Richard See Comments on Erving Goffman

In mid-December, 2011, Dmitri Shalin interviewed me by phone about the one time I met Goffman, which was at Jackie Wiseman’s place in Redwood City around 1970 or so.  Something Dmitri mentioned in the interview made me suspect that I had probably misinterpreted what Goffman had intended to mean by what he said.  Goffman had made what I considered rude remarks about Jackie’s living room, some complementary remarks about Sherri Cavan’s home, and had said something to the effect that he had had the interior of his own home painted white.  I took what he said about his own home to mean that it was barren, empty, and sterile.  I then read the interviews in the archives of people I had met face to face:  Sherri, Jackie, and Ralph Turner, from whom I a taken a Culture and Personality class at UCLA.  In these interviews Sherri refers to his beautiful rugs and Jackie refers to an 18th century bench and they both refer to his window with a view overlooking Berkeley and Oakland.  After reading these it seemed to me that Goffman’s place was white for the same reason that museums and galleries are painted white (or some other ‘neutral’ color) – to provide an unobtrusive background for the display of such things as beautiful rugs and 18th century benches, i.e., symbols of social status.  I believe my original interpretation, which I held for over thirty years, was probably based on two things.  I had heard from someone at some time previously that Goffman’s wife had committed suicide.  My second wife had told me shortly before our trip to the PSA meeting in San Jose the she wanted to separate.  Since my first divorce had been very painful, I anticipated more pain and loneliness and probably ‘projected’ this onto Goffman. 
Also what popped out of the Sherri and Jackie interviews was how often Goffman’s cracks and comments were based on visual observations.  For those who are more familiar with him and his writings this should come as no surprise, but it was to me.  In Jackie’s interview she refers to his visual observation in an eating place of two people sitting at another table and his interpretation that one of them was attempting to seduce the other.  He asks Jackie how he knows that, she says she doesn’t know, and he says he’ll have to think about it, i.e., that this was probably an    intuitive interpretation on his part and he had not yet figured out what he had seen that led him to this conclusion. 

I then read Sherri’s piece on Goffman’s childhood and adolescence, many of the interviews of people who had been mentioned in other interviews, and Goffman’s early unpublished writings in the archive on The Role of Status Symbols in Social Organization (for E.W. Burgess, like Goffman, originally from a small Canadian town) in which he briefly discusses ‘Curator Groups’, his M.A. Thesis in which there is a chapter on his analysis of the living rooms of some of the people he studied, and so far the first 127 pages of his doctoral dissertation on a Shetland Island community and the bibliography of that dissertation.  I also read Dimitri’s piece on Goffman’s change in attitude toward mental illness.  I have not read or reread The Presentation of Self book or anything else that he wrote after that.

There are two questions about Goffman and his writings that interest me most.  Why was he so visually oriented and why are The Presentation of Self and some of his other works so popular, both within academia but outside sociology and outside of academia?  (In 2007 he was the sixth most cited author in the humanities after Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Albert Bandura, and Anthony Giddens and ahead of Weber, Freud, Kant, Heidigger, Chomsky, Piaget, Durkheim, and Marx.  See  I have more guesses about the answers to the first question than the second. 

Goffman’s Visual Orientation – Personal  (This is based mostly on Sherri’s piece on Goffman’s childhood and adolescence)

Yiddish  According to his sister neither she nor he were fluent in Yiddish, but their parents were.  In his dissertation Goffman writes, “For example, parents frequently exclude children from communication by spelling messages out or by using a language not known to their children.” (p. 109).  Most children attempt to figure out what their parents are up to in such situations by visual observation and other cues, e.g. intonation patterns.  In his early adolescence Goffman moved to what Sherri calls a Yiddish speaking enclave in the city of Winnipeg, where he would have been surrounded by adults who spoke a language he did not understand or speak very well.  Apparently one of the things he did in Winnipeg was retreat to his room, which may only have been a typical adolescent response to being ‘surrounded by fools’. 

Poker  His father played poker and Goffman started playing fairly early.  Poker is a game in which concealment (a poker face), misrepresentation (bluffing), and the detection of ‘tells’ (especially visual cues) are very important.  (Also, aside from visual orientation, in much of his writing Goffman takes the role of the detector and the themes of concealment and misrepresentation are prevalent.)

