Interfacing Biography, Theory and History: The Case of Erving Goffman


  • An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, August 1, 2008.


This study aims to show that much of Erving Goffman's writing is crypto-biographical and that key turns in his intellectual career reflected his life's trajectory and attempts at self-renewal. The case is made that Goffman's theoretical corpus reflects his personal experience as a son of Russian–Jewish immigrants who struggled to raise himself from the obscurity of Canadian Manitoba to international stardom. The concluding section describes the Erving Goffman Archives and the contribution that the large database of documents and biographical materials assembled therein can make to biocritical hermeneutics, a research program focused on the relationship between biography, theory, and history.

Everything we know about Erving Goffman indicates that he was averse to self-disclosure. He forbade his lectures to be tape-recorded, did not allow his picture to be taken, gave only two known interviews for the record, and sealed his archives before he died with the explanation that he wished to be judged on the basis of his publications (Jaworski 2000; Lofland 1984; MacCannell 2009; Winkin 1988, 1999, [1992] 2000). More than that, Goffman specifically disavowed research where scholars turn their attention to themselves.

Among the biographical materials collected for the Erving Goffman Archives is an interview with Gary Alan Fine (2009) who recalls how he proposed to do self-ethnography for a class he took with Goffman at the University of Pennsylvania. Gary was getting married at the time, with a society wedding planned for some 800 guests, so he proposed a participant observation study of this momentous occasion. The suggested piece of ethnography would have been in keeping with Erving's famous dictum, “The world, in truth, is a wedding” (Goffman 1959:36). This was not to happen, however. When Goffman heard his pupil's proposal, he averred, “Only a schmuck studies his own life.” As Gary Fine noted in the same interview, he shunned self-ethnography ever since, taking issue with commentators who claimed his work was autobiographical.

Notwithstanding such testimonies, I will argue that much of Goffman's writing is crypto-biographical, that his sociological imagination drew on his personal experience, and that key turns in his intellectual career reflected his life's trajectory and its historical context. Specifically, I will try to show that Goffman's theoretical commitments fed on his experience as a son of Jewish immigrants struggling to lift himself from the anonymity of Manitoba and that his continuously evolving theoretical agenda shadowed his personal transformation and self-discovery.

Papers assembled in this special journal issue are based in part on the Erving Goffman Archives (Shalin 2008–2012), an online project that collects documents and memoirs illuminating the life and work of Erving Goffman. Most of the contributors are Goffman's students or scholars who knew him well and who blend their analysis with personal recollections. The discussion advances the agenda of biocritical hermeneutics (Shalin 2007), a research program that finds its object on the intersection of “biography and history” (Mills 1959) and illuminates the vital role that “personal knowledge” (Polanyi 1952) and “personal theory” (Gouldner 1970) play in sociological imagination.

This introductory essay starts with Goffman's family roots in Canada where his parents settled in the early 20th century after emigrating from Russia. After that I move to his graduate work at the University of Chicago where he devised a conceptual framework for analyzing the presentation of self. Next, I consider Goffman's research on stigma, the subject familiar to him from personal experience; take up his research on gambling, fateful action, and gender inequality; and discuss how Goffman's research fed back into his life. In conclusion, I outline the uses of the Goffman Archives and the contribution the large database assembled therein can make to biocritical hermeneutics.


Goffman's formative years have received little attention from scholars. Until recently, not much has been known about this period in his life aside from the fact that his parents were Jewish immigrants who came from Russia in the early twentieth century, settled in Canada, gave their children a secular education, and secured for Erving and his sister Frances a comfortable existence first in Dauphin and then in Winnipeg. The materials gathered in the Erving Goffman Archives have significantly expanded our knowledge, shedding new light on the relationship between the famous sociologist's life and work.

A series of conversations with Goffman's sister, cousins, and friends (Goffman-Bay 2009; Frankelson 2009; Besbris 2009; Zaslov 2009; Bay 2009; Brownstone 2009; Katz 2001) offer a rare insight into the origins of Goffman's dramaturgy, both personal and theoretical. What we learn is that the interest in theater ran deep in the Averbach's family. His mother used to stage amateur plays, his sister grew up to become a professional actress, and Erving himself took part in a high school staging of Hamlet. If you wish to give your sociology students an unorthodox introduction to Goffman's ideas, show them the popular movie “Happy Gilmore” that features the assorted sitcom frame-breaking tricks and dramatizes the plight of senior citizens locked in a gruesome nursing home. Bear in mind that the famous actress playing Gilmore's grandma in this movie is no other than Frances Goffman Bay, the sister of no less famous sociologist who wrote about ghastly total institutions. It is not just that the young Erving had stage experience and lived in a family smitten with theater; it is the family dynamics with its flare for the dramatic and the attention to decorum that calls for a sociological analysis.

Appearances mattered in the lives of eight Averbach brothers and sisters. Whether it was in Dauphin with some seventeen Jewish families, or the much larger Winnipeg with its 200,000 Jews, immigrants who settled in the New World paid close attention to each other's comings and goings. Some Averbachs did considerably better than others in the competitive world of Canadian immigrants, with the successful families moving to the more affluent parts of town and the less fortunate ones growing resentful and self-conscious about their humble conditions (Zaslov 2009; Besbris 2009; Frankelson 2009). One cousin recalls an expensive art book conspicuously displayed on the coffee table in a well-to-do Averbach household, a display meant to underscore the family affluence, which Esther Besbris connects with a strikingly similar example in one of Goffman's books. Good manners counted for a lot. Averbach descendants could reel from the embarrassment that a relative dozing off at a family gathering caused in those present or react with indignation at a family member refusing to wear a hat at a social function (Zaslov 2009; Besbris, personal communication, September 4, 2010). Status anxiety, control over appearances, anxious efforts to stem embarrassment in public were part of the Averbach family world.

There were secrets to conceal. Goffman's father Max took a loan from a Jewish society to open up a small store in Manville, but after it went bankrupt had to decamp in a hurry (Albas 2011). He did better as a dry goods store owner in Dauphin, but some reports indicate that he made most of his money not by selling ready-to-wear clothes but by investing in the Winnipeg Stock Exchange. Whether he was a millionaire, as Avron Katz (2001) maintains, is a contested matter, but that he owned a substantial rental property in Winnipeg and lived in a handsome home on a river bank is well established (Syme 2011a).

A diminutive Anne Averbach, the youngest child in the sprawling family, was the heart of the enclave. Her smarts, generosity, and match-making skills became legendary among the relatives. She identified with her son Erving who strongly resembled his mother and her side of the family. The boy showed an early interest in science, and parents allowed him to set up a chemistry lab in the home basement. The young Goffman was a smart, precocious kid who sometimes got himself into trouble after blowing up the basement in the course of a chemical experiment gone awry, accidentally smashing the family record collection, feeding freshly distilled alcohol to a cat, or stealing neighbor's apples. For this he got a generous spanking from his mom and the nickname “goofy Goffman” from his neighbors (Bay 2009, Albas 2011). Contemporaries describe Goffman as “small and boyish looking, somewhat like a Mickey Rooney type” (Katz 2001). Frances remembers her brother as “sensitive” and “sentimental”—“he was far more emotional than he wanted to exhibit” (Goffman-Bay 2009). Among the memorable examples of Erv's sensitivity was the “Ode to Mother” he wrote and recited at his bar mitzvah, a performance that brought those present to tears, or the necklace he went to a great length to procure for his sweetheart cousin Esther (Besbris 2009). As Erving got older, he grew emotionally detached, developed an acerbic sense of humor, distanced himself from his family, and according to several witnesses, from his Jewish roots (Frankelson 2009; Zaslov 2009; Mendlovitz 2009).

Avron Katz (2001) recalls how during the Jewish High Holiday “Erving and I did not attend school as was customary for Jewish children in the town” and how when asked by gentile friends about his absence, Goffman made up an excuse rather than “admit that he missed school because he was Jewish.” Saul Mendlovitz, a close friend at the University of Chicago, offers a similar insight into Erving's heritage: “He knew he was culturally Jewish, even though he was trying to become a Britisher. It wasn't the Yom Kippur part of Jewishness. . . . I forgot who said that [he was] ‘a Jew acting like a Canadian acting like a Britisher,’ but it was well known by the small group of ours that that was what he aspired to be” (Mendlovitz 2009; Cf. Fox 2008). Given the rampant antisemitism in Canada at the time, it is conceivable that Goffman consciously sought to distance himself from his Jewish heritage. According to his son, Tom Goffman, “EG would want nothing to do with the auerbacks [sic]” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, January 12, 2008). The extended family lore confirms this judgment, with one particular story dramatizing Erving's estrangement from his kin. In 1976, when the University of Manitoba awarded Goffman an honorary degree, excited relatives flocked to the convocation to hear his speech and meet their illustrious relation. Once the celebrity kinsman finished his presentation, however, he calmly informed the Averbachs in attendance that he was in town on business and could not spend time with them. Flustered relatives dispersed with a grudge they continue to nurse to this day (Frankelson 2009; Winnipeg Free Press 1976).

The reason the university authorities gave Goffman an honorary degree, aside from the fact that he was a celebrated academic at the time, was his status as a quasi-alumnus. Goffman did not finish his education at the University of Manitoba where he enrolled in 1941; he dropped out after a three year study during which he took several chemistry classes he disliked, eventually shifting to English and philosophy (Albas 2011). He found his way to the Canadian Film Board and enrolled in the University of Toronto where he secured a B.A. in 1945. When Goffman discontinued his undergraduate studies in Winnipeg, he seemed to be depressed, one possible reason being the prospect of the military draft. According to Dennis Wrong (2010), “He was at the Film Board only because he didn't want to be drafted into the army, which he would have been. He thought that because he was Jewish and very small in stature, he would be a target for hazing if he were in the army. He quite legitimately thought that, so he took a government job.” Working for the government and studying in an institution of higher learning exempted Goffman from the draft.

Dennis Wrong is also responsible for stirring Goffman toward sociology. Impressed with a smart coworker well versed in philosophy, Wrong suggested his friend try social science classes and volunteered to introduce him to the right people in the sociology department at the University of Toronto. Once enrolled at the university, Goffman quickly recovered his confidence, joined the active social scene, made a name for himself as “quite a Romeo,” and began to experiment with self-presentation techniques. One of his girlfriends recalls that he used to carry around “a huge tome authored by Malinowski . . . titled The Sexual Lives of the Savages. She asked, ‘Why do you do that?’ And he said, ‘Because it looks impressive’” (Albas 2011). Sometime in 1943–1944, Erving started what might have been his first serious relationship with a fellow anthropology student, Elizabeth Bott (Albas 2011; Wrong 2010). “Erving and I had become quite close friends,” writes Elizabeth Bott Spillius. “He got me to read Durkheim, Lloyd Warner and Talcott Parsons, among others. I'd already found Gregory Bateson,” and both enjoyed the class “taught by an exciting young lecturer from Chicago called Ray Birdwhistell.” To his chagrin, friends nicknamed Erving “Pookey.” One of them, Bobby Adamson, startled Wrong (2010) with this remark: “Pookey is really a genius. As soon as he starts writing his own stuff and not interpreting others, it will be generally recognized.”

