Remembering Erving Goffman

Yves Winkin

(Yves Winkin, “Erving Goffman: What is a Life? The Uneasy Making of Intellectual Biography.” Pp. 19-41 in Greg Smith, ed., Goffman and Social Organization Studies in Sociological Legacy. London : Routledge, 1999).

. . . .

Several years later, the project is till not completed, but it has matured. As time went by, my analytic attitude evolved in a twofold ways. First, I took the position that it was definitely possible to say worthwhile things about Goffman’s life: not through anecdotes qua anecdotes, but through biographems’, that is, meaningful fragments of a whole – a whole which may never has assembled in its entirety. Second, I became adamant about the necessity to ponder reflexively upon the biographical craft. While there is nothing new in this endeavor (cf. Nadel 1984, Novarr 1986), there is still surprisingly little thinking in the social sciences about the relationship between an intellectual and their biography. The reader is not supposed to be interested in the life per se but in the work at framed by a specific context of creation (let’s not say ‘production’ any more) What are the assumed links between texts and contexts? Are there any causal links? Does the life explain the work? Horresco referens! It must be more subtle that this old fashioned version of literary 'external analysis'. But then what? I will try to answer that question in the second part of my chapter, the first part being devoted to 'snapshots': Goffinan's life in fifteen scenes.

Snapshot I

Dauphin, Manitoba , around 1930 in the department store owned and run by Max Goffman. Max is a short, stocky man who loves to play cards and chat on the sidewalk with Eli Bay , his competitor and good friend and, within a few years, his son-in-law's father.

Max Goffman escaped from the pogroms in the Russian Army and arrived in Winnipeg around 1917. He was soon introduced to Ann Auerbach, a young compatriot who had arrived in 1912. They married in 1915, then they moved to Mannville, Alberta, a settlement of 300 inhabitants. Their two children were born there: Frances in 1919 and Erving in 1922. They moved twice again, in search of a better market before settling in 1926 in Dauphin, Manitoba, a busy 'wheat and rail' junction of 4000 people, many of them fresh from the Ukraine, with whom Max could easily speak and deal.

The business picked up, in spite of the tact there were up to eight clothing stores in Dauphin in the early 1930s. Max Goffman was able to buy a house in the North End section of Winnipeg by the time. Erving was ready for high school. So the family moved to Winnipeg in 1937 while Max commuted to and from Dauphin every weekend.

By 1952, when he retired and sold the shop, he was a well-respected member of the Dauphin business community – certainly not the perpetually broke store owner of Raisins and Almonds (Maynard 1964).

Snapshot 2

May 1939, prom night at St John’s Technical School, largely open to the sons of Jewish immigrants (there are 17, 000 Jewish households in Winnipeg in 1939). All of a sudden, there is a smell of rotten egg: That's 'Pooky's' farewell to his classmates. So the story goes. Goffman is crazy about chemistry; he is a brilliant student but rather mischievous.

Snapshot 3

Summer 1943, on the lawn in front of the National Film Board Building in Ottawa . Goffman is eating a sandwich with his roommate Alan Adamson and unidentified buddies. He is spending his summer wrapping boxes of films which are dispatched throughout the country 'to show Canada to Canadians', as the motto of the National Film Board (NFBJ) says. It may well be that he 'gets exposed to take team and part of the techniques of Grierson's documentaries', as Alan Adamson will later say. There are so many films produced at the NFB (320 by 1945) and so many young, bright people to discuss them (Dennis Wrong is among them) that Goffman could not have been left untouched.

Snapshot 4

Fall of 1944, University of Toronto , Department of Political Economy. A sociology class is slowly going through Durkheim's Le Suicide, which has not yet been translated into English. Erving is there, with his friend Dennis Wrong and his confidante, Liz Bott. The professor is in his full gown. His name is Charles William Morton Hart. He is an anthropologist, trained by Radcliffe-Brown in Sidney in the 1920s, a specialist in the culture of the Tiwi of North Australia. He keeps the fingernail on his right little finger long as a sign of his initiation. He Loves to dramatize his teaching, which can be summarized as 'everything is socially determined'. He walks up and down the aisles of the auditorium. All of sudden, he stops, puts the bottom of his gown over his head like an old photographer, and points his right little finger at the student who has to answer his question. Goffman loves that scene, and by the end of the year he knows Durkheim's main work.

