Sociology 319

February 7, 2003


C. Erving Goffman


One of the sociologists who used the symbolic interaction approach to examine human interaction in social settings was Erving Goffman.  Goffman did not develop a theoretical approach that would explain all parts of the social world, but he developed an analysis of the interaction order – social situations or “environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence” (Goffman Reader, p. 235).  These are the situations where we spend much or most of our life – in face-to-face activities involving others, whether these be everyday social situations, situations within organized structures (jobs, school), or unusual social situations (accidents, weddings, funerals).  Goffman excels at observation, description, and insight, analyzing how people interpret and act in ordinary situations, and he provides guidelines concerning how to examine social situations.  The literary style of Goffman is an important part of his writings and his approach may demonstrate the rhythm and poetry that Cohen argues is integral to social interaction.


Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was born and raised in Mannville, Alberta, and attended the University of Toronto (graduated 1945) and the University of Chicago (doctorate in 1953).  He became a professor at Berkeley (1957) and later at the University of Pennsylvania (1966).  Goffman's best known work is The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959).  This is a study that he conducted in the Shetland Islands of Scotland, and formed the subject of his doctoral dissertation.  In addition to the ordinary situations of everyday life, Goffman also examined unusual situations such as prisons and asylums, total institutions, using these to show how individuals used various means (many unauthorized) to maintain their sense of selfhood.  He  also using these settings to illustrate aspects of everyday life, and the unexamined asumptions that we all make in the various situations and encounters in which we find ourselves.  As recognition of his work, Goffman became President of the American Sociological Assocation in 1982, the same year he passed away.


Goffman is best known for the dramaturgical approach – using the theatre as metaphor for analysis of the interaction order.  A social actor presents and portrays an image to others, and this is the front part of social interaction, the self that is presented to others in social interactions.  The actor also has a hidden, or back stage, where the self prepares, rehearses, and develops his or her self.  Ordinarily the front and back stage are separated and the self undoubtedly is more integrated when there is a consistency of front and back stage.  Goffman develops other concepts that might be regarded as building blocks for a comprehensive theoretical approach, concepts such as role distance, face, ritual, and line.  But Goffman does not really develop an overall theoretical structure, developing his analysis with astute and insightful observations and analysis of face-to-face and mediated social encounters.


The handout from Goffman is “On Face-Work” a paper originally written in 1955.  This was fairly early his career and lays out some of the ways in which people present a face or image of the self in social relationships, interactions, and encounters.  Goffman continued to develop similar ideas to those in this article, with a more systematic analysis of social interaction in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  This book employs the model of the theatre or theatrical performance as a means of analyzing how we develop and present ourselves to others.  This approach is sometimes called dramaturgy and focuses on the techniques people use to convey impressions and create their self.  In that book and in “On Face-Work” Goffman examines processes and procedures that are associated with social interactions.  It is these that build and maintain the social world.


In this article, look for the four themes identified by Plummer.  Also attempt to identify and consider a variety of other themes, concepts, and issues that are addressed in the article.  Some of these are:


·        How Goffman uses ideas from earlier sociologists such as Durkheim, Parsons, Simmel, and Mead, but in a somewhat different manner. 


·        Note comments on the construction and development of the social self – as image and as actor (or player in a social game), and always through the various aspects of interactive processes.  In particular, Goffman develops concepts such as commitment, face and maintenance of face, poise, and confidence to analyze how social actors deal with interactive social processes.


·        While agency and structure are not a primary concern of Goffman, there are various insights into the connections associated with these – look for ways that Goffman connects these or how he considers these two social concepts.   While there are limited choices in each encounter, with the range of possibilities limited by societal rules and procedures and by responses of others, there is also much flexibility and work involved in maintaining these.  Tacitly agreed upon approaches dominate encounters and maintenance of the encounter is one way that interaction, rituals, and patterns are maintained.


