Social theory has developed from a classical approach to a more modern sociological approach, characterised by a rise of functionalism and the introduction of interpretive sociology. Swingewood (2000) states that “the heart of sociological thought is.. to redefine concepts and to rediscover them” (Swingewood, 2000:9). Both Goffman and Foucault have contributed to the development of social theory and this essay will critically compare their influence in particular focusing on their analysis of institutions, power and their use of research methods. In order to understand how social order was possible, Goffman analysed the ways in which humans are constituted in face-to-face interactions, Foucault examined society through practises and local circumstance, he didn’t analyse the ‘subject’, but the ’embodied subject.’ Goffman and Foucault are distant in some aspects, for instance in their research methods and approaches on power but are similar in the more important aspects such as their analysis of experts and expert judgement within institutions. This essay will also compare the influence of other theorists in the development of their theoretical approaches.

One of the main problems from classical sociology is the inadequate notion of self. The dominant trend of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century social theory was towards developing a concept of action. None of the major sociologists constructed an adequate notion of self. The self was defined anonymously as a “disembodied actor assimilating norms and producing meanings in relation to the wider, macrosociological system” (Swingewood, 2000:165). Only Simmel’s sociology with its basis in sociation and interaction approached an adequate theory of the living, active social subject. Mead later developed Simmel’s theory of the self, he argued “Human society as we know it, could not exist without minds and selves” (Mead, 1972:227). He studied the social interaction process and concluded that individuals are constructed over time due to how they interact with others. He argues, “a self only exists, when it interacts with itself and the other selves of the community” (Mead, 1934:138). Blumer (1937) extended many of Meads ideas to refer to action as Mead failed to explain how meanings were actually produced. Blumer attempted to analyse the situational and contextual basis of action in relation to the development of the self, outlining in Symbolic Interactionism that “meaning.. arises through the ways individuals interact with each other as they utilise and interpret the symbolic forms” (Blumer 1969). Goffman’s work is sometimes viewed within the context of symbolic interactionism (Baret 1998) due to the fact he focuses on the interaction patterns between individuals and their ability to reflect on their actions and therefore influence the environment. Goffmans interpretive perspective focuses on the everyday interactions between individuals and the subjective meanings behind these actions Rawls (1987). believes that Goffman’s analysis offers a solution to the agency and structure debate with “the idea of an interaction order which is constitutive of self and at the same time places demands on social structure” (Rawls, 1987:136).

However, Foucault rejects the search for a ‘true self.’ Rather than offering an account of the real self that is being regulated as in Goffman’s account of the performing self, Foucault is interested in how we come to think, feel and act as certain kinds of selves and he wishes to examine the effects of this behaviour.

A new social theory has emerged since the 1950s which looks at human society as an organised system of relation, governed by laws and is self-regulated. It defines reality in terms of the relations between elements, not in terms of objectively existing things and social facts. Foucault examines this concept and takes a stance mid-way between structuralism and post structuralism. Although he claims, “I have never been a structuralist” (Swingewood 2000:194). However he shares the structuralists’ dismissal of theories based on individual choices and the effects of human action. Yet his work was primarily about the self. Foucault was concerned with the status and role of the human subject, the concept of human beings in history and in the human sciences. Foucault shares with the structuralists a desire to displace the human subject and its consciousness from the centre of theoretical concern.

Foucault explores how meanings are temporarily stabilised or regulated into a discourse. This ordering of meaning is achieved through the operation of power in social practice. For Foucault discourse unites both language and practice and is effectively a form of power. Foucault believes discourse gives meaning to material objects and social practises and therefore produces knowledge through language. Foucault outlines in The Archaeology of Knowledge the relations between knowledge and power, “power and knowledge directly imply one another… there is no power relation.. without a field of knowledge” (Foucault 1979:100). By outlining this Foucault shows that truth does not exist, outside power.