Snapshot 5

Spring 1945, in a local bar near the University of Toronto. There is a circle of students around a younger nasty loner named Ray Birdwhistell. He comes from the University of Chicago's Department of Anthropology where he is completing his dissertation under Lloyd Warner’s supervision. He is training his students to define people socially on the basis of Warner’s stratification ladder.

RLB: What do you think of the young lady over there?

Students: No doubt, the clothes, the way she sips her drink – she is UMC (upper middle class).

RLB: Come on, look at her shoes, look at the soles! She is definitely LMC (lower middle class).

Goffman is thrilled. How about going to Chicago and working with Warner? His friends are rather seduced by Parsons and Merton, who had come recruiting on campus that spring – but Liz likes Chicago too.

Snapshot 6

Sometime in 1947, around midnight, in a small ' joint' at the corner of 63rd Street and Woodlawn in Chicago. Erving Goffman is talking breathlessly with his friend Saul Mendlovitz. When he arrived in Chicago, in 1945, there were floods of 'G.I. Bill' students around – but still few professors. In Sociology, there were about 200 graduate students for about ten professors. So the best courses are the conversations that students have among themselves about their reading, their experiences and ideas. Goffman and Mendlovitz belong to a loose circle of students whose names will become well known later (including Howard Becker, Jerry Carlin, Fred Davis, Eliot Freidson, Joseph Gusfield, Robert Habenstein, Richard Jeffrey, William and Ruth Kornhauser, Kurt and Gladys Lang, Hans Mauksch, Bernard Meltzer, Greg Stone, William Westley).

Saul and Erving very often eat together at night and 'talk like rabbis' as Saul will say to me later. On Freud, whose work Goffman handles quite well; on Proust, whom Goffman admires a lot, on Gustav Ichheiser, an Austrian phenomenologist, exiled in Chicago, lonely and angry whose papers Mendlovitz passed on to Goffman; on Kenneth Burke, who offers a seminar that year at the University of Chicago and who keeps cracking jokes that Goffman likes very much.

Chicago is bursting with ideas and brilliant visitors, not so much in Sociology, a department which is getting old and keeps feuding all the time, but all around, like Social Sciences II, a big undergraduate course offered in the college by people like Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Bruno Bettelheim and others. Goffman is somewhere in the there, swallowing it all up.

Snapshot 7

Sometime in the 1940s, somewhere in Chicago, Erving Goffman is toiling over the data he collected in the fall of 1946 from administering the Thematic apperception Test (TAT) to fifty upper-middle-class women of the Hyde Park area. He has to submit a master’s thesis but the relationship Lloyd Warner wants him to see between socio-economic status and personality just does not show up. He is disgruntled with Murray’s TAT – he cannot accept the classic opposition between 'objective response' and 'projective response'. So he decides to develop a contrast between 'direct responses' (the subject reacts to the image as if it represented reality) and 'indirect responses' (the subject avoids, in various ways, reacting to the depicted situation). He builds a relationship between the lifestyle of the subjects and their preferred responses. In the last chapter of the thesis, 'Some Characteristics of R esponse to Depicted Experience' (Goffman 1949), he describes with evident ethnographic pleasure how the 'direct response' subjects behave. They sit up straight, all dressed and tense, and the magazine on the table is Better Homes and Gardens. They are very different from the 'indirect response' women who curl up on the sofa, dressed in men’s shirts; the New Yorker is on the table, next to a pair of pants they probably didn’t try to hide from their visitor. They are as disengaged in their responses as they are in their way of life.

So he finally has his 'thesis submitted to the faculty of the Division of the Social Sciences in candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts'. It is not a diligent Wernerian exercise, neither is it a faithful ethnography a la Hughes. It is already quite a personal piece of work, although not of the kind that Goffman will offer later. In actual fact, he will never touch his MA thesis again.

