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.

This dramaturgical sociology seems enormously promising, but there is something dead about it. If we ask in what way role-playing is constructive, in what way destructive, Goffman has no answer other than that it exists, that it constitutes everyday reality. No social observer need continually sit in judgment on what he sees, of course, but once one asks how one would go about evaluating a particular role, serious weaknesses in Goffman’s theory become clear.

The roles Goffman presents are static. “Senior Surgeon” has a set of attributes which are analyzed as fixed; so does “patient” or “freak.” Goffman conceives of these characters as “given” in a particular situation. But the people who are the actors are not static. The man who plays “Senior Surgeon” may face the same situation year after year, but sometimes he is depressed, sometimes he is aggressive, sometimes he doesn’t worry about himself and lets the pleasure of his work absorb him. What Goffman asks us to believe is that people, when they interact, suddenly are able to manage their personal behavior by striking fixed poses, as though they were statues.

In the theater, a character emerges during the course of the action. We do not know what Iago is like when we first learn of his formal relations with Othello. To study a role, Stanislavski once told an actress, is to study what in a personality will remain intact during the course of the play, and what will succumb to events. The roles Goffman presents are very bad theater on this account, for the impact of a situation on Goffman’s actors is “normatively” fixed, that is, entirely predictable.

Take the role-playing discussed in Relations in Public. At parties strangers do not inquire too deeply into one another’s affairs, partly as a symbolic gesture meaning they do not wish to make a stranger feel vulnerable or exposed. This is called tact. But being tactful—and tact is one of the most effective façades—can evolve beyond the situation of two strangers. A human being who has learned to be tactful in public can apply that appearance to his relations with a friend in distress, so that it becomes a sign of sympathy, or in reacting to the unreason of a lover, in which case tact becomes a mark of respect. Fear—the original situation to be managed—is no longer the issue. People learn from the roles they play, just as characters in a drama learn from the action. Goffman approaches role-playing in such a simplistic way that the meaning of roleplaying, its incorporation in ongoing human experience, is not considered.

The image Goffman uses to define the complexities of experience is that of Man as Juggler. In his essay on “Role Distance” he writes:

I have argued that a situated activity system provides an arena for conduct and that in this arena the individual constantly twists, turns, and squirms, even while allowing himself to be carried along by the controlling definition of the situation. The image that emerges of the individual is that of a juggler and a synthesizer, an accommodator and appeaser, who fulfils one function while he is apparently engaged in another.

Since the “controlling definitions” are fixed, juggling is what makes experience complex. The role seems to be itself immune to the impact of the actors’ past history. The actors learn nothing, they forget nothing.

Role is static in Goffman’s theory because he thinks of society as static. Goffman’s is a world without time. Society is; history may produce a situation, but this situation can be analyzed only as having happened at a given moment. For instance, the self presented to the world under sway of the Protestant ethic in the seventeenth century was very different from what appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. All a theory like Goffman’s could tell us about this change in roles is that the situation changed; this is hardly enlightening. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization shows how the definition of a mentally sick person has changed radically over the course of the last two centuries. Goffman’s approach can neither account for the causes of the situation analyzed in Asylums nor judge how long that situation is likely to continue. If we refer again to the theater, it could be said that there are scenes in this sociology, but no plot.

The theory Goffman puts forward implies very strongly what it never explicitly states or explores: that the “aesthetic” is a dimension of all social experience. The words Goffman uses are loaded: actor, role, dramaturgy, scripts—these elements of the stage are portrayed as the essence of everyday interaction between people.

The words are misleading. Goffman describes situations that lack all the qualities of a believable drama; the characters are fixed; one scene follows another without development or cause. It is sometimes said that Goffman is a moralist, and that his weapon is irony. This reads more into his work, I think, than the work permits. There are no standards for evaluating the importance of a particular role, no judgments on the endurance or fragility of roles. Which is to say that, unlike a genuinely ironic writer, Goffman has no distance from his subject. He is in the awkward position of being neither an author nor a drama critic. He is a phenomenologist, i.e., the situations are, but unlike Sartre, Husserl, or others of a larger vision, phenomenology has not led him to question the reasons for the world as it is.

The misuse of aesthetic terms above all confuse the relations of the self to the self as performer. Since for Goffman “doctor,” “dwarf,” “chief surgeon,” “intern” are roles which people step into rather than create themselves, there is no meaning to being conscious of playing a role. You simply note that you are playing, and if it hurts, you “juggle” your way into others.

The limitations of this concept of the self become clearer perhaps if we compare Goffman’s dramaturgy to the ideas of someone who actually works in the theater. The Polish director Jerzy Grotowski has devoted much thought to how roles gradually develop, rather than how they are assumed. Grotowski has also developed a theory of how acting on the stage is related to acting in the ordinary world.

In Towards a Poor Theatre, an account of his methods and beliefs, Grotowski describes everyday acting in terms somewhat similar to Goffman’s. “Life-masks” are managements of personal appearance, easily assumed persona in the world and no more than unthinking reflexes to the situations of daily life. But Grotowski is concerned about the quality of these roles, and he believes they can be changed. To him, role-playing in the world is also bad acting; in learning how to be a good actor the “self” of the person acting is transformed.

Grotowski is known as the creator of “poor theater.” The term implies nothing so simple as a theater of the people, or a theater which eschews props, lighting, etc., because they are bourgeois. Grotowski means by poor theater the stripping away of everything on the stage but the essential fact, the fact that a man or woman is performing in front of an audience. The more this fact is consciously explored, the more an actor can look at himself, hear himself, the less those masks seem adequate to him. Jacques Lecoq, the French director, conducts body exercise classes to make students more spontaneous and forgetful of themselves; Grotowski conducts body exercise “researches” to make them less so. The more consciously artificial an actor can feel, the more conscious he will be of the artifices of everyday life. “We compose,” says Grotowski, “a role as a system of signs which demonstrate what is behind the mask of common vision….”

