Remembering Erving Goffman
(John Lofland, “Erving Goffman’s Sociological Legacies.” Urban Life. 1984, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 7-34.)
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As is well known, Goffman was a complicated man who grew even more Gordian as he matured. I knew only parts of him and in preparing for this gathering I have thought it important to seek the reflections of others who knew him and his work, the better to present a more complete and textured picture of his legacies. With their permission, I drew frequently on the discerning and enlarging observations they have shared. Their contributions are too important to relegate recognition to a footnote and I therefore indicate their names and my appreciation here: Howard S. Becker, Bennett Berger, Herbert Blumer, Arlene Daniels, Fred Davis, Jason Ditton, Russell R. Dynes, Gary Allan Fine, William J. Good, Allen Grimshaw, Joseph Gusfield, Gary Hamilton, Arlie Hochschild, Dell Hymes, John Irwin, Edwin Lemert, Lyn H. Lofland, Peter K. Manning, Gary Marx, Marsha Rosenbaum, Anselm Strauss, and Harold Wilensky.
Despite their help, I surely select and elaborate those legacies that are most congenial to me and in which I believe most strongly. I am certain that others would (and surely will) select and stress different inheritances.
We may think of Goffman as bequeathing us four main kinds of legacies: the substantive study of the interaction order; an intellectual stance toward or perspective on sociology more generally; a spirit, attitude or mood with which to go about scholarship; and a mode of being a scholar, colleague, and friend. Because others already have written about and will in the future say much about the one and two, I treat them briefly and devote more of my attention to the letter two.
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Goffman was the first truly active discoverer and explorer of a vast new territory, a new land that he began diligently to chart. “Essentially by his own efforts,” a reflector writes, “he identified an opened up for study” a new and startling domain. The territory he began to map is indeed so startling and even shocking in some ways that we have been slow to use his preliminary sketches as guides in venturing further into that terra incognita. But as with other discoverers and explorations, once the way is shown, others in time increasingly follow.
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He showed with delicate poignancy no one had before how our sense of ourselves, of what is real, and how we feel is bound up in – is inextricably knotted – the ever-moving microdynamics of the immediate interaction order in endlessly complicated way of which we are not ware. As that moving order is quite delicate and subject to myriad punctures and breakdowns, so are our selves, our sense of reality, and our feelings.
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Goffman was the master coiner of exactly the apt concept, the champion selector of the quintessential label for the once dimly perceived but henceforth crystallized reality. He has peppered our language with words and phrases that have new meanings, some of which have become a part of our taken-for-granted worlds, and we no longer even associate them with Goffman. Impression management, total institution, stigma, mystification, encounter, interaction ritual, presentation of self are among the more widely circulating. But the list of engaging and penetrating freezings of social life goes on and on: civil inattention, lollers’ tuck, sad tales, identity stripping, identity kits, the wise, living on a leash, tact concerning tact, and response cries. We all have our special and private favorites that are not circulating widely. I have just listed some of mine.
Beyond this living legacy is the potential legacy to new generations. They will come upon labeled ideas in his writings heretofore unappreciated. They will approach his works in the way many of us long have done, as put by a friend: “I not only read his books, I gleaned them.”
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Let us hope that one of Goffman’s legacies is theory rather than theory talk. Let us hope that we will have work on the kinds of problems Goffman posed and pursued rather a new cottage industry infatuated with questions such as “what Goffman really meant” or “what Goffman really a ______?” filling in the blank with the latest trend in creedal stereotypes. The memories of our other great theorists are too bedeviled already with this kind of scholasticism and Goffman especially ought to be spared it.
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Time and time again in the late seventies and later he expressed concern that not enough new ethnographers were being trained in sociology and that the tradition was falling “below replacement.” In addition to personal support of fieldworkers, he tried (unsuccessfully) in the midseventies to organize a major conference on ethnography as a stocktaking and rejuvenating strategy and on at least one occasion made a long trip at his own expense in order to give a talk that boosted fieldwork at a regional sociology meeting. From its very conception in 1970 and thereafter he was actively involved in an vigorously supportive of the journal Urban Life, a publication devoted to urban ethnography. In organizing the 1982 annual meetings of the ASA, he assigned himself as the organizer and chair of the customarily offered didactic seminar on fieldwork. He was determined that in the year of his ASA presidency, that otherwise routine occasion would be very special and outstanding. The tragedy, of course, was that he became too ill himself to offer it as he planned.
