Goffman on Gender, Sexism, and Feminism: A Summary of Notes on a Conversation with Erving Goffman and My Reflections Then and Now


  • Mary Jo Deegan

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Nebraska
    • Direct all correspondence to Mary Jo Deegan, Department of Sociology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 711 Oldfather Hall, Lincoln, Nebraska 68588-0324; e-mail: mdeegan2@unl.edu.

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Often known as cynical, contentious, and exhibiting a complicated approach to objectivity, Erving Goffman could also be generous, civil, insightful, open to feminist ideas, and surprisingly political. A 1977 collective feminist writing project led to my conversation with Goffman in 1980 about his ideas on gender, sexism, and feminism. A summary of that conversation is presented, together with my formal reflections then (1980) and now (2013). While documenting the sociological practice of an earlier era, this paper concludes that feminist sociological theory must move beyond its locations in the past and the present into the liberating knowledge of the future.


Erving Goffman was an outstanding theorist who analyzed the dramaturgy of everyday life and our rules for organizing experience. His elaborate presentation of self, sarcasm, misogyny, humor, and kindness are legendary, just as the meaning of what he wrote and the methodology he used to collect his data are controversial. In general, Goffman did not explain his methods, even to his students, and he often exhibited a hostile attitude toward sociology and sociologists, although many nonetheless held him in high esteem. The experiential bases of this widely accepted account are manifest in the memoirs and interviews deposited in the Erving Goffman Archives (Shalin 2008–2012, hereafter “EGA”). One of the EGA directors offered the following appraisal of Goffman's personality based on the available biographical testimonies:

The tentative conclusion I have reached after examining available biographical accounts is that Goffman was a student of civility whose standards he flouted, that his demeanor was sometimes intentionally demeaning, his deference willfully deferred, and his incivility painfully obvious to those present. The argument is made that Goffman's infringements on the interaction order were strategic, theoretically significant, and worthy of close study by interactionist sociologists (Shalin 2008a, 2008b).

I agree with this interpretation, but as a feminist pragmatist and critical dramaturgist, my impressions are colored by my personal contacts with Goffman, which revealed him to be a generous, insightful, and often pleasant person. I too hold Goffman in high regard and conclude, below, that his work—while sometimes problematic and contradictory—allows us to see the oppressions endemic to the social world, a matter of no small consequence for feminist theorists.

In 2010, I attended two panels on Goffman's life and work organized under the aegis of the Stone-Couch Symposium. Among the panelists were former students of Goffman and eminent scholars who stressed the apolitical nature of his work and the tenuous connection between his writings and personal beliefs. I was struck by how different my experience with Goffman was. While some feminists analyze Goffman with the expressed intention “to praise Goffman, not to bury him” (West 1996:364), I offer here a more critical evaluation, especially when Goffman's views on gender are involved.


The ideas developed by Erving Goffman have played a significant role in my own work and life. I was privileged to have a series of intense exchanges with this remarkable sociologist between 1978 and 1980. These interactions revolved around his views of women, feminism, and the sexist language he used in his writings, a contested topic among some Goffman scholars (e.g., Wedel 1978). Goffman and I discussed some of his publications and research methodology, the manner in which sociology should be written, and his work as a theorist and observer of everyday life. I initiated the contact in 1978 by sending Goffman a copy of my article (Deegan 1978) comparing his ideas with those of Victor Turner (1969, 1974, 1982), whose classes I took during my doctoral training at the University of Chicago.1 Goffman and I exchanged several letters during this period which set the stage for our subsequent face-to-face meeting.2

I next wrote to Goffman about a collective project that several graduate students and I undertook (I had begun teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1975) which resulted in a manuscript originally titled “A Feminist Critique of Erving Goffman.”3 (By the spring of 1980 we had changed the title to “The Sexist Dramas of Erving Goffman”). Goffman agreed to meet with me in August 1980 during the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City for the specific purpose of discussing the collective's manuscript. Every member of the project wanted to meet Goffman, but it turned out that I was the only one who could attend the meetings that year. We all agreed that I would present our collective work to Goffman, discuss with him its implications, and summarize the meeting to the rest of the collective upon my return to Nebraska.

