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By Philip Rosenberg
- Feb. 16, 1975
In a series of strikingly original, often brilliant books, Erving Goffman, a Canadian by birth who has taught at Chicago and Berkeley and at present occupies a chair in sociology and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, has exhaustively examined the petty transactions that make up everyday life. Virtually everything he writes is informed by the same impish dialectic, for he delights in making us see the most simple transactions as complex and mysterious game‐like strategies, and then in exposing the rules of the game to reduce the whole once again to a comprehensible simplicity. Not since Veblen laid bare the socio‐economic significance of walking sticks and Pekingese dogs has there been an author capable, as Goffman is, of explaining why there are mirrors facing the counters in lunchrooms, why a man mutters an oath when he stumbles over a crack in the pavement, or why loitering, the simple act of standing still on a public sidewalk, constitutes a breach of civic order.
The small change of social intercourse obsessively fascinates Goffman because he senses instinctively the drama behind the most ordinary bits of social business—senses, that is, that what we do routinely is our “routine,” our shtick, our bit of stage business. In “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959), the first of his nine books, Goffman argued that we are all essentially performers. We spend less time making things, getting and spending them, than we do trying to put the stamp of our own individuality upon them, for our main business is, in a sense, the fabrication of our own identities.
For centuries Western culture has assumed that self and society are the polar moments of our sense of what it is like to be alive in the world The social world may provide us with masks to wear on public occasions, but it is comforting to feel that there are faces behind the masks, selves that remain inviolate through all contextual vicissitudes. Yet in Goffman's world this seems not to be so. In the theatrical vocabulary he uses, the term “offstage” does not occur; when we are not onstage we are backstage, and the backstage area is a theater in its own right, with its own performance standards.
Consider what happens when I am walking with a friend and am accosted by another friend with a long and sad story to tell. As I listen to the story, I give off all the conventional signs of sympathetic attention, but if an opportunity presents itself I may signal to the first friend with a gesture or glance that I am doing my best to end the conversation and will be rejoining him as soon as possible. Is my show of concern to my second friend's story, then, phony? Goffman insists that there is no valid sociological ground for assuming that my impatience in any way compromises my attentiveness, or vice versa. I am simply playing two roles to two audiences at the same time, as we all must do with surprising frequency. “All the world is not, of course, a stage,” he concedes at one point, then adds the characteristically Goffmanian punch line: “but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify.”
If this approach suggests a shockingly disrespectful regird for the sense of self we like to maintain, Goffman seems not to mind, seems in fact to enjoy reducing us to something like puppets in an elaborate Punch and Judy show. “A correctly staged and performed scene,” he writes in “The Presentation of Self,” “leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation—this self—is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it.” When the performance “comes off,” he adds, “the firm self accorded each performed character will appear to emanate intrinsically from its performer.”
What Goffman seems to be denying, then, is the possibility of precisely the sort of authenticity our society values most highly. A being is authentic, Lionel Trilling tells us in “Sincerity and Authenticity,” “by reason of its entire self‐definition: it is understood to exist wholly by laws of its own being.” Conversely, inauthenticity is a condition to which we fall when “the sentiment of individual being depends upon other people.” If, then, in Goffman's world the self is no more than an optical illusion which, merely “appears” to emanate from the actor—if the self is, as Goffman says, an “imputation”—the notion of personal authenticity can hardly be more than an arrogant conceit. “In this enterprise of presenting the self, of putting ourselves on the social stage, sincerity itself plays a curiously compromised part,” Trilling observes. “Society requires of us that we present ourselves as being sincere and the most efficacious way of satisfying this demand is to see to it that we really are sincere, that we actually are what we want our community to know we are. In short, we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgment can be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic.”
And yet, after all this is said, I seem to be able to find in Goffman's work a sense of self at once more real and more substantial than might have been thought possible, a sense of self, moreover, free of the self‐indulgent cant which, as Trilling points out, mars so much of the contemporary apotheosis of authenticity. To be sure, it probably would not have been possible to say this before the appearance of “Frame Analysis,” Goffman's most recent book. Nor is it easy to say it even now, for while “Frame Analysis” is in many respects a welcome extension of his earlier work, it is also in some ways merely a summary and recapitulation of its author's marked tendency to cynical reductionism.
Thus, when Goffman quotes the following newspaper item, virtually without comment, one senses uneasily that at bottom a man who finds this onesentence story meaningful must see society not merely as a staged performance but in fact as bad slapstick: “In Ciudad Juarez, Mex., two pickpockets kneeling in a church robbed Andres Quinonez of his wallet and $13 while he was praying, [and then] were arrested by a policeman kneeling behind them.”
