Can Concepts be Grounded? Goffman’s Way[1]

Thomas J. Scheff

Abstract: The social and behavioral sciences need distinctive concepts to escape entrapment in the assumptive world of our society. There are several sources for concepts: vernacular words, ethnography, and indirectly, quantitative studies. This essay proposes that the work of Erving Goffman implies an additional way. Although he invented a host of new concepts, most are not grounded. Yet with two basic components of the “looking-glass self,” mutual awareness and embarrassment, he seems to have been working toward clear definitions based on numerous detailed examples. The implication is that it might be possible to ground definitions of concepts by extensive exploration of concrete examples. Concrete situations can be used to build up large wholes (concepts and theories) from small parts (words and gestures): Spinoza’s idea that human beings are so complex that they can be understood only by linking “least parts” and “greatest wholes.” 


Human intelligence is easily capable of innovation, but is often trapped in the taken-for-granted worldview of the larger society. A historical example is the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe. In the 16th century, the astronomer Tycho Brahe had many exact sightings of the planet Venus. However, he was unable to plot its orbit, because he assumed, like everyone else, that Venus and the other planets moved around the earth.

After Brahe’s death, his assistant Kepler, although a poorer scientist and mathematician than Brahe, showed that Venus traveled in an elliptic orbit, not around the earth, but around the sun. As is typical in such cases, Kepler escaped the entrapping assumption by accident. In his frustration, Kepler had resorted to a series of fantastic models of planetary movement. During his play with one of them, he noticed that he had inadvertently placed the sun, rather than the earth at the center. With the correct assumption, the solution of the problem was obvious. The discovery that the earth was a globe, rather than flat, was also an accident, resulting from ocean voyages exploring distant places rather than seeking the shape of the earth.

With respect to the world of human experience and behavior, modern societies seem to be mostly trapped at the flat earth stage. For example, individualism is an unstated, but nevertheless strongly held assumption in modern societies. Similarly, we usually assume and act as if behavior and cognition are far more important than emotions and social relationships. These assumptions provide what is taken for common sense, the unstated background not only for daily life, but also for much of the social and behavioral sciences.

These disciplines have sought to develop approaches based on distinct concepts, theories and methods independent of conventional common sense. However, the quest has had only limited success.  This essay will consider only one aspect of the problem, the development of clear and distinctive concepts.

Basic concepts in the social and behavioral sciences are generated in several different ways. Perhaps the most common source is simply to use vernacular words. Another source is the ethnographic study. The approach of grounded theory by Strauss (Strauss and Corbin 1998) and others attempts to bring system into the use of ethnography.

Somewhat indirectly, surveys and experiments also have also contributed to the development of concepts. The idea of “relative deprivation” resulted from a social survey. The concept of conformity had been in wide use long before the experiments by Asch and others. But the conformity studies not only generated statistics. They also succeeded in fleshing out the concept with concrete images of subject conforming to perceptions of others even when they directly contradicted their own.

The first source of concepts, vernacular words, particularly, poses a problem from a scientific point of view. Vernacular words usually have more than one meaning, making statements that use only these words ambiguous. Is there any way that unambiguous concepts can be developed, as has been done in mathematics? Such concepts could help develop shared knowledge within and between disciplines and between world languages as well.

For example, in English the word proud can express strong approval, a positive appraisal. It can also express intense disapproval, a negative appraisal: “Pride goeth before the fall.” This latter meaning is indicative of both an exaggerated regard for self and arrogant disregard for others. In the vernacular mathematics of moral appraisal, x (proud) can be either positive or negative. Vernacular words can mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

One way to avoid ambiguity is to attach an adjective. Justified pride, of course, means a positive appraisal, even if it seems a bit stilted. Usually however, one must understand the meaning of vernacular words from the context and nonverbal accompaniments. Vernacular words are loose cannons. The way that their use has impeded research will be discussed below.

Wittgenstein proposed that the reason many problems seem to be unsolvable is that they are expressed in ordinary language. Its ambiguity and bias toward the status quo, as already indicated, are impediments.

How does ordinary language support the status quo? One example is provided by the kind of nationalism that leads to or at least passively accepts unnecessary wars. Since the ambiguity of the word pride was mentioned above, think about the meaning of “national pride.” The pliability of the word love is represented in the warfare sweepstakes with ideas such as “love of country.” English language vernacular allows one to conflate love, which is honorable, with infatuation, which is merely fatuous. Citizens confuse themselves with this and similar usages. Even studies of the political science of warfare seldom attempt to deconstruct such words.

