Essay: Goffman

Goffman (1999) has typically been renowned for exposing how we as social actors engineer our impressions, and the tools with which we do this through his famous dramaturgical analysis. However, his ideas surrounding impression management has also been used to expose how individuals might accomplish gender identity; Goffman’s work has not specifically been framed in feminist scholarship, yet his discussion regarding the social construction of gender as the ‘opiate of the masses’ suggests it otherwise should (Goffman, 1977, p.315). He discusses sexual segregation as a critical matter, and exposes the crucial role gender performance plays as the hidden mythical base upon which ‘social interactions and social structures are built’ (Goffman, 1977, p.301.) This discussion aims to highlight the ways in which gender is maintained, and the potential implications of this; Goffman’s valuable insights on performance could provide us with a new conceptualisation of gender, and an understanding of how it may even cease to exist within our collective social consciousness.
To help us understand the significance of performance in gender identity, Goffman initially exposes that this societal division has a social, rather than biological basis. He argues this despite gender appearing justified in this way; Goffman suggests that ‘innate sex [‘] differences were (and are) put forward as a warrant for our social arrangements’ (Goffman, 1977, p.302.) Goffman therefore helps us understand how gender is constructed and socially justified, being otherwise based on ‘very slight biological differences’ (Goffman, 1977, p.302.) He argues that sex differences are amplified through our social norms; selective mating, for example, means that males are often bigger than their female counterparts. Customary age differences between partners is also viewed as giving the illusion that males possess certain ‘masculine’ characteristics, geared towards greater dominance, experience and control. Goffman describes how ‘thus the image can be sustained that all women are muscularly [and] less developed than all men in all respects’ (Goffman, 1977, p.321.) Goffman therefore demonstrates how supposedly biological gendered attributes such as height and strength can have social origins. This clarification of social and biological influences on gender has led many feminists, alongside Goffman, to differentiate between what is meant by ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (Oakley 1985, Frye 1983.) It is accepted that there are a few marginal ‘sex’ biological differences between males and females, yet ‘gender’ denotes social norms and behaviours arising from our collective conceptualisation of gender. The aim of defining gender is to argue for its relative unimportance, indicating the way we converse and interact significantly amplifies small differences between the ‘sex-classes’. Indeed, Goffman suggests that ‘it is [only] for membership sorting that biology provides a neat and tidy device’ (Goffman, 1977, p.330.) Goffman, in exposing the illusionary nature of gender, therefore gives prominence to the idea that gender identity must be performed.
Goffman’s ideas regarding the mythical relationship between biology and gender has been supported by empirical studies. Garfinkel (1984) conveyed a similar message after researching his case study of Agnes, who transitioned from a male to female identity. The study was thought to have demonstrated ‘how gender is created through interaction and at the same time structures interaction’ (Zimmerman and West, 1987, p.131.) Mead (2002) also conducted cross cultural studies of gender, finding that temperament was more often linked to cultural, rather than biological, influences. Such research gives rise to the idea that gender has a social basis, which in turn emphasises the importance of the performative nature of gender identity.
However, it must also be acknowledged that Goffman only refers to males and females in his discussion of the construction of gender identity. This is a great weakness, as postmodernists would argue that he has neglected a range of other gender identities outside the traditional notions of gender as ‘men’ and ‘women’. This failure to acknowledge some areas of gender identity suggests that Goffman’s ideas are not complete in giving a comprehensive understanding of it. However, others have demonstrated how his ideas can apply to other gender identity groups, despite failing to do so himself. Butler (1988) in particular discussed individuals who cross-dress, and how ‘in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself’ (Butler, 1988, p.31.) Goffman’s discussion on gender, despite being limited to males and females can therefore have interesting applications to other gender identity groups.
Goffman explains how one of the ways social actors learn about appropriate expressions of gender is through early socialisation. The way in which gender identity is collectively learnt and performed is important, as it is thought that the ‘doing of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production’ (Zimmerman and West, 1987, p.126.) It seems therefore that, if Goffman is right in suggesting socialisation is important in acquiring appropriate gendered behaviours, then it is our upbringing which is integral to the reproduction of our current societal conceptualisation of gender. Goffman describes how boys and girls have markedly different socialisation patterns, as they are given ‘different treatment, acquire different experiences, [and] enjoy and suffer different expectations’ (Goffman, 1977, p.303). The family unit also supports strong gendered self-identification as the differential treatment observed by siblings means ‘each sex becomes a training device for the other’ (Goffman, 1977, p.314). Goffman is therefore important in suggesting how we acquire gender identity, in order for it to be successful performed ‘on stage’ during our interactions with others.
Zimmerman and West (1987) can be viewed to build on Goffman’s ideas regarding socialisation, in their suggestions that it may be within our biology that the predisposition to retain ideas of gender identity resides; they suggest that it is our human nature which gives us the ability to identify masculine and feminine gender displays (Zimmerman and West, 1987.) This is supported again by empirical evidence; Bem (1989) demonstrated that the young have clear ideas about displays of gender identity. Cahill (1986) additionally supports this notion, suggesting that the categorization practises the young acquire are integral to later displays of masculine and feminine behaviours. This biological predisposition to be attentive towards gender displays can be integrated in Goffman’s ideas about socialisation, in suggesting how we might acquire conceptions of identity in the first place. Goffman is therefore able to provide an invaluable insight, alongside such complementary ideas, of how gender identity is acquired, and how social actors might become indoctrinated to the supposed differences between males and females.
