Remembering Erving Goffman

Robert Erwin

(Robert Erwin, “The Nature of Goffman.” The Centennial Review. 1992, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 327-342.)

. . . .

I base my opinion of Goffman’s personality on three conversations I had with him as a publisher between 1967 and 1979, on a couple of casual social encounters, and on stories told me by two friends and a person who dealt with him on academic business.

A number of people who knew him in person referred to him as sour and sardonic, although a minority objected to those labels. The word I would use to characterize his personality is eerie.

During a year he spent at the Harvard Center for International Affairs, where I was then Editor of Publications, Goffman enrolled a child at the Cambridge school which one of my daughters was attending.

One sunny Saturday at a fund-raising fair at the school I discovered that the jazz quartet playing outside the Science Building included Edmond Hall, the superb Dixieland clarinetist. Hall was old and down on his luck by the look of him, but he still had fasts fingers and a mahogany tone.

Goffman came ambling along while I was listening. As we carried on small talk about the fair, the school, and our offspring, I nodded and beamed at the music, making no secrete of my exultation and veneration. The more enthusiasm I showed, the more Goffman looked at me with dread, and in a little while he left like a miner escaping from a tunnel that may collapse at any minute.

Maybe I was ingenuous. Maybe he was tone deaf. Yet I could not help but think of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, the one who would melt if you splashed water at her. Dread is not too strong a word for what I felt in him. He seemed to fear that to be splattered with joy would be lethal.

How Goffman’s theory of intersubjectivity jibed with his own experience remains a puzzle to me. I speculate that he learned about interaction more by watching than participating.

Nuclear weapons and the Cold War were for the most part absent from his books. Likewise terrorism, assassinations, and street crime. Likewise thought control and deportation. Likewise inflation and overpopulation. He was alert to subtle hurts caused by what he called social stigmata and inflicted on self-esteem by what he called total institutions. Inmates are deprived of the power to help anyone, for example. About to choke hold and the punishment cell, though, he had nothing to say. He took little notice of what many feared to be a dual breakdown of the family and other intimate relationships (marked by abuses, dissolution, and identity crises) and of macro-institutions (drained of legitimacy by credibility gaps, stymied by polarization). He expressed no worry about our being swamped and duped by images, sunk I narcissism, and forget TV.” TO a slight degree he acknowledged the fragmented character of contemporary life: “A basic social arrangement . . . is that the individual tends to sleep, play and work in different places, with different co-participants under different authorities, and without an over-all rational plan.” In a spirit of token worldliness he admitted that “adjacency can be employed to give offense” and that “some participants profit considerably more than others” within a given social order. Always he returned to the main assumption that everybody knows what is required socially and cooperates in preserving common definition of the situation. In the long run and with qualifications he could be right. Present-mindedness is nevertheless an American imperative, and n his lack of it in relation to concerns over conflict and breakdown ion his time checked his influence.

. . . .

In al likelihood Goffman sensed that individualism would be barrier to him. He wrote almost exclusively on interaction and reciprocation. Exquisitely concerted action in everyday life was his prized subject. Whereas American approve only of an individualistic way of life, although they battle furiously over details, he maintained that they were all capable of joining any number of alternative and equally valid ways. Indeed, as he saw it, they were fated by evolution to an all-purpose social competence. Nature had given the species an extraordinarily large brain – an organ that consumes up three times more of the available energy than is the case with small-brain mammals.

A sly man, he used description and narrative to edge away form the ordinary stupefying prose of sociology. This attracted some readers. Yet his vignettes of behavior remained without hailing distance of the illustrative example, the case study, selective sampling, typically in the strict sense. This reassured other readers. He wrote volume on collective behavior with scarcely a mention of social class. His inspired phrase “upholding a shared reality” had that improvisational and vaguely moral ring that Americans love.

In the end of course they contained him, known but not heeded. Just the same, he made the reading public sweat a little and give a little. He came near implicating them in the natural order.

. . . .

At the beginning of a note yet certain academic career, he went out of his way to say I a preface that even government bureaus meddle less than university departments. Toward the close of his life, free from ordinary academic obligations, he was invited to give one lecture on the subject of his own choosing to the entire student body of a prestigious law school, which would probably have guaranteed a reception and a press release and put several types in his debt. He was reported to have replied: “I don’t have to. I don’t want to. I’m not going to. No.” On the other hand, he was not celebrity material either. He dressed like an accountant, confused the Beatles with blues singers, and gave it as his considered opinion that television was “artificial.”

From a scientific standpoint, Goffman, as it happened, underestimated malfunctions, profligacy, and flux in nature. His sociology did not make much provision for destructive conflict, profligacy, and muddle among humans. However, this bias probably cost him few readers. When it came to limits placed by the culture on the reception of his work, the crucial sticking point was that he underestimated postmodern American anxieties.


* International Biography and History of Russian Sociology Projects feature interviews and autobiographical materials collected from scholars who participated in the intellectual movements spurred by the Nikita Khrushchev's liberalization campaign. The materials are posted as they become available, in the language of the original, with the translations planned for the future. Dr. Boris Doktorov ( and Dmitri Shalin ( are editing the projects.