Erving Goffman Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Erving Goffman Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Erving Goffman received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto in his native Canada in 1945. His master’s and doctorate were granted by the University of Chicago in 1949 and 1953, respectively; there he studied both sociology and social anthropology. While working on his doctorate, he spent a year on one of the smaller of the Shetland Islands gathering material for his dissertation and his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1956. Very successful, the book is available in at least ten different languages and has been almost continuously in print. It and Goffman’s subsequent books were to be tremendously influential in the fields of sociology and social psychology.

In 1958 Goffman joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, and he was promoted to full professor in 1962. He joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, where he became the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology. In 1977 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Just prior to his death, Goffman served as president of the American Sociological Association in 1981-1982.

In the 1970’s Goffman served on the Committee for the Study of Incarceration, an appointment that grew from his work Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates; prior to that he also served as a “visiting scientist” to the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he began the research that led to this book. Asylums is a penetrating analysis of the significance of social structure in producing conforming behavior, especially in environments that Goffman labeled “total institutions,” such as mental asylums, prisons, and military establishments.

Erving Goffman’s primary methodology was ethnographic study, observation, and participation rather than statistical data gathering, and his theories provided ironic insights into routine social actions. For example, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life uses the theatrical stage as a metaphor to explain how people “stage manage” the images they try to convey to those around them. For this impression management, Goffman coined the term “dramaturgy.”

The book Relations in Public is a continuation of the researches presented in three of his prior books, Encounters, Behaviour in Public Places, and Interaction Ritual. Author Tom Burns has described Goffman’s eleven books as a “singularly compact body of writing . . . devoted to topics and themes which were closely connected.” Interaction Ritual in particular is an interesting account of daily social interaction viewed with a new perspective accounting for the logic of human behavior in such ordinary circumstances as entering a crowded elevator or bus.

Although sometimes controversial in his conclusions in Gender Advertisements, an examination of the arrangement and use of male and female images in modern advertising, Goffman contributes to an understanding of the way images are used to convey social information and how those images have been incorporated into modern social expectations. As Goffman wrote, gender advertisements are “both shadow and substance: they show not only what we wish or pretend to be, but what we are.” Gender Advertisements and Stigma both examine the ways people tend to classify others and be classified by them as well as how people tend to interact based upon those classification. Goffman used the word “normalization” for this process of classification.

Frame Analysis is an ambitious book, Goffman’s longest. Again quoting Tom Burns, it looks at “how we shape and compartmentalise our experience of life and of the world of objects and events around us” and, beyond that, how the self that is experiencing and acting can also be subdivided into “a series of part-selves, each a potential factor in the production of experience for ourselves and for others.” The metaphor of...

(The entire section is 909 words.)