Arthur Stinchcombe’s Comments on the Goffman Project
(The following dialogue was occasioned by D. Shalin's paper "Goffman's Biography and the Interaction Order." I took place between August 25, 2008, and September 15, 2008. The original text is in black, Stinchcombe’s comments are marked red, and Shalin’s response is in blue).
This paper examines the interfaces between Erving Goffman’s biography and theory. It rests on the premise that Goffman’s Behavior in Public Places
I wrote a review of this, but I don’t remember where, and didn’t apparently write it into my vita
can be profitably explored in light of Goffman’s behavior in public places, and vice versa.
If someday you come across this review or recall where it was published, please give me a word.
The problem with self-construction is that it is subject to self-sampling error inherent in sampling by anecdote and validation through hearsay. Present in all biographical narratives, this difficulty is particularly evident in autobiographical reconstructions whose protagonists rummage through their own lives looking for episodes that express the author’s evolving sense of agency. The reader is usually left uncertain as to how representative a given sample of anecdotes is, how the incongruent strands of enselfments hang together and whether they form a coherent whole. The inauspicious biographical events can be cast as older selves the agent passed through on the way to an authentic selfhood (St. Augustine’s youthful indiscretions), explained away as uncharacteristic slips (Mel Gibson moments), or edited out altogether as ill-suited for the chosen narrative arc (Nixon’s animosity toward Jews).
It seems to me, from a failure once to write an autobiographical essay, that the main distortion is to look for a lot more continuity and coherence in a biography than is really there. E.g. as I look over my vita, I can’t see any “themes” that have dominated my thought, except for the anarchic one given me as a summary of my approach to sociology: “Find some variance, then explain it.” The only more or less successful essay with a lot of autobiography in it is a biography of a marriage, “Love and Irrationality: It’s Got to be Rational to Love You Because It Makes Me So Happy.” By Carol A. Heimer and Arthur L. Stinchcombe. Social Science Information 19, 4/5 (1980):697-754. It is, of course, more coherent than our marriage, though that is more coherent than most, including than my first one.
You put your finger on a key issue befuddling (auto)biographical construction – how to assess bionarrative facts assembled for a purpose of highlighting the subject’s identity when this identity reveals ample discontinuities, reversals, lapses, and gaps. On September 11, 2008, The New York Times published an editorial titled “In Search of Gov. Palin” where it chided Sarah Palin for refusing to account for inconsistencies in her life’s story. “Why not some detailed questioning?”, editorial asks. “With deference, we believe many questions will arise about this largely unknown politician as reporters properly search beyond wholesome anecdotes.” It is not that biowriters shy away from revealing less than wholesome sides of the self in question. John McCain and Barack Obama are almost eager to talk about their failings (McCain talks about his involvement with the Keating 5 scandal and the failure of his first marriage, Obama advertises his early experiments with drugs), but “wholesome anecdotes” highlighting one’s achievements usually overwhelm the “gruesome tales” of opportunism and hubris. As a biocritic looking into other people’ archives and trying to connect what happens on stage with the life behind the curtain, I feel I must be ready to engage in autobiocritical exploration, open my own archives, and as the New York Times put it, “search beyond wholesome anecdotes.” That’s the challenge of biocritical hermeneutics, as I understand it, with pitfalls awaiting those willing to embark on this road. I am intrigued by the mutual exploration of your marriage that you undertook with your wife – is the article available in a digital form? I would like to read it.
I HAVE NO IDEA. PRESUMABLY SINCE IT IS A JOURNAL, FRENCH, SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE MUST KEEP A COPY. INTERLIBRARY LOAN? MAYBE TRY FRANCE’S GOOGLE.
[A]ny one who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. . . . Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending on some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal – I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is DISTINGUO (Montaigne 1987:377)
Cf. “I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties.” Luis Bruñuel, My Last Sigh (Mon dernier soupir).