It is often said that such an individualistic temperament is an anomaly in a socialist regime; indeed, since Grotowski refuses to do state-art, theater of the people, his survival makes no sense. And yet it does. This is truly a dialectical theory of acting. Through acting more and more, through contemplating one’s acting, one learns to judge the acting in the streets and make choices about what parts to develop, what to abandon. This dramatic theory repudiates the idea that to be is to lose consciousness of self. It also supplies something missing in Goffman’s notion of a role. Grotowski wants to show how malleable the roles become when the self makes them objects of conscious study. Accepting one’s capacity to perform, fixing on it,is the means of making a personal critique of the society in which one lives.

But is it fair to use Grotowski as a social commentator? I think it is because his theater, like Artaud’s, is intended to make a comment to the audience about the world they will act in when they go home. Artaud’s theater of cruelty and Grotowski’s theater of shock are designed to be moral lessons to the audience, a parable of the means which the audience itself would have to use were it to be more conscious of its acting in the world. Walter Benjamin writing of Baudelaire said that uncomfortable shocks are the only way the modern lyric poet can speak to his audience. Grotowski subscribes to that, and yet he rejects an anarchic assault on his audience’s sensibilities.

Precisely because the play-acting in ordinary life lacks any conscious or intended form, the research into a role, for the professional actor, and for those in the audience who are moved to examine their own lives, is for Grotowski research on forms—forms of speech which are harsh and yet wholly under control, contortions of feeling that have a balance the ordinary mush of sensations does not. “The more we become absorbed in what is hidden inside us, in the excess, in the exposure,…the more rigid must be the external discipline; that it to say the form, the artificiality, the ideogram, the sign.”

These signs and “ideograms” produce a powerful sense of anxiety even in British and American audiences who cannot understand the Polish actors’ words. “The experience of attending one of the Laboratory Theatre’s performances begins with a sense of radical displacement from the ordinary milieu of theater, from its familiar seductions and claims,” writes Richard Gilman. “For Akropolis the spectators occupy various levels of an unsymmetrical arrangement, the actors moving in their midst, almost touching them at times, but without acknowledging their presence in any way.” The audience is shown the artifice, but is never appealed to. Its size is also limited, so that being admitted to the theater is like being admitted to a secret rite.

Indeed, the symbols themselves have a strong religious character, or they refer to cataclysmic historical events. Crosses which are so heavy the actor can only carry them by crawling, poses of being painfully attacked that are held, frozen, minute after minute—as in the attitude toward the audience, the symbols concern defiance. Grotowski is dramatizing and rebelling against masks in which people have believed, roles which people have not merely played but played passionately. The mother church, the nation of passive sufferers, the crowd waiting to be entertained: these consciously developed “ideograms” are his targets precisely because these are masks which Grotowski’s people have worn with conviction.

The world in which Erving Goffman’s undertaking has seemed plausible is much different. Not much investment of feeling has been made in most of the roles he deals with (save for those of the deviants like the insane and deformed, nor do the roles themselves have a rich historical, religious, or cultural content. I think this is largely an analytic failure on Goffman’s part but I think it could also be argued that there is a certain impoverishment in the material Goffman has at hand. The “juggler” becomes a conceivable account of the human condition only in a society where commitments appear to be “entangling alliances,” and where escape into a physical or emotional wilderness has had a monotonous historical regularity. The “juggler” is cousin to Riesman’s “other-directed man” and Lifton’s “protean man” but without the inner turmoil that these writers saw as part of their conceptions. The “juggler” is simply a manager.

Indeed, in a brilliant section of The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology Alvin Gouldner argues that Goffman’s work is appropriate to a new middle class in America and Western Europe, a class of managers in large-scale bureaucracies who want to keep alive a sense of their individuality and at the same time to be obedient good guys as they move up the corporate ladder. But the managers of the self can, I think, be found now throughout all classes of society, and for reasons that have less to do with the development of bureaucracy than with the destruction of the city.

For Goffman, the dominant problem in the city is managing fear. Let us put aside for the moment the question of whether this is an adequate analysis and note that it is one that is shared by most of his contemporaries. There was far more to be afraid of in cities at earlier stages of industrialization—far more street crime, disease, decayed housing—yet at the moment there is an unprecedented fear of living in cities. Why should this be?

I suspect one reason is that cities, when they are open and diverse, can be stages on which people learn to act in the self-conscious way Grotowski practices under very different circumstances. But there is an enormous risk in this dramaturgy. Paris as we know it from the novels of Balzac and Flaubert, Chicago and New York as we know them from Dreiser and Edith Wharton, were cities in which a man or woman could play many different roles, moving, as the sociologist Robert Park put it, from “microcosm to microcosm,” from the world of saloons, to union halls, to sporting arenas, for example, appearing as a different character in each setting. But the characters who do not become self-conscious about their role-playing are crushed by the complexity and harshness of city life. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie survives; Hurstwood, the lover who could not learn to watch himself acting the part, does not. The virtue of the city, Flaubert wrote, is that a man learns to watch himself at play; the idea is close to Simmel’s description of the modern city as a milieu in which the individual has the possibility of watching himself behave.

If Goffman’s is a report on a certain modern phenomenon, it is of people who would rather not take the risks of learning from complex role-playing. Inhabitants of the dense urban centers flee to the suburbs, the dramas of life become private, family-centered farces or tragedies, and relations in public become matters of static accomodation. This “vision”is Goffman’s report on us.