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This review appeared in Volume 3 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Framing Goffman

by John O'Neill

Beyond Goffman: Studies on Communication, Institution, and Social Interaction. Edited by Stephen Harold Riggins. 1990. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 447pp. 1SBN 3-11-012208-1

There can be little doubt that Erving Goffman's work deserves continuous reappraisal and Riggins' carefully edited volume of seventeen papers - each of which defies summary -- is a welcome addition to the literature on one of the most profound minds in sociology. By the same token, the challenge put forth in such an exercise, compounded by its transcultural venue in India, suggests to this reviewer a set of remarks on the question of getting "beyond" what is quintessential in Goffman's ethnographies of American institutions. I must therefore beg the indulgence of the contributors to the present volume if I consider their essays only from the perspective of going beyond them too (!), thereby losing much for the sake of a frame, as Goffman would have appreciated all too well.

If anything was "beyond" Goffman, it was his concept of society which he reverently attributed to "Him" (Durkheim) and in whose service he developed an exquisite sociological style which I shall call "Goffmanic-Goffdepressive", to stress an effect it works upon both its author and his readers. Ordinarily, sociological prose attaches no comment to itself since for the most part sociologists do not consider language as anything but a mirror of their practice, i.e., as a greater necessity in the case of writing textbooks than when writing articles whose nub should be mathematical and statistical. Such at any rate was the lore when Goffman wrote in from the margins, forcing himself upon anyone with a concern for the interpersonal dynamics of social interaction -- which, after all, was what sociology had promised to reveal. Moreover, by the 1960's the student version of youth culture had begun to politicize sociology in the hope that it might teach them how to reconstruct bureaucratic institutions such as the highschool and university in which they had spent most of their lives and possibly break their ties with the industrial and military complex (including hospitals and prisons) in which they seemed destined to spend alienated futures. Such is the larger "frame" of Goffman's sociology. There is a danger that it will be overlooked, especially since Goffman himself makes no explicit reference to the wider society of which he was nevertheless the great allegorist whose fine studies of "total institutions" were read as much by"anti-professional" professors and their students as by the aficionados of formal interaction and organizational behaviour.

Thus in a first frame on Goffman, we must keep in mind that within the episteme of his day there ruled two discourses -- namely, realism and fictionalism, and that these two ontologies were doubled in a deontological pair, environmentalism and voluntarism. In other words, everyone agreed that the world was "out there" and not just "in here" because its "objectivity" was a guarantee of its analysability whereas its "subjectivity", especially if it absorbed science itself, appeared to make moral and social change impossible or else possible only as an act of violence. Curiously enough, in those days even realists were fictionalists. That is to say, everyone had enough sense of history to know that one needed to revise one's "world picture" from time to time. They differed as to how one redrew the picture most reliably. Realists argued that one had to know structure, quantity and dynamics as the conditioning environment of moral purpose which would otherwise remain otherworldly or else turn to sheer violence in the name of political change. In short, scientific analysis and moral purpose were considered complementary and the Nietzschean turn had not yet infected both sides of the equation in the name of the will-to-power of marginalized cultures and groups singing to the death of the white Over-Man and "his" institutions.

Everything Goffman wrote turned upon his inquiry into our determination to employ a double grammar in the conduct of our social lives. This double grammar -- or "double talk", as I shall call it -- is the source of our institutional romance with "the self", i.e., with a "personality" we consider at once alienated by social life and inspired by it (O'Neill, 1972). Thus we speak as though we were at once "social ghosts" (full of society for as long as the social bubbles are full of interaction) and "soul-atoms" that collide and veer off from one another but never suffer internal restructuring in the societal soup. MacCannell (19-40) nicely observes that Goffman's version of the autonomy of sociology was to steal from its rival -- psychoanalysis -- accounts of behaviour that flow from social rituals rather than the dynamics of the psychic apparatus. We might say that where Freud had the soul, Goffman discovered the "face"; and where Freud explored unconscious mechanisms, Goffman explored rituals of interaction and the conditions of success, failure, risk and repair involved in their performance. Yet, as MacCannell observes, there is an extraordinary paradox in the American embrace of Durkheimian sociology which, curiously enough, is doubled in the American embrace of Freud. At first sight, American individualism and its voluntarist view of the world should be vehemently opposed to determinism by institutions on one level and by the unconscious on the other. Such forces considerably reduce the sphere of the individual otherwise considered to be the driving force of American society which in turn dedicates itself to the fullest development of the inviolability of the individual. The paradox may be resolved, however, if we understand how the American Ego is locked into aggressive and paranoid struggle against its Other (society, family, class, race):

