Goffman The Man Essays

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Gavin Smith
Goffman’s legacy has been the subject of many, often conflicting, interpretations. I propose that he bestowed four gifts. 1. Goffman was an incredibly perceptive observer of the microworld of social interaction. He furnished us with a vocabulary for uncovering this world. 2. Most of Goffman’s descriptions of interaction represented emotions as well as thought and action. In this respect they were three dimensional, arousing the reader’s emotions and sympathy. 3. His primary substantive focus was the Western conception of the self as an isolated, self-contained individual. He repeatedly offered an alternative conception: the self as an aspect of social and cultural arrangements. 4. Finally, and most broadly, all of his work deconstructed the assumptive reality current in our society. It was mainly this last direction which made his work controversial, but also gives it revolutionary potential. I propose that Goffman wrote in the tradition of Whitehead,
Koestler, Schutz, and Mannheim, in order to create a new social science culture.
Erving Goffman is probably the most widely read sociologist in the history of the discipline.
Perhaps almost as widely cited, his work has received substantial notice. But the meaning of his work and therefore his legacy is by no means clear. In the 18 years since his tragically youthful death at 59, six valuable monographs and edited volumes interpreting his work have been published.1 Many further mentions, some of them chapter length, can be found in other volumes.
But even a quick reading suggests that there is no consensus. As a reviewer of the latest (Smith
1999) volume suggests (Toiskallio 2000), the contributors find in Goffman’s writings
“simultaneous irritation and fascination.”
One can go further if one compares the offerings in these books. There is agreement between the authors about Goffman’s felicitous style and stimulation. But there are also grave doubts about the nature of his legacy. Within each authors’ perspective, especially the most appreciative, there is also ambivalence. Although they find much to praise, there are also many irritations, and even some confusion about what Goffman had to say to them.
Goffman’s critics are not ambivalent. Even though they find positive features, critics like
Gouldner (1970), Psathas (1980), and Schegloff (1988) are dismissive. Goulder was repelled by
Goffman’s miniature scale, and by what Gouldner thought was his disinterest in power and hierarchy. Psathas and Schegloff, like many of the commentators, critics and admirers alike, found Goffman unsystematic to the point of chaos. Goffman’s approach to the three main elements in social science, theory, method, and data, is, to say the least, not clear. Since this theme is common to virtually all of the comment, I provide an example.
Two of the most detailed and appreciative commentators are Lofland (1980), reviewing the work up to and including Stigma (1963), and Manning (1980), the whole oeuvre, with special attention to a later work, Frame Analysis (1974). The overall tone of both Lofland and Manni But I think that Goffman wasn’t prejudiced against studying macrosystems. In his early work, he was too busy charting the interaction order. But even in that early work, some of his ideas pointed toward larger systems, e.g., the concept of the total institution. Later he was clearly moving toward such systems, the institutions of gender and of language (Goffman 1979 and 1981). One of the concepts from his later work, “footing” (the presuppositions held in common by persons engaged in dialogue), can be extended from the micro world setting he intended to the macroworld. In this world, the footing becomes the set of presuppositions held in common by all persons in dialogue in a given society. Goffman’s use of the term footing seems to be an application of Schutz’s idea