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
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.
, a significant theoretical book by Erving Goffman, is
full of such striking episodes. It bears the subtitle, an Essay on the Organization
e. 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
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
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.
In his First book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
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".
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
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
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".
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
The opening sentences
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).
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
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
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',
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The limited space available here does not give us the opportunity to document
the striking extent to which Goffman and Simmel agree on this.
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.
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.
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
Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization
of Experience (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974), p.
Irwin Deutscher, e-mail message of October
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.
Erving Goffman, "The Interaction Order", American Sociological
Review 48 (1983), pp. 1-17, at p. 2.
Goffman Frame Analysis, p. 2.
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).
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.
Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 5.
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.
1951 article; Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 362.
11 Ibid., p. 160.
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.
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).
on Language and Social Interaction 26:3. pp. 317-48.
Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview" p.
Ibid., p. 333.
Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 336.
Ibid., p. 321.
Ibid., p. 320.
Ibid. p. 318.
Ibid., p. 331.
Ibid., p. 319.
Goffman and Verhoeven "Interview", p. 323.
Ibid., p. 324.
Ibid., p. 326.
Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 327.
Ibid., p. 328.
Ibid., p. 329.
See, however, Horst L Helle, Soziologie
und Erkenntnistheorie. bei Georg Simmel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,
Goffman and Verhoeven, "Interview", p. 329.
Ibid., p. 330.