In her last year at Toronto, Bott received a fellowship to study at the University of Chicago and enrolled at the department of human development. Erving followed her, becoming a graduate student at the sociology department in 1945. Everett Hughes was teaching at UC at this time, his name luring a good many Canadians to Chicago, although neither fledgling scholar appeared to be impressed with his work at the time, denigrating Hughes as “the sort of sociologist who counts things, usually trivial things” (Bott Spillius 2010). Once in Chicago, Goffman quickly distinguished himself as a bright prospect, his reputation growing steadily among faculty and fellow students.


In Chicago, Goffman joined a circle of friends studying the social sciences, some of whom would go on to become distinguished scholars—Howard Becker, Joseph Gusfield, Fred Davis, Eliot Freidson, Greg Stone, Bill Kornhauser, Kurt and Gladys Lang, and others. Several members of this group lived in a small red building on Fifty-seventh Street where they used to assemble in the basement apartment of Pearl and Jack Warn for a communal breakfast and a passionate game of poker. There were parties featuring booze, dancing, flirting, and endless conversations. Goffman, a regular at these gatherings, stayed away from liquor and shunned dancing, yet he was an avid poker player and a brilliant conversationalist whose barbed wit earned him the nickname “little dagger” (Gusfield 2008). For Erving, this was more than usual banter, however. He was already practicing his craft, taking notes—literally—on what he had observed at the parties and comparing his observations with those of his friends:

Erving and I used to go to parties and agree that we would exchange [thoughts on] what we had seen. He especially was interested in what we had seen and then he would take copious notes on that. I have no idea of whether he ever used those notes or not, but he was very much into that observational stuff very early on. And we would then go over very carefully what the girl said to him, who was going off into another room, what was the content, how come there were no paintings on the wall, but it was a full range of ethnography and that kind of stuff (Mendlovitz 2009).

The partying did not interfere with Goffman's studies, and he quickly emerged as a star student in the sociology department. Even people who did not know Goffman personally were keenly aware of him. When Gladys Lang (2009a) arrived on campus in 1949, Goffman was away doing fieldwork on the Shetland Islands, but “people in our crowd [who] knew Erving and some of whom didn't were very aware of Erving, even though he wasn't there. In other words, his name came up all the time, people talked about him. He already had a reputation.”

Goffman had progressed through his graduate studies steadily and with distinction, the only blemish on his record being the quantitative methods class, for which he earned a “C” in the Winter Quarter of 1946. In the fall of 1948, Goffman wrote a paper for E. W. Burgess's course on personal and social disorganization in which he laid out a research agenda that resulted in his first professional publication and hinted at the kind of sociological imagination he would become known for. Titled “The Role of Status Symbols in Social Organization” (Goffman 1948), this study illuminates the stakes the organizations have in its members' proper use of status symbols and “the constant possibility that symbol may come to be employed in a fraudulent way, to signify a status which the signer does not in fact possess.” This problem is by no means new, although it has grown more acute in modern times when status symbols have become readily available and their proper use harder to enforce. Goffman identifies six “restrictive mechanisms” that evolved over time to limit status misrepresentation: (1) “moral restrictions” or “inward constraints” preventing lower strata and “disadvantaged ethnic and racial groups” from emulating higher social classes; (2) “legal restrictions,” such as sumptuary legislations, designating a “system of law and enforcement which guarantees the rights to which the symbols themselves purport to refer”; (3) “physical restrictions” ensuring that those engaged in “conspicuous consumption . . . possess wealth which at a minimum is equal to the market value of these symbols”; (4) “learning restrictions” expressed through “etiquette, deportment, gestures, intonation, vocabulary, small body movements and admittedly unimportant things”; (5) “random action restrictions” manifest in “the cultivation of certain arts, tastes, sports and handicrafts” that vouch for the person's status; and (6) “interactional restrictions” which “ascribe a modicum of esteem to all those who can rightfully claim an historical association with someone or something which has latterly achieved a high state of social grace.” Citing “the problem of the Nouveau Riche,” Goffman proposed to study the status symbols' expressive component as a check on the uncontrolled proliferation of status symbols in the democratic age with its tendency “to induce in the rising group expectations which for a time are not justified, as well as the devaluation of costly symbols in the eyes of members of other groups.”

A year later, Goffman presented his paper at the annual meeting of the University of Chicago Society for Social Research, and in December of 1951, The British Journal of Sociology published its expanded version under the heading “Symbols of Class Status”—a remarkable coup for an aspiring graduate student (Goffman 1951). The article closely hews to the original blueprint, with a few terminological refinements designating six restrictive mechanisms. For instance, “interactional restrictions” gave way here to “organic restrictions” which refer to class breeding, such as commonly found in Britain where “the conditions of hands and height in men, and secondary sexual characteristics in women, are symbols of status based ultimately on the long-range physical effects of diet, work, and environment” (Goffman 1951:301). In conclusion, Goffman (1951:304) urged to shift the static analysis of status symbols toward an inquiry into the performative correlates of class which demonstrate how “the symbol can signify status but ill express it.” One notable difference between the student paper and the scholarly publication is the absence of any references to Veblen, who was generously cited in the original draft and whose patented examples crop up in the published article.

In the acknowledgment section, along with W. Lloyd Warner, Robert Armstrong, and Tom Burns, Goffman thanks “Angelica Choate for criticism.” This is the first time Goffman mentions the name of his future wife. Angelica Schuyler Choate, or Sky as friends called her, was born in 1928 into a prominent Protestant family whose father published The Boston Herald, supported various philanthropies, founded the Choate prep school, and cut a major figure in local social currents. She enrolled at the University of Chicago a year after Goffman, taking classes in anthropology, sociology, and human development. In 1948 and 1949, Sky took several sections of Anthropology 240, “Culture, Society & Individual,” that happened to be taught by Elizabeth Bott. Liz quickly struck a relationship with a reserved, fragile undergraduate who stood out among less prepared classmates attending the university under the GI Bill. And it was Bott who introduced Sky to Goffman. By that time the relationship between Erving and Elizabeth had cooled down, each felt free to get involved with others, and it was Sky who increasingly attracted Goffman whose “eye was always set for the most brilliant woman he could find” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, January 16, 2008). Sky's academic transcript marks August 9, 1952, as the date when Angelica Choate changed her name to “Goffman,” which must have happened shortly after the two had signed their marriage papers. Some in the Goffman circle interpreted his marriage to a woman of distinguished pedigree and presumed vast financial resources as a sign of his upward mobility aspirations: “[H]e married her because, again, she was an upper class WASP” (Mendlovitz 2009).

Few commentators knew that Angelica Schuyler Choate was an aspiring scholar in her own right, and none I spoke to was aware that she defended an M.A. thesis on the personality characteristics of upper class women where she quoted the M.A. thesis that her future husband defended a year earlier (Goffman-Choate 1950). Further clues to the intellectual kinship of Goffman and his wife are found in Presentation of Self. The acknowledgement section of the treatise that was first published in 1956 by the University of Edinburg states, “Without the collaboration of my wife, Angelica S. Goffman, this report would not have been written” (Goffman 1959:ix). Comparing Goffman's early writings with those of his wife is instructive not only because it reveals the possible indebtedness of Goffman to Schuyler's intimate knowledge of Boston high society—the upper crust status symbols, the inflation of such symbolism in middle class America, the nouveau riches' propensity to manipulate tokens of success, but also because it suggests that Goffman's concern with the presentation of self and status hierarchy was not merely theoretical. Passing, fitting in, maintaining decorum was a practical matter for a young Jewish man from a small Canadian town, a promising student still unknown to the outside world, who had to pass muster in front of Boston Brahmins. If Goffman ever suffered from an imposter complex, it would have been during his years of courtship and subsequent marriage to Angelica Schuyler Choate. Goffman's sister did not attend the wedding, if such took place, nor did his parents, and none of Goffman's friends recall the event, all of which point out that Goffman was not eager to let his friends and relatives mix with the Choates (Goffman-Bay 2009; Besbris 2009; Mendlovitz 2009; Habenstein 2008).

While the two were dating, Goffman wrote a paper that evolved into his second major publication where he noted that “in America upper-class women who fail to make a marriage in their own circle may follow the recognized route of marrying an upper-middle class professional” (1952b:19). Soon after Erving and Angelica tied the knot, he observed: “To experience a sudden change in status, as by marriage and promotion, is to acquire a self that other individuals will not fully admit because of their lingering attachment to the old self. To ask . . . a hand in marriage is to project an image of self as worthy, under conditions where the one who can discredit the assumption may have good reason to do so. To affect a style of one's occupational or social betters is to make claims that may well be discredited by one's lack of familiarity with the role” (Goffman 1967:106–107). Status consciousness, one-upmanship, and the loss of face the social climber risks would become master themes in Goffman's writing. In Presentation of Self, Goffman stressed that “in most stratified societies there is an idealization of the higher strata and some aspiration on the part of those in low places to move to higher ones,” that “efforts to move upward and efforts to keep from moving downward are expressed in terms of sacrifices made for the maintenance of front [and mastering the skills] used to embellish and illumine one's daily performances with a favorable social style” (Goffman 1959:36). Goffman (1951:301) knew the importance of “what is called sophistication concerning food, drink, clothes, and furnishings,” and with the possible exception of clothing in which he showed little interest (Frankelson 2009, Fox 2008), he cultivated refined tastes and evinced a touch of snobbery throughout his life. EGA contributors cite numerous occasions where Erving showed pride in his wine connoisseurship or fine furniture he collected for his house, poked fun at intellectual wannabes or unsophisticated home decorators, snubbed admirers or told his academic hosts that he would not attend a reception in his honor because he wasn't paid to do so (Gamson 2009; Dynes 2009; Frankelson 2009; Handel 2009; Bott Spillius 2010; Wiseman 2008; Cavan 2008; Sarfatti-Larson 2009; Lang 2009b; Turner 2010; Scheff 2006).

