E. Goffman, Interaction Ritual (1967)

Literature review

There is a structure in human interaction, and Erving Goffman set out to describe it in this 1967 collection of previously published essays. Goffman is interested in a specific aspect of social behaviour: face-to-face interaction, defined as the events which occur “during co-presence and by virtue of co-presence” (1). Each of the six essays in the collection explores the phenomenon from a different perspective, through its own analytical and terminological model. The phenomenon of face-to-face interaction is the running thread which pulls it all together. Interestingly, by exploring different analytical perspectives on the same phenomena, Goffman compellingly shows how the psychosocial mechanics of face-to-face interaction form the building blocks of social structure.

For Goffman, the body is not incidental to the social process, but the very source of “behavioral materials” (1) (glances, gestures, verbal statements, etc.). Whenever in the physical presence of another individual, humans automatically interact by talking to, gesturing to, thinking about and judging one another – or, in Goffman’s terminology, we take lines and through them claim a face for ourselves. Goffman turns everyday metaphorical expressions of social interaction into scientific terminology: “lines” are the verbal and non-verbal behaviours that express an actor’s view of the social encounter and its participants (including the actor); and “face” is the image cooperatively constructed by the actor, who projects it, and the other interactants, who interpret it (5). For Goffman, concern for face structures all co-presential behaviour: this he calls face-work, i.e. the effort to align lines with face (12), or simply to act as the person we and other people think we are. “Living up to one’s reputation” is yet another way to put it. The terminology varies, the phenomena stay the same.

Face arises from the fit between expectations and behaviour: face-work is rule-following, the “ritual” to which the title of the book refers. Performing the ritual incorrectly might cost the actors their face – which is, after all, “only on loan … from society” (10). Goffman portrays face-work in fundamentally negative terms, involving mostly face-saving strategies for avoiding or correcting threats to face – not only our own, but those of our fellow interactants as well, since loss of face is generally an uncomfortable social situation for everyone involved (28). Beside these cooperative aspects, which derive from a strongly interactional stance (144), Goffman depicts social life as an anxious, embattled experience in which face is constantly under threat and face-saving is the quintessential social skill (31). In fact, four out of the six essays deal with different levels of breakdown of social ritual, from everyday embarrassment to psychiatric disorders, with a view to demonstrating that ritualised interaction is the backbone of social order. In the second essay, “The Nature of Deference and Demeanor”, Goffman gives full treatment to a usually overlooked subset of behaviour: etiquette, or ceremonial rules of conduct in Durkheim-inspired terminology (47). Two “basic components” of etiquette are deference and demeanour, which in Goffman’s model are tokens for an individual’s place in the social hierarchy and for the individual’s fitness to that place, respectively (77). Goffman dispels the notion that deference consists of strictly asymmetrical rules of conduct, i.e. situations where the expectations and obligations of individuals do not match those of their interactants. (Unlike Stewart’s idea of vertical honour, which is essentially a top-to-bottom right-claim, Goffman offers a less culturally charged concept of unbalanced social rituals.)

Acts of symmetrical deference between social equals actually abound: a simple “hello” between colleagues is one good example. In Goffman’s model, deference and demeanour are complementary and usually overlapping categories of appropriate social behaviour, which can take place between individuals of the same or of different status and serve to confirm their social relationship. Without ceremonial rituals such as greetings or keeping physical distance from unfamiliar people, social life would be wholly unpredictable and therefore meaningless. As Goffman puts it, “[t]he gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest things of all” (91).

Ritualised interaction prefigures Goffman’s concept of frames of analysis, developed in the 70s and a precursor to the concept of scripts or schemas in cognitive studies. (This and the importance of bodily presence make Goffman an important forefather of social cognition.) Goffman understood the importance of knowing how to act. Social life is meaningful by reference to culturally transmitted scripts; these rules of conduct are internalised alongside the expectation that fellow members of society have also internalised them. In other words, social interaction is largely adherence to or deviation from accepted norms. Goffman’s norms, of course, are those of 1960s America, which at times makes his discussion of etiquette seem contingent or even, to current audiences, offputtingly old-fashioned. It is therefore important to remember that Goffman is not simply trapped in his context, as we all are, but that he is using his context as a case study: it is precisely by deconstructing the rules of correct behaviour in his America that he sketches his theory about the universality of ceremonial rules. Indeed, for Goffman, “underneath … differences in culture, people everywhere are the same” (44). The nature-nurture divide is here, but not in its classic formulation: they are not in opposition, but in relation to each other; still separate, but getting closer. Faces are a cooperative effort, built from within and without; we all care about face because we are all human (the “nature” part), but we care about face differently because the rules of face-work are dictated by our different cultures (the “nurture” part).

Goffman’s concept of “face” efficiently conveys various interrelated aspects of social interaction: the importance of the physical face with which we express our “face”; the intimate link between individual and society, specifically through an image at once projected from within and interpreted from without; and the cooperative evaluation loop created by this (how I see myself depends on how others see me which depends on how I see myself, and so on). However, even if Goffman defines face specifically in reference to co-presential interaction, face cannot be restricted to these events, as he implicitly recognises when he describes greeting ceremonies as “a way of showing that a relationship is still what it was” since the last meeting (41). We do not stop having a self-image when we leave the presence of the interactants whose evaluation of us helped build that self-image, nor do they stop having their image of us when they leave our presence. These mechanisms give continuity and meaning to particular interactions and to the social structure at large. Ultimately, the lasting merit of Goffman’s work lies in the description of the cluster of phenomena which he calls face-work and in framing these as a fundamental starting point to any study of social life.

Inês Silva, 18/12/18

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