Goffman on Mental Illness: Asylums and “The Insanity of Place” Revisited


  • An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, August 14, 2010.

Direct all correspondence to Professor Dmitri N. Shalin, Department of Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 South Maryland Parkways, Las Vegas, NV 89154–5033; e-mail: shalin@unlv.nevada.edu


This case study is designed to demonstrate that sociological imagination can feed on personal experience, that research practice interpolates our biographical circumstances, and that a systematic inquiry into the interplay between our professional and everyday life offers a fruitful avenue for sociological analysis. The discussion focuses on Erving Goffman's treatment of mental illness. The argument is made that the evolution of Goffman's constructionist views on mental disorder had been influenced by his family situation and personal experience.


To show how Goffman harnessed his personal experience in his scholarly work, I propose to focus on two of his works—Asylums, his pioneering study of mental institutions published in 1961, and his lesser known work, “The Insanity of Place” (IP), first published in 1969 by journal Psychiatry and later reprinted as an Appendix in his book Relations in Public (Goffman 1971a). Several commentators surmised that this paper occupies a special place in Goffman's corpus, that “it is, arguably, autobiographical” (Fine and Manning 2000:459). Although the author does not make direct references to himself, he appears to be drawing on his own painful experience. Goffman's wife, Angelica Schuyler Choate-Goffman, committed suicide in 1964 after a long bout with mental illness.

There are indications that Goffman attached a special significance to this opus. When Denzin and Keller (1981) took Goffman to task for deviating from symbolic interactionist tenets and evincing a structuralist bias, Goffman (1981) published an extensive reply where he singled out “The Insanity of Place” as a study belying pigeonholing and consistent with the Chicago tradition in sociology.

How personal the IP narrative is one can glean from testimonies assembled in the Erving Goffman Archives (Shalin 2008–2012, further abbreviated as EGA), a web-based project that collects documents, critical scholarship, interviews, and memoirs written by people who knew Goffman. The vivid details in which IP describes the hazards of living with a mentally impaired family member dovetail with the accounts of Erving's contemporaries. It is hard to avoid the impression that we are dealing with a “message in a bottle” intimating how the author coped with a personal tragedy at a crucial junction in his life.

For all that, “The Insanity of Place” is a scholarly work, a programmatic update on Goffman's better known study Asylums (Goffman 1961), where he insisted that “the ‘mentally ill’ . . . suffer not from mental illness, but from contingencies” and that symptomatic behavior of patients in psychiatric wards is best understood as “situational improprieties” (Goffman 1961:135). Less than ten years after Asylums, the author updated his account to accommodate the experience of a normal person trapped in a relationship with someone afflicted with manic-depressive disorder.

The writing in IP is vintage Goffman, combining minute observations with systematic generalizations and sparkling conceptual asides. It is also a theoretically problematic and ethically challenging statement. This thinly disguised piece of self-ethnography shows the promise as well as pitfalls of the genre, and as such, it serves as a key evidence in the present investigation.

I begin with the theoretical framework articulated in Asylums and the transformation it underwent in “The Insanity of Place.” Next, I cross-reference Goffman's narrative with accounts left by his contemporaries with an eye to showing the interplay between the author's biography and his evolving research agenda. In conclusion, I discuss the implications of this case study for understanding sociological imagination and the contribution of the Goffman Archives to biocritical inquiry (Shalin 2007; 2010).


Asylums, a pioneering ethnography conducted in the 1950s, is a powerful indictment of total institutions and the abuses inmates suffer from conniving relatives, self-serving professionals, and poorly supervised custodial personnel. The parallels Goffman drew between concentration camps, mental hospitals, boarding schools, monasteries, and kindred institutions rang true to the generation that witnessed the rise of totalitarian states, experienced the horrors of World War II, and got involved with the Civil Rights movement. Described in gruesome detail, the deprivations the involuntarily institutionalized suffer in total institutions make Asylums a compelling reading today, even though it seems apparent with the passage of time that Goffman downplayed the medical dimension of mental disorder.

The terms “mental illness” and “sickness” were often placed in quotation marks in Goffman's early work, the scare-crow quotes meant to communicate the author's disparaging attitude toward psychiatry and his skepticism about the mental institutions' professed goals. Goffman's attitude is already evident in his 1957 review of Belknap's book about mental hospitals where he wryly refers to psychiatrists who “outwardly maintain the fiction that they are running a ‘hospital’ for the benefit of ‘patients’ who have come for ‘treatment’” (Goffman 1957a:121). Later on, Goffman (1961:163) further distanced himself from “a current psychiatric view [that] necessitates a certain amount of blindness, especially at higher staff levels, to other ways of viewing the ward system, such as a method for disciplining unruly persons through punishment and reward.” Mental illness was, for him, a social construct designating a spoiled identity that colluding others successfully impose on a victim, and as such it can be read as a dig at Parson's view that medical patients voluntarily accept their “sick role” and diligently work to rectify the situation and assume their “healthy” role playing (Parsons 1951:285). In reality, “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 1961:130, 135). Deplorable as the situation in psychiatric facilities might be, it calls for a sober-minded forbearance rather than reform:

Nor in citing the limitations of the service model do I mean to claim that I can suggest some better way of handling persons called mental patients. Mental hospitals are not found in our society because supervisors, psychiatrists, and attendants want jobs; mental hospitals are found because there is a market for them. If the mental hospitals in a given region were emptied and closed down today, tomorrow relatives, police, and judges would raise a clamor for new ones; and these true clients of the mental hospital would demand an institution to satisfy their needs. (Goffman 1961:384)

Missing in Goffman's early work is an acknowledgment that psychiatric treatment may benefit patients, that it achieves anything other than pacifying relatives and flattering the psychiatrists' inflated egos. He overstates the extent to which the state-run mental hospitals catered to the involuntarily committed patients. During the 1956 conference on Group Processes sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation and featuring several prominent psychiatrists and social scientists, Goffman presented preliminary results of his research on St. Elizabeth's. Pressed on the kinds of patients found in such institutions, he replied,

In a state mental hospital of 10,000 perhaps 100 will be self-admitted. I am not talking about the 100. (Goffman 1957b:126)

In fact, about one half of 8000 patients housed at St. Elizabeth's at its peak were self-admitted; this ratio remained steady as the hospital population shrank over time. The 2005 census counted 221 forensic and 229 civil patients in the facility (Kim 2006:3).

