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«Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault: Social Theory and the Concept of Social Care»

Social theory has experienced the influence of both the classical approach and modern sociological theories. The last are characterized by the increasing attention towards functionalism and the appearance of interpretive sociology. According to the scholars, the aim of the social theory is to reconsider the main concept throughout the course of the history (Swingewood 2000, p. 10). As a result, the study by Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman is of utmost importance for analyzing the development of social theory and the concept of social care. In particular, in order to determine the social order and distinguish its peculiarities, Goffman studied the interactions between people. In turn, Foucault analyzed the society from the perspective of the practice and particular circumstances. At the same time, both concepts are essential for the understanding of how classifications of individuals interact with classified people. The paper compares and contrasts the approaches introduced by the scholars and evaluates their contribution to the sphere of social care.

Goffman is known for the studies in a wide variety of social phenomena. One of the ideas that can be found in the majority of his works is the concept of interactional order. The concept means the process of face-to-face interactions between individuals (Goffman 2007, p. 18). According to Goffman, individuals continuously monitor the behaviour of the others and, upon the general impression, judge a person. In addition, the interactional order introduces a set of powerful norms and expectations that determine what behaviour can be considered appropriate and what cannot. Thus, the interaction order is responsible for the establishment of a broader concept of moral order. For example, people have to behave in accordance with the moral principles and control their thoughts and actions. In addition, even the simplest everyday activities, such as walking along the street, can be analyzed as a complex structured action. While walking along the street, people are constantly engaged in monitoring the surrounding environment and have to make proper decisions. For instance, it is not polite to walk between two people, who have a conversation (Goffman 2007, p. 57). Every day people experience different social interactions that reflect the properties of social life. The approach introduced by Goffman was further developed in other spheres, such as doctor-patient relations, for example (Heritage and Maynard 2006). Hochschild integrated the ideas of Goffman in the social interactions between an employee and employer. In particular, the concept of emotional labour foresees that the employees in service industries have to welcome customers with a smile (Hochschild 2003).

According to Goffman, societies tend to introduce the means of categorizing people. Every group has its peculiarities and attributes, including social settings (Goffman 2009, p. 2). As a result, the established social intercourse allows people to deal with each other without paying special attention to the situation until a stranger appears in their lives. When people have to deal with unknown individuals, they begin to evaluate the social identity of a person. The scientist uses the term social identity rather than social status, as the process of analysis involves evaluation of personal traits, such as honesty (Goffman 2009, p. 2). However, the anticipations transformed into the normative expectations and demands may not meet the reality. Thus, a stranger falls under the category of a virtual social identity (Goffman 2009, p.3). When an individual’s traits are proven, he or she can be treated as an actual social identity (Goffman 2009, p. 3). In order to determine the classifications of people, the scientist introduced the term of a stigma. Stigmas include social characteristics and peculiarities that distinguish one member of society from the others. Stigmas can include various aspects of differentiation. For example, people can be classified in accordance with their race, gender, education, ethnicity, or mental disorder. According to Goffman, stigma is “the phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute, which is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute; stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity” (2009, p. 4). Besides, the scientist considered three types of social stigmas. The first group comprises stigmas that refer to external deformations, which include diseases, such as leprosy and scars, or physical disabilities. The second group considers deviations in personal behaviour, such as mental disorders or drug and alcohol addiction. The criminal past also falls under the second category of stigmas. The third type is defined as tribal stigmas imposed by a certain religion or national tradition (Goffman 2009, p. 10). Depending on an attribute that is stigmatized, the person’s behaviour can be considered either creditable or discreditable. Goffman provided an example of a middle-class boy that could visit the library without prejudice and a criminal that would face a general disapproval for doing the same (Goffman 2009, p. 3). In addition, the absence of higher education can be considered an obstacle by some employers while others welcome job-seekers without expected college education. Thus, people enjoy different social benefits depending on the category, to which they belong. The modern society has to work on addressing any possible stigmatization of individuals, as the judgements may not meet the real lie of the matter.

On the contrary, Foucault considered the power a determinant in the social stratification. In particular, the power can be used to influence the people’s behaviour, as well as establish legitimate social structures. According to the scientist, the power represents a complex phenomenon within a particular society (Foucault 2012, p. 53). At the same time, the concept of power can have different forms, such as authority or personal traits. Foucault underlines that it is important to achieve a balance of power in the relationships between people. The power can also be found in interactions between an individual and society, or an individual and social institutions. For example, some institutions use the power to establish their influence over people. At the same time, Foucault underlines that the idea that institutions use power to deprive individuals of any rights and limit their freedoms is wrong. The scientist broadens the concept of a powerful and powerless person. Hestates that even the oppressive nature of the power can have a positive influence on the society, as it facilitates the appearance of new ways of behaviour.

