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Issue 4.2, May 1989


Essay Excerpt

One must take seriously Goffman's perspective that everyday communication is unthinkable without fictions. One has to dramaturgical only imagine telling boring colleagues what you really think, or literally explaining how you're feeling to the neighbor's morning greeting to quickly realize the importance of "performances." They are the lifeblood of our privacy, peace of mind, and functioning social order, as Goffman claims. We must, however, also read Goffman as an ethnographer of communication in late capitalist society, despite his claims of universality. We must scrutinize the pervasive cultural tendency he finds to dramatize and construct social reality for forms of inequality. Not all mutually constructed dramaturgical performances may be mutually beneficial to all the performers. Dramaturgical performances in public institutions are not as free of historical context as Goffman's own "framing" of his studies tends to imply.

Goffman generally expresses no interest in doing cultural critique, but he has nevertheless written excellent, critical portrayals of moder mental institutions (1961a) and mass media advertising (1979). He shows how these cultural institutions deceive the public and themselves as they dehumanize patients and women. His general work on communication remains, however, a search for the universals of conversations and dramaturgical performances. He exhibits little interest in exploring whether the mutually constructed fictions and performances he sees everywhere create or "reproduce" forms of inequality.

The closest he comes to such a project is his account of the "stigmatized social identities" of social groups from the physically disfigured to the ethnically/racially different (1963). The effect of historical, social structural factors is clearest in this portrayal of how "normal" and "stigmatized" individuals accommodate each other. Curiously, however, Goffman completely leaves out the stigma of class, one of our most well-documented" identity stigmas" (Sennett and Cobb 1972). Why class identity fails to qualify as a powerful form of stigmatization is never explained. Goffman clearly has his blind spots, but he is hardly as a political or uncritical as some critics have suggested (Meltzer, Petras, and Reynolds 1975) 

To utilize Goffman's insights, one needs to interject critical ideas such as ideal speech and class interest in to the study of everyday communication. We need to explore what else is being constructed besides a smooth-flowing conversation. We need to ask when this type of communication becomes miscommunication that arrests intersubjectivity and reproduces class divisions. Habermas provides us, therefore, with such critical questions, and Goffman provides us with a set of categories for empirically describing actual everyday speech performances that may be reproducing class inequalities.

The following sections develop two distinct but complementary alternative definitions of emerging class cultures. The first is more phenomenologicaland situationaland based on Goffman. The second is more anthropologicaland historical and based on studies of modernity. Both perspectives help shift the definition of a class culture from an-ism or ideology to a communicative performance. This revised notion of class cultures leads to empirical studies of everyday communicative practices rather than studies of cultural hegemony and class consciousness. 

Foley, Douglas E. "Does the Working Class Have a Culture in the Anthropological Sense?" Cultural Anthropology 4, no. 2 (1989): 137-162