Erving Goffman & "Interaction Ritual"

Dschkrutz By Dschkrutz, 18th Jul 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Society, Politics & Philosophy

Erving Goffman, one of the leading sociologists of the 20th century wrote many groundbreaking books and articles. This review examines his book "Interaction Ritual", and examines behavior in social situations.

“Society is an insane asylum run by the inmates.”


Erving Goffman is regarded as one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century, and still continues to influence posthumously. In addition to writing a plethora of respected books and articles all interconnected in the field of social thought, more specifically symbolic interaction, Goffman was the 73rd president of the American Sociological Association. Interaction Ritual consists of five papers by Goffman that were previously published over a decade from 1955 to 1964, and one paper that was published for the first time for inclusion in the 1967 edition of the book. The focus of the book, mainly the immediate first five papers is attentive to the expressive fundamentals of behavior, specifically their interaction with each other in close proximity. Goffman’s primary objective with this book is to represent a model of man as he weaves through different gatherings and environments, as a social interactant. Interaction Ritual is exceptionally enticing with its accounts of social interaction that we daily encounter with Goffman’s insightful perspective of accounting for the reasoning of our behavior. Goffman consistently intertwines his research, with many theories and ideas interconnected to one another, but the predominant theme in this book as well as the rest of his writings, is that social interaction can be defined as a ritual game between social actors. The game however is not reflected as “fun” enjoyable one, but rather a battle between one another, with the actor facing off against the requirements of the societal world from the needs of his inner self.

On Face-Work

On Face-Work is perhaps the most in-depth paper drawn from Interaction Ritual. Goffman’s key theme throughout this paper is that human beings interact in social settings in ways that poise both their own “face” as well as the “face” of the other participating social interactants. This management is pertinent rule in the ceremonial order, operating over brief “encounters”, that can easily be exemplified as a conversation on the street. Goffman defines “face” as “the positive social value a person claims for himself by the line he presents in social encounters”. “Line” is referred to as “a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this, his evaluation of the participants, especially himself”. Goffman argues that we need to become more socially perceptive if we are to manage the art of face-work. Goffman writes that the normal flow of events creates face, and face is a good feeling that we try to maintain. It is only when this face becomes disrupted that we lose it, and in turn lose the internal support that would protect oneself in such a situation, or save-face. To save face, does not rely solely on the social actor, but also the setting’s audience. Protocols are dispensed to help save and manage face, including avoidance mechanisms or overcompensating. “Expressive Order” is maintained through the process of face management, which has its own predisposed ritual beginning with a challenge, offering, acceptance and finally thanks. At first glance it appears that Goffman wrote this essay as if he were a firm believer in the “exchange theory”, but after distinguishing between ritual order with social order, its apparent he is a critic of the exchange theory’s basis rationale. Tact is referred to as important in helping social situation of losing face. The language of “hints” and innuendo’s are necessary to protecting tact. It is important to consider that all parties need to be in agreement because “…trouble is caused by a person who cannot be relied upon to play the face-saving game”. One’s face and self are a sacred thing.

The Nature of Deference and Demeanor

Goffman developed the extensive theories of deference and demeanor in this essay, as two different terms that play integral roles and are interconnected. Demeanor is represented as the way a person acts, the means through where a social actor manifests an image of himself for the audience. Deference is the respect, or regard another person has for that behavior. Goffman illustrates however that deference is commonly interchanged between an actor and their recipient; it does not have to be between actual individuals, but rather objects or things. Goffman uses the example in his essay of two ships that exchange “four short whistle blasts” while passing as a greeting. Through this innocent conversation of whistle blows, the two ships have demonstrated a sign of respect through one another. Goffman goes further with his “nautical” reference, to distinguish that the interaction can also be between an individual and an object. The book notes an example of this deference as “when a sailor salutes the quarterdeck upon boarding ship”, but does not examine the interaction additionally. Goffman relied upon his observations of mental patients (Asylum) as a basis for actors involved to warrant either deference or demeanor. Demeanor embodies the desirable qualities that one aspires to get. Its important to know that you are not in control of your demeanor beyond how you act in social settings, an individual can not express that they have this much demeanor. But instead it is the people around you that determine your demeanor. These two terms are not interchangeable, but rather interconnected. The analytical relation between them is “complementarity” rather than exchangeability. Goffman asserts, “The image the individual owes to others to maintain of himself is not the same type of image these others are obliged to maintain of him.

