Remembering Erving Goffman

Anne Rawls, Jack Whalen, and Peter Manning

This interview with Anne Rawls, Professor of Sociology at Bentley College, Jack Whalen, Principal Scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), in their Computing Science Laboratory, and Peter Manning, Professor of Sociology at the Northeastern University, was recorded on August 1, 2008, during the ASA meeting in Boston.  That Saturday evening several people assembled at the home of Anne and Peter and reminisced about Erving Goffman.  They agreed to have their stories recorded for the Goffman project.  After Dmitri Shalin transcribed the interview, Anne Rawls, Jack Whalen, and Peter Manning corrected the transcript and gave their approval for posting the present version in the Erving Goffman Archives.  The interviewer’s questions are shortened in several places.

[Posted 12-05-08]

  Do you mind repeating the story? 

Rawls:  You want to hear the whole story. . . .

Rawls:  Just one second – today is August 1, 2008.  We are in Boston at a hospitable home of Peter and Ann where I hear all these wonderful tales of Goffman.

Rawls:  Do you plan to put the whole audio on the web site? 

Shalin:  Would you like that? 

Rawls:  Well, I don’t know. . . .

Shalin:  I’ll do what I have been doing so far.  I’ll transcribe the tape, send the transcript to you, you edit it every which way you want, and once the transcript meets with your approval, it will be posted on the web. 

Rawls:  That’s fine.

Shalin:  The story you tell me happened around 1976-1977.

Rawls:  My guess is 76.

Shalin:  And the occasion was the meeting of the Eastern Sociological Association, the same hotel we are in right now.   

Shalin:  Where was it?

Rawls:  Sheraton, Boston. 

Shalin:  So, there was a panel at that meeting devoted to Goffman’s work, right?

Rawls:  Probably, but there was a mix of papers.  Now, my first paper about Goffman was written in 1974, another one in 75, so my guess is – and you can check when the ESA meeting was in Boston – that was in 76.  I wasn’t married at the time, but the person I eventually married – Jay – was sitting next to me, and he knew that [the speaker from the audience] was Goffman.  After all the papers were presented, it was time for questions.  The person sitting next to me stood up – until then I didn’t know who he was.  You are asking how tall he [Goffman] was, [I couldn’t tell], as I looked up from my seat.  Now, that man addressed Arthur Frank [one of the panel presenters]:  “You say that Goffman must have meant this when he said that, such is your interpretation of the text.  But has it occurred to you that Goffman might have meant something else?”  And the man is giving and alternative interpretation.  Frank says, “No, I don’t think you are right about that.”  Goffman gets the answer, and continuing talking about himself in the third person, urges on Frank yet another interpretation of what Goffman might have meant.  That’s when Jay starts whispering in my ear:  “I think this is Goffman.”  As the second and third iteration of that unfolds, I realize – and the people in the audience get on the act too – that this is Goffman asking the questions to which Frank responds, “No, I don’t think Goffman could have meant that.”  After two or three turns, he sits down.  So, I think at this point everybody else has figured out what was going on.  Goffman was suggesting to Frank that he [Goffman] might have meant something other than what Frank had said.  And Frank, without stopping to think about it, was saying, “No, I don’t think he could have possibly meant that.”  To give him the benefit of the doubt, Goffman offers a second and third chance.  And Frank, “No, it couldn’t have been. . . .”  Undressing in public is what I call this, and everybody in the room is whispering. 

Shalin:  Sounds like a ritual degradation ceremony.

Rawls:  Yes!  Right!  But he [Arthur Frank] had every opportunity to get out of it. . . .

Shalin:  How?

Rawls:  He could have said, “I am not sure.  It is possible.”  Most people would have, you know. . . .

Manning:  Most people would have [?]

Shalin:  So, once he realized what was going on. . . . 

Rawls:  No!  Arthur never realized.

Shalin:  Till the end Arthur didn’t realize what was going on?  Somebody must have told him afterwards.

