Remembering Erving Goffman
Carl B. Backman:
When Dad Told Him about the Award, Goffman Replied,
”Make Sure the Presentation Is in a Small Room So It Will Look Like a Lot of People Are There"
Dr. Carl Backman, professor of sociology at Auburn University, wrote these memoir and gave his permission to post it in the Erving Goffman Archives.
November 4, 2009
I just read a biographical note of yours about Erving Goffman. My father, Carl W. Backman, was presumably on the committee that awarded
Goffman the Cooley-Mead award because Dad and I set out at some ASA
meeting to find Goffman and tell him he had won. I was probably a
graduate student in sociology at the time. As we walked, Dad talked
about Goffman's work on behavior in public, things like chit chat at
parties and so on. I told him, "Dad, 15 years ago [when I was in junior
high school] I told you how interesting I found such conversation and
you said that was trivial interaction and not very important or
interesting." He stopped, thought for a minute, and said, "It wasn't . . .
then. Goffman showed us why it is [interesting]." We found Goffman (how,
I don't know). To me Goffman looked like a man who was afraid of his own
shadow. When Dad told him about the award, Goffman replied, "Make sure
the presentation is in a small room so it will look like a lot of people
are there." (Maybe Goffman knew about the award and Dad was just trying
to pin down details, like would he even show up. At this remove I can't
say and Dad died a couple of years ago, so I can't check with him.) At
the time, I thought, hundreds of sociologists would probably show up
anywhere they knew he would be, so a small room seemed like a lousy
idea. I didn't go to the next year's meetings, so I don't know how it
I notice on your web site some interest in Soviet era
intellectuals. Alex Simerenko was a sociologist whose father was an
apple specialist in Russia who was disappeared by Stalin. I believe Alex
got his PhD in sociology at Minnesota, taught at the University of
Nevada Reno (when UNLV was known as Nevada Southern), then moved on to
Penn State until his untimely death. I have a reprint of his on Soviet
sociology (at least that's what I think it is on) along with a sweet
personal note. He was sweet except when playing ping-pong, when he
became a terror. Is such material relevant to what you and your group
are up to?
* The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is the web-based, open-source project that serves as a clearing house for those interested in the dramaturgical tradition in sociology and biographical methods of research. The EGA is located in the Intercyberlibrary of the UNLV Center of Democratic Culture, http://www.unlv.edu/centers/cdclv/archives/interactionism/index.html. Postings on the website are divided into several overlapping sections: “Documents and Papers,” “Goffman's Publications,” “Goffman in the News,” “Biographical Materials,” “Critical Assessments,” and “Comments and Dialogues.” For inquiries regarding the EGA projects, please contact Dr. Dmitri Shalin, firstname.lastname@example.org. When you cite the materials collected for the EGA, please use the following reference: Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives, ed. by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV: CDC Publications, 2009).