Durkheim's formulation is acceptable as the central sociological figure in a society predisposed to egoistic individualism, to the extent that it is an invitation to ego identification with ultimate power, independence and "freedom". It is usable as theory, in the place occupied by Anglo-American sociology, i.e., the form of partial self knowledge in an individualistic society. To the extent that the individual is identified with the social, that the individual is a truly socialized character who can be counted upon to uphold social norms, such persons are legitimately aligned with the enormous power of the Social. The linkage of social determinism and individual freedom is a contradiction or a paradox only it the opposition (society-individual) on which it is based is real. (23)

Take one. It really is difficult to get "beyond" this frame. Despite the Herculean efforts of Parsonian sociology in re-staging American institutions as the enabling environment (structural-functionism) of voluntaristic individualism. the social stage could not be cleared of its crackpots, criminals, drunks, druggies, dreamers and dissidents. Of course, the American parade of human degradation could be regrouped into "personality types" variously responding to the endemic "anomie" of social structure -- as it was by Merton (1938) -- producing a colourful array of Willie Lomans, Bonnie and Clydes, corporate and mafia executives, along with average Americans, white trash and Blacks holding their ground at whatever cost, short of political rebellion and madness. Such a society has a quasi-natural affinity for the movies that indeed flourish through its (re)presentation. Thus we can expect the dramaturgical metaphor to assume the dominant place it has achieved in Goffman's sociology -- (and this really is all there is to Goffman's phenomenology, rather than any of the formalist concerns raised in Lanigan's question (99-112): see Srinivasan (141-161) for Goffman's rejection of Schutzian phenomenology).

The question remains as to the pathos of Goffman's social drama. Did Goffman celebrate our capacity to preserve the semblance of soul in our performance of minor social rituals? Or did he reproduce the alienation of the soul by the poverty of its social resources for expression in a society that refuses to analyse the imposed scarcity of its resources because it prefers to pay the costs of "failure" in exchange for the celebration of "success"? In my view, Goffman is the inimitable anthropologist of this American morality play. By the same token, Goffman's ethic was to work at the fine description of a society that has "no exit" -- not even death. To get "beyond" Goffman is to get beyond the American social order.

Take Two. Can Goffman be used to envisage, if not to implement, an alternative social order to the American context that is the theatre of his own sociology? Patricia Clough (187-202) believes that Goffman's work on gender, on the natural and social body, as well as the social narratives we construct upon sexual difference in everyday life might be employed to deconstruct the "hyper-reality" of the social frames that constitute the sociological unconscious. Along these lines, Arlie Hochschild (277-294) usefully explores a typology of gender strategies (traditional and egalitarian) offered in women's advice books. Most powerful here is Juliet MacCannell's (295-314) reading of Kleist's exclusion of women (The Marquise of O...) from formal talk as the arena of power and justice between the sexes. Battershill (163-186) takes up the explicit features in Goffman's "post-modern" sociology by emphasising the multiple sites of the knowledge/power constitution of the subject, bringing him into line with Foucault and Lyotard, but with the correction that Goffman's bureaucracies are more modernist settings of self-alientation than Lyotard's projection of de-totalized institutions. One might add that, as we have seen in the first take, Goffman's social theatre in many ways penetrates the soul more deeply even than Foucaults's panopticon. Americans love a show: show and tell, the order of the day, teleconfession (O'Neill, 1991).

