The Social Thought of Erving Goffman


Michael Hviid Jacobsen & Søren Kristiansen

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  • Social Thinkers Series

    Series Editor

    A. Javier Treviño, Wheaton College, Norton, MA


    The Social Thought of Georg Simmel, By Horst J. Helle

    The Social Thought of Karl Marx, By Justin P. Holt

    The Social Thought of Erving Goffman, By Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Søren Kristiansen

    The Social Thought of Émile Durkheim, By Alexander Riley

    The Social Thought of C. Wright Mills, By A. Javier Treviño


    The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons, By Helmut Staubmann


    View Copyright Page

    Series Editor's Foreword

    The SAGE Social Thinkers series is dedicated to making available compact, reader-friendly paperbacks that examine the thought of major figures from within and beyond sociology. The books in this series provide concise introductions to the work, life, and influences of the most prominent social thinkers. Written in accessible and provocative prose, these books are designed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students of sociology, politics, economics, and social philosophy, as well as for scholars and socially curious general readers.

    The first few volumes in the series are devoted to the “classical” thinkers—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, George Hebert Mead, Talcott Parsons, and C. Wright Mills—who, through their seminal writings, laid the foundation for much of current social thought. Subsequent books will feature more “contemporary” scholars as well as those not yet adequately represented in the canon: Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harold Garfinkel, Norbert Elias, Jean Baudrillard, and Pierre Bourdieu. Particular attention is paid to those aspects of the social thinker's personal background and intellectual influences that most impacted his or her approach in better understanding individuals and society.

    Consistent with SAGE's distinguished track record of publishing high-quality textbooks in sociology, the carefully assembled volumes in the Social Thinkers series are authored by respected scholars committed to disseminating the discipline's rich heritage of social thought and to helping students comprehend key concepts. The information offered in these books will be invaluable for making sense of the complexities of contemporary social life and various issues that have become central concerns of the human condition: inequality, social order, social control, deviance, the social self, rationality, reflexivity, and so on.

    These books in the series can be used as self-contained volumes or in conjunction with textbooks in sociological theory. Each volume concludes with a Further Readings chapter intended to facilitate additional study and research. As a collection, the Social Thinkers series will stand as a testament to the robustness of contemporary social thought. Our hope is that these books on the great social thinkers will give students a deeper understanding of modern and postmodern Western social thought and encourage them to engage in sociological dialogue.

    Premised on Newton's aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (an aphorism, incidentally, that was introduced into sociology by Robert K. Merton, himself a towering figure in the discipline), the Social Thinkers series aims to place its readers on the shoulders of the giants of 19th- and 20th-century social thought.


    In this volume of the SAGE Social Thinkers series, we are proud to present the work of one of the key sociologists of the 20th century, namely Erving Goffman. His work has intrigued and inspired new generations of sociologists and students within neighboring disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, criminology, media studies, behavioral sciences, and philosophy to take seriously what people say and do in ordinary, everyday encounters.

    We want to extend our gratitude to A. Javier Treviño for inviting us along on this exciting project and for his competent suggestions for revisions of the manuscript. Some of the material used in this book is revised, expanded, and updated from a Danish introductory book to the work of Erving Goffman titled Erving Goffman—sociologien om det elementære livs sociale former [Erving Goffman—The Sociology of the Social Forms of Elementary Life] published by Hans Reitzels Publishing House of Copenhagen in 2002. We are grateful for their permission to publish revised and translated parts of this book in this volume, thereby making it accessible to an English-speaking audience. We also want to extend our gratitude to Kirsten Gammelgaard for assistance in translating some extracts from this Danish volume. Moreover, we are grateful to Routledge of London—the publisher of The Contemporary Goffman (edited by Michael Hviid Jacobsen in 2010)—in which an earlier version of Chapter 4 appeared and from which the introductions to certain ideas and points have been extracted.

