The Goffman Archives, Confidentiality, and Privacy

Gary Marx, Sherri Cavan, Jackie Wiseman, and Dmitri Shalin

July 10, 2009

Greetings, Gary:

The issues we face are familiar, stemming from the need to balance the confidentiality and privacy concerns against the truth and free inquiry claims.  Sherri dug up a quote from Voltaire that she sees as an epigraph for our endeavor:  “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”  Nice sentiment, although the notion of truth espoused by the Enlightenment philosophers is different from the pragmatist perspective I share. 

To be specific, should we post on our site EG’s transcript that shows “C” grade he earned in a quantitative methods class at U of C?  I share Sherri’s view that no harm is done by making public this and some other facts that can be gleaned from EG’s educational transcripts.  But at least one EGA board member was unsure about this course of action, wincing at the possibility of having one’s transcript available for the whole world to dissect. 

Take EG’s and Sky’s last Wills, and you will have the questions multiplied immeasurably, for they concern the third parties, the state of marriages, and what not.  All these documents are in public domain; none is obtained surreptitiously; still, you wonder where to draw the line on what to make public and what to leave out of prying eyes.   

These are some of the issues we need to go over at our board meeting.  If you care to share your perspective with the rest of us, please do. 

All best, Dmitri

July 11, 2009

Hi Dmitri --the eternal questions which are that way because there are no easy answers. Rather we need guidelines and criteria through which we sift the varied facts. Clearly alive not-alive is one; a related one is are others within the age cohort or directly tied to the deceased still alive (to reveal after 100 years is very different than after 10); the intentionality (for both subject and agent) around the collection/creation of the info with respect to its being made "public", an imaginative effort to consider how the subject would feel about having it released (here imaging how we would feel if it was us offers a method); the procedure or means by which it became known to those thinking about going public with it, whether the info is likely to enhance or stigmatize the image of the person (and if the latter should that image be damaged because the unknown information reveals significant immorality --so a higher cause so to speak is served as with whistle blowing which violates one set of expectations on behalf of another; the likely consequences beyond image for revelation --e.g. that someone really was/wasn't the father of a child who wrongly inherited the former's fortune while the real child got bupkiss as against it being "only academic"; the validity of the info is also a factor. There is a lot on the written v. electronic form of public stuff, especially re court documents.

Also there is nothing stopping the agent-revealers from a little well placed discretion --show some stuff but not all. It needn't be either-or. I think that might apply in the case of the wills. A criteria here is relevance to understanding the work of the person, although is room to debate that of course. The fact that a person is a member of a minority group (when that was not generally known by appearance or name) is relevant in the case of a social scientist studying ethnic relations but not for a chemist.

Sorry I can't join you but do keep me informed.  Best,


Some of the factors in the list below of 20 questions to be asked about the legitimacy of surveillance also apply to revelation of its fruits.

TABLE 1: Questions for Judgment and Policy

  1. Goals—Have the goals been clearly stated, justified and prioritized? Are they consistent with the values of a democratic society?
  2. Accountable, public and participatory policy development—Has the decision to apply the technique been developed through an open process and, if appropriate, with participation of those to be subject to it? This involves a transparency principle.
  3. Law and ethics—Are the means and ends not only legal, but also ethical?
  4. Opening doors—Has adequate thought been given to precedent-creation and long term consequences?
  5. Golden rule—Would the controllers of the system be comfortable in being its subject, as well as its agent? Where there is a clear division between agents and subjects, is reciprocity or equivalence possible and appropriate?
  6. Informed consent—Are participants fully apprised of the system’s presence and the conditions under which it operates? Is consent genuine (i.e., beyond deception or unreasonable seduction or denial of fundamental services) and can "participation" be refused without dire consequences for the person?
  7. Truth in use—Where personal and private information is involved does a principle of "unitary usage" apply, whereby information collected for one purpose is not used for another? Are the announced goals the real goals?
  8. Means-ends relationships—Are the means clearly related to the end sought and proportional in costs and benefits to the goals?
  9. Can science save us?—Can a strong empirical and logical case be made that a means will in fact have the broad positive consequences its advocates claim (the does-it-really-work question")?
  10. Competent application—Even if in theory it works, does the system (or operative) using it apply it as intended and in the appropriate manner?
  11. Human review—Are automated results with significant implications for life chances subject to human review before action is taken?
  12. Minimization—If risks and harm are associated with the tactic, is it applied to minimize these showing only the degree of intrusiveness and invasiveness that is absolutely necessary?
  13. Alternatives—Are alternative solutions available that would meet the same ends with lesser costs and greater benefits (using a variety of measures not just financial)?
  14. Inaction as action—Has consideration been given to the "sometimes it is better to do nothing" principle?
  15. Periodic review—Are there regular efforts to test the system's vulnerability, effectiveness and fairness and to review policies and procedures?
  16. Discovery and rectification of mistakes, errors and abuses—Are there clear means for identifying and fixing these (and in the case of abuse, applying sanctions)?
  17. Right of inspection—Can individuals see and challenge their own records?
  18. Reversibility—If evidence suggests that the costs outweigh the benefits, how easily can the means (e.g., extent of capital expenditures and available alternatives) be given up?
  19. Unintended consequences—Has adequate consideration been given to undesirable consequences, including possible harm to agents, subjects and third parties? Can harm be easily discovered and compensated for?
  20. Data protection and security—Can agents protect the information they collect? Do they follow standard data protection and information rights as expressed in documents such as the Code of Fair Information Protection Practices and the expanded European Data Protection Directive?


