Expanding Goffman’s Realm: Robert Fuller on the Politics of Dignity

Expanding Goffman’s Realm: Robert Fuller on the Politics of Dignity

Thomas J. Scheff

Abstract: Robert Fuller’s writing parallels Goffman’s on facework but is clearer and broader. Goffman’s theses are often unclear, and claim to be narrowly limited to outer behavior in the microworld of social interaction. Like Goffman, Fuller traces the emotional consequences of losing face in humiliation/embarrassment. Unlike Goffman, he gives equal consideration to dignity, that is, to justified pride. Also unlike Goffman, Fuller’s work implies a step toward conceptualizing social integration, the typology of solidarity and alienation. He proposes that rank need not be alienating if rankism (abuse of rank) is avoided. Fuller applies these ideas to the macro problems of inequality and intractable conflict. Further, and contrary to Goffman, he explores their application to changing the real world.

This essay compares facework, a central theme in Goffman’s writing, and Robert W. Fuller’s version of the same theme. I think that Fuller’s approach covers much the same ground as Goffman’s but is interdisciplinary, much broader, and has immediate implications for social change.

Goffman’s work is extraordinarily vital and important, but difficult to pin down. There are many sources for this difficulty. One is that his work is complex; another is that he seldom states an explicit thesis. When he does, the thesis he offers is often misleading. How could that be?

Vastly creative people seem to have two different personalities, the creative giant and a much more conventional person, especially when it comes to assessing his or her own work. A recent article has shown that Cervantes was far from understanding his own masterpiece, Don Quixote (Leys 1998). In the course of his argument, Leys goes on to make a general point: 

“The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation fully alive with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had a full control and a clear understanding of what he wrote. D.H. Lawrence…summed this up…: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it"

Although this passage concerns literature, it applies equally to scholarship. The most creative work does not arise from calculated effort, but is largely intuitive. In contemporary language, it comes from the right brain, light years more complex and original than the calculating left brain. The creative writer is a mere channel for work that he or she may not understand. Can we save Goffman’s work from Goffman?

The Two Goffmans

Goffman’s scholarship is extraordinarily brilliant, but his pronouncements on its meaning unreliable. Despite his freewheeling writing style, or perhaps because of it, he insists that his work is highly specialized and technical, like any conventional academic. His specialization, he claims, takes three different forms. First, he specifies that his approach is sociological, rather than psychological. He calls his analysis dramaturgical: he focuses on the socially scripted parts of the human drama, rather than the actors.

His second specification is closely related: he claims that his field of study is social interaction, rather than the individual, on the one hand, or social structure, on the other. Both specifications align him with conventional, rather than revolutionary scholarship. Like most scholars, he claims loyalty to a discipline and to a special conceptual approach, dramaturgy. 

Finally, Goffman insisted that his interests are scholarly, not aimed at practical application. This particular claim, unlike the other two, seems to me to be quite accurate. He wanted his scholarship to be pure in this respect, without the possible taint of attempting to apply it. As he wrote in several different ways, he saw his job as observing, not changing the world.

With regard to his first claim, it is true that Goffman’s writing is more concerned with social interaction than social structure. Yet many of his books and articles involve both. Asylums (1961), for example, and his articles on mental illness imply many features of the social institution of mental illness without claiming to do so. Some of his later work, such as Gender Advertisements (1979), don’t involve social interaction at all, but blatantly concern only the institution of female gender implied by commercial ads.

Goffman’s claim that all of his work is dramaturgical is grossly misleading. In this vein, his best known book, PSEL (1969), has a split personality. The early chapters outline and illustrate his dramaturgical approach: a sociology of outer behavior. But the middle section, ending with the lengthy chapter (6) on impression management, is mostly concerned with the inner life. Surprisingly, the last chapter returns to dramaturgy with no mention of the inner battles described and profusely illustrated in the middle of the book. The right hand knowth not what the left hand doeth.