Vaudeville, Slapstick, Silent Movies   Sherri points out the prevalence of this kind of entertainment in Winnipeg.  She emphasizes the one-up aspects of slapstick.  Another aspect of all of them is that they can be enjoyed without understanding much English, which was one of the reasons they were so popular with immigrant groups, i.e., they were mainly visual.  Often vaudeville acts were accompanied by patter, but you didn’t have to understand the patter to enjoy a juggler, an acrobat, a magician, or an animal act. 

Goffman’s Visual Orientation – Academic

One of his teachers at the University of Toronto, where Goffman did his undergraduate work, was the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, who focused on the visual observation of human actions and published Introduction to Kinesics in 1952.  (Coincidently, Birdwhistell was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where Goffman spent the last years of his career.)

One of his major professors at the University of Chicago was the anthropologist W.L. Warner. I believe Warner’s first book was A Black Civilization:  A Social Study of an Australian Tribe.  The centerpiece of that book, as I remember it, had to do with the relationship between a (verbal) myth and a (visually observed) ritual.  I mentioned above that I had taken a course from Ralph Turner.  In that course he criticized Warner for using the visual observation of people’s homes as part of an assessment of class status.  Turner believed that this was too subjective, i.e., not sufficiently replicable or ‘reliable’ in sociology talk.  I also mentioned above that in his M.A. Thesis Goffman devoted a chapter to the interpretation of the living rooms of some of the people he studied. 

More generally I think of the ‘Chicago School of Sociology’ as being very ethnographic in orientation.  Here I’m going to point out a main difference between the ethnographic fieldwork situation of most anthropologists and that of most sociologists.  The dirty little secret or backstage aspect for anthropologists is that they usually do not understand or speak the language of the people they are studying very well – especially in their first fieldwork.  By contrast most English speaking sociologists study English speaking people.  This situation more or less forces anthropologists to rely a great deal on visual observations.  I asked my wife, Anne Jennings, who did her fieldwork among Nubians in Egypt and spent at least a semester at the American University in Cairo learning Arabic, how much of her dissertation was based on visual observation to which she replied “A lot”.  However, anthropologists writing dissertations usually attempt to gloss over how little of their ethnography is based on relatively ‘normal’ conversations.  (Two language aspects that are relatively easy to collect without knowing a language very well are kinship terms and myths, which are both relatively standardized and repeatable). The situation is more or less reversed for sociological ethnographers who know the language of the people they study well and do not have to pay as much attention to visual observations.  Another main difference between anthropologist and sociologist ethnographers is that anthropologists who are participants as well as observers are more or less in the position of children (they don’t know how to behave properly) and sociologists are usually in a somewhat one-up position with regard to the people they have usually studied.

I don’t know enough about the history of sociology or the history of the symbolic interactionist tradition to judge whether this is very accurate, but it seems to me that Goffman was one of the first sociologists to emphasize the visually observable aspects of human communication, especially face to face communication.  From what little I’ve read in Wikipedia and other web sources, Blumer who came to Berkeley from the University of Chicago in 1952, also wrote about visual observations.  I believe Blumer was Chair of the sociology department when Goffman was hired and, I would guess, was influential in hiring Goffman.

On the Popularity of The Presentation of Self and Some of Goffman’s Later Books

In the 1950’s popular, somewhat sociological books came out: The Lonely Crowd – 1950 (whose major author, David Riesman, was educated in law and clerked for Justice Brandeis), The Organization Man – 1956 (by William H. Whyte a journalist working for Fortune Magazine), and The Hidden Persuaders – 1957 (by Vance Packard also a journalist). The Anchor paperback edition of Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which was published in 1959, was also popular and the only one of these books written by an academically trained sociologist.  Previously, Coming of Age in Samoa by Mead and Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict were popular and subsequently some of the writings of another anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, were relatively popular.  What all of these books have in common is one or another kind of lucid prose style which appears to be effortless. 

Goffman’s Prose Style  One of the reasons some of Goffman’s books became popular was that they were written in a somewhat high-brow style while, at the same time, being ‘accessible’, i.e., clear and fairly easy to read.  To me it most resembles the style of those who are published in the New York Review of Books and the prose style of the books that reviewers in the NYR are likely to review  most favorably, e.g., they tend to hate sociological jargon.  An example of Goffman’s taste is that he suggested Stations of the Lost as part of the title for Jackie Wiseman’s book.  I would have suggested Making the Loop, which comes from a statement by one of the economically poor alcoholics that Jackie studied.  Stations of the Lost is much more evocative both literarily and emotionally than Making the Loop.  I’ll discuss changes in Goffman’s prose style later. 

