READING GUIDE TO THE BITS ON INTERACTIONISM IN : Gouldner A (1971)  The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd


This is a massive and once influential book, mostly devoted to criticising the dominant functionalist paradigm in American Sociology. This paradigm is in decline, partly because of its inherent technical problems, and partly because of the huge growth of academic sociology as an aspect of the welfare state. However, one equally important development has been the growth of a substantial number of younger sociologists who became impatient with functionalism and who were able to develop alternative perspectives. Thus alternatives, especially  'interactionist' alternatives become associated with the emergence of a new stratum of the bourgeoisie -- the educated new middle-class, Gouldner calls them. This group is both disillusioned with academic Sociology and with the increasingly irrational reward system in the wider society, and yet unable to exert any collective power to change the system. This is the breeding ground of those interactionist sociologies that appear to be critical of the system and to support the underdog. 

Before considering specific criticisms, including those of Becker, it is worth emphasising how unusual Gouldner's approach actually is. Although inspired by his own commitments to a humanist marxism, Gouldner seems to pursue many of the arguments that we would might associate with post-modernism. He is also one of the few sociologists to analyse the tensions at work on academic Sociology -- to do a sociology of Sociology in effect. 


Gouldner singles out Goffman as a typical example of the new interactionist approaches, and many of the criticisms he has will apply to Becker too, as we shall see. 

Goffman sees life as a form of social drama, as we know. Such a drama is ongoing, pitched at the interpersonal level, and completely ahistorical --  Goffman has no interest at all is asking why some forms of drama dominate and persist, for example, nor how some people come to have the power to play a bigger role than others. Goffman's Sociology simply refuses to take seriously the old categories such as sincerity or insincerity, or truthful versus dramatised accounts. [compare this with the  very similar postmodernist term, 'the collapse of internal differentiations' ]. These old commitments are now seen as sentimental, and are to be replaced by a new 'cool' stance. The project is ambiguous politically -- it seems to be against the existing hierarchies, but it does not organise to replace them, preferring avoidance and accommodation instead  (page 379). In this way, Goffman's Sociology enables a very selective response by the reader. In more detail: 

  1. The narrow personal focus assumes that social order is very fragile and limited. Actors are increasingly detached from it. 
  2. The emphasis on the presentation of self means that people are always trying to be something rather than trying to do something  (page 380). Personal value turns on appearances rather than on any qualities such as merit. Issues of social structure, the distribution of wealth and power, are ignored, especially in not asking questions such as why do some selves persist? 
  3. Goffman's Sociology reflects the new bourgeois world, the world of marketing and promotion. It reflects the view that there are no real choices left, and that therefore appearance is everything:  'Style becomes the strategy of interpersonal legitimation for all those who are disengaged from work and for whom morality itself has become a prudent convenience' (page 381). 
  4. The main themes are not change or resistance to bureaucratic juggernauts but adaptation to them. This is seen in Goffman's work on total institutions [as in his book Asylums], where petty and small areas of social life [flouting minor regulations about hoarding soap, for example] become important as sites in which to demonstrate one's personal potency. This is a strategy for those who are really still individualistic and competitive, but also powerless. 
  5. The new educated middle-class stratum is neither rich nor powerful enough to fully escape from the judgements of others, and so personnel live in constant fear of exposure and  'inadvertent self betrayal' (page 382). Whether appearances are acceptable is now the issue, a more important one even then whether the role being played actually works or is useful. The use values of conduct have been completely ignored -- all is now a matter of exchange value  (page 383). 
  6. As implied in the point above there is a deeper issue -- how have the old values been subverted,  so that morality is now a game? Goffman does not attempt to answer this question of course but Gouldner does: we see in Goffman's work not an  'antidote to Utilitarianism but the symptom of its pathology' (page 384). Utilitarianism has finally collapsed, as a result of its inevitable drift towards venality and calculation: in Goffman's social world, calculation dominates, but now  'anything goes'. Goffman's actor wants to play the ultimate game, and get something for nothing. In this, the old dilemma that had dominated conventional Sociology, the clash between morality and utility is how Gouldner puts it, has been simply sidestepped [ we might call this a clash between individual rights and social responsibility] . 
  7. Sociology like this is corrosive of all beliefs, though -- all become matters of mere appearance, hence the  'demonic detachment' in Goffman  (page 384). 
  8. Goffman offers both a  'clever unmasking of the clever [ such as professionals] , and at the same time, a how-to-do-it manual... of the new middle-class'. We are now invited to enjoy the world of appearances [free of guilt], relish the performance, charge our powerless lives with new excitements. 
  9. The advocacy of  'cool' reveals an ideological commitment, as well as a comforting message for the intended audience. It helps us redefine any personal or a career losses as not real. We stay cool: we cool ourselves out [compare with Willis's stuff on how 'the lads' resist throught style and end up exactly where the system wants them] . Of course, such a stance might devalue any winning, as well  [but not if it is applied tactically, of course]. 
  10. Goffman's Sociology offers a limited application to our petty interactions -- it  'offers us  [literally] a "piece of the action"' (page 385). The whole thing is only possible within dominant institutions as a background -- powerless straight people and counter-cultural drop-outs amuse themselves with these 'side games'. 
  11. The approach expresses a fear of real commitments and feelings, hence a deep contempt for  'sentimentality'. [ I am reminded, in re-reading this, of Lasch's work (1982)  on prevalence of the 'narcissistic personality' in contemporary America]


Becker is addressed more briefly, as someone who is simply allied to Goffman. His radical interactionism, partisan, on the side of the underdog, simply articulates the sentiments and assumptions of the young, especially those attached to countercultures  (page 444). 

