Erving Goffman's work is often employed within Disability Studies. However, in Canada and the UK, most authors only discuss his Stigma (1963) or Asylums, and his work is often dismissed as: a) individualistic; b) lacking a notion of social structure; and c) politically benign. In this paper, I argue that a re-reading of Erving Goffman is in order. In particular I examine his "Mental Symptoms and Public Order" (1967) and "The Insanity of Place" (1971). I argue that Goffman's dismissal is unfair: each of the three criticisms above are out of order. I conclude with a discussion of what a fair-to-Goffman disability studies might look like.


The work of Erving Goffman is widely cited within the disability studies literature. These citations, however, are largely restricted to his Stigma (1963) and occasionally Asylums (1961), largely failing to examine his corpus outside these two books. In this paper, I argue that an expanded reading of Goffman's work on disability is in order, particularly emphasizing his "Mental Symptoms and Public Order" (1967) and "The Insanity of Place" (1971). Goffman's oeuvre is often mistakenly dismissed as a merely 'descriptive' or 'interpretive' project, lacking critical teeth (see, for instance Abberley, 1987). In contrast to this view, I contend that these essays serve to directly inform so-called "emancipatory research", which seeks to match critical academic analysis with the lived experience of its subjects, intent on dismantling oppressive political and social structures. My study proceeds in three stages. In the first, I provide a review of the existing emancipatory disability research literature, highlighting the main concerns for subsequent disability activism. Two are particularly problematic. First is the relationship between the medical and activist communities, where many activist programs tend to untangle over questions of where culture stops and biology begins. Second is the overwhelming dominance of approaches that focus singly on physical disability. Next I provide a reading of Goffman that attends to these concerns. Of particular importance here is Goffman's focus on co-presence, which avoids many of the ambiguous uses of the term 'social' (as in the cases of 'social constructivism' and 'social structures'). I conclude by asking more general questions about what a Goffman-inspired program might look like, sketching an outline for future research and practice.

The Social Model

The birth of UK 1 Disability Studies, as a social science sub-discipline, created by and for the disabled peoples movement, is usually traced back to 1975. Of course, disability has been discussed as a topic in much social science discourse, but it is not until 1975 that disabled researchers began the close link between theoretical exposition and political praxis (for a critical account of disability studies' 'year zero' see Shakespeare, 2006). That year, Paul Hunt sent a letter to the editor, The Guardian. The letter aimed to found a consumer group to combat the stigma of disability (Stigma was also the name of a book Hunt edited on the experience of disability. See Hunt, 1966). The resulting group, The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (hereafter UPIAS), established what would become a touchstone of all future Disability Studies, the conceptual division of disability and impairment:

In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. It follows from this analysis that having low incomes, for example, is only one aspect of our oppression. It is a consequence of our isolation and segregation, in everyday life[. ….] Poverty is one symptom of our oppression, but it is not the cause. […] We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms. (UPIAS, 1975, 3-4)

This causality would become embedded in the so-called 'social model of disability', which identifies the barriers experienced by the impaired as the cause of their disablement. It is in and through the social model that the UK academic and activist community would coalesce. A central figure in this marriage was Michael Oliver.

The social model of disability was first conceptualized in Oliver's Social Work with Disabled People (1983). There he attempts to divide the 'individual tragedy' model of disability from the anti-oppressive social model. Employing Kuhnian terminology and echoing the UPIAS Principles, he states:

this new paradigm involves nothing more or less fundamental than a switch away from focusing on the physical limitations of particular individuals to the way the physical and social environments impose limitations on certain groups or categories of people. (Oliver, 1983, p. 23)

Succinctly, impairment as organic malfunction is the preserve of medicine, while disability as the product of oppressive social structures is the concern of disability studies. However, it was not until Oliver's later The Politics of Disablement (1990) that the full repercussions of the social model for social theory would be explored. That is, rather than assuming the role of a heuristic device for interrogating the experience of disability, Oliver sought to establish the social model as the basis for a comprehensive political and social theory of disablement, borrowing heavily from historical materialism. Both in his personal publications and role as editor of Disability, Handicap & Society (renamed Disability & Society in 1993), Oliver would help establish the social model as the 'big idea' of UK Disability Studies (Oliver, 2004).

