denmuchadoGoff Notes on: Denzin, N (2002) Much Ado about Goffman. The American Sociologist, 33 (2): 105 – 117

Dave Harris

This piece is to ‘interrogate ‘the myth and legacy of Goffman’, by putting him in an historical moment [and a theoretical tradition]. This is to be contrasted with ‘a sociology for this new century (105).

Goffman’s essay in Facework argued that anything resembling a universal human nature is the result of social life providing human beings as ‘self-regulating participants in social encounters ‘(106). The apparent uniqueness of social groups arises ‘because its standard set of human – nature elements is pitched and combined in a particular way’. We can see that the real argument is that ‘societies everywhere get the kind of persons they deserve’ but we can turn this on its head, and see Goffman himself as a characteristic product of midcentury American sociology. Goffman gave life to the sociological subject, the faceless one that functionalist and exchange theories discussed. He also used prestigious continental social theory. The dramaturgical framework led to ‘a new set of terms emphasising ritual, dramaturgical skills, performances, teams, teamwork, regions, front and back stages, discrepant roles, communication out of character, the art of impression management, and the performative  character of social life’. He also moved from an ethnography of experience to a semiotics of speech [citing Clough]. People misunderstood his sympathies, including ‘the illusion that he cared for the insane, the underclass, and the disabled’. Because it was located in Chicago, he was seen as some sort of Chicago interactionist and thus as an opponent of ‘Eastern establishment functionalism’. He was seen as an ally of Becker and Garfinkel. However, he left ‘the Goffman myth and the legacy’ and it is this that is being criticised.

Goffman on performance seems to be like ‘the performative formulations of Austin, Searle, and Butler’ and part of the performance turn. He drew on literary sources producing a gifted prose. He also offered a ‘timeless naturalistic, taxonomic sociology’ with the result that human beings became ‘Kafka-esque insects to be studied under a glass. He was the objective observer of human folly’ (107). [not resiustance and coping?]

This is what midcentury academic sociology needed, a discussion of post-war white-collar society, a lonely crowd. There was no resistance, but rather ‘the requirements of the local and global capitalism erased class, race, and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature’. Capital was not discussed. The intention was to contribute to ‘a pan-disciplinary project’ [rather reminiscent of Bourdieu’s critique of Barthes]

However there are three problems. (1) emphasising rituals and performances face work and so on ‘gave the illusion of humanistic, interpretive, subjective enquiry’, but Goffman was really a naturalistic observer ‘rigorously structural and aloof’ [like Lévi-Strauss as well as Homans].  (2)  It was apolitical. It served the welfare state. It did not address social injustice, war or violence any more than did any other kinds of mainstream American sociology[Does Denzin address these things – or just decry them? Dangers of partisan sociology](3) It was only ‘superficially performative’ describing situations where there were fairly well defined roles and a functional model of role behaviour seemed adequate. There were well defined distinctions between front and back stage, role distance, well-defined scripts, despite occasional embarrassments and stumbles. Performances here can sustain ‘ritually organised systems of social activity’.

Goffman himself said that the dramaturgical framework was only a scaffold, and he was really interested in the structure of social encounters, although he did effectively privilege the notion of he dramaturgy  of everyday life. He was a realist but also ‘preoccupied with illusion and reality’. He assumed that staged versions of reality corresponding to the real world, just as dramatic scripting is found on the mass media organise real experience. Plausible performances in the theatre have to look realist as well. As a result, whenever people interact they are performing in this limited way, deploying dramaturgical skills, producing moments of theatre.
In contrast, we should see everyday life as ‘organised by real people doing the work of interaction;… There are no originals against which illusions are measured, no imitations, only new experience — no hyperreality (108). Performative sociologies do not have to limit themselves to dramaturgy.
[Then an analysis of a particular theoretical performance by an avant-garde Shakespearean company he attended in Montana. Denzin offers his own interpretation of what was going on. In particular, the staging was very minimal and there was an apparent backstage visible to the audience, where ‘actors rest in lawn chairs and move about, chatting with one another’ — apparently is convinced that this is not scripted as well. He also is aware that the performers have played other roles and have their own personal lives, and sometimes their ‘real’ relationships overlap with those they play on stage. This could be his own background knowledge and cultural capital, or even refer to material that is included in the programme. As usual, actors play several roles]

