Remembering Erving Goffman

P. M. Strong

(P. M. Strong, “The Importance of Being Erving: Erving Goffman, 1922-1982. Sociology of Health and Illness. 1983, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, pp. 345-355.)

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The highly personal and, to some, irresponsible style was matched by his genre: the essay. Most of his bets work was done in essays, and his books re either collections of essays or else extended version of the form. The essay is a term which derives from Montaigne who used it to describe his “attempts” or “tries” at reflecting in great detail on various aspects of his own life, thereby hoping to illuminate those of others. The essay is systematically personal enterprise, rooted in everyday experience. In it, the author seeks ardently for a slippery truth, but makes no claim to having necessarily found it. It is an exploratory and essentially open form in which one may use data form anyone: friends, journalists, novelists and social scientists alike. No one within it has greater authority than any other. Finally, precisely because it is so personal, the essayist is free to develop both the tragic and the comic modes; to use, that is, all the literary devices which the writer of the scientific article can, at best, only smuggle in surreptitiously. Those who proclaim scientific truth must dress in sober apparel; essayist may wear whatever they choose.

This lack of normal professional manners would seem, by a accounts, to have been matched by a marked absence, on occasion, of conventional personal manners. In both his public and his private life he refused to play the game. The serious student of manners could not himself afford to possess them, or, more accurately, to be possessed by them. Since manners were of Goffman as much an object of study and of practice, being with Goffman could be unnerving. Gouldner, not an apparently one of Goffman’s best friends, has made the distinction between living for and living off it. Only dedicated and selfless few, according to Gouldner, lived for it; the rest of us lived off it. For Goffman, however, the distinction fails to hold. His style of sociology involves both. To treat one’s entire life as data is at one and the same time to dedicate oneself entirely to the discipline; to relentlessly combat “that touching tendency to keep a part of the world safe form sociology” and to treat the whole life, including sociology, its works and its homilies, as a resource for intellectual exploration. Data was what Goffman lived for, not sociology.

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So the second [lesson from Goffman] is this: you too can treat your own life as data. Each one of us is a natural control group; if our splendidly universal theories don’t even apply to our own lives, there must be something wrong with them.