Sociological Theorists: Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman may or may not have been a symbolic interactionist, but he was undoubtedly influenced by G.H.Mead. Mead distinguished between the I, or the spontaneous self, and the Me, or the socialized self, accenting the ongoing tension between the two. It was this tension – and in particular the discrepancy between our spontaneous and socialized selves – that intrigued Goffman.

Goffman often chose to emphasize the ‘theatrical’ nature of our performances on the social stage, hence the depiction of his corpus as dramaturgical. This is most obvious in his classic Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The self is a product of the dramatic interaction between actor and audience. Not that this always goes smoothly, as it were in accordance with the script. There are disturbances; and it is these contingent interruptions to performances that fascinate Goffman. How do we as actors handle disruptions that threaten our performances?

Actors have to gain the upper hand over or subdue their audiences. Hence Goffman’s interest in impression management. This is a matter of actors marshalling the techniques they have acquired – in the drama school of life – in order to cope, to re-establish equilibrium. Goffman distinguishes between front stage and back stage. Consider front stage first. This refers to a situation in which an actor is giving a ‘set’ performance, as when the surgeon is operating. A further distinction is made between the setting – that is, the physical scenery without which the performance is not possible (e.g. the surgeon needs an operating theatre) – and the personal front – that is, what Ritzer calls the actor’s ‘expressive equipment’ that audiences have come to expect (e.g. the surgeon’s gown). The idea of the personal front admits of further division. On the one hand, there is appearance, which includes the actor’s credentials (e.g. a medical degree or fellowship); and on the other there is manner, which informs the audience what to expect (e.g. an authoritative self-confidence). A no-nonsense business-like manner heralds a very different performance from a meek self-deprecating one.

To a point, Goffman argued, fronts come to be institutionalized, meaning that actors select rather than create them. But I return to the notion of structure below.

Actors typically try to present an idealized representation of self, which means that they have to conceal stuff. Let’s substitute the university lecturer for the surgeon. A lecturer might well wish to hide the fact that she: (a) routinely takes drugs prior to lecturing, (b) has saved the wrong powerpoint on her memory stick, (c) spent several painstaking hours to prepare the material with which she is intimately familiar, (d) has plagiarized a colleague’s research, (e) is winging it, or (f) has just failed an appraisal by her head of department (loosely adapted from Ritzer’s Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots). Lecturers, like many others, also want to (be seen to) be concerned and empathic, to convey that each student is special; and we could go on. Lecturers might also resort to mystification for example, that is, increase the social distance between herself and her students by covertly drawing on a non-assigned textbook.

All this so far concerns front stage activity. What of back stage? Ideally this is an audience-free zone where surgeons and lecturers can switch off and chill. Outside is neither front nor back stage, as when our surgeon or lecturer (more likely but now not necessarily male) visits one of London’s Soho walk-ups incognito. But front and back stage and outside can and do vary. Ritzer: ‘a professor’s office is front stage when a student visits, back stage when the student leaves, and outside when the professor is at a university basketball game’.

Goffman wrote about many institutions, including asylums. My personal interest, however, hinges on his sensitization of the concept of stigma. Critical to this is his distinction between virtual and actual social identity. Stigma, he maintained, involves a gap between the two. The former refers to what a person ‘ought to be’, the latter to what she ‘is’. This links to another distinction: that between discredited stigma and discreditable stigma. With the former, the ‘mark’ comprising the stigma is visible and obvious, as when somebody is in a wheelchair or carries a white stick and is accompanied by a guide dog. With the latter, the stigmatizing attribute, trait or property is not conspicuous: as in the case of epilepsy, the focus of my own research in the 1970s, it is only intermittently – via stigma cues like witnessed seizures or pill-taking – that the potential for discrediting and stigmatization arise. For the discredited, the challenge is impression management, for the discredited, it is information management.

Dare I cite my own study at this point? Yes! People with epilepsy are typically discreditable rather than discredited. I distinguished between enacted stigma and felt stigma. Enacted stigma referred to actual discrimination against people with epilepsy on the basis on their unacceptable difference; felt stigma referred to a personalized sense of inferiority accompanied by a fear of encountering enacted stigma. What did I discover? My ‘hidden distress model’ asserted that, fearing enacted stigma, people with epilepsy tended to hide their symptoms/diagnosis, with the down-the-line result that felt stigma messed up their lives far more than enacted stigma.

Like many sociologists I find something curiously compelling about Goffman’s sociological incursions and excursions. Imagine him in a Chicago café, just ‘observing’, collaborating with his postgrads (without the institutional demand for high impact peer review papers, although he delivered those too). But I am interrogator too. In my own reflections on health-related stigma I noted that his approach to structure was supremely subtle, but also anaemic and unconvincing. Durkheim insisted that social facts were ‘external’ and ‘constraining’. This is missing in Goffman, at least in my view. Norms of shame, the explication of which he excels in, do not float free from the fault-lines of a society. Stigmatisatiopn cannot be separated from exploitation and oppression. For me, exploitation is class-based, oppression state-based. Norms of shame (and blame, for I would want to distinguish between the two) rarely exist and impact independently of exploitation and oppression. This much disability theory has taught us.

If the symbolic interactionism pioneered by Mead and Blumer and adorned by labeling theory, the principal combatants of the structural-functionalist of Parsons in 1950s and 1960s America, cannot entirely encompass Goffman’s dramaturgy, then this is maybe to his credit. He was a one-off, sociology’s stand-out ethnographer. But the work of elucidating the issue of structure versus agency, or Dawe’s ‘two sociologies’, remained incomplete.

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