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Erving Goffman

A Critical Introduction to Media and Communication Theory


Yves Winkin and Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz

Although Erving Goffman never claimed to be a media or communication scholar, his work is definitely relevant to, and has already served as a substantial resource for, those who are. This is the first detailed presentation and analysis of his life and work intended specifically for a communication audience. While primarily an introduction to Goffman’s work, those already familiar with his ideas will also learn something new. In addition to summarizing Goffman’s major concepts and his influence on other scholars, the book includes an intellectual biography, explication of his methods, and an example of how to extend his ideas. Readers are invited to consider Goffman as a lens through which to view much of the pattern evident in the social world. Goffman’s work always appealed to the general public (several of his books became bestsellers), and so this book has implications for those who are interested in the role of media or communication in their own lives as well as those who study it professionally.


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2. Goffman’s Ideas


c h a p t e r t w o Goffman’s Ideas We have spent quite some time trying to understand who Goffman was. The ef- fort has paid off, because we discovered several patterns running throughout his life. This chapter is divided into three sections according to the major themes in his work. First, Goffman systematically attempted to unravel the complexities of face-to- face interaction. Whether he was in the Shetlands, at St. Elizabeth’s, or in Las Vegas, he wanted to use his fieldwork site as a natural laboratory to study the “grammar” of interaction. He successively used several conceptual frames, but the essential object under scrutiny remained the same: the moments (and their men, as he once said, but not men and their moments). In other words, interaction comes first, with emphasis on individuals participating in that interaction playing a sec- ondary role. Second, no matter how cynical he may have appeared, he was a staunch de- fender of the weakest: “faulty persons” in the Shetlands, “inmates” at St. Elizabeth’s, and more generally, “stigmatized” people, especially women. This recurring theme seems to be at odds with the first, but actually it provides a sense of balance to the entire work: it shows that Goffman had a deep sense of social justice—although he certainly had no care for political correctness. Third, Goffman was a communication scholar, in spite of his repeated denials. No matter what issue he tackled, he used a dynamic angle of...

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