Perhaps the most direct and effective approach to generating distinctive concepts is ethnographic study. The close study of a group or society quite different than one’s own, particularly, can generate concepts that are independent of both the researcher and the subject culture. The researcher can develop what Arthur Koestler called binocular vision, standing outside of both cultures.

However, there is a strong temptation in ethnography, and in historical research and linguistics as well, to focus on mere description, as discussed by Charmaz (2006, p. 23 and passim). Most of these studies, rather than developing binocular vision, are content only to report the similarities and differences between two cultures, instead of developing general concepts that embrace both.

This tendency can be found even in the grounded theory approach, by far the most direct and sophisticated method of concept development. In one of the earliest studies, Glaser and Strauss (1965) described variations in awareness among hospital patients with terminal illness. In some cases, patient and staff shared awareness that the patient was dying. Often, however, the staff knew but the patient didn’t. This study could have focused on a quite general issue, but it didn’t.

The central idea in the 1965 study, shared awareness, might be also central to all of the social and behavioral sciences. It is possible that the degree of shared awareness is the basis of social integration, i.e. solidarity/alienation, perhaps the most important component of social structure/process. As will be indicated below, Goffman gave considerable attention to what he called mutual awareness. But Glaser and Strauss and those who have further studied passed on this opportunity because they were content to describe different degrees of awareness in more concrete rather than general terms.

What can be learned by comparing Glaser and Strauss’s treatment of awareness contexts with Goffman’s explorations of mutual awareness? It is of interest to note that Glaser and Strauss mistakenly include Goffman with other theorists who fail to consider “either the structural contexts in which types of awareness occur, of the structure of the awareness context itself (Glaser and Strauss 1965, p. 13).

However¸ it is hardly their fault, since by 1965, Goffman had referred to mutual awareness only indirectly, even if in many different ways. A flat­­-out recognition of the structure of awareness by Goffman had to await his definition of co-presence in terms of levels of mutual awareness in his 1983 publication, to be discussed below. Furthermore, there is no reason why Goffman’s combination of detailed particulars and general ideas cannot be added to the grounded theory approach, as will also be further discussed below.

Concepts and Theories

The pliability of central concepts represents a formidable barrier to the social and behavioral disciplines.  In order to be understood we need to write in vernacular language. How is one to overcome the problem of ambiguity and conservatism? This essay accepts the need to use vernacular language in designing and reporting a study, but in addition, the central hypothesis can be organized around two or more general concepts. A concept is a word that is defined so clearly that there can be only a single meaning.

General concepts are the fundamental building blocks of theory. Propositions (hypotheses) are made up of at least two such concepts, and a theory, at least two propositions. Formulating an explicit problem and hypothesis requires the use of two or more clearly defined concepts, the more general the concepts, the better.

In this approach, the first step in a study would not be the statement of a problem, the systematic collection of data, reference to a theory, or even a hypothesis. These steps are all too ambitious for beginners. Instead one would attempt to develop two clearly defined concepts, in order to avoid ambiguity and enmeshment in the status quo.

Herbert Blumer (1986) called attention to this problem in two articles that dealt explicitly with the meaning of concepts. He clearly indicated that none of the basic concepts in the social and behavioral sciences are true concepts. Blumer’s solution to this problem, however, was different than the one offered here. He suggested that we must merely be aware that our concepts only sensitize us to a problem, since they do not have a single meaning.

The work on grounded theory by Anselm Strauss (1998) and others carried Blumer’s idea of sensitizing concepts forward. Strauss and those who followed provide a method of generating concepts from data. But, like Blumer, this method does not insist on single-meaning concepts. Hinting at the direction taken in this essay, Giddens (1984) called for the use of examples to “instantiate” concepts, but without giving sufficient examples of what this process might look like.

Goffman’s World

Goffman’s writing is difficult to understand, even though it is brilliant, original, and entertaining. One flaw is that he usually doesn’t state a clear thesis. (As indicated in the first footnote, in this essay I have tried to avoid that flaw by stating the central thesis four times in varying forms.) Either there is no thesis provided at all, or what is offered is misleading. The former, lack of a clear thesis, characterizes his longest and most enigmatic book, Frame Analysis (1974). 2 In my interpretation, the unstated purpose of this book is to develop a definition for the concept of context, rather than using the word in its vernacular sense. As it turns out, his representation of context as a “frame assembly” is too recursive (repetitive) to be managed verbally. In mathematical notation, however, if frame is taken to mean bracket, it can represented by recursive bracketed clauses.

An example of a misleading thesis occurs at the beginning and at the end of Presentation of Self (1959). The whole first half, and the last chapter, deal with performances and dramaturgical staging, rituals of theatre. Behavior is scripted by the social situation; motives are not important (Goffman the Structuralist). The first and last acts lull the reader into a fantasy of the possibility of a pure (non-psychological) sociology.

