Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München  

  Dead Sociologists Society


Erving Goffman (1922-1982)













Erving Goffman: a symbolic interactionist?

(von Horst J. Helle; in: Tomasi, Luigi (Hg.): The tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited; USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1998, S. 179-191)

1. The theoretical approach of Erving Goffman

Somewhere in London a pedestrian is surprised by three men running at top speed. Next the pedestrian observes that the men are being chased by the police. Spontaneously our pedestrian raises his walking stick and with it hits one of the fleeing criminals over the head. The man struck in that fashion collapses and is then taken to a hospital. This very spontaneous pedestrian did not know that he had become witness to a movie scene and that in front of the running cameras the chase after criminals was being merely enacted. Upon his release from the hospital, the actor reports that he considers what happened "an occupational hazard". He will have insurance coverage because he received the injury while doing his job.[1] This is one of the examples that Erving Goffman uses in his book, Frame Analysis, to demonstrate different definitions of situations. From the perspective of the pedestrian there is a real chase after criminals. From the perspective of the injured actor it is the dramatization of a chase, and finally when he is released from the hospital the same actor defines what happened as an occupational hazard.

Frame Analysis, a significant theoretical book by Erving Goffman, is full of such striking episodes. It bears the subtitle, an Essay on the Organization of Experience. Goffman is considered by many as one of the most influential representatives of symbolic interaction theory. Others dispute that label, but there appears to be agreement that his thinking as a sociologist and anthropologist identify him as a prominent member of the Chicago School.

Goffman was born in Manville, in the province of Alberta, not far from Edmonton in Canada, on 11 June, 1922. After his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto he earned a Master's degree at the University of Chicago in 1949 as well as his Ph.D. there in 1953. His first book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, was published in 1956 and immediately earned Goffman recognition. The University of California, Berkeley, invited him to teach there in 1958, and he was promoted to the rank of professor at Berkeley in 1962. In 1968 he left Berkeley and joined the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, though not its Department of Sociology but rather the Department of Anthropology. The faculty of sociology had voted fourteen to two against hiring him. In August 1981 Goffman assumed office as president of the American Sociological Association. Concerning his involvement Irwin Deutscher recalls:

I was a member of ASA council when he became president elect and we were all deeply impressed by the serious concern he showed for the ASA and the deep responsibility he felt in his behaviour as ASA president. I among others was surprised by his attention to organizational details.[2]

In spite of his many duties, and then the additional one of president of the ASA, he was willing to participate as session chair in the symposium 'Revisions and Relations Among Modern Microsociological Paradigms', at the World Congress of Sociology held in Mexico City, 16-21 August, 1982. Obviously in good health he wrote in a letter of 28 April 1982:

Thanks for your note of April 23 regarding the micro session at the I.S.A. I expect to arrive on the afternoon of the 16th and will be staying at the Purua Hidalgo. You might leave a note suggesting where we will be meeting Wednesday evening.

Three months following this note Erving Goffman's health worsened in an alarming way. He suddenly writes about having to go to the hospital and not being able to come to the World Congress in Mexico at all. However, he still signals optimism in a letter of 27 July, 1982:

I am sorry indeed to add fuel to the fire. I would have loved to have expanded my chairman role. But I find now that I must enter the hospital because of an undiagnosed gastroenteritic problem associated with loss of blood, and my doctors decline to allow me to attend the August meeting. I was looking forward to it very much and am very disappointed indeed. I hope we'll get the chance to meet each other in the not too distant future.

