Remembering Erving Goffman

Jonathan B. Imber

“Philip Rieff:  Personal Remembrance.”  Society, 2006, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 72-79.

As for his dress: Philip Rieff was instrumental in bringing Erving Goffman to the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Professor (a title Rieff also held). He told the story of walking near his home in center city Philadelphia when Goffman pulled along side in an open convertible sports car. Rieff, dressed in a three-piece suit, a gold watch chain hanging from his vest, and with a bowler and cane-in the middle of summer-looked down at Goffman and his young, female companion. Goffman, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses looked up at Rieff and remarked, "Philip, aren't you suffocating in that outfit?" With hardly a notice of Goffman's words, Rieff looked directly at his lovely companion and said, "Professor Goffman is a rich man who dresses like a poor man. I am a poor man who dresses like a rich man." And then he continued to walk along the street without saying another word.

Legend has it that Rieff and Goffman exchanged such ripostes at a time when this was good fun and nothing more was meant by it than could be thought of sociologically. They were their roles but they admired one another greatly. Their endeavor to respect each other with humor was before the present era of an overwrought earnestness that goes hand-in-hand with a facade of equality and that has weakened the ability of academics to withstand criticism of their cherished pieties. Too many academics take too much too personally and too seriously, and so, without the opportunity to acknowledge real differences among ourselves, the ease with which offense is taken is more often simply an underhanded way to silence one's critics. The tendency to manage others by ignoring what they say, by condemning how they say it, has pushed real debate outside colleges and universities, perhaps where it finally belongs. The rough ride of administering in higher education has everything to do, again, in the age of "psychological man" with personality (of administrators, teachers, and students). The best strategy for lasting in administrative positions is to be a man or woman without qualities and to find and promote others lacking similarly.


* 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,  Postings on the website are divided into four partially 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,  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).