Field researchers gain knowledge by making local experiences their own, or as Goffman put it, “[Y]ou should feel you could settle down and forget about being a sociologist. The members of the opposite sex should become attractive to you. You should be able to engage in the same body rhythms, rate of movement, tapping of the feet, that sort of thing, as the people around you. Those are the real tests of penetrating a group” (Goffman 2002:129). Sharing one’s experience with the locals, bringing it to bear on the interpretation process is the reverse part of the same process, which demands more attention than it was given in Goffman’s work.
It seems to me this shows up in Goffman on Framing, which I didn’t finish so I may be wrong—I didn’t finish it because it seemed to me to be playing with concepts in a way detached from the way we in fact play with frames in our lives, which is mostly not much because it goes on quite unconsciously most of the time. Carol and I wrote about this, too, in one of our other essays that dropped into the well with no splash in the millennium issue of Contemporary Sociology, on investigating the subconscious. My copies of this have been eviscerated by changing computers, so have no words in them.
Yet another proof of how much record of our passing through planet Earth vanishes into the black hole our collective memory. Preserving it is a thankless and somewhat dubious task, as we have to make room for new information, but to the extent that it is feasible, the International Biography Initiative seeks to preserve the records and salvage from oblivion the lives and work of our contemporaries. Speaking of Goffman’s “frame analysis,” I find it to be a seminal idea, although it lends itself to various interpretations and does not easily submit to empirical investigation. Further theoretical work is needed, it seems to me, to explain how we shift from one frame to another and which institutional settings favor particular framing practices.
The circle involved in this reasoning is not vicious but hermeneutical. Seen from the vantage point of pragmatist philosophy, the hermeneutical circle draws into itself the researcher’s body and engages the participant observer’s emotions. This is what Goffman appears to be going through when he put himself imaginatively in place of a con artist, an asylum patient,
This one he did more than imaginatively, dressing as a patient and giving up carrying keys, and suchlike
a stigmatized person, an undercover agent, a gambler hooked on risk taking
Here too, he was there,
a lecturer staging a performance before an audience, or an association’s president preparing a talk he knows could be delivered only posthumously.
There is an ongoing debate about the manner in which Goffman presented himself to the patients while doing work at St. Elizabeth’s. In Asylums he describes the rape of a patient he witnessed while doing his participant observation, with no indication that he tried to interfere or reported the assault. Clearly, his fieldwork habits would be challenged today.
Those who have studied Goffman’s work observed a puzzling feature underlying his research practice: the man who peered intently into other people’s backstage regions fiercely protected from scrutiny his own backstage.
It seems to me that he often doesn’t actually tell us many details about what he saw when others were backstage, either. Instead he gave details about how they transformed that into what we see.
Gary Fine is among Goffman’s followers who are concerned about Erving’s methodology and find his fieldwork practice problematic.
Vladimir Shlapentokh, an émigré Russian scholar who visited Goffman in Philadelphia and left a glowing account of that meeting, told me upon learning the nature of my interest:
By many accounts, Dostoyevsky was a miserable man – mendacious, dishonest, prickly. But as a reader, I can enjoy his books without going into his biography. Indeed, I can enjoy his work all the better if I remain ignorant of his earthy self. My wife Liuda
are you sure it wasn’t Liuba, I believe a common Russian name meaning (I think) “love”
read a recent [controversial] biography of [Boris] Pasternak, and she loved it. But I refused to read it. I am sure it is well written, but for me Pasternak is just a poet. . . . As it turned out, my beloved Shopen was an anti-Semite. So was [Franz] List. Should I enjoy their music any less because of that? (Shlapentokh 2008).
“Liuba” is the nickname for “Liubov” and Liuda” is the nickname for “Liudmila” – both are common Russian names.
Several explanations have been proffered to make sense of Goffman’s inconsistencies and contradictions. John Irwin invokes Goffman’s view that “anyone departing from an ideal of the tall, blond haired, blue-eyed handsome or beautiful individual” was stigmatized, and as someone lacking in some such attributes, Goffman was bound to carry a stigma and occasionally act it out: “[B]eing a short Jew in worlds dominated by tall ‘goyim’
I think the usual plural for folks in common Yiddish (I have a notion it is from Hebrew) is –im and that “-em” is a singular –
he was pissed off and this shaded all of his perceptions and analysis” (Irwin 2007). Peter Manning makes a similar point: “I think the quotes from Miss Lonelyhearts are ‘deep Goffman’” (Manning-Shalin 2007). Mel Kohn is more cautious in his judgment, but he believes that Goffman was self-conscious about his physical stature (Kohn 2008).
