goffman, stigma, and national identity

Erving Goffman’s theory of impression management is well known, but his work, for the most part, has been applied at the micro-level. This makes good sense. Goffman was interested in understanding how institutions and social identities play out in micro-interactions. But the intuition behind Goffmanian analysis also ought to have implications for the way we think about other kinds of actors (i.e., organizations, nations; note that some of Goffman’s insights found their way into political sociology through the analysis of frame processes). Like individual actors, organizations and nations have identities and actively try to manage the impressions that others have of them (Kim Elsbach’s and Jane Dutton’s work figures prominently in this space).

In the latest issue of the American Sociological Review, Lauren Rivera, a PhD candidate in Harvard sociology, applies Goffman’s view on stigma to assess how macro-actors, like the nation-state, deal with shameful impressions or controversial images attributed to them (here is the paper). Rivera maintains that stigma, “a label applied by outsiders rather than an internal attribute” (615), can be applied just as easily to a collective as it can to an individual. Collective actors, then, should actively try to use strategies that direct attention away from the sources of stigma, allowing them to reconstruct their international identity on the world stage. Her analysis looks at how Croatia, a country known for the violence that accompanied its secession from Yugoslavia, used new narratives to reposition itself in the global tourist scene and to make it look more similar to its Western European neighbors.

The analysis is very interesting. Rivera does content analysis of tourist brochures and travel reviews, interviews, and ethnographic observations to make inferences about impression management. More importantly I think her contribution is to use “micro-level theories of interaction to understand macro-level processes of cultural representation” (614). The added value of using micro-theories, I think, is that they are sensitive to the kinds of strategies and tools that actors use to navigate their local space, thus adding an element of agency that is missing in macro-theories.


Written by brayden king

July 21, 2008 at 2:57 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Fred Wherry uses Goffman similarly, from what it sounds like, in his discussion of Costa Rica’s inability to capitalize on its indigenous handicrafts industry, though he focuses on strategic impression management more generally rather than stigma in particular. Paper available here.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  2. […] science, sociology by fabiorojas on July 22nd, 2008 Brayden raised some interesting issues in his review of Lauren Rivera’s work. It reminded me of an earlier comment Brayden had on reputation, referencing Gary Alan Fine. Your […]


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