Erving Goffman

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Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922November 19, 1982) was a Canadian born American sociologist and writer. His major areas of study included the sociology of everyday life, social interaction, the social construction of self, social organization (framing) of experience, and particular elements of social life such as total institutions and stigmas.

He is considered "the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century" by Fine and Manning (2003; p. 340. In 2007 he was listed by The Times Higher Education Guide as the sixth most-cited author in the humanities and social sciences, behind Anthony Giddens and ahead of Jürgen Habermas.



  • The self... is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.
    • Erving Goffman (1959), {[w|The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life}} Doubleday, p 252; Cited in: Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003, p. 55.
  • In all these various instances of stigma... the same sociological features are found: an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obstrude itself upon attention and turn those of us whom he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us. He posses a stigma, an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated. We and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals.
The attitude we normals have toward a person with a stigma, and the actions we take in regard to him, are well known, since these responses are what the benevolent social action is designed to soften and ameliorate. By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class.
  • Erving Goffman (1963), Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, p. 5-6, ISBN 1439188335
  • Approved attributes and their relation to face make every man his own jailer; this is a fundamental social constraint even though each man may like his cell.
    • Erving Goffman (1967: 10), as cited in: Trevino (2003,, p. 37).

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959[edit]

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor (1959)

  • Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way.
    • p. 13.
  • In our society, defecation involves an individual in activity which is defined as inconsistent with the cleanliness and purity standards expressed in many of our performances. Such activity also causes the individual to disarrange his clothing and to 'go out of play," that is, to drop from his face the expressive mask that he employs in face-to-face interaction. At the same time it becomes difficult for him to reassemble his personal front should the need to enter into interaction suddenly occur. Perhaps that is a reason why toilet doors in our society have locks on them.
    • p. 121
  • The degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.
    • p. 229
  • Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen; feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him. He may then add to the precariousness of his position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that he would employ were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be.
    • p. 236

Behavior in public places, 1963[edit]

  • When persons are present to one another they can function not merely as physical instruments but also as communicative ones. This possibility, no less than the physical one, is fateful for everyone concerned and in every society appears to come under strict normative regulation, giving rise to a kind of communication traffic order...
(Incidentally, it is in this aspect of public order that most symptoms of mental disorder seem to make themselves felt initially.) The rules pertaining to this area of conduct I shall call situational proprieties.
  • p. 23; Cited in: Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 88.


  • There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.
    • Erving Goffman (1971), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, p. 38; As quoted by R. D. Laing in The Politics of Experience
  • There is a relation between persons and role. But the relationship answers to the interactive system—to the frame—in which the role is performed and the self of the performer is glimpsed. Self, then, is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them. Just as the current situation prescribes the official guise behind which we will conceal ourselves, so it provides where and how we will show through, the culture itself prescribing what sort of entity we must believe ourselves to be in order to have something to show through in this manner.
    • Frame Analysis (1974) quoted by Edward O. Wilson in On Human Nature (1978) Ch. 4 "Emergence" p. 93
  • So I ask that these papers be taken for what they merely are: exercises, trials, tryouts, a means of displaying possibilities, not establishing fact.
    • Erving Goffman (1981, p. 1); As cited in: Trevino (2003,, p. 34).

Quotes about Erving Goffman[edit]

  • Erving Goffman, a Canadian sociologist, borrowed ideas from drama theory to explore how Shakespeare's saying "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players" applies to life in social organizations. Goffman believed that individuals shape themselves and their social realities through performances that are similar to how dramatists and actors compose and present stories on a stage in front of an audience. Goffman developed his dramaturgical approach while studying a mental hospital wherein he discovered.
    • Mary Jo Hatch, ‎Ann L. Cunliffe (2013), Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives. p. 181-2

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