Remembering Erving Goffman
(Judith Posner, “Erving Goffman: His Presentation of Self.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1978, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 67-78.)
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If it true, as many people say, that academics resent colleagues who have popular appeal, then Goffman is definitely one example of this resentment. He is a layman’s sociologist, as undergraduate students’ response to his work indicates. His books are as likely to be found in a chain book store as in a more esoteric university bookroom.
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We may say of Goffman that while he does not “give” many messages about himself, his beliefs about society or his philosophy of social science, he clearly “gives them off”. Though he fails to ally himself explicitly with any school of thought, it is commonly believed by those who follow his work that he favors a symbolic-interactionist or social-phenomenological paradigms.
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Goffman sometimes resembles the Jew who tells anti-semitic jokes before the gentiles steal the thunder. . . . He is curiously introspective about his shortcomings, even though he fails to state explicitly who or what he is.
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It is puzzling why Erving Goffman is so frequently accused of the middle-class smugness which he so brilliantly describes. Is he held personally responsible for the sins to which he holds up the mirror? Goffman has the capacity to view the world on a slant and this perspective has potentially subversive impactions. It must be emphasized, lest this reviewer becomes guilty of committing the same crime with which others are charged, that it is one thing to call a writer subversive and quite another to say that his work has radical implications. Goffman himself comments rather eloquently on the matter in Frame Analysis:
The analysis developed does not catch at the differences between the advantaged and disadvantaged classes and can be said to direct attention away form such matters. I think that is true. I can only suggest that he would combat false consciousness to awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the people snore [Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, 1974, p. 14].
At the same time that Goffman has attracted a devout cult-like following, he has also acquired numerous negative labels, the mildest of which is conservative. He is often regarded as unjustly attributing mercenary and offensive motives to his fellow man. At best he is seen as a pessimist and a cynic, as the above quote indicates: “the sleep is very deep”. However, there is at least a consensus about one fact: the picture which Goffman paints of mankind and society is not very pretty one, nor is it an issue which seems to concern him. This fact alone makes him very unpopular among many of his colleagues, who believe that it is the obligation of sociologists to right the wrongs of the social system they study, or at least to pay lip service to the liberal egalitarian myth. Goffman has described so many discrepant spheres of life that one would be hard pressed to state exactly where his shoes are pinching. His range of interests merely reflects a person who is obsessively fascinated by any aspect of human behavior. And this fact makes him intellectually and morally suspect. Goffman seems to epitomize the self-indulgent academic who enjoys his work too much.