However, beginning with chapter 4 on discrepant roles, the argument drifts toward motives. By the sixth and most substantial chapter, on “impression management,” Structural Goffman has disappeared. This chapter instead concerns actors’ motives, their harried attempts to stave off, or at least manage, embarrassment and related emotions3. Without a word of warning, the Sociological Social Psychologist has reared his head, shape-shifting. The reader has been conned.

One final example of a misleading presentation is in the essay “Where the Action Is” (1967, 149-270). At 122 pages, this chapter is almost as long as the other essays in the volume combined (6 chapters totaling 149 pages). As far as I know, it is Goffman’s longest essay.

The difficulty is that there is sharp change in topic and tone in the last quarter of the essay. The first three quarters are mostly about gaming, but the last quarter shifts to masculine competitiveness, what Goffman calls the “character contest” (p. 249). The gaming material is fairly bland, at least for Goffman. The last quarter is extraordinarily intense: it is the main thesis, rather than the description of gaming that makes up most of the essay. Here I try to make explicit some of Goffman’s main theses.

The War on Tropes

There is a substantial literature commenting on Goffman’s work that has established that it is no help with systematic theory, method or data, at least in any conventional sense. What could he be up to? One clue is provided by Goffman’s endless development of new concepts and systems of classification that seem to lead nowhere. In his otherwise highly appreciative essay, Lofland (1980, 29) has nevertheless pointed out that the first three pages of one article of Goffman’s contain:

3 types of face

4 consequences of being out of or in the wrong face

2 basic kinds of face work

5 kinds of avoidance processes

3 phases of the corrective process

5 ways an offering can be accepted (1955, pp. 211-213).

Manning (1980, 270), notes that later, in Frame Analysis (1974), the following concepts “at least”, are found in a 19-page span:

4 kinds of playful deceit

6 types of benign fabrications

3 kinds of exploitative fabrications

5 sorts of self-deception (1974, pp 87-116)

Much the same could be said about the rest of Goffman’s work. Since the reader is never told the purpose of these rat’s nests of classifications, and Goffman himself rarely refers to them in his subsequent work, we face a mystery.

 It is possible that Goffman’s main purpose was preliminary to science, to demolish ruling tropes [metaphors] in order to make room for scientific method.

The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away” (Quine 1979, p. 160).

Vernacular words are ambiguous because they are metaphorical in origin, they can point in many directions. An example is provided by the idea of mutual knowledge, already mentioned above. The phrase that Clark (1981) uses for mutual knowledge is “common ground.” Mutual knowledge refers to a phenomenon of shared inner consciousness, but is stated in terms of an image that refers to the outer, material world. His metaphor merely hints at the inner phenomenon using a physical image. It therefore obscures at least as much as it reveals. 

As Quine indicates, if science is to be developed, it is necessary that obstructive metaphors be overthrown. Many vernacular words and phrases, such as common ground, are mere metaphors that do not model what is being referred to. A trope is a particular type of metaphor, a master image that plays a central role in a particular culture.

One example from astronomy has been discussed above, the taken-for-granted assumption that the earth was the center of the universe. The methods of science are useless if one is entrapped in erroneous assumptions. A trope is a ruling metaphor in the assumptive world of a culture. Goffman’s hectic and relentless invention of new concepts was a step toward clearing an open space for human science in the tropical jungle of our assumptive world.

Most social science theory and research depends on tropes, vernacular words that are metaphors rather than concepts. Seeman (1975) pointed out that one of the central ideas in social science, alienation, is wildly ambiguous, since it has at least six different meanings.

1.   Powerlessness

Some of these meanings are dispositional (self-estrangement), others relational (social isolation). Still others are cognitive (meaninglessness), and others may have an emotional component (powerlessness may have a feeling component). The way the idea of alienation is used in the various human science disciplines confounds two or more of these four dimensions, mixing apples and oranges.

  It has been shown many times that the vernacular word for love, especially in English, is highly ambiguous, as this passage from Solomon (1981) suggests:

Consider… the wealth of meticulous and fine distinctions we make in describing our feelings of hostil­ity: hatred, loathing, scorn, anger, revulsion, resentment, envy, abhorrence, malice, aversion, vexation, irritation, annoyance, disgust, spite and contempt, or worse, "beneath" contempt. And yet we sort out our positive affections for the most part between the two limp categories, "liking" and "loving." We distinguish our friends from mere acquaintances and make a ready distinction between lovers and friends whom we love "but not that way." Still, one and the same word serves to describe our enthusiasm for apple strudel, respect for a dis­tant father, the anguish of an uncertain romantic affair and nostalgic affection for an old pair of slippers…  [4]

Yet almost all current discussion and research continues to use vernacular words, rather than defining alienation or love as concepts [5]

 In our review, (2004), David Fearon and I showed that the most studied topic in all of social science, self-esteem, has never been defined conceptually. As a result, all of the some two hundred self-esteem scales confound cognitive, emotional, dispositional, and relational components. The most damaging confound, between thought and feeling, shows up in dictionary definitions.