For the most part, though, “Frame Analysis” rises above this sort of petty scoffery. Although the “coldness” and “remoteness” that Marshall Berman complained of in a review in these pages of Goffman's earlier books are still very much in evidence, there seems to be a new slant to his work that makes his message sensibly larger and more generous in what it has to say about human beings. In marked contrast with his earlier works, which generally purported to be about action and behavior, “Frame Analysis” is, as its subtitle announces, a study of “The Organization of Experience.”
As Goffman uses it, the term “experience” carries much of its original etymological meaning: it signifies an experiment, a test, an observation of facts or events. His concern here is less with how we act or behave than with how we perceive. “I am not addressing the structure of social life but the structure of experience individuals have at any moment of their social lives,” he explains at the outset. “My perspective is situational, meaning here a concern for what one individual can be alive to at a particular moment?’ According to Goffman, our experience of reality is mediated through a system of “frames.” Simply put, a “frame” is what we might in everyday language call a context or a frame of reference. The theory of frames means that human beings make the
An Essay on the Organization of Experience. By Erving Goffman. 586 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $12.50.
When the doctor says, “How are you?” does he really want to know? inchoate data of reality comprehensible by locating them in intelligible contexts. In itself, this is a banal observation, but Goffman applies it in a strikingly original way. Experience, he insists again and again, is not nearly so straightforward a thing as we commonly suppose—or rather, suppose we suppose, for deep down we are all perfectly aware of the complexity of life, especially social life. If we listen to ourselves and others carefully, as Goffman does, we ‘cannot help noticing, for example, that our words and actions rarely can be taken at face value.
When we greet an acquaintance with “Hi, how have you been?” we are not asking for a report on his well‐being. Nor are we pretending to ask for such a report. We are simply using a conventional verbal token that generally signifies an open and friendly relationship, that establishes a context or frame for the rest of our faceto‐face encounter with this person. (This convention, incidentally, is so deeply ingrained that a friendly family physician may say, “How are you?” as you step into his office, but when you sit down opposite his desk he has to ask, “What's the trouble?” in order to find out how you are.)
Pushing the point a bit further, we can see that when an individual enters any given situation, he looks for the context clues that establish frame, that tell him how to take what is going on. Conversely, if the people already in the situation are at all disposed toward helpfulness, they will make some effort to provide such clues. Frame clues come, of course, not only from the demeanor of the individuals involved in the situation, but also from the setting in which they are found. An office, for example, establishes a more businesslike and impersonal frame than a living room. Thus a businessman may unknot his tie during a friendly chat in his office, using this personal “looseness” to reframe what might otherwise have been felt as a tight situa——tion
Such an act need not imply bad faith or feigning. In his earlier writings Goffman probably would have said that the businessman undoes his tie in order to “present himself” as friendly, and the suggestion was inescapable that the show of friendliness was somehow distinct from friendliness itself. Now, however, Goffman's attention is on the situation itself and our experience of it. In this light the businessman should be seen as establishing a context in which friendly relationship is possible, as facilitating friendliness by making it perceptible.
To be sure, it is possible to exploit framing conventions for self‐serving purposes. There are and always have been “operators” who set their prey at ease by telling jokes and passing out cigars before moving in for the kill. Companies that sell desert plots at dinner parties provide a striking illustration of the cynical misuse of framing conventions, as does the salesman who closes a deal in a night club. On the other hand, this last example should serve to remind us that frames can be manipulated for benign purposes as well as sinister ones. Some salesmen may like to close deals while taking the client out on the town as a way of signifying their gratitude for his business
Fortunately‐ for our sanity, the exploitative manipulation of framing conventions is both dangerous to practice and difficult to maintain. Dangerous because the manipulator is in a peculiarly vulnerable position. If his misframing is discovered in time, the intended victim can turn the tables on. ‘him simply by going along with the game, accepting his version of reality at face value. This is what people do when they go to land‐rush dinners to get the free meal. And difficult because in most cases as soon as the manipulator gets what he wants, the frame he attempted to establish is discredited. “The Sting” was so much fun because Newman's and Redford's misframing not only succeeded but was never exposed. Anyone who saw the movie, though, will have a reasonably good idea of how rare such durable misframings are. In most cases, the victim will retrospectively reframe the entire situation; in our night club example, that is, he not only will recognize that the evening ended up in a sale, but also will come to feel that it was a sales pitch "all along"
Note here that the phrase “all along” is almost always used in an accusatory sense and refers exclusively to the fact that an exploitative misframing has been unmasked. An index of how seriously we take the charge of framing violations is the fact that we would almost always prefer to be thought guilty of opportunism than of frame manipulation. Thus a person will be willing to admit that he has taken advantage of a situation if this admission leaves him in a position to deny that this was what he had in mind “all along.”