Again, we are offered some context -- the welfare state sets the context for a thoroughgoing instrumental orientation in academic Sociology. One sign of this is the emphasis upon methods and empiricism, the development of apparent technical approaches already to be pressed into service, for example as market research or opinion polling. 

Becker's interactionism fits in here too, though. His [labelling] work helps to focus middle-class alienated elements on to  'the unmasking of the low-level administrators in charge of  "caretaking operations" at the level of local communities, and [this]... facilitates their subjection to control from the administrative centre at the national level' (page 445). [We have a marvellous example here in the UK of this kind of thing. Labelling theory in schools began as a kind of radical intervention on behalf of working-class children, to defend them against the professional judgment of teachers. However, these days, the idea that teachers label children as a result of low expectations has become Government orthodoxy, and has led to precisely that kind of centralised blaming and subjection that Gouldner discusses here]. 

Finally, Gouldner tells us that all the schools of Sociology, even marxism, face problems in 'eluding the confining perspectives of the Welfare State, although some will do more than will others' (page 446).

While you are here...check out Gouldner on Garfinkel too:

  1. Garfinkel is out to chart the ( secularised) conscience collective of modern America -- 'the shared and tacit -- that is, ordinarily unutterable-- rules and knowledge that make stable interaction possible' ( page 390). 
  2. These understandings cover the most trivial and mundane matters [Garfinkel's own book covers a range of things, including the rather non-trivial issues of coding or of deciding on someone's sexual identity -- but famous examples of later ethnomethodological work include the rules covering the telling of second stories in pubs, opening and closing telephone conversations, walking together]
  3. Ordinary people are seen as 'practical theorists' as they manage these rules, so there is no difference between them and sociologists EXCEPT that sociologists are supposed to be extraordinarily aware of these rules, while 'ordinary people' are allowed to proceed without deep or conscious reflection on them. [Much of Garfinkel's work is directed at other sociologists, indeed, to make them aware of this rule-governed behaviour -- no-one 'ordinary' is ever addressed by an ethnomethodology text! This makes it a curiously parasitic and self-referential practice.]
  4. The emphasis is on describing and communicating these 'ordinary' practices, so little reference is made to any existing social theory, or to any theory. Despite this, ethnomethodology is still riddled with 'dense and elephantine formulations' (page 395). Curiously, this appeals to young sociologists (young in the 1970s), as a kind of 'alternative' Parsonianism.
  5. Since grand theory is eschewed, it is difficult to do more than just endlessly list the 'rules' that have been elucidated -- '...each rule thus exposed...[appears]... somewhat arbitrary, for each is assigned no distinct function or differential importance and is, in effect, interchangeable with a variety of others, all making some contribution to a stabilizing framework for interaction...some other rule might conceivably do just as well' ( page 392).
  6. The conventional nature of these rules needs to be constantly demonstrated. Garfinkel's techniques to do this are interesting. He urges students to disrupt conventions and observe the effects -- being told to  'engage friends or acquaintances in ordinary conversation and without indicating that anything special is afoot, to pretend ignorance of everyday expressions...or to assume that the other person is trying to trick or mislead them...'. Garfinkel expects reactions of pain, surprise and unease from the 'straights' being experimented with like this: indeed  'The cry of pain, then, is Garfinkel's triumphal moment...a dramatic confirmation of the existence of certain tacit rules' ( page 393). 
  7.  This kind of pleasurable confirmation shows that Garfinkel's ethnomethodology is driven not by a detached academic interest at all but rather by 'a readiness to use... [the social world].. in cruel ways. Here, objectivity and sadism become delicately intertwined' ( page 393). 
  8. The exercise is reminiscent of the situationist 'happenings' ( popular among student cultural radicals in the 1970s). Gouldner describes one thus:
      '...shortly after noon, say, in Amsterdam, a group of youths gathers in one of the busier squares and, just as luncheon traffic begins to mount, they release into the streets one hundred chickens. These, of course, distract and amaze the drivers; accidents may happen; traffic halts; crowds gather, further tying up traffic; routines come to a stop as everyone gathers around to watch and laugh as the police attempt to catch the chickens' ( page 394)
    This sort of thing was designed to question and ridicule the power of 'the authorities' to maintain social order, of course, and it was quite successful in so doing, especially in authoritarian societies. [It was pretty good at showing how quickly liberal societies or organisations -- like universities -- turned into authoritarian ones too] Plant (1992) has a marvellous account of the Situationist Movement if you are interested. However, Garfinkel is no situationist -- his 'hostility to the "way things are" is a veiled hostility...a genteel anarchism....that will, to some extent appeal to youth and others alienated from the status quo, and that may congenially resonate the sentiments of some on the New Left...a substitute and symbolic rebellion...a sociology [method and stance] more congenial to the activistic 1960s' (page 394).
  9. The point of it all is actually pretty banal, though. Garfinkel does not even want to celebrate the complexities of everyday life as does Goffman. He wants to demonstrate and unmask the 'invisible commonplace' ( page 392). And why? ' [after witnessing a situationist demonstration like the one in the above example] Garfinkel might say that the community has now learned the importance of one hitherto unnoticed rule at the basis of everyday life: chickens must not be dropped in the streets in the midst of the lunch hour rush' ( page 394)