Rawls:  Yes, after.  But you see, he is up there at the podium, no one could whisper in his ear, whereas the audience saw [?]. . . . 

[General commotion and laughter]

Rawls:  That was before blackberries, before cell phones.  There was no way of letting him know.  

Shalin:  Goffman gave him as much rope. . .

Rawls:  He did! 

Manning:  He did, three times.

Shalin:  You said you observed Goffman a couple of times, mentioned something about the white suit. 

Rawls:  Yes, I was introduced to him. . . .  That was in New York.  It would have been in 1977, I think.  We all went down to New York, and that’s when Manny Schegloff introduced him to me.  Don’t remember anything being said.  I just remember white linen suit [that Goffman wore]. 

Shalin:  Anything stood out about Goffman – did he seem kind, was he matter-of-fact?

Rawls:  He didn’t say much of anything. I mean, you are introduced to Erving Goffman who you think is quite wonderful, whom you were writing about.  I remember that Manny Schegloff told him. . . .  He introduced me as a student of his, which I really wasn’t.  That was very generous.  But Manny and Erving were very busy, Goffman is important, and, you know, at functions like that you don’t get much to talk to people.    

Shalin:  Are you familiar with Harvey Sacks’s defense where Goffman objected to something in his dissertation and wouldn’t allow the defense to proceed? 

Rawls:  No. 

Shalin:  Cicourel had to step in and ask Goffman to step down from the committee so the rest of it could move on.  Years later, somebody asked Goffman if Sacks was his student, to which Goffman answered:  “What are you talking about – I was his student.” 

Rawls:  You hear such stories about lots of very important, brilliant men.  I believe, although I don’t know [for sure], that Goffman knew who I was at this point, because Manny gave him my papers about Goffman.  I [made sure] I knew everything about Goffman.  So, it is very possible that he read them by then.  That’s not verifiable, but I suspect that when I was introduced he knew who I was. 

Shalin:  You said you had been studying Goffman for some time – how did you come across his works?  I am curious how people who met Goffman for the first time reacted.  They already knew a lot about him, came with an agenda, some expectations.

Rawls:  When I first got to school, to college, I went to a small liberal arts college in Boston – Wheelock.  Student of George [Suffick’s?] – Fran Waxler – was teaching there, she still does.  She is retiring this year, actually; I just got an email from her.  Anyway, she was teaching Garfinkel and Goffman at a small teachers’ college.  My primary interest had been Garfinkel.  I spent a couple of years studying him, you know.  I couldn’t stay there, it wasn’t going to work.  She suggested I go to BU and work with George Sufficks [?] who had been her mentor.  So, I went over, and the first semester he had a course on Goffman. 

Shalin:  Which year was that? 

Rawls:  The fall of 1974.  And we just read all of his books that were out at that point.  That was my introduction to Goffman. . . . 

Shalin:  How did Erving’s writing strike you?

Rawls:  I had my own particular interest.  It is more that he fit me. . . .  Things I was interested in Goffman fit in immediately.  [The same] with Garfinkel.  Those things have never changed.  Since then, I’ve worked on them.  They fit into my picture. 

Shalin:  I am adding to the web site a section for articles offering critical assessments of Goffman and would like to add there your work as well. . . . 

Rawls:  We need to do a similar thing for Garfinkel.

Shalin:  That would be great, for this is the most interesting pair.  I understand they had some interactions.  I want to turn to Jack now – your last name. . . .

Whalen:  Whalen.

Shalin:  Do you mind sharing your story?  I am sorry I am. . . . 

Whalen:  As interesting as it is. . . .

Shalin: Don’t mean to impose, but every little bit counts. 

Whalen:  Well, Erving Goffman is the reason I am a sociologist. 

Shalin:  Really?

