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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

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.

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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 He does draw on books and published and unpublished studies and papers by sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists.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 describes. His observations of the intricacies of ritual greetings and farewells, the consistency of the rules governing pedestrian traffic, and the complexities in the function and meaning of hand-holding are verifiable, to some extent, by the average person. The structures and the patterns he discerns, in fact, serve to make intelligible automatic behaviors that are rarely considered or analyzed.

Goffman’s book, which is aimed at a general audience, is accessible largely because of his manner of presentation. Although he does use technical terms from several disciplines, he defines words and concepts for the layman throughout the discussion. His presentation alternates in a balanced fashion between data, theory, and supporting examples; he thus generally avoids a dry and abstract tone. The relevance of his use of apparently unlikely sources comes into play here in two ways. By drawing on spy novels, films, and the like, he not only widens the scope of demonstration for his theories (thereby strengthening his arguments) but also makes references to material that is accessible to the general public. Use of a passage from The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965), for example, or of a Charlie Chaplin routine to illustrate a theory moves the discussion into an arena that is comfortable for the average reader. Many of the examples Goffman uses put even the untrained reader in a position to evaluate the strength and relevance of his theories and analyses. His prose style is conversational rather than academic and pedantic, and this too makes the book accessible.

Although the discussion is serious, Goffman lightens the tone of his material not only by his conversational tone but also by his use of humor. At times the humor stems from irony. When describing the damage done by students to President Grayson Kirk’s office during the 1968 demonstrations at Columbia University, Goffman notes that the appropriate sociological question is not why humans act this way, but “How come persons in authority have been so overwhelmingly successful in conning those beneath them into keeping the hell out of their offices?” At times the humor catches the reader off guard. Goffman occasionally lists a series of elements that are not ordinarily classed together in a way that gives rise to laughter, as, for example, when he makes a particular point “about criminals—and other social desperadoes such as children, comics, saboteurs, and the certified insane.” His use of humor is unexpected—most often occurring in the footnotes—but it punctuates his text often enough to deflect any heaviness in tone and to keep the discussion lively.

Although Goffman’s book is a definite attempt to document and establish certain theories, some of his discussion is consciously speculative. He often raises issues that have not been explored and questions that have not even been asked before. Some of these questions deal with issues that are peripheral but relevant to the discussion at hand. One footnote in chapter 4, for example, briefly touches on smiles and their role as transfix markers, as devices for bracketing a time period, an event, or an activity. Goffman proceeds to remark that “little smiles are made by everyone all day long, but we never think to study them syntactically.” At other times, the questions he raises are directly pertinent to the discussion. In his chapter on remedial interchanges, he speculates on the source of the assumed—but never discussed—set of rules governing social behavior in public life. In his view, there is indeed a common core of beliefs that undergird that unwritten system of behavior, but “this common core of beliefs which links Western societies has been slighted by students of behavior.”

Although Goffman aims to be definitive on certain issues, he also leaves many issues open-ended and asks questions that point in many directions. His book, then, becomes not only a study of some aspects of behavior in the public order but also a seedbed of ideas, suggesting new avenues of research and generating concepts that are worthy of further development.

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Critical Context