Relations in Public Critical Essays

Erving Goffman


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Goffman, in this book as well in his previous books, follows what some consider to be unorthodox methods to gather his data and to reach his conclusions. His manner is that of careful and perceptive observation of various kinds of routines, behaviors, and interpersonal exchanges in a wide variety of settings in public life. He then generalizes about the similarities and parallels he sees in the patterns of behavior in widely different situations. There are, however, no experiments to test his hypotheses; there are no interviews with the people observed. He observes and then infers meaning from people’s actions.

This method leaves him open to accusations that he ignores an enormous body of allied and experimental material in the field and that he lacks a systematic, scientific approach to his studies. His methodology can be defended, however, on the grounds that, in Goffman’s view, “the realm of activity that is generated by face-to-face interaction and organized by norms of co-mingling . . . has never been sufficiently treated as a subject matter in its own right.” Examinations of interaction practices in daily routines had been used as frameworks or props in other studies, but only recently had the field of what he calls “public life” begun to receive attention on its own. There was, therefore, little if any scientific material on which he could draw apart from observation. That was particularly true of some of the specific behaviors, such as hand-holding, that he chooses to analyze.

His observations and subsequent hypotheses are buttressed by supporting data from a wide variety of sources. He does draw on books and published and unpublished studies and papers by sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists. The lack of supporting literature specifically focused on his areas of concern, however, accounts in part for his drawing on some unlikely sources. His footnotes include references to narrative and dialogue in novels, to newspaper reports that illustrate his theories, to conversations with other sociologists, and occasionally even to the contents of a “Dear Abby” letter or to a character in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Goffman is at his least controversial when closely concentrating his analysis on routine, ritual behaviors that are part of everyone’s everyday life. As he studies a limited act of social behavior and observes when, how, and by whom it is performed, he catalogs the complexities of the signals that occur habitually but generally go unnoticed because they are so ingrained. Virtually everyone in modern American society has had either direct or indirect experience of some of what Goffman...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)