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How relevant is Goffman for understanding disability?

            Social interaction is present in practically every facet of our lives – it is an inescapable phenomenon which brings with it innumerable complexities and problems. Goffman’s contribution to sociology lies in his answers concerning how one should act in everyday life, with others and with oneself, through analysis of the expressive dimensions of social life. Such analysis has been conducted previously by Durkheim who was largely concerned with ritual ceremonies and their function for producing a shared sense of solidarity among a group. Goffman builds upon this work extending it to the profane, ordinary elements of life – the realm of the routine. This is dealt with explicitly in his primary dissertation, ‘The presentation of self in everyday life’. In this work, one learns of Goffman’s dramaturgical approach, whereby he utilizes a plethora of theatrical metaphors to explain the mode of presentation employed by the individual (actor) and its meaning in the broader social context. Interaction is viewed as a ‘performance’ shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with ‘impressions’ that are consistent with the desired goals of the actor. Goffman highlights the many expressive devices used by people to maintain a certain performance, and to maintain the appearance of normality versus the actual reality. This is particularly pertinent when transferred to the analysis of marginal groups, as documented in ‘Stigma’, another of his early writings, which has been described as the ‘The presentation of discredited self in everyday life’, the discredit deriving from many sources – disability, imprisonment, addiction, unemployment, homosexuality, race, nation and religion being examples. In this essay we shall concentrate on the first example, disability, and shall examine how this stigma is dealt with in the framework produced by Goffman, touching on his dramaturgical model and then applying it to the specific group of marginalized individuals.