The conference participants were uneasy about Goffman's reliance on terms like “betrayal,” “human waste,” “treachery funnel,” and “self-mortification.” Margaret Mead objected to the word “disgorgement” Goffman used to describe the patient processing in a mental institution, pointing out that “disgorgement usually means vomit” (Goffman 1957b:122). Frank Fremont-Smith (Goffman 1957b:151) took Goffman to task for his prejudicial account of self-mortification, drawing attention to

severely ill people who are already mortified, so to speak, in your terminology, in their relationships to society at the time they enter the hospital. (Goffman 1957b:151)

The “senile person,” Margaret Mead chimed in, “is horribly embarrassed to find he has no money, he has lost his keys, he has forgotten to put on all his clothes, he is brought home by the neighbors” (Goffman 1957b:151). And sometimes in the hospital, Joost Meerloo observed, “it is the first time in his life that a patient (and I have seen many of them) starts a human relationship after family and society have rejected him” (Goffman 1957b:154).

It is unclear whether Goffman benefited from this criticism. If anything, his views hardened by the time Asylums appeared in print. Not surprisingly, critics were quick to pounce on Goffman's slanted view:

For unknown reasons, some people come to be exiled to buildings called mental hospitals. The official function of the hospital is to treat psychiatric illness, but its true function seems to be to subdue, degrade, and humiliate the people who are confined there, so that they will be easier to control. . . . Goffman has managed to conjure up something that is worse than a concentration camp, a total institution in which the inmates live in a frightful exile for no reason. (Siegler and Osmond 1971:167, 169)

Studies conducted in the late sixties showed that three-quarters of patients discharged from mental institutions did not feel betrayed (Linn 1968; cf. Mechanic 1989; Peele et al. [1977] 2000). Goffman's approach allows him to spot similarities in institutions as diverse as Auschwitz, Alcatraz, Exeter, St. Benedict monasteries, and St. Elizabeth's hospital, but “the perspective by incongruity” (Burke 1984) he deploys in Asylums and elsewhere in his works trends to obscure none too subtle and hardly inconsequential differences.

In Behavior in Public Places, Goffman (1963:236) still bristles at the label “mental illness” and decries its power to stigmatize.

[A] patient classified as ‘regressed’ seems without fail to give the impression that he is utterly and irrevocably different from ordinary human beings—a feeling, incidentally, that sociologists are familiar with from their studies of castes and social class.

A year later he published a paper “Mental Symptoms and Public Order,” reprinted in Interaction Ritual (Goffman 1967), where he continued to insist “that symptomatic behavior might well be seen . . . as a form of social misconduct, in the sense that Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt recognize the term,” that “mental hospitals, perhaps through a process of natural selection, are organized in such a way as to provide exactly the kind of setting in which unwilling participants have recourse to the exhibition of situational improprieties” (Goffman 1967:140, 147).

A change of perspective can be detected in this work: Asylums focused on the involuntary institutionalized, whereas now his target is the odd-balls at large and the impact their “situational improprieties” have on the universe shared by convention-bound humans.

It is suggested that a psychotic situational impropriety is an act that one cannot easily empathize with, leading one to feel that the actor is unpredictable and untrustworthy, that he is not in the same world as one is in, that one cannot put oneself in his place. (Goffman 1967:141)

The author goes on to reassert his belief in the ordinary nature of the infractions bandied together as mental health symptoms.

I know of no psychotic misconduct that cannot be matched precisely in everyday life by the conduct of persons who are not psychologically ill nor considered to be so; and in each case one can find a host of different motives for engaging in the misconduct, and a host of different factors that will modify our attitude toward the performance. (Goffman 1967:147)

Fast-forward to 1969, the year “The Insanity of Place” appeared in print, and you discover that the author's agenda had evolved. The tone in which Goffman discusses situational improprieties is now urgent, pained, even indignant. Gone are scare-crow quotation marks with which the author surrounded, literally or figuratively, references to mental illness in his early work. Without his patented irony, Goffman refers to “the manic,” “psychotic,” “sick person” while painting the broad-brush picture of a family devastated by the unpredictable behavior of a genuinely disturbed member. The offensive behavior is no longer downplayed as a nuisance; the reader gets an earful about “a life in which a family member behaves himself insanely,” “the household [which] can become a hospital away from the hospital,” and “the insanity of place” the family cannot escape while coping with a mentally hobbled member (IP:337–38). Nor does Goffman inveigh against the collusion between the doctors and the relatives conspiring to put the troublemaker away. Now it is the offender and the doctor who form a “collusive relationship . . . in regard to the responsible others,” the latter unfairly blamed for creating an intolerable atmosphere for the perpetrator disturbing the family peace (IP:384).

IP acknowledges the somatic dimension of mental illness, which is singled out alongside interactional and psychogenic factors that figure in the etiology of mental illness:

No doubt some psychoses are mainly organic in their relevant cause, others are mainly psychogenic, still others situational. In many cases etiology will involve all of these causal elements. (IP:345)

It would be a stretch to say that Goffman denied the organic roots of mental illness in his early work, but he effectively bracketed the psychosomatic factors, downplaying their significance in understanding psychiatric disorders and explaining a moral career of mental patients. The latter appears in a starkly different light in IP where no effort is made to spot “different factors that will modify our attitude toward the performance,” the factors that Goffman touted so extravagantly just a few years back. While the change in attitude is striking, it is not meant to draw attention to itself. The emphasis is on the continuity between the early statement and the present formulations.

Whatever the cause of the offender's psychological state—and clearly this may sometimes be organic—the social significance of the disease is that its carrier somehow hits upon the way that things can be made hot for us. (IP:389)

Goffman's aim is to update his thesis, foreground the ways in which mental illness can disrupt everyday life, and suggest fresh avenues for conceptualization and research.