As a tall blond, when I told him I couldn’t really make out what her was up to in the framing book, he said something like “I’m really sorry, because I write for people like you.” When I took a seminar from him, I was writing a lot about what had to be changed for Parsons to be really sociology, and having a hell of a time about it. About halfway through, he told me I had written enough, and gave me a B. Pretty soon after that, I came to the conclusion that he was right, it wasn’t first class work.
You must be right on the spelling of “goyim,” but John Irwin writes “goyem,” so I kept his spelling. Your observation on Goffman’s grading habits differs from what I hear from other students who got “B” and “B+” in Goffman’s classes. While most feel his grading was not entirely fair, you think Goffman was right about your paper. One question to explore is how Goffman – and the rest of us – do grading, what assumptions we make, which policies we follow (and how consistently) in dispensing grades to our students. Goffman appears to be a tough grader, at least when it came to handing out top grades, but as long as he consistently applied his grading policy and rendered it explicit to his students, that’s OK.
Dell Hymes invokes Goffman’s marginalized childhood to explain his harsher side, citing in particular these Goffman’s words: “I grew up (with Yiddish) in a town where to speak another language was to be suspect of being homosexual” (Hymes 2000:56).
And that was a very bad thing to be in those days, which is when I grew up as a “very pretty adolescent and young man.” I had something of a hard time (not really frightening, but frequently very uncomfortable) fending off approaches. I suspect he may have been misinterpreting, that instead he was attractive and interested people were fighting it off because they were afraid of being queer.
Goffman makes a number of references to homosexuality and sex in general. Having tracked those with an eye to finding a pattern, I could not say there is one. More can be said about his views of gender, which kept evolving, with Erving sounding less sexist in his later writings. Your point on growing up with the unwanted attention is illuminating. Erving might have fended off such advances, which could account for his comment to Dell Hymes.
Something is definitely to be said about casting Goffman as a practicing existentialist who takes upon himself to combat bad faith by overextending vapid behavioral and narrative idioms. There is a tinge of Nietzsche here as well, the will to turn one’s life into a work of art. Clearly Goffman systematically and intentionally violated the interaction rituals that he so painstakingly described in his publications, notably in his presidential address (Goffman 1983b), and he probably did so with a strategic and pedagogic end in mind. I wonder, though, if a more mundane explanation might work here as well, the one that brings to mind the quote from Goffman taken as an epigraph for this paper:
"In these matters, American Hippies, and later, “The Chicago Seven,” were interesting amateurs; the great terrorists of contact forms were the mid-17th century Quakers of Britain. . . . That sturdy band of plain speakers should always stand before us as an example of the wonderfully disruptive power of systematic impoliteness, reminding us once again of the vulnerabilities of the interaction order.
There is no doubt:
Fox’s disciples raised to the monumental heights the art of becoming the pain in the ass" (Goffman 1983b:13).
And knowing how to create emotional hell for people, Quakers became great pacifists. Who is more convincing than Erving about how we should not mistreat mental patients so badly, and illustrate it by describing the mental health system as an alimentary tract (implicitly at least) turning mental patients into shit.
Goffman’s abusive habits, it seems to me, betray a person who has been abused and who passes his trauma to those around him
Perhaps especially when we deserve it.
In this reckoning, Goffman is a person struggling to rid himself of the incivility and repression he encountered and unwittingly or unwittingly absorbed during his formative years.
The question is whether “systematic impoliteness” is the best way to stem the abuse, institutionalized or otherwise. I feel that studied incivility that crops up in Goffman’s encounters might have perpetuated some of the abuses he helped expose. I see an instructive tension between Goffman’s work and Goffman’s life: He worked hard to illuminate the cruelties of our ways yet acted in a manner that struck of his interlocutors as cruel.
