Remembering Erving Goffman

Gary Marx

(Gary Marx, “Role Models And Role Distance. A Remembrance of Erving Goffman.” Theory and Society. 1984. Vol. 13, pp. 649-662.)

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I still recall his opening remarks to the class. With a wry smile he said “we will try and keep you entertained.” I loved that. It reflected his sensitivity to the fact that student audiences are easily turned off, especially in Berkeley in the spring. It also seemed to say something about his need to be liked or, at least not be boring. The academy is not usually thought of as a place of entertainment, at least of a willful variety. Whatever most professors do, entertainment is usually secondary. But here a famous professor opens his class with a promise to entertain. Perhaps it was a way of showing role distance or applying the stage imagery he favored. He was expressing a shared sense that course work was often less than engaging. He wasn't about to be a purveyor of such materials or guilty of putting students to sleep.

The course was very demanding. Its lengthy and comprehensive reading list was a tour de force containing everything of importance in the field beginning with E. A. Ross's 1901 book on social control. What is more, Goffman really expected you to have read it all. Much of his lecture material was drawn from his then unpublished book Stigma. The method he used to study stigma was very different from that presented in other courses. It demonstrated that you could take an interesting topic and just write about it, without having hypotheses, an operational methodology or systematic quantitative data. It was a wonderful example of the unbridled sociological imagination rummaging hither and yon for interesting insights around a bounded theme. Concepts were important but it was premature to imbed them in a grand theory or to confine them to a single means of data collection.

Goffman presented himself as a detached, hard-boiled intellectual cynic; the sociologist as 1940s private eye. His was a hip, existential, cool, essentially apolitical (at least in terms of the prevailing ideologies) personal style. As a Canadian Jew of short stature working at the margins (or perhaps better, frontiers) of a marginal discipline, he was clearly an outsider. His brilliance and marginality meant an acute eye and a powerful imagination. He had a fascination with other people's chutzpah, weirdness and perhaps even degradation. He appreciated people who had a good thing going and those able to assert themselves in the face of what could be an oppressive social structure and culture. In a stodgy, timid, bureaucratic world the hustler has a certain freshness and perverse appeal.

Goffman was drawn to disjunctive scenes. He had a voyeur’s interest in the intimate details of other’s lives, and a strong eye for the ironic and poignant. His humor was dry and indirect. A part of his appeal involved a fascination, like Simmel’s with the secret. There is a sense of self importance and power that may come with the feeling that you were “wise” or in the know. For persons feeling powerless marginal and unsure of their place in the order of things, possession of such knowledge (or the belief that one has it) can be very attractive.

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Contact with Goffman dovetailed nicely with the existential ideas entering the campus from San Francisco ’s-North Beach and the emerging campus radicalism. While he was certainly not an advocate, he communicated an appreciation of efforts to subvert the middle-class order, particularly its favored life styles and in face-to-face encounters, though not in broad political terms.

Goffman made it easy and, in a paradoxical way, respectable to be non-respectable. I liked his message that not all there was to learn was to be found in books and libraries. And his emphasis on the naturalistic and on participant observation into matters of deviance and social control offered a wonderful rationale for having a good time under the pretext of serious intellectual inquiry. Goffman had talked with what seemed to be admiration. envy, or at least sympathetic curiosity, about “the traveling rich,” “ski bums,” “beach bums,” and the like. Such persons managed to do their own thing in their own time and somehow beat the system at its own game. I was attracted to life-style deviants, particularly refugees from the middle class, who could go in and out of various worlds.

Goffman's implicit sympathy for deviants and his ridicule of provincial control efforts suited my own needs. Much like a film, a novel, or a dream, his course offered a safe, risk-free, and sanitized journey through what then seemed to be exotic, fascinating, and forbidden worlds. The metaphor of people protected from caged zoo animals comes to mind. I recall Goffman using circus and zoo metaphors, which seemed deliciously funny at the time, though in retrospect they seem cruel and tasteless.

