Goffman: Snippets

Topics: Erving Goffman, Sociology, Participant observation Pages: 2 (566 words) Published: May 14, 2013
sSeven excerpts from Erving Goffman’s 1974 remarks on fieldwork can serve as his virtual preface to this narrative about his legacy. I begin with Goffman’s definition of participant observation: “By participant observation,” he said, “I mean a technique . . . of getting data . . . by subjecting yourself, your own body and your own personality and your own social situation, to the set of contingencies that play upon a set of individuals so that you can physically and ecologically penetrate their circle of response to their . . . situation” (1989: 125). For Goffman, fieldwork is a thoroughly embodied struggle to grasp other people’s point of view as best one can. Good fieldwork “tunes your body up” and with your “tuned-up” body and with the ecological right to be close to them (which you’ve obtained by one sneaky means or another), you are in a position to note their gestural, visual, bodily responses to what’s going on around them and you’re empathetic enough-because you’ve been through the same crap they’ve been taking-to sense what it is they’re responding to. To me, that’s the core of observation. (Goffman 1989: 125) Also at the core of observation, Goffman implies, is taking the role of the other. As struggle, fieldwork requires no less: “The standard technique is to try to subject yourself, hopefully, to [your subjects’] life circumstances, which means that although in fact you can leave at any time, you act as if you can’t and you try to accept all the desirable and undesirable things that are a feature of their life” (Goffman 1989: 125). Fieldwork thus amounts to coconstituting a world with the people whose point of view one hopes to grasp. In this vein, Goffman says that, “[the way to make a world is to be naked to the bone, to have as few resources as you can get by with. . . . the way to get it is to need it” (1989: 127). Goffman thus offers a microlevel, situation-specific variant of what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967: 47) call “world...
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