Goffman's sociology. Not solely a sociologist of middle-class life, Goffman is an appreciator arid taxonomist of situations wherein he sees civility at issue. As the class basis of society and the fixed membrane of the family system containing order, place, and hierarchy erodes, many presumably 'fixed' markers of social location vanish or are blurred, and new means of acquiring, altering, and maintaining self-esteem appear. Situated affirmations of self tend to reveal how little other than them mass society makes available as sources of selves (Young, 1972). To the degree that people require order, form, and continuity in their lives, life without fixed patterns of deference tends to become absurd. However, established patterns of deference may also become constructed and artificial (that is, they are viewed as arbitrary), once enduring exchange attenuates. He writes, concerning a psychiatric type, the manic, that he 'declines to restrict himself to the social game that brings sense and order into our lives' and gives up everything that a person can be as well as those things we construct out of 'jointly guarded dealings,' thus creating a confusion which 'may be as profound and as basic as social existence call get.' In this passage Goffman extends the microcosm of the private world of the family to illuminate his view of the dynamics or he condition of the 'larger' social order.'" He maintains that these private ('guarded') interactions are no longer private nor guarded when persons must seek justice in other (for example, legal or medical) institutions, or when the public order intrudes upon and dominates the private sphere of family life. (This theme was first introduced in Asylums – 'The Moral Career of the Mental Patient.') His sympathy, it can be inferred, lies with the powerless member of the family. In society, as his ironic use of the term 'troublemaker' indicates, he implies that it is the 'trouble-maker' who validly and legitimately responds to an oppressive, degrading situation.
It is less true that Goffman is 'Victorian' than perhaps that he is aware of the possibility that men's little games are not exclusively a reaction to their inability to modify a social order or organization, but that 'little games' may become pathetic in a society controlled by experts, bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians. This narrow game-like freedom is indeed fragile and subject to the arbitrary power available in a mass society. It is not Victorian conventions themselves which attract Goffman, but viable public life characterized by deference and civility. In Relations in Public Goffman seems to regret the ever waning rapprochement between strata which was maintained nearly through the nineteen century by feudal styles of reciprocity and loyalty. The demise of this pattern dismays him, or so it would seem. His sensibilities on this point are rather Victorian, perhaps because in his work he has shown by example how fragile any social order is, and the implicit (and explicit) dread inherent in a society where the appearance of civility is just that. Goffman in this sense is a man of his time, who speaks eloquently and profoundly to our present conturbations.