·        Goffman’s focus is on the procedures and processes of social interaction, his actor is also conscious and attributes meaning to symbols and actions of others.  Cohen notes that this approach may provide a way of bridging the gap between the subjective consciousness and praxis perspectives, by considering how social face has meaning and value, and how “tacitly enacted rituals … defend, protect, and preserve social face” (p. 104). 


·        Emotions have traditionally been downplayed or ignored as social phenomena by sociologists.  Goffman considers emotions and feeling such as embarrassment, feeling bad or good, shame, pride, confidence, assurance, security, and relief (p. 8), and makes these an integral part of his analysis of social face.  These may be partly conscious but feeling of this type tend to emerge in an unconscious situation and form part of the means that social encounters are maintained. (see p. 23).


·        Social order and mechanisms by which it is achieved are issues addressed by Goffman.  But he addresses these at the level of the interaction order, in quite a different manner than does Durkheim.  That is, they are more tacitly agreed upon rules and procedures, coming from society but individually interpreted and, in addition, maintained through tacit procedures in social encounters.


Notes on “On Face-Work” from Interaction Ritual, pp. 5-45.


Interaction order. This is the world of face-to-face social encounters that is the topic of the article.  Mediated contacts could be mail, memoranda, telephone, or electronic messages. 


Line. Actor adopts or develops a pattern of verbal (language) and non-verbal (gestures) acts that portray his or her version of the situation, others, and self.  Goffman makes particular note of the “evaluation of the participants, especially himself” so that the line presents a view of the self, and this line must also deal with how others view the actor (last line of 1st paragraph).  Note that the line taken may be conscious or less conscious, in that the line takes place, whether or not it is intended.  Also note the active nature of the interaction order and how the patterns of the act is worked out in the line.  Note how the themes of Plummer are illustrated in this paragraph (symbols, process, interaction, and empirical work).


Face.  This is the image of the self that is presented.  Goffman here connects it to approved social attributes, although later he notes how it may not always be the approved or expected attributes that are portrayed.  Face is what others assume and it is the image that others see or consider to have been expressed by the actor.  Note “effectively” (2nd line of last paragraph, p. 5) so that it is what is portrayed, not necessarily what was intended, that is, it is the image of self portrayed.


Emotion (p. 6).  Emotions and feelings become attached to the particular image presented, so that the actor may feel good or feel bad or being hurt, depending on how the image unfolds and what the encounter produces.  If the encounter proceeds very well, the actor feels good, whereas a poor playing out of the encounter may produce bad feelings.  By focusing on emotions and feelings, the implication is that some of this is fairly spontaneous or produced without strong conscious considerations, rather it is the act itself which creates the image and feelings.  Further, emotions appear to be an essential aspect of adjustment in social interaction – that is, it is not just responses of others but one’s own emotions that guides these encounters.


Commitment (p. 6).  By entering into encounters, the actor has a commitment to his or her own face and to the face of others.  All of these are social constructs, spontaneous and part of the situation, not some predetermined set of unchangeable personal attributes.  At the same time, the “rules of the group and the definition of the situation” (p. 6) that are important in how face and images of self are viewed, so that norms and institutions are  important considerations here. 


Maintaining face (p. 6, bottom).  An internally consistent face is one whereby the actor is in face or maintains face.  But the internal consistency involves not just the actor and “is something that is not lodged in or on his body” (p. 7), rather the internal consistency involves judgements and evidence from others.  That is, it is both the actions of the actor, but also the perception and view of others, through “the flow of events in the encounter” (p. 7, top) that establishes whether or not face is maintained.  This is a strong praxis orientation, involving process and flow, where social interaction is necessary and is the means by which consistency is established.


Institutional.  Goffman notes that these encounters are generally within certain legitimized institutional contexts, so that there may be a limited range of possible forms of action.  The actor does have choice concerning the lines and faces, but within a particular order.  While there is freedom for individuality, Goffman considers there to be sets of rules which govern the range of possibilities.  Note though that these are a long way from Durkheim’s social facts or Parsons’s norms, in that the social actor has considerable flexibility and spontaneity, and perceptions and responses of others are important aspects of these encounters. 


