Remembering Erving Goffman
Simon Johnson Williams
(Simon Johnson Williams, “Appraising Goffman.” The British Journal of Sociology. 1986. Vol. , No. pp. 348-369).
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Within academic circles Erving Goffman has received a somewhat mixed reception. It is a curious thing that while among graduate and undergraduate students his following is fairly large, among older, more established faculty he is not taken very seriously. It is also, as Posner notes,' apparent that the seeming lack of interest in Goffman among his peer group is more than accidental; more likely it is intentional. While he has produced paperback after paperback of overwhelming success the reviews of his work in academic journals are scarce - although since his death there has been a marked increase in interest. On the other hand, his work has been reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books (August 1975) and Time (January 1969); no small accomplishment for an academic. Those who comment on his work read a variety of antithetical interpretations into it. Some view him as a political radical, others view him as a middleclass conservative, while others view him as apolitical.
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First, to argue that Goffman ignores the macrocosm within which micro-level concerns are imbedded is, I think, wholly incorrect. In Goffman's early writings there appear to be two basic substantive areas of concern. One is the study of the Encounter: the other is perhaps less obvious – the study of Self in Society. Goffman's work, like that of Simmel, Mauss and Durkheim, is an attempt to bridge situations and structures: his rendition of dramaturgical analysis interdigitates humanly-defined situations and rules in relation to social structure. Goffman draws from Simmel and Mauss a concern for the forms of human relationships, the symbolic cloaks within which we wrap ourselves. But his concern for what he sees as the man underneath or behind these cloaks, leads him to explicate concerns most associated with continental thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Sartre; matters of mood, expressions, feelings, passion. It is precisely this element which is lacking in Mead's rationalistic social-psychological framework and it is this focus on expression as a sole concern which Blumer is criticizing. But this is not his sole concern. This concern sets him apart from the Chicago School in some respects, but his analysis of existentialist concerns is mediated by the concept of situated, setting specific conduct. In doing so he has occasionally immersed the situation in personal moods as in Stigma and other times, in Behaviour in Public places and in Relations in Public to a lesser degree, he has immersed the self. His focus continued to be the interactional context as reflexively revealed in exchanges. Goffman is not the existentialist supreme, as mentioned above, he attends to the primary quality of the situation as a structural entity. Goffman developed an elaborate collection of categories and properties pertaining to the encounter and we find Goffman posing the Hobbesian problem of social order. But instead of asking how society in general is possible, he asks: how is sustained social interaction possible? How are encounters possible and how are they maintained?
Goffman springs from a British tradition of social-anthropology with its concern for ritual, symbols and deference. In this respect Goffman seems to be influenced by Radcliffe-Brown. The Durkheimian concern for ritual tends to dovetail into a reference to functional rules of social order, which are pushed little further than to provide a Simon Johnson Williams rationale for an elaborate taxonomy of features of everyday life interaction. How people come on in conversation and their appearance is usually legitimate and institutionalized. Being legitimate means it is normative, being institutionalized means that it is part of the cultural apparatus of society; people act in specific ways because of some hidden social constraint to do so. Society and its collective conscience, then, is not a big balloon in the sky, it is a deep, complex, moral arrangement in our everyday encounters, to help each other stage our personal realities. Much of Goffman's work undertakes to interpret everyday life as a 'ritual order' in which societies' central beliefs about the rights and character of persons are reaffirmed and revealed. This is strikingly similar to Durkheim's notion of religious rituals.
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For Goffman, action is being: to engage in a particular type of activity is to be that kind of person, existence precedes essence (ontology). On this Goffman and Sartre are inseparable. Whilst there is some merit in this, we should always be aware that his abiding concern was with the 'Interaction Order' and so consequently headings like structuralist and existentialist – both of which have been applied to Goffman's work – must ultimately be seen as 'means' serving some higher goal for Goffman. This goal being namely must ultimately be seen as 'means' serving some higher goal for Goffman.
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At the same time that Goffman attracted a devout cult-like following, he also acquired numerous negative labels, the mildest of which is conservative. He is often regarded as unjustly attributing mercenary, offensive qualities and motives to his fellow man. At best he is seen as a pessimist and a cynic. However, there is at least a consensus about one thing; the picture Goffman paints of mankind and society is not a very pretty one, nor is it an issue which seems to concern him. This factor alone makes him very unpopular among many of his colleagues, who believe that it is the obligation of sociologists to right the wrongs of the social system they study, or at least to pay lip service to the liberal egalitarian myth.