By Eliot Freidson,
Contemporary Sociology, 12 (4) July, 1983: 359-362
This paper was read at a memorial session for Erving Goffman
at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting in Baltimore, March 4, 1983.
I was asked to discuss his early work.Others discussed his later work.

 I believe that there is an unfathomable mystery in the relationship between biography and the work of creative people. I do not want to speculate about that in Goffman's case, and I certainly do not want to engage in some highbrow version of reminiscent gossip. Rather, what I want to do is to make some comments about what I see in his work in and of itself. I shall address myself to his early work: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums, and Stigma. And I want to make three points. First, Goffman's early work is focused on the individual self, in a world that at once creates and oppresses it. Second, Goffman's work is intensely moral in character, marked by a passionate defense of the self against society. And third, Goffman's work has no systematic relationship to abstract academic theory and provides no encouragement to attempts to advance such theory. What gives Goffman's work a value that will endure far longer than most sociology is its intense individual humanity and its style. Let me elaborate each of these points in its turn.

Above all, in these early works we can see Erving Goffman as the ethnographer of the self. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life he provides us with an introduction to the sustenance of the self in only normally problematic situations--in the social establishments that are part of everyday life, interaction with people who are reasonably well equipped and well inclined to collaborate in sustaining mutually agreeable definitions of self. Individuals work their performance so as to provide others with the materials by which they infer that a creditable self confronts them. The self is seen as the product of the various means by which it is produced and maintained. In Goffman's summary words, there are the "back region with its tools for shaping the body, and a front region with its fixed props. There will be a team of persons whose activity on stage in conjunction with available props will constitute the scene from which the performed character's self will emerge, and another team, the audience, whose interpretive activity will be necessary for this enterprise. The self is a product of all of those arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis." (p. 253)

Goffman's language in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is very cool, with sufficient irony on occasion to seem more amused than sympathetic. There is a sense of detachment, not engagement. The very use of the vocabulary of the stage gives the impression of insincerity and contrivance on the part of the participants. So it is no wonder that this work is often characterized as cynical by naive commentators. Few are likely to see it as a celebration of the self; more likely is the view that it is at least neutrally a dissection , or more actively an exposé of social manners. But such reactions are superficial and unjust because in this book Goffman analyzes the ordinary , everyday people in everyday life, circumstances in which personal ruin is more literary than real, in which the price to be paid for failure is not much greater than embarrassment, circumstances in which efforts to sustain creditable selves are largely successful. In contrast, there are circumstances in which the self is profoundly threatened, in which it is attacked and discredited and its actual survival put to doubt. It is in those circumstances that Goffman shifts his stance and creates an eloquent and passionate assertion of the dignity and value of the self and a defense of its right to resist the social world even when, from the observer's point of view, it resists what may be for its own good.

We are all familiar with Goffman's work in Asylums , and especially his notion of the total institution as a "forcing house for changing persons, as a natural experiment on what can be done to the self" (p. 12). In everyday life in a civil environment--that is, in the home world--one can work at sustaining one's identity with one's cohabitants of social establishments because, by and large, they collaborate in the enterprise and honor one's effort to do so. But in the total institution the inmate is separated from ordinary collaborators and interacts with a staff that requires different terms for collaboration. Inmates are subjected to a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of their selves and a withdrawal of all the physical and social supports that once sustained them.

The process is carried out in the name of God, or Country, or in the name of Justice or Cure, all exalted names and exalted goals. Decent people cannot contest the goal of transforming the slack, casually sinful civilian into a dedicated servant of God or Country or the People, nor can they disapprove of the reformation of the criminal and the cure of the insane so that they can be returned to everyday life as "useful" citizens. Nor does Goffman disapprove. What he documents, however, is the self's resistance to its stripping. The self struggles against its transformation, it perversely insists on preserving some portion of its familiar substance. He points out that inmates practice secondary adjustments that do not directly challenge the staff of the total institution but that, by seeking forbidden satisfactions, assert that they are still their own persons, still with some control over their environment, control apart from God, Country, Party, or whatever. In characterizing the self's struggle, Goffman employs a number of phrases--"expressed distance," "holding off from fully embracing all the self-implications of its affiliation, allowing some . . . disaffection to be seen, even while fulfilling. . . major obligations," and perhaps most precisely, "a defaulting not from prescribed activity, but from prescribed being" (p. 188, italics added).

Goffman argues that "it is . . . against something that the self can emerge. . . Without something to belong to, we have no stable self, and yet total commitment and attachment to any social unit implies a kind of selflessness. Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wider social unit; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks [p. 320]" And so it is that "whenever worlds are laid on, under-lives develop" (p. 305). Those under-lives are to be found everywhere in ordinary life, but they are most apparent "when existence is cut to the bone" (ibid.), as in total institutions. In such institutions the self does not triumph because its survival is hidden, in the cracks, but it does survive, and in surviving constitutes however modestly a "movement of liberty" (ibid.).

Goffman documents, even celebrates that modest movement of liberty, that tenacity of the self to be what it is and resist prescribed being. He also takes its side and grants deep respect to its need to express distance. He becomes its defender as well as its observer. His compassion for mental patients and his rage at psychiatry stems from defense of the self. While all total institutions attack the self in the course of attempting to reconstruct it, Goffman feels that only the psychiatric institution leaves no possibility for expressed distance. In this it is even more destructive of the self than a concentration camp, for it converts efforts to resist the pull, efforts to be against something, into cooperative acts. The mental patient is robbed "of the common expressions through which people hold off the embrace of organizations: insolence, silence, sotto voce remarks. . .; these signs of disaffection are now read as signs of their maker's proper affiliation. Under those conditions all adjustments are primary" (p. 306). That is to say, the meaning of those acts is transformed from the defiance the inmate wishes to display, albeit cautiously, into mere symptoms of sickness, confirmation of inmate status.

