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Two on the Aisle

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

by Erving Goffman
Doubleday, 259 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction

by Erving Goffman
Bobbs-Merrill, 152 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Relations in Public: Micro Studies of the Public Order

by Erving Goffman
Harper & Row, 416 pp., $2.45 (paper)

For a long time I have been reading with a mixture of dismay and admiration the work of Erving Goffman. He is an American sociologist who has created a method for analyzing face-to-face encounters and “role-playing.” His method called “dramaturgical interaction” analysis, is a radical departure in American sociology. Goffman is not concerned with broad economic or population pressures a statement like “the assembly line makes workers feel alienated” would also be foreign to his thinking. Goffman believes that people act out social relationships and that these relationships are like theatrical roles. What Goffman means by “acting” and “role” I find most clearly defined in his book on mental hospitals, Asylums.

In 1955-1956 Goffman attached himself to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, to observe firsthand the daily life of mental patients and staff. Goffman found both sides acting in a terrible masquerade. The patients didn’t take the doctors seriously unless they acted aloof, somewhat condescending, and skeptical about the patients’ signs of distress. Patients didn’t catch the doctors’ attention unless the inmates acted manic, schizy, or in some other way that the doctor could quickly recognize as “crazy.”

Goffman’s report of this world is extraordinary because it goes so much further than more recent fashionable studies showing how the authoritarian doctor labels his patients sick in order to control them. Goffman saw that under certain conditions of hospital life both doctors and patients may want to live up to their images. Doctors who suffered when they saw the suffering of their patients but nonetheless behaved condescendingly toward them, patients who didn’t feel particularly manic but went through the motions of appearing so, did so because they were building a social order together. The discovery of this social order, and of the meaning it gives to personal encounters, is at once Goffman’s great achievement and his great limitation.

Like a prison, or a farm worked by slaves, or a monastery, an asylum is a “total institution.” In such places, all the rules for social life are laid down by a single authority. Goffman showed how, even in this extreme and powerful setting, the life that is dictated becomes subtly modulated so that it is different from the lives people in the institution actually lead. The formal principle of a mental asylum, for example, is that if the patient submits to treatment. i.e. to acting along the lines laid down by the institution he will in time be able to leave the hospital. To give this obedience meaning, however, the person under treatment begins to form a “career” for himself as a sick person. So long as he remains noticeable he gets attention: his visible signs of illness are common ground that he can discuss and that connect him with other patients. To act in such a way as to free himself finally from the institution becomes less and less important. As the patient establishes smooth and stable relations by managing his appearance so that he is marked as sick, the patient gradually becomes trapped in his role.

Goffman’s idea that people make “careers” of mental illness supposes, I think, that face-to-face relationships have an innate structure. By means of role-playing, a person can achieve an equilibrium with and evoke reciprocal feelings from others, even in situations where one party is supposed to be entirely at the mercy of another. The patient tears his hair out, the doctor sneers, and they achieve, one gathers from Goffman, a stable relationship, they can get along. If the doctor were less in control and mute, the patient confused and mute, their encounters would be disorderly. When Goffman talks about a “norm” for behavior, he is thinking about situations that have this kind of equilibrium.

Goffman’s general definition of “role” follows logically from this concept of the norm: “When an individual makes an appearance in a given position he will be the person that the position allows and obliges him to be….” He writes as if there is an imaginary character or set of characters for every situation which age, sex, class, residence, etc. establish in a society. American society has become painfully aware of the imaginary characters, the “stereotyped roles” created by sex distinctions. Goffman argues that similar stereotyped images exist in all social life: cross sex with class and you get Mrs. Archie Bunker as a “representative” character; compound sex with residence and you have a different woman’s role; compound sex and class and place of residence, and women play yet another normative role.

I use the term imaginary character to describe these normative roles, but the term distorts Goffman’s thinking in one way. The system of appearances he envisions is so sweeping that to ask who is the “real” person behind these masks would be to ask who is untouched by conditions like sex, age, class, and so on—and of course no one is. The concept of a real person lurking behind his appearances, with a “reality” more truthful than the faces he presents to the world, is for Goffman misleading.

If people cannot help but behave as situations “allow and oblige” them to, they ought to be entirely the products of those situations. This is Skinner’s position; seemingly it should be Goffman’s too. However, in one of his most brilliant papers, “Role Distance,” published in Encounters, Goffman distinguishes his dramaturgical approach from behaviorism in two ways.

