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Behavior in public places – Goffman

May 26, 2013

I suppose this is old now, but when I first read these lines, I thought Wow! I still think that – and I think that these observations could prove theoretically revealing in a study of behaviour in adolescent fiction – how it is made to seem appropriate, and how inappropriate…

Goffman writes: “In diagnosing mental disorder and following its hospital course, psychiatrists typically cite aspects of the patient’s behavior that are “inappropriate in the situation.” Since this special kind of misconduct is believed to provide one obvious sign of “mental sickness,” psychiatrists have given much time to these improprieties, developing the orientation and observational skills needed to study them, describing them in detail, seeking to understand their meaning for the patient, and obtaining a mandate to discuss them in the academic press–a mandate required because many of these delicts are petty, embarrassing, or messy. We sociologists should be grateful for this harvest, all the more so because it has been brought in by delicate hands. We can express our gratitude by trying to appropriate the yield for our own market, offering in exchange some observations about social situations that we appropriated long ago from anthropology.

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life–that of behavior in public and semipublic places. Although this area has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules [-p.5] of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.” (pp.4-5)

Ref: Erving Goffman (c1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings. London: The Free Press of Glencoe Collier-MacMilian Ltd

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