Posts Tagged ‘Politicians’

The Imaginary Camera, Part I

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:35 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

bobdole250Introduction to Erving Goffman:

Here, I am interested to dig deeper into some of the themes of earlier posts on Sympathies, one by Matthew on being and becoming, the other by Andrew Inch on “practices of the self.”  This is a long post, so I have split it into two parts.  There may be a part three to follow.

We are concerned here once again with the way in which people, by inhabiting a role in society, create a social, public self–and with the relation of that created second self to what Erving Goffman calls our “backstage” self. This post draws primarily on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Jennifer Senior’s excellent article from 2007 “The Politics of Personality Destruction” (originally from New York magazine, collected in Best American Political Writing 2008).

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life would be on a very short list of my favorite books ever written, but it not too widely known, even among many casual readers of sociology. But while Marx, Weber, and Durkheim may enjoy a higher public profile, Goffman, in my opinion, holds his own as one of the most creative and influential sociologists to have written. Gary Alan Fine and Philip Manning argue that Goffman is indeed a major figure–that his ideas have been taken up by legions of sociologists, and have seeped into many other disciplines, but that very few have followed directly in his footsteps. Fine and Manning suggest that because he offered no “overarching theory of society,” thus not attracting followers or a ‘school’ as such, Goffman’s contributions have been somewhat overlooked, and it is true that Goffman provides great insight and inspiration, but not a systematic program or model of society. His exceptionality is in his individuality–his work is unreproducable and wholly idiosyncratic, but is it not true that in the long run individual obsessions played out at length are, in all their eccentricities and drawbacks, usually the most enlightening and lasting? Despite the unsystematic nature of his work, between The Presentation of Self and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior Goffman did produce a fairly thorough analysis of what transpires in everyday social interactions.

I have no intention here of providing a general overview of Goffman’s theory; suffice it to say that Goffman, like Shakespeare, sees almost all social activity as taking place on stage, and delineates between events that happen on “stage” (those actions carried out in front of the public) and those that transpire “backstage” (those actions carried out in private, many of which if they were seen by the public would disrupt, falsify, or even destroy the potency of staged actions). In Interaction Ritual, Goffman is centrally concerned with face-saving behavior and accommodation, and sees everyday activity as made up of countless “interchanges”–an interchange referring to a series of moves between social actors with face consequences. Continue Reading