In his considerable writings on face and facework, Goffman’s Everyperson (EP) is virtually always struggling to manage the impressions others have of her or him, in order to maintain face. When management fails, as it often does, EP may resort to emotion management, trying to avoid the pain of embarrassment. In Goffman’s analysis of facework, the individual’s internal struggles share the stage with the social interaction in which they are embedded. Here is one of many examples:

Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame, 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. 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. (p. 236)

This excerpt entirely concerns an internal sequence of events, spelling out moment by moment thoughts and feelings. As it happens, this example, and many others in Goffman, are the concrete instances of the looking-glass self process that Cooley failed to supply. However, as already indicated, there are many limitations to Goffman’s work, especially in the area of application to individual and large scale change.

 The Struggle for Dignity

Robert Fuller’s approach to what he calls rankism and to dignity may be a first step toward a language equally applicable to individuals and to social relationships. It is based on two dichotomies: dignity-humiliation, and legitimate versus abusive use of rank (“rankism” Fuller 2003; 2004; 2008).  Lindner’s work (2006) is also based on the dignity-humiliation dichotomy but doesn’t include the concept of rankism. As will be discussed below, some such concept is needed in order to distinguish between true and false solidarity. 

Fuller cites Erving Goffman dutifully in his first book (Fuller 2003, p. 161). Even though his analysis of dignity and humiliation is exactly parallel to Goffman’s analysis of facework, my sense is that Fuller arrived at his approach independently of Goffman. Fuller’s analysis of whether or not dignity is maintained or lost parallels Goffman’s impression management and Fuller’s humiliation is equivalent to Goffman’s embarrassment.

Fuller’s analysis begins with the subjective feeling of being either a “nobody” or a “somebody.” It seems likely that this idea, which is the basis for all subsequent steps, didn’t come from reading Goffman. It probably arose, rather, because of the extraordinary path that Fuller’s life took. When his career began, he was definitely a Somebody: first a world class physicist at Columbia and Princeton, University Dean at Trinity College, then President of his alma mater, Oberlin College. During his stint as an educator, however, Fuller lost interest in physics.

After he left Oberlin, Fuller experimented with new directions, such as several years of graduate school in economics at the University of Chicago. He found a new niche when he became a leader of the citizen diplomat movement during the Cold War, and Chairman of the Board of the giant organization Internews. He was also one of the organizers of LinkTV. Both channels set up program exchanges between the US and the USSR. But he dropped out when it became obvious that these efforts were successful, both in peace-making and financially. He was now on the road to becoming an unaffiliated scholar.

Fuller wondered if his own responses to his rollercoaster status ride had any general significance.  He had dropped from being a college President, a very high status, down to a mere graduate student,   an unaffiliated peacemaker, and finally an independent agent.  He thought that in less extreme forms, these kinds of gyrations might be frequent occurrences everyone’s life.

For example, in intimate relations, falling in and out of favor with our nearest and dearest might be a similar experience (See Fuller’s treatment of parent-child relationships 2003, p. 110-113). At times these shifts are obvious, but often they can be based only on subtle changes in mood and gesture. Fuller’s first book (2003) begins with the idea that we all move back and forth between Somebody and Nobody feelings, up, down, and around.

Fuller’s second step is to name the more general feelings that are associated with those specific to somebodiness or nobodiness: dignity goes with feeling like a Somebody, humiliation with feeling like a Nobody. As already indicated, this step is exactly parallel to Goffman: saving face maintains one’s dignity, losing it can lead to humiliation. Goffman’s and Fuller’s Everyperson is in a constant struggle to maintain her or his face/dignity, but impression management often fails, leading to embarrassment or humiliation. Both authors allow that one can also manage impressions not only one’s own sake, but also for the sake of the dignity of others. This proviso turns out to be important in practical application to the politics of dignity.  