We should bear in mind that when Goffman was collecting his data at St. Elizabeth's hospital, psychiatry was dominated by psychoanalysis, so the author had reasons to be skeptical about the standard talking cure patients received under widely diverse diagnoses. The new family of psychotropic drugs—benzodiazepines—was still in the experimental stage, their wide use at least a decade away. It is in this historical context that Goffman embraced a constructionist view of mental illness which gained currency through the works of scholars questioning “the myth of mental illness” (Szasz 1960). Along with his illustrious colleagues, Goffman decried the view of mental illness as a purely biological phenomenon and exposed the abuses of psychiatry in the United States (see Laing 1960, 1967; Scheff 1966, 1967; Manning 1978; Pilgrim and Rogers 2005). Goffman did not go as far as some of his colleagues in dismissing the biological origins of mental illness, nor did he endorse the deinstitutionalization movement, even though his work figured prominently in the Congressional hearings that paved the way to the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 and subsequent reforms that precipitated the sharp decline in forced institutionalization. Yet he fully embraced the patient's perspective that cast inmates as victims of circumstances sucked into the funnel of betrayal by family members colluding with medical professionals to institutionalize inconvenient individuals. Left to cope with the degrading conditions through the secondary adjustments, the patients only succeeded in confirming questionable psychiatric diagnoses.

“The Insanity of Place” marked a notable shift in the perspective adopted by Goffman. He does not back off his earlier claim that mental hospitals exemplify total institutions which “function merely as storage dumps for inmates,” but he no longer makes far-fetched claims that

almost anyone's life could yield up enough denigrating facts to provide grounds for the record's justification of commitment. (Goffman 1961:74, 159)

Nor does he valorize patients as abused human beings suffering from conspiratorial designs. The author's sympathies are now with the families forced to endure manifestly disturbed members whose antics, induced at least in part by an organic ailment and sometimes downplayed by the doctors, turn home interactions upside down. Situational improprieties are framed here in a starkly negative light, with no romanticizing of the rebellious tactics celebrated in Asylums. The scourge of the families, disruptive behavior has little to do with the quest for freedom and a good deal with insanity. The anxious tone in IP contrasts with the ironic discourse of Asylums. The author pictures would-be patients as seriously impaired individuals who are overdue for institutionalization, indulged by their therapists, and tragically hurtling toward their fate.

To understand this conceptual shift, we now turn to the biographical context within which this transformation took place.


The biographical materials collected in the EGA contain an unsubstantiated report (Heilman 2009) according to which Goffman's wife might have been a patient at St. Elizabeth's while her husband was doing his fieldwork there. This is unlikely, for Schuyler's financial resources would have allowed her to seek treatment in private practice and outpatient institutions. What is well established is that Schuyler sought psychiatric help in the 1950s, that her husband was uneasy about the therapy she received, and that his interest in mental institutions was reinforced by a family member in treatment. People with concurrent appointments at the National Institute of Mental Health where Goffman worked while researching mental institutions confirm that Schuyler “saw a psychiatrist at the time” (Scher 2009), that she “already saw a therapist when he was at St. Elizabeth's” (Kohn, personal communication, April 11, 2007). Jordan Scher (2004; 2009) reports that Goffman's wife tried to commit suicide in the second half of the 1950s. According to Melvin Kohn, Goffman “was not happy with psychiatry”:

Erving Goffman was furious—yes, he was angry sometimes—he was furious that psychiatrists generally and mental hospital psychiatrists in particular applauded his work. He had meant to show those bastards up. He was fighting them. And everybody attributed this to his wife's therapy and his hating psychiatrists. When he wrote ‘Moral Career of Mental Patient’—even though he never said so himself—all of us thought, ‘Aha, if I had not got those bastards with mental hospital as a total institution, then I'm really gonna give it to them now.’ (Kohn, personal communication, April 11, 2007)

The situation might have been exacerbated by the couple's marital problems. Goffman and his wife separated for a while (Syme 2011). Schuyler did not immediately follow Erving to Berkeley when Herbert Blumer offered him a job in 1957, staying behind with their son for months, and possibly as long as a year (Kohn, personal communication, April 11, 2007). At Berkeley, the couple's relationship remained rocky. In the early 1960s, Erving and Sky1 separated again, as she took up a job with the Survey Research Center and continued to seek therapy (Clark 2009; Room 2009; Smelser 2009; Wiseman, 2009). Schuyler's colleagues at the Survey Center remember her as a knowledgeable person always ready to help others with their chores, who suffered from occasional bouts of depression. By 1963, Schuyler's mental illness symptoms became obvious to her colleagues, relatives, and friends. Esther Besbris remembers Erving's mother telling her that “Sky might have been bi-polar (the term they use today),” that “she was always a very conservative dresser—no jewelry, very simple, very plain [and then] quite suddenly, Auntie Annie would tell me, she began to dress differently, wear makeup and jewelry” and act in an uncharacteristically outgoing way (Besbris 2009). Crucial evidence comes from Schuyler herself, who acknowledged in her correspondence that she experienced psychological problems. Schuyler was aware of Erving's strong feelings about psychiatry, yet she did not necessarily share them with her husband. In one letter she thanked her friends for helping her pull through the harrowing times:

For a variety of reasons I am currently higher than a kite despite or maybe because of a new bout of arm trouble. Sometimes I think oh well, this is just the manic phase; occasionally I think my god, maybe a non-depressive life is possible. (You know, I feel I've never adequately expressed to you how much I owe you and Addie for the general shoring up and salvage work, especially that first grim winter out here. I know one isn't supposed to say these things—especially if in any way affiliated with one E. Goffman—but I often think it) (Schuyler Goffman, Letter to D. Schneider, June 5, 1963 [?]).