The Reader’s Recognition of Truth  “As he said in the beginning of his book Presentation of Self, he need produce no proof of what he says, for the reader will recognize the truth from his own experience”.  (From the interview of Walter Clark in the archives).  This certainly hits the nail on the head with respect to the way I remember reading Goffman.  For example, I was drafted into the army and went through basic training, so the concept of a total institution and how it works were very understandable to me because of this experience.  Another aspect of recognizing the truth is that readers are led to become aware of things that they have become accustomed to, taken for granted, and about which they have previously been somewhat unaware, so their ‘discovery’ has a kind of mystery story solution quality.

The Selection of Memorable Analogies, Terms, and Examples 

I haven’t read any of Goffman’s post-student writings for over thirty years, but I remember without strain the front-stage/back-stage analogy, the term ‘cooling the mark out’, and the merry-go-round example of role distance.

Small Picture Versus Big Picture Emphasis

The only sociologist who ranks slightly above Goffman in terms of 2007 citations in the humanities is Anthony Giddings, a British big picture sort who has published at least 34 books.  Some of his titles are:  Capitalism and Modern Social Thought, The Constitution of Sociology, and Modernity and Self Identity (this is from Wikipedia, I had never heard of Giddings before and have never read anything by him).  Some of the weaknesses of the small picture approach of Goffman are also its strengths.  By being mostly ahistorical it is also not as ‘topical’ or ‘faddish’ as big picture approaches are likely to be.  My sense is that the ‘grammar’ of human face to face communication has the relative stability that language grammar has in comparison to language vocabulary.  Also, there are aspects of face to face communication that seem very widespread and some that may be close to universal.  In addition Goffman’s approach brings sociology down to the personal.  The two most prominent sociologists of the 1950’s were Talcott Parsons (Grand Theorist) and Robert King Merton (Middle Range Theorist), neither of whom had as many as 500 citations in the humanities in 2007.

 Some Miscellaneous Comments

Somewhat Misleading Terms 

It seems to me that the ‘dramaturgical approach’ is intentionally (since Goffman was a gamester) or unintentionally misleading.  What is for the most part left out of this approach is the script of the play itself, i.e., such things as acts, scenes, dialogue, soliloquies, etc., and more generally, the verbal aspects of drama. 

The differentiation between quantitative and qualitative methods tends to obscure the fact that most quantitative research is based on what people say rather that what they do.  Questionnaires of one sort or another are the prototypical tool of this method.  Qualitative methods tend to focus both on what people say and on what they do, including things they make.  It is quite possible, however, to count what people do, e.g. how many hours of labor they devote to hunting and how many to gathering plus how much food is produced by hunting and how much by gathering.  Sherri gives an example of going out and counting types of cocktail signs people have put up outside of bars. 

Neil Smelser 

I read John Irwin’s interview before I read Smelser’s.  Irwin believes Goffman left Berkeley “partially because of the fact that mediocre sociologists like Neil Smelser, and not him, got most of the rewards that the university distributed”.  So I was biased against Smelser before I read his interview.  It seems to me that Smelser gives a very self-serving account of his written exchanges with Blumer.  It reminded me of the accounts of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice which avoid discussing the possibility that the invasion or Iraq was a colossal blunder.  Smelser seems to have taken the extremely elaborated version of structural-functionalism by Talcott Parsons very seriously.  Structural functionalism in general and the Parsonian version in particular tend to underemphasize what has come to be called the ‘agency’ of people and to treat them as ‘cultural dopes’, Harold Garfinkel’s only memorable term.  My guess is that this was the kind of criticism that Blumer kept pointing out to Smelser.  Smelser ends his discussion with the implication that he had more or less given up on convincing Blumer, since Blumer simply didn’t understand the rightness of Smelser’s positions.  More annoying to me was Smelser’s statement that, “Erving’s brilliance was not transferred to others”, which among other things, denigrates Goffman’s students.  It is also quite wrong-headed.  Brilliant professor’s don’t transfer their brilliance to others, they attract brilliant students.  (I’m uncomfortable with the word brilliance in this context, what I mean is that bright, creative, curious teachers attract bright, creative, curious students).  I’ve only known two of Goffman’s students personally, Sherri Cavan and Harvey Sacks, but Sherri mentions a number of others that I’ve heard of and all of them, both the ones I’ve met and the ones I haven’t, seem exceptionally bright.  Also, in terms of transferring (in the sense of being influential),  Goffman was the sixth most cited author in the humanities in 2007 – Smelser doesn’t even make the list of those with over 500 citations.  Although I don’t think Smelser is a very trustworthy witness, I do believe what he says about Goffman not being able to keep a poker face when playing with Smelser.  One of my deceased colleagues, who was a good poker player, told me he had played with Goffman.  If Goffman had been a bad player I’m almost 100% sure my colleague would have been more than happy to say so -- he didn’t.  In the archived interviews I’ve read no one besides Smelser says or implies that Goffman was a bad poker player.  My guess is that Goffman’s feelings about Smelser were so close to the surface that he couldn’t hide them easily and/or that the ‘status stakes’ in the game were too high for Goffman.