The next and final step in Fuller’s model is the distinction he makes between rank and rankism. Rankism doesn’t concern rank per se, only the abuse of rank. Some systems of rank are inherently arbitrary and therefore abusive: white over black, male over female, hetero over homosexual, Christian over Muslim, one nation over another, and so on. But even legitimate systems, such as those in organizations, are often abusive; if not in principle, then in practice. Rankism is “pulling rank” rather that being fair and just.

One of the advantages of Fuller’s approach is that if provides a distinctively sociological solution to the problem of inequality. That is, it doesn’t concern economic rank or political hierarchy directly, but dignity and its opposite, humiliation. The idea of the legitimate and abusive use of rank also turns out to be important for distinguishing two different types of feeling Somebody, a true and a false solidarity. This distinction, as will be suggested below, may help solve a problem that probably cannot be understood in strictly economic or political terms: gratuitous and/or interminable conflict.

Fuller’s analysis of inequality begins with what he calls micro-inequalities, the withholding of dignity by one person from another. At work, if the boss continually interrupts conversations with you to take phone calls, it is a slight, a small indignity. But such slights add up. If they are frequent enough, one might feel like a Nobody. The boss may not intend it, but to be consistently slighted is humiliating.

Goffman was mainly concerned only with face-to-face interaction, but Fuller extends the dignity/humiliation process up to the traditional problem of macro-inequalities between groups. All contacts between persons and between groups have an effect on the bond: it is either maintained, strengthened, or disrupted. Helping the other person or group maintain their dignity maintains the existing bond or strengthens it. Rankism disrupts it. There are no exceptions: contact cannot occur without affecting the bond. Secure bonds lead to cooperation, disrupted ones to conflict. When the bond is entirely broken by rankism, as is often the case, others, even vast groups, can become mere objects.

Fuller’s approach is powerful in several different ways. It is applicable to many ostensibly different fields: race, inter-ethnic and inter-nation relations, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. Rankism is the general term for many different kinds of abuse.

Fuller’s approach also implies a theory that may explain gratuitous and/or interminable conflict between individuals and between groups. For example, the Serbian attack on the Moslems in Bosnia in the 1990’s can be traced back to a defeat of the Serbs by Moslem Turks hundreds of years earlier. The Serbs took this ancient defeat as a humiliation, and harbored vengeance until it became possible.

Similarly, France plotted for many years to regain their honor (read dignity) after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and Hitler won over the German people by promising to regain the honor they lost in the defeat in 1918 (Lindner 2006; Scheff 1994). Humiliation spawns humiliation, and it can strike deep. The dignity/humiliation framework seems to reach into the very core of human conduct.

Defining Social Integration

Fuller’s approach also implies a unique path into the study of social integration. Feeling like a Somebody or a Nobody can be used as a subjective indicator. The Somebody feeling can be taken as a signal of mutual acceptance, having an identity that is fully accepted by the other(s). A complication in the path toward solidarity will be discussed below. The Nobody feeling, however, can be taken as a direct signal of alienation, of feeling rejected by the other(s). This usage might be a preliminary step toward  clarifying the concept of social integration.

There is a difficulty  in seeing solidarity/alienation as a simple dichotomy that Fuller doesn’t address directly, yet his idea of rankism provides for it. Many authors have noted that  mutual acceptance occurs in two different forms, one of which is not true solidarity.

There is a form of mutual acceptance that is sometimes referred to as solidarity, but has only its outward appearance. This form involves one or both parties giving up vital parts of their own identity in order to be completely loyal to the relationship. The traditional marriage is an example; the wife subordinates her own needs and views to those of her husband. In family systems theory (Bowen and Kerr 1988 ) this type of relationship is referred to as a fused or engulfed bond.

The opposite relationship, in which one party subordinates the needs of the other(s) to their own is termed isolated. In a secure bond, both parties give equal value to their own needs and views and those of the other over the long haul. Elias (1987) made the same division: he called solidarity interdependence, being neither dependent (engulfed) nor independent (isolated). Note that the concept of engulfment further develops the idea of alienation from self that Marx mentioned without explaining what he meant.

