Goffman’s front and backstage

Jenn Lena points us to this incredible archive on Erving Goffman, the social psychologist probably best remembered for his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  He laid the foundation for a theory of impression management in that book, claiming that every individual is an actor on a stageperforming for an audience.  The front stage is where the performance takes place, using various impression management tools to articulate particular images to the audience, and the backstage, he argues, is where the protected self resides. Goffman believed that individuals build a strong barrier between the front and backstage, partly because the individual is vulnerable in the backstage but also in order to preserve the authenticity of the front stage performance.

The remembrances of Goffman in the interview portion of the archive are precious. They reveal some consistencies about Goffman’s front stage performance – people saw him as a prickly individual unperturbed by many social conventions. Almost uniformly people believed that Goffman could be an a-hole. The interviews also reveal something about Goffman’s backstage though. For example, Kurt Lang’s interview reveals that Goffman was very concerned about hierarchy and informal status. For this reason his election as ASA president meant a lot to Goffman. We learn from Charles Glock that Goffman was always gathering data on social interaction, which may have contributed to the perception that Goffman was an unrepentant jerk.

I sensed that in his interaction with other people he was frequently, if not always, engaged in research, using the interaction to gather data on some new insights he was perusing. His doing this, I suspect, sometimes produced the kind of negative reactions to him which you detail in your piece. In this connection, I remember at a party at which I believe I first met him, he came up to me to introduce himself and as we talked, he moved ever closer to me until I withdrew. Strange behavior, I thought at the time, only to recognize later that it was one of his research tricks.

Rodney Stark reacted differently to this annoying tendency.

I noticed that [Charlie] Glock mentioned that Goffman would slide [?] into you and keep people kind of backing off as he kept entering their space. . . .  But, some of us just don’t back up.  Once he did this to me and [was so close] that I said, “Shall we dance?”

Stark also believes that Goffman was continually making up for his rather short appearance.

I think that was in many ways [an attempt to] compensate for the fact that he was looking up to everyone in the room.  You know Gertrude Selznick?  She was Philip Selznick’s wife.  She died a few years ago.  In those days she would come to the Survey Center, her husband was of course a very prominent full professor at the sociology department.  And I remember one day at a party she got smashed and yelled across the room, “Erving, you son of a bitch, you are right off the page of [Thomas] Hobbes – nasty, brutish, and short”. . . .

But other sociologists, once they got past his aggressive impression management skills grew to appreciate Goffman. Neil Smelser has particularly nice things to say about Goffman’s loyalty as a friend (although his first impression of Goffman was exactly what you’d expect).  William Gamson discusses some of the contradictions in Goffman’s personality (e.g., his identification with the “beautiful losers” and his habit of picking on the most vulnerable).

All in all, the archive provides a very interesting window into an unconventional scholar’s life.

Written by brayden king

March 28, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, sociology

6 Responses

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  1. I think my favorite essay on Goffman is by Alan Bennett, in Writing Home.



    March 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm

  2. I just read the Gary Alan Fine interview from last year and got a kick out of his discussion about his wedding back in the 1970s. He told Goffman that he thought about analyzing the impression management of his own wedding and Goffman said “Only a schmuck studies his own life.”

    Liked by 1 person


    March 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm

  3. […] State, Poor State. Fortunately, Goffman’s work (or at least one edition of it) appears to be available online. In the future, I plan on reading Paul Collier to (balance out William Easterly) and Mancur Olson […]


  4. […] emailed response to Andrew is in the post. Here’s an earlier post about Goffman’s controversial […]


  5. […] sull’agire sociale. Come nel teatro, dice, la nostra vita sociale è regolata da meccanismi di scena e retroscena. La scena o ribalta (in inglese, frontstage) è il momento in cui la rappresentazione prende corpo, […]


  6. […] front stage vs. back stage acting […]


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