Goffman brings his distinctive interactionist approach to bear on mental illness, stigma and gender, producing analyses that take a quite different form from standard sociological treatments of these topics. They might be considered as applied sociologies of the interaction order. They do not resemble ‘case-studies’ in the usual sense. Goffman never offered a standard sociological account of the specifics of the populations he chose to study – their demographic and social characteristics.
Instead, he constantly endeavoured to point up the general interactional features and processes they exemplify. As early as his PhD dissertation, Goffman showed a strong appreciation of the power of ‘extraordinary events to open our eyes to what ordinarily occurs’. Like Freud, Goffman understood precisely how the odd and unusual could illuminate the routine and taken-for-granted. This assumption provided a methodological rationale for studies of persons whose situated identities placed them in a temporary or more lasting excluded, disadvantaged or subordinate status. Goffman’s interest, as ever, lay in deriving general conclusions from interactional manifestations of excluded status. Thus Goffman praises the then-recent tendency of sociologists ‘to look into the psychiatric world simply to learn what there could be learned about the general processes of social life’, instead of playing at ‘junior psychiatry’. The rules mental patients break on hospital wards, he wrote, can lead out towards a general understanding of ‘our Anglo-American society’. In Stigma, Goffman searches through the traditional fields of social problems, social deviance, criminology and race relations in order to develop a ‘coherent analytic perspective’ on the situation of the stigmatized. He concludes that these traditional substantive fields may have a ‘now purely historic and fortuitous unity’. His gender studies refuse to recognize that women constitute a distinct analytic category for sociological analysis; instead, his investigations fall under the aegis of ‘genderism’, a ‘sexclass linked behavioural practice’.
Erving Goffman / Greg Smith ( Routledg 2006)