In the fall of 1949, Goffman moved to the University of Edinburgh that was in the process of setting up the department of social anthropology, but soon departed for the Shetland Islands where, with the financial help from the premier Scottish university, he would study for a year the inhabitants' communications conduct (Goffman 1953:1). Lloyd Warner wrote a letter to his friend Ralph Piddington commending his protégé, but other factors must have affected Goffman's decision to conduct his research abroad. The fact that in 1949 Liz Bott took up a job at the London School of Economics could have entered in Goffman's calculations. Erving and Liz saw each other from time to time in London (Bott Spillius 2010), although old flames failed to reignite. Dennis Wrong (2010) opines that the two did not marry because Liz wished to stay in Europe while Goffman wanted to go back to America. As befits such matters, the motivation and precise circumstances remain obscure. What we know from Goffman's correspondence is that having found his way back to Chicago, Erving felt low, financially adrift, struggling to complete his dissertation:

I have 65 dollars and no prospects for a job of any kind. I have been trying and unsuccessfully, to get work as a watchman or hotel night-clerk in order to finish an epic work on the forms of interpersonal communication, with special reference to Shetland. I would use your name as reference except that it's so terribly jewish (sic) (Goffman, Letter to David Schneider, March 2, 1952b).

A few months later Goffman married Schuyler, who took her last class at UC in the summer of 1952. He then spent months in Paris writing his “epic” thesis (Winkin 1999) and, one surmises, enjoying his honeymoon. Evidence is scarce, but his wife's financial resources might have had something to do with this unusual arrangement and the special thanks he extended to his wife for writing his magnum opus.

On August 4, 1953, Goffman passed his final qualifying exam, and in December 18, 1953, had a Ph.D. degree officially conferred on him by university authorities. The thesis defense was reported to be brutal, with the committee befuddled by “a study of conversational interaction” (Goffman 1953:1) that this brilliant student submitted in lieu of a dissertation and that had little to do with the kind of social stratification research Warner's students were expected to write. That Goffman was not the one to take a path well travelled had already been evident in a brazen M.A. thesis he wrote in 1949 where he demolishes the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) technique as ill-suited for studying class differences, dwells at length on why his research sample is completely unreliable, and then, instead of reporting his subjects' supposedly class-driven identifications with the TAT pictorials, describes their aversive reaction to the test, the furniture and magazines found in their living rooms, and the way his “subjects disposed their body and limbs”—this observational data presented as a surer indicator of the subjects' class affiliation than traditional paper-and-pencil tests. Goffman's Ph.D. thesis was equally unorthodox in that its author eschewed statistics, avoided conventional stratification typologies, and relied on observational methods to gain insight into the demeanor, deportment, and the interactional strategies islanders used to maintain their place in the small crofter community of Baltasound situated on the isle of Unst, the northernmost inhabited island in Shetland. Thanks in large measure to Everett Hughes, Goffman survived the defense ordeal, but with his confidence shaken and the job market in a slump, he had to take a professional detour.


Good networking helped Goffman to land his next job. It was not an academic position he hoped for but an appointment at the National Institute of Mental Health where, according to a notice published in the American Sociological Review (1955:579), he took a job as staff member in the Laboratory of Socio-environmental Studies, which lead to a series of research papers on total institutions collected in the much discussed Asylums (1961a). Dennis Wrong (2010) had a hand in this appointment, which he facilitated with the help of his sister, a staff member at St. Elizabeth's. What interested Goffman in the workings of psychiatric facilities was not mental illness per se—he was skeptical about psychiatry in general—but the loss of self-identity patients suffer once involuntarily institutionalized. Conditions in mental institutions have improved over time, Goffman conceded, “but the mental patient status still is rather hard and fast stigma” (1957:172). The situation is exacerbated by the fact that “not all those who should get in, do, and perhaps many get in who should not” (1957:125), with a good many patients committed to mental wards against their will on spurious grounds after the relatives collude with the authorities to rid themselves of troublesome kin.

Goffman's interst in people down on their luck and afflicted with stigma was first articulated in his 1952 article “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure.” Published in the journal Psychiatry, the paper takes a cue from the world of professional con men who find it practical to help the victim of their scam to save one's face. Too much fussing by the “mark” (as when the dupe gets angry or threatens to go to the police) is bad for business; hence “an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions” or “cool the mark out” (1952a:452). Not eager to publicize their loss of face, “marks of all kinds may develop explanations and excuses to account in a credible way for their loss” (1952a:459). The article owed a good deal to the 1940 study by D. W. Maurer, The Big Con, and the 1937 book by Sutherland, The Professional Thief. In a footnote, Goffman acknowledges that he took the “terminology regarding criminal activity” from his predecessors (1952b:20), but the reference is ambiguous, for he owes a lot more to these scholars than terminology, especially to Sutherland, who discusses at length the cooling off process calculated to “assuage or comfort a victim after he has suffered a loss” (Sutherland [1937] 1989:236). Nonetheless, the originality of Goffman's treatment is beyond doubt. “Cooling the mark out is one theme in a very basic social story,” Goffman astutely observed (1952a:453). Society is full of losers, washouts, the downwardly mobile, and there is a strong institutional need to help such people manage their stigma, lest those afflicted with a loss or dealt with a raw deal cause trouble. The problem is almost as acute among imposters, wannabes, and those on the upswing with the checkered past who are anxious to hide potentially stigmatizing information that could result in the “loss of face” and “profound embarrassments.” Keeping those who met with failure pacified is not enough; the challenge is to make the wretches sustain workable interactions with the world, to minimize the possibility that “the mark outwardly accepts his loss but withdraws all enthusiasm, good will, and vitality from whatever he is allowed to maintain” (459). The socially defeated must go on mingling with the socially thriving, or as the author memorably quipped, “the dead are sorted out but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living” (463).

Whether or not it is a fair description of what is going in society, this apercu tells us something about Erving Goffman, a small-town Jewish boy who told the students assembled to hear his commencement address, “One is born near a granary and spends the rest of his life suppressing it” (Albas 2011). As it happens, the Goffmans house in Dauphin had a granary, covering up his past was his general practice, and evading his Jewish roots was something of an obsession. Of special interest in this regard is Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, a slim volume Goffman published in 1963, which offers textual clues to the author's personal interest in stigma. The book identifies three basic types of stigma:

First there are abominations of the body—the various physical deformities. Next there are blemishes of individual character perceived as a weak will, domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty, these being inferred from a known record of, for example, mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts, and radical political behavior. Finally there are the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family (Goffman 1963:4).

A footnote on the same page elaborates that “in recent history, especially in England, low class status functioned as an important tribal stigma, the sins of the parents, or at least their milieu, being visited on the child, should the child rise improperly far above the initial stations.” Max Goffman, a hard working Jewish merchant, did well selling haberdashery and dabbling in the stock market, but that was not the pedigree his anglophile son could be proud of. There is a rare personal comment Goffman made to Dell Hymes about coming of age in a little Canadian town: “I grew up (with Yiddish) in a town where to speak another language was to be suspect of being homosexual” (Hymes [1984] 2000:56). This juxtaposition of Jewish heritage and homosexuality is striking. It suggests that growing up Jewish was a stigmatizing experience for the man who would bring stigma to the center stage of sociological analysis. And here is a testimony from Erving's son who said that his father “signed off at 18 from the family. His family was full of jewish (sic) rituals. He hated them. He hated rituals period” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, January 8, 2008).

It would be a mistake to infer that Goffman renounced his ethnic heritage or shunned his tribal kin. His friends and colleagues, the students he mentored (half of whom were Jewish), his sense of humor (Renée Fox (2008) describes Goffman as “a kindred spirit of Woody Allen”), suggest otherwise. Consider the following story deposited in the Goffman Archives:

Every now and then, in the course of some discussion, he would say to me, “The way we Jews look at this,” or “we Jews feel this way, don't you think?” I always agreed because I wanted to be accepted as Jewish with him and Berkeley sociology students because they were so bright and exciting to be with. Anyway, one day he used the expression “We Jews” in one discussion about five times, and I began to feel like an imposter. So I said, “Erving, I've got to tell you something. I am not Jewish. I grew up in Nebraska. There was only one Jewish family there. They owned the dry goods store and a ladies ready-to-wear shop and were quite wealthy and much admired. Every year at Christmas and Easter, they would visit one of the churches in our town. We were always thrilled when they came to our Episcopalian church. . . . I didn't know anything about anti-Semitism. In fact, until I got to college, I thought that the term was “antisemantic,” and I couldn't figure out how anyone could be against semantics. After my declaration there was a long silence. Then Erving said, “I've always thought there was something the matter with you” (Wiseman 2008).

Goffman's ambivalence about his ethnic and religious roots should be understood against the backdrop of the virulent antisemitism that plagued Canada in his formative years and that forced the inhabitants of the Winnipeg Jewish ghetto to dodge “non-Jewish Ukrainians who brought their anti-Semitism with them from Europe” and were “hunting down the Jewish kids as if they were conducting a pogrom back in the old country” (Syme 2011a; 2011b: 47–48). The institutional discrimination was also far from over in the U.S. at the time when Goffman tried to carve a niche for himself in the academic world. Even though he did not like to dwell on it, Goffman knew firsthand what it meant to be tribally challenged. It is more than likely that the experience of being an outcast was responsible for the extraordinary sensitivity he showed to the issues of spoiled identity and impression management.

Cross-referencing Goffman's writing and the EGA materials brings to the fore other facets of his being that rendered the issues of stigma personally significant to this sociologist. The list of qualities a “normal” American male must have to avoid being stigmatized is revealing: “There is only one complete unblushing male in America: young, married, white, urban, northern, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior” (Goffman 1963). Half of the traits on this list apply to the author.

Of particular concern to Goffman must have been his height. Estimates of eyewitnesses range between 5′1 and 5′8. Conversations with Erving's sister and an examination of available photos suggest Goffman was closer to 5′2–5′3. Erving's sister, whose driver's license pegs her at 5′2, refers to him as “tiny” and does not recall him being interested in sports (Goffman-Bay 2009). Recalling that he never saw Erving dancing at the parties, Joe Gusfield (2008) noted, “I don't know what Erving's relationship was with women. He was certainly not a midget but he was short.” Jackie Wiseman (2008) remembers how Goffman offered her a chair while placing himself on a tall stool that made him hover over the visitor. She also recounts a conversation about Goffman describing the dilemma a plain looking guy faces in a bar when he strains to make those present aware of his being an accomplished fellow. Commenting on a passage from Stigma where Goffman cites a letter from a woman with a severely disfigured face, one of his contemporaries observed: “I think the quotes from Miss Lonelyhearts are ‘deep Goffman’” (Manning 2007). Then, there is this poignant testimony:

His height would have to have made an impression on anyone. When I saw him for the first time, I recalled immediately that sentence in Stigma where he suggests that, when anyone enters a room, the person is expected to have certain basic physical characteristics, including being of a certain height. How many rooms must he have entered, I thought, when he was immediately aware of in some way having disappointed strangers' expectations (Gardner 2008).