The social model of disability is not immune to criticism (for a comprehensive critique, however, see Schillmeier, 2010, pp. 101-125). One major critique was launched at the model's implicit focus on physical disability (as seems evident from the UPIAS name). The force of the model lost steam when questions of mental illness arose. Where did they fit in the rubric? Secondly, and related to the first point, pesky ontological concerns began to arise, in particular when medical concerns were considered. At what point do cultural barriers begin, and where does nature stop (Hughes, 2007)? Where do we draw the line between the 'medical' and 'social' models? What about the sociology of the body? I will not provide any answers to these questions here—Goffman will do so below. Next, however, we turn to the research paradigm that the social model would inspire.

The Emancipatory Research Paradigm

Colin Barnes and Michael Oliver are the two most vocal proponents of the emancipatory research paradigm. Although it would be an error to suggest that two authors could be responsible for its formation in toto, it would surely be more of an error to discount their role. As well as having a significant role in the constitution of that paradigm, the two have both produced commentary on Goffman's work. In "Changing the social relations of research production?" (1992) Oliver puts forth a fundamental challenge to dominant approaches to disability research, and the context in which that knowledge takes shape. This environment has not yielded effective or representative accounts of disablement, defined as social oppression.

These social relations are built upon a firm distinction between the researcher and the researched; upon the belief that it is the researchers who have specialized knowledge and skills; and that it is they who should decide what topics should be researched and be in control of the whole process of research production. […] Hence the major issue on the research agenda for the 1990s should be; do researchers wish to join with disabled people and use their expertise and skills in struggles against oppression or do they wish to continue to use these skills and expertise in ways which disabled people find oppressive? (Oliver, 1992, pp. 102-103)

These relations deeply influence both social science and governmental research methods (Oliver cites the Office of Population Census and Surveys' 1986 'Survey for disabled results' and academic interview techniques to this end). In both, 'positivist' or 'interpretive' approaches, methodological individualism underlies the research agenda, and leaves oppressive structures off the table. Oliver (1990) calls this the 'individual tragedy of disability', reproduced by social scientists and enumerators alike. The emancipatory paradigm, taking cues from feminist theory, seeks to demystify those ideological structures that reproduce oppression, in both academic research and mundane practice.

Barnes (2003) identifies the close link between the social model and disability and the emancipatory agenda, both in the 1990s and the following decades:

The integrating theme running through social model thinking and emancipatory research is its transformative aim: namely, barrier removal and the promotion of disabled people's individual and collective empowerment. From this perspective the role of the researcher is to help facilitate these goals through the research process. (Barnes, 2003, p. 6)

Reading Barnes and Oliver together, then, we see that the ultimate goal of the emancipatory paradigm lies in the elimination of disablement altogether, by removing the ideological and physical barriers that make oppression possible. It is in the movement between the previous and social model-inspired research paradigms where we find the work of Goffman discussed. 2 That is: in the formation of new social relations to underpin disability research, a systematic effort was undertaken to evaluate the instrumental value of sociological predecessors. Those authors who could not accommodate this goal were left behind.

Interpreting Asylums, Stigma

The emancipatory research paradigm presents Goffman's work in two forms. In the first, we find citations of his Asylums (1961), used to represent the deplorable conditions in which the disabled were placed. Here Goffman's work is applied in an essentially historical light, focusing on institutionalization. Since the barriers producing disability today are of a different sort than in the immediate postwar period, the Asylums Goffman is of little utility, past an offhand reference to the history of exclusion.

There is a second Goffman, relating to his Stigma; notes on the management of spoiled identity (1963). Here Goffman is grouped into the 'interactionist school' of American sociology, which for the most part attempted to account for the interaction between deviants with their labelers. In short, Goffman is received as a social psychologist of 'the encounter'. As one might suspect, this is a Goffman who apparently subscribes to the same methodological individualism that Oliver (1992) labels reactionary and oppressive. He is then treated accordingly. From The Politics of Disablement:

Thus, while stigma may be an appropriate metaphor for describing what happens to individual disabled people in social interactions, it is unable to explain why this stigmatisation occurs or to incorporate collective rather than personal responses to stigma. […] Thus, disabled people have not found stigma a helpful or useful concept in developing and formulating their own collective experience of disability as social restriction. To begin with, it has been unable (so far) to throw off the shackles of the individualistic approach to disability with its focus on the discredited and the discreditable. In addition, its focus on process and interpersonal interactions ignores the institutionalised practices ingrained with social relations (in the sociological sense [rather than in the face-to-face encounter]). And finally, therefore, they have preferred to reinterpret the collective experiences in terms of structural notions of discrimination and oppression rather than the interpersonal ones of stigma and stigmatisation. (Emphasis mine. Oliver, 1990, pp. 66, 68)

Additionally, Oliver argues, through the interpretation provided by UPIAS member Vic Finkelstein (1980), that this methodological individualism is unavoidable in the interactionist analysis, because stigma is effectively reducible to the individual so marked.