The line and face also connect the self to a larger world.  Any single activity or encounter produces a certain line and face, and these have implications beyond this encounter.  It may be by “discrediting” possession of certain attributes that the individual makes this connection.  For example, a bureaucrat may present a particular face that is expected, but may show himself or herself to be flexible and understanding, thus showing in a negative manner the wider attributes usually associated with the position.  In later works, Goffman extends this idea into role distance – how individual actors fill certain roles but also are able to distance themselves from the role.  This connection to a wider world may be to the past or the future, showing a continuity of lines and faces, or to events and situations outside the immediate interaction order.  These networks and connections are reminiscent of Weber’s note of how social action need not be direct encounters with others, but could be unknown individuals, and these could be in the past, present, or future.


Wrong face (p. 8).  Information that discredits the actor’s face or is inconsistent with the face of the actor may come forward from external sources or from inadvertent slips by the actor.  Goffman makes reference to some of these on p. 14, as faux pas, gaffes, or boners.  Alternatively, the actor may be out of face if he or she has no line to present – taken by surprise, unprepared, or unfamiliar with the situation or encounter.  While the actor may express “confidence and assurance” (p. 8) when in face, when in wrong face or out of face, the actor may feel dissonance within himself or herself, or may feel shame, inferiority, or may have other bad feelings.  Again note how Goffman connects internal emotions (positive and negative in effect) with lines and faces that emerge from interaction. 


Poise. (p. 9).  In contrast to feeling shame, the actor may always present an impression of confidence, in situations when in or out of face.  Note Goffman’s emphasis on presentation of the self.


Social face.  (pp. 9-10).  In this section, Goffman discusses some of the meaning of the social self – the impressions and images that the individual actor is expected to live up to, and how this is regulated internally and externally to the individual.  In the middle of p. 9, there is reference to the “social code of any social circle” – a self-image that the actor has presented and which he or she is expected to live up to.  Note Goffman’s argument here that the self is not only self-development and self-realization or freeing, but is also constraining – each self is expected to maintain and live up to the image of self the individual has portrayed in the past and will continue to portray.


In the interaction order the actor sustains these images through expression (expressive order), to be consistent with the actor’s face.  Various possible emotional responses occur: pride (if duty to self), honour (duty to wider social units), or dignity (if handled with poise).  For Goffman, the self is the individual’s personal possession, in that it defines the individual and provides the individual with “security and pleasure.”  But he also notes that it is social, it is given to the individual by others, and can be withdrawn by them (p. 10).  That is, if the self is the images of self that are perceived by others as the face of the individual, then this can be maintained or destroyed.  In any case, it is a social self – connecting the individual to social interaction and the wider society.  There is no self without social interaction, so the self is flexible but also constrained.


Considerateness.  Here Goffman moves in a somewhat different direction, beginning to examine how social interaction is played out in practice.  For the most part, people attempt to save the face of others and perhaps identify with these in encounters.  That is, relationships are reciprocal and self-supporting.  For the most part, such interactions do not humiliate actors, but attempt to provide a way “to maintain both his own face and the face of the other participants” (p. 11).  It is this “mutual acceptance” (p. 11, middle) of lines and faces that maintains social interaction, preserves the feelings and faces of each of the participants, and allows the interaction order to continue.  The faces presented are maintained and built upon, so this provides continuity in social interaction (top of p. 12).  This is one way that institutions become established and maintained in society.  While some may be cold and heartless, and sometimes face is discredited, Goffman focuses on the ways in which face tends to be maintained.


Rules.  Following Goffman’s observation that there is a certain order and continuity to social interaction, he begins to examine the ways that such interaction proceeds, considering the procedures associated with the interaction order.  Much of the remaining part of the article considers these methods and procedures.  The praxis view of social action is well demonstrated here, and at times Goffman sounds more like an ethnomethodologist than a symbolic interactionist. 