They never did. Goffman died of cancer at age 60 on 20 November, 1982, in Philadelphia. His list of publications is impressive. Following his dissertation of 1953, Communication Conduct in an Island Community, he published eleven books.[3] In his First book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman developed the dramaturgical approach; the individual behaves like an actor would while performing on stage. The primary interests that a person pursues in daily conduct is establishing and stabilizing his or her own identity. At the very end of Goffman's life, in the presidential address that he could not present before the American Sociological Association due to his bad health, but which was published posthumously in the American Sociological Review, he stated: "My concern over years has been to promote acceptance of the face-to-face domain which might be titled, for want of any happy name, the interaction order".[4]

The study of the interaction order is important to Goffman because to him that order represents the link between the individual on the one hand and the macro realm of framing conventions on the other. As Goffman concentrates his theoretical work both on the analysis of frames as aspects of culture and on the interaction order in small groups, he avoids choosing between a macro and a micro approach as alternatives, but rather he combines the two into one integrated method of sociology. His book, Frame Analysis, contains an overview and summary of the theoretical results of his work.

Goffman's critics sometimes resent a certain tendency to be cynical in his texts. Not only does he compare social reality to a dramatic stage, but it appears that he himself observes what happens from the distance of the non-participant observer looking down, as it were, with a certain degree of irony, on all the things that go on. One former colleague reported that when Goffman came to faculty meetings he frequently behaved as if he had just landed from outer space and appeared utterly unwilling to take anything for granted as normal and routine. It was the grotesque, the unexpected, the extraordinary in everyday life that fascinated him.

While in Goffman's early works the emphasis of his questioning is on interaction and behaviour, he later shifts the focus of his interest in Frame Analysis to problems of perception and interpretation of meanings. Therefore Frame Analysis is particularly useful in pointing out linkages between Goffman's approach and related traditions in sociological epistemology. One of the problems that Goffman investigates concerns the conditions under which we give our experiences the status of reality. He accepts the Thomas theorem, according to which a definition of a situation is real in its consequences. He also places Frame Analysis explicitly in the tradition of the pragmatism of William James. From James he takes over the question: Under what circumstances do we think things are real? In an essay that was published more than a century ago, James asks not only: What is Reality?

He gives instead, as Goffman phrases it, the question a "subversive phenomenological twist" by asking:

Under what conditions do we assume of a certain content of our thinking that it represents reality. Important for reality as experienced by the individual actor is a feeling of reality in contrast to another feeling or experience of which we know that it is a dream or a fantasy and therefore not real. That is the meaning of the Jamesian phrase: "Under what circumstances do we think things are real".[5]

It appears that Goffman shares with William James, Georg Simmel, and George Herbert Mead a fundamental epistemological premise. Another influential representative of the Chicago school and Mead expert, Tamotsu Shibutani, confirms Goffman's continuity with Mead: "Most voluntary conduct is carried out within a normative framework, and the line of inquiry launched by Goffman (1959) fits nicely into Mead's approach".[6]

Goffman takes over from William James the subdivision of reality into a series of sub-universes, of which James states that each of them has an existence of its own. There are, for example, the world of sensual perception, the world of scientific objects, the world of abstract philosophical truths, the world of myths and supernatural creeds, the world of the psychopath, and so forth. All of these sub-universes have, according to James, their own separate styles of existence, and each world is relevant to the individual only as long as he or she pays attention to it. If attention is withdrawn from such a world, it ceases to be real to the person concerned. This epistemological position is useful in research on, for example, religion and political ideology.

James agrees with Georg Simmel in that they both distinguish between the content of our vital experiences on the one hand and the reality status or form that we give such contents on the other. Alfred Schütz develops his theoretical method in continuity with this; in 1945 Schütz published 'On Multiple Realities', at first as a journal article, following the argument of William James very closely. Schütz also points out that each sub-universe is endowed with a particular reality status. He is more hesitant than James in recognizing something as objectively given.[7]

Harold Garfinkel takes over from Schütz and starts looking for rules that are applied in constructing a certain sub-universe of reality. Among the questions Garfinkel raises are these: Is meaning in everyday life dependent upon a certain set of rules as in the game of chess? Can sociological research identify such rules in cases in which they are infringed upon or broken? Is it for this reason that the study of deviant behaviour or the sociological analysis of psychiatric phenomena is a particularly fruitful path in order to gain insights? Can we pursue the study of deviance in order to determine how the experiences of everyday life can be assembled into a meaningful reality?[8] These questions refer to theoretical problems that are typical of Verstehen sociology as outlined by Georg Simmel and Max Weber. However, Goffman must be given credit for having rephrased these questions in such a concrete and precise form that they can be tested in the empirical research that has been characteristic of the Chicago School.