Embarrassment and Social Organization

In this paper, Goffman examines the nature of embarrassment, where in some social situation an event occurs that can eventually discredit or threaten whatever claims the individual has presented about themselves. Dealing with embarrassment is a technique previously discussed in On Face-Work, where Goffman illustrates the importance of the interaction as an attack on the face, and an attempt to allow you to save-face. “Face-to-face interaction in any culture seems to require just those capacities that flustering seems guaranteed to destroy. Therefore, events which lead to embarrassment and the methods for avoiding and dispelling it may provide a cross-cultural framework of sociological analysis”. The word embarrassment has long had negative connotations attached to it, because there is an uneasiness that accompanies that word. Managing these “lapses” in social interaction are referred to as maintaining composure or “poise”. Embarassment occurs when people do not live up to the expectation of the audience around you, whether its forgetting Hamlet’s soliloquoy on stage or losing your swim trunks in the pool, it has to do with expectations that go unfulfilled in a social setting. An individual has the opportunity to be saved however, by not giving in to the embarrassment and not letting it effect the rest of the actors interaction. “When situations are saved, however, something important may be lost. By showing embarrassment when he can be neither of two people, the individual leaves open the possibility that in the future he may effectively be either”. In this situation the actors role has been threatened, and now must be “sacrificed”, but he sustains that while he can not poise himself in this current situation, the opportunity will arise again where he will be given another shot, hopefully with the wisdom of past experience. Goffman notes that society and its structures are permeable, with nothing set in stone. “Social structure gains elasticity; the individual merely loses composure”.

Alienation from Interaction

Goffman uses this paper to analyze misbehavior as a form of alienation, called “misinvolvements”. It is these forms of alienation that violate the social norms and obligations that the actor must practice and sustain in joint focus of attention. These “misinvolvements” are states of behavior where the participant in unreceptive for what ever reason and not “in” the moment. Goffman categorizes the forms of alienation as external preoccupation, self-consciousness, interaction consciousness and other consciousness. The majority of social encounters based off conversation require only one thing from the participant, “spontaneous involvement”. This is not asking much, but “when this requirement exists and is fulfilled, the interaction ‘comes off’ or is euphoric as an interaction. When the encounter fails to capture the attention of the participants, but does not release them from the obligation of involving themselves in it, then persons present are likely to feel uneasy; for them the interaction fails to come off”. Goffman presses that these modes of disengagement can provide a necessary step in understanding how an individual make a faux pas out of traditional social interaction, and learn more about the social process of becoming alienated.

Mental Symptoms and Public Order

Goffman based his collection of essays, Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and other Inmates on his participant observation fieldwork, conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington D.C. Already basing his interpretations of deference and demeanor on the mental inmate population and the asylum as society in microcosm, Goffman has experience in this frame of reference. Goffman uses this paper to firmly assert his opposition to the belief that psychotic behavior is composed from information transmission defects or interpersonal relations. Goffman instead maintains that the symptomatic behavior might been as a failure to adhere to the rules of demeanor and decorum, which is our framework for instances and occasions. Goffman uses basic interaction units; social occasion, gatherings, encounters/engagements where face-to-face behavior is analyzed. When we come into one another’s presence, we become available to them in different and unique ways that either warrant proper etiquette in relations or transversely are abrasive and thrown into the crossfire.


Throughout this set of essays, Goffman themes the book around the ritualistic and ceremonial rules that are predominant in face-to-face behavior. He contrasts this with the normative order of society, and what is expected of the individual. These essays really allow Goffman to save the face of the population of society that is content with being considered normal, imperfect human beings. It appears that Goffman views society and the world we live in as an uncongenial set of moral rules that are meant to make a human being out of a social actor. This actor must conform to “requirements established in the ritual organization of social encounters” making him a human. Goffman was a student of George Herbert Mead who conceptualized the “I” and “Me” distinctions, which plays into some of Goffmans evaluations. But Goffman resonates his negative utilitarian image of others making the social world “I-against-them” instead of “we” or “us”.


Demeanor, Embarrassment, Face, Societal Norms, Society, Society Today, Sociological Approach, Sociology

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of all the things i've lost i miss my mind the most.

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