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In informal conversation where he felt less pressure to perform, one especially noticed him pausing between cliché-linked adjectives, nouns, adverbs, and verbs and in the middle of all pat phrases. He frequently seemed to be deliberating whether or not to complete the cliché on which he was embarked. As often as not he would not. That, at the moment-to-moment level of living, or thinking, and of talking, he was resisting and considering virtually every conventional sequencing of words in the language; such was the tenacity of and penetration of the man’s, as he termed it, “analyticity” . . . . In this he followed Kenneth Burke’s preachment (in Permanence and Change) that we ought “experimentally [to] wrench . . . apart all . . . molecular conventions of adjectives and noun, substantive and verb.”
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Goffman was genuinely modest or at least skeptical about the value or merit of his work and of sociology as it had so far developed despite the fact, as I will shortly report, that he had a vital faith in the seriousness of sociological enterprise. His refusal to enunciate a theme for the annual meetings of his ASA Presidency, in contrast to all recent ASA Presidents, expressed this sense of modesty with regard to the perspective he espoused. It was to him pretentious to impose his own perspective on the convention, even if it was the Presidential custom. . . . Although he cooperated with the editor (Jason Ditton) of a volume of papers on him (The View from Goffman, 1980) by supplying a list of publications, the editor found Goffman “totally against the [volume], wholly decrying exegetical, critical, or expositional work.” Interestingly, the editor also found that Goffman did not remember or have record of all his own publications.
In spite of the fact that he thought of himself as “savvy” about the world, he rigidly resisted self-promotion before wider public, refusing to peddle his books or himself on talk shows and in other media formats. He would speak for expenses or even his personal expense before scholarly groups but charged fees designed to discourage invitations from nonscholarly ones. He even declined the traditional and small self-promotional act of allowing his photograph to appear with the traditional story announcing his Presidency that appears in the ASA newspapers.
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His modesty also seems to me related to his sense of himself as an outsider, an outsiderism imposed more, I believe, by his exquisitely penetrating and unique intelligence than by oft-mentioned outsiderism of his physical stature, ethnicity, and national and geographic origin.
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In conversation, he was given to whimsical observations, pithy and cynical remarks, teasing, puns, twists of meaning, and a variety of other modes of commenting he seemed to intend as humor and hoped that others would find so.
This fondness for joking brings us to Goffman’s famed “refusal to play by the games of social manners [that] often drove others into states of real fury” (the phrasing of Arlene Daniels in her tribute to him in Footnotes, January 1983). In interaction, he was perceived by many as too often saying things that were crude and cruel, or crass. A lode of episodes said that to illustrate these character traits circulating among those who only encountered him briefly, and among his friends a lode some graduate student years ago labeled “tales of Goffman.” Applying Goffman’s observation that what gets reported in personal accounts of fieldwork are the “second worst things that happened,” let me share some incidents that some people will construe as second-worst Goffman stories.
- “Passing by a group of old friends in a hotel lobby at a sociologists’ convention, he was heard saying loud and clear ‘If I can’t find anybody more important to talk with, I’ll come back and talk with you’” (from Bennett Berger’s Dissent, Summer 1973 “fan letter” on Goffman).
- A line he used frequently: “In the time I’m talking to you, I could be writing a paper.”
- At a sociology department party where he encounters an assistant professor who has just been denied tenure and who is angry and bitter about it: After all, all of us are not good enough to teach here.”
- When out to dinner with friends “he would always just take delight in pointing out what slobs we were at the table.”
- Two of his friends are engaged to marry one another; the man is almost twenty years older than the woman. Said to the woman in the presence of the man, in “Jewish mother” fashion: “You have to be careful, because later on he will get older and you will have to take him to a home.”
Goffman did not spare himself.
- Asked why he stood for the Presidency of the ASA, his instant one-word reply: “Vanity.”
- Replying to a student who is suggesting that the dignity and integrity of the self are moral concerns that permeate his work: “I only put it in all that self stuff because people like to read about it.”
- Responding by letter to an article he had asked to write but that offered only a small fee: “I would like to tank you, but then I would have to face the fact of having obligated you to do work of this kind, and since I can’t face it, I won’t thank you.”