First Goffman argues that any given role does not involve the whole person. “The system (of role-playing) or pattern borrows only a part of the individual, and what he does or is at other times and places is not the first concern. The roles of others for whom he performs similarly represent only slices of these others.” More interesting is Goffman’s analysis of how a person goes about fighting a normative role. Let us take some fragments of a conversation Goffman observed in an operating room at a Philadelphia hospital.

Scrub Nurse: Will there be more than three sutures more? We’re running out of sutures.

Chief Surgeon: I don’t know.

Intern: We can finish up with Scotch tape….

Chief Surgeon: A small Richardson please.

Scrub Nurse: Don’t have one.

Chief Surgeon: OK, then give me an Army and Navy.

Scrub Nurse: It looks like we don’t have one.

Chief Surgeon (lightly joking): No Army or Navy man here.

Intern (dryly): No one here in the armed forces, but Dr.—(the Chief Surgeon) here is in the Boy Scouts.

The intern is in a subordinate position to the Chief Surgeon, and the Chief Surgeon rates his performance for the hospital. The intern’s role ought therefore to be deferential, i.e., obsequious. The fact that the intern is ironic seems to be a rejection of role-playing. To understand why interns like this young man are so routinely snide, Goffman argues, we must start by using the normative role of quiet obsequiousness as a tool for analysis. Whatever is personally humiliating in that role sets in motion behavior that appears to be a rejection of role-playing, but in fact the irony becomes a role itself. I think Goffman’s analysis can be taken one step further. The irony of the interns may give them the necessary balance and sense of their own worth to keep them functioning in the operating room; in this case, the equilibrium of a situation will be maintained by the way the intern rejects the role expected of him.

Goffman’s ideas have been popularized as “impression management” and this distorts them (although the term is his own) by making them out to be psychological games. It is true that presidents caught stealing try to manipulate their public image to achieve by fraud what they cannot get by force. It is true that salesmen try to appear wholesome and good-natured when they have to sell pink plastic sofas or used cars. What Goffman has perceived is that in most direct, personal encounters neither presidents nor salesmen can help it. The need for order in personal relations prompts role-playing whether a person desires to play a role or not. Further, any conscious manipulation of one’s public self is limited by the role-playing of other people one meets. Living Theatre has no part in Goffman’s dramaturgy, for spontaneity has no place in his conception of acting. The “logic” of situations the actors have not themselves created prompts them to play.

I stress the elements of stability and structure in Goffman’s theory because throughout his work he has been searching for different situations which cause people to play roles. Asylums (1961) shows people acting out roles in a total institution; in Stigma (1963) Goffman observes the way dwarfs and people with other inherited deformities gradually begin to think of themselves as being in fact “freaks,” the role which society assigns them. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) is a more general work, but it draws on Goffman’s study of a group of Shetland Islanders.

For me the most interesting development in Goffman’s career is his interest in the role-playing that goes on in seemingly impersonal situations. In his most recent book, Relations in Public (1971), he examines life in cities.

Goffman’s picture of the city is the exact opposite of Rousseau’s. For Rousseau, role-playing occurred in a city because the city was a place where the basest passions were unrestrained. In an impersonal setting, deceits and pretenses are most easily enacted, strangers not being able to challenge the truth of what one says or does. For Goffman, role-playing is pervasive in cities because cities inhibit expressive behavior. Fear is the dominant emotion analyzed in Relations in Public, fear of the stranger, fear of the Other: fear is what people try to manage in the charades they act out face to face.

Every city dweller has had the experience of walking down the street with someone coming head on; he moves out of the way, but the oncomer moves out of the way in the same direction; then both strangers move simultaneously to the other side, and so on. Such situations create embarrassment, but also temporary panic. Goffman interprets what is going on as signaling behavior; you move aside not merely to get out of the way but as a sign to the oncomer that you mean to do him no harm. Similarly, the length of time eyes meet on the street is kept to a minimum so that strangers can assure each other that they will not intrude.

Out of trivia like this, Goffman erects an urban psychology based on warnings, reassurances, separations, and other charades that in some way manage fear. Indeed, his is the first comprehensive urban psychology to appear since the seminal essays of Georg Simmel. Like Simmel’s, Goffman’s analysis is aimed at describing the forms of consciousness induced by living in a city. This urban consciousness Simmel described as the continual turning in on the self for nourishment in a milieu in which a person would go mad if he or she reacted openly to all the stimuli outside the self. When Goffman describes urban consciousness he depicts the patterns by which people do react to those stimuli—how people scan others, what their eyes do, What ears do, and so on. Who is scanning—Simmel’s great question—Goffman does not consider.

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