August 1, 2009

Greetings Gary, Dmitri, Ruth, Peter, Tom and Jackie

I thought I would put out some reflections before our board meeting.
Let me start by saying that my understanding of the Goffman archive is that it is just that, a digital repository of the known information relevant to the life, times and associates of Erving Goffman. In that sense, it is like the Nixon Library except it has neither bricks nor mortar.  As you know, the Nixon library holds both positive and negative information about old RMN, for example, his taped conversations, which more than anything gave people a deeper, more complete understanding of the man---although they certainly were not something Nixon and those close to him (wife, daughters, etc) ever wanted to be public. I see the Goffman archive as stand-alone project. It is independent of any particular research question or agenda, but it is available to any and all (e.g. scholars, journalists, students) who are interested in understanding this most unique man and his work. It is a data base waiting to be mined. I do not see this openness as problematic in anyway. Even though the information contained in the on-line archive is available to anyone, who might actually want to access this site that shouldn't? What would be our reasons for restricting access?

Gary addresses what should or should not be posted and I would like to address this in part. Fortunately (in a matter of speaking) Erving has a very small number of people who can be counted as "related". Two (his sister and his cousin) are enthusiastic and supportive of the archive and have become participants in the project in an advisory capacity.  This leaves Erving's adult son from his marriage with Sky (deceased), his second wife (since remarried) and an adult daughter. What, if any, claim should they have over Erving's legacy? (the question is one that comes up for celebrities. For example, should Michael Jackson's drug use be hidden in deference to his minor children? )The issue is, of course, discrediting information. (consider Jefferson and his relationship with his black slave Sally Hemings---should that information have been excised from the public record?). Posting words of praise and honor are not objectionable to anyone. This is not the case with words, ideas, information that might negate, distract, contradict or otherwise discredit Goffman's presentation of self, words that were---up to the time we posted them in the archive---part of Erving's backstage, known only to him and accessible to few, maybe to no one else.  So I cannot imagine that Erving would approve of this whole endeavor. But any portrait of the man that deferentially respected the boundaries he established when he was alive would fall short if it did not push those boundaries in quest of a larger picture. 

So is there a line between the "personal" and the "too personal"? Imagine this was the "Alvin Gouldner Archive" put together to document the life, times and associates of another influential sociologist.  Should accounts of his various love affairs be excluded because they are too personal? Should the terms and conditions of his will (how he defines his beneficiaries, how much of an estate he accumulated, what charities he gave to, etc.) be excluded because it is "private" even though the will is a matter of publicly recorded information? All of this informs us---scholars, historians and sociologists, students, writers, even the idly curious---about the man and what we know about the man helps us appreciate his sociology. If we wish to understand "the person" then we need to "get personal" 

so, these are some of my thoughts about these difficult questions

to be continued
ciao for now


August 2, 2009

Sherri well put as always but a couple of quick responses --Nixon was a public figure and he knew his life would be open as a result (both legally and because of the demand-temptation-rewards for revelation). I think that a “public figure” (holding apart issues of definition), particularly one attached to the state should/could have a greater tilt toward revelation than is the case for others. I think there is a middle ground to strive for or (if not forever to necessarily be trapped in the wishywashy middle) --at least not to get drawn into the vortex of the compelling arguments on both sides for openness and closure. It is easiest to let it all or out or let none out which is why the absolutists don’t have to think much they can just rely on what as fundamentalists they know to be true. The hard work comes in drawing some lines such as between relevant and not relevant personal stuff. There is also a point about efficiency --no one wants to be flooded with the fullest possible story when a lot of it is irrelevant to the usual concerns (the irrelevant can vary from the kind of corn flakes preferred to being color blind etc.). The solidity or validity of stuff, especially if hurtful, stigmatizing etc. is another factor. I sense something I can't put into words very well and it borders on a mushy sense of the sacred. Through Goffman and those who came before, we learned about humanness, dignity etc. residing in selective release of aspects of the personal for living persons and the other's tactful attending and disattending. There is something residual around that respect even for the dead which calls for discretion, even in the face of revelations that are legal. I can't conceptualize it now and it conflicts with other values but it is there. Sorry I can't attend the meeting.


