Sherri Cavan and Arnold Glass on Qualitative Research and the Ethics of Participant Observation

September 16, 2009

Hi Arnie

Again, I enjoyed your thoughtful reflection on the many issues Goffman (I can never think of him as EG) presents both as a person and as a professional sociologist.  These issues of  covert observation, and in some cases experimentation, came to a head in the early '70s when,  after considerable concern about work such as the ones you mention led  to university committees on the use of human subjects and the role of informed consent. (see also the work of Leon Festinger and his experiments) There seems to be some kind of continuum from the covert observing of bar patrons whose anonymity was  a part of the social setting itself to observing people in places such as work or community settings where their identity was known and/or knowable to the actual manipulation of the social world to observe how people react. (e.g Festinger, Milgram, Zimbardo, etc.) Having sat on committees on human research there was considerable debate as to where to draw the line between what protected human subjects and what exploited them.

Also you might find these comments by Pierre Bourdieu interesting Discoverer-of-the-Infinitely-Small?classic_ui=1

ciao for now

September 16, 2009
Good to hear from you, Sherri.

Thanks for responding to my recent  posting on "Comments" - we have a dialogue! I have no quarrel with  covert observation and note taking of the doings of "the infinitely  small" as well as experimentation in some situations. My remarks were  prompted by Dmitri's hypothesis that "Goffman's infringements on the  interaction order were strategic, systematic, theoretically  significant, and worthy of close study by interactionist sociologists".  OK so far but Dimitri also notes that "his (EG) incivility (was)  painfully obvious to those present". Assuming this, so what's at issue?

At issue is the "incivility painfully obvious to those present" and memoirists observations that many of those on the receiving end of a "painful" encounter were vulnerable subjects (restaurant servers etc.), students, and colleagues - without power. Possibly my use of the word deception is a stretch but I hold fast to the charge that those without power to defend themselves from assault are not fair game for research.

As you, Dimitri, and the board indicate, there are several tracks to exploring EG; his work, his biography as related to his oeuvre, and the man. The interpersonal things about EG are delicate and most likely the most difficult area to explore. So if some of his antics were not  always research driven, then we are still left with Goffman as a  character, with questionable "character"  - as I've mentioned in a  previous posting. But that's another story.

Has the ASA come up with any statement providing guidelines for  research? I believe the APA (American Psychological Association) has  produced this kind of document.

And thank you for the Bourdieu reference which is a wonderful  statement. As for Festinger/Carlsmith "Cognitive Consequences of Forced  Compliance" and whatever controversy ensued - well, at least psychology  got "cognitive dissonance" as a concept into the discipline's  vocabulary.

Now what was a nice young woman doing sitting at a lot of bars for long periods of time (regulars must have thought). Sounds like a neat study. How can I read it or about it?


(Sherri - If our exchange (dialogue) on this issue is suitable for posting in the Comments and Dialogue section - sound out Dimitri on  this. So far there are comments from 10 contributors but no  "dialogue").

September 18, 2009
Greetings, Arnie

I guess there is a supreme irony that Festinger, provided the concept of "cognitive dissonance" using methods that in and of themselves generate a certain cognitive dissonance.

The whole text of Liquor License is posted at
on my home page from the university.  A young man in England enjoyed the text so much that he digitized it and sent it to me as an e-book a number of years ago.  There are also a few other things posted on the page ( that give an impression of how eclectic my intellectual interests became over the years.  Some of the links are active, others are not.

I think the most important aspect of my intellectual development came when I fully understood the role of power and  took Howie Becker's dictum, "Whose side are you on?"  to heart. (an understanding that emerged out of my experience in the SF State student strike in the late 1960's.) A most glaring example can be found in the area of deviance and conformity (often referred to as deviance and social control, but that it a redundancy since deviance is what is controlled, and in that formulation conformity is never seen as problematic, but simply taken for granted) Up until the 1970s or so almost all theorizing and research in the area of rule breaking focused on powerless people and in the ensuing years, even after the recognition of the importance of the crimes of the powerful, such studies never dominated the field. The reasons are varied, most importantly the fact that powerful people and institutions are the usual sponsors of research and even if they are not the sponsors, they have the resources to protect themselves from observation, where the powerless do not.

You are correct in you observation that Goffman's various rule breaking "experiments" exploited the power relationships between himself and those who were the subject/object of such activity.  However, I never thought (or even entertained the idea) that he was engaged in systematic rule breaking as an experimental method (unlike the work of Garfinkel, who started out with a hypothesis---however vaguely formulated---and then addressed rule breaking as a test of that hypothesis.) I believed that Goffman broke rules for fun and profit: first, because it reinforced the sense of his own power to do so and after the fact, he discovered it was profitable to use those experiences as fodder for this theorizing. A relevant example is "Gender Advertisements" which emerged not because of a pre-existing interest in the arrangements between the sexes and how they were demonstrated in popular imagery but because he came across a stash of women's magazines (either at a garage sale or at the Alameda flea market) and saw in them a "field" in which certain questions could be asked and answered.