‘As the performance unfolds I begin to identify the actors by real-life name connecting their biographies to the parts they are playing. I become immersed in their mini-life stories [I note that] Kevin Asselin has his… Degree from my university… His face seems familiar… These personal narratives become tangled up in my mind in the hopelessly complex plot of the play… I confuse husbands and wives in the play with husbands and wives in real life. And this is as it should be, for theatre is all about make-believe and illusion — the willing suspension of disbelief’

Goffman does not apply, however. Even though the performers believe in the roles, ‘there is little collusion here that I can see nor is there an attempt to hide backstage behaviour from the audience; indeed everything is out in the open!’ [Very naive] (109) the audience are involved sometimes giving full attention, and sometimes doing something else like chatting. Performers interact ad hoc with members of the audience — ‘multiple liminal spaces; improvised performances shared by audience and performer alike; and performance experienced as liminality’ [performance experienced by him as liminality]. There are multiple versions of reality on offer, ‘discrepant roles’ . Where audience members become performers and vice versa. Everyone seems to be ‘using their performances as vehicles for representing their ongoing definitions of experience and ‘since the meaning of experiences constantly changing, the performance of experiences constantly changing. There are only performances and stories about performances’ [he is saying that we cannot simply say that what is on the stage is an illusion compared to some reality where there are real actors and real audience members — but he is equally naive about the reality that he is observing.] There are performance stories ‘narrative tidbits about who is related to whom’,  which appear in the performance and in the biographies. ‘Each actor has allowed a little bit of her or himself to become part of this public experience’ [pretty naive again]. It helped Shakespeare come alive in Montana and thus was ‘pedagogical event, political accomplishment, a performance of cultural politics, a slice of cultural pedagogy, gendered Shakespearean politics, being educated on how to experience Shakespeare in a public arena’ [massive talk up] (110). He means cultural politics that define what counts as dramatic entertainment.

We can read Goffman alongside other sociological texts of the time — Mills’ Sociological Imagination, and Strauss’s Mirrors and Masks. Mills was the most political challenging us to develop critical political imagination focusing on power and politics. It inspired the early formation of SDS. Strauss analyses language meaning and identity in everyday life referring to self appraisals, actions motivations transformations in identity and other things, to build a bridge between sociology and social psychology. However, he was also interested in the inward connection between social science disciplines, even though he ‘wanted to help people understand themselves and their identities’[and apparently Goffman doesn’t]. Goffman by contrast ‘shows sociologists how to build a wall around their discipline, how to be scientific and rigourous and seemingly humanistic’. He opposes exchange and rational choice theories [so pretty critical politically as well then?]. Strauss is more open-ended, inviting participation in ‘an indeterminate never ending grounded theory interpretive project, making sense of self, identity, and interaction in daily life’ (111) . Mills was more interested in empiricism and grand theory, with sociology breaking through popular ideology. These points are still relevant, but now we are not even addressing the underlying problems in social life — ‘racism, fascism, and violence’.

Mills also had personal flaws, but we can still see his work as a rallying point for all those interested in democracy and freedom [a link suggests that Freire also rated him] [so it is your political orientation that triumphs]. Both he and Strauss attempted to develop a critical social science, criticising social formations and nation states, violence repression and inequality. Their work anticipated ‘liberation movements based on identity politics’ rather than causal principles and models.

Goffman does not lead in this direction and his micro model will not ‘move the field forward’ . We can see this if we look at other notions of performance. Conquergood said the performance might include imitation, constructive poetry or indicative motions or movements, but never just imitation or dramaturgy. Performance leads to ‘liminality and construction… Struggle… Intervention… Kinesis… A sociopolitical act… Transgressive achievements — political accomplishments’ to break through traditions. The term performance covers a range of interpretive events ‘involving actors, purposes, scripts, stories, stages and interactions’ (112) [citing Burke]. A performance can also be an organising concept extending to things like ‘”Museum exhibitions, tourist environments and the aesthetics of everyday life”’ . Performing ‘”intervenes between experience and the story told”’ [

Performances ‘are embedded in language’ [but apparently not determined by it]. Words perform things ‘and what they do performatively refers back [weasel] to meanings embedded in language and culture’ [citing Austin, Derrida and Butler]. Performative refers to both agency and, for Butler, ‘”the power of discourse to reproduce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”’

Somebody called Shechner insists that cultures texts and performances collide, requiring us to make distinctions ‘between”as” and “is”’ [very Goffman again?] Performances are ‘fluid ongoing events’ [must be?] Where identities are both marked and bent, where stories are told but also people are allowed to behave. Thus people can play gender, confirming their constructed identity or performing it slightly or radically differently. Overall, it becomes difficult [for Shechner] to maintain a distinction between ‘appearances and facts, surfaces and depths, illusions and substances. Appearances are actualities’ [so these contradictions are all resolved by making reality disappear? There can be no facts, depths or substances].

