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,…

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