26 september 2009


Goffman reveals all (nearly) - Groups & Groupthinking

   "No man is as much himself as when playing a part."
    "Society is an insane asylum run by the inmates."
   -- Goffman
    "If mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago. The theory is plain enough; but they are prone to mischief, 'to every good work reprobate.'"
 -- Hazlitt + Heidelberger

Note on the links

This continues a series of pieces in Nederlog - mostly in Dutch, so far - about Groups & Groupthinking, and indeed human nature on average, that are under these links - just from this year's Nederlog (the [*] items are mostly or wholly English):

So... I am really serious about this, and indeed I believe this is very important for a true understanding of human nature, which is also why I give a little introduction before arriving at my theme today, which is Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life", which you should read if you are in any way concerned with sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology, law or history, for it is a truly important book.

1. Ordinary men and their ordinary faiths and beliefs
2. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
3. The basics of social selfs

4. Some of the consequences  

1. Ordinary men and their ordinary faiths and beliefs

As you may know, I am not an optimist about ordinary men, which is an assessment or feeling that is not popular among ordinary men and the politicians who speak and rule in their names, and also I do not believe that all men are ordinary, for I think a few are better and some are worse, though in each case we talk about rather small percentages.

And as it happens, though I am living in what is nominally a Calvinist or Protestant country, which is in this respect much like the United States, these are quite unpopular opinions, because the vast majority of ordinary men desires to believe all men are equal, and even the idols they adore, the politicians they admire, and the reverends they believe are as equal, as common, and as ordinary as they are - in which they are mostly right, not because it is so in natural fact, but because it so happens that in modern democracies ordinary men and who pose like them do have some chance for becoming a celeb, as the phrase seems to be, even while or perhaps just because these are evidently small minded, morally weak phoneys of little or no valuable talents at all.

This is somewhat odd in nominally Protestant countries, simply because for the first 450 years of Protestantism this basically taught something quite different: We are all sinners, and most of us, or at least all the neighbours of another Protestant domination are, and certainly all evil Papists, and they will all go to hell and burn everlastingly, in rains of fire and brimstones, in lakes of burning sulphur, all because our infinitely powerful, infinitely loving, all-knowing Protestant God desired it, for nothing happens in this world without His making it so.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I am not an optimist about ordinary men, for - I hold - if you really believe that, there is something wrong with you, both intellectually and morally, for intellectually it has no rational foundation at all, and morally it seems like sadism for eternity.

Another reason, that is connected with the previous one, is that for centuries the same Protestants, indeed like the Catholics, have persecuted, butchered, burned and tortured hundreds and hundreds of thousands of their fellow men, often their neighbours or fellow country men, who spoke the same language and had the same background, except for having a slightly different taste as regards some article of faith.

Anybody who takes the trouble to read some of the evidence - say: the Reformation under Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant taste for getting rich from slavery - will find endless lists of cruelties, mass murders, tortures, and just plain personal sadism disguised as religion, and all in The Name Of The Allmighty.

Indeed, if you want to understand the psychological spirit of Protestantism, especially of the American variety, Nathaniel Hawthorne is quite revealing, and he wrote from a very intimate personal knowledge of the system, and a very good understanding of ordinary folks and their ordinary Protestant leaders: He effectively portrays them, I should say, in "The Scarlet Letter" and many of his short stories, as utter hypocrites moved by a special protestant kind of sanctimonious sadism, that finds great joy in persecuting and punishing people.

Put otherwise, if you want to forget about the obvious sadism and most of the hypocrisies, as most people do (and ordinary folks don't even know about them, normally, nor do they want to know), it illustrates a lot about the proclivities of ordinary men for groupthinking and totalitarianism, about their intolerance, and about their willingness to meddle in another person's life, health and chances, mostly, it would seem, for no better reason than that it pleases them to abuse others because they were abused themselves.

And the same is true of the Catholics and the other religions, and indeed of virtually all political parties: all are hardly disguised bids for absolute power of specific persons and groups, aiming at the subjugation or destruction of any body and any group who doesn't agree or hasn't already been subjected, all for sentiments well sketched by Mark Twain in his War Prayer:

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle - be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."

2. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

If you have considered my site somewhat seriously, you almost certainly have found that most of it concerns philosophy, in a somewhat broad sense, because I also deal with some historians and literary writers as if they are philosophers - which I do because I think they are, and indeed tend to be factually more interesting and informed, and stylistically more readable, than most supposedly "real" philosophers - and you also may have found that my philosophy-section contains quite a lot of what has often been described as the most cynical aspersions of mankind, by writers and thinkers I also clearly admire in quite a few ways, such as Machiavelli, Boétie, Hobbes, Mandeville, Swift and Chamfort, all of whom had a low opinion of ordinary men, mostly for the reason Swift formulated thus:

"Most men are as fit to think as they are fit to fly"

and because they believed, as Chamfort said so well, and I agree, that in consequence

"Presque toute l'Histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs."

Indeed, if you disagree - as you probably do - you will tend to disagree to the extent of your ignorance of history.

But most modern men disagree, and hold - or pretend they hold - a far more optimistic view of mankind on average than I do, or indeed than Machiavelli, Boétie, Hobbes, Mandeville, Swift and Chamfort did, very probably because believing so will tend to give them better feelings, while it almost certainly will much improve their own social standing. The reason is that all groups tend to be based on the belief that the members of all other groups are subtly or grossly mistaken both about the real facts and moral values, which only Our Group sees truly and properly, in the end (as God will also reveal to Us, eventually, if we do not deviate from His ways, as outlined by Our Leaders and Our Clergy or Our Priests) because ordinary men just love to believe that they - that is: all and only the members of their Group - are truly Right and Good, and everybody else is a little or very inferior, and almost anything is allowed to be done to whoever is not one of Us, or opposes Us.

It so happens that these rather plain facts - read a decent history of the Reformation, of Cromwell's era, of Western colonialism, of the Inquisition, of the Second World War, of Stalin's Russia or Mao's China - are hardly discussed rationally in most of the so-called social sciences.

And it also is true that there are a few exceptions, and I have listed them already - and indeed there are more, for not everybody is blind, nor ordinary, nor wiling to deceive in the name of social science or keeping up the decent pretenses of decency: Erasmus, Butler, Hume, Mill, Mosca, Weber, Burnham, Orwell, Aron, Laing, Zinoviev and in psychology especially Milgram and Goffman. (*)

And now I have - finally: I wanted to briefly skech in a little background and context: see also the links - arrived at one of the great thinkers and investigators in social psychology (let us say) of the Twentieth Century: Ervin Goffman, who lived from 1922-1982, whose most famous book is "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life", of which I am going to quote a few pieces from the first few pages to outline his fundamental position, which - it seems to me - is usually not well summarized by others, because they lack his insight (or as these others probably would wish to claim: are not as cynical) and clearness of style.

3. The basics of social selves

It seems to me that Goffman is often at best partially understood, because most who read them believe what they read is either mostly normal, everyday behavior or else exaggerated, so I will give just a few quotations from the very first pages of "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" ($), with some comments of mine, and to display the man, his style and his theory.

I start with the first two paragraphs of its preface, and remark that Goffman has the same incisive style in all I read of him. The Preface starts thus:

I mean this report report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organized within the physical confines of a building or plant. (p. xi)

Here one very important point to notice is that Goffman speaks effectively of face-groups, or at most groups consisting of face-groups, and not about classes, masses, or statistical aggregates.

I think this is very important because I think that is the real and experienced and acted upon human measure: human beings as they appear to be and interact with other human beings in personal contact in face-groups, for all more comprehensive sociological container concepts are abstracts, that mostly manage to bypass what is really important.

And the other important point is that Goffman does indeed present, as he says, "a sort of handbook", and quite thoroughly so, though I myself would have preferred if he had written "socio-psychological" here (or some such term) rather than "sociological" because of what's involved in the previous point: Human actions, decisions and experiences that happen in the context of small face-groups.

Goffman continues

A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. (p. xi)

This is also true, and in fact is due to his effective decision to deal with human face-groups and what makes them run and work (or deteriorate).

Goffman continues

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance: The principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the ways in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the the impressions they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. (p. xi)

And indeed this is so, and may be summarized as: It's all role-playing; all deception; all impression-management - or if that is not all, then all of it is based on that. Also, much of it happens with the best of intentions, and sincerely, as with parents and children, teachers and pupils, yea politicians and followers, occasionally. (Also, Goffman of course uses "he" in the old English grammatical sense: man or woman equally, except that women these days tend to wear more paint than men and than ever, apart from the theatre).