What has to be connected in Goffman is the two sides of authority, that is, how officials exercise control over individuals who believe they exercise control over authorities in virtue of the sovereignty of the self, however often and however deeply they are injured in the process. Goffman considered this agony more pervasive than class antagonism. As Manning and Hawkins (203-233) show in their study of how legal authority functions to produce its decisions, Goffman's work in frame analysis is an exquisite tool. One might add that it is not one to be found in Foucalt's work which nevertheless will be "read" more by contemporary students who might be better advised to "oublier Foucault" and "chercher Goffman !" The struggle over legal, political, civil and criminal frames to be placed upon events in modern governance is one of the most important features in our everyday experience of authority. It is the locus of our efforts to achieve social and political change. To a large extent, as Meyrowitz (65-97) shows, Goffman's focus upon the micro-sociology of face-to-face interaction limits its application in the case of one-way, highly mediated projections of the institutions and their practices that may function to unbind or to flood local cultures, enabling social change. Yet Srinivasan (141-161) argues that Goffman's "core sociology" is not culture-bound and may be extended to such issues as racism or the development of individualism in India. Here Schwimmer's paper (41-63) is of particular interest because it confronts possible interpretations of Goffman's own marginality among the professional castes as well as the relevance of dualist categorizations in the analysis of India's caste system. Schwimmer focuses very sensitively the central issue in Goffman's oeuvre, namely, how one reads into its ethnographic detail any sense of the social structure with which descriptive particulars are to be coupled. Did Goffman forego any such organizing myth and did he thereby himself hide behind the blurring of genre that is a mark of his "style"? Does this recommend Goffman as a Buddha-figure to non-western sociologists?

We began by remarking upon Goffman's Buddha (Durkheim). Society is God, is communion, is ritual, is us offering ourselves to one another, at considerable risk, always forgiving the trespass of others as we hope to be forgiven by them:

this secular world is not as irreligious as we might think. Many gods have been done away with, but the individual himself remains a deity of considerable importance. He walks with some dignity and is the recipient of many little offerings. He is jealous of the worship due to him, yet, approached in the right spirit, he is ready to forgive those who have offended him (Goffman, 1967:95)

Individuals of every age, income, race and religion in America are subject to a daily assault upon their dignity. Yet they continue, in the very name of their religion of individualism, to insist upon randomizing the structure of inequity and deception that improves the chances of a few at the expense of the fate of most. George Park (236-276) puts his finger upon the double frame instituted by the Protestant ethic through which individuals were once energized into the necessity of reading their predestined place in God's kingdom from their achieved place in a world subject to limitless industrial conquest and appropriation. Today this double frame is becoming uncoupled -- and there are signs that new and more local religions will respond to nature and humankind in a fresh frame of experience, a new "beyond". Perhaps, then, we are to witness the passing of an egoistic individualism constructed out of a plurality of cultures, borrowing from the tropics of Buddhism (Perinbanayam, 315-340), furnishings (Riggins, 341-365), the management of "negative experience" (Bouissac, 409-433) as in theatrical and circus performances through which we save the identity of social relationships that we nevertheless insist upon putting to continuous risk on the conduct of secular life. Who knows how long we can continue to play with the bond of sociality before it snaps -- or can we always presume upon an abundance of social gum -- like the betel nut (Misra, 369-387) -- to hold us together? For if we recognize that sociality is itself increasingly a scarce social resource, then we have to fear that "the disadvantaged" (or should we say the "socially challenged"?) will one day rise to tear down that extraordinary veil of "civil inattention" that is still accorded to each other by the very rich and the very poor. But then we are still waiting for a sociology of the poor, as Oommen (389-407) demonstrates. It is likely to be a long wait, judging by the success of The Three Penny Opera, Les Miserables, and now Miss Saigon, which show how well secularism can accommodate the spiritualism of its revolutionaries. None of this, however, was beyond Goffman.


Goffman, Erving. (1967) Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to-Face Behaviour. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Merton, Robert K. (1938) "Social Structure and Anomie." American Sociological Review 3, (5):672-682.

O'Neill, John. (1972) "Self-Prescription and Social Machiavellianism". pp11-19 in his Sociology as a Skin Trade: Essays towards a reflexive sociology. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

---. (1991) Plato's Cave: Desire, Power and the Specular Functions of the Media. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

John O'Neill is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. He teaches sociological theory, semiotics of embodiment and textual studies in psychoanalysis. His most recent book is Critical Conventions: Interpretation in the Literary Arts and Sciences (1992). He is currently at work on The Domestic Economy of the Soul: Freud's Five Case Histories.

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