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Erving Goffman The Children of Sex-Workers in Bangladesh

Erving Goffman was one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable practitioners of social science, a sociologist universally acknowledged for his singular talent. Of course, Goffman was not only concerned with developing a general sociology of interaction and experience. Status symbols identify the social capacity to be imputed to a person in ‘ordinary communication’ and thus how others should treat that person. Unlike collective symbols, which draw persons together irrespective of their differences into a ‘single moral community’, status symbols serve to ‘visibly divide the social world into categories of persons … helping to maintain solidarity within a category and hostility between different categories’ (1951: 294). Goffman is fascinated by the possibility that persons may use status symbols falsely to signify a status they do not actually possess. His writing is concerned with the pressures that play upon behaviour as a result of the fact that a symbol of status is not always a very good test of status’. Only then does Goffman restrict his attention to one sub-set of status symbols: class status symbols.

People can pretend to possess an unentitled class status by their misleading use of the appropriate symbols. However, their misrepresentation does not provoke legal sanctions. They ‘commit a presumption, not a crime’. This form of presumptuousness does not overwhelm the world because there are a number of ‘restrictive devices’ (1951: 297–301) limiting the fraudulent use of class status symbols. These include ‘moral restrictions’, fl owing from constraints in the person’s conscience, to ‘cultivation restrictions’, where investments of time and energy are called for (such as playing golf competently). These restrictions tend to operate in clusters, effectively cross-referencing each other. They are manifest at the level of ‘ordinary communication(GREG SMITH, 2006,pp:19).

For the first time, the social self is introduced. Adaptation to loss sheds light on the relation ‘between involvements and the selves that are involved’. The paper continues Goffman’s interest in the disjunctive: here it is not the discrepancy between actual and implied class status but rather the problematic discrepancy between the mark’s initial conception of self and the one needing to be cooled out. The individual, Goffman argues, can acquire a self from any status, role or relationship in which they become involved, and an alteration in the status, role or relationship will bring about an alteration in the person’s self-conception (1952: 453). Cooling out is only necessary when the person is involuntarily deprived of a status, role or relationship that reflects unfavourably upon the person, in other words where loss gives rise to humiliation(GREG SMITH, 2006,pp:20)

Goffman’s next presentation is his basic terminology for the analysis of this species of social order, including ‘social occasion’, ‘interplay’ (a precursor of ‘encounter’), ‘accredited participation’, and ‘safe supplies’. His (1934) contention that taking the attitude or role of the other is a fundamental feature of human social life was very fully absorbed by Goffman. Mead saw that the capacity to take the attitude of the other – to look at things from the standpoint of the other – was the key to understanding how the self developed(GREG SMITH, 2006,pp:35).

In the style of the act, in the manner in which the act is performed, in the relation of the act to the context in which it occurs – in all these ways something about the actor is presented in the character of his act. The tendency for the character of the actor to overflow into the character of his acts is usually called the expressive aspect of behavior (Goffman, 1953, pp-50). Goffman makes signifi cant inroads toward clarification with the important conceptual trilogy of ‘social gathering’, ‘social situation’, ‘social occasion’. These concepts identify different dimensions of co-presence. They provide a stable conceptual core to a sociological project that was remarkably consistent yet neither linear nor straightforwardly cumulative (Williams 1980).

An immediate difficulty is that Goffman is not consistent in his use of such key terms for the human being as self, the individual and person (Manning 1976; Cahill 1998). This complicates the task of tracing continuities and developments in Goffman’s thinking. Often, Goffman simply follows standard usage in regarding ‘self’ as the seat of conscious awareness and identity, ‘individual’ as carrying notions of singularity and distinctness, and ‘person’ as implying an embodied agent who acts in some capacity. Goffman also draws upon established Chicagoan notions, particularly to emphasize the social character of personhood. He quotes Robert E. Park’s 1926 formulation: ‘We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons’. Goffman seems to endorse Park’s conception of the person as a role player with mask in place (‘our truer self’ Park says, ‘the self we would like to be’). Goffman broadly employs the terms individual, self and person in these ways, although his usage is not consistent across his writings. As we shall see, the term ‘self’ is especially troublesome in this regard. Goffman conceptualizes self in a range of ways across his writings as his thinking develops. For example, the self of ‘Moral career’ is said to reside in prevailing social system arrangements (1961a: 168), which contrasts with ‘The insanity of place’ self as a ‘portrait’ of the individual encoded ‘in the actions of the subject himself’. A signifi cant change is announced in 1971 when Goffman suggests the need to introduce a range of ‘technically-defi ned terms’ because the notions ‘individual’ and ‘person’ prove too imprecise for ‘fi ne-grain analysis’. Even so, self does not completely disappear from the later writings – the concept is just too fl exible to be so readily abandoned – but it is augmented by terms such as ‘participation status’ and its frame analytic offspring(GREG SMITH, 2006,pp:95-96).