I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:

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The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.

However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.

Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.

It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.

There’s a wonderful essay by the playwright Alan Bennet in the London Review of Books, written 35+ years ago, reflecting on his fascination with Erving Goffman’s micro-sociology. His preoccupation was with the minutiae of everyday conduct, identified and described so astutely in Goffman’s work. Sociological observations in this register highlight our commonality, helping us see that individual experiences we assumed to be idiosyncratic are in fact shared by others.

But while sociology itself remains arcane, this power is mere latency, standing as “a secret between me and the author” with the incidents in question “our private joke”. As Bennett puts it, “Individuals knew they behaved in this way, but Goffman knew everybody behaved like this and so did I”. There is a pleasure to be taken in such private jokes, so easily guarded through insular vocabularies within peripheral publications. Even if, as Bennett observes, “the books I once thought so private are piled promiscuously on any campus counter at the start of every term”, the power of these observations remains limited to a small subset of those within the walls of the university campus.

If the work of any sociologist could breach these boundaries, it surely was Goffman’s. Much as Sociology is a scavenger discipline, Goffman himself was a scavenger intellectual, producing texts strewn with ephemera collected from beyond the rarefied boundaries of the ivory tower:

Sociology begins in the dustbin and sociologists have always been licensed rag-and-bone men trundling their carts round the backyards of the posher academic establishments. The Benjamin Franklin Professor has done the rounds of more backyards than most, scavenging in anthropology, psychology and social administration, besides picking up a lot of useful jumble ‘on the knocker’: his books are larded with strips of personal experience, enlivened with items from newspapers, the annals of crime and the dustbins of showbiz. It’s this (and the look of so many quotations on the page) that makes his work initially inviting and accessible to a general reader like me. He writes with grace and wit and raises the odd eyebrow at those in his profession who don’t, though he can’t be too censorious of jargon, having invented a lot himself.


He writes in a “vivid, impressionistic way” which often remains “tentative and exploratory”. It is this mode of expression which ensures that he “so regularly startles one into self-recognition”, as his predominately descriptive analysis proves able to make the familiar strange. Bennett cites Goffman’s own statement of ambitions in Frame analysis:

I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.

I’ve often wondered about the impulse beyond reality television. I recognise this is a complex topic that has produced a vast and multifaceted literature. But I sometimes suspect there’s a sociological impulse at work in its popularity, alongside many other factors shaping ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. Do many of us share a fascination with watching how people snore?  This curiosity about others, what we share with them and how they differ, provides a foundation for interest in sociological observation which is predominately met from outside the academy. Goffman’s was an unusually descriptive sociological imagination, prone to making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, but it was a superlative example of this pole of the sensibility that invited others with a more explanatory disposition to build upon his work. As Bennett goes on to write:

I go to sociology, not for analysis or explication, but for access to experience I do not have and often do not want (prison, mental illness, birthmarks). Goffman treats these closed areas as lying alongside normal experience (or the experience of ‘normals’) in a way that makes them familiar and accessible. The approach is robust, humane and, despite his disclaimer, moral. ‘The normal and the stigmatised are not persons but perspectives,’ he writes in Stigma, ‘and it should come as no surprise that in many cases he who is stigmatised in one regard nicely exhibits all the normal prejudices held towards those who are stigmatised in another regard.’


He goes on to explain how Goffman’s concepts come to form part of individual experience, as the possibility of categorising changes our relationship to that which we categorise:

One of the pleasures of reading Goffman is in taxonomy: items that one has had lying around in one’s mind for ages can be filed neatly away. Like a caption I saw years ago and am delighted now to dignify as a leaky utterance: a newspaper picture of a drama group headed ‘Blackburn Amateurs examine each other’s parts.’ And another (which ought to be in Goffman’s book if only because the reasoning behind the remedial work is so complex and ultimately futile). Dorothy Killgallan, an American columnist, began a radio talk: ‘Tonight I am going to consider the films of Alfred Hitchcack … cock! … CACK!’ I wouldn’t like to see Mr Schegloff et al. let loose on that one.


Reading Bennett’s account renews my confidence that there’s a public interest in Sociology of the sort I’ve always been drawn to, far beyond any instrumental concern for application. It can illuminate the human condition, enriching individual experience, if it is written and presented in a way which facilitates the exercise of this power. Unfortunately, the academy militates against this but social media offers opportunities to circumvent these constraints.