Whalen:  Yes.  It was 1967, my first year of college.  My girlfriend, and now my wife, Marilyn, was taking some courses at Temple.  I was a history major at Las Salle College South. She brought me this book, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which I think was in her intro sociology book.  I read it, and it was like nothing I ever read.  I was just like, “Oh, my God, that is sociology?”
Shalin:  So much fun.  You just stumbled on him.
Whalen:  Yeah.  So, seriously, it took the mundane settings and situations of day-to-day life and showed how they were put together, how they were assembled.  Eventually, it kind of led me to Garfinkel and Sacks.  But it all started with Goffman.  A number of people wrote about their [Garfinkel, Sacks, and Goffman] relationship, and we talk about “the interaction order” now, but [back then] he used that wonderful term “interaction rituals.”  I bought every book that he wrote.  Just went to the store and. . . .

Manning:  Wonderful!


Whalen:  One quote I remember more than anything:  “Not men and their moments, but moments and their men.”  Syntax of human relations.  After Presentation of Self, that made perfect sense to me. 

Shalin:  I do have some issues with this point, as it overlooks the role of emergent grammars. . . .

Manning:  Yes, but that was a powerful statement. . . . 

Whalen:  There was also one other thing about Goffman.  I was very much active in the student movement, SDS. . . .  So, how do you reconcile my passion for this kind of [Goffmanian] sociology with the study of social movements, about which I was actually writing about?  Anyway, that was another problem.  There was something he wrote – forget where it was. . . .   

Manning:  That was in Relations in Public where he wrote, “Why don’t people shit on people’s desks over and over again instead of asking them why they do such things?” 

Whalen:  Yes, he was thinking about the Columbia University [student] takeover.  So, Goffman says, [in reference to criticisms that he wasn’t studying things like class relations], “I just sneak in and watch them [the working masses] snore.”

Manning:  That is a very ambiguous comment. . . . 

Rawls:  When you talk about being an activist and trying to reconcile [the tension], for me there is a problem.  I knew from experience with the world you describe that the ethics they taught me, along with the theories of cognition they described to me, were all about theWestern middle class people. . . .  The point is I had already been struggling in these classes, trying to see how this ethics applies to people all over the world. They were teaching me about Piaget, Kohlberg, stages they go through.  And then I find in Garfinkel this article on trust [which shows] the way of talking about the ethics of situations, the way of talking about the reciprocity between people on their own turfs, and then I find it again in Presentation of Self [where Goffman talks about] the “working consensus.”  Now, I didn’t know then that Goffman had read Garfinkel, that they really were talking about the same thing. 

Shalin:  There was tension between the two, but there was also an admiration for each other. 

Rawls:  I understand that. 

Whalen:  It’s been a persistent issue with Garfinkel. . . .  [some radical critics would say to the ethnomethodologists,] “The cities are burning and you are picking hairs off a dead fly’s ass.”  

Rawls:  It’s true.  But you see, I tried the other thing, and part way through this other thing I realized that people are still going to die, the cities are still going to burn, and I am here doing my – what?  Goody-two-shoes my little thing.  Is anybody better off?  I realize I am, but I did not come here to benefit myself.  So, I realize that if I abdicate the establishment and don’t change anything except myself, then who is in charge – the assholes who were saying to me, “I’ve got to care for number one, cause nobody else will.  So, maybe I’ve got to go back and kick them off the perch by doing something better than them.  To me, it seems like activism to go back and do something.  Anything.  I realized I couldn’t do a damn thing by going to the world and trying [to change it]. 

Shalin:  Ann, would your father take a similar position?

Rawls:  No idea. 

Shalin:  He had some strong ideas on how to make this world saner. 

Rawls:  No, what I am saying – and I will say this very carefully, knowing that you have a tape recorder on. . . .

Shalin:  It’s entirely up to you.  You can cut this out, change. . .

Rawls:  No, no, no.  He [my father – John Rawls] would say that he knew what was right and wrong in abstract theoretical terms, and every time anybody asked him how that translates into practical activity, he would run away.  He would run away. 

Whalen:  Anyway, that was my Goffman story. 

Shalin:  I thought you were just warming up. . . .  

