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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

Erving Goffman and Asylum


Although written thirty years ago, Erving Goffman's Asylums, as well as his other copious writings, is still the subject of much debate amongst sociological circles. Furthermore, Goffman's ideas gained recognition and influence far beyond limited academic circles and he is probably the best known sociologist amongst lay readers this century. [1]

In this essay I intend to present some of Goffman's ideas concerning the relationship between self and society and the criticism those ideas incurred. I intend to show that Goffman view of society is pessimistic and conservative and is of value, despite its limitations and omissions, in understanding the workings of sections of Western society in this half of the century.


Not unlike other sociologists, Goffman places the study of society at the centre of his work. He suggests that society exists in contradistinction to the individual, as concepts and as entities, and that any relationship between them is complex and problematic. [2]

For such a relationship to exist Goffman suggests a reciprocal dynamic, involving "both a commitment and an attachment." [3]

In other words, the relationship between the individual and society is based both on a voluntary agreement as well as an inevitable necessity. Throughout his work, Goffman maintains that the relationship is fixed and that no individual wishes, nor is able, to escape or avoide it. Rather, individuals find ways through which they either adapt to oppressive societies or attach themselves to alternative ones which can exist alongside, within or outside the main one. Thus, in Asylums' first essay, Goffman describes several ways through which a inmates manages to survive within the total institution he has

found himself or herself in, and claims that the key for a successful survival, ie one through which the individual still retain an acceptable view of self, is through forming contacts and strategies which facilitates the stay but do not challenge it.

According to Goffman, the structural interdependency between an individual and society is indestructible and essential to the human condition. The individual has no option but to enter some kind of arrangement of this order.

This deterministic view of the social contract is echoed through Randall Collins' understanding of Goffman. According to him, Goffman viewed the endeavours of individuals to relate to one another and through that create structural and social networks as a burden which they engage in reluctantly in order to guarantee their survival in modern life. [4]


"The human vessel is defined as notoriously weak; compromises must be made, consideration must be shown, protective measures must be taken." [5]

Goffman goes on to elaborate on the structure of this human weakness by suggesting a simple dicothomous model of the self. He offers a dual model consisting of the Official Self and the Performing Self. In order to survive in any kind of social order, he suggests, an individual has to engage in a continuous process of evaluating the demands and expectations made upon him or her, and attempt to satisfy those by presenting an acceptable behaviour to the outside world. This continuous construction of the Official Self is stage-managed by the Performing Self which is motivated by the existential drive to survive and which is in a perpetual state of bewilderment lest he or she will be caught out of character and be denied his or her privileges and ultimately their lives. Coming back to Asylums, Goffman illustrates the process of stripping the inmates of all their social roles and privileges in order to shock their Preforming Self into submission and acceptance of the new demands made upon them.

Thus, a successful individual is one whose versions of the Official Self and the Performing Self are not too at odds with one another at specific given situations, ie an individuals to whom the expectations and the pressures of the social order do not form too great a threat.

Hall constructs a wider context within which to view the Goffman view of the bewildered self by comparing him with Sartre view of the self. According to the Existentialist view, social order should exist in order to facilitate and support the individual in their endeavour towards self fulfilment. Thus, Sartre makes the

assumption that there is within each individual a true core of self which is waiting to be discovered and fulfilled. The interaction between self and society is therefore based not on trying to maintain social order, as Goffman would claim, but on trying to achieve the ultimate conditions through which

individuals could achieve fulfilment. [6]


According to Collins, Goffman postulated that any social order is stronger then any individual, or number of, which compose it. [7] Furthermore, all actions by all or any individuals, no matter how seemingly destructive to society, serve the single purpose of affirming the social order and strengthening it. In this instance, Goffman uses deviancy and crime to demonstrate how society responds to these phenomena by closing ranks and confirming its view of what is 'normal', thus protecting itself from the implicit criticism in the deviant or criminal actions of the individual. But even the criminal or the deviant, Goffman reasserts, is not interested in trying to change the social order

within which they exist but rather find ways in which to survive successfully within it. The acceptability of those survival strategies is a measure of its quantity and not its quality. Thus, deviant behaviour in itself is not enough to isolate an individual within the social order, but rather the quantity of

that behaviour.

