Dining on the frontstage. Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum


The magic of the mundane

Pioneering sociologist Erving Goffman realised that every action is deeply revealing of the social norms by which we live

by Lucy McDonald + BIO

Dining on the frontstage. Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum

Think back to the last time you fell over in a public place. What did you do next? Perhaps you immediately righted yourself and carried on exactly as before. I bet you didn’t, though. I bet you first stole a furtive glance at your surroundings to see if there were witnesses. If there were, then you may well have bent over and inspected the ground as if to figure out why you tripped, even if you already knew why. Or maybe you smiled or laughed to yourself or uttered a word like ‘Oops!’ or ‘Damn’. At the very least, I bet your heart rate increased.

These behaviours seem irrational. If you were uninjured, why do anything at all after the stumble? For some reason, such public mishaps – stumbling, knocking something over, spilling something, pushing a ‘pull’ door, realising you’ve gone the wrong way and turning around – provoke an anxiety that compels us to engage in curious behaviours.

This is because, the sociologist Erving Goffman shows us, there is nothing simple about passing through a public space. Instead, we are always expected to reassure strangers around us that we are rational, trustworthy and pose no threat to the social order. We do this by conforming to all manner of invisible rules, governing, for example, the distance we maintain from one another, where we direct our eyes and how we carry ourselves. These complex rules help us understand ourselves and one another. Break such a rule, and you threaten a ‘jointly maintained base of ready mutual intelligibility’.

When you fall over, you fail to comport yourself in an acceptable way, and so immediately pose a threat. ‘Is she dangerously out of control?’ others might wonder. ‘Is she a menace?’ Fear of social punishment – from a dirty look to outright ostracisation – will prompt you to engage in what Goffman calls ‘remedial work’, an attempt to show that you’re not a problem after all.

Looking at the ground signals that you didn’t choose to move strangely – you were subject to an unexpected obstacle. Smiling signals that you see the incident ‘as a joke, something quite uncharacteristic’. And swearing signals that, since you can use language, you are compos mentis, and that your fall was a blip in an otherwise ordinary life. In performing such a ‘normalcy show’, you re-establish yourself as an insider, and order is restored.

Goffman realised that behaviours of this kind, much as they might feel like it, are not the results of idiosyncratic anxieties, of excessive self-consciousness or awkwardness. Instead, they are sensible responses by people appropriately attuned to the complexities of the social world.

Goffman’s ‘microsociology’ reveals that even the most incidental of social interactions is of profound theoretical interest. Every encounter is shaped by social rules and social statuses; ‘whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will find that the fingertips of society have reached bluntly into the contact’. Such interactions contribute to our sense of self, to our relationships with others, and to social structures, which can often be deeply oppressive. Never mind the dealings of the courtroom, the senate, or the trading floor, it is in the mundane interactions of everyday life, Goffman thought, that ‘most of the world’s work gets done’.

Erving Goffman was born in 1922 in Alberta, Canada, to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. After completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, he began graduate studies in sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago. His fieldwork led him to Baltasound, a village on Unst in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. Here he developed his unique version of ethnography. The resulting thesis, ‘Communication Conduct in an Island Community’ (1953), displayed the innovative methods and perspective for which Goffman would become famous.

He described his research as a study ‘in a community’, not a study ‘of a community’. To understand a social world, he thought, you could not merely observe it; you must get inside it, be a participant observer. You must get so far inside it, he thought, that you ‘forget about being a sociologist’. Thus, from December 1949 to May 1951, he became a member of the Baltasound community; he attended auctions, weddings, funerals and concerts; he played billiards and whist with the locals; and he both dined and worked as a dishwasher at the local hotel. This immersive approach would become his modus operandi – famously, he would later work incognito in a psychiatric hospital to study its social rules.