Goffman (1999) suggests that social interaction is fundamental in the expression of gender identity, with all social actors possessing a significant micro-ecological position in relation to others. In social settings ‘the opportunity is available, often apparently unavoidably so, for someone to emerge as dominant, albeit in regard to trivial matters’ (Goffman, 1977, p.324). This can occur through turn taking, interruptions, and subtle noticeable differences in the proportionality of expression. Goffman’s exploration of the expression of gender through discourse has led others to carry out similar research; West and Zimmerman (1987) have similarly identified the significance of gendered speaking patters. Gender differences within the interaction order are again argued to be the result of social, rather than biological differences; Goffman argues that ‘these scenes do not so much allow for the expression of natural differences between the sexes, as for the production of that difference itself’ (Goffman, 1977, p.324). However, it is not just spoken interaction which is deemed significant, but also interactions in the absence of speech in what Goffman calls ‘silent projects’. These include expressions such as the arrangement of items, gestures and use of ‘props’ within performance (Goffman, 1999). Such instances of interaction are thought to play into the socialisation patterns of young; Goffman suggests that individuals are naturally able to ‘scan any on-going social activity for the means through which to express gender’ which is a process ‘learnt in childhood’ (Goffman, 1977, p.324) Goffman is therefore important in demonstrating the differences in social interaction, in highlighting the way in which individuals perform gender identity.
This micro lens that Goffman adopts can be said to be significant in reflecting ‘the personal is political’ doctrine of the feminist movement; West (1996) suggests that Goffman assumes a feminist status in effectively demonstrating ‘an appreciation of how power works in spoken interaction [‘] and an appreciation of mundane conversation as a means of discovering this’ (West, 1996, p. 360). Indeed, matters which could be viewed as insignificant in small scale interactions could now be reconsidered to have a monumental influence on our larger conceptualisations of gender. Gardner’s (1995) research on the significance of evaluative commentary used by men on female passers-by in the street for example, could be viewed as significant in light of Goffman’s ideas. Goffman’s unique perspective and methodology in uncovering such hidden patterns in social life has also been significant; West (1996) reflects how this has been a large contribution to feminist theory, in ‘opening up the possibility of studying the ‘personal’ [‘] as a sociological topic’ (West, 1996, p. 364). Goffman can therefore be viewed as significant in unveiling the value of small scale performances of gender identity, in more widely establishing gender within our social consciousness and, in turn, giving prominence to feminist ideas.
Goffman’s work is also important in informing us how gender performance is executed by individuals, perhaps within their own interests. This is significant in suggesting why social actors might continue to present distinct gender identities. Goffman describes how social roles may be the cause of this, as they are often defined by gender. Breastfeeding for example, is a ‘quite temporary biologically grounded constraint’ but, despite this, primary caregiving as a female phenomenon ‘turns out to be extended culturally’ (Goffman, 1977, p.313.) Because of this cultural construction of femininity, men are drawn to such attributes in females which allow them to appropriately express their gender identity, and vice versa; Goffman describes how, ‘given these social definitions, coalition formation is a natural response [‘] for only in this way will one be able to acquire what one needs’ (Goffman, 1977, p.313.) It may be therefore that gender as a dividing line in society is continually being reproduced because of self-regulation by individuals in their interactions, in order to attain the standards of attractiveness defined by society; indeed, Goffman suggests that ‘who a male finds he needs if he is to act according to his nature is just who needs him so that she can act according to hers’ (Goffman, 1977, p.313) This could suggest that it is not until the current conceptualisation of social roles is altered, will the current reciprocal trend between the sexes cease to support the notion of gender in creating gender specific realities.
West and Zimmerman (1987) however have offered critique to these ideas. They argue that the notion of ‘gender as a role obscures the work that is involved in producing gender’ on an everyday level; they argue instead that social actors ‘organise their various and manifold activities to reflect or express gender’, whilst still being ‘disposed to perceive the behaviour of others in a similar light’ (West and Zimmerman, 1987, p.127) This suggests that Goffman fails to perceive participants in interaction as active interpreters, as his work suggests that the performance of gender identity is one with some degree of reflexivity and passivity. West and Zimmerman (1987) are therefore seen to take a more active audience approach to gender displays. However, there is no evidence yet to prove whether or not we are fully conscious of all the ways in which we might construct gender identity in interactions. Goffman’s insights on how gender fits into his dramaturgical analysis therefore still remains valuable to us as social researchers, and remains valid until such a matter is brought to light.