Goffman too was concerned with discourse for instance in 1981 Goffman introduced the concept ‘footing’ which is a similar concept to an interactive frame which became rather influential in discourse analysis. Goffman was also concerned with concrete conversation; he noted the social exchanges between individuals not only the words but also the tone, body language and accent. Similar to Foucault, Goffman recognised the influence of the structure of the social world in how we interact, however he places greater emphasis on the creative role of the agent in producing and sustaining the norms and values underpinning the social world (Swingewood 2000). Goffman suggests in The Presentation of Self that “when an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have” (Goffman, 1969:5). Goffman developed a notion of the individual as a dramaturgical actor, viewing social life as a dramatic performance. He suggested that individuals spent much of their time framing their ‘true self’ from the view of other people. Goffman believes that “behaviour may change from place to place, but the ways in which it changes as well as the situations for which it changes, are usually constant” (Goffman, 1969:68). He feels that individuals behaviour may change when the structure of situation changes, due to different rules which govern how they interact with others. Goffman looks at the rules within institutions, outlined in his work Asylums where he studied the experiences of inmates in a mental institution. He found that patients view of self was modified by their experience within the institiution (Goffman, 1969:78). Similarly Foucault had a concept of rules within a social system, however unlike Goffman he analysed the concept of rules and interactions in terms of a prison institution and how these institutions shape and regulate individual behaviour. (Swingewood 2000) He found that prisons produced distinctive modern forms of identity because individuals came to think of themselves in certain ways due to constant surveillance and monitoring (Foucault 1980:155). These studies aimed to show that even in situations of apparently irrational behaviour there are rules and order.

Both Goffman and Foucault questioned the humaneness of therapeutic institutions. To Goffman, knowledge developed at mental asylums did not serve the interests of patients, instead the institution itself created deviant behaviour in the inmates and then used this to control them (Goffman 1961:104). He emphasised in Asylums how the organisation structure and dominant ideologies of the mental hospital shaped the self of the mental patient through the mortification process. He argued that “mental patients suffered not from mental illness’s but from ‘contingencies’ by which term he meant the actions of others” (Goffman 1961:135). In Asylums, It is recognised that Goffman uses the word ‘inmates’ to describe both the staff and patients. This is a word we use to describe those who have been confined to prison, similar to Foucault’s analysis. Goffman suggests that there are basic similarities between many of the social processes which occur in other institutions, so his study was widened to include organisations which share certain characteristics with mental hospitals such as prisons. He refers to these institutions as ‘Total institutions’ (Goffman 1961:147).

Foucault’s study therefore compliments Goffman’s, as he analyses interactions within a prison institution and seeks to show how those subject to the unremitting discipline are pressured into conforming to the external demands placed upon them. Foucault resurrected Jeremy Bentham’s prison design, the panopticon and described it as a mecahnism that coerces by means of observation. In discipline and punish, he writes “one sees everything without ever being seen” (Foucault, 1995:202). He claimed that visibility in the prison constituted people as individuals who came to regulate their own behaviour. Foucault details how, within the walls of the prison, pervasive and penetrating regimes for monitoring the conduct of inmates aims to induce a form of reflexive self monitoring of conduct. Foucault asserted, “he who is subjected to a field of visibility..becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Foucault, 1975:223). Foucault’s study is similar to Pat Barkers Regeneration Trilogy where she describes how prisoners modify their behaviour due to believing they are being observed by an ‘eye in the wall’ (Carter and Grieco 2000). Prisoners therefore self-disciplined themselves which is similar to what Foucault found.

Similarly to Goffmans analysis of mental institutions, Foucault asserted that the prison institution forced individuals’ identity to change as the inmates’ thoughts of themselves changed. Goffman illustrates this through admission procedures to total institutions, this involves the removal of many items from their identity. Goffman gives examples of admission procedures of prisons. In Asylums, he writes how clothes are replaced by ‘prison uniforms’ and appearance is changed by ‘prison haircuts’ (Goffman, 1961:134). Goffman argues that changes in these aspects are specifically stating that they are no longer the person they were (Goffman, 1961:135). Admission procedures and future interaction with total institutions not only tend to change, but also to mortify the self. Goffman writes “The inmate… is systematically, if often unintentionally mortified” for instance, searched and fingerprinted (Goffman 1961:134). Such experiences tend to break down the inmates former self-concept. The self is then slowly rebuilt, partly by means of rewards and punishments administered by those in authority. Goffman gives and example of a privilege within a prison, ‘extra hours recreation’ (Goffman, 1961:135).