Snapshot 8

It is March 1950. The 'social' is in full swing in the village hall of Baltasound, on the island of Unst, in the Shetland islands. Jean Andrews and Alice Simon, the leading 'belles' of the community, are swinging from one partner to the next. Goffman doesn’t dance. He prefers to talk with the group of men with whom he plays billiards every Monday and Saturday. 'Peerie' Goffman – as they call him on the island – has come a long way. When he appears 'out of the blue', as the hotel tenant said, in December 1948, nobody could figure out who he was and why a foreigner would want to come and stay in Unst, the last of the Shetland islands. How come he walked around the island in big boots all the time? Why did he always have a camera with him and a fancy camera at that: a Leica, from Germany? Maybe he was a spy.

That myth was soon dispelled. He was a regular guy after all, even if he didn’t talk much. He first stayed at the hotel with Dr Wren and his wife, then he bought a little cottage behind the hotel. He kept going back to the hotel kitchen to have his meals with the cook and the two maids. One of the maids visited him regularly in his cottage – but she never thought he would ever do anything untoward to her. He asked her several times to 'arrange funny little triangles together' or to tell her stories about 'weird grey images' he had. She never understood what he was after. His cottage was full of books; he would ask her to read pages aloud while he sat on his bed and laughed.

In fact, Goffman had little chance to laugh or even to talk as the islanders were very taciturn. The only occasions when there was sociable talk were during the billiard games, at the 'socials' and at weddings. He always attended them but he never forced his way into a family. In a sense, he just live near to the community, not within it.

Snapshot 9

Spring 1953, University of Chicago, Department of Sociology Dissertation defense day: the whole department is there. It is Goffman's jour de vérité. He is sweating – not only because it is a warm spring day but also because the questioning is rough. Lloyd Warner is not very happy with the work. He had sent Goffman to his old friend Ralph Piddington in October 1949 to help him get the new Department of Social Anthropology started. After only a few months, Goffman left for that tiny island in the Shetland. Furthermore, what he now presents is not even a good study of the community. Goffman himself states this very bluntly on page 8 of his dissertation which is entitled 'Communication Conduct In an Island Community': 'This is not the study of a community: it is a study that occurred in a community'.

Everett Hughes is not too pleased either. What is this new jargon about 'euphoria' and 'dysphoria' in interaction? What is all this business about conversation? Moreover, he finds Goffman's parallel between the 'interaction order' and Parson’s 'social order' in the opening chapter of the dissertation slightly irritating.

Anselm Strauss, who happened to be the third examiner since Blumer had just left for Berkeley, mainly observed the two men. He was struck by Goffman’s capacity to allow a drop of sweat to roll down his nose while he focused intently on answering a question. . . .

Another person in the audience who must have noticed the drop of sweat was Goffman's wife, Angelica Schuyler Choate, whom he married in July 1952. She was born in Boston on 1 January 1929, a pure Brahmin. Her father was editor of the Boston Herald. She came to the University of Chicago to study psychology and human development. Goffman's friend’s never got to know her well though she was rumored to be shy, fragile – and very rich.

Snapshot 10

October 1956, Princeton. This is the third conference on 'Group processes being hosted by the Josiah Macy Jr Foundation. A highly select group of scholars is present. Goffman's name was suggested by Ray Birdwhistell, who was suggested by Margaret Mead. Goffman has just completed a year of fieldwork at St. Elizabeth's Hospital which is a 7,000-bed psychiatric hospital in Washington DC.

His presentation is based on the idea of the asylum as a 'metabolic process', an which irritates many of the delegates, who constantly interrupt Goffman with their comments. The most aggressive critic is Margaret Mead:

Goffman: Does the word still bother you?

Mead: Yes, it does.

Goffman: Give me another one, and I shall use it. Intake? Outtake?

Fremont-Smith: Intake, output.

Baron: The process is not cyclical.

Mead: I don't like a mechanical process very much either. Why don't you describe the process as it occurs in a total institution?

Goffman: I shall try, but I want to stress that these are processes oriented to the taking in and disgorgement of people. I want a word to cover that. I shall use the word metabolism in quotes from now on, if you wish.