A combination of these two 'Goffmen' is found in Barnes and Mercer's introductory text Disability (2003). Taking cue from Oliver's reading, the two present Goffman at once as an historian of disablement and naïve social psychologist of deviance.

A general feature of this interactionist literature is its concentration on the defensive manoeuvrings of disabled people. This suggests that 'those stigmatised are apparently firmly wedded to the same identity norms as normals, the very norms that disqualify them […]. However, there are exceptions: the treatment of disabled people is not always represented as benevolent, and not all disabled people take over the values of non-disabled people. In his study of life in a psychiatric institution, Goffman […] acknowledges that asylum inmates are 'colonized' and their supposed 'helpers' also act as jailers. He also outlines a continuum of potential responses to incarceration: from 'true believers' to 'resistors'. None the less, these examples are submerged beneath a general emphasis on achieving social acceptance and accommodating to the demands of 'normals'. (Barnes & Mercer, 2003, p. 8)

Goffman does not have a place in the new 'social relations of research production'. He is, rather, located in the old order of social research, which serves to ignore the structural conditions in which disablement—as social oppression—occurs. He cannot see oppression for what it is.

Canadian disability studies provides an interesting comparison to Barnes and Oliver's emancipatory paradigm. Tanya Titchkosky's "Disability Studies: The Old and the New" (2000) identifies the epistemological claims underlying the distinction between the 'new' field of disability studies and older sociological studies of disability. Here, themes about the 'social relations of research production' return.

The over-determined sense in which our culture gives us disability as a social problem is shared by the discipline of sociology in that social science research, textbooks, and course offerings in, for example, Deviance, represent disability as a "problem" of the body gone wrong. This problem obtrudes into the social world and is studied by sociologists as such, representing a social problem. (Titchkosky, 2000, p. 198)

Traditional sociology treats disability as problematic, where 'we-the-normals' (academic researchers) examine disability as an ontologically coherent, asocial phenomenon. To substantiate this, Titchkosky reads Goffman's Stigma as per a contemporary deviance textbook, which fails to engage disability as a product of social structures rather than as immutable and given. In claiming that disability studies is a 'new' field, she suggests its proponents are engaging in a political act, highlighting the reversal of the old social relations of research production, the old sociology.

New is also symbolic of an affirmation of inquiry into able bodiedness as itself a culture in need of critical engagement, as well as a way to articulate the standpoint of disability as an opportunity to provoke such inquiry. "New" is also a rhetorical device to highlight the idea that the traditional ways of studying disability are underdeveloped. (Ibid. p. 199)

In contrast to the readings of Oliver, and Barnes and Mercer, Titchkosky provides an extensive discussion of Goffman's work, rather than a mere two or three paragraphs. Further, she does well to illustrate that previous sociological studies have interpreted disability in a rather uncritical fashion. There is a nuance to her writing not found in the social model literature. Her Reading and Writing Disability Differently (2007) identifies how disability is textually enacted in Canadian society, from government surveys to newspaper articles, cites Goffman multiple times. Similarly, it is possible to textually enact Goffman as distinct from the deviance paradigm, criticized in her work and by the social model. This alternative enactment is one that is focused on the micro-level interaction that makes up disability in the first place, something lost on the social model.