Suicide and mental illness are also singled out by Goffman among stigmatizing conditions. This is one more area where his life and work dramatically intersect. Erving's wife grappled with mental illness for most of their married life. In the 1950s, she made several suicide attempts (Scher 2004, 2009), she was in treatment by psychiatrists (Kohn 2007), and she eventually committed suicide. Goffman's ambivalence toward psychiatry has multiple causes, one of which is the treatment his wife underwent, which he deemed ineffective, and perhaps superfluous. Asylums articulates Goffman's misgivings about the field of psychiatry and the practice of forced institutionalization. In this book, Goffman offers a radically constructionist view of mental illness according to which “the ‘mentally ill’ . . . and mental patients distinctly suffer not from mental illness, but from contingencies”; “the craziness or ‘sick behavior’ claimed for the mental patient is by and large a product of the claimant's social distance from the situation that the patient is in, and is not primarily a product of mental illness” (Goffman 1961a:135, 130). After his wife's suicide, which “really knocked him back” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, April 3, 2010), Goffman amended his views, for the first time foregrounding the fact that many psychological disorders are “organic in their relevant cause,” that the families with a disturbed member are forced to live in “a hospital away from the hospital” resembling a total institution, that those unfortunate to live in the proximity of an afflicted experience “the insanity of place” (Goffman 1971:337–338). Reading these texts against the EGA testimonies offers further support for the thesis advanced in this paper that Goffman drew on his personal experience while formulating his concepts, including those of stigma and mental illness. “The insanity of Place” is a stunning paper where Goffman goes to a great length to encrypt biographical data into a scholarly analysis. A full-scale discussion of this case can be found elsewhere in this journal issue. Here, I want to touch on the political implications of Goffman's perspective on stigma as evidenced in his attitude toward the institutionalization of mental patients.

In 1956, Goffman attended the Third Conference on Group Processes sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation where he presented preliminary results of his research in St. Elizabeth's. The session where he reported his findings was attended by prominent psychiatrists, social scientists, and administrators who subjected his approach to fierce criticism which forced Goffman to defend his views and reveal more about his assumptions, methods, and values than would be customary in his later publications. The conference proceedings of a session on “Interpersonal Persuasion” where Goffman (1957) served as a keynote presenter remain virtually unknown to the general reader and underutilized by Goffman scholars. What the transcripts show is that Goffman struggled to articulate his perspective in a way that eschews explicit moral judgments while drawing critical attention to such social phenomena. His critics found this position disconcerting. They pressed Goffman to take an explicit policy stance, calling him to defend his take on mental wards as total institutions specializing in “disgorgement,” “human waste,” and “self-mortification.” Conceding some validity to this criticism, Goffman defended his position: “There are some moral feelings cropping up in this question that I hope will not arise too often,” he replied after a particularly heated exchange with Margaret Mead (Goffman 1957:122). In a veiled allusion to the fact that some of his critics were professional psychiatrists with a vested interst in the issues, he noted: “I am accustomed to talking to people who are in agreement about fundamental matters, and I assume they assume I am in agreement with them on fundamental matters. I use a slanted vocabulary in order to rouse them in a quiet way to see how bad things really are” (Goffman 1957:122–123). Such slanted vocabulary, according to Goffman, is justified given the terrible conditions in which patients are forced to live in mental institutions: “When I refer to the fact that mental hospitals are terrible places, I feel they are” (Goffman 1957:137). Never again would Goffman condescend to explain to his critics that irony, indirection, and sardonic wit are often more effective in rousing moral imagination than direct attacks on oppressive institutions.

At the end of the session, Fremont-Smith thanked the young scholar for his presentation: “It has been unique; although it has hurt a little, this is one of the ways in which one grows. It has been most stimulating” (Goffman 1957:192).


Goffman's professional detour proved unusually productive. Between 1955 and 1957, he published seven original studies, mostly outside the sociological mainstream, which he later collected in separate volumes. Meanwhile, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life began to stir up interest in Goffman' unconventional ideas. The 1956 Edinburgh University edition did not attract much attention in the U.S., but the 1959 Anchor edition did, and it launched the young scholar on a path toward a brilliant academic career.

The quote from Simmel that the author used as an epigraph to his dissertation was now replaced with another one from George Santayana where the philosopher extols the virtue of masks as the true expression of being. Another eminent philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, is cited half a dozen times, compared to one quote from Simmel, who was given extensive treatment in the original text. These emendations signaled the author's ambition to be taken seriously beyond the narrow confines of sociology.

In 1957, Herbert Blumer offered the Chicago alumnus a job at the Berkley sociology department. He had reservations about Goffman's scholarship and demeanor, as evidenced by his review of Goffman's book and occasional remarks posted in the EGA, but he had an unerring eye for original minds, and so he recommended this unorthodox sociologist to the department. Blumer's colleagues were less impressed. When the young scholar came up for the associate professorship, some committee members balked. Reinhard Bendix sent inquiries about Goffman to several prominent scholars, one of whom, David Schneider, a Berkeley anthropologist who later relocated to the University of Chicago, sent in this glowing assessment: “I do not know of a living person either in the United States or in Europe who even approaches Goffman in either the quality or the quantity of the published output, or who even approaches him in intellectual stature” (Schneider, Letter to Bendix, November 6, 1958). Goffman got his promotion and tenure.

A year later, Goffman was applying for a leave of absence to explore new social venues. On December 13, 1960, he wrote to Everett Hughes: “Until Christmas I'll be in the field, and return for nine months in August, the field in this case being the city of non-homes, Las Vegas. Tomorrow I get my police card ‘to go on the slots,’ and after a few days of that I'll start training to deal 21” (Goffman Letters to Hughes, December 13, 1960). About the same time, Goffman asked Melvin Kohn (2007) to send a reference on his behalf to a Las Vegas sheriff who needed a confirmation of Erving's fitness for the job as a casino dealer. Goffman's sociological interest in casinos was relatively new, his personal involvement with gambling was not. Back in Dauphin and Winnipeg, Erving observed his father winning in friendly games of poker, and he was probably aware of his father's exploits on the stock market (Katz 2001; Syme 2011a; Zaslov 2009). Erving's Uncle Mickey was a card shark traveling the trans-Canadian railroad in search of easy prey (Averbach Family Reunion Album, 2007; Manning, 2004; Fine, Manning, and Smith 2000; Clark, 2009; Zaslov, 2009; Besbris, 2009; Room 2009). A welcome guest at his parents' house in Winnipeg, Mickey must have cut an imposing figure in the Averbach circle. Based on this evidence, Daniel Albas (2011) makes the compelling case that certain concepts in Goffman theoretical corpus—“main involvement, side involvement, dominant involvement, subordinate involvement”—stem from his intimate knowledge of card games.

EGA harbors numerous reports attesting to Goffman's fascination with gambling. The first time Joan Huber (2009) laid her eyes on Goffman, he was sitting on the floor dealing black jack near the ballroom where Si Goode was about to deliver his presidential address. Irving Piliavin, Goffman's colleague at Berkeley, remembers a group of friends assembling for a game of poker. Piliavin was struck by one episode when Goffman rapturously praised a local poker celebrity who had chanced to join the fray, “‘He could have taken us for everything we were worth.’ From what you know by now about Goffman, he did not say reverent things about most people” (Piliavin 2009). Ironically, Goffman was not a good poker player:

For a year or two Erving and I were in a poker group with a number other individuals—Irving Piliavin, Henry Miller, Bill Kornhauser, Hal Wilensky, David Matza, for a while Ernest Becker, and a couple of others. We played every two weeks. Erving turned out to be a very poor poker player. Most of the time he lost money in our friendly game. An ironic twist was that he also turned out to be very unimpressive as an impression-manager. He was far from being a poker-face. I used to joke that if he were dealt as much as a pair of deuces his hands would begin to tremble and his face would begin to flush. Given his work and his pride in his insights about the manipulation of human situations, one would have expected Erving to be a Mr. Cool, a good bluffer, and a good strategist (Smelser 2009).

Piliavin's wife is convinced that Goffman's curiosity about casinos was far from purely scholarly: “I truly think this was one of the reasons he wanted to study gamblers in Vegas. It is because he was not good at it and he wanted actually to figure out how these people did those things he could not do” (Piliavin 2009). While Goffman failed to affect a poker face, he excelled in black jack, a game that leaves room for memorizing and card counting. Walter Clark (2009) remembers how Goffman and Ira Cisin, a statistician directing a study of drinking behavior, used to play black jack at Lake Tahoe or Reno and, using their superior skills, make a bundle in the process. (Fittingly, Goffman credits Cisin for teaching him the rudiments of probability 1967:159n). One day, while “Ira and Erving were counting cards religiously . . . a couple of biggest men he ever saw walked up behind them and said, ‘We don't want your play, partner.’”

Not just Erving but his wife as well dabbled in gambling, according to his son: “Both my parents were card counters. EG used a quarter on the felt to measure how many face cards had been dealt. My mother just remembered every card and had a hollow leg. So they bounced EG first; It took them a long time to figure out my mother. Me, I'm not a gambling man and impressed that Nevada has a school with a sociology department” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, April 4, 2010). Some tales about the Goffman's casino exploits are rather tall. Here is one told by Robin Room: “I remember Sky came back after one weekend with a bright red Jaguar XK-E which was the proceeds from counting cards in black jack at Reno, or actually at the Tahoe casinos” (2009). But the evidence is strong that Erving was deeply involved with gambling, that at some point he took a job at a casino (Frankelson 2009), and that he used his firsthand knowledge of the Nevada gambling scene for a trenchant sociological analysis.

From the start of his career at Berkeley, Goffman paid close attention to gambling in his deviance and social control class. In a lecture given on May 25, 1961, according to Travis Hirschi (2012), Goffman dazzled his students with scenes from casino life in Las Vegas. What struck Hirschi was not so much the stories about gambling establishments and rigged jackpots but the reverence with which Goffman spoke about the gamblers willing to wager their life's savings on a single bet. Risk-taking, fateful action, character contests, grace under fire are central to the study Goffman subsumed under the heading “Where the Action Is.” This lengthy essay introduces the concept of “action” that plays a special role in Goffman's theoretical corpus. The term refers to the “activities that are consequential, problematic, and undertaken for what is felt to be their own sake,” that vouch for the actor's “courage, gameness, integrity, composure,” and that generate “anxiety and excitement” (Goffman 1967:185, 229). According to the author, these qualities are central to “the moral life of the community” (176), yet you would not find such traits in abundance among the middle-classes, among people who traded fateful action for secure existence. “Careful, prudent persons must therefore forego the opportunity to demonstrate certain prized attributes,” “the prudent lose connection with some of the values of society, some of the very values that portray the person as he should be” (260). You are more apt to find risk-takers and rule-breakers among the “talented burglars and pickpockets, whose skills must be exercised under pressure,” individuals on society's margins displaying “the qualities of character associated with the management of fatefulness [such as] self-control, self-possession, or poise,” and among people engaged in fateful occupations like frontline soldiers who show “a more or less secret contempt for those with safe and sure jobs who need never face real tests of themselves” (Goffman 1967:182). What is left for the majority shielded from serious character tests are vicarious thrills and media substitutes offered by popular culture. Those averse to risk-taking can always go to the movies and watch James Bond “given to fateful undertaking,” read Norman Mailer whose “novels present scenes of fateful duties, character contests, and serious action,” or devour Hemingway's stories about the bullfighters engaged in “a deadly dangerous performance only made possible by perfect nerves, judgment, courage, and art” (262, 207, 266).