Mead: Disgorgement usually means vomit. Is that what you mean?

Bateson: How about 'processing of people'?

Goffman: Is processing of people acceptable to everyone? There are some moral feelings cropping up in this discussion that I hope will not arise too often.

Throughout the four-day session, Goffman acts defensively. What the group probably does not understand is Goffman's own feeling of suffocation in this group of distinguished social scientists, several of whom are psychiatrists. He is the only one who has spent a year 'on the other side', with the mental patients, in jeans and T-shirt, without a set of keys on his belt.

Snapshot 11

Sometime in late 1959. Erving Goffman's post is up for tenure but he believes he won't be reappointed and is ready to quit academia. In 1957, he had been invited by Herbert Blumer to join the Department of Sociology of the University of California, Berkley, to fill the Social Psychology post left vacant by the departure of Tamotsu Shibutani. On 1 January 1958 he was employed as 'Visiting Assistant Professor' with an annual salary of $6840.

In 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was an immediate success, and Goffman's name was becoming increasingly well-known in the field. Yet the review committee headed by Andreas Papandreou, then Chair of the Department of Economics, is in a quandary. At least two members of the panel are equivocal about the application. Bendix is unhappy with its content and Blumer is not impressed by Goffman's personality. The work is thought to be too soft, too literary, while the person appears too abrasive, too difficult.

But the letters (from Riesman, Hughes, Sarbin, Cottrell, Schneider) probably win the vote – Hughes even describes him 'our Simmel'. Goffman is promoted to 'Associate Professor – Step I' as of January 1960, the salary is 7,920. He teaches for a semester and then takes six months unpaid leave. He will stay in academia – but he will avoid teaching whenever possible.

Snapshot 12

Spring 1962, Goffman's graduate seminar is on 'Social Contracts.' He pushes the students hard, he probes and ruffles them. Only two older students have the temerity to answer back. He apparently approves of their behaviour.

One day, he formulates an idea and – a few minutes later – he takes the opposite stance. One of the two older students raises her hand and tells him that he is contradicting himself. He pauses for a long time (he is well known for long silences). Then says 'Mrs. Frederickson, don't be so nostalgic.'

Snapshot 13

Sometime in 1965, a strong letter arrives in the office of the President of the University of California form the Las Vegas police Department. Enquiries are being made about someone called 'Goffman, Erving (height: 5'2)' who says he is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California. The police have received protests from local casino managers who see this man Goffman as a 'disturbing element' in their establishments.

For years Goffman has regularly visited casinos in Rino and Las Vegas. At first he is accompanied by his wife, they arrive in their Morgan car, once inside, they 'counted cards' together. They knew how to tabulate the figures quickly and win at blackjack.

Later in the 1960s Goffman made these expeditions alone. He was dressed for the occasion, he always wore trousers with extra long pockets. He even attended the valet training school at some point. So he played not only for 'fun' but also for ethnographic reasons. He wanted to get a book and several papers out off his work. Goffman produced 'Where the Action Is' in 1967 (as the second part of Interaction Ritual) but the promised book never materialized. Somewhere, there may be a manuscript. . .

Snapshot 14

Walnut Street, Philadelphia, in the late 1970s. Erving Goffman visits the antique shop of Mr. Mead. The two of them know a great deal when it comes to English oak furniture. They are both professionals. They sometimes meet at restricted furniture auctions. Goffman loves people like Mr. Mead who are real, not like so many two-dimensional academics who can’t talk back, who don’t enjoy life, a good meal, a nice bottle of wine.

Snapshot 15

May 1982, Lyon, France. Goffman is addressing the audience of French sociologists on the topic of 'Microsociology and History'. He has not prepared a paper because, he says, 'of an event independent of my own will – the birth of my daughter'. As he speaks I am translating his address into French, a risky business, but everything goes well. Goffman and I chat briefly after the session ends. He says to me “Al right, buddy, see you in Florence'. I will never get the chance to go to that conference in Florence, I will never get the chance to see Goffman again.