Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922 – November 19, 1982) was a Canadian-born sociologist and writer.
Considered "the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century" (Fine, Manning, and Smith 2000:ix), as a subjective analyst, Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction in the form of dramaturgical analysis that began with his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman's other areas of study included social order and interaction, impression management, total institutions, social organization of experience, and stigmas. Some of the influences on his works include Durkheim, Freud, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown, and Simmel.
In 2007 Goffman was listed as the 6th most-cited intellectual in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide, behind Anthony Giddens and ahead of Jürgen Habermas.. Goffman was also named the 73rd president of the American Sociological Association. Goffman is more cited today from his books than during his time. Writers today use his ideas to examine the relationship between individual behavior and the reproduction of social systems.
Of all Goffman's books, this one has not dated well. The strengths of the research involve exploring the nature of "inappropriate" behaviour. There is also attention the consequences of not abiding by rules. The "regulation of involvement" and "normative assumptions" are well revealed.
The attention to sexuality - and sexual assumptions - is poor. But the regulation of communication is excellent.
I was only mildly impressed with this book. The book was about behaviour in public places and I mean it covered a whole lot of public paces from hospitals, to restaurants to cafes to wakes to sports event … it’s pretty comprehensive but in all honesty, there was not that much there that really wowed me in terms of insight! The book had chapters on topics such as involvement, engagements of the face, acquaintances, communication boundaries, regulation of mutual involvement, participation, situational proprieties, tightness and looseness etc. Anyway here are a few of my best bits: • The involvement that an individual sustains in a particular situation Is a matter of inward feeling. Assessment of involvement must and does reply on some kind of outward expression. • Thus we read in etiquette books that after a death in the family one should not go to dinners of more than 8 people or to fashionable restaurants, the operate, the theatre or the races. The implication is that in all of these settings participants are expected to maintain somewhat of a festive spirit and give themselves up rather extensively to the occasioned involvement. And since a properly downcast person will not be in a position to come out of himself this far he should not go at all.
You never know when someone is watching your behaviour in public places .. in the 60s a sociologist was observing, noting and published a book! This was Goffman. I have NO idea if I'll write a review of this work one day, but all my notes/citations are available, they can give you 'glimpse' of what this 'report' (as Goffman says) is about. All I can say that the part where Erving highlighted the similarities between disengagement outside mental illnes hospitals and inside them, was one of the strongest part where he asks: do they (workers with mental illnes) condemn such behaviour because they are unacceptable or because they were performed by mental patients? Here, he spot light on the difference between the behaviour and the performer, as well as he distinguished through the whole book between the situation, its expected behaviours and its performers. RIP Goffman!
I bought this book many years ago, when I had the idea of writing a dissertation about live music in the New York City subway. My idea was to interview the musicians, understand how they came to be subway performers, analyze their thoughts on what must be a difficult job. At the same time, I would study how passersby interact with—or pointedly ignore—the entertainers, and try to get a general sense of what role live music plays in the ecosystem of the underground. Then, to complete the picture, I would interview passengers who normally listen to music through headphones on the commute, in order to illustrate the difference between private and public music consumption.
In retrospect, this idea was probably both too broad and too vague to actually work as a serious study. Even so, as somebody who grew up in the suburbs, I found the ritual of the subway rather fascinating. In such a seemingly chaotic and hectic space, I sensed unspoken rules of etiquette—rules which, it is true, are constantly bended and broken, but which nevertheless serve to make the subway a safe and reliable place (well, at least most of the time). Being constantly and intimately thrown together with strangers is an experience fundamental to city life—arguably the defining difference between urban and rural—so it seemed worthwhile to come to grips with how it actually plays out.
Alas, my study will never be realized. But I can console myself that Erving Goffman did wonderful work in this vein many years ago, and it has largely stood the test of time. Goffman was one of the most influential sociologists of the previous century, but his books read like the work of a frustrated novelist rather than a serious academic. He uses a minimum of jargon and is more likely to cite a memoir or a play than he is a fellow academic. In addition to being an eclectic reader, Goffman must have been a supremely observant man, as he had an uncanny ability to home in on the often-overlooked aspects of social life and to draw intelligent conclusions from them. His writing sticks with the everyday in the way a short story might.