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.

The notion of ‘clarity’ is a contested one within social theory. This was made clear to me when various posts of mine, often just embedding videos of other people speaking, attracted a lot of indignation on Twitter. There are some people who really don’t like Lacan and Žižek being criticised for their lack of clarity. The latter still bothers me, given how much I enjoy his work and how much of it I read. For instance I’m currently reading his Hegel magnum opus* – the seeming inability of some people to accept it is possible to enjoy someone’s work while also criticising them baffles me. Or perhaps I’m still indigent about being called ‘scientistic’.

Rather than rehearsing this tedious internet dispute, my point is to stress that writing clearly and writing well can be antithetical. I think Žižek often writes well, in the limited sense that his work is often enjoyable to read, while nonetheless rarely writing in a way that could be called clear. I think John Rawls writes clearly, in the sense that one knows where one stands with him, while nonetheless writing tedious prose. I mean this in the sense that it is clear what he is saying and why he is saying it. This is sustained throughout a text. Therefore it becomes possible to relate to him in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

It’s this capacity to relate to the arguments a theorist makes in a text which has been on my mind since reading the chapter on Goffman in Ian Craib’s (wonderful) Experiencing Identity. In this chapter, he identifies the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” which runs through Goffman’s work, such that “the world calls, everyone can hear it, it is reasonable that someone try to answer” (p 76). He offers a wonderfully incisive critique of this rhetorical deployment of obviousness:

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)

He goes on to develop this line of argument, contending that “rarely does [Goffman] take the responsibility for what he is saying”. I’m not sure Žižek takes much responsibility for what he is saying either. This is my fundamental suspicion about opaque writing – it tends to undermine active intellectual engagement** by suppressing the propositional content of the argument. In any argument there are a multiplicity of points which can be affirmed or contested, with varying degrees of significance given their locations within the unfolding structure of the argument. Many of these nodal points will call into question the logic of the argument itself, or at least open up the possibility of it being reframed. By suppressing the propositional content of the argument (which all prose will do to some extent) we close down certain lines of response. Texts which lack clarity tend to obscure these and, through doing so, preclude an experience of being monologued at becoming one of having a dialogue with. For instance I find Žižek difficult to engage with because reading him is like having a very entertaining, interesting and learned scholar drunkenly monologuing at you in a high speed way. It can be great just to sit and listen. It  can get boring and you make your excuses and move to a different table. But what it never facilitates is a dialogue.

I find Žižek to be a very particular sort of reading experience, which is perhaps why I enjoy reading his books. What I’d like to understand more broadly is this relationship between the phenomenology of reading and the rhetorical style of theorists. I think Craib captures something important about Goffman and there’s the possibility of extending an analysis of this form to other theorists:

The alliance with the reader, then, is in the face of a world which is ‘just like that’. All one can say immediately is, ‘Yes, it is like that’, or ‘No, it is not’. In fact, neither response is adequate, or both are equally adequate: some aspects of the world are ‘like that’, others are not. To break free of Goffman’s guiding gestures is to begin to distinguish what he is really talking about, and it is a matter of looking at the questions that come out of his descriptions, but which remain unanswered and often unasked (pg 79-80)

My most rewarding experiences of reading theory have come from those who I was initially sceptical of but then was largely persuaded by (Archer) or those who I was initially persuaded by but then developed a scepticism towards (Crossley, Giddens, Elder-Vass). It’s this experience of moving closer or moving further away from a body of work, through textual engagement, which I’d like to understand better than I do. What sorts of relations does a text facilitate with its reader? What implications do these have for the reader’s mode of engagement? How can we understood these as a relationship between two distinct sets of properties and powers: those of the reader and those of the text?

*Consciously I’m genuinely interested in it. I’m also hoping it’s broad enough in its scope to help flesh out the limited (and limiting) intellectual map of contemporary continental philosophy I’m working with. Though it’s hard not to wonder if I have some unconscious motive in relation to these disputes about Žižek that irritated me so much at the time (whereas few things on the internet do these days).

**I use the word ‘tends’ very consciously here. I think there are countervailing tendencies, often arising from determined readers keen to cut through the thicket of obscurity, operating here in a way which ensures that philosophy of this sort doesn’t descend into oratory.