Goffman was also clearly aware his dramaturgical approach - we all play parts all of the time, but do not want to let on, normally, and hide it also mostly from ourselves - poses some problems, which he discusses in this book, but here you have it:

You, dear reader, just as much as I and all your colleagues, beloved spouses, family-members, friends, neighbours, and indeed everybody else who survives socially, yea, even your political and religious leaders, are actors, who are shamming - misleading, posturing, grandstanding, downplaying, keeping silent, manipulating, coloring, shading, redefining, exaggerating, misrepresenting, pretending - most of the time, and who are proud of it and their skills in it, and indeed may have trained many years for and in and as player of that role, that they also may play so well that it seems real, as it well may be, in effect, as with a good doctor and the health of his patients, and indeed they may and fondly believe that most of their poses are not - really and truly, properly considered - poses but (more like) the personal truth, or at least mostly so, that is, what the audience should know of it or see as it, much like in the ads and heroes and heroines in plays on TV, just as honestly, and produced for the same sorts of reasons: This makes the sported product popular, attractive and desirable, for this is as it should be.

Now we come to Goffman's Introduction, that opens like so:

When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or to bring into play information already possessed. They will be interested in his general socio-economic status, his conception of self, his attitude towards them, his competence, his trustworthiness, etc. Although some of the information seems to be sought almost as an end in itself, there are usually quite practical reasons for acquiring it. Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. (p.1)

Here the one main idea is that of "defining the situation", that sometimes - especially in fields like politics, religion and in the media - happens quite explicitly, but usually is mostly an implicit (attempt at) establishing some sort of common sense based on common assumptions (however uncommon these assumptions might be outside that face-group (**)). This often happens by attempting to create or find a sphere of fellowship, shared values or ends.

The other main idea, that is not explicit in the quotation, but is in most of the book is that nearly all of this happens in scripted, stylized ways, in a game of give and take, suggestion and innuendo, pose and claim, that all participants know quite well, simply from having been socialized successfully, and that this also, in principle, and normally, makes sense, and is the human way of cooperating.

One problem with it is its mostly covert, tacit nature, that also cannot be exploded, for then the basis of group interaction get exploded therewith, for which reason

Many crucial facts lie beyond the time and place of interaction or lie concealed within it. For example, the "true" or "real" attitudes, beliefs and emotions of the individual can be ascertained only indirectly. (p. 2)

The reason for the square-quotes is basically that there are no "true" or "real" attitudes - or perhaps rather, if there are, they need to be and remain carefully hidden, as private parts are, because the point of a social group is not disclosure, truth or reality, but cooperation, consent, and shared values and ideas, however produced, however false or nonsensically based, if only because it helps to keep together the group and in order to keep its members acting towards its public goals they believe in and desire, or at least pretend to do, in order to belong.


The individual does of course intentionally convey misinformation, by means of both types of communication [overt as in saying, and covert as in implying by posture, gesturing, clothing etc. - MM], the first involving deceit, the second feigning. (p. 2)

Goffman was mostly though not only concerned with non-verbal communication, that is, more with feigning than with deceit (whereas I am probably more interested in the explicit ideologies people tout than Goffman was).

The possibly naive reader should also realize at this juncture that (1) this deceit and feigning are completely ordinary, happen all the time, and are part, parcel and to a large extent substance of such communications as do happen in groups and (2) much of this is quite desirable, such as feigned politeness, friendly deceit, helpful falsity, face-saving phoneyness, and so on:

To cooperate at all people must act as if they feel and believe all manner of things they don't feel or believe, possibly not at all, possibly in some part or proportion, and usually not to the extent they enact and publicly say they do.

And in brief:

(..) when the individual is in the immediate presence of others, his activity will have a promissory character. The others are likely to find that they must accept the individual on faith, offering him a just return while he is present before them in exchange for something whose true value will not be established until after he has left (..)

for everyone gets judged behind their backs, usually in quite other terms than to their faces while they perform socially, and act much and most so as to please, while putting across their own interests and concerns, and trying to find room to realize these.

In fact it comes to this, as Goffman says, quoting W.I. Thomas:

It is also highly important for us to realize that we do not as a matter of fact lead our lives, makle our decisions, and reach our goals in everyday life either statistically or scientifically. We live by inference. I am, let us say, your guest. You do not know, you cannot determine scientifically, that I will not steal your money or your spoons. But inferentially I will not, and inferentially you have me as a guest. (p. 3)

Indeed, and the inferences are probabilistic, will be based on many tacit assumptions, that have been learned through much experiences in human groups, and are mostly felt rather than consciously formulated (and the feelings will especially relate to empathy, sympathy and identification or their opposites: how much does he or she succeed or fail to be like us and me?).

