Sherry Cavan and Dmitri Shalin on Sky's Master's Thesis

October 11

Dmitri----belated greetings to you.

I read Sky's thesis.  I imagine you have also, so when I say it is quite a document of self-ethnography, you know that already.

Did we once have Erving's Master's thesis in the archive? I would certainly like to read the two documents together.  But the few citations to Erving (in her 1950 thesis) are redolent of a story.  It might not be their story, but maybe it is.  They meet in class; discover they have similar intellectual interests in common (the thematic apprehension test.  Oddly enough I was enamored with the TAT  when I was doing graduate work at UCLA and argued that stories could be used as evidence of a mindset either conducive to upholding the law or conducive to breaking the law.  This is an aside).  From Erving and Skye's discussion of matters sociological came a romantic attraction which resulted in their marriage in 1952.  In addition to her physical attraction, her social class must have generated a special allure for Erving.  Did he write her letters from the Shetland Islands?  Are there traces of them someplace?  We could wish.

But there is a snag in the story.  If Erving thought he was getting an upper class trophy wife, he was mistaken.  From the few accounts in the archives we know (or, kinda know) she was really more bohemian than Bohemian Grove.  She was certainly more liberal, perhaps radical, than Erving and this must have created a certain tension in their relationship, along with her growing dissatisfaction of being "just a housewife."

ciao for now


October 14

Greetings, Sherri:

I am sorry I couldn’t answer earlier.  My mother, who is 90, broke her hip, and I have been taking care of her.  Now that the surgery is over and she is on the way to recovery, I can write a few words in reply to your observations and insights.

The moment I spotted Sky’s thesis in the UC Library catalogue, I knew it must be a find.  The very title – “The Personality Trends in Upperclass Women” – brought to mind Erving’s MA thesis and his first publication, “Symbols of Class Status.”  The fact that Sky extensively quotes Erving’s MA (which you can find in the documents section of our site) tells me that the two shared intellectual interests. 

Erving’s earliest statement on this subject I am familiar with is his 1948 paper that he wrote for Ernest Burgess’s class.  In 1949 he filed his MA thesis “Some Characteristics of Response to Depicted Situations."  A year later Sky defended her MA thesis.  In 1951 Erving published his first article on “Symbols of Class Status,” and in 1953 he defended his Ph.D.  It was more than a polite gesture for Erving to acknowledge critical input from “Angelica Choate” in his 1951 article, alongside Lloyd Warner, Robert Armstrong, and Tom Burns.  I am convinced that the intellectual exchange between the two was a two way street.

In his first article Goffman argues that status symbols “may come to be employed in a ‘fraudulent’ way, i.e., to signify status that the claimant does not in fact possess,” that in America “[o]ffenders of this kind commit a presumption, not a crime,” and that the ready availability of class status symbols in the middle class America tends to “undermine the regard in which costly symbols are held by members of other classes.”  Subtler marks of breeding are needed – “the cultivation of arts,” a “command of foreign languages,” refined “tastes” and “habits” – to separate nouveaux riches uneasy in their skins from those who had their class bread into their bones from childhood on. 

Some of these themes appear in Sky’s thesis that focuses on the upper class women’s “consciousness of class, consumption patterns and status symbols” acquired in boarding schools and country clubs where the aspirants are prepared for their society weddings and future wifely roles.  In a similar vein Sky notes that “the way upper-uppers treat their status symbols suggest that they are uneasy about these symbols which are available to anyone with a certain amount of wealth,” which is why the elite pays close attention to “skill in the use of a set of symbols rather than use of a distinctive set of symbols [and] prize this skill when it is acquired by informal instruction at an early age and to deride it when it is acquired later and/or from impersonal access such as an etiquette book or a magazine on interior decorating.” 

A systematic comparison of EG’s and Sky’s views on class symbols and their deflation in the middle class America should be instructive.  Such an inquiry is likely to reveal the personal dimension of Sky’s musings about upper class women’s personality traits and aspirations.  Clearly, the composite portrait she divines from her sample of 30 women drawn from “a region near Boston” is grounded in Sky’s experience as much as in her data.  She admits that much when she writes that “the following attempts to generalize about upper-upper life patterns and the upper-upper subculture cannot be extensively documented and should in some cases be considered as impressions which need further investigation rather than as statements of fact.”  Given Sky’s pedigree, one can hardly think of someone better qualified to observe the lives of the upper crust women.

This wondrously personal statement made me wonder if, inadvertently, Sky anticipated the story of her life, of her marriage to an upwardly-mobile middle-class striver Erving Goffman.  Sky had 14 years to live after she defended her thesis.  Her life story attests that “lineage symbols” meant something to her, that “upper-uppers are unwilling to accept criticism from people outside their class,” that “downward social mobility for an upper-upper . . . is often an act of protest.”  Her rebellious streak was on display when she defied her strata’s prejudice regarding higher education (“graduate work . . . is not much valued; this is especially true for women”) and pressure to marry “Mr. X, who, brought up in a similar way and educated in private schools, was starting his career in a profession or in one of the Boston banks or investment houses.” 

I think you are right suggesting that Erving might have miscalculated if he sought a “trophy wife.”  Sky seems to be more liberal than Erving, more independent, more public-minded.  The tension in this family reflected various incompatibilities and idiosyncrasies, but Erving’s beliefs about wife’s proper place in the household must have been a factor. 

Wish we could share with Sky’s relatives our discoveries.  All best,



* 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).