1.Pride in one’s self; self-respect. (American Heritage Dictionary. 2000)

2.Holding a good opinion of one's self; self-complacency. (Webster's Revised Unabridged dictionary.1998)

3. A feeling of pride in yourself [syn: self-pride] 2: the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect [syn: dignity, self-respect, self-regard] (Princeton University Wordline. 1997)

Two of the three definitions (1 and 3) are in terms of the emotion pride. Definitions # 1 and 3 also suggest other synonyms that, if not emotions, are at least mixtures of feelings and thought: respect, regard and esteem. These two definitions stress the affective components of self-esteem. If we assume that shame is the emotion opposite to pride, then two of the three definitions suggest that high self-esteem involves pride, and low self-esteem, shame.

Definition # 2, however, takes a different tack: it mentions no emotions or feelings. Instead, it defines self-esteem cognitively, holding a good opinion of self. Self-esteem scale items are of both kind, but with somewhat more emphasis on cognitive elements. That is, self-esteem scales and studies contain both the cognitive, the affective and the social. One aspect of the third definition refers to “Being worthy of esteem or respect" which seems to imply a social audience, in addition to being one’s own audience.

It seems that the inclusion of both cognitive and emotional elements in the scale items has sealed the fate of all research using self-esteem scales. There have been ten substantial reviews of the results of self-esteem studies, beginning with Wells and Marwell (1976), and as late as Baumeister (2003).  All ten report the same findings: the correlation between self-esteem scales and behavior is perilously close to zero.

Recent critiques of self-esteem findings by Baumeister and his associates (1996; 1998; 2001) can be interpreted be linked to conceptual confusion. The inclusion of cognition in self-esteem scales may provide the basis for Baumeister and his associates (1996; 1998; 2001) sensational idea that high self-esteem as measured by scales could cause aggression and violence. There is a thread in the self-esteem literature suggesting that high valuation of self could be defensive. To the extent that self-esteem scales measure cognitive self-appraisal, then an inflated evaluation of self-worth, perhaps largely a defense against painful feelings of worthlessness and/or alienation, could lead to aggression and violence.

Earlier I (1994) proposed the hypothesis that destructive violence and aggression may be a defense against feelings of worthlessness. The Baumeister et al egotism thesis can be re-stated as follows: self-esteem scales, because they measure cognition as well as feeling, confound false pride with genuine pride, unacknowledged shame with the absence of chronic shame, and therefore, egotism with self-esteem.

Finally, in a recent (2005) essay, I proposed that emotion names are tropes, vernacular words rather than concepts, and for that reason endlessly confusing6. How have modern societies and the human science disciplines as well gotten away with such a casual treatment of emotions? Because their assumptive worlds take for granted the reality of the material world, behavior and thought. By the same token, the modern view, except under rare extreme instances, is skeptical about the reality, or at least the importance of what might be called the emotional/relational world.

A New Yorker cartoon conveyed the idea that we avoid knowledge of this world. A man lying on the analyst’s couch is saying: “Call it denial if you will, but frankly I think that my personal life is none of my own damn business.” Although humor is often based on exaggeration, the idea that our personal lives are none of our own damn business comes close to the truth of the matter, or at least more truth than poetry. The patient in the cartoon being a man, rather than a woman, is also significant. Men, more than women, are trained to ignore the details that reveal the nature of emotions and relationships. Their attention is diverted elsewhere. But both women and men know much less about this world (for short, the ERW) than the larger one.

Our obliviousness could be a creation of the modern urban/industrial society. In traditional societies, the ERW was virtually the only world there was. In modern societies there are so many duties, distractions, and diversions that most of us learn to ignore the ERW, except in crisis.

The human science disciplines mostly ignore emotions and relationships in favor of behavior and cognition. Goffman’s exploration of the ERW is the foundation of his whole approach. He realized, at some level, that conventional social and behavioral science was blind to the ERW, and might well be as blind in many other arenas as well.

Goffman’s prolonged attacks on the trope of the self and other metaphors, such as mental illness, make credible the idea that he was a trope clearer, giant killer.  His sustained, if more covert attempt to define embarrassment and mutual knowledge suggests his interest in making the ERW visible.