Goffman used this methodology to pursue a novel research agenda. Leading sociologists at the time, such as Talcott Parsons, were interested in large-scale social structures, like economies, religions and political institutions. Goffman eschewed this macrosociology in favour of analysing minute face-to-face interactions. He examined, for example, how Baltasound locals greeted one another as they passed on the roads, how they changed their behaviour depending on whether they were among customers or colleagues, and how they dealt with social gaffes, such as getting someone’s name wrong.

Just as an actor behaves differently on stage from in the wings, so too does each of us depending on the context

In this PhD research, we find the kernel of Goffman’s most famous idea: that social interactions are governed by a complicated set of norms and expectations he called ‘the interaction order’. Understanding this interaction order was key, he thought, to understanding how humans develop individual and group identities, how relationships are formed and navigated, and how systems of exclusion and oppression form.

In perhaps his best-known book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), Goffman developed a dramaturgical analysis of interaction, taking seriously Shakespeare’s suggestion that ‘All the world’s a stage’. Just as an actor behaves differently on stage from in the wings, so too does each of us alter our behaviour depending on the context. When we are in the presence of others, we strive to present ourselves as occupying a particular social role, be that an employee, an employer, a teacher, a student, a neighbour. We use our bodies and our words to give off certain strategic information. Goffman called this ‘the frontstage’.

When we leave these social settings, we step out of our costumes and enter ‘the backstage’. The backstage typically involves barriers to perception – when in the wings of the theatre, the kitchen behind the restaurant, or the bathroom of the house hosting a dinner party, we are hidden from others, and no longer need to tightly control the image we give off. Sometimes the backstage infringes on the frontstage; we might be caught in a state of undress, or overheard muttering malevolently about a colleague. This causes acute embarrassment because the identity we try to cultivate on the frontstage is undermined.

Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor is sometimes misunderstood. He did not claim that we are all frauds constantly misrepresenting ourselves. Rather, his point was that being a member of society required constant work – a constant process of impression management, of making oneself intelligible to others through subtle cues and gestures. Just as a character in a play is the result of an actor’s hard graft, so too is a person’s identity the product of an ongoing creative project, performed to and with an audience.

This work remains pertinent today, when social media influencers have turned identity construction and curation into an art form. Goffman’s theatrical metaphor also finds echoes in the contemporary idea of gender as performance, developed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990) and elsewhere. Goffman was ahead of his time in noticing that identity is constructed not just through talk, but through the body. We express our identities not only in words but also in how we move and how we dress – or what Goffman calls our ‘body idiom’.

During his time on Unst, Goffman noticed that when the locals needed to disagree with one another, they would not simply reject a statement outright, but would soften the blow with a phrase such as ‘There’s something in what you say.’ In his later essay ‘On Face-Work’ (1955), he would characterise these tactful social manoeuvres as forms of ‘face-work’, attempts to save a person’s ‘face’. Building on ideas from Chinese society, Goffman characterised ‘face’ as the ‘positive social value’ a person constructs and claims for themselves in a social interaction.

It is OK to grin at an unknown child on a train – not so much at an unknown middle-aged man

We typically work hard to avoid undermining another’s ‘face’. For example, if we need to ask someone to do something, we show that we respect their autonomy by couching the request with ‘Do you mind if…’, ‘I’d be very grateful if you could…’, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but…’ All Brits will be familiar with the conversational move one makes when, from a sitting position, one slaps both hands on one’s thighs, and begins to stand up slowly – a movement sometimes accompanied by the utterance of ‘Right’. Why risk undermining your host’s face by saying ‘I’ve had enough of this and I want to leave’ when you can perform this little ritual instead?

We also respond quickly when a person risks losing face. If someone falls over or is caught in an unflattering state, we avert our gaze. If they are snubbed or insulted, we might apologise (if responsible), compliment them, or give them gifts and invitations. It is tempting to think that the primary goal of conversation is the exchange of information. Indeed, this remains an assumption in much contemporary philosophy of language. Goffman shows us that conversation is far more than this and can be just as much about preserving each other’s sense of self as about communicating facts or opinions.