[Laughter and commotion]

Whalen:  So, I did a number of things.  Basically, I drove a taxicab in Philadelphia. . . .  Finally, I decided it was time to go to graduate school.  I applied to U of P, to UC Santa Barbara, which is where I ended up going.  I was accepted at U of P – the reason I applied was because Goffman was there. 

Shalin:  And the year was. . . .

Whalen:  1976.  U of P rang me up, trying to persuade me to go.  I said, “OK, I will come to visit.”  I lived in Philadelphia.  “Who do you want to meet on the faculty?” I said, “Goffman.”  “Oh, I don’t know if we can arrange that.”


Whalen:  Plus, he is in anthropology. I said, “No, Goffman is my bottom line.”  And they did it.  So, Goffman rings me up and says, “Come over to my house?”  What I got to see was the domestic Goffman. 

Shalin:  What did they tell him?
Rawls:  Goffman wanted to meet Jack but he wouldn’t come to the office. 


Whalen:  And it was this lovely townhouse.  I remember that.

Shalin:  A two-story place?

Whalen:  Yeah.  It is a domestic scene, you know.  He invites me in, he is very sweet, he has a table set up in front of this big picture window.  We are going to have tee, have a chat.  And that’s what we did.  You know, “Tell me about yourself.”  He was the sweetest guy.  I have heard all these stories about him – [but to me] he was the sweetest man.  And then his teenage son pops in, “Hey dad, can I borrow your car?”  Blah, blah, blah.  You know.  He says, “You should come here or go to the University of Chicago.  Nothing else would do if you really want to be an ethnographer.” 

Rawls:  There was no one at the University of Chicago at this point. 

Whalen:  That was [once] his place.  I don’t know, we spent about an hour just talking.  I cannot remember everything we talked about. 

Shalin:  And he was nice and. . . .

Whalen:  Sweet as can be. 

Shalin:  Did you see there a piano?  I have a story by a Russian émigré sociologist, Vladimir Shlapentokh, who visited Goffman in Philadelphia. 

Manning:  Oh, Shlapentokh!

Shalin:  Yes, I think he mentioned you, Peter.  Vladimir once entertained in Moscow a dignitary from the University of Pennsylvania – I think it was a college dean.  And this gentleman wanted to return the favor once Vladimir immigrated to the US:  “Anything I can do for you?”  Volodia said, “Nothing, but can you arrange a meeting with Goffman?”  So, the two meet, in the same townhouse, I imagine. 

Manning:  Oh, my goodness!

Shalin:  That is where Shlapentokh spotted a piano with the music sheets thrown all over the top.  You didn’t notice any piano? 

Whalen:  That was 32 years ago!


Shalin:  How did your meeting end?

Whalen:  It wasn’t like he was promoting U of P or his department.  It was like why was I interested, why did I want to be an ethnographer?

Shalin:  You were accepted at U of P, Goffman was there – why did you end up at Santa Barbara? 

Whalen:  Because there were no ethnomethodologists at U of P. 

Shalin:  You already knew the difference.

Whalen:  We-e-e-ll, I tried to read Garfinkel. 


Whalen:  I think I read the turn-taking paper, thinking “What the heck!”  Santa Barbara had [Don] Zimmerman and [Tom] Wilson.

Shalin:  Tom Scheff was also there. 

Whalen:  Plus, it was California. . . .  I never was west of Pittsburgh, so I flew to California, drove down the Pacific coast, saw Big Sur, and thought to myself, “There is no comparison.”


Shalin:  Did you meet Garfinkel?

Whalen:  More like at the ASA meeting. 

Shalin:  No Garfinkel stories.

Whalen:  Actually, I have nothing but sweet stories about Garfinkel. 

Manning:  I want to add a story.  There were two stories.  One involved Marvin Scott – it might be apocryphal.  Marvin Scott got into the man’s room. Goffman is in there, presumably in the stall.  He yells,

Is that you, Marvin? 

Yes, it’s me. 

Well, I can’t talk with you now.  


