Erving Goffman

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Erving Goffman (1922–1982) was a sociologist primarily focused on Symbolic Interactionism, or the role of interpersonal meaning demonstrated in everyday life. Goffman was born in Alberta, Canada, getting his Bachelors degree at the University of Toronto. Afterwards, he achieved his Masters and Doctorate at the University of Chicago, after which he would spend time studying various mental institutions and the effects of their structure on the people inside. Goffman emphasized the importance of the world around you in constructing the identity of your own 'self', a word that here means something different than in colloquial terms. He is widely regarded as a major contributor to the field of sociology and the establishment of such landmark observations such as those on mental health and the everyday acting in society.[1]

Symbolic interactionism[edit]

Goffman followed the study of symbolic interactionism, which is the micro consideration and realization of meanings and how they shape interactions in everyday life. A symbolic interactionist will focus on the connection that an individual has in their actions within the larger context of the language they speak, the meanings attributed to said language, and how it is applied by and to them. Goffman followed a specific strain of interactionism called 'dramaturgy', which refers specifically to the peculiar nature of actors acting in a society. He raises the question of whether a 'self' really exists, or whether people are simply acting out what they think is required from them in a given meaningful societal context.[2]

The presentations of self[edit]

Goffman's groundbreaking work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, allowed access to very meaningful insights and possible explanations for general human behavior that one can easily identify in an individual. As previously stated, Goffman's primary interest was to focus on the nature of interaction within the context of 'actors', within the context of individuals understanding the world around them and acting according to a certain prescribed notion of meanings and existence. From the premise that we behave differently in different situations, he posits that this extends not just to the people we are talking to, but also the general scenario of interaction. He continues by suggesting implicitly that a 'self' may not actually exist, that there is no 'pure' version of anyone you talk to: every time an interaction takes place, you are simply interacting with a presentation of a person, rather than the person themselves. The question of authenticity, as a result, is a foundational one in his work.

How one presents themselves[edit]

He understood the self, tentatively defined, in terms of the 'front' and the 'backstage'. similar to an actor, the self in the front and in backstage holds two different functions: that in one the actor, the self, prepares for an interaction, and the front is the culminated qualities and characteristics determined in the backstage. This presentation cannot happen in isolation, however, as we use items around us to construct our identities; coined in his work as an 'identity kit'. Based on the definition of the situation, a determination of what kind of interaction is taking place and for what purpose, the identity kit roughly refers to a number of items on your person that you use to shape your identity. A book you read, the clothes you wear, the makeup you have, or the things on your desk, are all examples of things that shape a person's identity.

In regards to shaping one's identity, within an interaction comes the most peculiar part of Goffman's argument. Being that he questions the idea that we even have a legitimate 'self', he wonders the implications of people acting on behalf of previously established norms and social functions. In that vein of reasoning, he suggests the existence of a concept of the 'merchants of morality', a term that refers to all of the actors within a social interaction. While there may be a heavily undertoned reality of a lack of real morals, it is in our interest to act like we are, to sell, being moral. Similar to the thought lines of a sociopath but with more calculated overtones, we implicitly hold an understanding that we are not concerned with acting morally, but rather we are concerned with the image that we are acting morally.[3]


Goffman supplements this argument via the implications gathered from the existence of things he remarks as 'total institutions'. A total institution refers to an institution where all aspects of social life, food, sleep, clothing, possessions, are completely regulated, scheduled, and maintained by the external group. In a sense, there is no identity freedom within a total institution, as there can only be life within the rules expressed and followed: a guinea pig forced to cohere to the cogs of the machine taking place.

Total institutions[edit]

In a total institution, there is no restitution for those who want to construct their identity. Rather, they are given an identity by the very nature of the establishment of a total institution. Where Goffman studied asylums, the members inside are no doubt described as either 'guards' or 'inmates'. The reasons for putting those inmates in the asylum is that they are considered 'mentally unstable' or some equivalent, and would not be removed unless they are demonstrated not to be so. However, this has a fundamental vital flaw: When an individual is designated in this totalitarian manner, all actions that they may institute can be considered to be fitting the demographic of what the claim of their identity is, a one-dimensional thought. An inmate acting 'normally' may be seen as acting dishonestly, while an inmate reacting to the lack of freedom may be seen as acting 'insanely', both events causing a continuous effect legitimizing their existence within the institution.

Particularly, there is no established morals that must be seemingly cohered to, no access to objects that one can use to form an identity, no freedoms that can be utilized to place one's self into a certain area of existence. There is only one label for this individual, and that one label must be what they are as, logically, they would not be there if they were not. That statement also has a fatal flaw, however, in that it presupposes the existence of 'mentally unstable' individuals. In reality, mental instability is actually defined by the plurality, considering people who are not acting normally enough to be 'flawed', deserving of being thrown into an institution to 'fix' them. In a purely autistic society, for instance, autism wouldn't even have a name; it would just be what is. However, throwing 'mentally unstable' people in such a total institution is actually harmful for them, because it solidifies their identity as such, rather than rehabilitating them into general society. There is no society for them, and the total institution becomes the sole part of their 'identity kit' that they are forced to wear for the remainder of their life.

Comparisons to reality[edit]

Goffman uses the existence of total institutions and the fact that these things have been stripped from these actors to justify the existence of these concepts: they wouldn't be real if they couldn't be taken away somehow. He remarks the damaging institutions in a way that establishes the nature of identity, what happens when someone is forced to have one, and what occurs in a place where it can be freely developed. Ultimately, to exist in a total institution is a self-damaging spiral where there is a negligible chance of one's identity being restituted or reacquired for that individual.

Note how a system can show indicators of a total institution, but Goffman refers to it solely in the context of individual institutions, and does not intend to refer to macro-level societies that may show the same characteristics. However, he may have been accepting of such a definition if argued to be similar enough to his definition.

Similar total institutions can include: The military, private schools, and abject slavery.[4]