Goffman's verbal and writing styles were very powerful. In class he played them beautifully - subtle wit, sarcasm, poker-faced delivery, and understatement had one on the edge of the seat. The class was entertaining. Goffman’s humor and sharpness were without parallel. But this was always as a means to revealing some hidden and poignant truth. He offered a searing moral message regarding individual dignity. His slightly mysterious and mercurial character and the ability to shift selves or to hide his own self (a notion he probably would have rejected) increased his appeal.
There was a very human quality to the earthy details of everyday life that he forced us to attend to. It gave sociology a reality and believability that the more abstract and disembodied theoretical and quantitative approaches clearly lacked. In requiring that actors be understood and approached on their own terms, his naturalistic method had a hidden or implicit morality and a democratic relativism that granted a degree of dignity to actors, no matter how abhorrent their behavior. Whether intended or not, the course went beyond conveying substantive information and offered directives on life.

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Goffman beautifully illustrated for the student how the written word could have power. Writing, he taught us, could offer a way to quietly and safely express your personality and beliefs. You could satisfy your curiosity, express role distance and alienation, and comment on the ironies, paradoxes, and injustices that seemed so rampant. What was more, you could pretty much do this at your own pace and, under the mantle of being a sociologist, even gain a degree of respectability for it.

You could also be successful as a sociologist without becoming a dreaded organization man. Goffman always dressed casually outside of class and did not like to shave. His speech was neither pedantic nor formal and was larded with contemporary hip expressions. While it now seems trivial and almost inexplicable as an issue, I recall a long conversation in which I asked him if it was really necessary to join the ASA. He said no, you didn’t have to belong, and cited some well known sociologists as examples.

As a teacher he had his weaknesses. He was both brilliant and learned, if humble about the state of the sociological art and the grave barriers to better understanding. There was little time for student involvement or reason to believe that beginning students could contribute much, absent direct experiential involvement with their subject matter. In class he did not try to draw the student out to see what he or she thought, or could do. Although he was to cite my term paper for his deviance course when he published Stigma, he made only a few cursory comments on the paper and those were hard to read. He was sparse with his praise and was a severe grader. Bennett Berger (“This Is A Fan Letter About Erving Goffman,” Dissent, Summer 1973) reports that Goffman said he only gave As to students who taught him something.

What he did well as a teacher was communicate intellectual excitement and heighten one's consciousness of the craft involved in self presentations no less that the cruelty found in many social control efforts to manage others' identities. His material was very fresh. He obviously cared a great deal about it and was actively engaged with it. He used his courses to drive home an argument. As John Lofland observes he demonstrated the difference between "professing and merely teaching." (“Erving Goffman’s Sociological Legacies,” Urban Life, Vol. 13, no. 1, April 1984, 7-34.)

Yet this could have a negative side. His derisive treatment of psychological and psychiatric perspectives was very appealing at the time, but in retrospect this was not intellectually responsible. He presented a caricature. It is fine for a teacher to have a point of view, but this ought to come after a good faith effort to present alternatives. With respect to practical matters such as care taking criticism is easy. Pointing to the failures of intervention and total institutions is worthwhile. But if this is not linked to suggestions for reform or alternatives, its a bit of a cop out, at least insofar as one seeks to milk the tit of moral indignation. His earlier deviance work did not show much sensitivity to the needs, demands, and contradictions faced by social controllers and those who set policy. Granted, impression management, fronts, manipulation, and self-serving ideas abound in total institutions. But is it sufficient to just point these out? It would have been nice if he had used his powerful empathetic skills to also describe how the world looks from the standpoint of those responsible for control.

In his dealings with students there were at least two Goffmans. One was wise, warm, and of good humor, eager to impart knowledge via morality tales and specific advice and make the student feel like he or she was within the chosen circle of persons in the know. His use of the inclusive term “student” to refer to himself and others involved in scholarly endeavors made you feel a part of the enterprise. The other Goffman was controlled, insensitive, and indifferent and made sure the student knew his place. Most of the "Tales of Goffman" are negative. In many of his dealings with others he did not reflect the sensitivity and concern for the underdog shown in his early written work.

In the deviance class he seemed unconcerned about violating the norms of tact. There was a badly crippled woman in the class yet he persisted in talking about “gimps.” There was also a student with a severe stuttering problem. This did not prevent her from asking questions. Acting as if she was not present, Goffman offered material which was sometimes humorous about how stutterers managed (e.g., by taking jobs as night watchmen). He reduced another female student to tears during an office hour meeting. He was critical of her ideas and told her he did not think women should be in graduate school (although this is inconsistent with the strong support he gave to some other female students). At the end of the last class session a black student said "this is all very interesting Professor Goffman, but what's the use of it for changing the conditions you describe?" Goffman was visibly shaken. He stood up, slammed shut the book he had open on the desk and said “I’m not in that business” and stormed out of the room.

