Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, sociology and the other sciences humaines emerged for a brief, shining moment as the hot majors for college undergraduates. After all, to change society, you first needed to understand it. As a result, activists and intellectuals of every stripe were soon eagerly reading the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, R. D. Laing, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault—and Erving Goffman.
Canadian and Jewish by birth, Erving Goffman (1922-1982) trained at the University of Chicago, published eleven books and, at the time of his death from cancer at age sixty, was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many other revolutionary thinkers, he led a quiet, reserved life, dressed like an accountant, and valued his privacy: he rarely allowed himself to be photographed and refused to speak at conferences or appear on television.
Today Erving Goffman is a powerful, almost mythic figure inside sociology. But when I recently mentioned his name to various friends—well-educated and well-read—it meant nothing to them. It would seem he has faded from general cultural consciousness as much as, say, Marcuse and Laing. Yet at his best, this maverick thinker is one of the most exhilarating writers on human relations and social interaction that you will ever read.
Relying on an eye for detail that Sherlock Holmes might envy, coupled with a genuine literary sensibility, Goffman dramatically illuminates how people respond and react to one another in offices, on the street, at home. Above all, he seeks to understand people as social beings living with other social beings, usually in a state of constant jostling—for attention, position, recognition, or just a place at the front of the line. His many books—including Behavior in Public Places, Stigma, Encounters, and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life—reveal him to be an essential guide to modern city life and “the way we live now.”
Some of Goffman’s power as an analyst of “face-to-face” encounters derives from the way he looks at our daily traumas and urban dramas with a cold, almost inhuman eye. His “reports,” “notes,” and “essays,” as he refers to his various works, might almost be the logbooks of a visiting Martian. Yet while some sociologists, Talcott Parsons being a notable example, can be daunting and virtually unfathomable to the ordinary reader, that’s not the case with Goffman. His prose is clear and often quietly witty, while behind the objective tone, one can usually detect a faint strain of melancholy.
Most surprising of all, Goffman’s books—especially his groundbreaking early works—derive their evidence from literature and memoir nearly as often as from real life. He regularly quotes from contemporary fiction, often cites etiquette manuals, and frequently discovers insights in the memoirs of both prostitutes and diplomats. From his own fieldwork, he draws on observations of Shetland islanders, hotel staff members, children at play, surgeons at work, patients in asylums, and casino gamblers. Almost no aspect of modern urban life is alien to him. He once called himself “an ethnographer of small entities,” and like Henry James or Marcel Proust—two other great microanalyzers of social nuance and motivation—he enables us to see the world afresh, with new eyes.
Over the thirty-five years of his active scholarly career, Goffman developed four metaphorical scaffoldings for his thought, each with its own usefulness and pizzazz—the theater, the ritual, the game, and the frame. All of these are useful for understanding the shocks and stresses of city life, but here I’m going to concentrate on introducing his “dramaturgical” texts, which are his best known. As Goffman once said, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”
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