Erving Goffman Research Paper

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The work of the sociologist Erving Goffman is regarded as a classic by most of his professional colleagues. Randall Collins (1988, p. 41) even considers him ‘the greatest sociologist of the latter half of the twentieth century.’ Goffman’s influence, particularly on many younger researchers, is still powerful at the beginning of the twenty-first century and is by no means restricted to sociology. Goffman’s works have been influential in numerous parallel disciplines, above all in social psychology, linguistics, philosophy, literature studies, pedagogics, psychiatry, and media studies. It cannot be denied that Goffman made important empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions. The following essay will discuss them against the background of a short biographical sketch and relate them to relevant sociological contexts of discussions.

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1. Biographical Sketch

Erving Goffman was born in the small Canadian town of Manville on July 11, 1922, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He began his academic career at the University of Toronto, where he took his BA in 1945. After completing his sociology studies at the University of Chicago, USA, where he primarily studied under Everett C. Hughes and W. Lloyd Warner, he took up his first post in Scotland, UK. From 1949 to 1951 he worked at the Department of Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University. After that he returned to Chicago, where he gained his doctorate with his thesis Communication Conduct in an Island Community, which he had prepared in Scotland. The empirical basis of his dissertation, which was supervised by W. Lloyd Warner, Donald Horton and Anselm L. Strauss, was a field study on the Shetland Islands. Following a spell as research assistant at the Department of Sociology at Chicago University, where his research included social stratification, Goffman was employed as a Visiting Scientist in the Laboratory of Socio-Environmental Studies at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda (Maryland) from mid-1954 to the end of 1957. During this time Goffman carried out a one-year study in a mental hospital. This study on the basis of ‘participant observation’ formed the essential foundation of his book Asylums (1961a). In 1958 Goffman transferred to Berkeley as Assistant Professor of Sociology and member of the Center for the Integration of Social Science Theory at the University of California. From 1962 he was a Full Professor in Berkeley. In 1968 he accepted the Benjamin Franklin Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he substantially advanced his research program and wrote his chef d’oeu re ‘Frame Analysis’ (1974).

His works, which reached a wide academic and nonacademic audience and have been translated into many languages, earned Goffman numerous honors. He received a number of prestigious awards and was Visiting Professor at several universities at home and abroad. In 1981 Goffman became President of the American Sociological Association (ASA). At the peak of his powers after an academic career of almost 30 years, Goffman died on November 20, 1982.

2. Goffman’s Work

2.1 Research Program And Intellectual Context

Goffman’s main theme was the forms of immediate social interaction, ‘face-to-face’ encounters. He saw in them a specific type of social system and a sociological field in its own right. In his Presidential Address delivered at the end of his term as President of the American Sociological Association shortly before his death, he declared: ‘My concern over the years has been to promote acceptance of this face-to-face domain as an analytically viable one—a domain which might be titled for want of any happy name, the interaction order—a domain whose preferred method of study is microanalysis’ (Goffman 1983, p. 2). This programmatic description of his position does not mean that Goffman regarded the interaction level as completely autonomous or socially fundamental. Rather he stressed the manifold ‘relativity’ of the autonomy of the interaction order. In many places in his works Goffman pointed out its historical variability as well as links (‘a loose coupling’) between the microlevel of the interaction and social macro-structures (e.g., social stratification or bureaucratic organization). However, Goffman did not systematically consider the historical and social conditions and dependencies of his subject. Rather he was primarily concerned with observing and discovering seemingly insignificant aspects of daily behavior. He focused on tiny moments of people’s behavior, which they themselves find more or less natural and are unaware of: fleeting glances, physical contact and distance, apologies, greetings, compliments, silence, etc.

All Goffman’s works, 11 books in total, are consistently oriented towards this empirical reality, but from the start Goffman also adopted means of interpretation from various sociological schools and traditions, including above all the ‘classics’ William James, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel, structural functionalism (Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Talcott Parsons), representatives of the Chicago School (George H. Mead), Charles H. Cooley, Louis Wirth et al.), existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre), ethology, ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel, Harvey Sacks), and sociolinguistics (Dell Hymes). But Goffman never regarded his theoretical references, models and metaphors as ends in themselves, they were rather means to the end of discovering and describing social order.

2.2 Approaches, Positions, And Results

In the following attempt to briefly summarize and appraise Goffman’s work, a number of key sociological terms either coined or redefined by Goffman will be used as a guideline.