- Of the kind of sociology he and others did: “We are all just elegant bullshitters.”
Without at all denying that some of Goffman’s utterances could seem to others cruel and malicious and that he perhaps intended some of them to be so, let us also not underestimate their frequently humorous intent and effects. [Behind such behavior] was his desire for candor and the use of penetrating remarks to cut through banal and false surfaces I order to touch truth. Goffman’s wit and humor could be both hilarious and horrifying because the things he said were likely to be true. This is why his talk was so stinging: He surfaced troubling truth. His sin (as well as his salvation) was daring to voice disquieting facts so continuously and so loudly.
Moreover, in encounters and in relationships he was carrying on a type of testing or even hazing. By means of humor, he was exploring the degree to which a person could deal with troubling truth. People who were afraid of him – who became uncomfortable when he came into a room – were realistically fearful and also communicating that they did not want to deal with the realities that Goffman was likely to bring to their attention.
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His fascination with the appearance-reality split and with deception and manipulation was, as is entirely appropriate, an expression of his own intense concern about being deceived and cheated. A friend observes that while many people write off being cheated, in particular, as part of the tariff of living, Goffman intensely disliked it. This strong aversion indeed may provide us a way of understanding the wit and pithiness I have described. In the imagery of this same friend, Goffman was prone to take the scalpel out and peel off the skin layer by layer “in order to be sure there was no way you are going to pull a surprise.”
There is yet another side to this, one that enlarges what has been said about his modesty and reluctance to engage in certain sorts of self promotion. In some matters, he prided himself on frankly and openly pressing his self interest (as in his book contracts, employment arrangements, and financial ventures), but he was not deceptive in these situation. Another friend has suggested that he was incapable of deceit, even where it was socially allowed and expected. This friend recalls, for example, a poker-playing circle that Goffman was part of in which:
He could never run a bluff. There wasn’t one time we had only to look up or listen to his patter and know what he had. . . . He lost regularly and generously.
His penchant for mentioning troubling truths can be viewed as an aspect of Goffman’s defect of authenticity, if defect it was. However miscalculated or misguided many of his utterances have been, they were of a piece, it would seem, with his personal wrestling with hypocrisy and authenticity. . . . Humans are merely and only inauthentic impression managers. Having argued there was and is a reality to which he was properly responsive, let me now distinguish the hypothesis of ignobility from one that is more complicated and hopefully more accurate. It is closer to the mark I believe to say he had a tragic or even melancholy view of human life and therefore of human nature and motives. All the negative thing he went to such extreme lengths to catalog in his writings were there, but there was also, to borrow the words of his friends, a strong depiction of how
We are keeping out heads up. They are killing you right and left but we are maintaining a certain type of prideful stance and we are helping each other to do it too.
The interaction order is a minefield of hazards and the place where we are condemned to walk, a fact is both tragic and heroic. In his words, “To stay in one’s room way from the place where the party is given . . . is to sty away from where reality is being performed.” Going there is an act of bravery and being there requires the most delicate and cooperative work. And all of this entails a quiet suffering that is doleful. This is the tender-minded side of Goffman, a side no less real than the more oft-noted tough-minded side, and it is the side to which I shall return at the end of these recollections when I speak directly about his relations to friends.
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Let me now speak directly, rather than obliquely as I have done so far, about Goffman as a scholar, colleague, and friend.
. . . A graduate school classmate and confidant for thirty years writes that although Goffman was in many respects the “incarnation of cynicism,” who regarded life as a “game never to be taken at face value:”
There was one part of himself that was never cynical, skeptical, ironic. He was religious about sociological work. At the heart of Erving there was a profound commitment to the life of observation, thought, expression. There was seriousness. He could accept the university as a game but not scholarship. There integrity was a goal worth belief.
My first memories of him, when I was a student in his courses and seminars at Berkeley in the early sixties, center on this religious aspect, Goffman the dedicated scholar. He would arrive at graduate lecture courses toting a briefcase bulging with file folders at the end of one arm and a stack of books precariously cradled in the other. Cynical impression management or not, this was seriousness even if only the seriousness of taking one’s exercise by lugging pounds of paper.
