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Erving Goffman

20th-century Sociologist
Born June 11, 1922(1922-06-11)
Mannville, Alberta, Canada
Died November 19, 1982 (aged 60)
Philadelphia, PA, United States
Cause of death Cancer
Education St. John's Technical High School,

University of Manitoba B.Sc., University of Toronto B.A.,

University of Chicago M.A., Ph.D.,

Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922 – November 19, 1982), was a Canadian sociologist and writer.

The 73rd president of American Sociological Association, Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction in the form of dramaturgical perspective that began with his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In 2007 Goffman was listed as the 6th most-cited intellectual in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide, behind Anthony Giddens and ahead of Jürgen Habermas.[1]



Goffman was born in the Canadian village of Mannville, Alberta, in 1922. He was the younger brother of actress Frances Bay. He originally graduated from the University of Manitoba with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Later, while he was working for the National Film Board in Ottawa, he developed his interest in sociology. It was also during this time that he met Dennis Wrong who was a renowned North American sociologist at the time. This meeting worked as a motivation to leave Manitoba and enroll at the University of Toronto, where he graduated with a B.A. in sociology and anthropology in 1945. Afterwards, he moved on to the University of Chicago and received his M.A. and Ph.D for sociology, in 1949 and 1953 respectively.

Goffman as a Sociologist

Goffman was one of the greatest North American sociologists of his generation. Along with many other sociologists of his cohort, he was heavily influenced by George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer in developing his theoretical framework. Goffman studied at the University of Chicago with Everett Hughes, Edward Shils, and W. Lloyd Warner. He would go on to pioneer the study of face-to-face interaction, or micro-sociology, elaborate the "dramaturgical approach" to human interaction, and develop numerous concepts that would have a massive influence.

Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his formulation of symbolic interaction as dramaturgical perspective in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which begins with an epigraph by George Santayana about masks. Largely working within the tradition of symbolic interactionism, he greatly elaborated on its central concepts and application. For Goffman, society is not homogeneous. We must act differently in different settings. The context we have to judge is not society at large, but the specific context. Goffman suggests that life is a sort of theater, but we also need a parking lot and a cloak room: there is a wider context lying beyond the face-to-face symbolic interaction. "Throughout Presentation of Self, Goffman seems to perceive the individual as nothing more than a cog responsible for the maintenance of the social world by playing his or her part. In fact, he refers to the self as a 'peg' upon which 'something of a collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time.'"[2]

Author of the rigorous, then-controversial, and highly influential text Asylums, for which he gathered information at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C., he describes "institutionalization" as a response by patients to the bureaucratic structures and mortification processes of total institutions such as mental hospitals, prisons, and concentration camps. The NIMH tried to persuade Goffman not to publish his book because of its criticism of mental institutions. He always considered himself a social scientist, and did not use phenomenology or postmodernism as his major epistemological approach. He also was a sociologist who emphasized that "society always comes first".

He also wrote Frame analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior,Forms of Talk and many other books and essays. Many of his works form the basis for the sociological and media studies concept of framing.


The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

This was Goffman’s first and most famous book. It was also the first book to treat face-to-face interaction as a subject to study in the sociological aspect. This book received the American Sociological Association’s MacIver award in 1961. Goffman treated this book as a kind of report in which he frames out the theatrical performance that applies to face-to-face interactions. He believed that when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person that the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual.[3] Goffman also believed that all participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others. This led to Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis. Goffman saw a connection between the kinds of acts that people put on in their daily life and theatrical performances. In social interaction, like in theatrical performance there is a front region where the “actors” (individuals) are on stage in front of the audiences. This is where positive aspect of the idea of self and desired impressions are highlighted. There is a back region or stage which can also be considered as a hidden or private place where the individual can be themselves and get rid of their role or identity in society.[4]

Interaction Ritual

This book is a collection of six of Goffman’s essays; the first four essays were published around the 1950s, the fifth is published in 1964, and the last essay was to finish the collection. His six essays are “On Face-work”, “Embarrassment and Social Organization”, “The Nature of Deference and Demeanor”, “Alienation from Interaction”, Mental Symptoms and Public Order” and “Where the Action Is”. Goffman's first essay, “On Face-work, focused on the concept of face, which is the positive image of self that individuals have when interacting with others. Goffman believed that face “as a sociological construct of interaction, is neither inherent in nor permanent aspect of the person”. [5] Once an individual gives out a positive self image of themselves to others they then feel a need to keep or live up to that set image. When individuals are inconsistent with how they project themselves in society, they risk being embarrassed or discredited, therefore the individual remains consistently guarded, making sure that they do not show themselves in an unfavorable way to others.