Returning to Goffman

I do not want to read Goffman's work as part of a larger sociological tradition, whether grounded in 'deviance', 'stigma' or otherwise. It may very well be that methodological individualism and other tropes of disablist social research are alive and well within these traditions. But to read authors within a tradition as emblematic of that tradition in toto is bad sociology. Goffman himself took offence to similar treatment, in a reply to a negative review:

One proclaims one's membership in some named perspective, gives pious mention of its central texts, and announces that the writer under review is all off by virtue of failing to qualify for membership. A case of guilt by pigeonholing. As if a writer's work is a unitary thing and can be all bad because he or she does not apparently subscribe to a particular doctrine, which doctrine, if subscribed to, would somehow make writings good. (Goffman, 1981, p. 61)

In the disability studies literature encountered above, we have an interplay of several such traditions—the old disablist sociology, emancipatory sociology of disability, and the sociology of stigma and deviance—each used, as Titchkosky reminds us, as a rhetorical device. This rhetoric poses several fundamental challenges to Goffman's work. First, that his sociology is fundamentally individualistic; second, that he is unable to account for social structures that constitute disabled subjectivities; and, third: that his research is politically benign at best, disablist at worst. In reply to these three challenges, I suggest turning to two essays, "Mental Symptoms and Public Order" (1967) and "The Insanity of Place" (1971). Each of the charges laid above are out of order. Rather than display Goffman's work as antiquated and reactionary, I argue these two pieces offer a great deal to the 'new' disability studies.

Mental Symptoms and Public Order

Contained in Interaction Ritual (Goffman, 1967), and expanding on themes first brought forth in Asylums, "Mental Symptoms and Public Order" seeks to recast the setting where mental symptomatology is first found: the face-to-face encounter. It is in and through the face-to-face encounter where these pathologies (in contemporary psychiatric terms: either organic or functional) first become manifest. "What psychiatrists see as mental illness, the lay public usually first sees offensive behavior—behavior worthy of scorn, hostility and other negative social sanctions". (Goffman, 1967, p. 137)

Psychosis is something that can manifest itself to anyone in the patient's work place, in his neighborhood, in his household, and must be seen, initially at least, as an infraction of the social order that obtains in these places. The other side of the study of symptoms is the study of public order, the study of behavior in public and semipublic places. If you would learn about one side of this matter, you ought perhaps study the other too. […] Although social scientists have been classifying psychotic behavior as a type of improper conduct, a type of deviancy, for many years now, they, like their medical colleagues, have not carried the matter very far. (Emphasis mine. Goffman, 1967, p. 140)

Accordingly, Goffman argues that to treat mental illness as a type of deviancy does not get us very far—there are many types of deviancy that are not instances of mental pathology. New terminology is required.

In this vacuum, Goffman introduces the term 'situational impropriety'. When located in the encounter, mental symptoms are instances where social order is disrupted. These improprieties are of various forms, ranging from irregular bodily comportment to failings of social tact. Do these improprieties signal psychic malfunction in each case? No. Borrowing from the work of Harold Garfinkel (1967), Goffman suggests that quite simple instructions can be given to any member to 'act crazy', and offend the normative social order. He returns to the themes of Asylums to make the point.

I know of no psychotic misconduct that cannot be matched precisely in everyday life by the conduct of persons who are not psychologically ill or considered to be so; and in each case one can find a host of different motives for engaging in the misconduct, and a host of different factors that will modify our attitude toward its performance. I want merely to add that mental hospitals, perhaps through a process of natural selection, are organized in such a way as to provide exactly the kind of setting in which unwilling participants have recourse to the exhibition of situational improprieties. If you rob people of all customary means of expressing anger and alienation and put them in a place where they have never had better reason for these feelings, then the natural recourse will be to seize upon what remains—situational improprieties. (Emphasis mine. Goffman, 1967, p. 147)

As situational improprieties, mental symptoms reside first and foremost in the interaction order. It is in the disruption of routine 'decorum and demeanor' that the mentally ill are first encountered as such. Mental symptoms belong to situations as much as to broken minds or brains (if at all). In this inversion, Goffman does not subscribe to vulgar 'methodological individualism', as the individual and their attributes are themselves formed within co-present behaviour. Hence Goffman's dictum: "Not, then, men and their moments. Rather moments and their men." 3 (Goffman, 1967, p. 3)

The Insanity of Place

"The Insanity of Place" (1971) isolates one specific form of situational impropriety—mania—and seeks to locate its symptomatic emergence within the family order. In contrast to the rather general treatment of symptoms, here Goffman aims at a detailed examination of the domestic havoc caused by manic behavior. There is a significant amount of overlap between the two essays; here I will focus on their differences. One such difference is the use of the term 'place'.

