Thursday, January 14, 2010

Erving Goffman

Read: Appelrouth & Edles 478-518

Goffman’s books include: Asylums, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Encounters, Behavior in Public Places, Stigma, Interaction Ritual, Strategic Interaction, Frame Analysis, and Gender Advertisements. Article: “The Interaction Order.”

Goffman was considered a symbolic interactionist (for good reason), although Goffman himself found the label wanting. Denying an allegiance to that tradition or even to the more general label of “theorist,” he was more prone to refer to himself as simply an “empiricist” or a “social psychologist.” In some respects, Goffman’s self-description may be the more accurate, for his work drew from a number of distinct approaches that he fashioned together in forming his own novel account of everyday life.

Goffman wrote with the flair of a literary stylist, his was not the dry prose all too common among scientist. Instead of adopting the standard practice of situating ones analyses within a particular intellectual lineage or reigning contemporary debates, Goffman was busy inventing his own terminology, as he set out to “raise questions that no one else had ever asked and to look at data that no one had ever examined before.”

Goffman was at the forefront of important movements within sociology, for instance, doing ethnomethodology before the ethnomethodologist and exploring the central role of language in social life (the “linguistic turn”) well ahead of most of his sociological brethren.

dramaturgy - a sociological perspective stemming from symbolic interactionism.

impression management – is the process through which people try to control the impressions other people form of them. It is a goal-directed conscious or unconscious attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object or event by regulating and controlling information in social interaction. It is usually used synonymously with self-presentation, if a person tries to influence the perception of their image (480).

definition of the situation – closely related to Goffman’s impression management - The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a seminal sociology book by Erving Goffman. It uses the imagery of the theatre in order to portray the importance of human – namely, social – action. The book was published in 1959.

In the center of the analysis lies the relationship between performance and front stage. Unlike other writers who have used this metaphor, Goffman seems to take all elements of acting into consideration: an actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage; the props at either setting direct his action; he is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers' play.

According to Goffman, the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor's main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors. To a certain extent, this imagery bridges structure and agency, enabling each, while saying that structure and agency can limit each other.

A major theme that Goffman treats throughout the work is the fundamental importance of having an agreed upon definition of the situation in a given interaction, in order to give the interaction coherency. In interactions, or performances, the involved parties may be audience members and performers simultaneously; the actors usually foster impressions that reflect well upon themselves, and encourage the others, by various means, to accept their preferred definition. Goffman acknowledges that when the accepted definition of the situation has been discredited, some or all of the actors may pretend that nothing has changed, if they find this strategy profitable to themselves or wish to keep the peace. For example, when a lady who is attending a formal dinner—and who is certainly striving to present herself positively—trips, nearby party-goers may pretend not to have seen her fumble; they assist her in maintaining face. Goffman avers that this type of artificial, willed credulity happens on every level of social organization, from top to bottom (481).

Goffman illuminated the significance of seemingly insignificant acts. Of particular import are a person’s demeanor (conduct, dress) and the deference (honor, dignity, respect) it symbolically accords to others. By expressing oneself to be a well or poorly demeaned person, an individual simultaneously bestows or withholds deference to others. The reciprocal nature of deference and demeanor is such that maintaining a well-demeaned image allows those present to do likewise as the deference they receive obligates them to confer proper deference in kind. Each is rewarded for his or her good behavior by the deference that person reaps in turn. Yet, whether or not an individual is judged to be well demeaned is determined not by the individual himself but, rather, by the interpretations others make of his behavior during interaction. Indeed, claiming oneself to be well demeaned is a sign of poor demeanor (484).

front – that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance. Front, then, is the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance (486).

backstage – the region of the performance normally unobserved by, and restricted from, members of the audience. Backstage is where the impression fostered by a performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course where illusions and impression are openly constructed. Here costumes and other parts of the personal front may be adjusted and scrutinized for flaws. Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character (487).

Goffman draws a distinction between the self as performer and as character, and in doing so he comes to a radical antipsychological conclusion. As a character, the self is not an organic thing that has specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.

In other words, the self is in reality an image, a managed impression that is fabricated in concert with others during an encounter. While we typically see ones performed self as “something housed within the body of possessor, in the psychobiology of the personality,” in actuality the self is imputed by others such that it “does not derive from its possessor but from the whole scene of his action. This imputation, this self, is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it.”

Goffman sums up his notion of self as character thusly: In analyzing the self, we are drawn from its possessor, from the person who will profit or lose most by it, for he and his body merely provide the peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time. And the means for production and maintaining selves do not reside inside the peg; in fact these means are often bolted down in social establishments (488).

merchant of morality – in the capacity of performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and so pervasive, the individuals who are performers dwell more than we might think in a moral world. But qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing these standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are realized. Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern with them. As performers we are merchants of morality. The very obligation and profitability of appearing always is a steady moral light, of being a socialized character, forces one to be the sort of person who is practiced in the ways of the stage (490).

total institutions – mental hospitals, prisons, monasteries, convents, the military, and boarding schools all have one thing in common: they are all total institutions – places of “residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.” It is here where “under one roof and according to one rational plan, all spheres of individuals’ lives – sleeping, eating, playing, and working are regulated. To one degree or another, inhabitants of such facilities are stripped of the freedoms and resources to manage their self-presentation that are normally provided by social arrangements. As a result, they are subjected to mortifications of self, processes of “killing off” the multiple selves possessed prior to ones entrance into the total institution and replacing them with one totalizing identity over which the person exercises little, if any, control. Here is the life of the prison inmate or military recruit: shaven head dressed in institutional clothing, substitution of a number or insult for ones name, disposed of personal property, endless degradation, and complete loss of privacy over intimate information and matters of personal hygiene. All work together to construct a self radically different from the one that entered the establishment (506).

secondary adjustments – are “ways in which the individual stands apart from the role and the self that were taken for granted for him by the institution.” They are oppositional practices through which we refuse the “official” view of what we should be and thus distance ourselves from an organization (507).