Notes for a realist (mis)reading of Erving Goffman 1.1

In this series of posts I’ll be performing a realist (mis)reading of Erving Goffman, a theorist of social life I find fascinating and problematic in equal measure. By (mis)reading, I mean that I intend to read Goffman for my own purposes, focusing on what I can extract from the text which furthers the development of my own intellectual project. Does this sound slightly mercenary? I think it can be a valuable strategy and one which is uniquely appropriate to Goffman given that, as Ian Craib memorably put it in Experiencing Identity:

To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

My intention is to look behind the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” and focus on the gaps that can be found throughout his work. In the preface to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman explains that “In using this model I will attempt not make light of its obvious inadequacies”. I find this a remarkable thing for him to write in the second paragraph of his first published book. In part this represents an admission of the dramaturgy metaphor as metaphor and in part it’s a presentation of humility before he slips into the unctuous style that Craib diagnoses with such acuity.

To (mis)read Goffman I propose that we take him at his word and accept that he recognises the obvious limitations of the dramaturgical metaphor. His first book has a specific focus:

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial.The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the ways in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining the performance before them.

His deployment of evidence is illustrative, with its impressionistic character licensed by a promise that “the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case-studies of institutional social life”. This more than anything else is why Goffman’s work is so seductive – it makes the familiar strange, bringing to awareness aspects of social life which otherwise fall unnoticed into the flow of day-to-day routine. But this is also why Goffman’s sociology of everyday life is fundamentally inadequate – its “coherent framework” is solely a rhetorical device. I accept an aspect of rhetoric inherent in anything that pretends towards a coherent systematicity. But Goffman’s approach uses the dramaturgical metaphor, generatively and organisationally, spinning off penetrating observations about social interaction before unifying them into a cohesive whole, all the while buttressed by the appeal to the reader’s own experience.

The result is that his astonishing perspicacity masquerades as theoretical sophistication. This is why I propose to (mis)read Goffman and take his claim to recognise the manifest limitations of his approach at face value. Otherwise I can’t avoid the conclusion that he’s a fundamentally dishonest writer and I like him too much to accept that this is the case. In taking Goffman’s admission of inadequacy seriously, I intend to seize on every gap and earnestly develop the relevant line of thought, interrogating what is not asked and how it would change our orientation towards what is. In effect I will treat Goffman’s “handbook” as something more akin to field notes, inviting theoretical elaboration and open to their dominant motifs being treated as largely stylistic. I agree with Ian Craib that Goffman rarely takes responsibility for what he is saying. That’s why I intend to read him in a way that is, at least meta-theoretically, utterly literal.

My other contrasting strategy to (mis)reading Goffman is to look for the macro-social correlates to his micro-social claims. At times he himself invites this, suggesting that “these situational terms can easily be related to conventional structural ones” (pg 27). I intend to demonstrate that much of what is so alluring about Goffman’s sociology, its dynamism and attentiveness, looks very different when reframed in macro-sociological terms. At certain points these ‘translations’ are suggested by Goffman himself and at others they are conceptual open goals, with specific claims being obviously susceptible to a conceptual reframing that risks no loss of meaning. At other points, my suggestions will be more contentious, though I think the general strategy is likely to prove interpretatively fruitful.

I’m starting with The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. Then I’m planning to move on to Behaviour in Public Places and Stigma. If the exercise is still holding my interest at that point then I’m going to engage with Frame Analysis. I’m intrigued about the latter book because I’ve been told more than once that Goffman intended  it as his magnum opus. So I’m wondering what happens when he actually does try and systematise his thought, rather than just presenting himself as having done so.

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