"The Insanity of Place" employs the term 'place' is used in two distinct senses. First, 'place' can be taken to signify the face-to-face encounter. This is especially important: whereas the term 'social' is frequently employed ambiguously in the social sciences and humanities, Goffman's essay highlights the wide variety of face-to-face encounters associated with mental symptoms qua situational improprieties. Instead of using 'social' as a catch-all term—suggesting everything from interpersonal interaction to social construction—Goffman is meticulous in locating situational improprieties within moments of co-presence. Here Goffman touches on a rather undeveloped area of disability studies: geographies of disability (for a review of the literature, see Imrie & Edwards, 2007). Numerous spatialities are engaged throughout the essay, both physical—as in the doctor's office, public streets, the workplace—and non-physical: the family's internal and external economies, the 'coalition' containing the manic within the community. Situational improprieties are not resident in the head alone; they flow into and from the physical and cultural world. "Many classic symptoms of psychosis are precise and pointed violation of these territorial arrangements." (Goffman, 1971, p. 359) Mental symptoms are de facto situated improprieties.

Secondly, Goffman uses 'place' in terms of 'social standing', and 'the territories of the self'. In particular, Goffman emphasizes the 'ritual work' that a family member, who suffers a somatic injury or impairment, undertakes to maintain their 'enduring self'. One of the key differences between medical and mental symptoms is the bearer's indicative nature regarding their situation:

Through quite minor acts of deference and demeanor, through little behavioral warning lights, the individual exudes assumptions about himself. These provide others with a running portent, a stream of expression which tells them what place he expects to have in the undertakings that follow, even though at that moment little place may be at stake. In fact, all behaviour of the individual, insofar as it is perceived by others, has an indicative function, made up of tacit promises and threats, confirming or disconfirming that he knows and keeps his place. (Goffman, 1971, p. 344)

Whereas the interpersonal disruption caused by the medical patient is ideally patched through restorative communicative action—apologies and the like—a fundamental attribute of a great many mental symptoms is the bearer's seeming disregard for their place; a situation foreign to the physical disability-based focus of the UPIAS. Here, situational improprieties constitute havoc:

This havoc indicates that medical symptoms and mental symptoms are radically different in their social consequences, and in their character. It is this havoc that the philosophy of [community] containment [of mental patients] must deal with. It is this havoc that psychiatrists have dismally failed to examine and that sociologists ignore when they treat mental illness merely as a labeling process. It is this havoc that we must explore. (Goffman, 1971, p. 357)

Goffman's situational impropriety is a public phenomenon, which has its organic basis not in the confines of the organic malady but rather within the order of situated interpersonal interaction. Further—and this point is crucial—Goffman illustrates that is it is not in relation to normal subjects but in the ritual production of normal selfhood, through mundane interaction, that situational improprieties become manifest. Each of us needs to perform ritual work in order to achieve propriety. To fail or eschew this task is to create trouble, to invite havoc:

the most disruptive thing a well organism can do is to acquire a deadly contagious disease. The most disruptive thing a person can do is fail to keep a place that others feel can't be changed for him. Whatever the cause of the offender's psychological state—and clearly this may sometimes be organic—the social significance of the disease is that its carrier somehow hits upon the way that things can be made hot for us. The sociological significance of this is that social life is organized so that such a way can be found for it. (Goffman, 1971, p. 389)

In both the "Insanity of Place" and "Mental Symptoms and Public Order", Goffman consistently argues that personhood—and by extension, mentally ill personhood—is developed, accorded and denied in the interaction order. As a result, neither 'personality' nor 'disability' are pre-given, static states of being. Personalization and disablement initiate the processes of which 'person' and 'mental illness' are a temporary sedimentation. This reading is cause for a rereading of Goffman outside of the 'old' social relations of research production.

Erving Goffman as an Emancipatory Disability Researcher?

Three charges are routinely laid against Erving Goffman. The first is related to his focus on the individual. Second is the claim that Goffman does not engage questions of social structure in significant detail. Last is the charge that Goffman's micro-studies may be interesting, but they are fundamentally apolitical. All three, I argue, should be rejected.