One of the things that interests me most in the archive is the personal, the questions of biography that frame his intellectual oeuvre.  Personal and difficult to trace out and to some people not an appropriate avenue to peruse, still, they are what interest me.  I am working on two, at present fragmentary, "papers"----the first one I call "Early Erving" exploring his youth, family, and those varied biographical events which can be seen as contributing to the development of the later versions of the man.  For example one small fact is that in high school he was a wrestler. A small detail, but wrestling is a very  special sport, one-on-one in which the participants are always aware of the vulnerabilities of their opponent and the goal is to take down the other.  A small detail of his life, but one (among many) that I see as significant. The second paper I call "Out of the shadows" where I am interested in learning about  his first wife and the nature of their relationship.  Because of her suicide, this is a very touchy subject.  But of course that does not daunt me.

Certainly your close reading of the archive and you willingness to share your reflections is an important contribution to the project, and while we might hope that others would take up the "cause" at present it looks like it is mainly you and me.  So I guess this is a dialogue and I am cc. Dmitri to see if he wants to collate this back and forth and post it.

ciao for now

October 15, 2009
Dear Sherri,

Thank you for your reply to my inquiry re G's intention to run for the ASA presidency. Dmitri also informed me that it was in the context of your telephone conversation with G, that he responded to your question (why do want to run for the presidency of the ASA) by answering you, "because I can" and by inference, you felt "basically that he wanted to validate that he had made it". I must apologize for this overdue response to your September 18, 2009 posting on the EGA dialogue section. Personal issues got a bit hectic for me and I had to put interest in the EGA on the back-burner. All is settled now.

In reflecting on a careful reading of both your September 18 posting in the Dialogue section and your memoir, it occurred to me you are one of very few who had more than a passing acquaintanceship with G. From your early contact with him as a student in his UC Berkeley classes, to your last phone conversation with him when he decided to run for the ASA presidency, your relationship spans around twenty five years until his death. You were an academic peer and a friend and as close to him as he permitted. Your writings posted on the EGA are rich in information, observations, and insight. This leads me to say - stay the course in your work on "papers" about "Early Erving" and "Out of the Shadows".

In a two-fold, interactive way, one might say, "From His Shelf Ye Shall Know the Man" and/or "From the Man Ye Shall Know His Shelf" (thank you Gary Fine). Or, as Dmitri has quoted Nietzche, "every philosophy is a kind of involuntary memoir". And for those who have not yet buried Freud - fiction, philosophy, writing in general, issues from the unconscious (wishes?) fantasies and soul of the writer.

In thinking about your project, consider a trajectory of a pervasive theme in G's writing, I think it noteworthy that G had a relationship (of a sort) with Elizabeth Bott Spillius, in so far as Ms. Bott's interest then, was in social networking. In many ways class consciousness hooks into social networking. I speculate small town Jewish boy from a middle class, small business family had fantasies of escaping from such surroundings. And when one escapes from something uncomfortable (yes?), one "vigorously protects one's back stage behavior" (your words, Sherri) and wants out. Fast forward forty years to those memorable words, "because I can."  Can what? As you indicate "to validate that he had made it"! And yes he did. It was a long journey and he succeeded. Consider the following.

Goffman's published "shelf" began with his M.A. Dissertation (1949) and the essential issue in that work compares responses to depicted experience along social class lines. Mentor W. Lloyd Warner entered the scene. "Wives  whose husbands were skilled to white-collar workers" (Warner-Henry CBS Study of "Big Sister" fans) were compared by Goffman to his study of Hyde-Park "women whose husbands were professionals or junior executives." Clearly a comparative study in socio-economic class "responses to depicted experience". In addition to utilizing a TAT projective test to detect personality distinctions, Goffman focused on "living room furnishings", and "magazines regularly received in homes of Hyde Park subjects".

Following this study, Goffman published "Symbols of Class Status" in the British Journal of Sociology (1951). A footnote states "A modified version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the University of Chicago Society for Social Research in 1949. The writer is grateful to W. Lloyd Warner for direction and to Robert Armstrong, Tom Burns, and Angelica Choate for criticism." Interestingly this footnote dates the time of familiarity with Ms. Choate, his future wife. Not surprisingly G sprinkled the paper with terms such as "status, position, role, rank, prestige, esteem, sign-vehicles" (appearing  here for the first time), "status symbols visibly divide the social world into categories of persons . . ." - all appearing on the first page of the article! We know where Erving came from and where he had been and now we know where he wants to go. And he went there. All the way to the presidency of the ASA. He achieved what he wanted  because he could.

In the interim there are many clues to G's self-conscious, class consciousness, peppered throughout the memoirists reports. Not by accident that he marries a Boston Brahmin. And Angelica, who wore blue jeans, later drove a red jaguar, not generally done at the THE University of Chicago, was a fashionista pace setter. EG was on his way.

Pleased to know that you are in the preliminary stage of writing about G and are not daunted or side tracked by moralists. Some philosophers have dealt with the ethics question of biography .  .  .  . Good words to think about are:

"Why aren't other people's affairs my business? Exactly where, and on what grounds, does one draw the line between what is and what is not my business? Why doesn't the simple fact that I am interested in something make it my business? Still more fundamentally, what makes it wrong for me to talk (write) about something that is, for whatever reason, "not my business' "? (1)

"You thus have no rights over our freedom of thought, you princes; no jurisdiction over that which is true or false; no right to determine the objects of our inquiry or to set limits to it; no right to hinder us from its results,  to whomever or however we wish." (2)

Long live freedom of inquiry!


(1)  Emrys Westacott. "The Ethics of Gossiping" International Journal of Philosophy 14:1 pp. 65-90). A response to the statement "gossiping is wrong because other people's private affairs are none of my business."

(2) Attributed to Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

* 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).