On p. 12, Goffman notes that maintenance of face is not the objective of social action.  There are various goals that the actor has – gaining an income, achieving friendship, pursuing spiritual values, or pursuing various personal emotional goals – and face-saving is not the objective, but rather part of the code or rules that actors use in social interaction. 


Face-Work (pp. 12-13) is the general designation for the actors social praxis.  That is, the individual must work at presenting images of self, saving face, adjusting to possible loss of face, or being poised when face is threatened.  By studying the rules and codes of face-work, the sociologist can understand how social interaction proceeds.  On p. 13, Goffman discusses various social skills and standard practices.  These are partly individual but are also associated with the individual but part of the social culture of which the person is a part.  These are social in that they must be learned, and they are social in the sense that they protect own’s own face and also the face of the other participants in social encounters.  Various possible ways in which this may break down are mentioned on p. 14, but again Goffman notes how there are procedures that deal with these threats.  On p. 15 he notes that one means is that of avoidance. 


Face-work is an active process, one where the agent is an active individual.  But the actor is not just an individual – face necessarily involves others and social interaction, so the focus for the social actor and his or her social self is always on the nature of the interaction.  These also provide an idea of Goffman’s approach to agency and structure – actors exist within these structures and institutions, but are active agents dealing with situations and encounters.  Much of what Goffman says is reminiscent of Simmel, but with the emphasis more on the interaction order in the case of Goffman.




This section from pp. 15-33 deals with some of the procedures used in social interaction to maintain the face of the self and the face of the other, to avoid embarrassment and shame.  This sometimes reads like a guide to proper etiquette in situations of face-to-face social interaction.


Tact.  Being tactful and providing various hints are procedures that people use in social interaction.  Reciprocal self-denial, running oneself down, praising the other, and negative bargaining are all noted here. 




avoidance of situations with possible threats, or go-betweens, withdrawal

i.e. defensive maneuvers

protective maneuvers – respect, politeness, discretion

courtesies, joking, p. 17

tactful blindness – deny what occurs, p. 18

minimize effects or loss of control, p. 18


Corrective process.  pp. 19-23

ritual disequilibrium or disgrace

ritual – acts with symbolic component – worthy of respect

face as sacred [as opposed to profane, and separated from profane]

interchange = re-establishment of ritual equilibrium


four classic moves

model for ritual behaviour

but – deviations from model may include offering early or refusing to change, violence, withdrawal, denial of interaction

role of emotions – p. 23 – and these are part of interactive process

            may fit better into ritual interchange than are more conscious ones


Making points – aggressive use of face-work


encounters are normally interactive undertakings

but can become an arena, contest, or match – score points

            snubs and digs

aggressive gains advantages and demonstrates better interactive abilities (p. 25)

but comebacks possible

[this part makes interchange seem more like a zero-sum game, with gains at expense of others, shifting bargaining positions, etc.

also – demonstrates the implicit equality that may need to exist in “normal” interaction in order for some of earlier claims to work out]


Choice of appropriate face-work (p. 26)


attempts by both parties to repair damage if minor mishap

uncertainty concerning how this will be handled (p. 27)


Cooperation in face-work


lack of effort by one may be met with more effort by others (p. 27)

simultaneous apologies (p. 28)

resolution of situation more important than apportioning blame

others protect individual

eg. cannot decline a polite handshake

tacit cooperation (p. 29) – meet shared but different objectives

tact – to help self and others

tacit agreement to do business thru language of hint (p. 30)

            is deniable

+ reciprocal self-denial

+ negative bargaining

performance of these types means willingness to abide by rules of interaction (p. 31)

            otherwise interaction would be more hazardous

if people not ritually delicate, talk could not be organized as is.


Socialization is necessary in order to prepare the actors for such social situations.