The problem Sky alludes to predates the couple's move to Berkeley, and even though one cannot be certain about the precise causal relationship, it is plausible that Goffman's research agenda had a personal as well as professional dimension. Such was the impression Melvin Kohn and his colleagues formed, thinking of Asylums as a work that sought to settle accounts with psychiatry and its practitioners.

We are on firmer ground interpolating Goffman's life and work once we get to “The Insanity of Place.” The tell-tale signs scattered throughout IP leave no doubt that the change in Goffman's perspective echoed his personal tragedy. On April 27, 1964, Schuyler Goffman committed suicide by jumping off the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (Oakland Tribune, 1964). Several symptoms mentioned in IP strike the reader as highly specific, even idiosyncratic, yet nearly perfectly aligned with the Goffman's family situation as reported by numerous witnesses who recall Schuyler's highly emotional reaction to the Kennedy assassination, obsession with national politics, preoccupation with philanthropic ventures, references to her great ancestors, eagerness to invite coworkers to family gatherings, and so on. Certain behavioral patterns Goffman attributed to the manic-depressive persons in his paper are gender specific and stereotypical—the propensity to indulge in excessive shopping, engage in flirtatious conduct, and associate with inappropriate male partners.

Reading the EGA accounts, we should notice that those who knew Schuyler do not always agree on her mental health. Some observers saw few signs of impairment in Goffman's wife, at least in the early stages of their relationship. “In our encounters,” recalls Charles Glock (2008), a sociology chair at Berkeley,

I sensed that Skye [sic] was a disturbed personality. However, I never got to know her well enough to recognize how severe the disturbance was. That knowledge only came with her successful attempt at suicide by jumping off an area bridge.

“She was always very civil and courteous and gracious as a hostess,” remembers Saul Mendlovitz (2009). When you talked to her, it was clear that she was familiar with the concepts, understood them, was bright and all that. I did not catch any of the—what should I call it—dementia or psychotic behavior. I never sensed that at all at any time.'' Robin Room (2009) remembers that

Sky was really into everything around the office, doing editing of papers, helping us with the fieldwork stuff, and so forth. She was really a kind of mentor to me in that job. What I knew about her was that she was a daughter of a newspaper owner. She was quite vivacious, took to urging us to come up to their house for drinks on Friday afternoons, and so forth. . . . And eventually people would say Sky was bipolar, a manic-depressive.

Those close to Goffman were more apt to spot symptoms of mental illness in his wife. Neil Smelser, who “became as close to Erving as anyone else in the sociology department,” testifies that Schuyler

went into some kind of psychological tailspin after the assassination of John Kennedy in November of 1963. That in turn drifted into a kind of hyper-manic stage, in which she developed a fix on the idea that she, using the money in her family, could, with the help of a number of us (myself included), launch into some kind of world-saving enterprise'' (Smelser 2009).

Walter Clark (2009), one-time student and an admirer of Goffman, has similar recollections:

Sky did end up in treatment for a long period of time, but her swings up and down got worse and worse and worse, and eventually, as you know, she jumped off the bridge… Yes, at times she would be hyper, and often when the gatherings at her house would take place. There would be people she ran into, some of these commercial contacts, some academics, some of the people from our own organization where we worked. Other times she would be depressed and perhaps wouldn't come to work.

Valuable testimony comes from Jane Allyn Piliavin, the widow of Erving's friend, Irving Piliavin, who offered this recollection:

My husband told me that he [Goffman] had become increasingly concerned that she was suicidal and he called her psychiatrist with his concerns, and the psychiatrist basically blew him off, ‘No, no, no. She is not suicidal. Don't worry about it.’ And like the next day she jumped off the bridge. (Piliavin 2009)

Many things could have influenced the reminiscences deposited in the Goffman archives. Some EGA contributors heard directly from Goffman about his home situation, others read the account in “The insanity of Place,” still others familiarized themselves with the EGA accounts before sitting down for an interview. Recounting the past from the vantage point of the present makes one susceptible to a retroactive bias. The period in which the memoirist knew Schuyler could also be a factor, as well as the relationship of a particular witness with the Goffmans. Those close to Erving were generally more inclined to perceive Schuyler as a troubled person and proffer accounts consistent with the IP narrative. While EGA contributors differ in their interpretations, they converge on many specific details found in Goffman's seminal paper. Here are a few telling snippets from IP where Goffman recounts what a family goes through when it finds a disturbed member in its midst:

The manic begins by promoting himself in the family hierarchy. He finds he no longer has time to do his accustomed share of family chores. He increasingly orders other members around, displays anger and impatience, makes promises he thinks he can break, encroaches on the equipment and space allocated to other members, only fitfully displays affection and respect, and finds he cannot bother adhering to the family schedules for meals, for going to bed and rising. He also becomes hypercritical and derogatory of family members. He moves backward to the grandiose statements of the high rank and quality of his forebears and forward to an exalted view

Assistance is volunteered to persons and organizations undesirous of receiving it from this quarter—the patient appreciating that an offer is an unwarrantable means of making contact with the recipient. Public life is entered through its least guarded portals: participation in voluntary work; letters to politicians, editors, and big corporations; celebrity hunting; litigation. Critical national events such as elections, war policy statements, and assassinations, are taken quite personally. . . . A manic patient who can become too large for his home can similarly become too large for his job. Starting with a commendable increase in enthusiasm for his work, he begins to offer fellow workers wanted help and advice, extends this to what is seen as interference in the spheres of others, and finally takes to giving unauthorized directives and acting as a spokesman for his work-organization when he is away from it (Goffman 1971b:370).

He promotes get-togethers of work personnel, and embarrasses status divisions by trying to bring together for conviviality everyone at work who is remotely within his social rank. . . . Family secrets are confidentially divulged at informal gatherings to persons who are merely acquaintances. Newly formed friends are enthusiastically praised to the family, giving the impression that the patient's capacity for deep involvement is being exercised capriciously. If the patient is single, unsuitable mating may threaten to occur across age, race, or class lines. If married, then unsuitable re-mating. And some sexual promiscuity may occur of the kind that can be easily realized at will because it trades on marked status differences. In all of this, the patient either takes advantage of others or places others in a position to take advantage of him, in either case to the deep embarrassment of the family (Goffman 1971b:370–72).