Looking-Glass Self and the Emotional/Relational World

Goffman’s interest in the link between embarrassment/shame and mutual awareness can be represented by way of Cooley’s (1922) looking-glass self (LGS).  This idea connects two vast realms, the social nature of the self, on the one hand, and an intense emotional life that results, on the other. Cooley proposed first that the self is social, that we ‘live in the minds of others without knowing it.” He went on to say that living in the minds of others, imaginatively, gives rise to real emotions, pride and shame. This process is the basis for what Goffman called impression management.

This idea underlies many of the examples that enliven Goffman’s work, and make it understandable and entertaining. One manages one’s image in the eyes of others in order to come to terms with pride and shame. This idea is not part of Cooley’s formulation (1922):

 "A self]idea of this sort seems to have three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his [sic] judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self]feeling, such as pride or mortification” (p. l84).

Cooley seems to suggest that we passively accept whatever pride or shame that comes our way. Goffman took the process two steps further: 4. we attempt to manage the impression that we make on others, to gain pride and avoid embarrassment/shame. 5. If we are not able to manage it, then we further attempt to manage the resulting embarrassment. Goffman provided many, many examples to ground these two steps.

Compared to Goffman, Cooley was relatively direct in naming pride and shame (considering mortification to be a shame variant). For him these two emotions both arose from self-monitoring, the process that was at the center of his social psychology. To be sure, in his discussion of what he called the “self-sentiments,” pride and shame are mentioned only as two of other possible emotions.

But in his definition of the LGS, he referred exclusively to pride and shame. To make sure we understand this point, he mentions shame three more times (l84-85, emphasis added):

“The comparison with a looking]glass hardly suggests the second element, the imagined judgment, which is quite essential. The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflec­tion of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind. This is evident from the fact that the character and weight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves, makes all the difference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one and so on. We always imagine, and in imagining share, the judg­ments of the other mind. A man will boast to one person of an action—say some sharp transaction in trade—which he would be ashamed to own to another.”

Although Cooley is explicit in suggesting that pride and shame are social emotions, he made no attempt to define either emotion. Instead he used the vernacular words as if they were self-explanatory.

As already mentioned, in current usage in English, the word pride used without qualification may have an inflection of arrogance or hubris. In order to refer to the kind of pride implied in Cooley’s analysis, the opposite of shame, one must add a qualifier like justified or genuine. And usage of the word shame, especially in English, is even more confusing, as will be indicated below. Using undefined emotion words is an invitation to the Tower of Babel.

However ambiguous, Cooley's analysis of self-monitoring clearly suggest that pride and shame are the basic social emotions. Goffman was the first social scientist to follow up on the idea, fleshing it out with a large number of refreshingly varied examples of everyday behavior.

Goffman’s Version of the Looking Glass

In Goffman’s basic work, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the LGS is not mentioned explicitly. There are three references to Cooley, but none concern the looking glass. Yet Cooley’s idea can be seen to form the basic structure of all of Goffman’s earlier writings, especially Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (PSEL), some of the chapters of Interaction Ritual, and several other books.

Like Cooley, Goffman’s elaboration on the theme of the looking glass is also ambiguous, but in an entirely different way. Cooley’s prose is simple and unassuming, mostly ordinary language. But Goffman’s, besides being dazzlingly brilliant, is also incredibly involuted and complex. It is dense with meaning, innuendo, impromptu classifications, qualifications, and expansion. It is also humorous, ironic, and witty in ways that both reveal and conceal.

Emotions and shared awareness were basic components in much of Goffman’s thought for most of his career. Unlike most social scientists, Goffman explored emotions as well as thoughts and actions.  However, there is an immediate sticking point: most of Goffman’s treatment of feeling concerns embarrassment, and less prominently, its two cousins, shame and humiliation. These emotions play an important part in many of his early studies, both explicitly, and in larger scope, by implication. Why only these three emotions? What about other primary emotions, such as love, fear, anger, grief, and so on?

To the average reader, the exclusive focus on shame/embarrassment seems arbitrary. An exception is the great English comic writer Allan Bennett, who appears to take Goffman’s emphasis in his stride. He sums it up: “We must love one another or die – of embarrassment (2001, p. 353).” This short sentence packs a lot of information: what Goffman has left out (love) and what he has included (embarrassment). It also wittily alludes to a 60’s song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “we must love one another or die.” But Schudson’s reaction (1984) is more typical. He devoted an entire article to questioning what he sees as Goffman’s exclusive concern with embarrassment.