Goffman's stance is not cool or cynical here. It is one of morally absolute outrage. Like the opponent of capital punishment or torture, he does not defend the inmate's pre-patient sins and argue bum rap. Instead he argues the absolute inhumanity of the treatment. He argues that no matter how crazy or murderous a human being has been, to strip the self from the person without allowing some expressed distance is as inhuman as it is to flay the skin from the body, or to hang, shoot, electrocute, or gas the body. Such means of punishment or treatment cannot be justified by the goal of retribution or even salvation.

Less dramatic than stripping but equally stained morally is the process leading to institutionalization. In the moral career of the mental patient Goffman documents with both bitterness and compassion the "betrayal funnel" through which pre-patients are drawn, their retrospective discovery that while they were cooperating with others so as to spare them pain, discomfort, or embarrassment, those others were stripping them of their civilian rights, and satisfactions. And discovering that those with whom they had intimate personal relations could no longer be assumed to be trustworthy, that they have betrayed them.

Stigma leads us from the total institution back to everyday life, but now we are armed with a vision of how the self can be deeply discredited even if not entirely destroyed. Stigma is [as it were] "The Presentation of Discredited Self in Everyday Life." Inside Nathaniel West's Desperate, born without a nose; inside Mr. Doyle, the cripple; inside all the discredited people Miss Lonelyhearts took to herself are selves seeking what they discover to be the privilege of acceptance. "Those who have dealings with [them] fail to accord [them] the respect and regard which the uncontaminated aspects of [their] social identity have led them to anticipate extending, and have led [them] to anticipate receiving; [they echo] this denial by finding that some of [their] own attributes warrant it" (pp. 8-9).

In Stigma Goffman focuses primarily on the information the stigmatized convey about themselves in mixed contacts with normals, on their attempt to project or protect the self they believe they have, and on how "we normals" respond to their discredited features and encourage their adoption of a good adjustment. The analysis is cool, ironic. But the commentary on the analysis is not cool: "The good-adjustment line. . . means that the unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to [normals]; it means that normals will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is; and it means that normals can remain relatively uncontaminated by intimate contact with the stigmatized, [remain] relatively unthreatened in their [own] identity beliefs. It is just from these meanings, in fact, that the specifications of a good adjustment derive" (p. 121).

I trust I have said enough to make my case. Everyone knows that Goffman is indeed a cool analyst of the self, of the way it sustains itself in the everyday world, and of the way it forges itself by setting itself apart from and against the world. "Impression management," "managing spoiled identity," "secondary adjustments," and "ways of making out" are all phrases of his dealing with the sustenance and assertion of the individual's self in interaction with the others who both create and threaten it. We all know that. But what is much less often acknowledged is Goffman's deep moral sensibility, the compassion he displays for those whose selves are attacked, whose identities are spoiled, whom the social world through its ordinary members and its official agents, seeks to shape to its convenience. In all this Goffman is as much moralist as analyst, and a celebrant and defender of the self against society rather than, as might be expected of a sociologist who cites Durkheim, a celebrant of society and social forces.

And this brings me to my last point. When all is said and done, I believe that Goffman's work lives and will live not as a contribution to the development of systematic sociological theory but rather as a contribution to human consciousness. Though his work creates and plays with sociological concepts rather than character, plot, mood, or consciousness, it is as concrete and revelatory as fiction. To take Goffman as a source for abstract and systematic theory is false to the substance and spirit of his work. On the matter of what some might now call dramaturgical theory, for example, let us remember the next-to-last page of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , where he somewhat playfully reveals that the conceptual framework of the book, using the language of stagecraft, is "in part rhetoric and maneuver. The claim that all the world's a stage . . . is not to be taken too seriously." "The language and mask of the stage" is a mere intellectual scaffold, and "scaffolds, after all, are to build other things with, and should be erected with an eye to taking them down." Concepts, yes, but not theories, and even in the case of concepts, let them be provisional, to be discarded when their immediate purpose is served. Let us not puff them up too self-importantly.

Furthermore, let us remember that in his introduction to Asylums , perhaps to hide an apology for the fact that it is composed of four essays rather than being an integrated book, Goffman argues that writing separate essays allows him to approach the central issue from different vantage points, drawing on different sources in sociology. In justification he pleads the status of the discipline and adds, "I think that at present, if sociological concepts are to be treated with affection, each must be traced back to where it best applies, followed from there wherever it seems to lead, and pressed to disclose the rest of its family. Better, perhaps, different coats to clothe the children well than a single, splendid tent in which they all shiver" (pp. xiii-viv; italics added). So much for general theory, for theoretical schools, for epigones.

I see no reason to believe that this stance toward theorizing changed in Goffman's later work. Indeed, in his most recent work, his Presidential Address, he is quite clear in his rejection of the value of "deep systematic analysis," and of the "engaging optimism of taking one of a number of different sources of blindness and bias as central to curing the ills of sociology." We are left with Erving Goffman's own self-as-sociologist, not a theory or even the basis for a theory. We are left with his struggle to assert his self as sociologist against the seductive resistance of the conventions of the world. We see him employing with imagination and passion any resources that seem useful to illuminate aspects of human life that most of us overlook and to show us more of humanity there than we could otherwise see.

Literature cited:

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

_______________. 1961. Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

_______________. 1963. Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

_______________ . 1983. "The interaction order" (American Sociological Association 1982 Presidential Address). American Sociological Review 48: 1-17.