Goffman does not tell the reader what happens when the family turmoil runs its course, how “normal” members diffuse the family emergency. However, there are reports indicating that he could react strongly to situations where his wife acted in a manner he judged inappropriate. Robin Room (2009) volunteered this eyewitness account about a party staged by Sky:

Of course, Erving himself was fairly . . . not a very sociable person [laughing]. This clearly was rubbing him the wrong way, from what I could see as a young innocent. . . . At some point, I remember, Erving came to us on one Friday occasion and sort of saying urgently, 'Can't you see my wife is a sick woman? Will you please leave?

Here is a convergent account:

She would want everybody to come on and party and what not. That sort of things. By the way, when she just began to work at the center, a bunch of people went over there on Friday night. Goffman came home and kicked them all out. Then Sky would go into those long absences, and during one of her absences she jumped off the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (Stark 2008).

Even if Goffman consciously modeled his narrative on his family situation, we should not presume that every single detail or episode listed in IP had a counterpart in real life. A chart placed in Table A1 matches the symptoms found in IP with eyewitness accounts, and at least one difference comes to the fore—the tendency to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct attributed to a manic person. The “unsuitable mating may threaten to occur,” writes Goffman, yet no evidence surfaced to substantiate such an incidence in regard to his wife.

Sky was a damn good looking woman. . . . When she was normal, she was a charming person, she was fun to talk to . . . small talk, semi-flirting. . . . I certainly have no evidence or reason to believe that she slept around or anything. But as a lot of pretty women at the time, her style with certain kinds of men was a little bit flirtatious. That wasn't unusual (Stark 2008).

Whatever doubt one can entertain about particular symptoms mentioned in IP, their broadly biographical character is unmistakable. Too many details check out—the Foundation Schuyler endowed to help disadvantaged youth (Glock 2008), her anguish about the Kennedy assassination (Smelser 2009), Sky's sponsorship of get-togethers at her house (Clark 2009; Room 2009), Goffman's feeling of being excluded from the communication between his wife and her psychiatrist (Piliavin 2009), Schuyler's determination to break out of the domestic sphere and complete her Ph.D. (Schuyler Goffman, Letter to David Schneider, January 7, 1963 [?]; Stark 2008; Scher 2009). These similarities call for an analysis and interpretation, and so we now turn to the interplay between Goffman's family situation and his theorizing about mental illness.


It should be noted that the full-fledged assessment of Goffman's theory is beyond the scope of the present paper whose primary goal is to ascertain the biographical dimension of sociological imagination. I wish to stress, also, that the concerns about Goffman's constructionist thesis raised in this paper are not meant to downplay his general criticism of total institutions or diminish the value of his acute observations about the behavioral problems mentally distressed individuals may cause in society. What I try to do in this section is to show how Goffman's personal experience illuminated the social world he inhabited and how the same experience obscured its properties inconsistent with his affective needs.

We cannot be sure whether Goffman's interest in mental illness preceded his wife's treatment, but the two plainly intersected at some point. We don't know which course of action Goffman favored when his wife began to evince manic-depressive symptoms, yet we can surmise that his long-standing distaste for psychiatry entered the calculations. It is hard to imagine the author of Asylums recommending institutionalization for his wife. We also know that Schuyler did not entirely share Erving's attitudes toward psychiatry, for she credited her friends for helping her pull through the depression while subtly disparaging “one E. Goffman” whose anti-psychiatric sentiments could have lead him to make light of her affliction, at least initially. His skepticism about mental institutions was not unfounded at the time; it was shared by many scholars, especially within the social science community, who praised Goffman's “passionate defense of the self against society” (Freidson 1983:359) and saw his stance as “compassionate and sensitive, even, at times, one of moral outrage at the way individuals are treated” (Williams [1987] 2000:221).

As Sky's affliction grew more severe, Goffman must have experienced a cognitive dissonance between the radically constructionist view he took at the onset of his research on mental institutions and the need to help relieve his wife's suffering and stem the worst-case scenario. On the verge of his wife's suicide, according to Irving Piliavin, Goffman warned her psychiatrist about Schuyler's deteriorating state, only to be told that the situation was nowhere as bad as Goffman imagined it, that his wife was not the type to attempt suicide. Within a few years of his wife's suicide, Goffman writes “The Insanity of Place,” which marks a change in his theoretical stance. Rather than highlighting this transformation, Goffman presented his theory as a straightforward update on and logical continuation of his earlier work. He incorporated into his paper the minute details of his wife's disease, and at the same time, glossed over some of its conspicuous symptoms and wider theoretical implications. By focusing on the manic-depressive disorder, Goffman completely left out from his analysis conditions like schizophrenia that do not always produce the emotionally charged, highly disruptive interactional effects central to Goffman's argument (Sedgwick [1982] 2000:210). Even within the target disease, Goffman sets aside the depressive and concentrates on the manic phase of the disorder. Here is how Goffman explains his decision to limit the case under study:

In case of withdrawals—depressions and regression—it is chiefly the internal functioning of the family that suffers. The burden of enthusiasm and domestic work must now be carried by fewer members. Note that by artfully curtailing its social life, the family can conceal these disorders from the public at large and sustain conventional external functioning. Quiet alcoholism can similarly be contained, provided that economic resources are not jeopardized. It is the manic disorders and the active phases of a paranoid kind that produce the real trouble. It is these patterns that constitute the insanity of place (Goffman 1971b:363–64).

Goffman's theoretical argument hinges on his decision to split asunder the somatic and affective dimensions of mental illness, on postulating the dichotomy between medical and mental disorders:

Medical symptoms and mental symptoms, so-called, are radically different things. As pointed out, the malfunctioning that medical symptoms represent is a malfunctioning of the human organism and only very rarely constitutes an elegant denial of social functioning. However impaired physically, the medically ill person can almost always express that he is not intentionally and openly opposing his place in the social scheme of things. So-called mental symptoms, on the other hand, are made up of the very substance of social obligation. Mental symptoms directly express the whole array of divisive social alignments: alienation, rebellion, insolence, untrustworthiness, hostility, apathy, importunement, intrusiveness, and so forth. These divisive alignments do not—in the first instance—constitute the malfunctioning of the individual, but rather the disturbance and trouble in a relationship or an organization (Goffman 1971b:387).