For use in his book Frame Analysis, Goffman adopts the term frame from Gregory Bateson, who suggested it in his article 'A Theory of Play and Phantasy'.[9] A frame is a definition of the situation, a perspective, that makes it possible to understand a given episode of conduct. Frame Analysis concerns the investigation into the organization of experience, i.e., a phenomenon that is located in the consciousness of an individual. The individual must also identify with a culture in order to have access to frames. A frame is a collective creation enabling meaningful experience. It is in interaction of the many individual persons who are involved in social conduct that a collective consciousness of established 'framing conventions' comes about. Society equips its members with the chance to make use of such framing conventions.

People are inclined, however, to use those 'clues' and 'conventions' in a reckless and selfish way, to explain each other. Therefore, the abuse and the threat to those conventions that result from such recklessness must be sanctioned in societies. If, for instance, a salesman invites a business partner out at night, pays for his dinner and entertains him with all kinds of jokes, only in order, finally at a late hour of the evening, to ask him to place a sizable order, then that behaviour will be sanctioned as 'frame manipulation'.

In Frame Analysis Goffman first describes how society supplies individuals with framing conventions, and then he looks into the vulnerabilities of those conventions and how they can be abused and endangered.

That is why he is interested in misunderstandings and misrepresentations. That is why such events as the chase of the criminal that turns out to be a movie scene are relevant to him. In order to collect qualitative data on the construction or fabrication of reality, Goffman spent many years collecting newspaper snippets. Among them is the following:

Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, Oct. 2 - Orson Welles banged Desdemona' s head so hard on the bed in the murder scene from Othello here last night that members of the audience began murmuring protests. Mr. Welles said after the performance that he guessed he just got caught up too realistically in the spirit of the play. Said Gudrun Muir who played Desdemona: It was in a good cause.[10]

Or, to give another example:

Oklahoma City (UPI) - Police identified a 21-year-old Oklahoma City bill collector last week as the man who has been posing as a doctor to trick housewives into submitting to his advances... The suspect was arrested in Guthrie trying to persuade a 26-year-old mother to undress as part of a health examination. Three other Oklahoma City area housewives have reported similar incidents to police in recent weeks. A typical case was that of a young woman who said the man told her he was a doctor and was checking for encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease. All three said they undressed before they became suspicious.[11]

How does it come about that a certain event is taken seriously by some people while others immediately recognize it as a joke, a coincidence, a fabrication, or even as a theatrical performance? The organization of experience is potentially present in the collective consciousness and what people work out in interaction; but since different people react differently, it is also dependent upon individual inclinations, emotional makeups, and mental conditions.

2. Is Erving Goffman a symbolic interactionist?

Do these and similar questions asked by Goffman place him in the camp of structural functionalist sociology because of his occasional references to Durkheim and his interest in structural characteristics on the macro level of analysis? Is he really a representative of the Verstehen approach as established by Georg Simmel and taken up Chicago by Albion Small, Robert E. Park, Everett C. Hughes, and others? Or does his work fit in the context of the school of symbolic interaction theory?

