Remembering Erving Goffman

Howard Becker

August 25, 2007

. . .It's true that I occasionally use my reminiscences in my own writing, and here's a Goffman story that will appear in the new book I have coming out next month from Chicago, Telling About Society:

Sometime in the early 1960s, when he was teaching at the University of California in Berkeley , Goffman asked me to come to his seminar to hear a student, Marvin Scott, present his research on horse racing. This excellent research (Scott 1968) dealt with the way the social organization of what he called "the racing game" made it reasonable for some trainers, owners, and jockeys to want their horse to lose, rather than win. That might seem counterintuitive, but the organization of horse racing created incentives for people to behave in ways that seemed on the surface irrational. However, in the course of his presentation, Scott suggested in passing that gamblers, including horse players, sometimes had "winning streaks" or "losing streaks." Goffman, who had been listening appreciatively until that point, interrupted to say that of course Scott meant that they thought they had such streaks of good or bad luck. But Scott said no, these were observable "facts." Goffman, unwilling to accept such apparently supernatural talk, persisted, appealing to the laws of probability to assure Scott that such "streaks" were natural occurrences in any long run of tries in such a game as blackjack or craps. (I suppose he had been boning up on these topics in preparation for his research in Las Vegas .) He finally exploded in anger at Scott's "unscientific" insistence on gamblers' luck as a natural phenomenon.)