According to David Mechanic, "
Later in Goffman’s life, after he had to live through an episode of mental illness involving another person close to him, he is said to have remarked that had he been writing Asylums at that point, it would have been a very different book” (Mechanic 1989:150).
The intersection between Goffman’s theory and biography illuminates a potential weakness in his dramaturgical analysis. I am talking about his early tendency to disembody human agency, to equate face with mask, his believe that “this mask is our truer self” (Goffman, 1961:19). On several occasions Goffman tells his readers that everyday life differs from theater, that there is no hiatus between the audience and performers in the real world where we find ourselves embedded as actors, stage managers, and onlookers at the same time. Seminal as this observation is, it does not go far enough in separating the make-belief [believe]-world
I have no idea of why we use the verb rather than the noun in this phrase, but I’m pretty sure we do
of theater from the flesh-and-blood world of everyday life where real blood flows, humiliations endured, fortunes made, kingdoms rise and fall.
But I would say this is one of Erving’s main points, that when e.g. Bush, Cheney, and Petreus put on their ‘COMBAT IS MASCULINITY” show, real blood flows; when psychiatrists carefully strip crazy people of their identity, it is using their misfortunes as reassurances that maybe they aren’t quite as good as surgeons, but almost, and real misery is created. It seems to me that having been there, he had more consciousness than most (as did --- forget name, whose last book was on Corsican murder among young men). Posturing kills people, starves them, demeans them, etc. I think you are on the right track here, but it is Erving that knows best about how dramaturgy hurts.
Well put. I am curious about Erving’s political agenda. To the extent that he had any, he seemed to be a liberal, antiestablishment type. Yet, he refused to wear his politics on his sleeve, preferring to snipe from afar and make sly comments about people being oblivious to the realities of power, fast asleep amidst the institutional ruckus. As Erving put it, I just want to “sneak in” and observe them “snore.”
A theory according to which “the person’s face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on the body but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter” (Goffman, 1967:7) clues us to the social dimension of our existence, but it also tends to gloss over the fact that our faces are embedded not only in social settings but also in our somatic frames, that the face is a window through which we gaze at our corporeal being. Goffman’s contention that our “body merely provide[s] a peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time” (Goffman 1959:253) runs the risk of disembodying our existence and downgrading the resources available to us in everyday life where we can tolerably settle questions of authenticity.
Authenticity is really hard work. I catch myself being a fraud all the time, and try to correct it. Irony, even sarcasm, is often the only way to rip up the mask a bit, and perhaps work our way toward authenticity. Erving was perhaps more doubtful than I am whether there is any there there, whether there is such a thing as authenticity, but most of us should try to take humiliation as possibly an object lesson, rather than an opportunity to be macho by shooting our humiliator, as young Corsicans do.
Wherever we are forced to maintain official appearances, we find authentic solace in irony and sarcasm. My experience in Soviet Russia makes me think that irony and sarcasm are the ultimate weapons of the spiritual proletariat engaged in the alienated face labor and forced to produce ideological surplus meaning.
The dramaturgical analysis zeroes in on “the expressive costume that individuals are expected to wear whenever they are in the immediate presence of others” (Goffman 1967:133). Productive as such a focus proved to be, it obscures important dimension of social interaction, the embodiment-disembodiment-reembodiment arc distinguishing social practice. Goffman astutely points out how a waiter displays a snappy front in the hopes of earning better tips, a plumber surreptitiously takes off his glasses to protect his manly image, and a prostitute spends extra time validating a customer’s self-image. But he does not square off with the fact that the poor food quality and untimely delivery will ultimately trump the expressive finesse, that the plumber will earn respect by stopping the leak, and that ego-stroking is not the only skill bearing on a sex worker’s performance.
Yes, another is to avoid being raped and perhaps killed to show whatever a sadist is trying to show.
Indeed, wearing an expressive costume may be a matter of survival and not just a way of earning brownie points in the social game.