A Personal Aside 

I don't really believe we should get personal in our sociological disputes, although there is often a personal undertone to them, of course. Gouldner certainly cannot resist one personal comment in his critique of Goffman, designed to illustrate how appearances were the most important thing to Goffman. It runs as follows: 


'(I remember one occasion after a long negotiating session with a publisher for whom Goffman and I are both editors. I turned to Goffman and said with some disgust,  "These fellows are treating us like commodities." Goffman's reply was,  "That's alright, Al, so long as they treat us as expensive commodities.")'  (page 383) (original emphasis) 
My own reminiscences stem from a number of encounters I have had with ethnomethodologists over a large number of years. Try these  'fragments': 
  1. I attended the famous conference at Edinburgh in 1970, where a number of ethnomethodologists, including Garfinkel and Sacks, and some of their major critics, including Gouldner and Gellner [the author of a wonderfully waspish account of the banalities of linguistic philosophy of the kind much admired by ethnomethodologists, published  in 1968] were invited to attend. Garfinkel did not turn up, or did not declare himself if he did. The topic, ostensibly, was deviancy, but it was clear that a more general discussion was to take place. 
  2. The generational element described by Gouldner was clear to see: the older generation wore suits, while the ethnos were dressed much more trendily and informally (and probably more expensively). Sacks looked and sounded like a smaller Brando in a brown leather jacket and pink-tinted glasses. The atmosphere was electric, although there were the usual academic niceties and evasions -- Gouldner and Gellner simply pretended they were there because they liked Edinburgh, for example, and no real detailed confrontations actually took place. 

    However, some of the ethnomethodologists clearly felt uncomfortable. One of them, a fairly prominent writer, faced some serious criticism from two directions, as it were. One speaker pursued marxist criticisms rather like those of Gouldner. Another critic, however, spoke from a phenomenological perspective, and wanted to know why ethnomethodologists themselves were making so many assumptions about human beings, how they communicate with each other, what their motives are, and so on. No-one notices these assumptions except phenomenologists, of course ( see file on Schutz) . Many people in the audience realised that an important issue arose from having both of these criticisms -- what exactly was the level of explanation being offered by ethnomethodology; why did it set out to clarify some tacit understandings, and yet operate with others; could a Sociology ever operate without any tacit understandings -- and so on. 

    The ethnomethodologist being questioned showed no interest in discussing these matters, however: his response was rather testy, and probably an entirely tactical one --  'I am not here to discuss fucking ethnomethodology, I am here to do fucking ethnomethodology!' Apart from anything else, this struck me as a rather disappointing reaction by someone who had just had his tacit understandings questioned -- what ... no interest in reflecting on the rules? The episode served as a marvellous example of the deep anxiety concealed within these alternative perspectives, and of the insecurity of the generational strategies pursued by their advocates. Of course, for many of us present, especially those at the beginning of our academic careers, the real question was almost the exact opposite -- Why should we want to do fucking ethnomethodology when no-one seemed to know what the hell it was in the first place? 

  3. Any readers of my material will know that I am often disappointed in the ways that academics fail to apply their work to themselves and their own interactions, and this conference, and others subsequently, exhibited some more examples.
    • I saw radical criminologists abusing a wine waiter because he had dared to bring to them an unsuitable claret. 
    • I have seen an ethnomethodologist reduced to incoherent apoplexy after I had made a casual and slightly disparaging (in a blokey kind of way) reference to the T-shirt he was wearing -- it is not just interactionists of Goffman's persuasion who are obsessed by appearances or easily disoriented by a challenge to a 'presentation of self'.
    • I know of another one who has used Garfinkel's disruptive techniques to provoke a colleague into using indiscreet language, and then testifying about this at a disciplinary hearing! 
Now do these examples illustrate anything about the limits and ideological underpinnings of the academic perspectives in question or not?


Gellner E (1968) Words and Things, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Lasch C (1982) The Culture of Narcissism, London: Sphere Books
Plant S (1992) The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International in the  postmodern age, London: Routledge