    Michael HviidJacobsen, SørenKristiansen, Aalborg, autumn 2013
  • Glossary

    • Abduction A mode of reasoning or logic of inference that borrows insights from, respectively, induction and deduction but that—contrary to their clear-cut theory generation or theory testing—is primarily concerned with a line of reasoning that moves from observation to the proposition of a hypothesis that can account for or explain the observed phenomenon (at times called qualified guessing).
    • Backstage One of the important regions in Goffman's dramaturgy. “Backstage” describes the activities that take place behind the scenes. Being backstage, actors may relax and feel less restrained by interactional roles although not necessarily behaving authentically (see frontstage).
    • Character contests An interactional sequence involving a confrontation between two individuals both attempting to maintain their face at the other's expense.
    • Chicago School Descriptive label used to define the researchers—sociologists and social workers—working at the sociology department at the University of Chicago from the late 19th century and onward and who, despite differences in themes and approaches, particularly promoted an interactionist research focus and relied on qualitative research methods.
    • Civil inattention A minor interaction ritual and type of unfocused interaction by which people acknowledge the presence of others without violating their privacy. By performing civil inattention, people display themselves as nonthreatening interactional parties.
    • Creative abduction A notion invented by Umberto Eco to describe a type of abduction (see abduction) that, in particularly imaginative and creative way, seeks to account for, give meaning to, or explain a given observed phenomenon.
    • Deference The behaviors or courtesies by which actors demonstrate respect or appreciation of other people's selves. To receive signs of deference, people need to behave in appropriate ways (see demeanor).
    • Definition of the situation Designating the interactional process involving individuals’ cooperation regarding the maintenance or negotiation of a particular way of understanding a social situation. A specific definition of the situation involves specific interactional norms and role requirements.
    • Demeanor The appearance and behavior of a person. When presenting himself in good demeanor and thus recognizing interactional norms, a person will receive deference from the social environment (see deference).
    • Dramaturgy The use of theatrical and dramaturgical concepts to describe aspects of social life. Dramaturgy focuses on the performative and role-playing aspects of social interaction. Goffman used the dramaturgical concepts to describe the elements and processes of the interaction order.
    • Felicity's condition Denotes the background assumption or principle underlying all other background assumptions in verbal and nonverbal interaction, which binds social interaction together and makes it safe, recognizable, understandable, and meaningful to participants.
    • Footing A notion closely connected to that of frame that refers to the ways in which participants in verbal interaction align themselves to others or to the content of what is being said in a given social situation.
    • Frame A concept that captures the mental equipment people actively draw on when trying to understand the situations and occurrences taking place around them and that helps them organize their experiences and navigate in social situations.
    • Frame analysis The name for the analysis of frames, which are those mental maps, matrices of perception, or implicit and underlying understandings that govern our comprehension and definition of situations and guide our actions. Frame analysis involves trying to understand why people act in certain ways and how they organize their experiences according to various specific frames.
    • Frontstage An important region in Goffman's dramaturgy. Engaging in a performance on the frontstage, people perceive themselves to be in front of an audience, and thus they attempt to make impressions by playing roles and by giving and giving off information.
    • Genderism A term reserved for the gender-based construction of gender roles, which, for example, involve predictable representations of men and women, often stereotypical gender expectations and gender images, a highly organized arrangement between the sexes, different gender identities, and gender-specific practices.
    • Grounded theory A methodological approach building on a radical inductivist position that, through specified sampling, coding, and analytical procedures, is primarily concerned with generating concepts and constructing theory based on the collection of data material rather than on testing or verifying existing theories.
    • Impression management The acts by which people create impressions of themselves and situations for an audience. This involves the information that people purposely give and information given off unknowingly as well as the monitoring of others in order to detect their impression management.
    • Interaction order A social domain regulated by certain norms in which people are physically copresent. According to Goffman, the interaction order is the order that can be observed in people's face-to-face interactions and an order worthy of study in its own right.
    • Interaction ritual The defensive or protective acts and procedures used in social interaction to display respect for others and to avoid embarrassment and threats to the course of social interaction. Interaction ritual involves a symbolic aspect as people display respect for individuals’ faces and for the underlying social order.
    • Keying Concept that means something like “using a key” and refers to the utterances or actions that signal the meaning of interaction to participants, including its laminations, its relation to different frames, and so forth. When using specific keys, we unlock and define or redefine situations in different ways.
    • Labeling theory A theoretical perspective on deviance rooted in symbolic interactionism defining labeling as a dynamic and interactive process involving initial acts and societal reaction resulting in the definition of individuals as deviant as a result of their violation of socially constructed rules.
    • Looping A source of mortification involving an interactive process by which an individual's attempt to protect himself against mortification is interpreted as resistance and treated as an aspect of his failure.
    • Maverick Someone who consciously stands outside of, straddles, or sits astride the barricades between official and well-established paradigms in social research and provides an original perspective.
    • Metaphor Textual or literary device used to show or propose the similarity between two—often unconnected—realms of being (for example, everyday life and theatrical performance) that, through their combination, imaginatively helps shed light on overlooked, undiscovered, or hidden aspects of the phenomenon one seeks to understand.
    • Methodology of violation An approach to investigating social life that as its point of departure has the study of situations when rules are broken, norms are violated, or crises occur in the normal and smooth functioning or regulated order of everyday life.
    • Microsociology A branch of sociology primarily concerned with different aspects of everyday life such as social interaction, identity, and agency in situational or face-to-face settings and often neglecting or less interested in more conventional macrosociological topics such as social inequality, politics, or structural arrangements.
    • Moral career A process taking place in institutional arrangements that involves the transformation of a person from a normal human being to a less valued human person stripped of his human dignity and civilian rights.
    • Mortification of self A process through which an individual is bereaved of the necessary resources to present himself as a free, self-determined, and competent citizen, resulting in experiences of loss of human dignity and self-respect.
    • Participant observation Method of data collection—at times more broadly subsumed under the headings of ethnography or fieldwork—in which the researcher actively participates in the lives and actions of those studied and often subjects him/herself to the same life conditions of his/her research subjects.
    • Performance The behavior or activities that a person presents in front of an audience. When engaging in performance, actors create impressions of themselves for an audience in order to facilitate interaction and to establish or maintain identity.
    • Region A notion used by Goffman to describe that social interaction takes place within different settings involving different roles and perceptions of audience. The main regions in Goffman's dramaturgy are frontstage, backstage, and outside the stage.
    • Rituals Symbolic acts by which someone or something regarded as sacred is treated with appropriate respect.
    • Role distance A term describing the acts by which a person displays some level of detachment from the role he is presently performing. By practicing role distance, a person acknowledges playing a certain social role but disassociates himself from the specific type of role available in the situation.
    • Self The image of a person that is produced from the impressions and responses in social situations. In Goffman's perspective, the self is thus a product that emerges from the performances of the actor, the actual scene, and the interpretations of the audience.
    • Sign vehicles A notion proposed by Goffman to describe the ways that individuals use the particular setting, their manner, and their appearance to convey information about themselves. These vehicles constitute the major parts of a person's front.
    • Sophisticated irony A term used to describe how irony or a playful ironic stance toward one's research topic, one's readers, or one's own methodology and findings may serve important analytical purposes such as, for example, creating a sense of familiarity with what is described, teasing or seducing the reader, allowing for sarcastic comments, or providing a bulwark against critique.
    • Stigma A social process by which individuals displaying discrediting attributes or behaviors are negatively labeled and sanctioned. Stigma often involves status loss and feelings of shame, anxiety, and embarrassment.
    • Symbolic interactionism An approach to or perspective on sociology, often regarded as microsociological or social psychological, concerned with studying how people through processes of social interaction (such as verbal or nonverbal behavior) with others and definitions of the situation develop, rely on, and derive subjective meaning about others, selves, and society.
    • System requirements Those preconditions or communication-technical demands of interaction (in Goffman's case, primarily verbal interaction or talk) that interaction—as a system of mutual engagement between participants—must abide by if it is to succeed as interaction.
    • Territories (of the self) Goffman's term for the area around an individual, particular objects to which an individual has priority rights, an individual's temporal turn or place, or information about an individual of which the individual is expected to have control. In Goffman's ethological analysis, these territories that can be encroached on by others constitute the self.
    • Total institution A type of institution with an encompassing character and with a blocking of inmates’ contact with the outside world as well as their possibilities of leaving the establishment.