While Goffman is aware of this methodological agenda, he does not fully square off with the fact that social researchers in general and participant observers in particular draw on the expertise they acquire as members of society. Consider the following observation that appears in Forms of Talk:
"The sexual moan. This subvocal tracking of the course of sexually climactic experience is a display available for both sexes, but said to be increasingly fashionable for females – amongst whom, of course, the sound tracing can be strategically employed to delineate an ideal development in the marked absence of anything like the real thing" (Goffman 1983c:106).
I would especially doubt the statistical value of the sex difference he reports. The faking of excitement about the intensity of orgasms is, I believe, quite often dramatized as much above the actual experience by men. I think the crude survey results show that women in marriages as often complain about the disinterest in sex of men as the reverse. I suppose this is especially by taking the ejaculation as sufficient evidence of excitement by men the women’s “wham bam thank you ma’m” critique of men’s sexual involvement in intercourse.
Goffman’s works are replete with the observations that presuppose Goffman’s exposure to the relevant experience or vouch for his willingness to trust his contemporaries to supply the meaning of the reported activity. However, the exact source of Goffman’s knowledge about the “real thing” and the “faked one” and the empirical indicators thereof are rarely spelled out.
They are pretty hard to collect in an ethically appropriate way—try to get it through an IRB.
Clearly Goffman relied on the common wisdom of his era to ferret out meanings of social encounters. We are all circumscribed by the hermeneutical horizons of our time, moving beyond in some respects, remaining imprisoned in the other. This applies to both the subject and the object of a biocritical study. I see here hermeneutics squared: The era’s prodigious lore informs the bios under review while biocritics are propelled by prejudices all their own. The inquirer is a flesh and blood individual rooted in a particular time and place, not a free-floating, socially-disengaged observer. Each interpreter brings certain idiosyncrasies to the inquiry at hand, yet by choosing a particular subject for research and offering a definitive interpretation, the researcher reveals the shared assumptions and prejudices of one’s era.
The interaction order is hard to pin down: boil it down to a few fast rules, and you will see that those are honored in the breach as often as they are not. The exception only confirms the rule, goes the old saw of which Goffman makes a frequent use, but how pervasively must the rule be violated before it becomes an exception and how often the exception is to occur before it becomes a rule? Displaying requisite selves, protecting other people’s faces, maintaining proper affect, remedying situational infractions – there is hardly an interaction ritual that Goffman would not violate when the opportunity presented itself. This is not to say that the interaction order is a figment of our imagination, only that it is indefinitely flexible and that its power to constrain is perennially problematic.
I think some of the hatred Erving experienced when he violated these norms indicates that yes they can be violated, and the rage does indeed show that the exception causes the sanction that proves the rule [was indeed there].
It is less of a ceremony than a semi-chaotic order that keeps emerging in feats
I rather like this variant on “fits and starts” but I’m not sure that’s what you meant
and starts without ever solidifying into a reality sui generis.
That I think is where you are misrepresenting Goffman—he writes all the time ab out how it comes apart, how we have to show tact so as not to notice publicly what is obvious to us, that our interaction partners are faking it, and we and they are better off if we don’t demand authenticity.
What I am trying to do is to reverse the figure-background here – a consider the chaotic crosscurrents as routine and conceptualize order as emergent. To draw an analogy, psychologists postulate a core personality that occasionally fails to manifest itself in the person’s overt conduct, but we can also grasp personality as a continuously emerging pattern without reifying it into an entity. (I will send you my article “Signing in the Flesh” where I play with the notion of emergent grammar and situational paradigmization). It is not that one way of looking is right and the other is wrong. I just feel that conceptualizing society as a semi-chaotic order or semi-ordered chaos opens up new spaces for theorizing. We do feel rage when certain rules are violated, and this strong emotional reaction suggests that some sacred grounds have been befouled, but it is important to inquire how pervasive this reaction is, whether the trespassing occurs with impunity, and how many alternative sacred orders coexist at any given time.
Goffman’s theories elide certain emotions in part because he had troubles experiencing particular affective states. If his formulations sometimes evince the uneasiness about the bodily dimension of social interaction, it is in part because he felt ambivalent about his own corporeal dimensions and embodied qualities. As several commentators point out, Goffman’s take on stigmatized agency implicated his own embodied being. A master of ceremony, Goffman felt more comfortable communicating the niceties of social etiquette and expressive behavior than articulating the substantive, exchange-based transactions in which social life is grounded and which serve as a check on our expressive claims.
