Remembering Erving Goffman

Allen Grimshaw

(Allen D. Grimshaw, “Erving Goffman: A Personal Appreciation.” Language and Society. 1983, Vol.12, No, 1, pp. 147-148).

Erving Goffman’s own “self” was unusually complex, and those whose life his touched sometimes had difficulty in sorting out the expressions he gave and those he gave off. While he studied the arts of impression management, he sometimes seemed reluctant to practice them. The introspectiveness which made him so acute a social observer as sometime seemed either to have been caused – or to have resulted from – a painful shyness which made him reject, sometimes rudely, strangers’ attempts at encounter initiation (in recent years he became much more mellow, some of us attributed that to his being, with Gillian, a special “with”). He was a steadfast and loyal friend – loyal to the point where he would not temper intellectual criticism. He had a sensitivity to the pains of others not always found in the introspective, a sensitivity which many will remembers with particular warmth. He knew his position in the market and drove hard bargains with publishers and would-be impresarios; he would also spend ours answering questions from a colleague’s undergraduate class in a charming, clear, and sympathetic manner – at no cost. Goffman was a consummate professional, devoted to his discipline, and deeply devoted to his craft. He was a conscientious and judicious reviewer of the work of others and, by all reports, an effective president of the American Sociological Association. He worked until the last day, discussing plans for publication of his undelivered ASA presidential address only a few hours before his life ended (The interaction order, American Sociological Review 48(1) February 1983).

Erving’s life was not all work. He had a deep and informed admiration for his the work of past craftsmen, and derived great satisfaction form “antiquing” – both locating rare pieces and talking with those who shared his interest. Just before his illness struck him last summer, he and Gillian traveled to England with Erving’s “dealer” partner Henry Glassie and Henry’s wife Kathy, looking for lovely old things still available there; he had a great time. He did not stop being a social analyst on such excursions, whether, or on visits to Philadelphia ’s Italian market, which he delighted in introducing his uninitiated friends. Being with Erving meant exposure to an always stimulating and alert analytic mind and a stream of thoughtful observations, whether on the niceties of others’ presentation of self, something new he has discovered in his omnivorous reading, the merits of cuisines, or the fabrication of furniture without metal hardware.

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If Goffman didn’t mind talking about his ideas, he didn’t much like himself being the focus of attention. While he cooperated with Jason Ditton when Ditton was editing what is for now the only critical exegesis of much of the Goffman’s corpus, he generally strongly discouraged such projects.

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I received a letter today form one of Goffman’s Chicago classmates, who wrote, “He had a singular quality and a brilliance that is not copied by anyone and he will be sorely missed. Something that has been stable in my own life has disappeared. “A few minutes ago I talked with another distinguished sociologist who said, “He is our Simmel in American clothing – he will be one of the one or two of our generation who will be remembered.” Erving will be missed – Goffman will be remembered.