Goffman offered only a single justification: he argued that embarrassment had universal, pancultural importance in social interaction, but he didn’t bother to explain why. His examples, however, suggests that every actor is extraordinarily sensitive to the amount of deference being received by others. No matter how slight the difference between what is expected and what is received, embarrassment and other painful emotions may result. We are social creatures to the core.

Durkheim, the French sociologist who was the founder of modern sociology, provided only hints along these lines. His theory depended on the idea of a social emotion that held societies together, but the word he used for it, respect, is not an emotion. He also pointed to what he called “collective consciousness” as a necessary prerequisite for a society, but go no farther than describing it only abstractly. Before reviewing Goffman’s treatment of shared awareness, it is first necessary to further explore his treatment of emotions.

Goffman on Emotions

First, Goffman used many words that convey shame or embarrassment without naming them explicitly. Many of his quotes are of this nature. For example, “his pride is deeply wounded” (p. 50) conveys shame indirectly. Another instance occurs in his discussion of the difficulty faced by the person in the role of the go-between:

When a go-between operates in the actual presence of the two teams of which he is a member, we obtain a wonderful display, not unlike a man desperately trying to play tennis with himself... As an individual, the go-between's activity is bizarre, untenable, and undignified, vacillating as it does from one set of appearances and loyalties to another (p. 149, emphasis added).

The idea that the activity of a go-between caught between conflicting audiences is “bizarre, untenable, and undignified” is an indirect referral to embarrassment, especially the use of the word undignified. The idea of dignity and its lack, almost always a cognate or pride and shame, occurs very frequently in PSEL. Goffman’s references to dignity or its derivatives (17 times) always imply pride or much more frequently, shame.

Another obvious instance occurs in a quote from Simmel:

An ideal sphere lies around every human being. Although differing in size in various directions and differing according to the person with whom one entertains relations, this sphere cannot be penetrated, unless the personality value of the individual is thereby destroyed. A sphere of this sort is placed around man by his "honor." Language very poignantly designates an insult to one's honor as "coming too close": the radius of this sphere marks, as it were, the distance whose trespassing by another person insults one's honor (p. 69).

 The idea of honor, especially insulting it or having it destroyed, might as well be expressed in pride and shame language.

Many passages indicate embarrassment or shame without using either word explicitly. Here is a virtuoso instance that involves two direct and two indirect referrals:

Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed (1) of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame (2), he may feel that his feelings can be seen; feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him (3). He may then add to the precariousness of his position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that he would employ were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be (4). (p. 236. Emphasis added)  

Following the logic of the LGS, the clause “he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him” implies at least the possibility of shame or embarrassment. The final sentence in this passage goes much further: “In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be.”

This last haunting line implies a shame state, brief though it may be, that is extremely intense. More than any other passage in Goffman, perhaps, this one takes us on a jolting roller-coaster ride through all three steps of the LGS: the imagination of the others’ view of self, the imagined judgment of the other of self, and, with powerful impact, the actual, not imagined feeling about self that is the result. For Goffman’s actors, social interaction, if not a vale of embarrassment, is a slippery slope because of the constant anticipation of the possibility of embarrassment or its even more painful variants.

Embarrassment and Mutual Awareness: Grounding Two Concepts

Although Goffman casually used metaphors for mutual awareness (e.g., the phrase “mystic union.”), he also offered a fairly elaborate and complex definition of “being in a state of talk.”  Since his definition requires an entire page of text, I will not repeat it all here. Suffice to know that it contains phrases that imply mutual mind reading: “…An understanding will prevail [among the speakers] as to how long and how frequently each speaker is to hold the floor…” (1967, 35; a similar formulation occurs earlier, on p. 34). The definition comes close to explicitly describing intersubjective accord in this line:

“…A single focus of thought and attention, and a single flow of talk, tends to be maintained and to be legitimated as officially representative of the encounter (Goffman 1967, 34, emphasis added).”

The significance of the phrase “a single focus of thought and attention” becomes more apparent if it is compared to a similar phrase, “joint attention” used by the psychologist Bruner (1983), when he is explaining how an infant learns to become attuned with its caretaker.[8] The mother, he says, is only trying to teach a new word.  She places an object (such as a doll) in her own and the baby’s line of gaze, shakes it to make sure of the baby’s attention, saying “See the pretty DOLLY.” In this situation, the baby is likely to learn not only the meaning of a word, but also, since both parties are looking at the same object, how to have, jointly with the mother “a single focus of thought and attention”, to use Goffman’s phrase.

