The most influential micro-sociologist during the 1960s and 1970s, Goffman pioneered the dramaturgical perspective for sociology. The influences on his work were many. After completing his first degree at the University of Toronto he pursued graduate work at Chicago during the late 1940s. Here he came under the influence of the symbolic interactionists, especially Everett Hughes and Herbert Blumer; of the neo-Durkheimians, especially Lloyd Warner, Edward Shils, and Edward Banfield; and of social anthropology. In this way, his attention was drawn to the importance of symbol and ritual in everyday life, and to the research techniques of participant observation.
He conducted his first major fieldwork study on one of the Shetland Islands off Scotland (whilst based in Edinburgh). His observations of everyday life in this crofting community subsequently informed his highly influential The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) in which he outlines his dramaturgical framework. In this early work Goffman analyses social life via the metaphor of the theatre, and is concerned with the ways in which people play roles, and manage the impressions they present to each other in different settings. He also reveals his abiding concern with the interaction order—with what people do when they are in the presence of others.
His next two books continued his dramaturgical interest but applied this framework to the field of deviance. Stigma (1964) provides a formal analysis of the features of those who experience stigma, whilst Asylums (1961) reports on fieldwork inside a mental hospital, and traces the moral career of a mental patient. From this case-study, he developed a more general account of the workings of total institutions. Both these studies were also very influential in the development of labelling theory, the latter being particularly relevant to the critique of institutionalization, and perhaps having some impact in encouraging the process of decarceration.
Many of Goffman's other studies, including Encounters (1961), Behaviour in Public Places (1963), and Relations in Public (1971), pursued the themes of dramaturgical analysis, and provided a dictionary of new sociological concepts which facilitate understanding of the minute details of face-to-face interaction—‘mini concepts’ as one commentator has called them. These have influenced a whole generation of scholars interested in studying everyday life. But by the late 1960s Goffman's works also show signs of an increasing interest in phenomenology and sociolinguistics. Thus, in Frame Analysis (1974), there is an attempt to depict the organization of consciousness, and in Forms of Talk (1981) language becomes a major focus.
Although Goffman has had many followers he remains unique in the annals of sociology. He broke almost all the rules of conventional methodology: his sources were unclear; his fieldwork seems minimal, and he was happier with novels and biography, than with scientific observation; his style was not that of the scientific report but of the essayist; and he was frustratingly unsystematic. Likewise, he is very hard to place in terms of social theory. Sometimes he is seen as developing a distinct school of symbolic interactionism, sometimes as a formalist following in the tradition of Georg Simmel, and sometimes even as a functionalist of the microorder, because of his concern with the functions of rituals (especially talk) in everyday life. He appears to have had a notoriously difficult temperament, which adds to the popular view of him as an intellectual maverick.