2.2.1 Dramaturgy. Goffman became known for his analysis of social life based on the model of the theater (see 1959), and his model has remained influential. It is too simple to speak of Goffman’s work, as for example Jonathan Turner does, as the ‘dramaturgical school of interactionism,’ but it can be demonstrated that the dramaturgical perspective consistently played an important role for Goffman. It can similarly be proved that Goffman’s dramaturgical approach partly anticipated and formed a basis for many of his later constructs. This particularly applies to his works on strategic interaction, ritual, territoriality, identity, and stigma.

Within the context of the theater model Goffman reconstructed above all the strategies of social ‘face work’: forms of concealment, lying, self-stylizing, mystification, the manipulation of ‘facades,’ etc. His aim here was not just to show how individuals, selfish subjects in the fight for social recognition, attempt to present themselves in the best light; rather he constantly also saw dramaturgical everyday life as producing and reproducing social order, a restrictedly open and widely endangered process that is to be permanently established.

Goffman’s dramaturgical approach and his later reflections on social territories (1971) and frames (1974) also help us understand the spatial organization (social ecology) of modern society. For example, it becomes clear that normality is a fictional impression to be produced by differentiating distinct spheres of perception, audiences, and representations; it is the foundation for the actors’ basic social trust. Goffman’s differentiation between ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ (see 1959) became famous in this context.

2.2.2 Roles And Identities. Goffman’s early works in particular are to be seen in the context of role theory, influential at the time, which he criticized and developed further. Goffman treated role analysis primarily as interaction analysis, investigating the functioning and/organization of the ‘actual’ practice of performing a role against the background of its normative frame. Thus Goffman developed concepts of patterns and styles of behavior, including the term ‘role distance’ (see 1961b), which has meanwhile acquired the status of a basic sociological term and which refers to a way of behavior which comments on the role and primarily serves either the interaction system or the selves relevant in the situation. For example, Goffman described a five-year-old boy riding a roundabout horse who by little irreverences in his behavior demonstrates that his current role does not correspond to his ‘true,’ ‘more adult’ self.

In Stigma (1963), Goffman differentiated the term ‘self’ in the context of an identity theory which distinguishes three types of identity in a basic sense that is still valid at the beginning of the twenty-first century: (a) social identity as a person’s role set, (b) personal identity as a person’s synchronic and diachronic individuality ascribed to him by observers, and (c) ego identity as a person’s inner self-reference. Goffman used these concepts of identity together with the instruments of his dramaturgical approach above all in analyzing stigmatized deviations and deviants. He focused on the techniques of information control and emotion management of the stigmatized people as well as on the consequences of the stigmatization for their identities and socialization.

2.2.3 Total institutions. Goffman’s book Asylums (1961a) represents an exception among his works in that it systematically goes beyond the interaction level. It describes a class of social organizations that has to do with confining, controlling and ‘altering’ people, such as mental hospitals, prisons, convents, homes, barracks, concentration camps, etc. However, Goffman’s (1961a) investigated such ‘total institutions’, where the most elementary matters of course and norms of everyday interaction are broken, with the aim of exposing the interaction order and the self-connected with it. Beyond that, Goffman’s analysis demonstrated that total institutions form an ambivalent milieu for socialization. On the one hand they act as machinery for disciplining and normalizing behavior and interaction. On the other hand these institutions damage the moral self, e.g., self-respect and modesty, through various forms of humiliation.

2.2.4 Ritualizations. In his work Goffman repeatedly dealt with the moral sides of the interaction order. For Goffman the self is a moral fact which implies rights and duties when showing respect and which can be observed in ritual practices and codes of every-day interaction. Every person appears as both subject and object of a ritual ‘language,’ a ‘language’ of politeness, decency, and tact, but also on occasion of contempt, wounding, humiliation, etc. (see Goffman 1967).

At the end of his career Goffman elaborated his early ritual model to include ethological and frame theoretical considerations, on the basis of which he analyzed gender interactions and the interpretative patterns they are based on (see 1979). Goffman depicted gender as a combination of ritual styles of presentation representing beliefs about gender-specific essential attributes. These beliefs amount to a schematic asymmetry similar to that of the parent-child relationship. In daily interaction life and its media depictions (e.g., in advertising) men appear as superior beings to women by ritualizations of dress, physical contact, smiling, activity, etc.

