Remembering Erving Goffman and Harvey Sacks

Emanuel Schegloff

Emanuel A. Schegloff, “Introduction,” Pp. ix-lxii in Emanuel A. Schegloff, ed., Lectures on Conversation.  Volume I.  (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 1992). 

As unexpected as may be the appearance in Sacks’ early lectures of echoes of the analytic style of transformational grammar, even more striking is the apparent lack of specific influences from the work of Erving Goffman. This is especially surprising since, during the years at Berkeley, Sacks took Goffman more seriously than he did virtually any other member of the faculty.

At a very general level, of course, Goffman’s analytic enterprise had undertaken to establish the study of face-to-face interaction as a domain of inquiry in its own right, and his work was very likely central in recruiting Sacks’ attention to face-to-face interaction as a focus for the concern with practical theorizing and commonsense reasoning which animated the ethnomethodological enterprise. Surely Sacks’ work, and work which it inspired, have been important to whatever success and stability this area of inquiry has achieved. And Sacks could treat Goffman's work as setting a relevant domain for students for pedagogical purposes; in the first of the Fall 1967 lectures, Sacks recommends readings in Goffman’s work as the most relevant sort of preparatory reading for the course, and the most indicative of the general stance of the course, while explicitly differentiating his own work from it.

Goffman’s influence on Sacks was at its peak during Sacks’ years as a graduate student. While at Berkeley, for example, Sacks satisfied a requirement in one of Goffman’s courses not with an empirical study of interaction of the Sort characteristic of his later work, but by writing the so-called ‘police paper’ (later published as ‘Notes on police assessment of moral character,’ 1972c), concerned with methods of commonsense theorizing about appearances and moral character, and based on handbooks and manuals of police procedure. The subsequently published version of the paper begins with a handsome acknowledgement of debt to Goffman’s writing and lectures, and though the style and ‘address’ of the work differ in various respects from those of Goffman, the topic plays off of several themes recurrent in Goffman’s work at the time, and the exploitation of handbooks and manuals echoes Goffman's use of manuals of etiquette and advice. But after this, Sacks’ work diverges increasingly from Goffman’s.

To be sure, in later work Sacks addressed himself to more specific interactional topics mentioned in Goffman’s work (see, for example, the discussion of ‘rules of irrelevance’ in Goffman’s essay ‘Fun in games,’ (1961: 19ff.), or the passing mention of turn-taking (Goffman, 1964: 136), but the lines of influence are often not entirely clear. Goffman is reported to have responded to a question years later asking whether Sacks had been his student by saying, “What do you mean; I was his student!” Leaving aside the possible elements of generosity, irony and flipness in such a remark (and assuming that the report is, generally speaking, correct), a serious treatment of the directions of influence and the interplay of ideas between them remains to be written.

That important divergences between Goffman and Sacks began to develop early on can hardly be doubted. These came to a head, both symbolic and practical, over Sacks’ PhD dissertation, an episode which cannot be recounted here. For now the upshot must remain this: although in retrospect Sacks seems clearly to have labored in the same vineyard, and although he was not only formally Goffman's student but learned a great deal from him, the degree to which Goffman influenced more specifically the work for which Sacks is known remains an open question. Certainly, such specific influences are not as much in evidence as most readers are likely to expect, either with respect to Goffman’s most characteristic substantive concerns – face, demeanor, structures of attention and information, etc., with respect to governing themes – dramaturgic, ethologic, frame-analytic, etc., or with respect to data and method.


* 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 several overlapping sections: “Documents and Papers,” “Goffman's Publications,” “Goffman in the News,” “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).