The “psycho-medical dualism” (Sedgwick [1982] 2000:193) underlying Goffman's position places him on shaky historical ground. It is at odds with history where medical symptoms have been subjected to conflicting social definitions and provoked institutionally coded responses. Epilepsy, leprosy, syphilis, depression, tuberculosis, AIDS—every one of these ailments has been culturally framed, with direct, sometimes deadly, consequences for those on the receiving end of a social diagnosis, depending on whether the medical disorder was cast as divine inspiration, demonic possession, moral degeneracy, or a mysterious scourge setting off panic inside the community.

The antiestablishment sentiments and reformist intentions often attributed to Goffman's treatment of mental institutions are also open to question.

Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wide social unit; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks (Goffman 1961:320).

This paean to privacy, some critics surmised, might conceal its author's quietist agenda. I may not entirely agree with Gouldner, Sedgwick, Williams, and other scholars who contend that Goffman's theory “entails an accommodation to existent power arrangements” (Gouldner 1970:379), but their argument cannot be dismissed offhand.

Goffman's general politics are therefore quite clear. The ruling classes and their managerial hierarchies are to be left firmly in charge of ‘the solid building of the world’: such ruling-class domination is indeed necessary, for it gives us, importantly, ‘our status’, and the radical alternative to the pursuit of status—namely, social liberation—is nowhere envisioned in Goffman. Only ‘the cracks’ are left for us to expand in, the licensed loopholes of idiosyncrasy, to whose sympathetic cataloguing, across innumerable crannies of private integrity (along with their negotiated exits and entrances), Goffman has dedicated an entire moral career of his own'' (Sedgwick [1982] 2000:203).

This judgment puts a negative construction on Goffman's sensitivity to “rabbit holes” (Goffman 1957b) where humans in distress nurse their wounds and recover their dignity. But it is also true that he did not own up to the political implications of his analysis, that he failed to endorse deinstitutionalization and urged to leave bad enough alone.

It is disconcerting, also, that the symptoms listed in IP are often associated with rebellious classes, groups, and individuals whose mental status is questioned by the authorities. “The manic is someone who does not refrain from intruding when he is not wanted,” declares Goffman (Goffman 1971b:389). “He does not contain himself in the spheres and territories allotted to him. He overreaches. He does not keep his place.” True enough, but many protest movements are to be judged “manic” on this reckoning. Some have actually been disparaged by those in power who portrayed insurrections as the work of “deranged lunatics,” “mad crowds,” and “obsessive truth seekers.” This goes for the French revolutionaries, antislavery activists, civil rights protesters, and Soviet dissidents. Padres de familia of all ages used to castigate their family members unwilling “to keep their place” and determined to sustain “uppity self-concepts” as inane, and sometimes downright insane. The home place is sure to look “insane” to the entrenched powers that lament the growing “inanity of place” and demand reigning in “troublemakers” bent on breaking the established order.

Which brings me back to Schuyler Goffman. There are strong indications that Sky's behavior was rooted in the psychosomatic ailment inscribed in her family history. “The mother's Boston Brahman family had a Congo river of bipolar disease and suicide running down generations,” according to Schuyler's son, Tom Goffman (Personal communication, January 16, 2008; cf. Besbris 2009). But just as Asylums underestimated the medical side of mental illness, “The Insanity of Place” downplayed the socio-historical conditions embedded in family life that can exacerbate depressive symptoms. We know from numerous sources, including her own letters, that Sky had reasons to be unhappy with her family life. She felt depressed when her husband trundled off to Las Vegas, leaving her alone with their son on Christmas Eve (Schuyler Goffman, Letter to David Schneider, January 7, 1963 [?]). She cast about for a better use of her intellectual gifts, as did a number of other educated faculty wives at Berkeley (e.g. Gertrude Selznick) who were thrust into lowly positions at various university organizations, feeling marginalized in the academic world where women scholars were still a rarity. She set aside her intellectual aspirations while spending long hours helping her husband with his manuscripts and galley proofs (Erving Goffman, Letter to David Schneider, n.d., circa 1961). She did harbor a strong desire to go back to school and finish her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago, with or without the approval of her husband, and in fact, took practical steps toward that goal late in her life:

As of today I am resigning from my job—on good terms with my boss, Genevieve Knupfer—so I can get down to work on going back to graduate school and can help get what's left of my family over the various humps that always follow a death in the family. So at last I can relax and get around to doing what I want (Schuyler Goffman, Letter to David Schneider, January 7, 1964).

Given Goffman's reverence for family hierarchy, Sky's unfulfilled professional aspirations, and the strained relations between Sky and Erving (Mendlovitz 2009; Kurt Lang 2009; Stark 2008; Syme 2011), it seems plausible that Sky would rebel at some point and try to carve out a niche for herself in the family and the world. It is also likely that her new assertiveness, coupled with manic outbursts, would mortify her husband who might have wondered if Schuyler's expensive philanthropic ventures and stabs at social reform were signs of a mind unhinged (Glock 2008).

While someone could be genuinely mad, what he or she is “mad about” is informed by the historical conditions within which the person developed a particular set of symptoms (Epstein 2006; Shalin 2008). In all likelihood, Schuyler's depression had somatic roots, yet it might have been aggravated, or at least colored, by her struggle to overcome the barriers that American society erected in the path of women seeking fulfillment outside the domestic sphere. “Sky started doing work around the Survey Research Center. Can't quite remember which project she was [involved with, but] I got to know her and started to worry if I could help her get her damned dissertation done” (Stark 2008). Another contemporary familiar with the Goffmans paints a scenario that features a high-powered scholar obsessed with his work and indifferent to his wife's professional aspirations:

The great part of her problem was that she felt that she had the right to her world and her life, that she was not just to be a devoted, totally subservient wife to Erving. Erving was so self-absorbed, self-centered, and what not. Although she worked with him and helped him as much as she could, I think it rankled her to be not just second but maybe the third, or fifth, fiddle in his orchestra (Scher 2009).

