Review: Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences

By Chris Hausmann

Thomas Scheff, Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for Social Science (Paradigm Publishers 2006)

Thomas Scheff, Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for Social Science (Paradigm Publishers 2006)

In the preface of Goffman Unbound!, Scheff writes, “Goffman’s main focus was what might be called the micro-world of emotions and relationships. We all live in it every day or our lives, yet we have been trained not to notice” (p. viii, emphasis added).

Like many contributors on this blog, I’m currently wrapping up a semester of teaching social movement theory.  My students seem genuinely inspired by sociological accounts of the Civil Rights Movement and Occupy Wall Street, among others. Yet I sometimes worry that, by highlighting large-scale, extra-institutional forms of collective action, my course also trains them to gloss over, or even deny their most immediate experiences of jockeying for leverage. I’m thinking here of arguments with their work supervisors, skirmishes with campus officials, and—as one might suspect—negotiating faculty’s proprietary claims on their attention during the closing days of the semester.

Whereas the study of social movements has frequently explored such micro-sociological tensions in service to explaining collective action in broader social arenas, Goffman’s lifework pulls readers’ attention toward the stakes that are negotiated within the interaction order itself (Goffman 1967, 1983). Scheff’s book focuses primarily upon unpacking Goffman’s contribution to the discovery and study of this face-to-face realm, while also suggesting how emotional-relational dynamics play out between groups and international conflicts.

My comments below are not a comprehensive review of Goffman Unbound!; [i] instead, I recommend reading this book with an eye toward how social movement theory could make sense of and speak to actors’ everyday contentious encounters. I’ll briefly address both before highlighting a few aspects of Scheff’s book that are especially promising.

As social movement scholars explore the emotional foundations of collective action, Scheff attempts to clear the basic tropes of social science and reground scientific knowledge based upon the fundamental emotions of pride and shame. This line of thinking not only places emotions at the heart of sociological explanation; it also opens up novel ways of studying how and where actors contest social organization. For example, whereas Charles Tilly details the historical processes that have led to modern social movements (2004:16-28), one of Scheff’s central insights is that contemporary Western society depletes humans’ social bonds and denies the emotional/relational world (1990; 2006). Thus, one might read Scheff’s description of face-to-face disputes as a re-discovery social movements’ long-lost sibling: contestation within the context of the human bond.

A second reason to pick up this book is more reflexive. Scheff argues that “social sciences that also ignore the [emotional relational world] serve a conservative function, helping to preserve the status quo in the emotional relational world” (p. 97). On the one hand, this suggestion adds to my misgivings about training students not to notice contentious encounters. On the other hand, if Western society tends to be clumsy at describing and negotiating the emotional/relational world, such widespread ineptitude might also constitute an opportunity structure for those who can navigate it shrewdly.

Thus far, the study of emotions in social movements has focused primarily upon the emotional experiences of social movement participants (Jasper 2011:299). What seems fresh in Scheff’s analysis of family disputes is that the emotional interplay between opposing actors are center stage.[ii] Drawing upon Goffman and Cooley, Scheff argues that intersubjectivity develops through recursive awareness.[iii] Scheff further specifies attunement by noting variation in factors that Goffman and Cooley do not address: awareness of attunement, accuracy of one’s assessment of others, the weight granted to those others’ attitudes, and pendulation (the process of shifting back and forth from one’s own perspective to that of another actor). Scheff not only lays bare the joint production of emotions between counter-claimants, he also illustrates that opposing positions “live in the minds of [one another]” (p. 41).

In a chapter aptly subtitled, “Deciphering Frame Analysis,” Scheff demonstrates how framing simultaneously facilitates attunement and provides the context through which actors vie for advantage over one another.[iv] Two contributions of this chapter seem especially worth consideration.  First, as an alternative to Goffman’s metaphorical descriptions of frames, Scheff offers a tentative definition: “the statement(s) required to place and to understand a strip of activity” (p. 89). Scheff notes that frames usually aren’t verbalized, but can be slowed down to represent faster-moving images, premises, or propositions. Second, Scheff outlines a strategy that uses mathematical notions to formalize embedded frames, making it much clearer how frames relate to one another. The number of frames potentially invoked, as well as the sheer density of the information that actors share with one another, mean that multiple fronts are up for grabs in any dispute (Goffman 1974).

And what is it that’s up for grabs? Goffman’s own reluctance to address the political implications of his work has led some critics to argue that he was unconcerned about power (Goffman 1974:14). However, Scheff argues that Goffman sought to correct an overemphasis on power by elaborating the wide breadth of influences that actors have upon one another, alienation/solidarity in particular.[v] Scheff adds that Goffman’s political critique sidesteps ideologies of the right and left and instead attacks the tropes that fleece our understanding of micro-social organization. From this perspective, Goffman’s passing comments on the concept of power are beside the point; the overarching theme of his work is an invitation to make explore the hidden world of mutual awareness and influence as it unfolds.

Finally, I’d note that the first chapter of the book offers a detailed biography of Goffman’s intellectual and personal character. This chapter is illuminating not only because it link Goffman’s life to his concepts (character contests, in particular), but also because Goffman himself offered few comments regarding how his work reflected his own personal sensibility. Scheff’s description is both sympathetic and revealing. This chapter might be especially valuable to readers like myself, who joined the discipline too recently to encounter Goffman’s personality on our own.


[i] The later chapters of this book take up a number of dynamics of interest to social movement scholars. For example, Scheff uses evidence from the My Lai Massacre and Holocaust to illustrate how gendered strategies for emotion management lead to patterns of silence/violence. The last substantive chapter, “A Theory of Runaway Nationalism,” suggests that the colloquial notion of “love of country” actually refers to an emotional dynamic much closer to infatuation (which Scheff defines as attachment without attunement). For a discussion of how Scheff’s other work might be applied to the study of social movements, see Jasper (2011).

[ii] Whereas readers of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life have often assumed that impression management provides an effective gloss for the self, the introductory chapter of Goffman’s Strategic Interaction illustrates the human limits upon concealing the self.

[iii] Scheff prefers the term “attunement,” which he describes as “how much mutual identification and moment-by-moment emotional/cognitive understand there is between persons or groups” (Scheff 2006: 144).

[iv] Goffman’s most obvious influence upon social movement theory thus far has been through the framing literature, which also traces its theoretical underpinnings to Goffman’s Frame Analysis (1974). Yet the framing literature quickly turned to describing individual frames (what Goffman called “primary frameworks”), leaving aside the question of how actors embed the basic premises of interaction within one another, or shift across them.

[v] Kemper & Collins (1990) argue that power and status are the basic dimensions of social interaction.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2013

One response to “Review: Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences

  1. Pingback: Review: Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences | OccuWorld

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