What can we make of Goffman's “ambivalence about safe and momentless living” (260)? Something was missing from his outwardly successful life—the excitement of the chase, the thrill of fateful action, something that drew him to students with colorful life stories (Irwin 2007), research projects focused on deviant pursuits (Cavan 2008), participant observation on the subjects occupying the lowest ranks in the social hierarchy (Wiseman 2008). While Goffman shunned serious risk taking, he could deviate from conventions by smoking pot (“You are so-o-o middle class,” he mocked Jackie Wiseman who had troubles inhaling), flaunting dinner etiquette (Bershady 2009), or flouting rules of decorum in matters of clothing (Fox 2008). Goffman could lose his temper (MacCannell 2009) and engage in fisticuffs (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, April 4, 2010), but he could also act coolly in a sticky situation. Once he roomed at a convention with a fellow academic who returned unexpectedly to find “Goffman on his knees in front of a chest of drawers, madly shuffling through my teacher's stuff. Caught in the act, Goffman simply looked up and said, ‘You can learn a lot about people by looking through their drawers.’ And completely unperturbed, he got up and left the room” (Jarrett 2000). Here we see Goffman act as one of the outcasts he valorized, a shady action figure who had “out-poised the other” (Goffman 1967:240).

If Goffman did take serious chances, it would be in the Nevada casinos. There is a reason he insisted that “gambling is a prototype of action” (Goffman 1967:186). He embraced gambling with a passion, he brought his family into the act, and he seemed to beat the odds—until he was finally caught and barred from Nevada casinos. What exactly happened remains a mystery. We know from various sources that he was apprehended counting cards, but that must have happened before he started his training as a dealer. He is reported to have worked as a pit boss in a Las Vegas casino, the job he lost under murky circumstances (Manning 2004). Sometime in the early 1960s, Travis Hirschi (2012) attended a brown bag seminar at Berkeley where Goffman talked about Las Vegas gambling as “evil” that justified the “suspension of one's scholarly efforts.” Coming from a man who spent his life uncovering the dark truths about society, this sounds like an “excuse” or “account.” There is a curious paragraph in “Where the Action is” describing the sorry plight of casino dealers susceptible to burnouts and sudden dismissals for spurious reasons (Goffman 1967:193). Maybe Goffman was telling us something about his own plight. In any event, his work on gambling and risk taking was never finished. His son alluded to “EG's vegas (sic) study” that he “wanted to finish” but could not get his hands on his fathers' “notes” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, January 8, 2008). It is unclear what these notes might have contained.


Soon after his wife's death, Goffman began to look for a new job. The Berkeley student movement had something to do with his decision, as did his son's mild scuffles with the law (Wiseman 2008; MacCannell 2009). But there was also the realization that his market value as a budding academic had gone up. Several institutions tried to lure Goffman with the prospects of a better deal, including the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and University of California at San Diego. Realizing that an accomplished faculty member was about to leave, Charles Glock, the sociology department chair, tried to cobble together a better package for Goffman (2008–2012). He came close but failed in the end when his Berkeley colleagues balked at Goffman's demand to have his teaching load cut in half. The University of Pennsylvania did not think it was too big a price to pay for an academic star, and so in 1968 Goffman moved to Penn as the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, a position allowing him to teach an occasional course and choose his students at will.

Goffman's relationship with the sociology department was tense. Some of his colleagues resented the niche Goffman carved for himself, the office he chose at the Anthropology Museum, and the company of linguists and anthropologists he preferred. Goffman reciprocated by making it difficult for sociology students to enroll in his classes and remaining aloof from sociology (Zerubavel, 2008; Fine 2009; Heilman 2008). Deborah Schiffrin (2009) recalls how Goffman steered her away from sociology toward linguistics, a discipline with better scholarly moorings and academic prestige. The work Goffman did in this period bears the strong influence of this discipline. Linguistics was indeed at the height of its influence at the time, as was the formal school of literary criticism and Kenneth Burke's work on symbolic forms and the grammar of motives (the latter discussed elsewhere in this issue). A search for the invariant grammatical structures and interactional patterns underlying surface phenomena appealed to Goffman, who conceived his Frame Analysis on this model. The idea was to bypass the explicit content of communications, grasping directly the syntactical rules governing the interactions. Goffman's work on cultural codes underlying gender conventions fits in with this agenda.

In 1972, Lenore Weitzman and her associates published an article on sex role socialization that documented the gender bias in depiction of boys and girls in children's books. Hardly referenced by Goffman, this seminal paper was among the precursors of “The Arrangement between the Sexes” ([1977] 1997) and Gender Advertisements ([1976] 1979) where Goffman continued and expanded this line of research, assembling further evidence that women tend to be depicted in mass media as less than competent members of society inviting a protective response from the males who are portrayed as dominant strivers ever ready to assist the weaker sex in exchange for assorted favors. Human nature is routinely invoked to justify women's dependent status, Goffman pointed out, but the appeal to biology is little more than a subterfuge. Ritualistic gender displays prop up cultural beliefs about gender differences rather than express the immutable facts of nature. The gender-as-biology canard is anchored in “deep-seated institutional practices [which] have the effect of transforming social situations into scenes for the performing of genderisms by both sexes, many of these performances taking a ritual form which affirms beliefs about the differential human nature of the two sexes” (Goffman [1977] 1997:325). Advertised in the media and dramatized in everyday encounters, popular beliefs about gender are effortlessly enacted by unreflexive subjects who reproduce social structure under the guise of hewing to the biological realities undergirding the arrangement between the sexes. “What the human nature of males and females really consists of, then, is a capacity to learn to provide and to read depictions of masculinity and femininity and a willingness to adhere to a schedule for presenting these pictures, and this capacity they have by virtue to be persons, not males or females. One might as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for portrayal of gender” (Goffman 1979:8).

Departing from his usual practice, Goffman acknowledged the political implications of his position. He went out of his way to assert that “ours is a sexist society,” that the “ideal of femininity” perpetuates gender discrimination, that feminists were right to decry the insidious side of male gallantry and courtesy addressed to women, and that the “institutional reflexivity” he practiced in his gender studies is a prerequisite for altering the situation. He also hinted that the emerging gender order will be costly and require tradeoffs on each side. What Goffman failed to admit was that he avidly participated in these conventional practices. Just a decade earlier he had eulogized “the cult of masculinity” with a paean to risk-taking and character contests (Goffman 1967:209). Women are ill-suited for tough action, Goffman claimed, for “the qualities of character traditionally associated with womanhood [compel] the female to withdraw from all frays in order to preserve her purity, ensuring that even her senses will be unsullied. Where action is required to ensure this virtue, presumably her male protector undertakes it” (Goffman 1967:234). Without a trace of institutional reflexivity Goffman opined that “female counterparts of the classic male virtues involve modesty, restraint and virginity, whose display would seem to comprise anything but action” (1967:209). “In our society, to speak of a woman as one's wife is to place this person into a category [and to invoke] an array of socially standardized anticipations that we have regarding her conduct and nature as an instance of a category of ‘wife,’ for example, that she will look after the house, entertain our friends, and be able to bear children” (1961a:53).

The language of Goffman's early writings was unabashedly sexist. In Encounters, he talked about “a child's portion of manliness,” “the individual [who] can show what kind of a guy he is,” “sociologists qua person [who] retain the sacred for their friends, their wives, and themselves” (Goffman 1961b:98, 140, 152; see Julia Penelope, 1988, for a fine analysis of sexism in Goffman's writings). Nor was Goffman's attitude to women purely a linguistic phenomenon. Jane Prather (2009) remembers how in the spring of 1967, after she had given birth to a daughter, she came to confer with Goffman about her thesis, only to be told, “Why don't you just go home—raise your child and forget about graduate school?” Furious, Jane remonstrated about her determination to pursue her scholarly work until Goffman relented with a quip, “Okay, you can be like the British and just get a nanny.” In her memoir, Ann Swidler (2010) recounts a similar episode. She asked Goffman for advice on the graduate programs in sociology, to which he volunteered “that Berkeley was the best place for graduate school, and then said (of course this was 1967, before women had a significant future in academia), ‘There's no point in your going to graduate school. The same thing always happens. The best looking woman in the cohort marries the smartest man, and she drops out’” (Swidler 2010). There are reports about Goffman flatly refusing to mentor pregnant graduate students (Fontana, personal communication, November 20, 2009). Goffman's unwillingness to accommodate his wife's scholarly aspirations and apparent preference for her devoting herself to domestic chores fit in with the sexist tenor of the time.

As the stories collected in the EGA suggest, much of Goffman's behavior was grounded in a particular time and place and reflected historical conventions of his social strata. The sociological imagination of this gifted scholar was circumscribed by specific hermeneutical horizons, which enabled him to see clearly some of the social currents swirling about him while prejudicing him against its other modalities. His treatment of women in academia and beyond reproduced the condescending attitudes that mostly male faculty openly sported toward their female colleagues and students. And we should not forget that both men and women did their part reproducing the gender order. This is how Jackie Wiseman (2008) reacted to Goffman's condescending manner of address: “I was sort of pleased, you know. It seemed friendly at the time. It never occurred to me that it might not be what we now call a politically incorrect way for a male professor to address a female student. And of course, I could never call him Kiddo or Honey!” (Cf. Cavan 2008).

