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Erving Goffman

Dylan Morrongiello

Introduction to Sociology Dr. Kerry Berner February 19, 2012

Word Count: 1396

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Dylan Morrongiello Dr. Berner Introduction to Sociology 19 February 2012 Erving Goffman Erving Goffman was a major influence in the field of sociology. He is most well known for his work regarding his sociological paradigm of dramaturgy. Using his paradigm of dramaturgy, Goffman describes how ordinary individuals give performances, control their scripts, and enter settings that make up their lives (Carl 20). In this theory, it is argued that human actions and behavior are dependent upon time, place, and audience. People try to portray a certain social image, which may change based on these previously stated variables.

Erving Goffman was born in Manville, Alberta, Canada, on June 11, 1922 to a family of Ukrainian Jews. Goffman spent three years in high school before he graduated and began attending classes at the University of Manitoba, chemistry being his major subject. After being inspired by famous American sociologist Dennis Wrong, he developed an interest in sociology, and transferred to the University of Toronto where he graduated with his BA in sociology in 1945. After finishing his bachelors degree, he attended the University of Chicago where he received his MA and PhD in both sociology and social anthropology. Erving Goffman served as president of the American Sociological Association from 1981 to 1982. While working on his doctorate, Goffman spent a year on one of the Shetland Islands researching and gathering material for his dissertation, and now wildly popular book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which was published in 1959 and is now available in at least ten different languages

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(Blackwood). In 1958, Goffman joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. Then, in 1968, he became the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. During his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Goffman was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

Most of what we know about Goffmans sociological views comes from his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman was a symbolic interactionist, meaning that he believed that the root of society comes from its symbols and that society is fluid and always changing (Carl 18). There are several concepts that need to be separately understood, in order to be able to understand symbolic interactionism as a whole. These concepts include the selfconcept (the I and me), the object (or self as an object), role-taking, looking-glass self, and the definition of situation (Aldiabat 1064).

The self, in the symbolic interactionism perspective, is defined as a very complex process that involves the constant communication of the I and me phenomena. According to George Herbert Mead, who was also a famous sociologist, as well as the creator of symbolic interactionism, the I is a reaction of humans to the attitudes and actions of others. Mead also suggested that the I was the human subject, while the me was a human object. This means that the I gives humans a sense of freedom and independence regarding their behaviors, and the me represents a generalized other that may affect a humans behavior. This generalized other could be an individual, a social group, an organized community, or even a social class (Mead 154). These generalized others arise out of social interaction, making them incredibly crucial to the symbolic interactionism perspective.

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The object, in the symbolic interactionism perspective, is defined as anything that can be indicatedpointed to, or referred to (Blumer 10). Through this definition, objects can be classified into three separate groups: physical objects, social objects, and abstract objects. Physical objects are objects than can physically affect a person or society, such as a chair or a house. Social objects are objects that make up a society, and therefore affect it, such as a friend or a co-worker. Abstract objects are objects that make up an individual, thereby affecting that individuals society, such as principles and morals. The social meanings of these objects are the most important predictors for human behaviors (Aldiabat 1065). These social meanings, however, are not permanent by any means. According to John Carls definition of symbolic interactionism, society is fluid and always changing, and varies from culture to culture, typically depending on the use of the object (Carl 18). The meaning of an object arises from the way human beings prepare themselves to act toward the symbol (Blumer 10). Promoting this point even further, humans define objects based on the context of a situation, or the type of action or behavior they are about to perform. Meaning is not inherent in an object, but constantly changes based on its context or by the cultural implications associated with the object.

Role-taking is defined as the process of interaction in which a human becomes an object himself or herself (Mead 154). Role-taking involves an individual to imagine how a society, or the generalized other, sees him. This concept of role-taking is very fundamental to Erving Goffmans theory of dramaturgy, which is a theory of interaction in which all life is like acting (Carl 20). Goffman utilizes this theory to compare social interactions to actors on a stage. According to dramaturgy, people act based on how they want to be viewed in their society,

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fundamentally taking on a role. This theory should not be misconstrued to say that people are faking their social interactions, but rather people are concerned about what their society thinks about them, thereby interacting with society based on that image. These social actors enter every social situation with two possible identities or roles. The first role, the performer, uses impression management to determine the impressions that he or she makes on a generalized other. This may cause an individual to begin to act, or perform a role, known as the front stage. The front stage is what the audience sees, most likely never knowing the actual reality of a persons existence (Carl 75). In opposition to the front stage, backstage demeanor is comprised of an individuals true feelings and beliefs. It is very rare for a person to present their backstage identity. Because of this phenomenon, Goffman advises that we distrust most of what we see in other people because almost every social interaction is front stage behavior (Carl 75).

The looking-glass self was theorized by Charles H. Cooley. Cooley defined the self as any idea or system of ideas with which is associated the appropriate attitude we call self feeling (Cooley 244). Cooley brought about the idea that humans define themselves as a result of their imagination and their emotions to reflect attitudes of others.

The definition of situation is also a very important concept in symbolic interactionism. Through development, humans have acquired an ability to create and define situations through symbols (Aldiabat 1067). This process is very powerful because defining a situation allows one to cause a situation to be represented to one in a deeply personal manner, meaning that a human being responds to a situation based solely on the way they interpret the situation, or the manner in which the situation is presented to them.

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Though Erving Goffman is mostly noted for his theory of dramaturgy, he is also known for several other theories and research projects in the sociological world. In the 1970s, Goffman served on the Committee for the Study of Incarceration, which was based on his work Asylum: Essays in the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, and also served as a visiting scientist to the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, where he began the research required to write his book (Blackwood). This book is a sociological analysis of social structure in producing conforming environments, such as those found in mental asylums and prisons.

Goffmans main research-related method was ethnographic study, which is the use of observation and participation instead of statistical data analysis (Blackwood). Goffman wrote a series of eleven books focusing on the observation of human beings in social interactions, the most famous of these books being Relations in Public, which focuses on human behaviors in group-related social situations, such as a crowded bus or a busy room.

Goffman was very important to the emerging study of sociology in America, especially in the symbolic interactionism perspective. His theories and observations regarding social interaction are still highly regarded in the academic world and are cited by many professors and academics the world over. Goffmans studies are still being studied by students of sociology today. His legacy has carried on for generations and will continue to do so.

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Works Cited Aldiabat, Khaldoun M., and Carole-Lynne Le Navenec. Philosophical roots of classical grounded theory: its foundations in symbolic interactionism. The Qualitative Report, 2011. Web. Blackwood, B. Diane. Erving Goffman. Magills Guide to 20th Century Authors. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1997. Web. Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: University of California Press, 1969. Web. Carl, John D. Think Sociology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc, 2011. Print. Cooley, Charles H. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York, NY: Charles Scribners Sons, 1902. Web. Mead, George H. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1934. Web.

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