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Erving Goffman’s book deals with the connections between social relationships and public life, that is, with face-to-face interaction in activity involving mingling in the public domain. The book contains a preface, an author’s note, six main chapters, an appendix (which functions as chapter 7), and an index. There is, despite the extensive use of references in the text, no bibliography. The preface, which is subdivided into three small sections, discusses the focus of the book, its methodology, and its drawbacks. Goffman’s chief concern “is with the ground rules and the associated orderings of behavior that pertain to public life—to persons co-mingling and to places and social occasions where this face-to-face contact occurs.” His primary methodology—unsystematic, naturalistic observation—leads to the problem of statements about groups without sufficient data, particularly since the identity and the boundaries of the groupings studied are not clearly known.

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The author’s note describes the relationship of the chapters to one another. The six chapters that make up the bulk of the book were written to be published together and have as a common denominator the public domain as the setting for studies of different types of face-to-face interaction. The chapters are sequential in the sense that the continuing discussion builds on terms that have been defined previously. Each chapter, however, can be read separately since, according to Goffman, “I snipe at a target from six different positions unevenly spaced.” The seventh chapter, although a previously published paper, is included because it repeats, and is an application of, the major points in the book.

Chapter 1, “The Individual as a Unit,” analyzes the individual from two perspectives: as a vehicular unit and as a participation unit. Goffman points out that the individual as a vehicular unit—that is, a pedestrian—operates on informal understandings of the various ground rules that provide public order on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares. Second, Goffman distinguishes the individual who appears in public as a single (alone) from the individual who appears in a “with” (in the social company of one or more persons). He analyzes the different approaches that are elicited from others when the individual is single and accompanied.

In the first two subsections of chapter 2, “The Territories of the Self,” Goffman describes eight kinds of territories, each of which is situational or egocentric. He also discusses the various kinds of markers—signs that indicate a claim to a preserve—for the territories of self. In the next two subsections, he deals with the modalities of violation and offers an analysis of types of territorial offenses. The last section underscores the point made throughout the chapter that territories, markers, and violations often have a socially determined variability, which is dependent on the setting.

Chapter 3, “Supportive Interchanges,” deals with positive support rituals in brief face-to-face encounters. In this chapter’s six subsections, Goffman comments at length on certain terms (such as “ritual” and “contact”) and then focuses on greeting and farewell behaviors. He categorizes these as access rituals which provide brackets around various kinds of joint activities. He also looks at functional equivalents to complete verbal rituals.

Chapter 4, “Remedial Interchanges,” is one of the longest. After a general discussion of norms and social control, Goffman describes the function of remedial work: to transform the meaning of an apparently offensive act so that the act becomes acceptable. He analyzes the three main devices—accounts, apologies, and requests—by which that work is accomplished and describes the role of dialogue and of body gloss in that process. He divides the structure of remedial ritual into two basic moves (appreciation and minimization). He concludes the ten sections of this chapter with comments about the presence of an unwritten, assumed set of values by which society judges propriety and offense in interpersonal relationships and speculates about the source of that ideology.

“Tie-Signs,” chapter 5, examines evidences about relationships which can function as rituals, markers, and change signals. After a discussion of social relationship in general, Goffman restricts the discussion of tie-signs to anchored relationships and uses as his chief focus for analysis the practice of hand-holding. The discussion, in five subsections, covers related topics such as information control and ritual idiom.

Partly because of its length, chapter 6, “Normal Appearances,” is divided into three parts, with subsections within each part. In part 1, after comments about alarms, Goffman discusses Umwelt, the egocentric area fixed around a claimant from within which potential sources of alarm exist. He deals with the process by which an individual determines threats to himself and with the role of normal appearances in that process. Part 2 moves to an analytical discussion of the structure of Umwelten—the furnished frame, lurk lines, access points, and the social net. In part 3, Goffman summarizes and comments on the vulnerability of public life and on the intricacies of mutual trust presupposed in the public order.

“The Insanity of Place” is reprinted, with some editorial changes, from Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes (November, 1969). The discussion centers on the relationship between mental symptoms and the organization in which they occur, with specific reference to the family. Goffman makes distinctions between medical symptoms, which are involuntary and for which remedial work can be done, and mental symptoms, which are consciously offensive and for which there is no remedial ritual except the admission of insanity. The manic, in Goffman’s context, is defined as someone who refuses to contain himself in spheres and territories allotted to him and overreaches himself—that is, someone who does not “keep his place.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Argyle, Michael. “Rules and Rituals of Everday Life,” in Science. CLXXVI (May 12, 1972), pp. 627-628.

Berman, Marshall. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVII (February 27, 1972), p. 1.

Black, Kurt W. Review in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. CDI (May, 1972), p. 206.

Manning, Peter K. “Goffman’s Framing Order: Style as Structure,” in The View from Goffman, 1980. Edited by Jason Ditton.

Storr, Anthony. Review in The Washington Post Book World. V (November 28, 1971), p. 14.

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