A more detailed idea of mutual awareness comes up in somewhat stronger but still indirect form in Goffman’s comments on co-presence. [9]

When in each other’s presence individuals are admirably placed to share a joint focus of attention (1), perceive that they do so (2), and perceive this perceiving (3) [Goffman 1983, p. 3.  Numbers added].

This quote points to three levels of mutual awareness: joint attention, mutual perception of joint attention, and mutual perception of the mutual perception.  In his book on strategy (1969) Goffman at least hints that even higher orders of mutual perception might determine the winner of strategic contests, such as spying and large scale financial transactions, if the stakes are high enough. By implication, Goffman’s model of mutual awareness is recursive: I know that you know that I know, etc. His model of mutual awareness, like his model of context, implies a bracket assembly. This recursive model provides a single clear meaning to the otherwise ambiguous concept of solidarity.

With this model, degree of solidarity would concern the number of levels of mutual awareness. The highest degree of solidarity would be understanding at all levels of awareness that are accessed by the two parties. Similarly, degree of alienation would concern the absence of understanding at one or more levels. This model leads to the counter-intuitive possibility that lack of mutual awareness at one of the higher levels might be more alienating than understanding or agreement at the first level. It also suggests a clear conceptual definition of love that can be applied to both romantic and non-romantic love, as in Scheff 2006, Chapter 7.

Beginning in the 80’s, there began to be an expanding literature on what is called “mutual knowledge” in philosophy and economics (Clark and Marshall 1881; Sperber and Wilson 1986). These ventures do not mention the earlier explorations of the looking-glass. They also have a boogie man; the possibility that they call infinite regression. The idea of cascades of mutual mind reading, I know that you know that I know…, seems to panic the authors. As Goffman implied, however, the number of recursive levels of mutual awareness is surely an empirical problem, not a conceptual one.

A conceptual definition of mutual awareness is as far as Goffman goes in attempting to explicate this idea; he didn’t provide objective indicators. Perhaps Goffman was uncomfortable about flatly stating and following up an idea that is anathema in individualistic modern societies, that we are all “members one of another.” Although church members sing this phrase, most would be loath to take its meaning literally, as Cooley and Goffman seemed to do.

However, the conceptual model of solidarity offered here can generate operational definitions also. There is already a small research literature on mind-reading, which could be expanded into survey research by asking questions not only about beliefs, but beliefs about other’s beliefs. There is also a beginning literature on estimating shared awareness by using verbal and gestural cues in moment to moment recordings of conversation.

A Concept of Embarrassment?

In the case of the other idea discussed here, embarrassment, he was not content to give only a conceptual definition, but also followed up, offering elements of an operational definition:

An individual may recognize extreme embarrassment in others and even in himself by the objective signs of emotional disturbance: blushing, fumbling, stuttering, an unusually low- or high-pitched voice, quavering speech or breaking of the voice, sweating, blanching, blinking, tremor of the hand, hesitating or vacillating movement, absentmindedness, and malapropisms. As Mark Baldwin remarked about shyness, there may be "a lowering of the eyes, bowing of the head, putting of hands behind the back, nervous fingering of the clothing or twisting of the fingers together, and stammering, with some incoherence of idea as expressed in speech." There are also symptoms of a subjective kind: constriction of the diaphragm, a feeling of wobbliness, consciousness of strained and unnatural gestures, a dazed sensation, dryness of the mouth, and tenseness of the muscles. In cases of mild discomfiture, these visible and invisible flusterings occur but in less perceptible form (Goffman 1967, emphasis added).

This definition links an interior emotion with surface observables.  With his usual uncanny instinct, in the last sentence he even hints at the need for further elaboration of the operational definition: “these visible and invisible flusterings [that accompany embarrassment], but in less perceptible form.” This clause seems to point toward the development of more elaborate coding systems for the verbal and gestural indicators of shame and embarrassment, such as the one by Retzinger (1991; 1995). Certainly in 1967 and even today, Goffman was ahead of the curve.

Part/Whole Analysis

Perhaps we should imitate Goffman, developing concepts grounded in the details of the reality they are supposed to represent. One way to approach this problem is to treat it as a part/whole problem: how to relate abstract concepts, the wholes, to the particulars of actual life, the parts, actual words and gestures. The 17th century philosopher of science, Baruch Spinoza first formulated what seems to be a brilliant idea: human beings are so complex that they can only be understood by linking “least parts” to “greatest wholes.” (Scheff 1997).

This issue came up in an odd way in an interview with the novelist Muriel Spark concerning her novel The Bachelors. The novel describes the lives of bachelors of varying ages and stations in life in London in remarkable detail.  Ms. Spark, a middle-aged unmarried woman at the time, was asked how she could possibly know so much about such men. Her answer was “A lifetime of combing lint.” By lint, Spark seems to be referring to the detailed particulars of the lives of many people that she had noted. This idea might be as useful in the early stages of science as it seems to be in the writing of novels. As William Blake put it, “... Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” Goffman’s way was to take initial steps towards organizing particulars.