As was the case with his other theoretical commitments, Goffman's views on women in academia changed with the time. The new sentiment became noticeable in the second half of the 1960s, after the death of his wife. It was around that time that he and Sherri Cavan discovered at a flea market in Alameda two boxes of women's magazines which Goffman ([1976] 1979) used for his work on Gender Advertisements. On behalf of the Sociologists for Women and Society Association, Sherri Cavan extended to her teacher an invitation to speak on any topic of his choice, which led to a landmark presentation at Sherri's home where a few dozen women sociologists (men were not invited) listened to Goffman expound on gender bias in American society (Cavan 2008). A milestone publication “The Arrangement between Sexes” followed where Goffman denounced sex-based dominance and sketched the process of sex typing that keeps women in their place. “Gender, not religion, is the opiate of the masses,” writes Goffman ([1977] 1997:315) with the characteristic flair. “A man may spend his day suffering under those who have power over him, suffer this situation at almost any level of society, and yet on returning home each night regains a sphere in which he dominates. And wherever he goes beyond the household, women can be there to prop up his show of competence.” Right there the reader is treated to a vignette about siblings, a boy and a girl, engaged in family routines that reinforce gender stereotypes through a disparate set of chores and alternative forms of punishments. If you substitute “Erv” and “Fran” for “brother” and “sister” in this story, you will see the extent to which this vignette incorporates the biographical realities (Goffman-Bay 2009; Besbris 2009). In “Felicity's Condition” Goffman (1983) switches to the “he or she” format and takes pain to explain that the habitual reference to a doctor as “he” reflects the discrimination women have suffered in the professional world. Not surprisingly, Goffman had more female graduate students than male at the time of his research on gender bias. He even suggested that women were better than men in using observational methods (Gardner 2008; Zerubavel 2008). Carol Brooks Gardner, perhaps the last person to write a dissertation with Goffman, offers this moving testimony about her mentor:

I do know he was unfailingly courteous to and supportive of me at a time when he needn't have been—when there was simply nothing for him in it. If he believed in you, he stuck with you; he told me at one time that women were a lot better than men at noting the sorts of things he was interested in, and I suppose that was nice to hear—although I couldn't help but privately note to myself that neither Lyn Lofland nor Sherri Cavan had been rewarded by what should have been a grateful profession by being named a Franklin professor at Penn. I certainly know how much he thought of Lofland and Cavan, for he used their work as exemplifying what I should require of myself. . . . It was always clear to me that, if it wasn't Goffman's purpose to teach in the spirit of Mark Hopkins on one end of that log with you, the lucky student, on the other, then he achieved that model anyway. After work was submitted and critiqued, he invited you to his house and would talk with you about what you had written for two, four, six hours. The same was true of phone conversations, if distance separated you and him, when working on the dissertation. I don't have words enough to describe his generosity (Gardner 2008).

The shift in Goffman's research agenda, attitudes, and behavior was gradual. Bennett Berger ([1973] 2000) relates an episode dating back to the 1972 ASA meeting when he and Erving joined a group of women in a sit-in protest against the men-only dining hall at the hotel. When asked if he acted on principle or impulse, Erving admitted the latter, and then added that “once you do something, you've got to begin to think about it.” Pressed further, he confided that the women's movement “will be affecting the rules of co-mingling, and it is Goffman's business to be aware of such changes.” Now, fast forward a few years, and you find Goffman ready to concede the errors of his ways and embrace feminism. We owe the following insight to Mary Jo Deegan (1995:356):

The late Erving Goffman said he was a blatant sexist prior to a major transformation in his consciousness in the mid-1970s. He thought all the men in his age group and cohort were similarly biased against women to greater or lesser degrees. He said this during an intense discussion we had at the American Sociological Association meetings in the New York City, in August 1982 [the meeting took place in 1980]. Goffman had prepared a three page, single-spaced, typed critique of a paper a group of us had prepared on his sexism that he had read prior to this hour-and-a-half interview / meeting / confrontation (Nebraska Feminist Collective 1981).

Erving wearing a hair shirt—that must have been a sight to behold. He certainly evolved, and for once, he seemed willing to confront his own past and embrace the future where masculinity would no longer be a cult.


Goffman's views on methods suitable for the sociology he wished to practice solidified early on in his career. Already in his M.A. thesis he showed his distaste for standardized tests and experimented with observational techniques to glean the dynamics of class-inflected demeanor, décor, and consumption. His Ph.D. thesis was a tour de force of unfettered observation privileging nonverbal, paralingual data over his subjects' self-serving explanations. Goffman disdained surveys and interviews, which he found especially useless in his study of mental institutions. “I find I cannot use the interview technique much. I do not believe people very much anyway, but in an interview I hardly believe them at all, so I do not often interview patients” (Goffman 1957:181; 1989). Language is given to us to cover up our tracks, Goffman seems to think, to mislead the onlooker about the true motives of our action. To conduct his observations Goffman learned to blend with the environment (which may in part explain his preference for inconspicuous attire), be a fly on the wall poised to observe rather than be observed. We should bear in mind that the fly-on-the-wall metaphor is rather misleading: the fly on the wall will not see eye to eye with the butterfly or the ant. Participant observers are bound to intrude in the reality under surveillance, their special sensibilities illuminating particular properties of the situation.

Take Goffman's paper “Normal Appearances.” It starts with the premise that public settings “can bring disease and injury to those in them,” that “others present can introduce basic dangers inherent in co-presence: physical attack, sexual molestation, robbery [as well as] passage blocking, importunity, and insult” (1971:329). It takes an eye trained on a particular class of menacing events to define public space in such a way. Goffman immersed himself in real life situations, but his personal moods and agendas directed his gaze and informed his findings. A line separating the subject and object of social research is never too bright.

A striking feature of Goffman craft is the manner in which he blurred his professional and everyday life, ever ready to turn on his formidable observational skills. It did not matter if people around this researcher liked being observed, commented on, or roundly manipulated. Sometimes his purpose was clearly pedagogical, as when students invited to Goffman's house were left waiting at the door while their host was surreptitiously taking notes on their reaction to be shared later with the group attending the seminar (Morrill 2008). Other times an occasion served to lay bare our interactional strategies, as when passing through a hotel lobby Goffman would casually remark to a group of friends, “If I can't find anybody more important to talk with, I'll come back and talk with you” (Berger [1973] 2000:279; Cavan 2008). Some pedagogical intent enlivened by a studied ambiguity could be discerned in Goffman admonishing his students, “Please don't try to write like me, you will sound like an asshole” (MacCannell 2009). Approaching panelists after they finished their talk Goffman commended one of them, “I really enjoyed your paper. It was very clear,” then chided another one, “I didn't understand a word you said” (Dickens 2007). We can chalk up as merrymaking Goffman's screaming in mock anger at a befuddled student selling tickets at a faculty club dinner, “Where's my change?! Give me my change, you bastard!!” A similar motive is discernible when Goffman showed up unannounced at the home of the notoriously priggish Philip Rieff and demanded to be admitted along with his friends who happened to be in town (Sarfatti-Larson 2009; Gusfield 2008; cf. Imber 2006).

But what are we to make of the Benjamin Franklin Professor casually remarking to his junior colleague whose tenure application was turned down, “After all, all of us aren't good enough to teach here” (Lofland 1984:167), or showing up late at his father's memorial and announcing to those present, “I see everyone is observing the rituals of mourning” (Syme 2011a). How are we to explain Goffman's use of derogatory terms for disabled people in front of a severely disabled student enrolled in his class (Marx [1984] 2000)? Why would a scholar who taught us about civil inattention humiliate his pupil after the latter got sick on a plane and had to endure his mentor lecturing everyone in the earshot how embarrassing it must be to lose control over one's stomach (Scheff 2006:10)? The EGA furnishes ample evidence that Goffman conducted such trust breaching experiments intentionally and systematically and that he relied on his experience to articulate his theoretical insights.

“[I]n a polite society, a handshake that perhaps should not have been extended becomes one that cannot be declined. Thus one accounts for the noblesse oblige through which those in high status are expected to curb their power of embarrassing their lesser,” Goffman explains in one of his treatises on interaction rituals (1967:28). And here is what happened to a new graduate student at Berkeley who barged into Goffman's office and injudiciously stuck his hand out in the vain attempt to introduce himself: “Goffman stood up, and he looked at the hand, and very slowly the man dropped his hand. Goffman just let him stand there with his hand out. Then very softly he said, ‘I am busy Mr. Jones.’ When the man left, Goffman said to me, ‘He doesn't understand, we are students of those kinds of things’” (Turner 2010; cf. Goffman-Bay 2009). Did Goffman really mean this to be a teaching moment?

“Whether to attend a society party or not, whether, once there, to allow oneself to be carried away by its spirit or not (or whether, once there, to join an available conversation cluster of low rank or remain unengaged), are decisions that can be subject to strategic analysis” (Goffman 1970:138). Goffman's breaches in dinner and restaurant etiquette were legendary, as EGA accounts attest (Daniels 2009; Bershady 2008; Cavan 2008; Wiseman 2008; Sarfatti-Larson 2009). After a dinner party featuring a group of academic luminaries, Goffman approached the proud hostess, a wealthy Philadelphia woman, and with a word of thanks gave her $5 as a payment (Bershady 2009). On another occasion, he invited a former student to a restaurant, ordered a dish, then set it aside and remained silent through the rest of the meal (Turner 2010).

Berkeley sociologists report Goffman's unnerving strategy of standing too close or aggressively challenging his interlocutors. EGA interviews document several such encounters: “I remember at a party at which I believe I first met him, he came up to me to introduce himself and as we talked, he moved ever closer to me until I withdrew. Strange behavior, I thought at the time, only to recognize later that it was one of his research tricks” (Glock, 2008; cf. Smelser 2009; Stark 2008). You shouldn't be surprised, then, to find Goffman engaged in a discussion of “the tricks that have been played by experimenters (Stand ‘too’ close in talk and see what happens)” (1974:495).

Take a frame-breaking episode recounted by Goffman's contemporaries, and there is a chance you will find the formal properties of this kind described, classified, and explained in one of his works. Or start with a theoretical formulation and then discover in the Goffman archives an instance when it was enacted by the theorist of interaction order. Evidence abounds that Goffman “was intentionally unhinging the frame of ordinary events,” and he readily admits that “this application of microsociology may be among its most effective ones” (1974:495). To be sure, Goffman's explorations in interaction rituals are more than a guide to effective leg pulling, but that is an application in which Goffman excelled. His propensity to conflate scholarly pursuits with everyday engagements made the butt of his interactional ploys feel like Goffman was “heating the mark up” where the situation called for “cooling the mark out.” Understandably, such performances had a stigmatizing effect, all the more jarring when a technical point or a conceptual apercu he made in his work found its way into practice.

Why did Goffman engage in what amounts to “hazing” (Scheff 2006; Lofland 1984)? Goffman romanticizing risk-taking and fatefulness may be a factor. If “courtesy and etiquette can also be viewed as forms of insurance against undesired fatefulness,” (Goffman 1967:176), then breaching the norms of civility might pass for a fateful action. Whatever knowledge such trust-breaching experiments could yield, it is a poor excuse for breaching conventions without the prior consent of the parties involved. Still, we should be careful not to dwell exclusively on problematic episodes from Goffman's practice, some of which might be misconstrued or downright apocryphal, and disregard the occasions where his compassion and good will shined through. The same goofy Goffman who used to embarrass his interlocutors could engineer a life-saving ploy to rescue Jane Prather during her comprehensive exam (2009), rush to comfort Jane Piliavin after she was denied tenure (2009), gracefully nudge diners to make room for new customers (MacCannell 2009), or show thoughtfulness in planning the ASA annual meeting (Lofland 2000; Cavan 2008; Wiseman 2008).

