Human beings are stage performers and human life is centered on performing our culturally defined fronts (Goffman, Erving, 1959 p. 22). Initially found himself working with the National Film Board in Ottawa from1943 to 1944, young Goffman discovered his special interest in sociology (Manning, Philip 1992, p. 53). Erving was the son of a shopkeeper named Max and Anna, a plain housewife. Erving’s parents are Jewish nationals but were driven by fate to Canada in 1897 when the Ukrainians were forced to evacuate to run away from the violence of the First World War.
Born on June 11, 1922 in Manville, Alberta, Erving has the natural inclination for natural sciences, which was probably enhanced, or shall we say suggested by his decision to attend St. John Technical High School in Dauphin. Raised from a poor family of Ukrainian immigrants, his family can only afford to send him to the University of Manitoba to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chemistry.
Although his biography did not expressly revealed relevant information, this writer speculates that his earnings with his temporary work in the National Film Board could have been one of his tickets which gave him an access to the University of Toronto to pursue his now increasing interests and sociology and anthropology. After graduating in 1945, Goffman went to graduate school at the University of Chicago where he, according to Manning, had taken “numerous courses” (Manning, Philip 1992, p. 99). Nonetheless, he has completed his graduate studies in 1949.
His frustration with the results of his quantitative analysis of his mater’s thesis could have been one of the reasons, if there be anything else, for Erving to use employ qualitative analysis and reasoning for his works. According to Manning’s narration, Goffman “failed” to use the quantitative analysis method called Thematic Apperception Test (G. Smith, 1999 in Manning, Philip). Erving’s thesis was then about quantitatively analyzing the responses of the middle class women in Chicago over the famous radio soap opera entitled, “Big Sister”.
Goffman immediately pursued his doctorate studies at the University of Chicago wherein he studied the life in the Island of Unst, a small community also known as “Dixon” (P. Manning). He focused his dissertation on the social interaction of the people in the small island where he stayed from 1949 to 1951. Instead of returning to Chicago, Goffman flew to Parish and returned to Chicago to get married. There are writers’ observations that say that Goffman gained his initial prominence in the community not as sociologist but as poor boy who radically transformed into a wealthy individual.
As Manning noted, “Through both education and marriage, he was now part of an intellectual and economic elite. ” This writer finds it important to look into the background of Goffman’s wife, Angelica Choate because this woman may have also played an important role in Goffman’s transformation to elite life. Choate was from elite American family who has connections with media companies. Choate was just 23 when she get married with Goffman whom she met at the University of Chicago. The two just got one child, Tom who was born in 1953.
Meanwhile, Goffman completed his doctorate studies at the University of Chicago in 1949 and 1953 in sociology and social anthropology respectively (Blackwood, Diane B. 1997). Like all other theorists, sociologists or scientists, Goffman was never an exemption to criticisms. I would say that he has equally gained appreciation and criticisms for every work he had accomplished. There is one thing that one critique has noted of Goffman: he never named any of his theories, which is unusual in the field (Schweingruber 1994).
One observer of Goffman also stressed that Erving was one kind of writer who never cites his influences (Miller, Dan E. ). This then suggests that Goffman really would want to be noticed or recognized as an original writer and of course a sociologist who developed his own and original theories. Goffman’s famous book entitled “Asylums” which was published in 1961 might have been conceived when he worked at the Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital at the time Goffman and his family moved to Washington D. C. Three years after working with sociological studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Goffman then secured work at the University of California in Berkeley on January 1958 (D. Blackwood, 1997).
After another three years, Goffman’s credentials might have been recognized by the academy and was then promoted as a full professor at the said University. It is also safe to assume that his book Asylums had helped him get the said position after it was published a year before his promotion.
In just a decade, that is from 1959-1969, Goffman’s academic achievements were already worth noting in the history of sociology after publishing seven remarkable books (Burns, Thomas 1992, p. 81). If we are to look into the other side of Goffman’s life, we will see that he was not at all focused on writing books and like other intellectuals, the sociologist also had other leisure activities that he probably had loved as much as he loved his career. Historical data revealed that Goffman was also in loved with antiques and had been addicted to playing blackjack and poker.
What is interesting in these revelations is that these addictions did not at all paint a bad color on his reputation as sociologist. In fact, these had opened the opportunity for Goffman to enter and analyze the world of the gamblers. Performing regularly as a blackjack dealer at the Station Plaza Casio in Las Vegas, Erving, later promoted as a Pit Boss, it turned out that he had seriously considered to do an ethnographic work and completed a research project on the social life of gamblers. It was just sad to know that none of his works relative to this area was published.
It was not all however well and good for Goffman. Behind his success in his career, he had experienced a tragic end of his wife’s life when the latter killed herself in 1964. It was after this event that Goffman’s tragic life behind his success was revealed especially his pains in taking care of his mentally-ill wife. All of his pains, frustrations and bitterness on the death of his beloved wife have been reflected in his book entitled “The Insanity of Place” which was published five years after the death of his wife.