First: Goffman's focus on the individual. While the stigma or deviance literature may ultimately draw causality from individual attributes, Goffman's writings on mental symptomatology present a nuanced account of personhood as a social product, one that eschews naïve individualism. This may be so for the deviance paradigm, but not for Goffman's work in isolation from it. As such, the charge is unfounded. I would like to ask, however, how one could write a social psychology of disability without a basic framework of the individual so situated?

Secondly, by focusing on micro-scale social order, Goffman was not ignorant to general questions of social structure. I might add that he found much of the functionalist writings on 'social control', be it formal or otherwise, particularly mechanistic (Hacking, 2004). They did not, as he notes in "The Insanity of Place", give much attention to the actor's regard for their deviance, and the ritual work required for its forgiveness. Here, then, another category mistake: conflating organic norms with their social cousins.

Finally, there is the charge of political impotence. It is true that Goffman does not provide a roadmap to revolution, nor does he give explicit directions on the treatment of his research subjects, as in Asylums. That which is political does not manifest only in party platforms and protest signs. Following Andrew Barry, we might consider a distinction between politics and the political, the distinction between parties, platforms and elections, and "an index of the space of disagreement." (2005, p. 84) In the latter sense, Goffman's writings are exceedingly political: by bringing to the fore that which was hidden. Here, then, are some directions. In the case of mental symptoms it is to social, rather than organic pathology where we must direct our attention.

I do not want to conclude this paper on a negative note. Here I want to conclude by suggesting that a reading, rather than dismissal—or worse: a dismissive citation—of Goffman's work has something to offer the 'new' sociology of disability. The first dividend relates to the discipline's engagement with medicine.

Underlying the social model's conceptualization of disability as social oppression is an ontological claim: that impairment belongs to the realm of medicine, and is distinct from excluding barriers. In this view, 'medicalization' is the act of attributing biological cause to the non-biological process of disablement. It is, as Gilbert Ryle put it, a 'category mistake'. 4 It is something to be combated. In Goffman's, "The Insanity of Place" however, the 'medical model' is used in a different sense. There, Goffman used it in a positive sense, that is, to make particular claims about the nature of mental illness (this use of 'positive' is inspired by Hacking, 1992). Whereas the new sociology of disability might seek to limit the invocation of medical cause within the emancipatory dialogue, Goffman demonstrates its applicability5 Just as identifying situational impropriety is a political act, so too is delineating that which is medical from that which is not. A categorical ontological distinction between disability and impairment might be useful in the case of physical impairment, but as Goffman shows, perhaps not for mental illness.

Secondly, Goffman's emphasis on the situation—as in 'where it is situated'—of mental symptoms and mental illness brings us to more fundamental questions of location. Since its outset, disability studies has focused on spaces created by barriers. However, Goffman illustrates that in and through the face-to-face encounter, space is fundamentally implicated in the experience of situational impropriety. More generally, then, Goffman helps put disability in its places. This emphasis on location and face-to-face interaction has served other sociologies well. Both Giddens' (1984) and Habermas' (1984) come to mind. Within disability studies itself, the work of Michael Schillmeier has sought to link individual time-spaces of disability with the greater social structures emphasized by the social model, capitalism in particular (Schillmeier, 2007). Here I will be categorical. So long as capitalism requires face-to-face interaction, Goffman can analyze it. As disability studies begins to take space seriously, I should hope it begins to take Goffman seriously too.

This leads us to the question of praxis. What does a re-reading of Goffman's work offer the practical aspect of emancipatory disability research? A common trope in activist politics is that 'the personal is political'. 6 After reading Goffman's work, I think a small change in the slogan is necessary: personhood is political. Personhood is not a static category, it is formed, and this formation occurs though various processes. Oliver's Politics of Disablement identifies one of them: history. This point is made in chapter three, 'Disability and the Rise of Capitalism'. 'Disability' as a categorization of persons is inalienable from the rise of that alienating mode of production. But history alone will not describe the formation of personhood, 'mentally ill' or otherwise. It misses what ethnomethodologists call the 'just-thisness' of everyday life (Garfinkel, 1967). Here Goffman's work is crucial, pointing to the interaction order. Mental illness is always encountered there first. This point is not purely theoretical. When we, as disability activists, make blanket reference to "mental illness", we risk bracketing those very situations in which mental illness is organized as improper. Goffman makes explicitly clear that 'improper' situations contain mental symptoms at least as frequently as chemically imbalanced brains do (mental illness experienced by military servicemen and women comes to mind here). In making this clarification, we further the emancipatory agenda. We seek to recover the humanity of those who have had it denied, through stigmatization, alienation, or oppression. If this paper is known for one simple point, it should be this final one.