Rehearsal and Public Performance 

From what I’ve read in the archives it seems that Goffman’s interpretation of Jackie Wiseman’s living room that I witnessed in the evening had been somewhat rehearsed.  According to John Irwin, Goffman had arrived at Jackie’s house earlier in the day and said, “Jackie, you have managed to pull together the crassest, dowdiest collection of furniture and decorations I have ever seen.”  Even further back in time Goffman had devoted a chapter to the analysis of living rooms in 1949 (Some Characteristics of Responses to Depicted Situations).  From what I’ve read in the archives Goffman seems to have been uncomfortable in public performances, e.g. sweating in lectures.  Although the gathering at Jackie’s house was not a large public, it was a public of sorts.  I believe one of the ways that Goffman attempted to deal with his discomfort was by being very well prepared.

Early, Middle, and Late Writings    

In Goffman’s early writings as a student up through his Ph.D. dissertation there were many fine terminological and typological distinctions.  There were also a lot of footnotes that in Sherri Cavan’s words, “…show deference to this theorist or that article – you know what academic footnotes are like.”  What student writings attempt to show, among other things, is the hard work and effort the student has put in to learn the basics of their craft. 

The ‘Cooling the Mark Out’ article (1952) seems transitional both chronologically and in terms of style.  (I’ve only reread the first part, which discusses the language and activities of the con game, and stopped before he begins to apply this analogy more generally to social interactions).  I also looked at the 10 footnotes, three of which refer to conversations with his graduate student friends and peers, i.e., it is not as academically formal as his student writings.   

It seems to me that the most significant break with the sociological version of the academic tradition is The Presentation of Self book (first published in 1956).  According to Sherri half of the footnotes referred to novels.  This was the clear beginning of his middle writings which are the best known and most popular.  In these writings the hard work behind them is somewhat concealed and the prose is made to seem effortless.  This may have been influenced by Angelica Schuyler Choate, Goffman’s first wife, who was from an ‘upper-upper’ family.  In Chapter 3 of her M.A. Thesis on ‘The Upper-Upper Subculture’ she writes, for example, “…. in general the upper-upper child has to exert himself very little to maintain his position as an upper-upper.” (p.27-28) More generally throughout this chapter she gives examples of how upper-upper people should not try too hard at anything they do.  Since at least as far back as graduate school, Goffman’s  fellow grad students noticed his attempt to appear to have a social status higher than the one he was born into, this may have influenced his ‘middle style’.  In the charming interview with Saul Mendlovitz he speaks of Goffman being a Jew acting like a Canadian acting like a Britisher when he was in grad school.

The Gender Advertisements book, which wasn’t published until 1979, was written sometime after Goffman left Berkeley in 1967 or 1968 (See Sherri Cavan’s interview).  This book also seems transitional to me. In it Goffman interprets posed, still, reproductions of models rather than ‘live’, moving people.  I believe it is his only book which includes many illustrations, a possible reason it took so long to publish, i.e., illustrations are more expensive to publish than texts.   

