Your Morning Goffman

via chris uggen’s weblog: From Goffman’s (1983) “The Interaction Order”,

“I have no universal cure for the ills of sociology. A multitude of myopias limit the glimpse we get of our subject matter. To define one source of blindness and bias as central is engagingly optimistic. Whatever our substantive focus and whatever our methodological persuasion, all we can do I believe is to keep faith with the spirit of natural science, and lurch along, seriously kidding ourselves that our rut has a forward direction. We have not been given the credence and weight that economists lately have acquired, but we can almost match them when it comes to the failure of rigorously calculated predictions. Certainly our systematic theories are every bit as vacuous as theirs: we manage to ignore almost as many critical variables as they do. We do not have the esprit that anthropologists have, but our subject matter at least has not been obliterated by the spread of the world economy. So we have an undiminished opportunity to overlook the relevant facts with our very own eyes. We can’t get graduate students who score as high as those who go into Psychology, and at its best the training the latter get seems more professional and more thorough than what we provide. So we haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it.”


Goffman is in my top 3 favorite theorists. I highly recommend his work on everything from asylums and total institutions to con men and his analysis of “Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure“. Goffman is a master of analogy, drawing on the experience of a con man cooling out a mark to explain a variety of social phenomena that involve failing to meet expectations, either immediate ones like making money in a con game, or societal ones. Here’s a medium-sized excerpt that gets at the heart of the idea:

An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.

A second general solution to the prob­lem of cooling the mark out consists of offering him a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become. Usually the alternative presented to the mark is a compromise of some kind, providing him with some of the trappings of his lost status as well as [xxx] some of its spirit. A lover may be asked to become a friend; a student of medicine may be asked to switch to the study of dentistry; a boxer may become a trainer; a dying person may be asked to broaden and empty his worldly loves so as to embrace the All-Father that is about to receive him. Sometimes the mark is allowed to retain his status but is required to fulfill it in a different environment: the honest policeman is transferred to a lonely beat; the too zealous priest is encouraged to enter a monastery; an unsatisfactory plant manager is shipped off to another branch. Sometimes the mark is “kicked upstairs” and given a courtesy status such as “Vice President.” In the game for social roles, transfer up, down, or away may all be consolation prizes.

A related way of handling the mark is to offer him another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed. After his fall from grace, he is allowed to retrace his steps and try again. Officer selection programs in the army, for example, often provide for possibilities of this kind. In general, it seems that third and fourth chances are seldom given to marks, and that second chances, while often given, are seldom taken. Failure at a role removes a person from the company of those who have succeeded, but it does not bring him back ‑‑ in spirit, anyway‑to the society of those who have not tried or are in the process of trying. The person who has failed in a role is a constant source of embarrassment, for none of the standard patterns of treatment is quite applicable to him. Instead of taking a second chance, he usually goes away to another place where his past does not bring confusion to his present.”

I’m sure we can all think of other examples – community college, vocational training, etc.
Anyway, this has been your morning Goffman.

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