Remembering Erving Goffman

Gail McGregor

(Gail McGregor, A View from the Font: Erving Goffman as Canadian.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 1986, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 531-543.)

. . . .

Despite Goffman’s prolonged residence in the US, the fact is that if we consider him in light of the Canadian paradigm, his derivation is unmistakable. It is shown by his interest in – almost, one might say, ‘obsession with’ – institutionalized modes of interpersonal mediation ranging from the explicit codifications of etiquette to the implicit imperatives of dramaturgical roles. It is shown also in his tendency to identify with the stigmatized rather than the advantaged elements in society. Most interesting of all, because most basic, it is shown in his intellectual and expressive style. This last element is obscured to some extent by the symbolic interactionist label, but if we red Goffman attentively what emerges is a covert bias, a way of ‘feeling’ the world, that ultimately must put him, at odds with this or any other American ‘school.’

. . . .

Canadian writers go to great length to create the illusion that they are not creating at all. Hence the popularity in this country of documentary effects, of ‘found’ materials, of fiction disguised as or entwined with history or memoir. Hence, too, preference for naive or ‘academic’ authorial personae who collect rather than compose. And hence the propensity for parataxis, mute juxtaposition, and an ‘allegorical’ dissociation of vehicle and tenor which appears to free writers from personal responsibility for the messages that fortuitously emerge from their words. This, of course, is where Goffman comes in. When Goffman warns his reader at the beginning of his most extended and explicit discourse on theory that there ‘are lots of good grounds for doubting the kind of analysis to be presented’, when in the same work he characterizes his data-collecting technique as a ‘hit-or-miss’ method ‘using principles of selection mysterious to me’; when, finally, he employs the last five pages of his introduction to underline the epistemological instability, if not outright ‘bad faith’ of preface ([Frame Analysis] 1974:13-20), he is only doing what the Canadian artist is wont to do: throwing sand in the eyes of the gods.