Works Cited

  • Barnes, C. (2003). What a Difference a Decade Makes: Reflections on Doing Emancipatory Disability Research. Disability & Society, 18(1), 3-17.
  • Barnes, C., & Mercer, G. (2003). Disability. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Barry, A. (2005). The Anti-Political Economy. In A. Barry, & D. Slater (Eds.), The Technological Economy (pp. 84-100). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Finkelstein, V. (1980). Attitudes and Disabled People: Issues for Discussion. New York: World Rehabilitation Fund.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
  • Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City: Anchor Books.
  • ———. (1963). Stigma; notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
  • ———. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. New York: Pantheon.
  • ———. (1971). Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books.
  • ———. (1981). A Reply to Denzin and Keller. Contemporary Sociology, 10(1), 60-68.
  • Habermas, J. (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society.
  • Hacking, I. (1992). 'Style' for Historians and Philosophers. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 23(1), 1-20.
  • ———. (2004). Between Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman: Between Discourse in the Abstract and Face-to-face Interaction. Economy and Society, 33(3), 277-302.
  • Hughes, B. (2007). Being Disabled: Towards a Critical Social Ontology for Disability Studies. Disability & Society, 22(7), 673-683.
  • Hunt, P. (1966). Stigma: The Experience of Disability. London: Geoffrey Chapman.
  • Imrie, R., & Edwards, C. (2007). The Geographies of Disability: Reflections on the Development of a Sub-Discipline. Geography Compass, 1/3, 623-640.
  • Oliver, M. (1983). Social Work with Disabled People. London: Macmillan.
  • ———. (1990). The Politics of Disablement. London: Macmillan.
  • ———. (1992). Changing the Social Relations of Research Production? Disability, Handicap & Society, 7(2), 101-114.
  • ———. (2004). If I Had a Hammer: The social model in action. In J. Swain, C. Barnes, S. French, & C. Thomas (Eds.), Disabling Barriers, Enabling Environments (pp. 7-12). London: Sage.
  • Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Schillmeier, M. (2007). Dis/Abling Practices: Rethinking Disability. Human Affairs, 17(2), 195-208.
  • ———. (2010). Rethinking Disability: Bodies, Senses, Things. New York: Routledge.
  • Shakespeare, T. (2006). Disability Rights and Wrongs. London: Routledge.
  • Szasz, T. (1974). The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct (Revised ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Titchkosky, T. (2000). Disability Studies: the Old and the New. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 25(2), 197-224.
  • Titchkosky, T. (2007). Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1975). Fundamental Principles of Disability. London.


  1. There is, of course, a lively tradition of disability studies outside the UK. I deal here with the UK history as the two authors most vocal proponents of the emancipatory framework, Michael Oliver and Colin Barnes, are born of and guided that tradition.
    Return to Text
  2. I must restate that I am here discussing Goffman's work as it is interpreted by the UK Disability Studies tradition. Within the American disability studies literature, Goffman's work is employed more frequently, in part due to his influence on the historical development of the American sociological tradition.
    Return to Text
  3. One unfortunate aspect of Goffman's work is the androcentric tone found throughout. It would be convenient to attribute this to the time of publication, but this is an unacceptable, apologist attitude. Further work should be done to determine whether this stance is only manifest terminologically or extends conceptually.
    Return to Text
  4. For those unfamiliar with the term: Gilbert Ryle (1949) uses the following example of a visitor touring a university. She is shown the library. She is shown the cafeteria. She is shown the laboratories. Unfulfilled, she complains: "this is all very nice, but you have yet to show me the university". Here, our visitor commits a category mistake. Though related, universities and university libraries exist in different categories of things.
    Return to Text
  5. Here one might be tempted to read Goffman's work along with that of Thomas Szasz (1974), but I think that this is a mistake. Szasz is unequivocal in his position that anything that does not stem from organic malfunction is not a disease. Goffman, I think, seems more permissible that mental symptoms can stem from functional ailment. Regardless, Goffman's emphasis is on the government of mental illness, rather than its reality in light of empirical falsification.
    Return to Text
  6. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2014 Thomas Abrams

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371