Erving Goffman was a sociologist, but what he studied was communication. He established the “interaction order” as a legitimate topic of study; in doing so, he provided the logic for why, and the method for how, to study face-to-face behavior. People construct the social world through language and interaction, he argued, so if we are to understand the social world, we must examine the act of social construction, i.e., specific behavior. His method was careful attention to details of naturally occurring contexts of co-presence (when people are physically together). Interaction socially constructs meaning, even when it appears nothing noteworthy is occurring. Language and social interaction (LSI) scholars analyze the same everyday behaviors, whether or not they explicitly acknowledge Goffman’s influence. The main strands of research in LSI today are all different ways of studying Goffman’s interaction order.
Goffman was born in Manville, Alberta, Canada, in 1922. In 1945 he received his BA from the University of Toronto. He received his MA in 1949 and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Chicago. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1958 to 1968, and then at the University of Pennsylvania until his death in 1982.
Goffman was an especially graceful writer who wove together his observations (often of the Shetland Isles or St Elizabeth’s Hospital) with the reports of others. His emphasis on description over theory makes his work unusually accessible. He developed extensive taxonomies for understanding the structure underlying interaction. These attributes brought his work substantial attention; his books became bestsellers during his lifetime, remaining widely read today.
His publications all explored essentially the same topic: the social construction of the self, relationships, and social reality through language and interaction. He always used the same method of micro-analysis (attending to details of behavior). Each work emphasized a different aspect of interaction, providing new terminology for the study of the self, relationships, and social reality.
Goffman was intensely interested in the self as a social product. The presentation of self in everyday life (1959) introduced the concept of impression management, attending to information one participant conveys to others (Self-Presentation). He divided behavior into information one gives (deliberately) and gives off (inadvertently). He distinguished between front stage (where the self is visible, as in the dining room) and back stage (where it is hidden, as in the kitchen). The social self can be examined in a wide range of contexts. Asylums (1961) studied selves within a total institution (a place to live and work, cut off from society); Stigma (1963) considered the plight of someone with a spoiled identity (any attribute that discredits them). Goffman occasionally examined the construction of social categories (gender, race, class), as in Gender advertisements (1979), but the majority of his work examined the self as constructed in public, in the presence of strangers.
For Goffman, social selves were always interacting with others; relationships connected individuals to the social world. Behavior in public places (1963) divided contexts of copresence into gatherings (when people are co-present, but not necessarily interacting) and occasions (social events having temporal and spatial boundaries, with participants likely to interact). In either, face engagements exist as a joint focus, such as a conversation. Any time someone wishes to hide an activity or discourage involvement, they can make use of an involvement shield, such as reading a newspaper; use of shields permits civil inattention (not paying obvious attention to others). Encounters (1961) emphasized social roles (activities required by a position): people can stay in role (behaving appropriately) or break role (behaving inappropriately). Strategic interaction (1969) examined the various moves and styles of play available to the players of the game. Interaction ritual (1967) examined the rules of conduct binding actors together, specifically, face (positive social value a person claims) and facework (actions taken to maintain face), deference (actions conveying appreciation of others), and demeanor (nonverbal behaviors conveying one’s desirable qualities). Relations in public (1971) examined the link between relationships and public life, introducing a single (person alone), a with (person obviously with another), and tie-signs (evidence of relationship). He included remedial work (efforts to repair interaction) such as accounts (explanation of what occurred); he discussed social identities (membership in categories, including age, race, gender), and their associated social norms, rules, and interpersonal rituals.
Goffman also examined the construction of social reality more generally. First, he proposed three metaphors for understanding interaction: theatre, ritual, and game. These thread through various books; the major statement of life as theatre can be found in The presentation of self, life as ritual in Interaction ritual, and life as game in Encounters. The theatre metaphor is widely studied in communication as “dramaturgical theory.” Second, he analyzed how interaction rules create reality. Encounters distinguished between focused interaction (when people cooperate to sustain a focus of attention, as in conversation) and unfocused interaction (when people glean information through observation, as in noticing a stranger’s clothes). Because social rules are easily broken, our sense of reality can be easily shattered. Finally, he studied the frames (contexts within which language and behavior are understood) used to make sense of behavior. In Frame analysis (1974), his focus was on keying (the way in which a frame can be reinterpreted) and strips (a piece of the stream of behavior). In Forms of talk (1981) he introduced response cries (interjections, like “oops!”) and footing (participants’ alignment). Talk was always one of Goffman’s topics, for he took conversation to be the central act of communication; it was most clearly the focus in this, his final, book.
- Drew, P., & Wootton, A. (eds.) (1988). Erving Goffman: Exploring the interaction order. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
- Fine, G. A., & Smith, G. W. H. (eds.) (2000). Erving Goffman, 4 vols. London: Sage.
- Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
- Goffman, E. (1961a). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
- Goffman, E. (1961b). Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Goffman, E. (1963a). Behavior in public places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press.
- Goffman, E. (1963b). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
- Goffman, E. (1969). Strategic interaction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Harper and Row.
- Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper and Row.
- Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. New York: Harper and Row.
- Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Treviño, A. J. (ed.) (2003). Goffman’s legacy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Winkin, Y. (1988). Erving Goffman: Les moments et leurs hommes [Erving Goffman: Moments and their men]. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.