Then, there was a rumor making the rounds at Berkeley that blamed Schuyler's plight on her husband's eccentricities:

Well of course everybody thought that Goffman has driven her to suicide because he was such a bastard. I mean that was the gist of what people had to say. It was like, ‘Anyone who had to live with him would jump off the bridge’. (Cavan 2008).

We should exercise an abundance of caution with respect to such accounts, which tend to originate outside the Erving's immediate circle, where an entirely different opinion prevailed, the one in which Goffman figures as something of a martyr:

And then there was that nasty Californian gossip that Erving had driven Schuyler mad. What nonsense. The gossips had no idea what he went through, how he cared for her and for his son. (I knew how he cared for them from mutual friends who had known us in Chicago and kept in touch with Erving and Schuyler in Berkeley) (Bott Spillius 2010).

Divergent and biased as such interpretations are, they all may have purchase on reality, and we should handle them with the circumspection we accord to ethnographic data by rigorously comparing reports, double-checking information, consulting objective records, and exploring potential sources of bias. More work along these lines will have to be done in the future to ascertain the dynamics of family relations in the Goffman household. Still, we can formulate a few preliminary hypotheses that situate sociological imagination on the crossroads between biography, theory, and history as discussed elsewhere in this special issue on Goffman and as transpired in his research on mental illness.


The evidence presented so far suggests that Goffman's work on mental illness evinces his growing alarm with his family situation and that this personal concern influenced his theoretical choices. The IP narrative is based in part on self-ethnography, albeit unacknowledged, which allowed the author to paint a rich panorama of a family life upset by the presence of a mentally disturbed member. The IP analysis yielded a number of conceptual insights into the stigmatizing impact that the presence of a manic has on the family's standing in a community: the disruption paranoid behavior causes in routine family transactions, the breach in the emotional division of labor, the challenge to the established structure of authority, the dilemmas the family faces in trying to convince the disruptive individual to seek help, and the potential for aggravations when the would-be patient colludes with the doctor in keeping one's family members in the dark.

While having first-hand, personal experience with mental illness sensitizes the investigator to the subterraneous dimensions of phenomena in question and opens new horizons for research, it can also blind the interpreter to dynamics inconsistent with the specific case in which one is intimately involved, foreclose additional avenues for research, and make the over-engaged scholar partial to conclusions reflecting his or her bias. As a scholar and a person, Goffman was very sensitive to the interactional conventions, and so he must have been embarrassed by his wife's behavior that did not accord with his notion of propriety and family hierarchy and that was widely noted by those familiar with Schuyler. Hence, he focused on the disruptive consequences of mental illness associated with manic behavior while glossing over its less disruptive manifestations. While Goffman (1961:155) spurned the official records kept by mental institutions because they fail “to provide a rough average or sampling [and] record occasions when the patient showed capacity to cope honorably and effectively with difficult life situations,” he made no attempt to list counterexamples in IP. Absent in Goffman's analyses is any reference to the “psychogenic factors” he acknowledged to play an independent role in the etiology of mental disorder. The focus on psycho- and sociogenic factors would have required Goffman to look into the genesis and evolution of the case under review, and it might have served as an occasion for self-reflection, if not self-criticism, something Sky's therapist was likely to contemplate.

Rather than considering the interplay between the somatic, psychogenetic, and sociological factors in the constitution of a manic-depressive disorder, Goffman postulated a questionable dichotomy between the “medical” and “mental” phenomena, assimilating his case to the conditions injurious to decorum and considering mental symptoms in isolation from their somatic sources. Goffman anticipates some of this criticism: “In the last few years the non-psychiatric character of considerable symptomlike behavior has become much easier to appreciate because situational improprieties of the most flagrant kind have become widely used as a tactic by hippies, the New Left, and black militants, and although these persons have been accused of immaturity, they seem too numerous, too able to sustain collective rapport, and too facile at switching into conventional behavior to be accused of insanity” (Goffman 1971b:355–56). This statement undermines his earlier insistence that each psychotic episode can “be matched precisely in everyday life” (Goffman 1971b:147), it fails to acknowledge the pervasive and mutually-reinforcing nature of psychiatric symptoms, and it does not square off with the medicalization of protest movements in history, the abuse of psychiatry to silence political dissent. Goffman misses here an opportunity to compare situational improprieties as political tactics and as psychiatric symptoms. Throwing feces at the attendants described in Asylums refers to behavior known to occur in other institutions (e.g., in Guantanamo prison), but if the inmate starts defiling his cell companions, his behavior will be harder to classify as protest; and by the time he begins to smear himself with feces, put it in his mouth, and engage in a sustained pattern of outlandish conduct, the store of conventional explanations for such unconventional behavior will run out fast.

One has to wince, also, at the ethical implications of Goffman's decision to use his family as a research object and divulge his wife's conditions to third parties, before her death (Piliavin 2009) and after her death (Wiseman 2009). Even if Goffman drew on his personal experience only after his wife's tragic demise, one can second-guess his decision to incorporate into IP intimate details of his family life and draw attention of several confidants to his paper as a definitive account of what had happened between him and his wife (Wiseman 2009). Such an approach opens the door to questioning the IP narrative, seminal though it is, as one-sided and perhaps self-serving.

There are other tangents bearing on my thesis (e.g., Goffman's unwillingness to highlight the discontinuity between IP and his early work, the failure to spell out the implications of his analysis for involuntary institutionalization, the gender bias that informed Goffman's analysis). Whatever it misses as a scholarly analysis, however, “The Insanity of Place” makes up for as a riveting piece of self-ethnography, and a moving attempt at apologia pro vita sua. It gives an insight into the mindset of a first-rate scholar, reminding us that scientific theories are produced by flesh and blood humans whose passion and intellect inform their scholarly imagination. Understanding the interfaces between biography, theory, and history is the task of biocritical hermeneutics.