Throughout “Frame Analysis” one gets a steady and reassuring sense that the framing conventions of a society constitute on the whole a rather well‐built structure, something not easily subject to significant tampering. Where the rules of interaction presented in such earlier volumes as “The Presentation of Self,” “Behavior in Public Places,” “Interaction Ritual,” and “Strategic Interaction” seemed to warn us that we were all caught up in a bizarre “communication game” where people were rarely what they seemed to want us to believe they were, the analysis of frames suggests that we are all equipped with programs and rule books that generally provide us with a dependable orientation to
Does this mean that the “selves” others present to us in our interactions with them are their “real” selves, that the mask and the face behind it bear the same countenance? Not in the least. We all play many roles—parent and child, subordinate and superordinate, customer, friend, listener, accuser, defender—none of which can ever contain the whole of our being. Then our real selves must lie outside our roles? Again Goffman says no. For if we were to assume that our real selves are “somehow more than social, more real, more biological, deeper, more genuine” than the various roles we play, we must assume also that in any relationship we have to others we are necessarily betraying ourselves, compromising our real selves, surrendering our authenticity
That is to say, if our real selves lie outside our social roles, as the champions of authenticity seem to be saying, then it follows that we can never really “be ourselves” in the presence of others—except insofar as we demonstrate our apartness from them by ignoring the interaction rules that establish social connectedness. The only authentic man is, then, the “Plain Dealer,” the character from Restoration comedy whose unremitting rudeness was taken to signify that he was always true to himself. We can see the modern equivalents of the Plain Dealer syndrome in the outlandish belief that unchecked impulses are the best indicators of the true state of the self.
Goffman, it seems to me, has always done his best writing on the question of the self and its relation to society, and nowhere has he handled this theme better than in “Frame Analysis.” Although we sense ourselves, he points out, as somehow larger than any of the roles we play, we normally do not feel that these roles are alien to us. When we are being, say, an attentive listener or an angry parent, we do so without any consciousness that there is some “real” us that is significantly different from these temporary manifestations. For Goffman, in short, the term “self” does not refer to any actual being who resides either inside or outside our situations; it refers, rather, to a sense we have of ourselves as somehow continuing through all the roles we play
More specifically, it refers to the principle of continuity itself as we recognize it in the deeds we have done and program it into our future actions. What we are capable of doing tells us who we are, and, conversely, we use our sense of who we are to determine what we will be capable of doing. Sense of self is the product of this reciprocal search for consistency. Fourteen years ago Goffman expressed this relationship perfectly in “Asylums”: “an important implication of being a good friend or a loyal brother is that one is the sort of person who can he a good friend or loyal brother. In failing to support one's wife and four children one becomes the sort of person who can fail in this way”
In the final analysis, Goffman has provided us with a new definition of the self and a new touchstone for authenticity. At a time when it is being widely proclaimed that our true selves can be expressed only through impulse and spontaneity, Goffman holds out for what seems to me an immeasurably more generous interpretation. According to the apostles of authenticity, the retrospective statement “What I should have done was” is a tip‐off to what our real selves wanted us to do: “I should have told him to go to hell,” “What I really wanted to do was just throw him out,” we say. And our analysts berate us for not having let our true feelings out, as though the notion that these impulses represent our true feelings were a foregone conclusion. “Well, why didn't you?” they say, as a challenge and accusation
To which Goffman would teach us to answer, “Because that's not the way I operate. Because that's not the sort of person I am:”. He will not permit our selves to be reduced to our desires. We are, rather, what we feel ourselves to be.
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- February 01, 2024 | VOL. 181, NO. 2 CURRENT ISSUE pp.83-170
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Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience
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Why Collaboration Is Critical in Uncertain Times
- Jenny Fernandez,
- Kathryn Landis,
Working together can catalyze innovation — even in risk-averse companies.
Recent research suggests that when resources become limited, many business leaders’ inclinations are to become risk-averse and protect their own interests, fostering a culture of conservatism and prioritizing stability over innovation. In such circumstances, the emphasis often shifts toward preserving existing assets, reducing expenditures, and maintaining the status quo, which can hinder the organization’s ability to adapt, pivot, and thrive in a competitive environment. However, it’s precisely during these challenging times that the untapped potential of collaboration can be a game-changer. If you’re a leader struggling with risk-taking, here are four strategies to make the mindset and behavior shifts to become more collaborative and unlock growth.