    Bibliography of Goffman's Writings

    Goffman, E. (1949). Some characteristics of response to depicted experience. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Chicago.
    Goffman, E. (1951). Symbols of class status.British Journal of Sociology, 11, 294–304.
    Goffman, E. (1952). On cooling the mark out: Some aspects of adaptation to failure.Psychiatry, 15, 451–463.
    Goffman, E. (1953a). The service station dealer: The man and his work.Chicago: Social Research Incorporation.
    Goffman, Goffman. (1953b). Communication conduct in an island community. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago.
    Goffman, E. (1955). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction.Psychiatry, 18(3), 213–231.
    Goffman, E. (1956a). The nature of deference and demeanor.American Anthropologist, 58(3), 473–502.
    Goffman, E. (1956b). Embarrassment and social organization.American Journal of Sociology, 62, 264–274.
    Goffman, E. (1957a). Alienation from interaction.Human Relations, 10, 47–59.
    Goffman, E. (1957b). On some convergences of sociology and psychiatry.Psychiatry, 20(3), 201–203.
    Goffman, E. (1957c). Interpersonal persuasion. In B.Schaffner (Ed.), Group processes.New York: Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, pp. 117–193.
    Goffman, E. (1957d). Some dimensions of the problem. In D. J.Levinson & R. H.Williams (Eds.), The patient and the mental hospital.New York: Free Press, pp. 507–510.
    Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.New York: Overlook Press.
    Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates.Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
    Goffman, E. (1963). Behaviour in public places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings.New York: Free Press.
    Goffman, E. (1964a). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity.Chicago: Aldine.
    Goffman, E. (1964b). The neglected situation.American Anthropologist, 66(2), special issue: 133–136.
    Goffman, E. (1966). Communication and enforcement systems. In K.Archibald (Ed.), Strategic interaction and conflict.Berkeley, CA: Institute for International Studies, pp. 198–220.
    Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behaviour.New York: Anchor Books.
    Goffman, E. (1969). Strategic interaction.Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
    Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order.New York: Basic Books.
    Goffman, E. (1972). Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction.Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
    Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience.New York: Harper & Row.
    Goffman, E. (1976a). Replies and responses.Language and Society, 5(3), 257–313.
    Goffman, E. (1976b). Gender advertisements: Studies in the anthropology of visual communication.Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 3(2), 69–154.
    Goffman, E. (1977a). The arrangement between the sexes.Theory and Society, 4, 301–331.
    Goffman, E. (1977b). Genderisms: An admittedly malicious look at how advertising reinforces sexual role stereotypes.Psychology Today, 11(3), 60–63.
    Goffman, E. (1977c). La ritualisation de la féminité.Actes de la recherce en sciences sociales, 14, 34–50.
    Goffman, E. (1979a). Gender advertisements.London: Macmillan.
    Goffman, E. (1979b). Footing.Semiotica, 25(1–2), 1–29.
    Goffman, E. (1981a). Forms of talk.Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
    Goffman, E. (1981b). Reply to Denzin and Keller.Contemporary Sociology, 10(1), 60–68.
    Goffman, E. (1983a). The interaction order.American Sociological Review, 48, 1–17.
    Goffman, E. (1983b). Felicity's condition.American Journal of Sociology, 89, 1–53.
    Goffman, E. (1983c). Microsociologie et historie. In P.Fritsch (Ed.), Le Sens de L'ordinaire.Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, pp. 197–202.
    Goffman, E. (1989). On fieldwork.Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 18(2), 123–132.