The interaction order governs far more than just our conversations. Goffman thought that we were subject to invisible rules even when merely existing in the presence of strangers. Consider how you act when you sit next to a stranger on the train or pass someone you have never seen before in the street. It’s likely that you will momentarily glance over them – a mere flicker – then conspicuously look away, like a car dipping its lights. Through this procedure, ‘the slightest of interpersonal rituals’, you abide by what Goffman calls the ‘norm’ of ‘civil inattention’; you subtly acknowledge the other’s presence, while signalling that you have ‘no untoward intent nor [expect] to be an object of it’.

If you see a friend in public, Goffman thought, you may need a reason not to enter into an interaction with them. You will likely feel obligated to wave, nod or smile. When you encounter a stranger, in contrast, the default expectation is that you ignore them – almost, but not quite, completely. In some cases, this can be rather hard to do; ‘a rule in our society’, Goffman wrote, with his usual rhetorical flourish, is that generally ‘when bodies are naked, glances are clothed’.

There are exceptions, however, to the norm of civil inattention. Certain ‘open persons’ are not subject to it; the very old, the very young, the police, people with dogs and parents with children, for example, are all deemed approachable. It is OK to grin at an unknown child on a train – not so much at an unknown middle-aged man.

Although Goffman himself did not delve into the politics of civil inattention, it is clear that social hierarchies at least partly determine who can approach whom and who is deemed approachable. Goffman’s student Carol Brooks Gardner went on to apply his analysis of public space to catcalling: lone women are often treated as open persons by street harassers, she noticed, in ways that reinforce oppressive gender norms.

While Goffman loved to shine his sociological torch on the intricate web of social norms, he saw no intrinsic value in the norms themselves. In fact, he was often highly critical of their exclusionary potential. In books such as Asylums (1961), Stigma (1963) and in a series of essays on prisons and hospitals, he showed great sympathy for the plight of ‘deviants’, people who did not or could not comply with the interaction order, for psychological or physical reasons, and who were therefore excluded from social participation.

In the mid-1950s, Goffman spent 12 months acting as an employee at St Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Washington, DC aiming to ‘learn about the social world of the hospital inmate, as this world is subjectively experienced by him’. He was scathing in his findings, describing hospitals of this kind as ‘hopeless storage dumps trimmed in psychiatric paper’.

Acts of petty insubordination were patients’ attempts to cling on to their sense of self

He characterised psychiatric hospitals, along with prisons, care homes, army barracks, convents and boarding schools, as ‘total institutions’. These are institutions where individuals are cut off from the rest of the social world, and are forced to undergo all of the basic routines of daily life – work, play, sleep – in the same place, with similarly placed others, according to a timetable set by an authority.

Goffman observed that, upon arrival in such an institution, inmates typically underwent a ‘series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self’ – for example, in a prison or a hospital, their belongings were confiscated, their bodies stripped, examined, washed, and sometimes shaved, and their means of contact with acquaintances in the outside world removed.

Through this process, Goffman thought, patients were forced to forego their ‘civilian self’, in favour of a sanitised institutional self. The acts of petty insubordination the patients would then engage in, like keeping forbidden stashes, racketeering, or sex work, were not symptoms of degeneracy but rather attempts to cling on to their sense of self as forces around them worked hard to eliminate it.

Goffman was deeply critical of what we might now call the ‘medical model’ of mental illness, and of the processes by which a person became institutionalised. He argued that many symptoms of mental health conditions were in fact ‘situational improprieties’ – failures to abide by the norms of the interaction order.

Institutionalising people who committed such ‘improprieties’, Goffman thought, would lead them to commit more of them: ‘If you rob people of all customary means of expressing anger and alienation and put them in a place where they have never had better reason for these feelings, then the natural recourse will be to seize upon what remains – situational improprieties.’

Here Goffman identified what the philosopher Ian Hacking has labelled social ‘looping’: characterising a person as a member of a social category (in this case, someone who is mentally ill) leads to their developing more of the characteristics that warrant such a characterisation. The psychiatric hospital was ostensibly merely reacting to mental illness, but was in fact constructing it to some extent.

