On Goffman the Gender Scholar

When sociologists discuss performance theories of gender, we usually go back to Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s (1987) famous article “Doing Gender.”  Some of us date this trend to Judith Butler, but few people bother to discuss some of the scholarship that predates this.  West and Zimmerman relied almost exclusively on Harold Garfinkel’s* analysis of Agnes (a transgendered women who he met with as a part of a UCLA study dealing with “deviant” gender identities) to support their conceptualization.

Beyond the use of data, West and Zimmerman’s article was written in conversation with Erving Goffman’s theory of gender, or of “gender display” as Goffman wrote about it.  Goffman wrote two pieces exclusively about gender.  The first was originally published in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (1976) and later published as a book–Gender Advertisements (1979)–which included the essay along with a host of advertisements that Goffman codes for different elements of gender display (for a great exploration of this, see Greg Smith’s work here).  The second is his better known and cited article in Theory and Society: “The Arrangement between the Sexes” (1977).  He wrote elsewhere about gender as well, but these were his two pieces of writing that were really dedicated to theorizing about gender.  For instance, the Goffman quote that Michael Kimmel (1994) used to discuss Connell’s conceptualization of “hegemonic masculinity” actually comes from Stigma (1963).**

While we have come to celebrate “Doing Gender” as one of the first pieces to actually break with the biological determinism of sex role theory, along with some notable others (see here and here for two of my favorites), Goffman’s lack of status as a “feminist” makes him an unlikely person to be remembered among this list.    Always looking for new ideas, Goffman’s work on gender was initially inspired by a group of feminist graduate students (among them Carol Gardner) and though he does not explicitly frame his work in feminist scholarship, he does present an anti-essentialist critique that presents gender as a collective performance (see Candace West’s discussion of Goffman as a feminist here).

He discusses the ways that social spaces and relations are gendered in ways that produce gendered performances (and not the other way around).  Beyond that, Goffman is extremely critical of the view that biological differences between male and female bodies provide the groundwork for social inequalities between men and women.  For instance, in Theory and Society, he states: “For these physical facts of life to have no appreciable social consequence would take a little organizing, but, at least by modern standards, not much” (1977: 301).  This idea is the same notion that lies behind Connell’s conceptualization of the “reproductive arena.”

Goffman argued that social interactions, spaces, and institutions have been constructed in ways that highlight gender differences.  Goffman argued that performances of gender are often framed as though they come from within (as a consequence of gender differences), but he believed that it was through this process that gender differences are produced.  It is this same feature of social life that Barrie Thorne later came to discuss as “borderwork.”

To support his idea, Goffman relied on a number of examples to illustrate his understanding of the production of gender in social life.  My favorite is his discussion of sex segregation in public bathrooms.  He comments on how we’ve actually designed restrooms to have to be sex-segregated.  Commenting on the lack of things like urinals in homes, Goffman argues that there is nothing inherent about this.  Rather, it reiterates a pattern he finds throughout social life: “a sort of with-then-apart rhythm”  that has reverberations throughout social life.

“The functioning of sex-differentiated organs is involved, but there is nothing in this functioning that biologically recommends segregation; that arrangement is totally a cultural matter… [T]oilet segregation is presented as a natural consequence of the difference between the sex-classes, when in fact it is rather a means of honoring, if not producing, this difference” (1977: 316).

I love Goffman’s work and I love the way he writes.  His interest in discovering the hidden patterns and rhythms of social life is still relevant.  His work on gender focuses on the ways in which gendered norms and a gender binary structure the very social spaces in which we interact.  It’s wonderful work, and I’m not yet convinced that West and Zimmerman (1987) got everything of value out of it.  “Doing Gender” is still a favorite reading of mine, and it’s a theory that informs my own work a great deal.  But just how different their approach is from Goffman’s is still something I’m considering.

–Goffman’s article in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (1976) is out of print, but I’d be happy to share a copy with anyone interested.

*Sidenote: I love Studies in Ethnomethodology and I think Harold Garfinkel was absolutely brilliant.  But the man couldn’t coin a term if his life depended on it.

**”…in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, or good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports.” (Goffman 1963: 128)

8 thoughts on “On Goffman the Gender Scholar

  1. West and Zimmerman, in the very article (“Doing Gender”) in which they downplay the insight and usefulness of (what they claim is) Goffman’s conceptualization of ‘gender’ (“we must go beyond Goffman’s … blah, blah, blah”) (i.e. the ‘gender display” theory) go on to use the insights of, even quoting from and citing) Goffman’s other major piece on gender, or “The Arrangements” piece. There is NOTHING in “Doing Gender” that requires that one go ‘beyond’ Goffman or that is “distinctively ethnomethodological” (not even ‘accounting’, which Goffman covers excellently in the Theory and Society piece).

    Furthermore, West and Zimmerman continue, self-contradictorily, to speak of individuals having A gender, instead of enacting, thus ‘real-ising’ a gender category. In addition, they downplay, if not entirely miss out, on the ‘doing gender’ work that is involved in the PERCEPTION, classification, accounting and holding accountable (a very Althusserian notion, by the way, for what is interpellations if not being ‘called/held to account’) of OTHERS that does NOT differentiate and ‘place’ one in one or the other sex-category, thus triggering ‘gender accountability’. Members of both sex-categories, from a very early age, are expected, on pain of being deemed non-competent collectivity members, to perceive, classify, and evaluate others in terms of sex-categories and according to relevant codes or normative expectations. THAT ‘doing gender’ is, for lack of a better term, sex-category neutral (it’s not, perhaps, age-category neutral).

    Goffman’s “sermon” in the “Gender Display” piece is absolutely brilliant, and more fecund than, unfortunately, any part of Garfinkel’s Agnes essay.

  2. Reblogged this on sociologia ordinaria and commented:
    Nos iniciamos en esto del reblogueo, que a una retuitera como yo le parece de lo más oportuno, con este post de Tristan Bridges porque compartimos su entusiasmo por Goffman como referencia para estudiar las relaciones y coreografías de género, y nos parece injustificado su olvido o que cuando, como hacemos en nuestras publicaciones y ponencias, miramos lo que estudiamos, como los usos del móvil en las relaciones de apreja, con lentes goffmanianas, aún nos encontramos con incomprensión y sorpresa.

  3. Great post, at sociologiaordinaria.com (a Spanish research groups and blog) we are researching issued about gender and mobile media though Goffmanian lenses, thus we reblog your post as we fully agree with it. I’m just reviewing a paper on gender, performance os self and gender depictions on advertising without any reference to Goffman’s writings. Besides, when being at the other side of the reviewing process about a paper where we (my colleague Elena Casado and me) use Goffman’s views a lot, we have been told by one of the reviewers that it is dangereous to draw on Goffman as he is “pre-feminist” (WTF:). Thus, we are happy to find more people to spread the world that Goffman should be a mandatory reference when working on how gender is done and performed.

  4. Pingback: Possibly the most exhaustive study of “manspreading” ever conducted – Inequality by (Interior) Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s