First, this confronts us with the task of clarifying what is meant by symbolic interaction theory. When Arnold M. Rose, then at the University of Minnesota, published his edited volume Human Behaviour and Social Process, in 1962, he introduced it with his article 'A Systematic Summary of Symbolic Interaction Theory'.[12] The opening sentences read:

Symbolic interactionist theory, which guides many of the exposition and studies presented in this volume, had its American origin around the turn of the century in the writings of C.H. Cooley, John Dewey, J.M. Baldwin, W.I. Thomas and others. Much of the theory had an independent origin in Germany in the writings of Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Its most comprehensive formulation to date is the posthumously published volume by George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society (1934).[13]

This use of the term "symbolic interactionist theory" by Arnold Rose in 1962 is fairly open ended, and by including Georg Simmel and Max Weber, Rose places it in close proximity to the Verstehen approach. His definition can be confronted with the other extreme, which narrows symbolic interactionism down to the teachings and whitings of Herbert Blumer. As we shall see, the answer to the question of whether Erving Goffman is a symbolic interactionist will be. 'yes', if the term is understood the way Arnold Rose used it, and 'no', if the narrower definition is applied, since, obviously, what Goffman did is not the same as what Blumer did.

Fortunately, for further clarification we can rely on an authentic source; Jef (Josef) Verhoeven of the University of Leuven conducted an Interview with Goffman in Philadelphia on 13 June, 1980. The Interview was recorded but not published until 1993, in the joumal Research on Language and Social Interaction.[14] We shall draw on that interview in order to shed some licht on the question of whether Erving Goffman is a symbolic interactionist. When Verhoeven asked Goffman about the matter, Goffman distanced himself explicitly from the label 'symbolic interactionist', and continued:

I guess I'm as much what you call a symbolic interactionist as anyone else. But I'm also a structural functionalist in the traditional sense, so if I can't answer that question, it's because I don't believe the label really covers anything... And what I did up to a few years ago before I got somewhat more interested in Sociolinguistics was a version of Urban Ethnography with Meadian Social Psychology.[15]

Goffman, of course, was a witness to oneof the most successful periods in the history of the Chicago School. He remebers the absence of competing factions within sociology at that time.

When I was in Chicago in the 40s, one could still combine lots of different things: Ecology and social organization, class analysis with Warner, and the like. But later on when Columbia took over and got to be the dominant university - it got to be dominant through (Paul) Lazarsfeld -Lazarsfeldian methodology got to be the central thrust in American Sociology. A good part of Chicago went alone, with that, and then Chicago broke up into different kinds of factions; persons who wouldn't touch the quantitative side, and persons who wouldn't touch the qualitative side. In the mid-40s, however, everybody did everything. Everybody read all the articles in the journals, and one took courses across the board, and one didn't draw those sorts of lines. They came later on with the introduction of large research grants in the early 50s, and it continued to go on with the Lazarsfeldian kind of sociology, and then Chicago got to be more and more quantitative in character.[16]

One remarkable aspect of Verhoeven's Interview is the importance that Goffman attributes to Everett Cherrington Hughes, who was a key figure at Chicago at the time when Goffman was a graduate student there. Goffman deplores that the unity of sociology was lost in a struggle between different camps. For instance, the confrontation of quantitative versus qualitative sociology was absent at the height of the Chicago School, and Goffman observes:

Hughes has never been hung up in that direction. He takes his subject matter and tries to study it, and he's never been given, I think, the credit he deserves.[17]

The Chicago School, as Goffman saw it evolve, was closely associated with Robert E. Park. In the interview Goffman says about Park:

He was sort of the founder of the whole Hughesian tradition. He had a lot of influence on us I think. My teachers were Park, Burgess, and Louis Wirth. And then later on Everett Hughes. But the person I worked for initially, was Lloyd Warner. I was oriented to Social Anthropology at the time.[18]

Goffman comes back to Verhoeven's question: "Do you see yourself as a symbolic interactionist". Labels do not give access to reality, they rather tend to obfuscate the history of sociology. About using such labels Goffman says:

That's fine, providing somebody hasn't been around when the history was occurring. But it doesn't provide a very satisfactory version of it for those who were involved in it.[20]
So, I've never felt that a label was necessary. lf I had to be labeled at all, it would have been as a Hughesian urban ethnographer.[21]
The persons who are symbolic interactionists, especially the Chicago ones, are by and large on the qualitative or ethnographic side. But a more accurate description would be to call them social ethnographers. That's really, in some sense, what they share. And then, Blumer doesn't qualify there - he was never interested in ethnography, never engaged in any of that undertaking.
But the people who ordinarily label themselves symbolic interactionists, who are so labeled, are persons much like myself, like Fred Davis, Howie Becker, people like that. They are basically Hughesian sociologists who employ a quite general Meadian frame of reference that everybody of that period employed... So if we had to choose a label, Hughesian sociology would be a more accurate one than symbolic interactionism, But it was all one group in terms of friendship links and origins at Chicago.[22]

Leaving the problem of the label aside, the Interview turns to the question of Goffman's method. This is probably central to clarifying Goffman's position in comparison to other theorists because it opens up insights into his epistemology. Referring to Frame Analysis, Verhoeven asks Goffman whether to him "social reality is not a given reality but a product of man".[23]

Goffman replies:

Well, sociologists in some ways have always believed in the social construction of reality. The issue is, at what level is the reality constructed? Is it individual? A small group? Or somehow the amorphous cross working of overall social processes that no one really knows too much about. 1 believe, of course, that the social environment is largely socially constructed, although I am sure there are some biological matters which have to be taken into consideration. But where I differ from social constructionists is that I don't think the individual himself or herself does much of the constructing. He rather comes to a world, already in some sense or other, established. So there 1 would differ from persons who use in their writing, the notion of social construction of reality. I am therefore on that side, closer to the structural functionalists, like Parsons or Merton. Just as they were closer to initial functionalist anthropology.[24]

This raises the issue of objectivism versus subjectivism in methodology. Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of Religious Life Goffman was aware of, placed sociology in the tradition of the sciences, divorced it emphatically from psychology and accepted as its objects only those social facts that resist the individual will. To Georg Simmel, Max Weber, W. 1. Thomas, and other scholars in the Verstehen tradition, the interpretation that an individual attributes to objective facts become part of reality at least for the individual concerned. Even though Goffman confesses himself as close to the structural functionalists, in this respect he certainly differs with them.

Objective experience or subjective experience is a simple part of some domains of sociology such as the one I'm in. It doesn't seem to me that those subjective experiences are any less factual than anything else in the world.[25]

This last statement is certainly contrary to Durkheim's notion of sociology.

So even though what I do could be called symbolic interactionist and the like, it's still done from the conventional, conservative traditional perspective on believing that one could maybe not have a science of society but certainly come closer to it than persons who are less instructed, and that some concepts will be more valid than others, and that our concepts' validity depends not merely on some practical use that one wants to put it to, but upon the state of the field at the time, the character of the behaviour and that sort of thing.[26]

Goffman is even more explicit in drawing a line between sociology as a science and sociology as part of the humanities like the study of history or anthropology:

So when people use the language of the hard sciences like 'hypothesis' and the like, I get to be a little restive. I think that's mostly done by persons who are trained in literary undertaking and don't have too much sense of what the hard sciences do. It seems to me we are in a more primitive - my area of sociology is in a more primitive state. We are just trying to get reasonable classifications, one or two useful concepts, ways of touching on and describing processes and practices... lf we have low expectations about our achievement we can act with more confidence and assurance in what we do than if we think we are developing theories and hypotheses. Then I think we are kidding ourselves. I'm not embarrassed by the humbleness of our product.[27]
If we try to give a picture of the whole, then we do end up in making an arbitrary selection of the features to talk about. So I have very limited expectations, but I approach those expectations as a naturalist would. You can do that as well as a botanist can or anybody else who has a classificatory science.[28]

The limited space available here does not give us the opportunity to document the striking extent to which Goffman and Simmel agree on this.[29]

As far as Max Weber is concerned, Goffman himself identifies with him. When asked about his notion of being value free in his research, Goffman replies:

