Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault

1. Situating Goffman

If Weber’s relative neglect is one curious absence in the annals of organization theory, then it is not the only one. The litany of unsung heroes must also include Erving Goffman, especially his work on total institutions,1 not least because he anticipated, in so many ways, themes that were later to attract dedicated followers of Foucauldian fashion. Goffman’s approach to organization power owed nothing to the rationalism of systems theory and seemingly little to earlier writers, such as Weber.2 It was substantial, significant, and stylish, yet has hardly been accorded its due in the field. There is an initial question that this chapter will address. Why does Goffman not figure as a prominent precursor of institutional theory?

In Asylums (1961) Goffman decided to study those social acts which rational society had placed in special contexts, outside of its definition of reason, in those psychiatric hospitals known in his day as ‘asylums’. Goffman’s research question was to ask what habits were socially constructed through symbolic interactions in such organizational contexts. Thus, his work was resolutely organizational in its focus on the effects of organizations on individuals and the framing that the orga- nization structure and processes provided. Goffman saw his research question in terms of how such institutions served as a ‘forcing house for changing persons, as a natural experiment on what can be done to the self ’ (1961: 12).

It is the extreme possibilities for transformation of the self that recommend total institutions as research settings. Practices come into sharper focus in a world of extremes. The self becomes so much more pliable and plastic in these institutions: the inmate is separated from others not classed as being essentially similar by virtue of their institutionalization; their sense of the self is subject to abasement, degra- dation, humiliation, and an insistent stripping away of who and what they are by withdrawal of the physical and social supports that normally sustain them. Goffman documents the self ’s resistance to its erosion, its insistence on retaining some authentic sense of who one was and struggles still to be. Inmates practice secondary adjustments, such as developing close relations with other inmates, with pet rodents, insects or imaginary others, that do not directly challenge the staff of the total institution but that, by representing forbidden satisfactions, affirm that the inmates are still their own person, still embodying personhood as unique spontaneous agency. The self demonstrates ‘expressed distance’, ‘holding off from fully embracing all the self-implications of its affiliation, allowing some … dis- affection to be seen, even while fulfilling … major obligations’, and ‘defaulting not from prescribed activity, but from prescribed being’ (1961: 188). Goffman elaborates the many ‘make-dos’, those small acts of adaptation, adjustment and improvisation that are prevalent in total institutions such as Central Hospital, and the ways that inmates of the institution capture special assignments for themselves or access to special places or patrons that extend autonomy – even life – a little.

Goffman argues that the self emerges from the way it defines itself against obdu- rate otherness and others. Goffman documents the tenacity of the self to be what it is and resist being prescribed as that it should be. No matter what were the sins, the crimes, the craziness that opened the doors of the institution, to strip the self from the person without allowing some expressed distance is intensely inhumane. That this inhumanity usually takes its course under a public rhetoric of care and concern for the selves at its fulcrum is the greatest betrayal of their selfhood. Like Bob Dylan (1964), another great observer of the scenes of everyday life, we may say that Goffman alerts us to the chimes of freedom flashing in the most unlikely places and for the most unlikely people:

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales For the disrobed faceless forms of no position

Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts

All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute

Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute

For the misdemeanor’d outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit

An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Goffman drew on symbolic interactionism at a time when structural functionalism was the dominant paradigm in sociology. Perhaps this is why he is so slighted, so little cited: maybe he just didn’t become sedimented in the collective consciousness of the field as it became defined. Yet, Goffman drew from the same anthropological tra- dition as some of the pioneers of the human relations movement (for example Lloyd Warner, but also Elton Mayo and later W. F. Whyte) in introducing what were non- conventional ethnographic research methods. His misfortune was to do so at about the same time that the case study, the ethnographic method, and the importance of the root social science disciplines of anthropology and sociology were being margin- alized by the professionalization of organization theory as a disciplinary space in its own right, institutionalized within business schools. The historical moment and the academic space in which Goffman worked are important elements in understanding the silence about his work and the lack of attention given to it until now. In the early 1960s organization theory was cementing its own project of domination; the systems framework was being locked in place and, as Wittgenstein once remarked apropos another set of issues, of that which it could not or would not speak, thereof there was to be silence. Goffman’s analysis of total institutions largely ceased to feature.

That functionalist theory, not knowing what to do with Goffman, should dismiss him, is hardly surprising. The approach to institutional theory that he developed simply was too multifaceted to fit in the world busy being built in the 1960s, and his work seemed to miss the boat when second-generation institutional theory was launched in the 1980s.3 What is surprising is that in the 1970s, when some ‘critical’ theorists were struggling to shake off the stultifying analytics of labor process ‘theory’ and found the succor they sought in Discipline and punish (Foucault 1977), with its emphasis on power, surveillance, and resistance, Goffman was still largely ignored. Perhaps Goffman, who showed no interest in Marxism or structural themes, was insufficiently chic; for instance, he was condemned as quietist in his political allegiances by the leading American social theorist of the post-Parsonian generation, the mantle that Alvin Gouldner (1971) assumed when he moved on from organization sociology to social theory and from the United States to Europe. At best Goffman could be accommodated to the radical canon as a humanist (Burrell and Morgan 1979). By the late 1970s radical humanism had lost its charm; it was a time when French structuralism seemed so much more radical in its denial of the ‘problematic of the subject’ (Althusser 1971).

2. Situating Foucault

In 1960s France the main points of reference for leftist intellectuals had been Marxism and the actually existing social conditions in society. After 1968, and Althusser’s subsequent fall from analytic and everyday grace, and as poststruc- turalism gathered pace, these points of reference seemed to converge on the figure of his former École Normale Supérieure student, Michel Foucault, an authentically left but non-Marxist intellectual.

The ascendancy of interest in Foucault mirrored the decline of interest in Althusser, and a number of the early discussions of Foucault were by some people who had previously been Althusserian Marxists (Barry Hindess (1996) is a good example of someone who trod this path). In Foucault, as was evident by Poulantzas’ (1978) response to him in State, power, socialism, there was to be found an account of power that did not rely on familiar notions of the state as its fulcrum. At a time when new politics were emerging around personal issues such as sexuality and gender relations, Foucault seemed a better guide than those who would reduce social relations to a pas de deux articulated between the economic base and the ideological superstructure.

The English-language reader who knows little of intellectual politics and the history of ideas might think that Foucault must be celebrated in France as an authentically Gallic organization theorist. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is virtually unknown and unused by the French organization and management theory community. In fact, he is probably no more read there than he is in its United States equivalent, even though he may be better known. Oddly, Foucault’s fame in organization theory is almost entirely due to his discussion in British and Australian English-language accounts. Foucault has become a celebrity French intellectual for Anglophone readers, much as, in earlier years, Sartre and Althusser. In more than one respect there is some continuity between Goffman and Foucault. Goffman (1956; 1961) did not make it easy for those who wish to pigeon- hole; he preferred to work through the empirical materials rather than through abstracted analytic models, as did Foucault. It is time to retrieve Goffman for the canon of organization theory – as well as to incorporate Foucault – but in each case it is imperative that it be done critically. While each grasped a great deal they also made startling errors of omission, especially Foucault.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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