Remembering Erving Goffman

Dennis Wrong

(Dennis Wrong, “Imagining the Real,” Pp. 3-21 in Bennett M. Berger, ed., Authors of Their Own Lives. Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists. Berkeley: University of California Press.)

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In a senior year we were joined by a short, articulate young man named Erving Goffman. I had met him on a summer job for the government in Ottawa; on learning that he planned to resume his interrupted studies by coming to the University of Toronto, to obtain the remaining degree credits he needed, I urged him to try sociology. (It may well be the only thing I am remembered for in future histories of sociology!)

Goffman’s stories are legion among those who knew him well, although mine go back farther than just about anyone else’s. I shall confine myself to a few recollections about his intellectual outlook. The widespread notion that Erving was an inspired naïf, a novelist manqué with unusual powers of social observation, is utterly wrong. He already had an acute and far-reaching theoretical mind when I met him. He was rebuking us for reading textbooks and popularizations instead of tacking the originals. Once he defended Freud’s emphasis on the body and the priority of infant experience against the more congenial neo-Freudian culturalists we all favored. His later antipathy to psychoanalysis is well known, but he created in me the first small twinge of doubt as to whether there was not perhaps more truth and profundity in the vision of the founder than in all the Eric Fromms, Karen Horneys, and Gordon Allports who were so ready to revise him. Erving had studied philosophy and had actually read in full Whitehead’s Process and Reality. He argued in Whiteheadian language that reality should be conceived “along the lines on which it is naturally articulated,” a rule he obviously followed in his later work.

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Both [C. W. M] Hart and [S. D.] Clark introduced us to Talcott Parsons’s Structure of Social Action, and Parsons himself visited us for several public lectures. I remember Goffman and me infuriating our classmates by asking him questions that gave him impression that all present read and understood his book as thoroughly as we had, with the result that his later remarks were over the head of most of the audience. Robert Merton also came and gave us his famous discussion of manifest and latent functions. I was enthralled by his clarity and rigor after the rather fuzzy, organicist anthropological functionalism to which I had been exposed and decided then and there to do graduate work at Columbia instead of following the usual path of Canadian students to Chicago. To be sure, I was also excited by New York, where I had visited Geneva school of friends several years before, and looked forward to the prospect of finding congenial literary and anti-Stalinist left political circles there.

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What I had come to value most in a sociologist is not theoretical reach, logical rigor, empirical exactitude, or moral passion but a palpable sense if reality. It is not a unitary trait, and it is more easily pointed to than described. My old classmate Erving Goffman had it, which is why his work will live. But it is not limited to accounts of microinteractions or everyday life. Raymond Aron had it too. Of the “classical” sociologists, it was preeminently possessed by Max Weber.