Well, I guess, I just follow the traditional, early Weberian one that one can see something about one's political and social life and do something, about overcoming that, in a limited sort of way, and that persons of slightly different social back-rounds and political commitments can still, nonetheless, come to some degree of agreement about an array of social facts. And, that that is an ideal and a goal that we can aim for.[30]
I still believe, that given what one studies, one can come up with something that wasn't in one's head but was in the data, within limits. That it isn't just a creation of the student. It is partly that, but only partly that. I believe there is some social order and organization in the data that is accessible to us within limits. Otherwise there wouldn't be much reason to continue in the business except as a livelihood. lt would be just a question of who could paint a picture that would sell.[31]

This is what Goffman thinks he has been doing. It may not matter much how we label it, but it seems obvious that the sociology he practised is indeed important. There are methodological continuities that connect Goffman with Simmel, Mead, and with symbolic interaction theory. and his work as well as his biography place him among the most prominent representatives of the Chicago School.

1 Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 311.

2 Irwin Deutscher, e-mail message of October 4, 1993.

3 Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956, with a second and enlarged edition of 1959 in which he incorporated parts of a research project conducted under the direction of Edward A. Shils; Goffman also acknowledged his indebtedness to C. W. M. Hart, W. L. Warner, and E. C. Hughes, whom he identifies as his teachers. Asylums: Essays on the Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, 1961. Encounters, 1961. Behaviour in Public Places, 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 1963. Interaction Ritual, 1967. Strategic Interaction, 1969. Relations in Public, 1971. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 1974. Gender Advertisements, 1979. Forms of Talk, 1981, the year prior to Goffman's death.
4 Erving Goffman, "The Interaction Order", American Sociological Review 48 (1983), pp. 1-17, at p. 2.

5 Goffman Frame Analysis, p. 2.

6 Tamotsu Shibutani, "Human Agency from the Standpoint of Pragmatism", in Horst J. Helle (ed.), Verstehen and Pragmatism (Frankfurt a. M., Bern, New York, Paris: Peter Lang, 199 1), pp. 183-94, at p. 19 1. The work that Shibutani cites is Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959).

7 Goffman, Frame Analysis, pp. 3-4; Alfred Schütz, "On Multiple Realities", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 5 (June 1945); also in Alfred Schütz, Collected Papers I. The Problem of Social Reality, ed. by Maurice Natanson (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp. 207-59; William James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. II (New York: Dover, 1950), pp. 283-322.

8 Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 5.

9 Ibid., p. 7; Gregory Bateson, "A Theory of Play and Phantasy", Psychiatric Research Reports 2 (1955), pp. 39-51, also in Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), pp. 177-93.

10 1951 article; Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 362.

11 Ibid., p. 160.

12 Arnold M. Rose, "A Systematic Summary of Symbolic Interaction Theory", in Arnold M. Rose (ed.), Human Behaviour and Social Process (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), pp. 3-19.

13 Rose, "Systematic Summary of Symbolic Interaction Theory", p. 3; George H. Mead, Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

14 ErvingGoffmanandJosefVerhoeven,"AninterviewwithErvingGoffman",Research on Language and Social Interaction 26:3. pp. 317-48.

15 Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview" p. 318.

16 Ibid., p. 333.

17 Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 336.

18 Ibid., p. 321.

19 Ibid., p. 320.

20 Ibid. p. 318.

21 Ibid., p. 331.

22 Ibid., p. 319.

23 Goffman and Verhoeven "Interview", p. 323.

24 Ibid., p. 324.

25 Ibid., p. 326.

26 Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 327.

27 Ibid., p. 328.

28 Ibid., p. 329.

29 See, however, Horst L Helle, Soziologie und Erkenntnistheorie. bei Georg Simmel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988).

30 Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 329.

31 Ibid., p. 330.
Erving Goffman












































































































































































































































































Prof. Horst J. Helle