Edited to add: Reading Ian Craib is like having a relaxed chat over a pint on a sunday afternoon in a quiet pub.

I’m planning to write a paper next year for submission to this special issue on the sociology of everyday life. One aspect of the paper is an argument that Margaret Archer’s recent work offers a rich set of conceptual resources for understanding everyday life. Another will be an attempt to address confusions about voluntarism and agency through the frame of ‘everyday life’, arguing that when we understand individual agency as both grounded in the everyday and always in motion, these putative issues come to seem problematically abstract, actively obscuring the complex realities of everyday life, as we find all find ourselves subject to complex constellations of constraint and enablement. In doing so I’ll be drawing on a realist (mis)reading of Goffman, arguing that his dramaturgical approach can be used to flesh out Archer’s arguments about individuals personifying social roles. These are some of the lines of thought I’ll be developing for the paper:

  1. Conceptualizing biographical events
  2. The Phenomenology of Obsessiveness
  3. The Phenomenology of Inertia
  4. The Sociology of Awkwardness
  5. The Sociology of Thinking
  6. The Sociology of Daydreaming
  7. The Sociology of the Quiet Zone

If we bracket the time dimension in order to focus on hierarchically organized social space, we have to take into account that agent X, in pursuing specific goals, is faced with external institutional and figurational structures which, from his/her perspective, present a mix of manipulable and non-manipulable features or properties. This structural mix is both real and eternal to agent X. But despite this reality and externality, structural features change from the perspective of a more powerful agent Y who is also  involved in the same space-time matrix. For actor Y, the structural mix of changeable and non-changeable features is transformed: what was non-changeable for X becomes changeable for Y. It is precisely this type of variability that Archer does not take seriously into account. In so far as she underemphasises, she ascribes to the properties of structures a fixity, an intransivity which they do not possess. This underemphasis leads to a partial hypostatisation and reification of structural features, since the relation between agent and structure in examined in a hierarchic vacuum. (Mouzelis 2008: 204-205)

It took me a while to get to grips with the critique Mouzelis is making here but increasingly I think it’s an  important one. In Archer’s earlier work structures impinged causally on agents through conditioning the situations which agents involuntarily confronted. On this view structures are activity dependent but rather than, as with the structurationist perspective, seeing present structures as the medium and outcome of present action, structures are emergent from past interaction. As Cruickshank (2000) observes the activity dependence is construed in past tense rather than present tense terms. This places temporality at the heart of the morphogenetic approach:

In structural conditoning, systemic properties are viewed as the emergent or aggregate consequence of past actions. Once they have been elaborated over time they are held to exert a causal influence upon subsequent interaction” (Archer 1995: 90) [emphasis added]

However this then poses a problem. If the causal powers of structures only operate through their constraining or enabling influences upon the doings of agents then the ‘situation’ begins to look like something of a cypher. As Mouzelis observes, any given situation will be characterised by a balance of manipulable and non-manipulable features which are, to a certain extent, relative to the individuals within it. Such a claim is perfectly consistent with Archer’s approach, in fact it is a logical corollary of it, though it has yet to be fully elaborated. Doing so would require a much more thorough concept of the situation: of a sort which has been sidelined given the subsequent turn to individual reflexivity which has characterised her later work.

What I think Mouzelis points to is the way in which the morphogenetic approach has tended to obscure spatiality and how the ‘situation’ is a rather complex thing given the multiplicity of how conditioning social structures play themselves out, impinging directly on the participating actors but also indirectly shaping the unfolding of interaction. I don’t mean the morphogenetic approach obscures this in the sense of denying it but rather in the more subtle way that, much as Giddens loses time as an actual variable while affirming it theoretically, Archer loses spatiality as an actual variable while recognising it in the abstract. Spatiality and embodiment are integral to the account she gives of practice and nature in Being Human (Archer 2000) but the turn to relationality in recent work, partly influenced by Donati’s relational sociology, still leaves the social construed in a curiously disembodied way. Relations take centre-stage within her sociology but there’s little theory of interaction per se at this level (as opposed to the level of [collective] agents where interaction is what the morphogenetic approach is about) and this is where I think there’s room for a thorough realist engagement with Goffman which, as far as I’m aware, only Dave Elder-Vass and Chris Shilling have made any attempt at.