Goffman, Erving (19221982)
Dictionary Home
AnthroBase Home
Bookmark, cite or print this page

American micro-sociologist, based at the University of Chicago. In the late 1950's, Goffman pioneered a dramaturgic or performance-oriented approach to interpersonal communication, where individuals and groups perform for each other - as on a stage - when they meet (1959). Their meetings take place on the stage (or frontstage); before and after these encounters, however, they retire from the stage (go backstage) to prerpare and assimilate their frontstage performances. Frontstage, the performing groups are each other's audiences. The stage contains a number of means that are utilized in the performance, such as props, scenery etc., but the main means of controlling one's performance is impression management - the control of the signals one "gives" (consciously, directly) and "gives off" (unconsciously, indirectly) to one's audience. Goffman remarks on the difficulties of controlling the impressions one gives off, and shows that there is often a contradiction between the "giving" and the "giving off" of impressions. Goffman also studied, from a similar perspective, various institutions, particularly the so-called "total institutions" (prisons, hospitals etc.) (1962), and the stigmatization of deviance (1963). Later, Goffman's work grew more complex and focused increasingly on the reflexive and contradictory nature of human interaction (1967, 1974). He focused on the mutual self-consciousness of interacting subjects, and on such processes as embarrassment, deference and demeanor, and situations in which the actor is "alienated" from interaction.

(The intense reflexivity that characterizes Goffman's later work was implicit in his earlier work as well. It is clear, for example, that the frontstage-backstage dichotomy is relative to situation, and that what is frontstage from one perspective is backstage from another and vice versa: A teacher who retires from his frontstage performance in class to the backstage of the teacher's room, is, from another perspective, still frontstage, since he does not recount his blunders in class to his colleagues. From this perspective, indeed, the situation in class is backstage.)

Goffman's influence on anthropology has been constant throughout the next decades. In the 1950's and 60's his work quickly crossed the Atlantic, and became a source of inspiration for the transactionalist and methodological individualist authors (e.g. Barth) that were then making their mark in British anthropology. In the 1970's, his meticulous micro-approach influenced the debates on methods and fieldwork that were then arising. In the 1980's and 90's, his perspective harmonized well with the "anthropology of performance" proposed by Victor Turner, and embraced by many anthropologists in this period.


Sample quote.


To browse texts on AnthroBase dealing with Erving Goffman, see:
http://www.anthrobase.com/Browse/Cit/G/erving_goffman.htm