Remembering Erving Goffman

T. R. Young

(T. R. Young, “The Politics of Sociology: Gouldner, Goffman, and Garfinkel.” The American Sociologist, 1971, Vol. 6., No. 6, pp. 276-281.)

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The first technical point Gouldner (p. 379) makes about Goffman is that Goffman's approach to sociology is taken without a "metaphysics of hierarchy." By that he means that the points of view of psychiatrists, salesmen, professors, and police have no prior moral claim on the loyalty of the sociologist than do the points of view of the patient, the customer, the student, or the criminal. This is a valid technical judgment. Goffman neither celebrates the priest nor castigates the prostitute. However, the question of the political meaning of this new perspective is unanswered because of two ambiguities that arc intrinsic to it. One aspect of the ambiguity is its avoidance the question of whether the existing stratification system is therapeutic, economic, educative, reproductive , redemptive, or whatever – or whether another stratification or none at all is preferable. A second aspect of the ambiguity derives from the fact that by failing to sustain the point of view of the official hierarchy, Goffman appears to be "against those advantaged by it." The ambiguity can be resolved by any one of at 16ast three political acts by radical sociologists: interpreting Goffman as being against the stratification system, (b) using Goffman as a point of de parture to raise and to settle the question "should the stratification system in these social arenas be dismantled or some other policy preferred in the matter of the psychiatrist and the patient?" or (c) searching in Goffman's work for specific instances where he condemns stratification mechanisms in implicit terms.

In my classes I have done these three things and thus have politicized Goffman more than he might wish. I have stressed that under the conditions of social organization laid out by Goffman in Asylum(1961) there are some therapeutic criteria by which the student can decide which side of the stratification fence to be on. If the conditions are those of a total institution, an underlife is necessary to the human condition and should be sustained, and the stratification ofthe total institution should be subverted. If there is a therapeutic community, a stratification system is useful merely for matters of technical administration; it is not hostile to the moral career of a person, and it need no: be the center of political action.

The second point raised by Gouldner (p. 379) regarding Goffman's technical meanings is that Goffman's focus on copresence dwells on the immediate and the episodic. This is a valid statement. Gouldner's political analysis is that such a focus ignores the permanent and hostile features of society – that such a focus places the onus on individuals as "gamesmen" rather than upon soci ety as fostering gamesmanship. Goffman's model of man is a person who accepts and "works" this dehumanized system rather than rebels against it or rises above it in Rousseauian modes. But it is Goffmanian analysis that permits Gouldner and others to understand the world as it has come to be and to begin to take political action to transform it. By making the analysis, Goffman provides sociologists with the basic ingredient for that reflexivity that Gouldner urges upon us with such fervor (pp. 488-500). The political danger of Goffman on this point is that his analysis will be helpful to gamesmen. However, the writing of Gouldner now preempts Goffman from being helpful to gamesmen. New sociologists, having read Gouldner and understanding Goffman, are not likely to celebrate the model of man sketched by Goffman; more important, they now have the insight, from Gouldner, to focus on the social conditions that underwrite the management of team front a well as the episodic merchandizing of self to anonymous others.

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Rather than to castigate Goffman for his view of life-as-theater, Gouldner should praise him for the political act of legitimating the view that all social reality is staged. Shakespeare said it earlier and better than Goffman did, but Shakespeare was "only" a playwright while Goffman is "really” a sociologist payoff, therefore, to be taken seriously. The political payoff is that we understand that all social reality requires, in part, a script, actors, front, body idiom, ethos, involvement norms, relevance rules, conventions for boundary closure, disengagement motives, and so on; we understand that the script fro reality can be changed, and new, more human forms of reality make take the stage given adequate political means for choosing between scripts. Dramaturgical activities are supportive of the sociology of fraud when they are used to abort a creative dialectic. In the ordinary run of social events, images and visions are crucial to the self-fulfilling cycle of prophecy and performance. Fraud exists when the prophecy bears no correspondence to the implied performance.