Born on June 11, 1922 in Manville,
Alberta, Canada, Erving Goffman received an undergraduate degree
from the University of Toronto (1945) before pursuing graduate
studies in sociology and social anthropology at the University
of Chicago. His Ph.D. (awarded in 1953) followed a thesis, Communication
Conduct in an Island Community, which was conducted on one
of the Shetland Islands. It was republished as his first book,
The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Goffman,
1956). Goffman taught from 1958 to 1968 at the University of
California, Berkeley. He was then appointed the Benjamin Franklin
Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of
Pennsylvania in 1968 where he taught until his death. Elected
the 73rd President of the American Sociological Association for
1981-1982, Goffman died soon thereafter of cancer in Philadelphia
on November 19, 1982.
Goffman's educational heritage
was symbolic interactionism and the interpretative sociological
tradition of his graduate alma mater, Chicago. Through a career
(truncated by an all too early death) Goffman eschewed the large-scale
projects of experimental and survey approaches to social life
or the gathering and statistical analysis of massive quantitative
data sets. The arenas of his research were relentlessly quotidian--those
places of social exchange in which individuals encountered each
other in pairs or coordinated teams met socially with their opposite
numbers whether they be clients, patients, customers, or other
members of the general public.
Goffman's early approach is
usually termed dramaturgical. He adopted the metaphor
of drama and the theater in order to understand social encounter.
Living was like performing in a play: actors respond to all the
other persons in their lives as if they form an audience and
strive to create an artful and convincing a performance of their
role(s) before that audience. As Sarbin (2003) indicates in his
The central message of Presentation
is that human beings are actors, both in the sense of being agents
and in the sense of pretending to be what they are not. As agents,
human beings are responsible for their actions. They learn early
in life that their actions are under the scrutiny of judgmental
others so that any violation of the rules of propriety is potentially
a threat to one's self. ... To avoid or to minimize embarrassment,
individuals must be ready to employ strategies of impression
management; i.e., they must be ready to create performances,
to become actors in the theatrical sense. As in theatre, the
actors strive to present a convincing image of self to dialogue
partners and other audiences. Goffman's men and women are less
individuals trying to enact conventional roles as in trying to
be someone or something.
Goffman had a keen eye and
acute ear for the nuances and subtlties of social intercourse.
Beginning with this early analysis, he offered a broad and intricate
set of terms, phrases, and notions--frequently borrowed from
other realms of social practice--by which to characterize social
exchange. Thus, his dramaturgical toolkit includes notions like
front and back regions (metaphorically parallel
to front and back stage) and performance to understand
the techniques of interpersonal impression management.
For many readers, his work
on "total institutions" first explored in Asylums
(1961) offered powerful insights into the ways that ordinary
social institutions like prisons, state hospitals, military bases,
homes for the blind, monasteries, semianries, and the like functioned.
Goffman gathered the material for his book during a 1955-56 field
study at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC. Inmates
of the institutions Goffman describes work, play, eat, and sleep
according to specific time schedules within a bounded space which
sets off the institution from its surrounding physical and social
territory. Within such places, activities serve to maintain a
split between inmates and staff, to promote processes of self-mortification
(or stripping), and to maintain discipline. The residents of
these locales develop their own argot or "in house"
language and symbols and follow a privilege system which reinforce
Bibliography: Erving Goffman
Branaman, A. (1997). Goffman's
social theory. In E. Goffman, The Goffman reader (C. Lemert
& A. Branaman, Eds; pp. xlv-lxxxii). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Burns, T. (1992). Erving
Goffman. New York: Routledge.
analysis of his thinking.
Lemert, C. (1997). "Goffman."
In E. Goffman, The Goffman reader (C. Lemert & A.
Branaman, Eds; pp. ix-xliii). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Manning, P. (1992). Erving
Goffman and modern sociology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Sarbin, T. R. (2003). The dramaturgical
approach to social psychology: The influence of Erving Goffman.
In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The anatomy of impact: What makes
the great works of psychology great (pp. 125-136). Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association.
Scheibe, K. E. (1987) Goffman
redux, Contemporary Psychology, 32, 501-502.
Becker, H. S. (1999, November).
politics of presentation: Goffman and total institutions.
Paper prsented a a conference on Erving Goffman and the Concept
of "Total Institutions." Grenoble, France. (Appears
as Becker, H. S. (2001). La politique de la présentation:
Goffman and les institutions totales. In C. Amourous, & A.
Blanc (Eds.), Erving Goffman et les institutions totales. Paris,
Erving Goffman: The Presentation of
Self in Everyday Life
(Adam Barnhart, 1994): Synopsis & analysis of this text;
sets Goffman's thought in the context of his own work and notes
its shortcomings. [Mirror
version at the Hewitt School, Norwich, Norfolk, UK]
Freidson, E. (1983). Celebrating
Erving Goffman, 1983. Contemporary Sociology, 12(4),
359-362. Paper read at a memorial for Goffman at the Eastern
Sociological Society meeing, Baltimore, March 4, 1983. Focuses
upon Goffman's earlier work.
Social Interaction in Everyday Life (Douglas E. Martin, Northwest Missouri
State University). Brief but lucid textbook chapter outline from
a General Sociology course. Succinct summary of dramaturgical
Asma, D. (n.d.). Welcome to
jail: Some dramaturgical notes on admission to a total institution.
Available at the website of the Lake County, IL Public Defender's
This is an application of Goffman's
ideas to the modern prison setting.