A client of ours — let’s call her Mary, a senior executive in the technology industry — faced significant challenges managing a large organization amid economic uncertainty. Both her company and industry were experiencing tough times, resulting in budget cuts and a hiring freeze. Moreover, she was tasked with exceeding her annual revenue goals to compensate for the underperformance of a struggling business line, which was beyond her direct control.
- Jenny Fernandez , MBA, is an executive and team coach, Columbia and NYU faculty, and future of work and brand strategist. She works with senior leaders and their teams to become more collaborative, innovative, and resilient. Her work spans Fortune 500 companies, startups, and higher education. Jenny has been recognized by LinkedIn as a “Top Voice in Executive Coaching, Leadership Development, and Personal Branding” and was invited to join the prestigious Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 Coaches community. She is a Gen Z advocate. Connect with her on LinkedIn .
- Kathryn Landis , MBA, is the founder and CEO of the global coaching and advisory firm Kathryn Landis Consulting, which helps senior leaders empower and inspire their teams, create a lasting positive impact, and become the best versions of themselves in work and life. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and a former leader at American Express and Automatic Data Processing. Connect with her on LinkedIn .
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We thank Guy Aridor, James Brand, Alessandro Bonatti, Peter Cihon, Jean Pierre Dubé, Joe Doyle, Ben Edelman, Liran Einav, Sara Ellison, Maryam Farboodi, Samuel Goldberg, Yizhou Jin, Garrett Johnson, Gaston Illanes, Markus Mobius, Devesh Raval, Dominik Rehse, Tobias Salz, Bryan Stuart, Taheya Tarannum, Joel Waldfogel, and Mike Whinston for helpful comments, and Abbie Natkin, Taegan Mullane, Doris Pan, Ryan Perry, Bea Rivera for excellent research assistance. We are also grateful to Han Choi for copyediting assistance. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Institute on Aging, Grant Number T32- AG000186 (Li) and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No 214106 (Li). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Federal Reserve System, or the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Mert Demirer is a former paid postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft (a firm active in the cloud market, which this paper studies).
Diego Jiménez Hernández is a former paid postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft.
Dean Li is a former intern at Microsoft.
Sida Peng is a paid employee and minority equity holder at Microsoft.
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Police called to investigate alleged LGBTQ propaganda at Russian ‘My Little Pony’ convention
Police in Moscow were called to investigate alleged LGBTQ propaganda at a fan event dedicated to the cartoon series “My Little Pony,” organizers said Sunday.
The Mi Amore convention was closed by organizers early Saturday after officers arrived at the venue in the Russian capital, despite police being unable to find evidence of illegal activity.
“The police received a complaint claiming that our event promoted non-traditional relationships and related symbols, adult content for minors, and general horror and darkness,” event organizers wrote on Russian social media site VK Sunday. “Two police checks did not uphold these complaints.”
They said police initially asked them to shutter the event a few hours earlier than originally planned, but that organizers decided to close the convention earlier still after hearing unconfirmed reports of more officers heading toward the venue. Both organizers and volunteers were able to leave without incident, they said.
The convention, which features an animated horse with a mane styled in the colors of the Russian flag as its logo, catered to “My Little Pony’s” subset of adult fans and planned to feature live music performances as well as stalls selling merchandise.
Although aimed at children and focused on the magical power of friendship, “My Little Pony” has previously prompted anxiety in Russia, with some fearing that the show could run afoul of the country’s anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Russian movie database Kinopoisk changed its rating for the animated series to an adult-only “18+” in December 2023, local news outlets reported, not long after a Russian court declared the “global LGBTQ+ movement” to be an extremist organization. Although no reason was given for the change, viewers speculated that the decision could be linked to the character Rainbow Dash, whose multicolored mane and tail are similar to the LGBTQ pride flag. The show also released an episode that featured a same-sex couple in 2019.
The Russian Supreme Court banned what the government called the LGBTQ “movement” in Russia in November 2023, labeling it an extremist organization. The ruling was part of a crackdown on LGBTQ people in the increasingly conservative country where “traditional family values” have become a cornerstone of President Vladimir Putin’s 24-year rule.
Russian laws prohibit public displays of symbols of extremist organizations, and at least three people who displayed rainbow-colored items have received jail time or fines since the ruling.
The Associated Press