However for Foucault, the similarity lies in the fact that each of these institutions is a place for experiments in the control of individuals and they may learn from experiments conducted elsewhere and techniques of discipline and surveillance invented elsewhere. For Foucault the notion of a ‘total institution’ is too separate from the outside world. The techniques used in asylums or prisons can be understood only by the linkage of those institutions with practises and discourses external to them and to the history of the borrowing and deployment of disciplinary techniques and ‘techniques of the self’ (Jordan, 2003:239).

Both theorists are interested in the mortification process through social control as well as the stigmatised body selves. In Stigma Goffman states, “Persons with a stigma are considered less than fully human and subject to all manner of discrimination which reduces their life chances” (Goffman, 1986:102). He explained that persons with a particular stigma tended to share similar experiences and chances in conception of self, which he termed the ‘moral career’ (Goffman, 1986:102). Stigma is also evident in Foucaults work, due to inmates’ identity changing through the mortification process which strips inmates of the various supports which helped to maintain their former self-concepts, their identity is also changed through constant surveillance which results in the inmate being their own overseer and exercising this surveillance over and against themselves (Foucault, 1980:155). Inmates in both institutions are therefore not prepared for life on the outside once they’re released, they have accepted the institutions definition of themselves and are stigmatised, this results in the inmates being treated as outsiders.

Foucault offers a history of the present in which power and knowledge intersect and understandings of ourselves are produced. Power and knowledge operate in mutually generative fashion and are not reducible to each other. Foucault explained that disciplinary power shaped and trained the body (Foucault, 1975:294). He gave an example at Mettray Colony for juvenile delinquents where the combination of observation and exercise made training ‘an instrument of perpetual assessment’ (Foucault, 1975:295). The example of Mettray illustrated Foucault’s argument that subjectivity is produced ‘around, on, within the body’ by the working of a correctional mode of power (Valier, 2002:154). This conception assumed a symbiotic relationship of power and knowledge which required a direct hold on the body. However Foucault’s studies departed from the perspective of standpoint feminists, who held that power was wielded by a particular group. Smart pointed out, Foucault demonstrated more interest in how the mechanisms of power worked than in who had power (Smart 1989). Indeed, Foucault stated that the panopticon was “a machine that any random individual could operate” (Valier, 2002: 155). He argued in Discipline and Punish that “power was not a possession or a property but should be understood to be a strategy” (Foucault, 1975:296). This is what might be called a shift from a substantive to a relational concept of power. Instead of focussing on the primary oppression of women or the working class, Foucault thought it important to theorise the ways in which every inhabitant of modern societies was subjected to certain forms of subjection (Valier, 2002:155). Foucault therefore focused on power relations instead of the subjects.

Critics of Foucault objected what in his focus on the workings of power there seemed to be no space left for resistance. However in The Will to Knowledge Foucault clarified his position in stating that resistances were “inscribed in power as an irreducible opposite” (Foucault 1976:96). Nevertheless, Lois Mcnay stated that “Foucault’s emphasis of a corporeally centred disciplinary power produced a conception of subjectivity that was ‘impoverished” (Mcnay, 1994:122).

In contrast to this, Goffman’s notion of power is more limited, although he was interested in questions of power he tended to approach this topic as a neutral observer rather than a witness. Several critics have faulted Goffman for his failure to articulate the structures of power that determine every experience. In The Coming Crises Gouldner argues that Goffman pays no attention to power and his microsociology fails to explain how power effects the individuals abilities to present selves effectively (Gouldner, 1974:347). In addition to this May Rogers takes up the critique in Goffman on power, hierarchy and status that Goffman’s analysis is poor in understanding power relationships. Roger argues that power relationships are present, but are treated almost entirely implicitly. Individuals use power to affect the behaviour of other actors in society, by the use of resources (Rogers 1981). According to Rogers, it appears that for Goffman, Power is a form of combination between people who have minimal stigma against others who are unable to accept the definition of the situation (Rogers, 1959:30).