In the end, for each participant in the group, it comes to this

Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and for his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatments of them. This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the other come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give him the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. (p. 3-4)

There is the definition of the situation again, that also is of major importance in all public media wherever any topic or person is discussed, for all the participants in such events try to impose their definitions on the others and especially on the passive audience they try to influence.

In "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" Goffman is not much concerned with the media (the book was originally published in 1959) and in fact mostly concentrates on the following:

Of the two kinds of communication - expressions given and expressions given off - this report will be primarily concerned with the latter, with the more theatrical and contextual kind, the non-verbal, presumably unintentional kind, whether this communication will be purposively engineered or not. (p. 4)

Indeed, these days there are briefer expressions for "expressions given and expressions given off", such as "text" and "subtext", but the point to get is that all of it is theatre, all of it is play, and nearly all of it is false, and that not because it consists of lies necessarily (though well it may, and often it does), but because all of it turns around impression-management, manipulation, the reaching of tacit agreements, findings of give and take, investigation where he wants his back to be scratched in return for him scratching yours as you like, of what is her or its price, privately speaking, and so on.

Finally, here is a footnote in which Goffman credits his sources, that belongs to the above quote on p. 3-4:

Here I owe much to an unpublished paper by Tom Burns of the University of Edinburgh. He presents the argument that in all interaction a basic underlying theme is the desire of each participant to guide and control the responses by the others present. A similar argument has been advanced by Jay Haley in a recent unpublished paper, but in regard to a special kind of control, that gaving to do with defining the nature of the relationship of those involved in the interaction. (p. 3-4)

So here you've had a very brief summary of what Goffman was about, from the first 4 pages of my copy of 255 textpages.

I strongly recommend reading him, and his book is in print, and I will end with mentioning some related writers, who - like Haley mentioned above - had a more psychological or psychiatric approach: Laing, Philipson and Lee: Interpersonal Perception; Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Wazlawick: How Real is Real?; Wilmot: Dyadic Communication; and Berne: Games People Play,that I have read in this context, and that may interest you. (***)

4. Some of the consequences

Clearly, I think this topic important, and I hope to return to it (probably in English also), because I think it is both very important if one wants to understand human beings and much underrated or misrepresented. And because of this here is one final remark, which comes in two parts:

First, there is no human society, not even a small one, without role playing and all that comes with it, from mere kindnesses, politenesses and friendlinesses, that are (maybe) not quite what they seem, or not at all sincerely meant, but even so are required to keep the peace, spare feelings or help save face, to conmanship, fraud, and deception on an enormous scale, varying from Bernie Madoff and modern bankmanagers and politicians to the likes of dr. Goebbels and Julius Streicher, or their latterday proud pupils - if it is not native original talent - like Glenn Beck and Russ Limbaugh, and the propaganda of the Soviets, Chinese, North-Koreans or indeed your very own favourite TV-channel about its excellencies.

In the end, it is as Hazlitt said "No man is as much himself as when playing a part", and as Shakespeare showed better than all in his plays: Being social in a human way is playing roles, playing games, being an artist, and quite easily being a con or being conned: it's all in the game, happens all the time, and - to stress this once more - much of it is mostly well-intended, more sincere than not, and anyway properly social, also in its beneficent or at least peaceable consequences for others, and even if much of the social good that is done is not done out of the desire to do well to others as to do well to oneself, by playing the game and being publicly seen to be playing the game.

Second, in and for itself much of this is neither bad nor good, because it is centered in the abilities man have and don't have:

Given what men, women and children are, they must play games to get by, in any group, in any society, at nearly any time, possibly only partially excepted between parents and children or between lovers, and that always briefly and mostly very partially and inexplicitly. (The best treatment of these aspects of being human and its ramifications are by Schiller and Huizinga -see Huizinga's Homo Ludens.)

But my problem with the human game-playing that has arisen in the 20th century, mostly manufactured by films and TV, is that it has achieved wholly new levels of duplicity, deceit and delusion, especially because the face-group that is the basis of it all is now imitated on - especially - TV, where very slick highly trained performers manipulate millions or even billions at the same time by appearing to speak to them personally, even intimately and sincerely,  in the privacy of their own rooms, as it were face to face, albeit mediated by a screen, 24 hours a day, with the most enticing allurements of arts and ads.