Goffman also made a statement that different types of care and social facilities, such as care homes, military camps, clinical hospitals, and prisons, had a similar structure. In particular, the facilities mentioned above are defined as total institutions and have one common characteristic of influencing people’s lives comprehensively (Zastrow 2009, p. 159). Usually, human beings spend their day at different places, including homes, works, and entertainment places. However, in the total institutions, people spend 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. In addition, there is a barrier between the real world and the inner environment of total institutions. As a result, people in such places are cut off from the society and deprived of an opportunity to deal with the challenges of the outside world. The inhabitants of these institutions have to follow the staff’s point of view on what is wrong and right. Thus, some actions of the staff often contradict the process of health care and treatment procedures (Goffman 2007, p. 59). This fact proves that total institutions exist in order to exclude certain individuals from the social inclusion and interactions with other people. The further analysis of Goffman’s ideas considering total institutions has demonstrated that the scientist introduced the concept of the rule-governed relations between the staff, mainly healthcare personnel, and patients (Bradby 2012, p. 27). These relations develop in the constrained fashion, which is determined by the nature of total institutions.

Foucault has also developed the theory of total institutions. However, there is a difference between the approaches employed by the two scholars. In particular, while Goffman considers total institutions as an aberration, Foucault states that the carceral character of total institutions encapsulates the core features of social life (Jaworski 2006, p. 57). Foucault analyzes moral technologies and reviews the issue of punishment from another perspective, focusing on the process of punishment (Foucault 2013, p. 162). While analyzing total institutions, Foucault has developed a concept of biopolitics that foresees the establishment of the power-knowledge relations. As a result, the appearance of total institutions, which allowed replacing the death penalty with the life conviction, has demonstrated the shift in the power within a society. The scientist states that people consider everything in a definite way. Depending on their analysis, they behave and affect the society in general. Thus, people themselves have introduced the necessity of adopting the modern code of law regarding criminals and decided to separate mentally sick people in special facilities. According to Foucault, prisons and mental hospitals, similarly to schools and factories, impose limitations on the freedom of people (Foucault 2012, p. 135).  

Goffman’s study of total institutions and Foucault’s contribution to the idea of disciplinary society have a lot in common. For example, their nature is represented by the bureaucratic people-processing and helping humane personal service (Riggins 1990: p. 178). According to Goffman, total institutions control the lives of its inhabitants. As a result, the medical psychiatric service is not aimed at protecting patients’ interests but at justifying the very existence of total institutions. While conducting the research, Goffman analyzed the behaviour of patients and arrived at a conclusion that psychiatric institutions did not cause any changes in patients’ state. Goffman pointed that the “staff problem is to find a crime that will fit the punishment” (Goffman 2007, p. 85). The presence of mental symptoms proved the establishment of medical control over the illness. Thus, social care required improvements. Foucault states that the disciplinary society traces its origins back to specific establishments for disease control or army discipline (Foucault 2012, p. 56). Nowadays, the features of the disciplinary society are used to construct and manage people’s lives by “optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without making individuals more difficult to govern” (Foucault 2012, p. 141). Furthermore, Foucault draws an analogy between the social care institutions, such as hospitals or schools, and prisons. According to the scientist, both can be characterized by the establishment of a particular regime and constant supervision. As a result, punishment does not differ from curing or educating “because it is generically the same social control, receiving the sanction of technique and rationality” (Foucault, p. 303).

In such a manner, the stand of the scholars proves that total institutions have a negative social impact. Instead of integrating into society, people are locked in the worlds of total institutions and deprived of their rights. The social care has to consider the cases of inhabitants of these total institutions and develop a more liberal approach in the social realm. The sphere of justice still needs these kinds of establishments to exist in order to ensure that the criminals are punished and do not constitute a threat to the community. Unlike convicted people, residents of care homes can be more integrated into social life outside the establishments. In the 1970s, Goffman’s work has already contributed to the process of deinstitutionalization. The process foresaw the replacement of long-stay psychiatric hospitals with the part-time facilities. It has ensured an opportunity to provide less isolation for people with mental disorders and improve mental health services (Stroman 2003, p. 10). The process of deinstitutionalization can be carried out by applying two mechanisms. The first mechanism presumes the reduction in the number of mental institutions through releasing patients and making their stay shorter. The second way is more efficient; it is based on reforming mental hospitals and introducing special programs of eliminating the hopelessness and increased the dependency of patients. In order to achieve the aim of deinstitutionalization, Erving Goffman, Thomas Szasz, and George Alexander established the American Association for the Abolition of Involuntary Mental Hospitalization (AAAIMH) (Szasz 2009, p. 28). The organization aimed at banning an involuntary psychic intervention against the patients. The main motive for the creation of the organization “was thee conviction that the practice of involuntary psychiatric interventions - epitomized by civil commitment - is a moral atrocity, similar to the practice of involuntary servitude” (Szasz 2009, p. 28). According to the psychiatrists, the deinstitutionalization was generally beneficial for patients (Eisenberg 2010, p. 89). However, the process has also created a number of problems, such as leaving psychiatric patients without the necessary care or increasing the number of homeless people, released from these establishments. In order to address the problems, a supportive housing initiative, aimed at providing partial supervision over mentally ill people, was introduced (Fakhourya and Priebe 2007, p. 314).  