Fuller’s idea of rankism is relevant to the issue of engulment as a false solidarity. All forms of mutual acceptance that are based on rankism, the arbitrary disparagement of another  person or group,  are not forms of true solidarity, but engulfment. Mutual acceptance of whites because they are not black, or gentiles because they are not Jews, of males because they are not women, are all instances or rankism and therefore of false solidarity.

The distinction between isolation and engulfment suggests that alienation occurs in two opposite forms: alienation from others (isolation) and from self, (engulfment). This idea also requires that a secure bond (solidarity) maintains a longterm balance between self and other: one identifies with the needs and viewpoint of the other(s) as much as with self, no less and no more.

Genuine love can be defined as a type of solidarity (Scheff 2006, Ch. 6) The late Robert Solomon wrote: “…love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self ….Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity [find] their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE.” (1981, p.xxx; see also1994, p.234-238).

This kind of definition of love has been offered by many authors, but like Solomon, they usually fail to include the balance between too far (isolation) and too close (engulfment) as explained above. An exception was the social psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan (1945) who suggested that love involves valuing the other as much as self, but no more or less.

It is important to distinguish between true and false solidarity, since both social science and ordinary language often confounds them. Most Western scholarship that compares Asian and Western societies have idealized Western isolation and individualism by confounding it with solidarity based on rational outcomes (Durkheim’s description of organic solidarity), as Markus and Kitayama (1991) have charged. But it seems likely that they have made an equal and opposite error, idealized Asian (unity-based) societies by confounding engulfment with solidarity.

Norwood’s (1985) women who love too much provide an example of engulfment. Many of them reported that they stayed with their abusive husbands because they loved them too much to leave. Their language confuses engulfment, in this case. passive dependency, with genuine love, a true solidarity. Fuller’s approach avoids this problem.


Fuller’s politics of dignity has many advantages over Goffman’s analysis of facework. It provides a new approach to defining the poles of social integration: alienation and solidarity. It also suggests an accessible theory of the causation of the causal chains that lead to inequalities and to violence, both at the interpersonal and group levels.  Unlike many abstract social theories, Fuller’s is so clearly stated that it might help resolve theoretical knots, and can also be tested empirically. To the extent that it is supported, it can be applied to solving real world problems. 


Bowen, M. and M. Kerr. 1988. Family Evaluation. New York: Norton.

Buber, M. 1958. I-Thou. New York: Scribner’s.

Elias, Norbert.  1987. Involvement and Detachment. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fuller, Robert. 2003. Somebodies and Nobodies. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers

___________ 2006. All Rise. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

___________ and Pamela A. Gerloff. 2008. Dignity for All. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

_______________1961. Asylums. New York: Anchor.

 _______________1979. Gender Advertisements.  London: Macmillan.

Leys, Simon. 1998. The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote. New York Review of Books. 45, 10, June 11.

Lindner, Evelin. 2006. Making Enemies: Humiliation in International Conflict. Portsmouth, NH: Green Wood.

Markus, H.  & S. Kitayama (1991). Culture and the self. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.

Norwood, Robin. 1985. Women Who Love too Much. New York: Pocket Books.

Scheff, Thomas. 1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War. Boulder: Westview. (Re-issued in 1999 by iUniverse).

______________2005. Looking-Glass Self: Goffman as Symbolic Interactionist. Symbolic Interaction 28, 2, 147-166.

______________2006    Goffman Unbound: A New Paradigm for Social Science. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers

Solomon, Robert. 1981 Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

______________ 1994. About Love: Re-inventing Romance for our Times. Lanham, Md.: Littlefield Adams

Sullivan, Harry S. 1945. Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry. Washington, D.C.: W. A. White Foundation.