There were two main late writings.  Frame Analysis (1974) seems a more general, more ‘theoretical’ book than those which preceded it.  Since I haven’t read this book, I don’t know to what extent the concept of a ‘frame’ is different from the concept of  a ‘definition of the situation’’, which was formulated by W.I. Thomas many years previously.  Forms of Talk (1981) is composed of five essays in which, I believe for the first time, he gives serious attention to language itself.  (The Cooling the Mark Out article does deal with the language of con artists, but mostly to borrow terms that can then be applied to the analysis of some aspects of social interaction.)  This late turn toward what has become known as sociolinguistics was probably partially influenced by the anthropological linguist Dell Hymes, his colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, and by his second wife, the linguist Gillian Sankoff, who is still teaching at Penn.      

Whether or not this periodization of Goffman’s writings is adequate, it does indicate that like many creative people, he was not content to keep repeating himself.  Miles Davis once said something to the effect that although he loved the blues in themselves and as a basis for improvisation, he felt he had to force himself to change.  Bob Dylan’s switch from acoustical to electronic music or Picasso’s almost continuous changes in style are other examples. This may also help to explain a pattern that Dmitri seems interested in, i.e., that Goffman’s students use him more in the earlier part of their careers than later. 

Conversational Analysts  

Sherri Cavan discusses the involvement of Harvey Sacks and other of Goffman’s students with Harold Garfinkel at UCLA.  I think the most obvious reason for this is that Garfinkel based much of his work on the analysis of what people say and Goffman didn’t.  I would guess that these students got their degrees from Berkeley partially because the sociology department there was more prestigious than UCLA’s and partially because Garfinkel’s status in the UCLA sociology department was, to put it mildly, strained, i.e., their affiliation with him would have endangered their reception of a Ph.D.

Curator Groups  

Goffman discusses curator groups in his student paper on The Role of Status Symbols in Social Organization of 1948.  This attracted my attention because I come from what I believe he would consider a curator group background.  On the Chinese-American side of my family the main business was and is the F. Suie One Company, whose merchandise includes ‘high-end’ Asian art and antiques.  According to Goffman, “Wherever the symbolizing equipment of a group becomes elaborate, a ‘curator’ personnel may develop whose task it is to care for, cultivate, sustain and develop this symbolizing equipment…Those who fill these roles are typically recruited from classes which have much less status than the class to which such services are offered.  Thus, there are people whose everyday work requires them to become proficient in the use of symbols which signify a status higher than the one they themselves possess….It is necessary to add here that either the framework presented in this paper is inadequate for the study of curator groups, or the study of these groups inevitably leads to grave difficulties.  Paradoxically, it would seem that a specialist in the status symbolism of a group plays much the same sacred role as one who is entrusted with the collective symbols of the group.  This is especially true when the symbol-vehicle has a large expressive component.” (p.19-20). Goffman’s interest in curator groups is that they are, “an institutionalized source of misrepresentation, false expectation, and dissensus.” (p. 19) My interest in this concept is that it somewhat explains why the status of myself and my family has always seemed ambiguous to me.  The word I have used to refer to this vague status is Bohemian, which includes artists and others who ‘develop symbolizing equipment’. 

In my interview I referred to Jackie Wiseman’s living room as ‘graduate student, thrift shop Bohemian’.  This was a confabulation on my part.  All I actually remember is that it seemed unpretentious, familiar, and ‘comfortable’, hence my use of the word Bohemian.

My sense is that Goffman was genuinely interested in Jackie’s place, that he was not simply giving a performance.  One reason for his interest may have been that there was very little attempt at concealment, no very clear differentiation between front and back stage, e.g., the crumbs he noticed on her toaster.  Another reason may have been that the symbols displayed did not jibe with what he knew to be the ‘objective’ class status of Jackie and her husband, i.e., the symbols represented a lower rather than a higher status than the one they had.

Earlier in Goffman’s paper on symbols he writes, “Some wealthy upper-middle class groups and certain highly educated groups refrain from behaving in positively valued ways on the grounds, respectively, of propriety and disdain.” (p. 5) Disdain may be too strong a word and disinterest may more accurately reflect the attitude of some highly educated people toward symbols of class status.  More importantly, it does not seem to occur to Goffman that his loose definition of curator groups would apply to academics, especially those working in universities with a fairly large proportion of students from the upper-upper class, e.g. the Ivy League schools on the east coast and Stanford in California.  However, if one leaves aside relative class status, academicians in general are members of a group that cares for, cultivates, sustains, develops, and even bestows social status ‘symbolizing equipment’, e.g., university degrees if nothing else.


* 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).