Goffman’s work can also be criticised for being somewhat outdated. His ideas indicate that women traditionally occupy jobs which are not unlike the roles they play in households (Goffman, 1977.) Females however can be seen to be taking on more ‘male’ jobs in the present day, which could be seen as contradicting this assertion. However, despite the fact that roles are less polarized today there is still a great deal of inequity, and Goffman’s work can help to explain the difficulties individuals face in professions considered inappropriate in for their sex. Indeed, Miller (1999) demonstrated during interviews how male nurses ‘explicitly proclaimed their heterosexuality [‘] by mentioning their wives or children’; Female officers also conversely stressed their ‘macho experience’ and ‘detail[ed] their credentials’ (Miller, 1999, p. 106). Goffman’s work on impression management can therefore still be seen to be applicable in individuals undertaken ‘inappropriate’ gender roles today.
Goffman identifies an integral feature of gender performance as the paradoxical high regard held for women, yet their status as a disadvantaged group; he argues that this is a defining characteristic in the female reality in comparison with other marginalised groups within society. He describes the ‘courtship complex’ as a process in which women are simultaneously advantaged and disadvantaged by their biological ‘sex-class’; Goffman describes how females constitute themselves as entities to which ‘a male can properly extend his helping hand’ (312), meaning that they are held in high regard yet defined as vulnerable individuals in need of assistance. This process operates alongside the ‘courtesy system’, which Goffman explains is conveyed through interpersonal rituals. Males are expected to carry an obligation of protection of ‘delicate’ females, yet this means that those women who fail to meet the societal requirements as ‘the old and ugly’ are ‘continuously threatened with not being treated in a manner as befits the human nature their sex-class’ (Goffman, 1977, p.312). Such women are therefore expected to ‘respond by being very careful not to press their case, or demand or intrude’ lest they convey even less of a feminine nature (Goffman, 1977, p.312.) Goffman’s work in this area is therefore significant in exposing how our societal expectations and shared standards of femininity and masculinity could infringe on the way we conduct ourselves within interpersonal relations.
The insights Goffman provides on the expression of gender could indicate why women exist as a disenfranchised group, and, more importantly, why they cannot escape this reality. Males in the lives of women such as fathers, brothers and sons are said to ‘transmit to her enough of what they themselves possess [‘] to give her a vested interest in the corporation’ which means that women are placed in ‘coalition with menfolk’ (Goffman, 1977, p.308). This presumably delays significant social change as attempts by women to change the restrictive definition of them as a social group through an altered performance possesses a great deal of risk. These societal expectations however are extremely significant, as ‘a woman could only realise the ideals of femininity by holding herself away [‘] of the world beyond the household’, which can give rise to very significant ‘political consequence[s]’ (Goffman, 1977, p.322.) Perhaps Goffman’s small scale analysis is therefore successful in being able to explain some of the larger social patterns at work in society; his understanding of the performance of gender identity could rationalise some problematic gendered behaviour, such as the limited participation of women in the political sphere.
However, what must be considered is the trend in recent years to highlight the disenfranchised position of males, which is an element largely absent in Goffman’s discussion of gender and gender performance. Connell (2005) was a large contributor in this movement in moving away from the focus of females towards addressing male restrictions, in discussing the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Kimmel (1994) discusses how ‘masculinity as a homosocial enactment is fraught with danger, with the risk of failure, and with intense relentless competition’ (Kimmel, 1994, p. 214.) Goffman can therefore be perceived as neglecting to understand how the male ‘sex-class’ is similarly disadvantaged as women by the polarized ‘sex-classes’. However, the way in which Goffman explains the gendered behaviours of both the sexes, and describes the marginal differences between men and women could be a basis upon which to liberate both groups.
To conclude, it appears that the lessons we can take from Goffman’s work on the performance of gender identity is extensive. An understanding of how gender is constructed as a divisive force through socialisation, and the way in which gender is further instilled by societal expectations and maintained through interactions gives us an idea of the extensive framework that feminists and social activists are attempting to dismantle. However, it is apparent with the trends in recent years that progress in this area is occurring, which may suggest that social ideas surrounding femininity and masculinity is slowly being readdressed; as Goffman has identified, individuals in modern industrial society are beginning to abandon the belief that ‘women’s traditional place is a natural expression of their natural capacities’ (Goffman, 1977, p.309.) However, it is perhaps with this greater knowledge that Goffman has supplied that this progress can be further enhanced; as Goffman himself recognised, without these gendered beliefs ‘the whole arrangement between the sex-classes ceases to make sense’ (Goffman, 1977, p.309.) West and Zimmerman (1987) also indicate that social movements like feminism based on such ideas can provide the momentum to make society question the existing gendered arrangements. The great potential for reform is also an acknowledgement of Butler in her suggestions- in light of Goffman’s work that -‘gender reality is performative which means [‘] that it is only real to the extent that is performed’ (Butler, 1988, p.527). Perhaps therefore Goffman has provided us with the understanding necessary to further implement change to alter societal conceptions of gender, the need for which is slowly becoming more apparent in sociological discourse (West, 1996). This deepened understanding Goffman has provided of how gender operates in society could lead to an eventual reconceptualization of the network of gender relations which could, potentially, lead to its eventual demise.

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