Goffman's life is a prime example of bios sociologicus—a life dedicated to the science of society, with no sharp division between Goffman the scholar and Goffman the man. Erving was a participant observer par excellence, constantly exploring, experimenting, testing social conventions, charting the boundaries of the interaction order, and unnerving those around him in the process. A self-ethnographer, albeit an unacknowledged one, Goffman drew on his own experience for insight into self-presentational strategies, the emotional cost of failure, the insidious consequences of stigmatization, the codes of gender inequality, and the intimate workings and filaments of the interaction order. But the reliance on personal experience also biased his perception, skewed his generalizations, and in some cases impinged on the privacy of his subjects. We should remember that such practices had different meaning at the time when no IRB scrutiny governed ethnographic work, the social mores were tolerant of bullying, and public opinion condoned sexism and misogyny. By placing Goffman's life and work in their historical context, we can learn a good deal about the middle-class America in which he lived and which he strove to understand.


One room in Goffman's large Philadelphia house was filled with file cabinets containing brown manila folders full of papers, notebooks, newspaper clippings, and other archival materials one often finds in homes of academics (Piliavin 2009). We don't know what this archive contained or whether it still exists, as Goffman sealed it before he died. Such were the instructions he gave to his heirs and we should respect his wishes. Memories are among our most cherished possessions, and it is understandable if a person is reluctant to share them.

While we own our archives and can dispose of them as we see fit, we are not entitled to other people's memories any more than we own our reputation. Goffman's life and work are of great interest to his students, colleagues, friends, and many relatives who are free to share their memories, examine materials in the public domain, and assemble them in a repository. The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is one such repository, a large database featuring documents, memoirs, and critical studies designed to assist scholars studying the life and work of the 73rd President of the American Sociological Association. This undertaking is bound to raise a host of ethical issues (Shalin 2008a, 2008b, 2012). Which information about the researcher's private life should remain private and which belongs to the public domain? What if a scholar under biocritical scrutiny made special effort, as Erving Goffman did, to insulate his or her backstage from public scrutiny? Which prudent steps are necessary to protect third parties from appearing in less than flattering lights? How do we go about linking specific biographical tidbits to the scholar's research practices and theoretical constructions?

Materials assembled therein contain useful biographical information, yet the EGA does not offer any definitive account of Goffman's life. It aspires to advance our understanding of the biographical dimension of sociological imagination within the framework of pragmatist hermeneutics and biocritical investigation. Work on this emergent research program (Shalin 2007, 2008b, 2010, 2011, 2012) takes its inspiration from many sources. From C. Wright Mills (1959:6), it borrows the premise that “No social study that does not come back to the problem of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.” Polanyi (1952:26) gives it credence with his demonstration that scholarly ideas have “a passionate quality attached to them,” that “no sincere assertion of fact is essentially unaccompanied by feelings of intellectual satisfaction or of a persuasive desire and a sense of personal responsibility.” Gouldner (1970:40, 41) reinforces this message with a concept built around the notion that “every theory is also a personal theory,” that “however disguised, an appreciable part of any sociological enterprise devolves from the sociologist's effort to explore, to objectify, and to universalize some of his own most deeply personal experiences.” And Peirce's pragmatist maxim supplies theoretical fodder for the biocritical inquiry premised on the notion that “the ultimate meaning of any sign consists either of . . . feeling or of acting or being acted upon” (Peirce 1931–1935:5.7).

The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA 2008–2012) advances the agenda of biocritical hermeneutics by exploring the interfaces of biography, theory, and history as they transpired in Goffman's scholarship.1 Biocritique proceeds on the assumption that we cannot escape the cultural competencies acquired in our formative years and informing our ethnographic research sensibilities. Such competencies bias our inquiry, but they also serve as a vital resource for our sociological imagination. This is true of Goffman whose experience of growing up in an immigrant family in Canadian Manitoba nourished his sociological imagination and informed his theoretical agenda. Much of inspired ethnography is self-ethnography, although the latter should not be conflated with auto-ethnography.

Denzin (1989:34) defines auto-ethnography as “an ethnographic statement which writes the ethnographer into the text in an autobiographic manner.” Central to auto-ethnographic exploration is “the ethnographic I” permeating the ethnographic narrative (Ellis 2003; Cf. Reed-Danahey 1997; Goodley et al. 2004; Chang 2008; Muncey 2010). On that definition, Goffman's work is not “auto-ethnographic.” As Judith Posner (2000:99–100) noted, “it seems strange when one realizes that while positing a reflective or introspective model of social behavior in his social analysis, [Goffman] has generally been so singularly non-reflective about himself. . . . While he does not ‘give’ many messages about himself,” Posner continues, “he clearly ‘gives them off.’” Scorning the “touching tendency to keep a part of the world safe from sociology” and relentlessly exploring people's back stages (Goffman 1961b:152), the champion of dramaturgical sociology refused to write himself into his narrative. Still, as this paper shows, Goffman's writing has a tangible biographical dimension. The terms “auto-ethnography” and “self-ethnography” are used more or less interchangeably today, but they can be usefully differentiated, with the former reserved for a narrative focused on the ethnographic I and the latter referring to the narrative whose author encrypts in it substantial chunks of his or her biographical experience without explicitly acknowledging this fact, or even being fully aware of the auto/biographical moorings of one's work. The extent to which Goffman incorporated his biographical circumstances into his writings varied. In the “Insanity of Place,” he consciously drew on his family situation, even though he chose to leave his ethnographic I invisible. The authorial self is missing from his other works as well, but as the witness accounts suggest, it is lurking in the background, whether he explores the dynamics of self-presentation, the management of spoiled identity, or the workings of a misogynist culture.

Grounding social knowledge in the knower's place in society is a common theme in sociological analysis (Marx [1846] 1963; Mannheim [1925] 1986; Thomas and Znaniecki 1918–1920; Coser 1966; Merton 1973). Specific mechanisms through which structural variables are refracted through a particular biographical prism are not fully understood. The large database assembled and continuously updated in the EGA can aid an inquiry into the intersection between history, social structure, and sociological imagination by focusing on a subtle isomorphism between Goffman's conceptual forays and his coming of age in an émigré family hailing from a country that gave the world the notion of “Potemkin portable villages.” A middle-class North American male, Goffman traveled widely in the mid-twentieth century academic world, immersed himself in the intellectual currents of the day, and changed noticeably under the influence of powerful political and social currents. The emphasis on class symbols and self-presentation in Goffman's early work is better understood when placed in the historical context of post-war society whose members experienced a sustained upward social mobility and the status anxieties accompanying this massive social transformation. The sexist language and the misogynist advice Goffman offered to female students striving for academic careers reflected the gender bias permeating American culture in the 1950s and 1960s, just as his pioneering work on gender inequality echoed the momentous changes embodied in and effected by the feminist movement. Understanding the sociologically meaningful congruities between Goffman's biography and research corpus, the specific ways in which his lifeworld horizons were transposed into his theoretical formulas, is a task of biocritical hermeneutics.

The EGA materials offer an opportunity to study the effects of social structure and inequality in down-to-earth interactional settings by examining how Goffman's behavior (as well as that of his colleagues) encoded disparities of status and authority. The impression one gleans from numerous episodes described by contemporaries is that Goffman freely exercised the ample power he accumulated in the academe, that the victims of his pranks and instructional performances were often people of inferior status. There was also a cultural side to his disregard for conventions. As Miller (2010) points out, Goffman “was far from being the only impolite or impolitic person in Berkeley. Indeed there was a lively tradition of such impoliteness,” exemplified by Aaron Wildavsky, Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and other Berkeley faculty whose studied incivility reflected their roots in certain segments of Jewish culture with its no-nonsense attitudes, contentious manners, and eagerness to challenge established orthodoxies (Miller 2010; Gusfield 2008). Other scholars detected similar cultural dynamics: “[W]hen ghetto walls crumble and the shtetlach begin to dissolve, Jewry—like some wide-eyed anthropologist—enters upon a strange world. . . . They examine this world with dismay, with wonder, with anger, and punitive objectivity” (Cuddihy 1974:68). Examining the cultural roots of interactional strategies deployed by Goffman and his colleagues is a promising avenue for biocritical research.

The EGA data invites a second look at what social scientists subsume under the heading “personality.” This construct is based on the assumption that our feelings, actions, and thoughts encompass relatively stable, predictable patterns persisting over time and across situations, with the instruments measuring personality traits devised to enhance emotional, cognitive, and behavioral consistency. This assumption is hard to square off with the EGA data which furnish ample evidence that the same person could treat in a humane fashion a graduate student overwhelmed with work and leave on the verge of a nervous breakdown another one struggling to follow his directives (Gardner 2008; Zerubavel 2008). The wide range of behavioral and emotional enselfments documented in the Goffman archives suggests that selfhood is a nonclassically propertied object, that human agency is a stochastic, situational phenomenon marked by inconsistency and self-contradiction. We can perform a figure-background reversal when postulating consistency or indeterminacy as a default personality mode. The challenge facing biocritical research is to lay bare the structures of indeterminacy and patterns of uncertainty characteristic of everyday life.

Alongside symbolic-discursive and behavioral-performative signifying media, pragmatist hermeneutics zeroes in on somatic-affective indexes as a vital resource in understanding the historical word-body-action nexus (Shalin 2007, 2011). Passion is an indispensible part of scientific inquiry. An affective disposition drives scholarly imagination, inclining researchers to pursue a particular line of inquiry and impute validity to certain kinds of insights. A passionate man, Goffman was partial to specific emotional phenomena, to affective states bespeaking self-control— “poise,” “coolness,” “confidence,” “willingness to take chances” and “embrace fatefulness.” We find in his publications occasional references to “excitement” and “thrill” embedded in risk-taking and defying odds. By far the most common in his writings, however, are references to “shame,” “anxiety,” “frustration,” and kindred sentiments that he saw as encompassing the entire field of social interaction. One emotion template that crops up more than any other in his work is “embarrassment”—the master affect in Goffman's affective palette. This term and its cognates are mentioned fourteen times in the PSEL, with “shame,” “anxiety,” and “fear” making an appearance twenty-one times. The word “alarm” and its derivatives appear twelve times on page 246, and seventeen more times on the following page, in one of his essays (1971). Most everybody is prone to anxiety about “losing face” and evinces “a capacity for deeply felt shame” (Goffman 1959:253), yet there is something intensely personal about Goffman's take on such affective states. It is hard to avoid the impression that Goffman speaks from the heart when he tells us that “[w]hether the character that is being performed is sober or carefree, of high station or low, the individual who performs the character will be seen for what he largely is, a solitary player involved in a harried concern for his production. Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look, a look of concentration, a look of one who is privately engaged in a difficult, treacherous task” (Goffman 1959:235). Studying the distribution and patterning of affective markers in Goffman's works is another type of investigation that EGA encourages and facilitates.