The scientists also contributed to the development of the social theory by introducing different methods of analysis. For example, Goffman conducted the research through observations. According to Goffman,

Any group of persons - prisoners, primitives, pilots or patients - develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable and normal once you get close to it … a good way to learn about any of these worlds is to submit oneself in the company of the members to the daily round of pretty contingencies to which they are subject (Goffman 2009, p. 9).

As a result, in order to experience the life in total institutions, Goffman had lived there for a year. He tried to minimize the contact with the staff as much as possible and examined the behaviour of inhabitants and attitude towards them. During the investigation process, Goffman used a set of methods. First, the scientist conducted a naturalistic observation or interaction ethnology. The aim of the approach is to investigate the process of interactions between people in the natural environments. At the same time, it is necessary to get to the subject of the investigation as close as possible and to put oneself under the circumstances that the subject experiences. This process helps get the primary sociological information that can be processed later. As a result, a researcher gets an opportunity to analyze the situation from a different perspective, provided by other methods. Second, Goffman used metaphors, models, and theoretical perspectives to analyze the social behaviour of patients. Third, Goffman’s works can be characterized by the passage from abnormality to normality. In particular, the scientist used examples of extreme behaviour in order to explain and understand the normal behaviour of people. Fourth, Goffman applied deconstruction principles. For instance, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the scientist deconstructed an individual into different dramaturgical elements in order to understand his nature (Goffman 1999). Fifth, the scientist also used methods of material classification, typologies, and differentiations during the process of analysis. Sixth, the observation of people’s behaviour was recorded in the sequence of events. Finally, according to Goffman, the major goal of the social theory is to develop a conceptual system with the large number of facts and events (Flick, Kardoff and Steinke, 2004, p. 25). Thus, Goffman’s research is based on the qualitative approach and provides the social theory with real examples of mechanisms within total institutions. Besides, the approach of the scientist is shaped by the principles of interactionism (Scrambler 2002, p. 18).

On the contrary to the interactionist positions, Foucault considered the social theory from the perspective of social constructionism. According to the approach, any knowledge or practice that is adopted in the social sphere represents a result if the set of power relations takes place during a certain period. As a result, Foucault criticized the analysis of the knowledge in the medical sphere as being socially constructed within a particular political regime. The scientist examined the medicalization of society as a process of implementing medical initiatives in accordance with various local factors, rather than interpreting it as a central or unified mechanism. Foucault determined the key elements that helped analyze medical institutions; they include knowledge and power. The scientist also examined the institutional discipline through individual behaviour and medical systems of surveillance (Bradby 2012, p. 35). In addition, Foucault did not conduct his research directly. While Goffman relied on his primary experience, Foucault analyzed written works in order to develop his theories. At the same time, Foucault did not entirely consider archaeological analysis. He stated that the discourses could not examine the irregularities in social practices (Jaworski 2006, p. 57). Instead of the archaeological approach, he created his methodology during investigations. Foucault applied the concept of genealogy, developed from studying Nietzsche. While genealogy has some elements typical of archaeology, it supplements the analysis with an opportunity to examine the social phenomenon in accordance with its origins and unpalatable functions (Biggs and Powell 2001, p. 93). The genealogy, unlike archaeology, provides not a snapshot of events but represents the process itself (Foucault 1980, p. 158). Foucault described the difference between the methods,

if we were to characterise it in two terms, then ‘archaeology’ would be the appropriate methodology of this analysis of local discursiveness, and ‘genealogy’ would be the tactics whereby, on the basis of the descriptions of these local discursivities, the subjected knowledge’s which were thus released would be brought into play (Foucault 1980, p. 159).  

Thus, both Goffman and Foucault have contributed to the establishment of the social theory and developed the existing concepts. The scientists examined the social change, typical of the societies of the middle 20th century. Goffman’s works can be viewed in the context of interactionism, as he focused mainly on the interactions between people and the influence of these interactions on the general environment. Foucault conducted his research in accordance with the constructionist principles. Both scientists have analyzed the phenomenon of total institutions and developed its relevance to the real world. As a result, the works of Goffman and Foucault can help provide better social care services. In particular, the improvement can be made in the spheres of operation and management of educational establishments, medical facilities, and places for mentally ill individuals.


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