But he used all the material in great detail in the classroom, meticulously making his way through endless batches of paper-clipped papers that were contained in each file folder and carefully reading from several premarked places in each book. He was a model too of the serious intellectual use to which one could (and should) put the classroom. Much of what he lectured were careful reviews of historical and contemporary materials in the course areas, but as much or more was Goffman. Stigma (1963) and Frame Analysis (1974) were being written then and he lectured them as in-process works. Although one saw this done to a degree in other courses, Goffman more than others exemplified the difference between professing and merely teaching.
His graduate offerings had impossibly long reading lists (dozens and dozens of books and articles) and he expected everyone to read them all, sometimes giving in-class essay examinations in his graduate courses, using questions that requires synthesis and critiques of large portions of the readings,
There are of course many tales of Goffman, as a teacher in the Berkley sixties. A personal sampler includes the following:
- One Spring evening my spouse and I were standing midway in a long line queued up to see a motion picture. Goffman, accompanied by his young son, comes scurrying by (Goffman never walked or, heaven forbid, merely ambled), heading for the end of the line. He yells at me for all to hear “You ought to be home studying.”
- A fellow student and I were conversing in the hallway outside the sociology department at Berkeley. Rushing by, Goffman shouts over his shoulder at us: “Don’t talk it, go home and write it.”
- When he wanted to consult on papers and chapters I submitted to him, his penchant was to phone me up (in order to arrange a time to meet) before eight in the morning and on national holidays – checking to see if I was on duty, I supposed.
We early Goffman watchers and fans (for he was something of a cult figure among graduate students in the early sixties at Berkeley) were impressed with the care Goffman took to structure his day in ways that maximized the time he could devote to scholarship. He was on campus only quite limited periods and graduate students had to queue up to get a few minutes of consultation with him. Those who became his students were asked to come to his home to consult on their work (a practice that also saved him time). Such consultations were instructive beyond the words exchanged, meeting with him in his study – a wing of his home in that period – one saw his enormous library of books (or so it appeared to me as a young student) installed on rows of plain metal shelving, the two typewriters on which he worked (one for text and one for footnotes, I guessed), and associated paraphernalia marking his devotion to scholarship. He was natively a genius, but his achievements were not the result of mere casual or occasional effort. He sequestered and nurtured his talent by vigorous, regular, and meticulous reading, thinking, and writing.
Such diligence was not confined to his personal scholarship. He was an active advisor on student and colleague work, and was extremely patient and detailed in his criticisms – not on the work of all students and colleagues who sought his help, to be sure – but large numbers nonetheless. On dissertations in particular he sat down with you and reviewed the text page by page, sometimes line by line.
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Indeed while many stories of Goffman’s wit are associated with his Presidency, there are virtually none that allege cruelty. The role and situation seemed to elicit his religious feelings about scholarship and he performed the role with reverence. He became diplomatic and accommodationist – even Presidential – surprising people who had known him over the years. I was myself concerned that he might be too piercing in meetings and before one early in his term as President-Elect, I urged him to be diplomatic for at least the next few hours. Giving me a disappointed and slightly hurt look he replied “John, there’s a side of me you don’t know.” And so there was – and more than one side – for he was at that meeting and in subsequent ones, a model of deportment – and still always the wit.
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The worlds of friendship Goffman created were accurately characterized by many of the elements Simmel suggested were as constitutive of the adventure. They stood in sharp contrast to everyday life; displayed a synthesis of activity and passivity; exposed participants to the possibility and actuality of great gains and great loss; and elicited intense involvement, fascination, and excitement, among the other features
(a) The better to convey these adventurous friendships, I again must mention Goffman’s fondness for loudly proclaiming (often in the presence of third parties) some troubling truth about a person. Many of his friends were not spared this, although I also must report that a large portion of them were exempted from it. (Friends sometimes speculated on why some were “excused” from combat,” but no common feature was evident.) Here is what a friend might experience:
There was no person more skilled at the barb – the harmful jab – and a jab that you would never forget. When Erving put his finger on the sensitive point you couldn’t squirm out because he has had you. [For example] there was the time he walked into [a friend’s] . . . new apartment. He looked around and walked back and forth, looking over, and he said, “Kind of like a railroad flat.” The friend looked around and, yes, it was kind of like a railroad flat.