At the time he was probably recovering from losing his wife, Goffman spent time working at the Harvard Center for International Affairs with Thomas Schelling from 1966. Two years after, he had to resign from the University of Berkeley as a professor. In 1968 he was appointed as the Benjamin Franklin Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Because his appointment was opposed by the faculty of the sociology department of the said institution, he was transferred to the office of the Anthropological Museum where he enjoyed working.
While working at the Museum, Erving had productive time as evidenced by several, and well-noted books were published in his name. In 1969, he published Strategic Interaction with his other two papers in game theory, Relations in Public in 1971, Frame Analysis in 1974, Gender Advertisements in 1979 and Forms of Talk in 1981. After having his daughter Alice with his new wife Gillian Sankoff whom he married in 1981, Erving died of stomach cancer on November 20, 1982. At age 60, Goffman could have written and published more books should he not had cancer.
In fact he was just been elected as the President of the American Sociological Association on the year of his death. He was not able to deliver his presidential address which he prepared for several weeks. Nonetheless, his draft was read at the annual meeting of the said organization which he had entitled “The Interaction Order. ” One of the most controversial works of Goffman was his “Gender Advertisements” where most critics regarded it as a picture gallery and a magazine rather than a book. With about 500 advertising and news photographs, I would have to personally agree with them.
For others however, it is unique and distinctive sociological work that “represents a rare and exemplary instance of an empirical study which treats photographic materials as data, worthy of analysis in their own right, and not merely a handy illustrative resource intended only to vivify the serious business of analysis accomplished by the written text” (Ball & Smith, 1992). Gender Advertisements is actually album-sized book, with 56 of its 84 pages contains sets of photographs arranged in a way that they are supposed to be read if it they are in magazines and where each set has a commentary.
First published in the United Kingdom, Gender Advertisements gained wide controversy with its cover “featuring two female models posed in a manner contrived to be alluring to the male gaze” (V. Gornick, 1979, p. 18). Other critics regarded it as an example of “the use of women as sex-objects to promote the sale and Goffman made use of some useful hints in this study of the advertiser’s trade” (P. Hunt, 1980, p. 443). Despite this, I regarded the book, although it did not look like based on its size and bulk picture contents, as something worth an objective analysis of what it had to say about human life.
Gender Advertisements had in its own right established its purpose of revealing the realities of advertising trade and that those exploited pictures show evidences of gender role stereotyping. What could have been the reasons for its gained controversy are the interests of those in the advertising trade in using such as a communicative process. One of the bad realities in the world is that once you got something done that touches the interests, or ego of the others, you will surely have to face and endure the pains of skepticism because what it more painful is to hear the truth.
For Goffman, “the differential treatment of males and females is often justified by folk beliefs which presume some essential biological differences between the sexes” (Gornick, p. 55). He however stressed that biology has nothing to do or at least cannot explain nor determine social practices. He sees biological and natural consequences relative to the differences between male and female as mere excuses for honoring and producing such differences.
In his book “Behavior in Public Places” published in 1963, Goffman established the three types of co-presence namely: gathering, situation and social occasion. Goffman regarded “gathering” as the coming together of two or more persons while “situation” happens when there the mutual monitoring of the persons involved. On the other hand, a “social occasion” takes place when there is the presence of the props or special equipment and is bounded by time and space. From here, we can already see how Goffman’ background in theatre arts had influenced his work and they way he sees human existence.
Meanwhile, the significance of such types of co-presence identified by Goffman is that they each present a “pattern of communication traffic order” which he termed as “situational properties” (Goffman, Erving 1963, p. 24). In all these situations, Goffman saw the necessity of interaction, either as “focused on unfocused” wherein people read each other through body idiom and perceived involvement (Goffman, p. 14). He also recognized the presence of the dominant and subordinate groups involved in such interactions and the attention one draws against the other.
These are actually simple observations of the daily routine of people yet these simple interactions are realities of life that only few like Goffman paid attention to. Moreover these simple observations are realities from which we can base our analysis of more complex situations. In short, Goffman has done the simple and the basic for us to have a building block to understand the more complicated ones. Probably a product of his working experience with Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, Asylum was one of Goffman’s still controversial works.
It was regarded as “highly unusual: it provides very little detailed information about the hospital; rather it conveys a ‘tone of life’ (Fine and Martin 1990, p. 93). This book featured the “moral career of the mental patient” because it contained an analysis of his life as a pre-patient, an in-patient and his being an ex-patient” (Ibid, p. 89). According to Goffman, a mental patient’s life begins with the “betrayal funnel” wherein the family and the people he is most closed with conspire against him by questioning his actions.
These people then decide to have the patient to be housed in the mental institution where everything in their daily lives will be regulated and any violation of such rules will be punished. Those whom the psychiatrists have seen good behavior will be transferred to the ward system indicating an improvement. Goffman’s observation that mental institutions are “forcing houses” for changing people can be justifiable based on the mentioned processes. They are actually being forced to changes because primarily they are subject to rules and regulations of the institution thereby losing their innate freedom to decide for themselves.