In Asylums, Goffman suggests that the notions of deviancy and normalcy are directly related to what context that behaviour is seen or preformed within. Thus, the same behaviour will be deemed acceptable in one context and unacceptable in another. When the individual is no longer capable of making those distinctions themselves and control and modify their behaviour accordingly, he or she is seen as deviant, and social controls are used against

them. Successful survival is therefore dependent upon the success of the individual in making "secondary adjustments" to the social order and learning to internalise and hide those aspects of themselves which are not beneficial for presrving that order.

Goffman's strength in this context is in identifying numerous ways through which individuals find ways of coping with oppressive conditions as he does in Asylums. His weakness, for which he has been criticised by many, is in failing to challenge the social conditions, practices and underlying ideologies which

necessitate this strategic survival mechanisms. Although it is highly arguable whether Goffman's acceptance of the social order also holds a moral approval of it, or is merely descriptive of it, he did seem to concentrate on the 'safer' form of secondary adjustments, ie 'contained secondary adjustments', rather then on

the 'disruptive' kind which would suggest a more effective discontent with the given social order.

Williams picked upon this point and suggests, by way of explanation, that Goffman operated within a conservative view of society and therefore was obliged to offer a non-radical and passive view of the individual. [8]

“Goffman cannot be expected, according to Williams, to examine the ways in which individuals or collective might challenge the existing social order, as it was contrary to the class interests which Goffman represented. Goffman's contribution to sociology needs therefore to be put in its right context, ie the study of how individuals cope within an oppressive situation and not, as radical readings of Goffman would have liked to believe, how individuals and societies

liberate themselves from such situations.


Goffman traces what happens to an individual from the moment they enter a total institution. Goffman's definition of total institutions is very broad and open to criticism. He includes in it nunneries, prisons, mental hospitals and army barracks as well as the Soviet labour camps and the Nazis concentration camps. It is the broadness of this definition, though, which allows Goffman to make use his findings to make the general observations about society which he does.

as a process of an assault upon their Official Self with which they have survived in society. He describes the numerous ways in which this Official Self is

stripped of all its characters, in an attempt to force it to take on the new Official Self which the institution requires of the individual. Goffman offers no way in which the individual can resist this process of dehumanisation and accepts that the institution wins every time, leaving the individual with no option but to conform. The individual learns fast what is expected of him or her and responds accordingly, wanting above all to survive. Goffman does not allow for open challenging of the process as an option for survival and cites no such examples.

The way in which the individual survives in by withdrawing into the performing self, making secondary adjustments and learning "to play" the system.

An illustration of this process is evident in Elia Kazan film of Rocky Graciano's, the middle weight boxer life. Rocky is shown to be moving from one institution to another, fighting the system, and everybody else, along the way, till in one prison he is offered to join the prison boxing club and use his hatred in order to carve himself a way out. His hatred, which previously was used against the system, is now incorporated into it, bringing him personal gain and at the same time protecting society from its effects. This is then a case in which the performing self has become harmonious with the official self and

integrated itself with society's expectation, therefore no longer being a threat.

A different example which illustrates Goffman model is that of Robert Maxwell. One can say that Maxwell has managed to play the system for so long, until the contradiction between his preforming self, ie the reality of what he was doing, and the official self, ie how he was portraying himself to the world, became so great as to be unbearable. Rather then face the humiliation and the sanctioning that the primary adjustment to his new official self would have required of him, ie the image of the crook, Maxwell chose to opt out of the system altogether, by withdrawing from the world. These two examples show the two extremes of the range of possibilities which Goffman offers his "actors": acceptance of the official self and playing the system, or psychic and possible physical withdrawal from society.


Gonos develops further the class perspective to explain how Goffman developed his conservatism and emphasis on the passive individualistic response to oppression.