He was a master at manipulating the conventions of social interaction that he so astutely observed. My first exposure to this came during an office hour in South Hall, the old ivy-covered brick building that was then headquarters for the sociology department. He let me know my time was finished by simply standing up. Although I wasn’t finished, he clearly was.

The fact that Erving was so aware of the socially constructed nature of status distinctions certainly did not mean that they were unimportant to him. One can see the emperor as naked, yet still value the illusion of clothes. In those earlier years the status differences that he was so finely attuned to seemed very important to him. I recall his being upset because he was earning only about 50 percent more than assistant professors were. He compared this to other organizations where the people at the top earned two and three times as much as those at the bottom. I remember a number of tongue-in-cheek references to upwardly mobile “people like us” and to “detribalized” persons of “stigmatized ethnic identity” and backgrounds whose numbers were increasing in elite institutions such as universities. He was very aware of the recent and perhaps precarious nature of the "intrusion" of Catholics, Jews. Blacks and those of humble origins into worlds that had previously been denied them. He dealt with this upward mobility humorously and in a mock fashion, as if taking the point of view of those who had always been there. He seemed to enjoy reminding the listener that things were not quite as rosy as they appeared to be and that the polite veneer of acceptance might mask some really ugly attitudes toward people of your kind.

While his work can be seen as a plea for the dignity of persons in the face of self-serving authority, he avoided the political activism of the time. During an open meeting in the midst of one Berkeley crisis or another, someone said “Professor Goffman, where do you stand?” He responded “When they start shooting students from the steps of Sproul Hall I guess I’ll get involved, but not until then.” I recall being stunned.

In those early years he went rather far to avoid anything politically controversial. A story related by one of his colleagues is consistent with his public response to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He was invited to a conference in England on something like human dignity, with a luminous cast including Sartre. But when Goffman learned that Stokely Carmichael was on the program he withdrew.

I was also shocked at the advice he gave me about institutions of higher learning: “A university is a place to pick up your mail.” Here he was reflecting the belief that our real business was scholarship, not teaching or serving as bureaucrats. Whatever detracted from that might have to be endured, but it certainly did not have to be embraced. Given the strong feeling among graduate students at the time that teaching was very important and that professors had an obligation to be available to students, I was upset by the sheer audacity of the remark. Attitudes such as that no doubt contributed to the Free Speech Movement. But now, many years later beyond this, I can appreciate his honesty. Hanging around the campus after getting your mail can be an invitation to the derailment of writing and personal goals. He said something that many academics no doubt felt at the time and still do, but don't say. A part of his appeal was the ability to tell it like it is in certain settings: raw truth, unvarnished sociology without veils.

At the same time this very honesty and perhaps even eagerness to speak the unspeakable could be shocking and painful, sometimes unnecessarily so. I remember marveling at how he chose to open Stigma with a letter from “Desperate,” the girl born without a nose, taken from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts. It seemed just too shocking and sad. Some things are best left unsaid. The point could have been made in a less startling way. He seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in shaking up the reader or listener. One feels grateful not to be like those poor unfortunates. On the other hand, the use of such examples can be seen as an effort to desensitize readers. After all, our discomfort is a function of culturally relative labeling and learned social conventions. As Goffman poignantly instructed, we are all stigmatized in some way. There was something of Walt Whitman’s “nothing human is alien to me” in Goffman’s material. His writing does engender sympathy for the suffering of others. Like Freud, part of Goffman’s power was his courage to push limits and say what others knew, but could not, or would not say. But I still recall being put off by this quality even as I found it fascinating.

Several years after taking the deviance course I received an NIMH graduate fellowship to work on a Ph.D. dissertation with Goffman as my sponsor. This was for an ethnographic study of a group of whites who had joined the Native American Church , ate peyote and lived in tepees in what I took to be some idyllic Northern California paradise. The thesis had a double edged quality. It dealt with an anti-establishment topic, but rather than burning the bridge to professional success it was the means of providing one. It seemed to be the best of both worlds – hang out in the counter-culture and still get a Ph.D. Goffman was appreciative.