However, I would argue that these people are subjected to such rules and with their state of mind, they cannot obviously decide for themselves, or if they can, it would not likely be good for them. The book was controversial because Goffman attacked the procedures psychiatrists undergo in treating the mental patients that such procedures are considered by Goffman as a mere “misunderstanding” of the patients’ behaviors which psychiatrists regarded as evidences of mental illness (Manning, Philip 1992, p. 183).
The same concepts and theories lay in his book Stigma which was published in 1963. Stigma, according to Goffman is a ‘deeply discrediting’ attribute in the context of a set of relationships (Goffman, 1963 p. 3). In this book, he has identified three types of stigma as abominations of the body, blemishes of character and tribal stigma (ibid, p. 4). In his analysis, stigmatized persons try to make use of techniques in controlling information. What is bad about it is that these techniques are discrediting and undisclosed and therefore can cause damage to the person.
Such damaging information, according to Goffman is “critical for three aspects of our identity: the ‘personal’, the ‘social’ and the ‘ego’ (ibid, p. 57). Goffman defined “personal identity as those attributes that make us unique with that of the others while our social identity is what others understand about us, identified by the characteristics of the group by which we belong. On the other hand, our ego identity refers to what we think about ourselves (Ibid, p. 69).
In the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life published in 1959, Goffman’s theatre arts engagement is more evident wherein he lay out six general themes of human beings’ face-to-face interaction. The central themes in the book are: the performance, the team, the region, discrepant roles, communication out of character and the impression management (Barnhart, Adam, 1994). In this book, Goffman considered human beings as “performers enacting rehearsed lines and roles in places that are carefully constructed in order to maximize the potential for deception” (Blackwood, Diane B. 997).
Goffman’s ten year effort of writing Frame Analysis is worth the sweat as it was considered his crowning achievement when published in 1974 (Manning, Philip 1992, p. 121). In this book, Erving plotted human experiences into frames wherein an organizational experience could have been a joke, a lesson, an invitation or a warning. Goffman also emphasized that in human experience, actions which he called frames can be misleading since not all what people sees as for example a fight can only in fact a joke, or vice versa.
In short, there are actions that can only be considered as fabrications. The same theme as with the Frame Analysis, Goffman published another book entitled “Forms of Talk” in 1981. It has five essays that convey only one theme: the footing of talk which is portrayed or displayed by the person during his course of conversation with others. In Frame Analysis, Goffman has integrated the concepts of individual and social behavior while analyzing the interaction of both.
As one writer saw this work as something that has a direct correlation with Perceptual Control Theory because of the presence of concepts of “acts” although Goffman considered them as “guided doings” (Miller, Dan E. ). Miller stressed that Goffman wanted to emphasize the fact that the actions of a person are guided by their expected or desired results of such actions. “A serial management of consequentiality is sustained, that is, continuous corrective control, becoming most apparent when action is unexpectedly blocked or deflected and special compensatory effort is required” (Goffman, 1974 p. 2).
It is just surprising to know that Goffman insisted on his non-interest in understanding individual behavior rather on social behaviors. However Goffman might have realized that he has to in his statement: “I assume that the proper study of interaction is not the individual and his psychology … None the less, since it is individual actors who contribute the ultimate materials, it will always be reasonable to ask what general properties they must have if this sort of contribution is to be expected of them” (Goffman 1974, p. 2).
One critic of Goffman however argued that “it takes a self – not necessarily an ethnomethodologist or a sociologist – to see a self” (Travers, Andrew 1997). Travers further argued that it is first important to know the public self before one could fully understand the whole of society. This however makes sense of the issue. According to Travers, it not at all scientific to analyze the self by seeing others and then compare these to his own. In my opinion, it still make sense to compare one’s self to others in order to clearly see what makes him or her different or the same with others.
I would say that an assurance of objective evaluation of the self is hard to attain if Travers is suggesting that it does not take an expert (sociologist or ethnomethodologist) to make the analysis. Let us say that I see myself as morally upright because I have compared myself with that of the criminals. But if I am to compare myself with those who does not even take the courage to lie, then I might come up with a different evaluation of myself. The point is, there is subjectivity in comparing oneself to others so it really takes someone who is more qualified to understand what is really going on with the self.
Erving Goffman, however controversial his works maybe, had been generally a man worthy of noting in the history of sociology. Although he had undoubtedly, as had been presented in this paper, gained too many criticisms in his ideas and concepts on human experiences, what he had conceptualized and written were realities of life that man has somehow had to accept. Working mostly on typical and everyday human interaction, Goffman was able to present complex analyses of simple events that became bases for others in the same field.
We have also observed that his works primarily was influenced by his personal experiences as a boy rose in a poor family, worked hard and became economically and academically successful. His developed interests in theatre arts had him benefited in analyzing facts of life of which he regarded as stage play where human beings are actor and actresses in a stage play with different and distinctive roles. Goffman in his own right has been a successful man in his own field. For those who are in the same field, Goffman had contributed a lot it the development of modern sociological theories which are evidently being used today.