Remembering Erving Goffman
(Dean MacCannel, “Working in Other Fields.” Pp. 165-189 in Bennett M. Berger, ed., Authors of Their Own Lives. Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists. Berkeley: University of California Press.)
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I also set in the introductory sociology course that was taught by Erving Goffman and Herbert Blumer. There were about seven hundred students enrolled in the course, which met in the auditorium of Wheeler Hall. One day Goffman was lecturing on the essential asymmetry of face-to-to-face interaction, and he summer up by saying that there are no occasions in which the interactants have equal status within the framework of the interaction. I spontaneously called out from near the back of the hall, “What about an introductory handshake between status equals?” Goffman stepped from behind the lectern and peered through the gloom of the huge auditorium: “Who said that?” I raised my hand and half stood up: “I did.” You’d better see me after class,” he snapped and went back to lecturing.
After class he asked me to walk with him in the direction of Sather Gate. As we walked along, we had an interesting argument to which I contributed not a word. Goffman said, “You’re right.” Then he paused and seemed to be thinking about something. “No,” he countered, “you’re wrong.” Pause. “No, you’re right.” After several such reversals he gave me an intense look of self-satisfaction and even some disdain and declared finally, “No, you’re wrong.” Then he turned and walked away without another word. We met face-to-face again three years later on Christmas afternoon at his sabbatical residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gave no indication of recalling our first encounter.
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So, following my usual perverse practice when confronted with denial, I came up with a second [dissertation] proposal, as unwieldy as the first, to do a comparative structural analysis of social conditions in forty-eight states. I completed the data gathering, and analysis, and writing in less than a year and won the Dissertation Award of the American Rural Sociological Society. Juliet [Dean MacCannell’s wife] and Goffman were angry with me for compromising on the dissertation topic. I was corresponding with Goffman, and we met when we could. He told me over lunch in a café near the University of Pennsylvania, “Any idiot can do an empirical dissertation. Back at Chicago, if we had someone who could do an empirical dissertation in less than a year, we wouldn’t let them do it. We made them do ethnography and left the empirical stuff to the people who were actually challenged by it. I do not share Goffman’s opinion that ethnography always and inevitably requires more rigor than research involving tests of hypotheses, nor did I argue the point with him. I think he was secretly pleased that I could do regression analysis.
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In 1973 and 1974 Goffman was sending my completed manuscript of The Tourist around to his contacts to help me find a publisher. I believe his efforts was genuine, but he simply had no luck. Or, his contacts were enjoying rejecting my manuscript, something they might have wanted to do to Goffman himself but were afraid. After a year he gave it back to me, saying he was sorry but I was on my own. I got contract offers, including substantial cash advances, by return mail from both Schocken Books and the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Of course, there were some friends in sociology who remained constant throughout, notably Erving Goffman and Bennett Berger.