Speaking subjects with gendered and racialised bodies are the ones where ‘performance and performative intersect’ and performance narratives are located within discourses, ‘for example the discourses of race and gender’. There can also be ‘transgressive performances’ which contest the standard identities, as in ‘a queer politics of resistance’ [okay so which ones are the more typical and what determines whether we can do one or the other? Voluntarism?]. Butler says there are no original performances or identities. ‘Every performance is an imitation’, including the ‘”imitative parody of heterosexuality”’ [but not queerness?].

Thus Goffman is wrong to see performance just as mimesis because ‘there is no original’. Even imitation can be subversive, something more original, a transgression. Performances also demonstrate kinesis or motion which decentres agency and person ‘through movement, disruption, action; a way of questioning the status quo’ [but mostly a way of managing impressions and conforming?]. It follows that gender reality is a ritual social drama, sustained through social performance (113, quoting Butler). Performances reaffirm resist and transgress and reinscribe ‘repressive understandings that circulate in daily life’.

There is a tension between performativity and performance, between doing and the done, so performativity ‘”becomes the everyday practice of doing what is done”’ [citing Pollock]. Again this practice can become disorienting and disruptive because it gives a double aspect to social life [routinely managed by most of us]. Textual frameworks are both broken and remade. In this gap lies the anchor for ‘an improvisatory politics of resistance’ [the whole thing seems written in the age of situationists, student rebels, Dadaists and others, or rather in a nostalgia for them]. As such, performances become a site for the power and politics, and can serve as a radical pedagogy. Foucault reminds us that power always produces resistance. Giroux talks about militant utopianism and educated hope ‘linking personal troubles with public issues’ and producing ‘stories of resistance, compassion, justice, joy, community, and love’ [and the source here is Hardt and Negri!]

Performances are pedagogical practices making sites of oppression visible and affirming oppositional politics. They offer a pedagogy of hope to counter neoliberalism, a new ‘language of resistance in the public and private spheres’ and thus ‘a radical participate read democratic vision for this new century’.

We need to ‘help people recover meaning’ in this society [militant Islam?]. We need to counter cynicism and despair, we need militant utopianism, and ‘oppositional performative social science (114)’. We need to develop a particular form of cultural studies — to help us think about ‘postcolonial or “subaltern” [spelt subalteran, 114]  cultural practices. Performance approaches to knowledge demand immediacy and involvement and ‘partial, pleural, incomplete, and contingent understandings — not analytic distance or detachment, the hallmarks of the textual and positivist paradigms’ [and good old Pelias gets a mention here as well].

This necessarily will be ‘a multi-racial cultural studies’. It will be based on the interactionist tradition and feature ‘performance ethnography studies’ to see how people create and continue to create themselves ‘through communicative action’ and ‘with the American experience’ [! — All this is apparently Diawara 1996] this puts culture into motion, and ‘examines, narrates and performs the complex ways in which persons experience themselves within the shifting ethnoscapes of today’s global world economy’ [mostly exhortatory bullshit — what are these ethnoscapes, are they real or hyperreal, and how they linked with the global world economy exactly? This is an incantatory Marxism, with all the emotional fire and none of the actual responsibility]

So, heroic critical interpretive sociology, an unlikely collection of ‘ethnographers, pragmatists, symbolic interactionists, and critical theorists’ face a challenge [are in an heroic struggle themselves]. They need to reclaim Mills progressive discourse while building on social psychological foundations offered by both Goffman and Strauss. This will lead to us being able to ‘craft and emancipatory discourse that speaks to the forms of life under neoliberal forms of democracy and capitalism’. We need ‘a performative cultural studies’ to do this. Goffman has drawn attention to the dramatic and enacted features of daily life but is not gone far enough. We need more critical imagination, ‘a commitment to connect cultural sociology to issues surrounding justice and equity; participate in cultural policies; and radical, democratic cultural politics’ [and none other than Willis and Trondman are cited here]. Mills and Strauss but not Goffman opened these doors. We have to pass through ‘if sociology is to make a difference in this new century’ [that is for career reasons?]

social theory