(b) But there was much more here than mere clumsy abrasiveness, more than simply the “finger that made you squirm.” His acerbic and other remarks and observations were rapid-fire and startlingly novel in context. The ever-flowing brilliance seen in his writing flowed out of him in person. He had been constituted a restless insight machine, almost constantly quipping, snipping, teasing, reflecting, questioning. Prolonged, this could become oppressive. Friends who shared a skiing cabin with him spent many evenings watching television together.
We watched TV with him for many hours and he finally gets on your nerves. He would not let anything go by on that screen without some analysis and you finally say “enough is enough.”
(c) But more commonly and over briefer gatherings Goffman crate a very different response. A friend recalls Goffman among his graduate school peers at Chicago:
Erving then, as later, was the master of the “put-down”, of brutal irony. His wit was a fearsome yet wonderful instrument. It made conversations memorable events and inspired others to insight, erudition, and glowing talk. He was a masterful ironist, skilled at puncturing the pomposity of seriousness.
Another classmate speaks of
his fantastic (sometimes demonic) ability to ‘juice up’ an occasion. What I’m referring to of course was his knack for interactionally electrifying even (or rather precisely) the most commonplace of meetings, encounters, gatherings, etc. – a framing, a stripping away, a bracketing, a jacking-up to a higher level of intellectual awareness what were given to take for granted, or to leave unsaid; our little ploys, comfortable evasions, sly pretences, stylized putdowns, etc. What’s more, he could do this all in rapid fire fashion, displaying, like some nimble fencer, the most beautiful “interactional footwork.” This was for me invariably engaging, often amusing and at times, I confess, wounding.
Goffman was fond of debating and seemed prepared verbally to fence on whatever topic one liked for love of the form as much or more than concern over the substance. As a fast and clever thinker, he was a formidable opponent, the low blows he could deliver aside. A friend admiringly recalls him as “someone you could do the sallies with” and as a person with whom “it was hard even to keep up the service across the net, much less win.” Other friends have characterized yet other occasions as his love of “doing the dozens.”
(d) In all of this, Goffman exhibited a chin-up pluckiness and a playful quality, standing back from his own act as well as that of others. When he wounded you, he did not want you to get too serious about it, because he was not.
(e) In the same way there was another side of Goffman in the organizational affairs of ASA and in his writing, there was another side of him with his friends.
When occasion demanded, when play was not in order, and when convention could no longer contain deep feeling, Erving would mirabile dictu manifest extraordinary tact, graciousness, and compassion. This other side of Erving spoke, I believe, to his abiding belief in the importance of ritual and the ceremonial order about which he wrote so much. It reflected I feel his deep appreciation of the essential fragility of the self, of the wonder and sacredness of the social magic we invoke collectively so as to shield, nurture, and finally venture it before our fellow humans.
This other side went far beyond niceness in an interactional moment. His friendships were long lasting and
he was extraordinarily considerate and loyal to his friends. He was a person I could count on to listen, to help. In many ways, he kept our group continuing because he was a focus. His outrageousness at times was wonderment. It was a piece with his cynical and skeptical mask. But he was often almost saintly in his ability and his willingness to give of himself.
More prosaically, Goffman was a social catalyst, a king of recreational or social director in his circle of friends, organizer of informal gatherings, diner outings, and large parties. Tragically he had committed a large sum of his own money to stage a magnificent gathering of his friends following his Presidential Address, the address he never delivered and a party that was never given.
(f) Because he could be so exquisitely cruel, many of his friends were sharply ambivalent in their feelings about him. But everyone agreed that whatever else one felt, he was an enormously interesting person. One important indicator of the fascination he created was found in frequent tellings and retellings of his most recent sayings and doings. To use one of his concepts, he was himself a major “interaction supply.” The latest of tales of Goffman were occasions of wonderment, amazement, consternation, condemnation, and most especially humor, but never boredom. Toward the end of a meeting of his friends, gathered shortly after his death to remember him and to tell stories about him, one said this:
What we have just been doing here is what his oldest friends recognized as his greatest accomplishment: He could make you talk about him – endlessly!
Another friend, reflecting on that gathering, felt that the saddest thing said, there was that “there won’t be anymore Erving stories.” Intense ambivalence or not, wounded or not, to be in the presence of Goffman was to be in an elevating and enlarging situation.