A stigmatised person, Goffman argued, will forever remain a ‘resident alien’

In Stigma, Goffman turned his attention to processes of social alienation beyond the institution. He conceived of a stigma as ‘an attribute that is deeply discrediting’, which made a person ‘tainted’ or discounted’, and thereby ‘disqualified from full social acceptance’. There is bodily stigma, he thought, like disability; moral stigma, like alleged blemishes of character; and tribal stigma, like membership of certain races, nations, religions or classes.

Goffman was clear that a stigma is ‘neither creditable nor discreditable as a thing in itself’. Instead, society determines which attributes are ordinary and natural, and which are not. He was particularly astute on the challenges faced by people with stigma, and on what we might now call ‘respectability politics’: ‘to display or not to display’, the stigmatised person must wonder, ‘to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when and where’. In a characteristically crisp turn of phrase, Goffman described blind people who choose to wear dark glasses to conceal their eyes as ‘revealing unsightedness while concealing unsightliness’.

A stigmatised person, Goffman argued, will forever remain a ‘resident alien’. Her ostensible inclusion in any community will always be provisional and precarious, and she will live in fear of discomfiting those who deign to include her. Such a person will be expected to extend to her new community an acceptance that they will never quite extend to her in return. She can hope for, at best, a ‘phantom acceptance’, which in turn allows for a sense of ‘phantom normalcy’.

Late in his life, Goffman turned his eye to gender. Alert, as ever, to the socially constructed nature of identity, he rejected physical difference as a basis for the social inequality of men and women, and argued that gender differences were produced through an ‘identification system’ that dictated what kinds of work people do, who they interact with, how they dress, and even what toilets they use. ‘Expression[s] of subordination and domination,’ Goffman thought, are not ‘a mere tracing or symbol or ritualistic affirmation of the social hierarchy.’ Instead, ‘these expressions considerably constitute the hierarchy; they are the shadow and the substance.’ Gender is a product of differential social practices, not a justification of them.

Throughout his career, Goffman refused to describe his work as offering a theory of the social world. In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, published posthumously due to his early death at 60, Goffman described himself as offering merely ‘glimmerings’ about the structure of social interaction. This may explain why, despite his fame, many sociologists are ambivalent about his work, and why in the neighbouring discipline of philosophy, he is often ignored.

It is hard to know exactly what to do with Goffman. He offered no foundational principles, no overarching analyses of the world in its totality. Nor was his methodology always clear; he used too much data to qualify as a theoretician, but his work was often too abstract, too impressionistic and too literary to qualify as ethnography proper. He did not help matters by refusing to engage with other people’s analyses of his work.

Is there no respite from the demands and opinions of other people?

Yet Goffman’s rejection of theorising is itself theoretically significant. He showed that one need not articulate a grand theory of the world in order to improve our understanding of it. Indeed, such grand theorising might be premature when we haven’t yet appreciated the full complexity of even the most minute phenomena – like a person falling over in the street. Goffman thought that there could be great value in the provision of even ‘a single conceptual distinction’, ‘if it orders, and illuminates, and reflects delight in the contours of our data’.

In identifying the ‘interaction order’, Goffman also illuminated a dimension of life previously hidden to most of us. Railing against what he referred to as the ‘touching tendency to keep a part of the world safe from sociology’, Goffman showed us that life is social all the way down – nothing we do is untouched by the norms and expectations of our community.

One might find this revelation depressing; is there no respite from the demands and opinions of other people? But it’s also possible to find hope in this. What we might write off as personal awkwardness is in fact evidence of acute attunement to social norms. Features of our bodies, our behaviours and our minds that others have told us are inherent flaws are in fact of no moral significance – their alleged defectiveness stems from arbitrary social standards of ‘normality’. And ultimately, it is only once we grasp the contingency and artificiality of such social norms, especially those that oppress, that we can begin to transform them.