Remembering Erving Goffman

Yves Winkin

(Yves Winkin, “Baltasound as the Symbolic Capital of Social Interaction.” Paper presented at the conference of the International Communication Association, Atlanta, May 24, 1992. Reprinted in Erving Goffman, Gary Alan Fine and Gregory W. H. Smith, eds., Sage Publications: London, 2000, pp. 193-213).

. . . .

And there is that letter he sent on 4 April 1956 to his informant, James Johnson. It is worth reproducing here entirely because it casts a new light on his relationship to the Unst community. It also a perfect example of Goffman’s epistolary style: sharp, full of humor and yet circumvoluted, ever precieux.

Dear Mr Johnson:

It is a pleasure to hear from the present day Secretary of the Boating Club, but since the current holder of this office is yourself, no surprise is involved. You have never been counted a man upon whom a label could be put, geographic, national or whatever. Tomorrow’s paper could say that you have been elected senator from the Sovereign State of Mississippi, and this would occasion no surprise: one would know that you had been passing through, and that a place known for its orators had decided to accept good sense as a price for acquiring a good speaker.

The book you kindly mention is not a book at all, but a paper-bound informal release of pale print and narrow merit. It is concerned with what Claire and Mary would call a pack of dirt and nonsense, to wit, the front that persons put on and the things they hide behind it. The few Shetlandic references may therefore cause some offense, moreso (sic) since so much dull stuff must be gone through to get them.

It is presumptuous for someone like myself to preach a moral lesson, but to justify some treachery I will do so – at leas to you, since this may be a punishment you may deserve. Shetland, like other working-class communities, is engaged in coming up in the world. At such times, certain aspects of one’s former way of life end to be looking down upon and concealed, because of the way in which there forms of conduct are apparently viewed by hose into whose ranks one is moving. It is the job of Shetlandic literary revival in Lerwick to show some of these forms of conduct are unique, colourful and worthy in their own right – something to be paraded not concealed. My job was supplementary to this: to show what Shetlanders sometimes forget, that people favourably placed in the world conceal just as much if not more than the individual who is rising to their level, and that the person who has attained a worthy position is the same kind of animal as the person who is beginning to acquire one.

I am married now and have a son of three. Nothing much can be done about his last name; his first one, however is Thomas Edward, and this according to my statistics is as Shetlandic as it can be. He is the only child in this city who knows that “small” is word some use for peerie [Shetlandic for “the little one,” the label used by the islanders to describe Goffman].

You suggested you owe me 30/. (90 shillings = £1.50) I would never make so poor a bargain as to let you pay it to me. Twice a year I would like you to remember that you owe it to me and then remember me and that we are friends. This will be the interest, exorbitant and hence in the manner of my people. When I am too old to move around, I will send my son to collect the principal from you.

It is impossible to send regards. From Charlotte and Edward Mouat to Marypark, and from there to crossroads would take many pages.



James Johnson apparently heard about the 1956 Edinburgh edition of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman gently refuses to send him a copy first because ‘(it) is not a book at all’, then, more seriously, because ‘the few Shetlandic references may therefore cause some offense’. Why did Goffman embark in the next paragraph into a ‘moral lesson’? He could have just as well chitchatted, like he did on the second page (with much tenderness). That is the reason I use to suggest that this is an important (and very rare) explicit statement of Goffman’s moral attitude. It is not a cheap cop out: flattering Mr Johnson (who had a key role in the Shetlandic literary revival in Lerwick) in order to escape from his request. Goffman could have gracefully managed to get away from James Johnson’s inquiry (or request) without offering such a committed declaration.

An analogy comes to mind with other distinct social groups that Goffman dealt with: mental patients (Asylums), the physically handicapped (Stigma) and women (Gender Advertisement). In none of these three cases, he showed compassion; the prose is all too lucid. But no reader was mistaken: Goffman produced extremely effective pleas for these socially dominated groups. Presentation of Self was never seen as a plea for the working class or the upwardly mobile. But here he presents his work on self-presentation as rooted in social justice. His aim was to encourage the Shetland community ‘coming up in the world’. His ‘job’ was to unmask the dominant class (people favourably place in the world’), as if he was telling the Shetlanders: don’t be afraid by the way they look down on you, they are in the same business, only more so: front and concealment.

One is reminded of Pierre Bourdieu’s own moral and political attitude. Bourdieu uses sociology to subvert the established social order in whatever field of application (science, education, literature, etc.). For Bourdieu, sociology has a liberating virtue because it destroys the ‘thin veil of faith or bad faith’ which makes social domination possible (see, especially, ‘A lecture on the lecture’ in Bourdieu, 1990). Similarly Goffman offers in his letter, although not couched in terms of social domination, a vision of the social world as arbitrary and fictitious. Just like Bourdieu, who sees his function as empowerment of the dominated through disenchantment of the dominant, Goffman suggest that to unveil the way ‘worthy’ positions are attained and confirmed is a way to help those who are ‘beginning to acquire one’. In both cases, sociology is denouncing fabrication, illusion, and false pretences of natural ‘distinction’. For Goffman, the make-believe is located at the interpersonal level; for Bourdieu, matters are more ‘structural’. But ‘there is certainly an element of zealous iconoclasm’ (Robbins, 1991, p. 175) in both works.