[A confidant who had been interactionally wounded many times by Goffman]: Yet on the other hand, there is no person I’m going to miss like Erving. Just at these last ASA meetings in San Francisco, we realized they were never going to be the same … because Erving wasn’t there to raise us up and to put that little tinge of excitement into the meeting.
A second effort to catch hold of the Erving experience:
I would always come away from … forays [with him], as many do when reading Erving, with a refreshed sense of the tremendous resources – arts, crafts, and attitudes – we can as human actors avail ourselves of, the hazards and opportunities given us to make “as it were” (a favorite locution of his) social music together.
And a third:
Whatever and whoever he touched was left more interesting, more vital, more inspired. He was a point of continuity across our thirty years of scholarly and personal life. While we saw each other many times during those years, it was always joyful to know that he was there. It is sorrowful to know that is no longer so. . .
The terms “complex” and “contradictory” are often misused in characterizing people both are commonly affixed to humans who are, relatively speaking, simple and consistent but are also merely obstinate and persistent. We too often confuse rigidity and doctrinal dedication with complexity and contradiction.
We must rescue the ideas of complexity and contradiction as applied to humans so that we may have relatively familiar words with which to speak of extraordinary humans. Goffman was such a human. Of him, as of few others, we may say that he was complex and incorporated dialectical contradictions. He was a severe formal theorist yet a descriptive ethnographer; a reclusive scholar yet an adroit administer and rapier-witted party-goer; cynical yet sincere; an intellectual giant yet skeptical about his own achievements; openly crass in promoting his self-interest yet rejecting broad and public self-promotion; brilliant at ferreting out social bluffs yet less than adept at bluffing; religious about scholarship yet cynical about social enterprises. Most centrally he stripped away polite fictions in print and in person, yet also in print and person had the deepest and most profound appreciation of the importance of “tact, graciousness, and compassion.”
Taken together with his sheer, penetrating intelligence, Goffman’s fascination as afriend and the devotion of his friends to him need not puzzle us. It is much the same fascination and dedication found among those who know him only through print.
I think it was this deeply etched dialectic within him – the stripping away of versus the shielding comforts of ceremony – which, much as it was informed and refined through the founding sociologies of the great masters, so enlivened and expanded his own sociology as to leave no doubt, even well before his death, of how much he deserved to stand squarely among them.
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These, then, are among Goffman’s legacies to sociology: inspired charter of the interaction order; penetrating conceptualizer who peppered our language; dedicated empiricist; lover of theory; serious ethnographer; incessant questioner; intellectual pluralist; a modest wit striving however falteringly for authenticity; cheerful and graceful analyst in a world of tragedy and melancholy, dedicated scholar; loved colleague and friend who made our moments vibrant and alive.
These are among the things that he did, stood for, or embodied, and these are some of the reasons so many of us have experienced piercing and prolonged grief over his death. Our grief has been all the more acute because we believe his loss is out of time and unjust. Against the backdrop of thirty years of brilliant contributions, he was at age sixty still in full intellectual stride and developing an ever more penetrating vision, a vision leavened and enlarged by the prestigious recognitions accorded him and by his own growing maturity. The premature and in a fundamental way senselessness of his death adds bitterness to our grief.
For many of us Goffman was the leader, and we have lost our leader. He was such a preeminent and central figure that his death cannot but be personally and structurally disorganizing, all the more so because we had expected him to lead us for another decade or more. But we are not to have his counsel, his wisdom, his contributions. Our grim consolation prizes are the legacies I have described and many others that I have not.
I want to close by quoting two passages from his Presidential Address, his last words, that I think express what he believed to be his most important legacy.
The first passage reads:
Whatever our substantive focus and whatever our methodological persuasion, all we can do I believe is to keep the faith with the spirit of natural science, and lurch along, seriously kidding ourselves that our rut has forward direction ([Goffman, “Interaction Order”] 1983:2).
The second passage, placed at the end of the Address, advises us that although our discipline may have as yet achieved little,
There is noting in the world we should trade for what we do have: the bent to sustain in regard to all elements of social life a spirit of unfettered, unsponsored inquiry, and the wisdom not look elsewhere but to ourselves and to our discipline for this mandate. This is our inheritance and that so far is what we have to bequeath ([Goffman, “Interaction Order”] 1983:17).