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.   Continue reading