In this book, Goffman is concerned with illustrating the rules that govern social life in public places (such as a subway!). These will be obvious to virtually everyone, though they are not normally spelled out so explicitly. For example, Goffman devotes much time in analyzing what he calls “civil inattention,” which is the unspoken rule that one must not seem to be scrutinizing, eavesdropping, or intently observing another person in a public place. This is “inattention,” but it is also “civil,” because one must do this without seeming to pointedly ignore them, or to act as if there were really nobody else present (such as those who, say, clip their toenails on the subway, which is certainly “uncivil inattention”).
The subject matter of this book strongly overlaps with what can be termed “politeness,” and indeed Goffman often cites etiquette manuals as illustrations of his wider points. This is one of the ways in which the book is most dated, as the world has become far less formal in the intervening decades. (It was apparently considered rude for a man to appear at a gathering with two days’ worth of stubble on his chin.)
This ties in with another major theme in the book: the relationship between behavioral norms and insanity. Goffman did field work in the psych ward of a hospital, and according to him it was characteristic of the inmates to either be unable, or unwilling, to comply with these norms. The latter case is the more interesting, and Goffman gives examples of patients who act “crazy” seemingly in order to spite the rules of the institution, and not due to any lack of self-control. More generally, the existence of social norms gives people the option of intentionally breaking them in order to make a point (the essence of counterculture, you might say).
As a corollary point, the decline of formal manners and stringent rules of etiquette allows for a sort of anonymity that was not possible before, as dressing in ripped clothes or having a long, scraggly beard do not necessarily indicate anything about your economic class or, indeed, your sanity. However, despite the chaos of the NYC Subway, I think the loosening of manners is more apparent than actual, and there is still a broad—if vague—consensus about what is considered appropriate or inappropriate, normal or abnormal, polite or rude, acceptable or unacceptable in public places. Thus, I found Goffman’s analysis still fit my own experiences rather well.
Admittedly, this book is open to the criticism that it is merely a compilation of things which, though not always articulated, are already known by most everyone. Goffman also develops his analysis without taking much regard for differences in economic status, sex, race, etc., which I think deprives it of some richness. But I still found the book rather pleasant. So much of life (at least, my life) consists of wondering what the right way to behave is, wondering whether or not we should say something, do something, be offended by something—whether we should smile, or wave, or look the other way—and yet, most of us successfully navigate this minefield. It is something so basic it escapes notice by academic and laypeople alike, but it is the stuff of daily life and worthy of attention.
An extremely challenging read. It reads like a human trying to explain to an alien human social behavior in painfully simple terms - assuming the alien understands English. Numerous times I read and rerread the same paragraph only to discover the author was trying to describe an incredibly simple phenomenon. However, at the time, I’m sure the text was very groundbreaking and has no doubt carved a path for future sociologists.
The text outlines the rules for social behavior that we often take for granted. And uses the innovative method of observing mental patients with their aberrant social behavior to highlight what we as a society deem acceptable. In other words, the opposite of whatever they do, is usually the correct way to behave.
As mentioned, these examples are described in an extremely analytical and detached way. Therefore, most of the implications of these findings are left up to the reader. The book is great reading for social engineers or anyone who wants to reflect on the complex nature of human social behavior. These rules are often overlooked and carried out without reflection. Being aware of these human behaviors can be used for manipulation ( like I said, great book for social engineers), but hopefully for good. Having an understanding for our shared behavior leads to insight which can then foster compassion.
"We find that OUT little inhibitions are carefully tied into a network, that the waste products of our serious activities are worked into a pattern, and that this network and this pattern are made to carry important social functions. Surely this is a credit to the thoroughness with which our lives are pressed into the service of society."