This has introduced a whole new dimension of human fraudulence and manipulation, that also directly shows itself in the actual interaction of real flesh and blood people in real personal face-groups (that is: not in the very carefully orchestrated mock-ups thereof in pixels on your TV):

Here art has mastered and falsified human nature in a far more subtle and deeper way than ever before - for the great majority "loans" (copies, imitates, steals) their stances and modes of pretending to "be" from their very glib, slick and utterly false and phoney role-models on TV, for that is for them either The Truth or else and at least How Things Ought To Be Done, Seen and Felt. Their favourite publich rolemodels as they appear on TV - so they feel and believe, sincerely also, for lack of knowledge and self-understanding - tell and show them how to be a particular kind of (public) persona, and how to be or appear as a proper, decent and socially fit human being.

And the result is the truly frightening plasticity one seems on TV: 100% artistic mock-up of things that are not, persons that are not, beliefs that are not, values that are not - except that they "really are", because the vast majority of the viewers believe that what they believe is real indeed is real or else ought to be real as depicted, formulated, shown, enacted and played-for-real, since they don't know of anything better, or else, or better presented, by more beautiful, more popular, more impressive leaders of opinion, men, or religion.

No society has ever been more phoney, more contrived, more pretentious, more hypocritical than Western TV-democracies - and this is a great danger - for, as my site opens since its start in 1996:

   "If we believe absurdities,         
        we shall commit atrocities."    


(..) the most solemn, and mischievous absurdities that mankind have been the dupes of, they have imbibed from the dogmatism and vanity or hypocrisy of the self-styled wise and learned, who have imposed profitable fictions upon them for self-evident truths, and contrived to enlarge their power with their pretensions to knowledge.

And these days they come on TV and by the internet, since that became fast.

Mundus vult decipi. (****)

P.S. It may be that the above needs some more links and some corrections, but it seems good enough as is, which is to say that it seems to say what I wanted to say here, and brings together rather a lot on Groups & Groupthinking - to which readers of Dutch should add at leas the texts of the following two notes two Multatuli's Ideën : idee 1112 and idee 1211.

And one final remark: The themes of Groups & Groupthinking are considerably more comprehensive than outlined by Goffman, but he seems to be one of the best modern sources to start with for those who really are interested in these themes.

Note on the links: Except for a link to the Ervin Goffman entry on the English Wikipedia all links in this text are to items on my site, mostly in my Philosophical Dictionary.

($) My edition is a Doubleday Paperback, Anchor Books of 1959, with Library of Congress Card Number 59-3138. It says in the publisher's blurb "Dr. Goffman has revised and expanded it for the Anchor edition".

I am not sure whether this paperback is indeed from 1959, for it may be a reprint, that I bought in 1982, of course not having learned of Goffman in my studies of psychology and philosophy in the University of Amsterdam, where indeed nothing of any intellectual or moral value was prescribed reading for any student.

(*) In case you wonder about the list of names: Erasmus is on the list because of his "In Praise of Folly"; by Butler I mean Samual Butler (I), (often styled (I), in contrast to the 19th Century (II) of the same name), who wrote Hudibras; Hume is listed both because of morals and because of his history and shorter essays; and Weber is on the list because of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, which contains the best series of definitions of sociological concepts, and a very cool appraisal of men, politicians and their follies and motives. (It is also long and very Deutschgründlich, unfortunately. I know of no good abbreviation, though I hope it exists.) And Laing is on the list especially because of "Interpersonal Perception", which he co-authored with Philipson and Lee, in the days before getting involved in guruism of a kind (that made him famous in the seventies, and eventually destroyed him).

(**) Incidentally, this may have many reasons, many perfectly sensible, such as the jargon of scientists, journalists, and many groups which involve some skill. Also, in any group of long standing there tends to arise a shared jargon or lingo of the group, if only as a kind of marker and sign "We speak like proper so-and-sos".

(***) As I remarked, these are more psychological or psychiatric, and most of them have some shortcomings (Goffman does not have). This is especially true of Bateson, who pretended a knowledge of logic he did not have, but nevertheless is not always nonsensical. The best of the books I named is the least well-known, namely that by Wilmot.

(****) Mundus vult decipi = The worlds desires to be deceived. And the reason is that it both seems to work and really does work, imaginatively so, that is. The surest way to happiness (and misery) is self-deception, for that in the end depends on you, your wishes, and the qualities of your mind and character (whoever "you" happen to be be - and mind that I do allow a much larger role to human stupidity, moral excuses included, than most ordinary men find allowable: "Lord, o Lord, forgive them, for they don't know what they do", and they been duped, miseducated, misinformed, and been systematically lied to).

Maarten Maartensz

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