According to Gonos (1980), Goffman used as his normative section of the population what Gouldner termed as the "New Middle Class".[9]

This class was made up predominately of people who work within the service industry. Gonos and Gouldner suggest that a reversed industrialised

revolution occurred after the Second World War which gave birth to a new profession where the required skills no longer were of dealing with objects but with other people. This new requirement of individuals focused their attention on their interactions with one another, rather then interactions with the material world. A new concept of social order was also required which was based on this "interaction order". Society was now seen as the place where human interactions occur. The preservation of the social order, which Goffman always sees as the ultimate goal, is now tied up with these interactions causing as little instability or conflict as possible and requiring that all conflicts are contained within it. This New Middle Class has no interest in trying to upset the existing social order as they are the main beneficiaries of it. Furthermore, they are striving to emulate the existing dominant class, the Bourgeoisie, whom they see as superior to themselves.

Goffman has been criticised [10]for generalising from his study of this particular class onto the whole of American society. Giddens takes issue with this criticism and suggests that despite claims that Goffman is cynical, idiosyncratic and restricted to the Middle Class milieu, Goffman certainly indeed them to be general and in Giddens' view also succeeded in doing so.

The importance of class analysis to Goffman is illustrated in Asylums where he emphasised the importance of the keeping the boundaries between the staff and inmates clear in order to maintain the existing order. Their separateness become essential to their existence and identity as unique groups. Any crossing of the lines between them weakens both groups and poses a threat to the social order which they form.

Hepworth offers an interesting explanation as to how Goffmanvarrived at his passive and non-dynamic view of the stratification which occurs at the social order level. According to him, Goffman suggests that the acquirement of the new identity occurs very quickly within total institutions, and that although this new identity would have been repulsive to the inmate outside the institution, once acquired this new official self becomes as important to the inmate sense of self as the old official self was outside. [11]

Thus Goffman explains the seeming reluctance of the inmate to rebel against his or her situation. As Goffman believed that the official self is a product of the demands society makes upon the individual, we can now see that change in the individual can only occur as a result of changes in the social order, and as Goffman had a fixed view of social orders, changes can never occur. Or if they occur, they are of a minor order, of secondary adjustments made by individuals and absorbed by social orders without causing any disruptions.

In this context, it could be useful to consider an example from social work practice. It has been shown by some writers that any removal of black children from their cultural and familial background into white environment can be as damaging to the child as the trauma which they suffered at home. [12]

From a Goffman point of view, what occurs in such a situation is that the official self of the removed person is asked to make such radical adjustments to their official self by the drastically different expectation of the new social order as to be in danger of causing either an acceptance of the new social order and therefore a loss of their cultural identity, or a psychic and physical withdrawal

which would be detrimental to their prospects of health an survival, leading them in a down ward spiral towards total alienation from their original environment and ultimately their performing selves, leading to a mental breakdown.

In this context, it is important to remember that Goffman on the whole failed to consider an anti-racist perspective in his analysis. Furthermore, in at least one instance, one can detect a collusion with a racist view in his writings. In his description of what happens to the individual upon entering an institution,

Goffman mentions the 'contaminating' effect that mixing with other racial groups might have on the individual.

Furthermore, he fails to explore the gender perspective in his analysis. Even if we consider that such a perspective was perhaps still not widely recognised when he wrote Asylums, nevertheless, it is alarming that he failed to pay any special attention that in mental hospitals, for instance, the female population was always larger then the male population. [13]


Goffman fails to acknowledge the possibility of collective action as a way of change. Collective action such as strikes, sabotage or escape were common in all total institutions which Goffman studied, even the harshest such as the Nazi concentration camps.

For example, both in Auschwitz and Treblinka groups of inmates have managed to gather enough strength and against the worst odds sabotage part of the gas chambers. Furthermore, studies of survivors from the camps suggest that the key factor in survival, apart from luck, is due to people remaining within groups with which they had some degree of affinity. [14]

Sedgwick challenges Goffman's acceptance of the rules in total institution and his assumption that inmates accept them and merely try to adapt to them and make out for themselves. [15]

He claims that the situation in total institutions should be seen as problematic and therefore as changeable, which Goffman does not allow for. He also criticises Goffman for failing to notice that changes in mental institutions do occur which cannot be put down to the system absorbing secondary adjustments. He also challenges Goffman's assertion that political radicalism is a mere "muscle stretching exercise" which the social order allows in order to let off steam, and protect itself. Could it be that Goffman failure to acknowledge Collectivism, is a reflection of the atmosphere in which he wrote, ie The Cold War and fear of Communism?