Frame Analysis

This book was Goffman's way of trying to explain how conceptual frames structure the individual’s perception of the society; therefore, this book is about organization of experiences rather than organization of society. Frames organize the experiences and guide action for the individual and/or for everyone. Frame analysis, then, is the study of organization of social experiences. One example that Goffman used to help people better understand the concept is associating the frame with the concept of a picture frame. He used the picture frame concept to illustrate how people use the frame (which represents structure) to hold together their picture (which represents the context) of what they are experiencing in their life. [6] The most basic frames are called primary frameworks. These frameworks take an experience or an aspect of a scene of an individual that would originally be meaningless and make it to become meaningful. One type of primary framework is natural frameworks, which identifies situations that happened in the natural world, and is completely physical with no human influences. The other type of framework is social framework, which explains events and connects it to humans. An example of natural framework would be the weather and an example of social framework would be people the meteorologist who reports people with the weather forecast. [7] Goffman concentrates more on the frameworks and tries to “ construct a general statement regarding the structure, or form, of experiences individuals have at any moment of their social life” [8]


During his lifetime he was awarded the following:


During his career Goffman served at the following institutions:

He was also the 73rd president of American Sociological Association[9]


  • "Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way."[10]
  • "Man is not like other animals in the ways that are really significant: Animals have instincts, we have taxes."
  • "Society is an insane asylum run by the inmates."
  • "The world, in truth, is a wedding."
  • "Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity."
  • "So I ask that these papers be taken for what they merely are: exercises, trials, tryouts, a mean of displaying possibilities, not establishing facts."[11]
  • "The self ... is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented."[12]
  • "When persons are present to one another they can function not merely as physical instruments but also as communicative ones. This possibility, no less than the physical one, is fateful for everyone concerned and in every society appears to come under strict normative regulation, giving rise to a kind of communication traffic order..." [13]
  • "Approved attributes and their relation to face make every man his own jailer; this is a fundamental social constraint even though each man may like his cell.” [14]

Major works


  1. ^ "The most cited authors of books in the humanities". 2009-03-26. Retrieved 2009-11-16. 
  2. ^ Salerno, Beyond the Enlightenment (Greenwood Publishing, 2004), p. 183.
  3. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.35
  4. ^ George Ritzer, Sociological Theory (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008)pg.372
  5. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003) pg.37
  6. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.39
  7. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.40
  8. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.40
  9. ^ ASA Bio note. Last accessed on 14 January 2006.
  10. ^ Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1959), p. 13.
  11. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.34
  12. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.55
  13. ^ Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford University Press, 1992)pg.88
  14. ^ Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)pg.37

Further Reading

  • Burns, Tom (1992). Erving Goffman . London ; New York : Routledge. (ISBN 0-415-06492-9, ISBN 0-415-06772-3).
  • Ditton, Jason (1980). The View of Goffman, New York : St. Martin’s Press (ISBN 0312845981).
  • Drew, Paul & Wootton, Anthony (1988). “Erving Goffman : Exploring the Interaction Order” . Boston : Northeastern University Press. (ISBN 1-55553-037-0).
  • Manning, Philip (1992). Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology, Stanford, CA. : Stanford University Press. (ISBN 0-8047-2025-8, ISBN 0-8047-2026-6).
  • Scheff, Thomas (2006). “Goffman Unbound! : A New Paradigm for Social Science”, Boulder, CL. : Paradigm Publishers. (ISBN 1-59451-195-0).
  • Trevino, A. Javier (2003). Goffman’s Legacy, Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (ISBN0742519775, ISBN 0-7425-1978-3).

External links


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