The section beginning on p. 33 notes further procedures – using signs and symbols, various conventions, etc.


Self (p. 31).  Goffman notes that he has been using the self in two senses


·        as image, deriving from the perceptions and responses of others that create the face of the person.

·        the actor as a player in a game or set of rituals – with positive or negative consequences, judgmental contingencies, and possible violation of sacred through profanation.


This may be similar to the I and the me of Mead, but with Goffman’s theoretical discussion of the player being less clearly explained than the self as image.  At the same time, Goffman does consider various aspects of the player, by focussing on the emotions of the individual – embarrassment, shame, pride, etc. so that he has developed a somewhat better explanation of the inner aspect of the self than have some other writers.  What Goffman discusses in this section on pp. 31-3 is the fragility and limits of the self, and how the interaction order has certain mechanisms, check and balances (p. 33) to maintain the rituals and preserve the self.  Some of these mechanisms are cooperation, signs and symbols, and well understood practices. 


Note – can better accept mistreatment from self than from others – and can forgive others


Spoken interaction (p. 33). 


Tendency to use signs and symbols

            unguarded glance, change in tone

            all talk requires attention to these

[note offense against a seemingly inadvertent email response]


procedures, rules, practices to guide and organize flow of messages (p. 34)

prepare for state of talk – then talk can proceed

            procedures for others to join in

state of talk

            visual and verbal attention

            formal or informal cues

            length of time for each party

            interruptions and lulls regulated

even if disagreement on content, agreement on rules and procedures

unit = total activity occurring during time of an accredited conversation


Self and spoken interaction (p. 36). 


Handled as any other type of interaction would be.

Ritual care and appeal to face.

Decides (conscious or unconscious) how to behave

Rules of maintaining conversation and taking proper place in interaction (p. 36).

Structural aspect (p. 37)

            any comment leaves open possibility of misinterpretation

ie. any comment can threaten structural equilibrium (p. 38)

test symbolic meaning

how ritual code can be upset (p. 40)

            degree of perceptiveness, pride, considerateness, etc.

pathologies, but generally viable and practical

            ie. orientation to face – own and others

            promise of ritual care of face built into conversation


Encounters and ritual order.  This discussion is continued in the following pages and concludes on pp. 41-4.  People cooperate, avoid places where they are not wanted, talk in half-truths, etc.  People work hard at face-work, attempting not to overstep accepted bounds.  The ritual order then is that of maintaining face – “what will sustain for the moment the line to which he has committed himself and through this line to which he has committed the interaction” (p. 44).


Encounter is associated with a particular social relationship (p. 41)

Relationships are geared into a wider society and encounter not to disturb these

            greetings and farewells a means of maintaining expected relationships

Trust self-image and face to tact and good conduct of others (p. 42)


Adjustment (p. 43) may be necessary

Social life orderly because individual stays away from unwanted situations/actors

            Cooperates to save face


Social self.  Pp. 44-5.


·        Implication of similarity among people

·        Universal human nature? 

·        Goffman does not say whether or not there is an essential common human nature,  but notes that this cannot be answered by looking at people themselves. 

·        That is, must look at how societies organize social encounters and produce self-regulation of these

·        But “universal human nature is not a very human thing” (p. 45). 

·        If so, it is not from inner psyche but form moral rules from without.

·        May be a common general capacity to abide by rules and procedures of encounters and interaction. 

·        But particular rules come from ritual organization of social encounters

·        Each individual and society combines these in different manner

·        But variations are within bounds and balanced by modifications in rules and understandings

·        Or human nature may be designed for particular types of encounters


Result is a strong case for a social self – not some inborn, inflexible inner self, but a social self that is produced by individual in a society.



Goffman, Erving, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Bahavior, Garden City, New York, Anchor Books, 1967.

Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Garden City, New York, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.

Lemert, Charles and Ann Branaman, editors, The Goffman Reader, Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers, 1997.


Last edited February 7, 2003


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