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    Album, D. (1995). Hvordan går det med Goffman og Garfinkel? Teorier om samhandling ansikt til ansikt. Sociologisk Tidsskrift, 4, 245–262.
    Album, D. (1996). Nære fremmede: Patientkulturen i sykehus [Close strangers: Patient culture in a Norwegian hospital].Otta: Tano.
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    Andreski, S. (1972). Social sciences as sorcery.London: Pelican Books.
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    Bauman, Z. (1967). Image of man in the modern sociology–Some methodological remarks. Polish Sociological Bulletin, 7(1), 12–21.
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    Belknap, P. & Leonard, W. M., II. (1991). A conceptual replication and extension of Erving Goffman's study of gender advertisements. Sex Roles, 25(3/4), 103–118.
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    Berger, B. M. (1973). A fan letter on Erving Goffman. Dissent, 20, 353–361.
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    Birrell, S. (1981). Sport as ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman. Social Forces, 60, 354–376.
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    Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method.Berkeley: University of California Press.
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    Carter, A. (1979). Female persons. The Guardian, 31 May.
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    Cavan, R. S. (1983). The Chicago school of sociology, 1918–1933. Urban Life, 11, 407–420.
    Chayko, M. (1993). What is real in the age of virtual reality? “Reframing” frame analysis for a technological world. Symbolic Interaction, 16(2), 171–181.
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    Chriss, J. J. (1995a). Some thoughts on recent efforts to further systematize Goffman. Sociological Forum, 10(1), 177–186.
    Chriss, J. J. (1995b). Habermas, Goffman, and communicative action: Implications for professional practice. American Sociological Review, 60, 545–565.
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    Collett, J. L., & Childs, E. (2009). Meaningful performances: Considering the contributions of the dramaturgical approach to studying family. Sociology Compass, 3–4, 689–706.
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    Collins, R. (1986). The passing of intellectual generations: Reflections on the death of Erving Goffman. Sociological Theory, 4(1), 106–113.
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    About the Authors

    Michael Hviid Jacobsen (born 1971) is a professor of sociology at Aalborg University, Denmark. He has published many titles as author or editor, including The Transformation of Modernity (Ashgate, 2001), Erving Goffman (Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2002), The Sociology of Zygmunt Bauman (Ashgate 2008), Public Sociology (Aalborg University Press, 2009), Encountering the Everyday (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009), The Contemporary Goffman (Routledge, 2010), Utopia: Social Theory and the Future (Ashgate, 2013), Imaginative Methodologies in the Social Sciences (Ashgate, 2013), Deconstructing Death (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013), and The Poetics of Crime (Ashgate, 2014).

    Søren Kristiansen (born 1971) is a professor of sociology at Aalborg University, Denmark. He has, as author or editor, published several titles on the work of Erving Goffman, including Kreativ sociologi (Aalborg University, 2000), Erving Goffman (Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2002), and Mikrosociologi og social samhandling (Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2004) and numerous articles in Danish and international journals. In recent years, he has turned his attention toward the sociology of gambling.

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