2.2.5 Strategic interactions. For Goffman, ritualizations represented the most important social condition of profit-oriented strategic action on the level of interaction. Totally ignoring their contents, he analyzed this action within the framework of a model of strategic interaction oriented towards game theory (see 1969). The main point of departure and aim of Goffman’s respective considerations were the social situation in which the subjects strive for control of the ‘definitions’ of the other players or rivals. Following on from his dramaturgical approach, Goffman above all investigated the conditions of competence and limits of ‘impression management,’ the strategically relevant interpretations of expression (e.g., of the body), the logic of reciprocal strategic observation and assessment, as well as the complexity of meaning and virtuosity of strategic moves. The empirical basis of the investigation consisted in particular in self-descriptions by a wide variety of strategic subjects (spies, confidence tricksters, adulterers, politicians, etc.). Goffman ‘translated’ their practical knowledge of action (knowledge of cleverness) into the categories of his analytic description, e.g., a typology of strategic moves.

2.2.6 Frames And Framing Subjects. Frame Analysis (1974) can be regarded as Goffman’s main theoretical work, because it integrates, or could integrate, the many various analytic perspectives and terminological distinctions of his earlier works. Frame Analysis itself therefore forms something like a frame. It is characterized by two basic orientations. On the one hand, the interest is directed at ‘structures’ and procedures for establishing meaning which are effective in generating normality in social situations and which are valid, independent of these situations. On this level, which can be compared with the grammar of a language, Goffman revealed basic types of meaning and complex possibilities of transforming meaning (play, experiment, demonstration, etc.). On the other hand, on the level of the concrete situative events he aimed both at normal uncertainties, dangers, and the pressure to conform, as well as at extreme forms of abnormality, such as the ‘negative experiences’ of inmates of mental hospitals, whose habitual framings, which have proved their worth in everyday life, fail in the institution. The individual, whom Goffman revealed as the subject of the framing, is characterized by enormous powers of judgment and virtuosity, particularly in functionally complementing rules and also in manipulating them.

2.2.7 Forms Of Talk. In his last period, Goffman built on earlier studies and particularly concerned himself with conversations. The main result of this work is his book Forms of Talk (1981), which Goffman specifically placed in the context of Frame Analysis, one chapter of which was already devoted to conversations.

Goffman’s late focusing on conversations can be seen in connection with the emergence of conversation analysis as a branch of ethnomethodology, which he approved of, but also criticized (see Bergmann 1991). In contrast to conversation analysis, which tends to conceptualize the process of communication as an autonomously organized system, Goffman stressed the importance of ritual order, which is always culturespecific and which permits selves and consequently psychological states to develop. Goffman basically rejected the assumption by conversation analysts that sections of a conversation can be analyzed without reference to their situational and extra-situational contexts. Moreover, Goffman was mainly interested in a sociological approach to the contextuality of social processes. Frame Analysis represents this approach.

2.3 Goffman’s Methods

Goffman’s work is essentially the result of the author’s talents, in particular his personal sensitivity, the subtlety of his powers of observation, and his ability to classify his material in his search for order. He displayed these talents in the course of practical research, which struck most observers as unconventional, even puzzling. Among the most irritating points are Goffman’s data, whose heterogeneity can hardly be exceeded. In his works the reader comes across personal everyday experiences, novels, autobiographies, the daily press, essays by film critics, photographs, etc. In many other respects Goffman also deviated from the normal forms of sociological discourse. He abbreviated the traditional terminological vocabulary of his field, avoided lengthy argumentation, frequently changed perspective, focused on seemingly unimport- ant details, commented in an autoreflective manner on his own work, made ironic remarks and repeatedly told or referred to ‘stories.’ What is most important is that Goffman did not conform to any methodological canon, rather his methods entirely depended on the subject. This meant first of all that it was necessary to forgo certain traditional research methods. For example, the fact that those patterns of behavior that interested Goffman were generally unconscious ones meant that interviews were largely or totally impossible.

Goffman himself described his procedure as primarily ‘naturalistic.’ The scope of what he meant by that ranged from ‘participant observation’ (even in his own everyday life) to work with audio-visual recordings. His aim was always to get as close as possible to ‘social nature’ and to capture it as accurately as possible. On the other hand Goffman tried to achieve analytic distance and obtain information by various forms of ‘alienation.’ Alongside systematic work with models such as that of the theater, his most important technique was the strategy of alienation, which Paul Drew and Anthony Wootton (1988, p. 7) called ‘the investigation of the normal through the abnormal.’ Goffman employed totally different forms of abnormality, such as stigmatizations, espionage, accidents, or celebrities as approaches to the logic of everyday normality.

