Erving Goffman, ecologist

by Suspended Reason

One of the S2 directions is an increased focus on ecological frameworks, superseding some of the strategic interaction frameworks of S1. I want to bridge these paradigms through Erving Goffman’s work. He, of course, was the author of 1969’s Strategic Interaction—but he was also a student of ecology and ethology.

In each of Goffman’s books, he throws out all the vocabulary and interpretive structure painstakingly set up in his previous tome, and describe the world (more or less) anew. But there is a core eco-interactive picture that, even as his paradigms shift, remains stable. I’d like to outline it here as the basic Goffmanian worldview, which is also the basic eco/ethological worldview.

  1. Ecologically huddled (i.e. sensorily proximate) organisms are necessarily drawn into a game’ of reading and writing to each another. We read other organisms to better understand & act on our environment. And we, being read in turn, attempt to manage other organisms’ sensory impressions of us, so as to manage their behavior and secure better outcomes for ourselves. Any vector of observation eventually becomes a vector of manipulation.

  2. In order to be believed, and taken as-if, our performances must be coherent (in the sense that the various evidencing cues and signals complement rather than contradict each other) and costly (in the signaling sense, that we only tend to trust displays that would be proportionally more expensive to fake). A definition” (Presentation of Self 1956) or line” (Interaction Ritual 1967) or frame” (Frame Analysis 1974) is just a coherent sense of what’s going on in a given environmental slice. A sense which participants are constantly performing and interpreting and updating.

  3. Aligned, cooperating organisms tend to supportively uphold each others’ definitions/frames/lines. Organisms in conflict, meanwhile, try to undermine or get behind” each others’ frontstages, and gain access to backstages, to gather valuable information—this is where Goffman’s espionage metaphor of social interaction shines. (The default assumption here is that it’s valuable for an organism to have access to true” information, and it’s especially valuable to possess information that adversaries are trying to conceal.)

  4. No two organisms are ever perfectly aligned; no two organisms are perfectly misaligned. Coordination always contains margins of conflict, and conflict always contains margins of coordination, so that real-world interaction rituals/games always end up being sophisticated mixtures of revelation and concealment. (This fourth item comes out of Goffman’s proximity to Thomas Schelling, with his mixed motives game” concept.)