The Interactional Zoo: Lessons for Sociology from Erving Goffman’s Engagement with Animal Ethology

Colin Jerolmack, Belicia Teo, Abigail Westberry

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Erving Goffman is one of sociology’s most influential thinkers. Scholars debate the extent to which he worked in competing theoretical traditions (e.g., interactionist or structuralist), yet few acknowledge his intellectual indebtedness to animal ethology. This article traces how naturalistic studies of paralinguistic animal communication influenced Goffman’s corpus and specifies the ideas he built on from that field, especially territoriality and ritualized display. Goffman’s comparative approach to animal and human interaction reveals the shortcomings of sociologists’ lingua-centric approach to interaction; elevates animals to social actors, capable of metacommunication, reading others’ intentions, and adjusting their behavior accordingly; and humbles humans, who he finds enacting rituals of civility for the same reason animals engage in ritualized display: to manage threats and facilitate bonding. Goffman’s thesis on the similarities between animal and human social behavior compels sociology to consider animal studies, and his use of ethology helps reconcile his interactionist and Durkheimian tendencies.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    JournalSociological Theory
    StateAccepted/In press - 2024


    • animal studies
    • ethnography
    • ethology
    • Goffman
    • interaction

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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