Hall, on the other hand, claims that Goffman has been grossly misread and misunderstood and offers a view by which Goffman does not see rules as oppressive but as protective of human rights, particularly of weaker groups.

He goes on to say that although justifying the existence of rules, Goffman does not necessarily say that the existing rules are right, and suggest that without rules, all means of order and communication (including language) would disappear. Along a similar vein, Goffman is seen to protect not the contemporary society in which we live but rather the need we have for one. He presents Asylums as a case against what society is turning into, rather like a dystopia. Giddens argues against Gouldner's view of Goffman's society as a place where disenchanted and disillusioned individuals where appearances have

become more important then moral content. Giddens emphasises that Goffman believed that all the actions of those individuals were directed towards the preserving of the moral fabric rather its abuse by ridicule.


Goffman offers a non radical view of the relationship between individuals and society. If he believes in change, he believes in very slow and gradual change, change which is not based on groups making demands upon society but rather of society making minute adjustments in order to retain its moral and legal hold over the individual. To put crudely, Goffman does not believe in revolutions...

This seemingly passive and defeatist view of the individual can be placed within a humanistic tradition which accepts the individual's weakness but which nevertheless celebrates his or her survival. As an illustration of this it could be useful to consider the example of Primo Levi.

Primo Levi tries to answer the unanswerable question as to why concentration camp inmates didn't rebel against their fate and went like sheep to the slaughter.[16]

Apart from citing several examples where that wasn't the case, he goes on to describe how debilitating the process by which you are deprived of your identity, of your clothing, of all your possession, including your hair, so that you are left with nothing. In such a state of physical and mental deprivation, Levi claims, and is echoed by Goffman, all the individual can think about and act upon is the act of survival at whatever cost. The inmates who refuse to make

the secondary adjustments necessary for their lives die. If we return to the initial definition of the contract between the individual and society which is based on the principle of some reciprocity, then we see that this principle works even in the most extreme condition, providing that the inmate takes on the identity which the social order creates for him or her. If the individual refuses to adjust, they die, by either execution, psychic withdrawal or by their own hand. The ones who most likely to survive, are the ones which have the most capacity to adapt.

[1] Giddens, A. (1988), 'Goffman as a Systematic Social Theorist', in P. Drew and A. Wootton (eds.), Erving Goffman, Cambridge: Pluto Press, pp. 251-280. [2] Gonos, G. (1980) "The Class Position of Goffman's Sociology: Social Origins of American Structuralism", in J. Ditton, The View From Goffman, London: Macmillan pp. 134-170. [3] Goffman, E.(1961), Asylums, Harmonsdworth: Penguin, p. 159. [4] Collins, R. (1988), 'Theoretical Continuities in Goffman's Work' in P. Drew and A. Wootton (eds.) Erving Goffman, Cambridge; Pluto Press, pp. 41-63. [5] Goffman, (1961) p. 162. [6] Hall, J.A. (1977), 'Sincerity and Politics', Sociological Review Vol 25 pp. 535-549. [7] Collins, R. (1980) "Erving Goffman and the Development of Modern Social Theory" in J. Ditton, he View from Goffman, London: Macmillan, pp. 170-210. [8] Williams, R. (1980) "Goffman's Sociology of Talk", in J. Ditton, The View from Goffman, London: Macmillan, pp. 210-233. [9] Gouldner, A.W. (1970) The Coming Crisis of American Sociology, London: Heinemann. [10] Dawe, A. (1973), 'The Underworld of Erving Goffman', British Journal of Sociology, vol. 24, pp. 246-253. [11] Hepworth, M. (1980) "Deviance and Control in Everyday Life: the Contribution of Erving Goffman" in J. Ditton, The View from Goffman, London: Macmillan, pp 80-100. [12] Ahmad, B. (1990), Black Perspectives in Social Work, Birmingham: Ventura Press. [13] Showalter, E. (1985), The Female Malady, London: Virago. [14] Gill, A. (1988), The Journey Back From Hell, London: Grafton. [15] Sedgwick, P. (1982) Psycho Politics, London: Pluto Press. [16] Levi, P. (1988), The Drowned and The Saved, London: Abacus. Written in 1992

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