In one chapter of Richard Lazarus’s last book (1997), he suggests a new approach, at least for him, to the study of emotion. His initial discussion, at least, implies that with respect to emotions, some lint-combing might be in order. At the beginning of Chapter 8, he proposes that one might derive a classification of emotions by close study of narratives[10]. He gives one example, a paragraph describing an actual marital quarrel. From this one narrative, he derives four types of anger: inhibited, righteous and sullen anger, and hostility.

Lazarus’s idea of classifying emotions by using narratives seems to be a step forward in this field. Plutchick (2003) has pointed out that although there have been two dozen emotion classifications in English alone, there is next to no agreement among them as to names of the basic emotions or even their number. Perhaps the main reason for this disparity is that each of the classifications is entirely theoretical, with no grounding in actual emotional events, the “thin air” method.

Even though Lazarus has a good idea, he provides only one narrative [11]. In the rest of the chapter he goes on to derive still another theoretical taxonomy for all the major emotions out of thin air, seemingly forgetting his own suggestion about the use of narratives. He proposes many abstract concepts, but employs only one particular, the narrative about the marital quarrel.

For the development of a concept, how many parts as compared to how many wholes? It doesn’t seem likely that there should be more wholes than parts, as in Lazarus’s chapter. More likely, there should be many more parts than wholes, as is the case in Goffman’s work. Using his approach as an example, it is possible to be explicit about the steps needed in order to ground concepts in concrete particulars, what I have called here “lint combing.”

A weakness in Goffman’s use of this method is that in some cases he resorts to hypothetical situations. Although they help the argument along, hypotheticals have serious drawbacks in science. The most glaring one is that they always lack the ambient details, the minute, seemingly irrelevant particulars that often provide the key. Another fault is that since hypotheticals are imaginary, the author is locked into his or her own head. 

Perhaps by adding the development of grounded concepts to the grounded theory approach, one might have the best of both worlds. The close examination of particular instances of some of the awareness contexts in Glaser and Strauss’s study (1965) might have been an incentive to think in terms of a general concept of shared awareness, or even solidarity and alienation. As Goffman’s work on mutual awareness suggests, the more concrete the observations, the more likely the relevance of general concepts will be recognized.


This essay has proposed a method of grounding concepts in relevant examples, as Goffman seemed to do in the case of mutual awareness and embarrassment. The strength of this method is that it avoids the thin air option, on the one hand, and also premature commitment to a particular theory, method or data, on the other. Instead it draws on diverse examples, helping to develop concepts that have some palpable relationship to the human condition. Since the grounding of concepts in this way takes a great deal of time and effort, and is hopelessly indirect and roundabout, there must be a better way. Until a better one is found, however, Goffman’s might be helpful along with the other more established methods.


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[1] This essay is based in part on Scheff 2006. The statements in boldface represent the central thesis in four different forms:  1. Title. 2. Abstract. 3. Text. 4. Conclusion.  Through repetition, I try to avoid one of the flaws in much of Goffman’s work, the absence of a clear central thesis.

 [2] Chapter 5 (Scheff 2006).

 [3] Chapter 3 (Scheff 2006).

 [4] Solomon (1981; 1992).

 [5] Chapter 7 in Scheff 2006 offers a conceptual definition of genuine love.

 [6] See the reference to Plutchick (2003) below.

 [7] Establishing a new language within the shell of an old one is a bit like lifting yourself with your own bootstraps. In Frame Analysis, the central theme, though unstated, is an attempt to define context as a concept. Yet Goffman uses this word 48 times in its vernacular meaning, as a residual category, like everyone else.

 [8] Attunement is the term used by Stern (1977) in his studies of infant-caretaker relationships. It is difficult to choose a name for the state of mutual awareness in English, since our language establishes individuals as the fundamental unit, rather than pairs or larger groups.

 [9] Luiz Baptista called this quotation to my attention. The idea of levels of mutual awareness plays a prominent role in my discussion (2006, Chapter 5) of context and consensus.

 [10] Bengt Starrin called this chapter to my attention.

 [11] Although narratives are much better than thin air, they are still quite abstract, being verbal descriptions. Goffman went quite far with verbal texts. However, in developing concepts, especially emotion and relation concepts, verbatim recordings of discourse may ultimately be needed. Such records make available the verbal and non-verbal indicators of emotion and connectedness, the minute particulars.

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