Goffman studies the interactions between individuals through specific microanalysis, following Durkheim’s social theory, he tries to show how the sort of large scale phenomena Durkheim analysed is produced and reproduced in interpersonal interaction. Although Goffman provides insights into the working of places where individuals experience problems, it does not reflect the macro-institutional order, for instance Goffman gives little consideration to the inmates’ experiences in the outside world before they entered the total institution. The possible significance of this omission can be seen from John Irwin’s study of prison life in California, Irwin argues that an understanding of particular inmates’ responses to imprisonment requires a knowledge of their pre-prison experiences. Irwin suggest that this may have important influences on modes of adaption within a total institution (Irwin 1980). Goffman states in his essay The Interaction Order, that his preferred method of study is ‘microanalysis’ (Goffman 1983:2). Some theorists suggest links between the apparent micro-sociology, ethnomethodology and Goffman’s interaction order. Swingewood (2000) argues that ethnomethodology provided an empirical basis for Goffman’s interaction order and shares many features in common with his theoretical approach, for instance both emphasise how social order and predictability are skilful accomplishments of the actor involved. Foucault’s theoretical approach can be exemplary for ethnomethodological investigators as it clearly identifies how material architectures, machineries, bodily techniques and disciplinary routines make up coherent phenomenal fields (Lynch, 1997:131). Foucault who was not a micro-sociologist did however obtain an interest in micro-processes such as the micro physics of power, power exercised in interaction and the resistance to power that also takes place continuously in interactions and micro-environments (Garner 2009:147). Swingewood (2000) argues Foucault believed that all totalising theories such as Marxism reduce the autonomy of the micrological elements. Foucault suggests the term ‘archaeology’ to describe a method of analysing micro elements and the concept of ‘genealogy’ to rediscover all micro-logical forces. Foucault does this as he feels it’s essential to reactivate local, minor knowledges (Swingewood, 2000:195). Foucault initiated the concept ‘genealogy’ in order to investigate the historical events that led people to understand themselves in particular ways.However, Reminiscent of Goffman’s studies it’s apparent that Goffman included nothing about history in relation to the social practices he described or about the history of the ‘total institution.’ Nevertheless to understand how such institutions came to exist, one can turn to Foucault’s archaeologies and genaelogies. Although Hacking (2004) found they are not completely accurate historical analyses and tend to over-generalise on French examples. For instance Hacking states, ‘the great mutations of Foucault’s first books coincide under different names, with Descartes and the French Revolution, neither of which is noticeably mentioned’ (Hacking, 2004).

Goffman and Foucault both contribute to our understanding of how society functions, although writing from a different theoretical perspective they both supplement each other; Goffman analysed the ways in which human roles are constituted in face-to-face interactions within a total institution and how patterns of normality and deviance work on individual agents. Foucault’s archaeologies established the preconditions for and the mutations between successive institutional forms.Due to their different theoretical approaches, there are some conflicting views, for instance Goffman developed a theory of ‘self’ that brackets institutions and looks only at social action as strategic conduct. In contrast to Foucault, Goffman doesn’t develop an account of history or structured transformation. However in contrast to Goffman, Foucault erased the subject and attempts to de-centre the subject, Foucault depicted the subject as essentially passive and unable to act in a way that would have an effect on society. However I believe that both are essential in understanding the making of individuals (Giddens 1979). offers the idea of Foucault and Goffman developing the theory of ‘structuration’ which suggests that rather than looking at self and society as a dualism, they should look at them as a duality of structure, constantly being stucturated in the interactions between the individual and society (Giddens, 1979:56). Although the theoretical approaches of Goffman and Foucault differ I believe that their approaches on both structure and agency are complementary ways of viewing the social world and if they were brought together, a theory such as Gidden’s suggested could be produced and work successfully.


I feel goffman’s approach is ‘bottom up’ because he starts with individual face-to-face exchanges and develops an account of how such exchanges constitute lives, I feel Foucault’s approach is ‘top down’ because he starts with a mass of sentences at a time, dissociated from the human beings who spoke them and used them as the data upon which to characterise a system that determines discourse and action.