In order to convert into texts the results that were generated by his methodological dialectic of approaching and distancing Goffman combined two strategies. On the one hand he developed a formal analytical language which contains the basic features of the interaction order and the self-connected with it. On the other hand he employed a strategy of ‘thick description’ (C. Geertz). By using a literary style, a metaphorical language suited to the specific subject, and extensive quotations from his material, cleverly combined with his analytical observations, he succeeded in making his subject appear alive and viewing it in a new light.

3. Goffman’s Importance For The Social Sciences Today

It is not easy to judge how relevant Goffman’s work is for the social sciences at the beginning of the twenty-first century; its main significance probably lies in his contribution to discovering the interaction order. In this way Goffman opened up a specific research area and at the same time provided central categories and strategies for exploring it.

But quite apart from interaction sociology, Goffman also had a strong influence on a number of other research areas and he remains influential today. This is especially true of many aspects of research into identity and socialization. Of prime importance among them are Goffman’s reflections on institutional control and discipline procedures, and on subjectivity. Goffman is especially appreciated today in research on normality and deviation as well as in gender studies, where some of his works are still standards now. In addition, he has a significant influence not only on the level of the everyday interaction order, but also on the sociology of certain social fields of action (politics, advertising, science, etc.) and in media research, where many of Goffman’s analytical instruments have proved to be valid. Furthermore it can be seen that recently Goffman’s works have increasingly been read and discussed from the point of view of general theories of civilization and society. For example, parallels have been drawn and connections made with the works of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu (see Willems 1997). In general it is a remarkable fact that widely differing and contrasting schools have incorporated parts of Goffman’s works. The spectrum of positions Goffman is ‘relevant’ for, ranges from modern systems theory through critical theory, right down to the rational-choice approach.

Just as the reactions to Goffman’s work have been wide-ranging and many-sided, so evaluations of its scope and its identity have differed greatly. While most people see the importance of Goffman’s work essentially on the level of empirical micro-observation, others (e.g., Anthony Giddens) believe that in it there is to be found a systematic theory that goes beyond the level of micro-sociology and is highly significant for the development of the social sciences. Similarly, various labels have been attached to Goffman’s thinking (symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, role theory, structuralism, ethnomethodology, etc.).

No matter how the situation of his reception is to be judged, it cannot be denied that Goffman left behind a series of studies that are still relevant and influential today and a network of concepts that is both highly complex and highly integrated. Perhaps an equally important part of his legacy is the paradigm he provided by the style and ethos of his research.


  1. Bergmann J R 1991 Goffmans Soziologie des Gesprachs und seine ambivalente Beziehung zur Konversationsanalyse. In: Hettlage R, Lenz K (eds.) Erving Goffman—ein soziologischer Klassiker der zweiten Generation. UTB, Bern, Stuttgart, Germany, pp. 301–26
  2. Collins R 1988 Theoretical continuities in Goffman’s work. In: Drew P, Wootton A (eds.) Erving Goff Exploring the Interaction Order. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 41–63
  3. Drew P, Wootton A 1988 Erving Goff Exploring the Interaction Order. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 1–13
  4. Goffman E 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday Anchor, New York
  5. Goffman E 1961a Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Doubleday Anchor, New York
  6. Goffman E 1961b Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, IN
  7. Goffman E 1963 Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  8. Goffman E 1967 Interaction Ritual: Essays on the face-to-face Behavior. Doubleday Anchor, New York
  9. Goffman E 1969 Strategic Interaction. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA
  10. Goffman E 1971 Relations in Public. Microstudies of the Public Order. Harper and Row, New York
  11. Goffman E 1974 Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Harper and Row, New York
  12. Goffman E 1979 Gender Advertisements. Macmillan, London
  13. Goffman E 1981 Forms of Talk. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  14. Goffman E 1983 The interaction order. American Sociological Review 48: 1–17
  15. Manning Ph 1992 Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  16. Willems H 1997 Rahmen und Habitus. Zum theoretischen und methodischen Ansatz Erving Goffmans: Vergleiche, Anschlusse und Anwendungen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M., Germany
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