The evidence presented in this case study demonstrates that at least some of Goffman's writing was crypto-biographical. To make my case, I systematically cross-referenced memoirs, historical documents, and scholarly works assembled in the Erving Goffman Archives. The investigation showed that in his signature piece, “The Insanity of Place,” Goffman extensively relied on self-ethnography, enciphered minute details of his family situation, and revised his earlier formulations developed in Asylums and kindred works written before his wife's suicide. While the familiarity with his wife's conditions enabled Goffman to write a compelling account of a family shaken by the presence of a manic-depressive member, it also biased his conceptualization, obscured the socio-psychological roots of mental illness, and raised ethical issues regarding the propriety of ethnographic research on family members.

David Mechanic (1989:150) brings up this intriguing tidbit in his paper on medical sociology: “Later in Goffman's life, after he had to live through an episode of mental illness involving another person close to him, he is said to have remarked that had he been writing Asylums at that point, it would have been a very different book.” I was unable to trace the origins of this remark (David could not recall who made it; personal communication, October 22, 2008), but the IP narrative is not the only instance of such a revision, as other papers in this Goffman issue attest. None of Goffman's published works matches IP in the minute details with which real life events were transcribed into a scholarly narrative, yet the self-ethnographic impulse continued to feed Goffman's sociological imagination throughout his professional career. To explore the many ways in which sociological imagination feeds off our biographical experience, and in turn affects it, is the task of biocritical hermeneutics. (See the introductory essay to this special issue of Symbolic Interaction for further discussion of the interfaces between Goffman's life and work; cf. Shalin 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012).


Table A1. Goffman's IP Narrative and Witnesses' Accounts of Schuyler Symptoms
Symptoms Cited in “The Insanity of Place”Witness Accounts of Angelica Schuyler Goffman
“[The] manic . . . moves backward to the grandiose statements of the high rank and quality of his forebears”

“Her family owned a newspaper. . . They were Boston Brahmins.” (Lang, 2009)

“The Choates [Sky's maiden name was Angelica Schuyler Choate] were vastly more upper class than the Kennedys. They were part of the old New England Protestant establishment, real close in status to the Lodges and the Adamses and the Cabots. Kennedys were late comers, the Irish trash that made money.” (Stark 2008)

“Critical national events such as elections, war policy statements, and assassinations are taken very seriously”“[S]he went into some kind of psychological tailspin after the assassination of John Kennedy in November of 1963. That in turn drifted into a kind of hyper-manic stage, in which she developed a fix on the idea that she, using the money in her family, could, with the help with a number of us (myself included), launch into some kind of world-saving enterprise.” (Smelser 2009)
“[The manic entertains] an exalted view of what he proposes soon to accomplish”“As of today I am resigning from my job – on good terms with my boss, Genevieve Knupfer – so I can get down to work on going back to graduate school and can help get what's left of my family over the various humps that always follow a death in the family. So at last I can relax and get around to doing what I want. . . .” (Angelica Schuyler Goffman, Letter to D. Schneider, January 7, 1964)
“[The manic enters] public life . . . through its least guarded portals: participation in voluntary work”“She was into a variety of charitable activities and would like to talk with me about them. . . . I must have offered a sympathetic ear because soon she began to seek me out not only at parties but by phone or at an arranged luncheon meeting to ask my counsel on what she was about. . . . In her will, Skye made provision for the establishment of a small Berkeley based foundation whose principal purpose was to afford support to community efforts to advance the education of economically dis-privileged youth.” (Glock 2008)
“There may be a surge in home entertainment that is unstabilizing,” “get-togethers of work personnel,” “trying to bring together for conviviality everyone at work who is remotely within social reach,” “persons of widely different social rank”

“At times she would drive you crazy with all kinds of social invitations. We would go to her house, sometimes almost under duress—you had to accept the invitation and drop by her place to have a drink, because she was going nuts for lack of company or some such. Sometimes there would be 20 or 30 people when you showed up. Erving was not happy with this.” (Clark 2009)

''She was quite vivacious, took to urging us to come up to their house for drinks on Friday afternoons, and so forth. Of course, Erving himself was . . . not a very sociable person. This clearly was rubbing him the wrong way, from what I could see as a young innocent. And eventually people would say Sky was bipolar, a manic-depressive. At some point, I remember, Erving came to us on one Friday occasion and sort of saying urgently, ‘Can't you see my wife is a sick woman? Will you please leave?’.'' (Room 2009)

“[S]exual promiscuity may occur,” “unsuitable mating may threaten to occur across age, race, or class lines”“She wasn't flirting, you know. But she was an attractive person.” (Room 2009) “Sky was a damn good looking woman… When she was normal, she was a charming person, she was fun to talk to … small talk, semi-flirting…I certainly have no evidence or reason to believe that she slept around or anything. But as a lot of pretty women at the time, her style with certain kinds of men was a little bit flirtatious. That wasn't unusual.” (Stark 2008)
“[F]amily secrets are confidentially divulged at informal gatherings”At one point, she told me, and I hope I have this correct, that her father had died and she had to leave for Boston, and handle the inheritance. She said, “We are going to see how much we can give to charity in order to cut the tax consequences.” (Wiseman 2009)
The “manic begins by promoting himself in the family hierarchy,” “no longer has time to do his accustomed share of family chores”“The great part of her problem was that she felt that she had the right to her world and her life, that she was not just to be a devoted, totally subservient wife to Erving. Erving was so self-absorbed, self-centered, and what not. Although she worked with him and helped him as much as she could, I think it rankled her to be not just second but maybe the third, or fifth, fiddle in his orchestra.” (Scher 2009)


  1. 1

    Sky signed her letters as “Sky,” and in the legal documents “Sky” is given as one of her cognomen, but some of the people who knew her spell Schuyler's nick name as “Skye.”


  • 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.