Biocritical hermeneutics draws on the long-standing tradition of biographical research in social science (Denzin 1989; Petrovskaya 2003; Roth 2005; Goodley et al. 2004). The Goffman archives let us trace how real life events are transmuted into bionarratives, how the same incidents are reflected in diverse accounts, and how everyday and scholarly consciousness reconstructs the life course. It also renders problematic eyewitness accounts supplied by EGA contributors. Some of these are more credible than others, but none can be taken for granted. “EG did a quiet but pretty careful job of raising me,” intimates Erving's son, “and as we were often alone, I've always considered myself the best biographer” (Tom Goffman, Letter to Shalin, January 8, 2008). There is reason to be cautious when dealing with accounts whose passionate engagement with their subject suggests the possibility of bias. Yet their singular value is beyond measure, all the more so that many eyewitnesses who offered their reminiscences and deposited their memoires in the EGA, including Tom Goffman, have passed away.

With more than hundred bioentrees in the EGA database, each one featuring numerous episodes, we are in a position to identify the narrative units in which bioinformation is recorded. We can distinguish between (1) hearsay—tales about the person floating around without clear attribution; (2) anecdotes—stories traced to a particular source but not necessarily witnessed by the story teller; (3) episodes—single events witnessed by a narrator who might not have played a major part in the encounter; (4) encounters—an interaction in which the narrator engaged in a focused interchange with the person in question; (5) transactions—a series of direct and indirect encounters stretching over a course of time and hinting at a pattern; (6) reputations—opinions about the person's agency formed by specific narrators on the basis of personal observations, secondhand accounts, and partial record; (7) evaluations—considered biocritical judgments about an embodied historical agent based on personal accounts, institutional records, and other traces that the agent or a group of agents left behind; and finally (8) biographical repertories describing a range of bioblueprints that gain currency in a historical group, strata, society, or era. A specific tale may not fall squarely into either category, spanning several framing categories, but the above schema might help understand generic features of bioinformation—the distribution of particular events in available bionarratives, the distortions self-sampling produces in the course of biographical reconstruction, the episodic structure generated by an auto/biographical narrative, and the key role that autobiocritical narrative plays in accumulating and transmitting cultural knowledge.

The EGA materials may shed light on the nature of scholarly reputation, the framing devices used to employ and metaphorize a life in particular historical eras. Bionarratives not only instruct us about their object but also illuminate the interpreter's agenda and cultural conventions. Some interpreters found the key to Goffman's sociological imagination in his cultural roots, others tied his theoretical insights to his somatic-affective proclivities, still others took this sociologist's political leanings and existential sensibilities for the touchstone of his personal and scholarly creativity. There are blunt personal judgments, as the one John Irwin renders about his teacher and friend, “being a short Jew in worlds dominated by tall ‘goyem’—he was pissed off and this shaded all of his perceptions and analysis” (2007). Irving Louis Horowitz offers a more balanced opinion in a letter to Herbert Blumer that he wrote on February 8, 1972, where he laments Goffman's capacity to be “warm and cordial as well as cool and icy” but acknowledges the centrality of his ideas to the discipline: “There is a peculiar imperial air that Erving has generated over the years—an almost Parsonian like disdain for criticism or the possibility that anyone else could be right and he wrong. This is really a tragedy, since Goffman is one of the few geniuses we have in the profession, and were that genius tempered by an appreciation of the limits of any one man or any one style of work, it would have tempered his analytical skill with a humanism that is always beneath the surface and always implicit.” A dialectical reading of Goffman's persona comes from a devoted student: “Of him, as of few others, we may say that he was complex and incorporated dialectical contradictions. He was a severe formal theorist yet a descriptive ethnographer; a reclusive scholar yet an adroit administrator and rapier-witted party-goer; cynical yet sincere; an intellectual giant yet skeptical about his own achievements; openly crass in promoting his self-interest yet rejecting broad and public self-promotion; brilliant at ferreting out social bluffs yet less than adept at bluffing; religious about scholarship yet cynical about social enterprises. Most centrally he stripped away polite fictions in print and in person, yet also in print and person had the deepest and most profound appreciation of the importance of ‘tact, graciousness, and compassion’” (Lofland 1984; Cf. Freidson 1983).

Other critics saw Goffman's gift for naturalistic observation and his hardboiled self-presentation through the prism of the stigmatizing circumstances he had faced as a child: “I imagined his rudeness, his game-playing, his invention of inviolable rules of which one had not hitherto heard, as having this source: a mind gifted for the dissection and creation of culture in a way analogous to the gifts for physics, mathematics and music that we more readily recognize and marvel at, born short and Jewish in a small Canadian town. . . . A mind able not only to perceive behavioral norms of which others were unaware and christen practices that had no name, but also to imagine alternatives that had as yet no culture to inhabit. He made of this gift a life in which joy and anger were inseparable” (Hymes [1984] 2000:56).

Paul Greelan frames Goffman as “an exemplary moralist [who] responds to and articulates the central moral issues that appear in the biblical moral drama, the Book of Job,” which, this interpreter insists, “may have exerted a profound influence on Goffman” whose evolution mirrors Job's moral growth from innocence to wisdom (Greelan [1984] 2000:122–123; 126). John Murray Cuddihy (1974:157) ties Goffman's concerns with civility and interaction order to the Jewish struggle for emancipation: “The obsessive theme of Diaspora intellectuality—morals versus manner, the hypocrisy of civility, the triviality of etiquette—surfaced once more, and once again, became the target, both as fact and as symbol, for that ressentiment harbored by emancipating Jewry against the complex code of interaction ritual which governs ‘relations in public’ (as Erving Goffman calls it) of the members of Western bourgeois society.” Tom Scheff pinpoints the “hypermasculinity” that Goffman deftly analyzed in his work, arguing that “this idea might help to understand some of his personal life,” specifically the fact that “he seems to have treated his contacts with me and others as ‘action.’” (Scheff 2006:13).

According to Alvin Gouldner (1970:382, 379), Goffman was fascinated with the “new bourgeois world of ‘impression management’ [which] is inhabited by anxious other-directed men with sweaty palms, who live in constant fear of exposure by others and of inadvertent self-betrayal. . . . They are seen less as products of the system, than as individuals ‘working the system’ for the enhancement of the self. Although disengaged or partly alienated from the system, they are not, however, rebels against the system.” Randall Collins ([1986] 2000:74–75) puts a gloss on Goffman's political agenda: “I am making Goffman seem as if he were a defender of the status quo, if not perhaps a reactionary, at least a believer in the external social order of the center. And so he was. But it might have been no accident that so many people thought he was radical. . . . Goffman was an individualist in an era when individualism was an ideal, when avant-garde went to all sorts of extremes. . . . When everyone else was being a critic and a radical, he set himself up intellectually as a Durkheimian conservative—and yet managed to appear nevertheless as a more radical exposé-artist than almost anyone else.” And Dean MacCannell ([1983] 2000:13) reads Goffman's life as a sustained assault on bad faith that Sartre decried in his existentialist philosophy: “If we list the various claims (both substantiated and the other kind) that have been made against Goffman—cynical, ironical, duplicitous, deceptive, unserious, nonresponsive—we find they are also the key terms in Sartre's analysis of ‘bad faith’. It seems that Goffman took Sartre so much to heart that he assembled a persona for himself exactly on the model of ‘Sartrean bad faith’, perhaps in the belief that a double negative makes a positive, that is, if he could only mock up bad faith maybe he, at least, could escape the determinism he describes so well.”


Goffman left enough clues to lend credence to all these interpretations. Once he discovered the con artistry at the heart of human condition, he had to grapple with this predicament: How to expose the ceremonial and sometimes phony side of impression management while continuing to don the masks history furnished him with. The EGA allows us to collate various emplotments of Goffman's life and examine what a given framing tells us about the framed, the framer, and the framer's historical milieu.

As we follow such accounts and interpretations, we should bear in mind that many EGA contributors, including those who wrote for this journal issue, are themselves master ethnographers and accomplished scholars who reflect on their teachers, training, and careers in sociology. Most have been affiliated in one way or another with the University of Chicago, Berkeley, or Penn and have much to say about academia in general and the field of sociology in particular. Offering a fresh perspective on the discipline, the Goffman Archives promise to be an inquiry that blurs the line between the subject and object of social research. It also gives us a chance to pay homage to our teachers and colleagues, settle some old accounts, and exorcise the ghosts of academic years past.

Clearly, Goffman's corpus stands on its own and must be judged independently from the interfaces between this scholar's private and research commitments. And yet, the proposed line of inquiry offers a fruitful avenue for research illuminating the vital role that biographical resources play in sociological imagination. I hope that the readers of this special issue of Symbolic Interaction dedicated to Erving Goffman will share my own and my colleagues' excitement about this extra/ordinary sociologist and human being and join forces with us in commemorating his life and work.


I wish to express my profound gratitude to all those who helped preserve the memory of Erving Goffman by contributing a memoir to the Erving Goffman Archives. I am especially grateful to Frances Goffman Bay, Esther Besbris, and Marly Zaslov for providing family documents and invaluable recollections about Erving Goffman's formative years, as well as to EGA board members whose practical assistance and good cheer sustained me throughout this project.


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    The EGA, which evolved as a branch of the International Biography Initiative, has an advisory board that includes Ruth Horowitz, Peter Manning, Gary Marx, Tom Scheff, and Jacqueline Wiseman—all of whom knew Goffman and shared their reminisces about Erving the scholar, the teacher, and the man. Frances Goffman Bay (Erving's sister) and Esther Besbris (Erving's cousin) are project consultants who supplied rare photos, matchless recollections, and trenchant insights into Erving's Russian–Canadian–Jewish roots. The project codirectors are Sherri Cavan and Dmitri Shalin.


  • Dmitri N. Shalin is professor of sociology and director of the Center for Democratic Culture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He authored and edited several volumes, including Pragmatism and Democracy: Studies in History, Social Theory and Progressive Politics; The Social Health of Nevada: Leading Social Indicators and Quality of Life in the Silver State; Russian Culture at the Crossroads: Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness; and Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives. Dr. Shalin guest edited special issues of Symbolic Interaction on Self in Crisis: Identity and the Postmodern Condition and Habermas, Pragmatism, and Critical Theory.