Manning:  Then, another one.  Scott’s father was a tot, an off license gambler in California.  Marvin thought he knew something aboutgambling.  Erving went to Las Vegas and wrote a paper “Where the Action Is.”  There is a [phenomenological?] notion that the table can be hot, which has nothing to do with the underlying probabilities.  Scott was arguing – I think you might have told me this story [turning to someone present], “There are hot tables, Erving, you just don’t understand.”  Erving says:  “No, the probabilities do not vary.” 

Shalin:  Hot streaks. 

Manning:  Yes, hot streaks.  And another story is about [John] Lofland.  Lofland was from Delaware.  He got his undergraduate degree, went out to Berkeley – very intense, middle class, judgmental guy. . . .  He goes there and Goffman says:  “You want to talk to me?  Come on to my house.”  So he comes out to the house – Berkeley Hills, or wherever it is.  He comes to the house, knocks on the door – noting happens.  He knocks on the door – again nothing happens.  He was waiting, looking at the windows. He knocks again.  Suddenly Goffman from upstairs, “Who is it?  What do you want?”  The point is that he [Lofland] had to persist to get Goffman’s attention, and he finally did.  “Yes, I am here to talk with you, as you told me.”  Goffman:  “OK, I’ll let you in.”  Then he says:  “What is this that you are doing, anyway?  Why did you come here?”  Meanwhile, he [Lofland] was there like for a year.  Anyway, your perception is quite interesting, Jack, because that’s unusual.  Goffman. . . .    

Rawls:  He knew he was coming and he hadn’t [?] change his mind before he got there.  So, he was sweet. . . .   That matters. 

Whalen:  It meant a lot to me.

Rawls:  Yes, that was wonderful. 

Manning:  Well, it changed your life. 

Whalen:  Although I didn’t go there. . . .  Also, I bought the books of his students, like Racing Game, Liqueur License

[Everybody talks simultaneously]

Shalin:  If you know anyone who may have a story to tell. . . .

Manning:  All these guys turned interesting ethnographies.  Erving liked Jim Clark.  And he liked also the guy who published with Basic Books. . . .  Anyway he liked Jim Clark who encouraged him [Goffman] to sign with Prentice Hall.  Jim Clark was the guy who got [Sudnow?] to do studies on ethnomethodology with Prentice Hall.  Then he went to the University of California, Alex Morin [?] was there.  Erving knew Alex Morin [?] and channeled all these books [through him].  So, he and Clark would organize where he [Goffman] would publish all his papers, because he would always do paperback with one publisher and a hardback with another publisher, so as to maximize the money. . . . 

Rawls:  And he tried to get Garfinkel to publish because he had the publishing deal [?], and he couldn’t talk him into it.  But he did try very hard.

Shalin:  Something interesting just happened.  The story about Marvin Scott we heard – I had already put it on the web site in the version supplied by Howard Becker. 

Manning:  Really!?

Shalin:  He knew Goffman perhaps better than anyone else.  They were close friends.  Howard says he was Erving’s confidant, he was close to his family.  He is still close to his daughter. 

Rawls:  Alice. 

Shalin:  And he sent me this story about Marvin and Erving disputing the hot streak theory.  Now I can compare your version with the one provided by Becker.  Looked from a different perspective, the same story might appear. . . .  Ann, you said you knew Manny Schegloff – I’d love to get in touch with him.

Rawls:  He is here.  I’ll see him on Sunday at one of the sessions. . . . 

Shalin:  He knows the story involving Harvey Sacks and his dissertation. . . .

[End of the recording]

* The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is the web-based, open-source project that serves as a clearing house for those interested in the dramaturgical tradition in sociology and biographical methods of research.  The EGA is located in the Intercyberlibrary of the UNLV Center of Democratic Culture,  Postings on the website are divided into four partially overlapping sections:  “Documents and Papers,” “Biographical Materials,” “Critical Assessments,” and “Comments and Dialogues.”  For inquiries regarding the EGA projects, please contact Dr. Dmitri Shalin,  When you cite the materials collected for the EGA, please use the following reference:  Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives, ed. by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV: CDC Publications, 2009).