August 2, 2009

Greetings, Garry:

Thanks for chiming in with more thoughts, which are to the point and need to be considered carefully.  The degree of privacy we accord to dead ASA and USA presidents may vary, but the difference shrinks with the passage of time.  The time lag may contract even further when we deal with figures as extraordinary as Erving Goffman, with the players as central to understanding cultural dynamics as EG.

I agree that certain concerns are hard to translate into practical guidelines.  There will always be an honest difference of opinion on particular documents we consider making public, and it is important to leave ample room for such disagreements.  The question is bound to arise which decision to follow when EGA board members cannot reach a consensus. 

The important thing is that we are prepared to tackle the issues in earnest and in public.  The process of our collective deliberation is no less important than the outcome, and I am grateful to you and Sherri for your willingness to weigh in on the problem, substantively and procedurally.    

All best, Dmitri

August 8, 2009

Dear Dmitri and Board  (I hope I haven't left anyone out),

I have given a great deal of thought to the issue of posting Erving's and Skye's wills in the EG Archive and can come to no conclusion with which I feel ease.

I have printed out and read Sherri's elegant position on the pro-side and find it quite convincing.  However, in reading Gary's letter expressing very well his sense of hesitation about the posting, I find I share that feeling of uncertainty concerning  where to draw the line on making public intensely personal elements of someone's life.

Up to now we have collected the personal memories of people involved to varying degree with Erving, reporting on their interactions with him--i.e. as a fellow  graduate student at Chicago, a colleague, a student of Erving's at Berkeley and/or University of Pennsylvania, etc.  In such interaction Erving never seemed to request (from reading the interviews) that what had transpired between him and another be kept secret.  Now, we are considering posting his and Skye's wills, which are, I believe, in a different category, where persons may expect or request privacy.  Such a category would also include love letters and other types of  personal documents  which could affect relationships with others that he would not want known, or could affect current relationships.  (It may be no accident that his working papers or field notes  cannot be located.)  I think release of this material requires more special consideration.

My hesitation concerning this issue stems also from the fact that we lack knowledge of an actual researcher with an actual research goal to which we could apply Gary's list of rules of surveillance  to consider (which brings to mind protection of human subjects protocol).  It is difficult for me to decide when we should go beyond the testimony of others (which has a validity of its own) and the release of a very personal document, which could, of course, give added insight to Erving's personality, thoughts, various significant feelings and relationships.

I am sorry that a broken rib prevents me from meeting with the Board and seeing all of you in San Francisco to hear other arguments on both sides of this important  issue.  Please keep me informed about decisions at the meeting.

Best to all,


November 15, 2010

Hi Sherri -

Not sure where you're at in the writing stage of your work on Erving. Possibly you've done this already, but give some consideration to writing, probably in a preface or introduction to the body of the book, a discussion of the Confidentiality and Privacy issue; those matters already posted in the Goffman Archives wherein you, Gary Marx, Jackie Wiseman, and Dmitri weigh in on this subject in consideration of Goffman's desire for privacy about his personal life and his subsequent instructions to seal his records upon his death. Much in the postings of July 10, 11, August 1, 2, and 8 - 2009 cover a lot of territory in this regard.

I've expressed my thoughts on the issue as posted in the EGA Comments section.To sum it up I conclude Erving's was an unreasonable expectation since he was a very public man who in his lifetime, was fully engaged with others and did not live a solitary, reclusive life. As the reluctant subject of personal enquiry he continues to be eminently celebrated with a growing public of hundreds of thousands who have read his books and acknowledge him to be a major figure in sociology. As such, he does not have a legitimate claim to squelch other's memories and impressions about him; yes, even in death. Can anyone imagine suppressing what is known about Tolstoy, Samuel Johnson, Lincon, Freud, and thousands of great women and men in the literary, political, intellectual, and art world? Consistent with his arguments in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving, too, presented himself in numerous ways and made divers impressions embedded in the minds of many with whom he interacted. He reveals many faces as a friend, acquaintance, professor, mentor, family man, and general interactant with others beyond academia. The multifaceted self presentations reveal a man of complexity and contradiction. Not unusual for a genius. Like Walt Whitman he can say .  .  .  "I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes". And don't we all!

What we are dealing with is biographical gossip. I hold gossip has gotten a bum rap. It's a term not to always be viewed pejoratively. A working definition of gossip from my view is this; simply put, gossip occurs when two or more engage in informational communication, often in an evaluative way, about another who is known to them - but is not present. The business of interpersonal sociality and of the larger society cannot proceed without such doings and shared information. Thus the line between (biographical) gossip and intellectual history is thin (Gary Alan Fine) but one must view the goodness and necessity of gossip in human affairs. Stay the course.



* 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 four partially overlapping sections: “Documents and Papers,” “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).