Remembering Erving Goffman

Thiman Scheff

(Thomas J. Scheff, T. 2006. Goffman Unbound, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, pp. 9-13).

In most of my direct encounters with Goffman, it seems to me now that I failed his tests, so I usually felt like I was being hazed.  At one point he asked me where I grew up.  I told him in small rural towns of Texas.  Louisiana.  He laughed, saying:  “That explains you without remainder.  A Jew from the rural South.”  Never mind that I later found out that Goffman himself was a Jew from a small rural town in Canada (Dauphin, Manitoba).  At the time I felt I had been diminished, if not dismissed, by his remark.

An incident on an airplane was worse.  When I was still a graduate student in Berkley, Goffman had arranged a flight from Oakland to Los Angeles to see Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks.  I think that Garfinkel was proud of Sacks, and wanted to show him to Goffman.  For reasons that I either forgotten or didn’t know in the first place, Goffman arranged for me to go with him.

The flight was extremely turbulent from beginning to end.  The sudden falls, jerks, and bouncing got me to the point that I was nauseated.  I put the bag provided for such a moment to my mouth in the nick of time.  But as I vomited, Goffman was laughing and narrating a blow-by-blow description of my behavior, describing my attempts to be polite as I was overcome by an irresistible impulse. I felt doubly humiliated, not just because of my behavior, but also because I felt Goffman had mocked me.

One final hazing incident occurred in an exchange of letters.  Sometime in the late seventies, I had written to Goffman that I was completing a book on catharsis (1979).  He replied in exasperation that “I could always find a wall to be off of.”  Since he hadn’t seen any part of the manuscript, his reply was prejudicial.  He was simply confirming his allegiance to the standard sociological stereotype of psychology as irrelevant.  Once again, he was hazing me in his partly humorous, partly hostile way.  To be fair to Goffman, once I told him by letter about the part that “distancing” played in my manuscript, a dramaturgical idea, he offered useful advice on citations.  Not every encounter was hostile.  

In considering the way Goffman treated me, I think I can add a further aspect to Lofland’s analysis.  It is clear from the accounts by Lofland and others that although many of Goffman’s encounters and relationships involving testing/or hazing, this was not always true.  For example, my impression is that Lofland himself was not treated in this way.

Nor were Jane and Irving Piliavin, who had a close, long-term relationship with Goffman beginning when all three were undergraduates.  In my interview with them, there were no mention of testing or hazing:   their account was of a good friend whose behavior was unexceptional.  I have already mentioned how Arlene Daniels solved the hazing problem.  Finally, although I haven’t interviewed them, my guess is that Goffman was a good father, that he didn’t test of haze either his son Tom or his daughter Alice.  Goffman had introduced me to Tom when he was a child of six or seven in Berkeley.  My impression based solely on a dingle brief encounter, was that he adored his dad.    

. . . .

My guess is that Goffman hazed me not only as a test, but also because he sensed that I didn’t understand.  As it happened, the first time I saw him was a chance encounter in a university hallway.  We had narrowly missed colliding, and we both mumbled apologies.  What I saw was quite small, dapper, boyish looking male with a crew cut.  Assuming he was an undergraduate, I quite literally didn’t know he was, prophetic of my later relationship with him.

Goffman had what amounts to X-ray vision in social transactions; he could see much of what was going on backstage.  It must have been very frustrating to have a student like me, without a clue.  Perhaps he defended against feelings resulting from my obliviousness and disconnection from him by hazing me.  He was rejecting the rejector.

This explanation doesn’t contradict Lofland’s idea (Goffman’s search for truth), but supplements it.  There are many paths to truth:  why, with students at least, did Goffman often pick the hazing one?  My guess is that because of his exquisite sensitivity, he usually felt alone and disconnected from other people, like alien from outer space?  Still, the question of the path he chose goes unanswered.  He could have employed his advanced knowledge of others to help them with their difficulties in understanding, rather than hazing, advancing toward mutual discovery of truth in that way. Why hazing?

Goffman’s own work offers what might be a clue in this regard.  In his 1967 book on interaction ritual, the last chapter, “Where the Action Is,” stands out because of its length.  This book contains many of Goffman’s other important essays, such as the chapter on embarrassment and on deference and demeanor.    Yet the last chapter is by far the longest, almost as many pages (122) as all of the other chapters put together (149).  Indeed, it may be the longest essay in his oeuvre.  As far as I know, the length if this chapter has not been commented on, nr its structure much discussed. 

Late in the chapter, Goffman reveals that the kind of “action” (risky, behavior) he is talking about occurs primarily inside of what he calls “the “cult of masculinity.  I believe this idea might help to understand some of his personal life.  Goffman seems to have treated his contacts with me and others as “action.”  His persona in these encounters maintaining “composure, poise, and control of his emotions,” was not just masculine but hypermasculine.