When I took a year off to travel around the world, before doing the study, Goffman was supportive. But he warned me that, while there was a lot of slack in the middle-class net, there were limits. You have to know the boundaries, he said, and respect them. Drop out, go slumming, travel and do things your parents or the straight hard working professors wouldn't do, but only for a few years. The time will come when you can’t get away with it. You'll have to grow up and settle down. If you don't, you'll look ridiculous. His advice was get it all out of your system now – but don’t think you can still do it when you are over 30.

It was good advice. The year of travel was maturing and sobering. I took Goffman’s advice, although perhaps in a way that he did not intend. Instead of seeking to prolong my involvement in the youth culture, l was now eager to end it. Traveling by land from Europe to Calcutta was not all “hard time and dusty roads,” but I had had enough. At the age of 27, married and expecting a child, studying a counter-culture group by joining it had lost its appeal.

On my return to Berkeley Professor Charles Gock offered me the chance to work on a large Anti-Defamation League study on patterns of American prejudice. This meant a full time job, an office and supplies, a book, and a project whose social implications were clearer. It was easy to choose this over the uncertain prospects of hippies in the woods. I don’t know what Goffman's feelings were about my shifting topics and advisors. But I didn’t see much of him the year I worked on my dissertation.

As I was finishing my dissertation I asked him for advice about job hunting. We met on the then more bohemian “Northside” of the campus and went to a cafe. He said to the waiter in his best Humphrey Bogart fashion “give me a nickel's worth of your best java.” I was much impressed with his cool demeanor and pleased to see him in a social setting. He was not very supportive. He said “the best you can hope for is a job in a second rate mid-western state school.” While not lording it over me, I felt he was enjoying giving it to me straight. This was the no punches pulled realism I admired in other contexts, even if it turned out to be wrong.

I had only passing contact with Erving after that. I saw him occasionally at ASA meetings, rushing by, dropping some clever half-kidding, half-serious barb. As I recall he rarely hung out in the corridors talking and did not wear a name tag. This generated a mystique as those in the know could point out “that’s Goffman” as he hurried by. At one of these passing meetings he reminisced “we almost lost you that first year,” recalling my uncertainty about being like the mythical ‘them” (serious hardworking straight professors who wore coats and ties). I now realize that in my youthful exuberance I had misperceived both “them” and Professor Goffman. The coats and ties and life-styles of the former and Goffman’s successful efforts to show role distance from these were minor issues. What mattered was what they shared an enormous commitment to hard Work and dedication to advancing sociological understanding.

Over the years I sent him work that he had directly inspired on social control and secrecy. I almost always received acknowledgements, though they were usually perfunctory. I am not sure I ever really expected more in the way of response. But I did feel let down a bit, since I felt this work was carrying on a tradition he started.

Goffman was and will remain a pre-eminent social thinker of his era and perhaps of the twentieth century. He struck original intellectual chords that resonated with the feelings, needs and anxieties of our age. His concepts and insights are likely to endure because they are so universal.

But the debt I feel is as much personal as intellectual. He was an anchor and a beacon for me at a time of indecision, transition and quest in my own life. He offered a bridge that helped me move from the callow college graduate, uncertain of what he wanted to be, to the pretty serious professional sociologist. What is more, the transition was fun and painless. With Goffman as the role model, it was easy to imagine becoming a sociologist.

Albert Einstein has observed that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” I don't know how to resolve the paradoxes that Erving Goffman presented. Nor am I sure that they can or should be resolved. His personal style and intellect were unique and interwoven in an uncharacteristic ways. Were he more conventional and understandable he would not have been the genius that he was. Furthermore, with his emphasis on the social creativity of the self, his view of interaction as fluid and somewhat unpredictable, his modesty, and his indifference to self-promotion and exegetical work, he would have had some searing, sardonic comment to make about those seeking to understand and explain him.

Yet he also welcomed expressions of sentiment and very much valued ritual and ceremony, In this remembrance I have sought to acknowledge and understand something of the debt so many of us owe Erving and the deep loss we feel. To have had a person of Erving Goffman’s towering intellect and special qualities as a mentor was surely one of the most fortunate things that could have happened to a young scholar.