Let me then recall a wonderful harmless playful breaking of the norms, that he once got himself into a position of “display dancing” with a gifted woman dancer, I think at a convention, and she danced an elaborate dance while he stood absolutely still and paid intense attention (on display) on her dancing, as if he were participating fully in the performance while not moving a muscle. I think he was proud that he could bring it off, keep everyone off the floor for the performance without performing the somatic dance. He also showed that by learning to ride a unicycle. I have an idea he was proud of that, too, though I think I heard, maybe from him, that he broke a bone or so while learning or performing.
A lovely story that jibes with several tales (yet to be transcribed and interpreted) I have heard from people who knew Goffman. You will find one of these particularly telling. It involves Goffman speaking at a panel devoted to his work where he got into an exchange with a panelist who, apparently not realizing that he speaks to Goffman himself, was telling Erving that he did not get what Goffman had really had in mind. You mention that Goffman seemed to be proud of being able to master a unicycle. I am attuned to any signs of Goffman’s embodied reactions and, moods, things that irked him and things that pleased him. I am trying to catalogue such somatically grounded responses to see if there is a pattern in the way his affective markers are distributed.
The dramaturgical analysis tends to gloss over the embodied dimensions of social interaction, to downplay the instrumental and the substantive in relation to the expressive and the communicative. The Durkheimean insistence on social reality as a phenomenon sui generis is partially to blame for this weakness.
I think he carefully avoids the question of where it comes from, though it clearly has agency of the humans in putting on the show. “Sui Generis” is a sort of vague claim about causality, which Goffman’s taste for intellectual crispness would forbid him to embrace I think
This emphasis played a crucial role in circumscribing sociology as a separate discipline
to our everlasting harm—he was close enough to rejecting anything else but drama informally as a causal scheme, so he once more or less implied to Carol Heimer that she ought to consider the sociology of risk as not involving real risks. I suppose an example would be considering marine insurance as if it were about discriminating against Greeks, rather than partly about Greek ships sinking more than others.
but policing its borderlines and fending off the encroachment from neighboring disciplines like biology, physiology, psychology, and psychiatry had an unintended consequence of delimiting the scope of sociological investigation and discouraging interdisciplinary inquiry. No doubt society informs the somatic-affective phenomena, but its reach is powerfully checked by the corporeal and neurological resources of the body that cannot be dramatized away and that shape social dynamics according to the logic of their own.
You surely don’t mean that there are sometimes sounds of real orgasms?
When psychic events come to our attention, we should not assume that they are necessarily psycho-logical. By the same token, social phenomena are not automatically and exclusively socio-logical. The bio-social continuum calls for an analysis that undermines the bureaucratic imperative of adhering to the disciplinary logic sui generis.
And also physics—if you fall off a unicycle you can break your bones, and perhaps a taste for smoked fish can cause stomach cancer.
Actually, on several occasions Goffman cites Durkheim, especially his view of ritual and ceremony, in a way that comes across as an endorsement of the notion that social phenomena are sui generis. In his presidential address, Goffman claims that the interaction order is a phenomenon that needs to be treated as a reality sui generis. I wish you expounded a bit more on how Goffman saw Carol Heimer’s sociology of risk. If I understand the gist of this story, Erving appears to be downplaying the real risks involved in societal transactions. But then he wrote an essay “Where the Action Is” which was about risk taking and braving the odds embedded in the urban scene.
Good start. I’m not sure there is anything useful in my comments, or in my much more “distant and intellectual” relation to Goffman than many of your informants had. I was a little thing in Erving’s life, and he a somewhat bigger, but still mainly peripheral, part of mine. But I knew he was the genius of my generation—he was an Assistant professor when I studied with him, and I was soon after a young “grown up.”
Arthur – I am grateful for your finding time to read the paper and offer your feedback. I found your comments trenchant and thought-provoking, and I am certain they might interest many of us who seek enlightenment in Goffman’s life and work.