Goffman and I met to discuss the collective's paper, a work that strongly criticized his analysis of women. Goffman had prepared a written, detailed response to the paper, which he used during our “conversation of gestures” (Mead 1934). He neither offered me a written copy of his response, nor did I ask him to share it with me. I did write field notes documenting our interaction immediately after our conversation and added additional points, as I remembered them, during the subsequent plane flight home. A summary of these handwritten comments, typed and gathered under the heading: “Summary of Notes on a Conversation with Erving Goffman (1980),” is presented below. I also outlined the major intellectual points we had discussed and my response to them. The narrative is presented in chronological order and phrases in quotation marks indicate verbatim quotes from my field notes.

Within a week after returning to Lincoln, I prepared a section to be appended to the collective's original paper and copies of this essay were distributed to the collective's members. Three weeks later, we met to discuss the conversation. My essay was directly informed by my conversation with Goffman, incorporated my responses to his arguments, and represented a significant evolution in my thinking.

Whereas I felt the need to update my original views, the members of our group did not accept my new perspective. They believed the essay reflected my responses to my conversation of gestures with Goffman and was thus not inherently a collective effort. True, the original version did not include Goffman's responses and was based solely on his public, written work. Further, a few members of the collective noted that Goffman was not a part of the collective per se but was, rather, a subject of study (thus logically and methodologically complicating the inclusion of his responses to the original paper). Finally, some members of the collective expressed fear that publication of the new paper might have negative consequences in their future job searches. Because of these group differences, differences that emerged after my conversation with Goffman, we did not arrive at a consensus about the final draft. We collectively decided to end this phase of the project, and my essay lingered in my file cabinet, until now. The essence of that paper is provided below under the heading: “The Role of Goffman's Knowledge in a Sexist World (1980).”

At the time of my conversation with Goffman, I used dramaturgy to study gender and was looking for ways to merge Goffman's ideas with the concepts developed by Victor Turner. Turner wrote extensively on rituals, celebrations, and human bonds. Having refined my ideas over the last three decades, I developed a framework of “feminist pragmatism” (e.g., Deegan 1988, 1995, 2002, 2007) and “critical dramaturgy” (Deegan 1975, 1978, 1989, 1998; Deegan and Stein 1977), which variously inform my present reflections on my encounter with Goffman. These ideas are presented below under the heading, “My Current Perspective on the nonsexist Potential of Goffman's Dramas (2013).”

My personal experiences with Goffman and my immediate reflections at the time serve to illuminate sociological practice of that era, particularly the way Goffman practiced his métier. Toward the end of his life, Goffman was intensely interested in the topics of gender and feminism, and it is in this context that I now view the support he offered to me as a budding scholar and assistant professor facing a promotion and tenure review.


Beginning in the mid-seventies, I taught several courses wherein I discussed at length the works of Erving Goffman. In 1977 and 1978, several students (Barbara Keating, Sandy Kuenhold, Jane C. Ollenburger, Rebecca Fahrlander, and Sheryl Peterson Tillson) who had taken classes with me met and agreed to undertake a study of Goffman's work from a feminist perspective. As one of the founders of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I closely followed the women's movement, so the feminist issues informed our small group's perspective on Goffman from the start. Our study project became a collective endeavor.

During the spring semester of 1977, we met approximately once a month. Each participant took up a text written by Goffman and identified what we considered sexist phrases and passages (in all, we examined Goffman 1959, 1961a, 1961b, 1963a, 1963b, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1976/1979, 1977). We then gathered to discuss these selected items. Our collective work generated a large sample of textual references illustrating that women were second-class citizens in Goffman's writings. After that, each participant wrote a short analysis of the text under review that was presented for a collective discussion. We merged these papers and analyses into a cumulative document titled “A Feminist Critique of Erving Goffman” (Nebraska [Sociological] Feminist Collective 1978). In the course of subsequent editing, the paper continued to evolve, and it later carried the title “The Sexist Dramas of Erving Goffman” (Nebraska [Sociological] Feminist Collective 1980). We eventually sent the 1980 version to Goffman and he graciously agreed to meet with us to discuss our findings during the upcoming ASA annual meeting in New York City.

Even though the group subsequently decided not to publish this paper, we all agreed that we had learned important lessons from our collective exercise. We had grasped the nuances of Goffman's language, grappled with his perspective on women, and learned how to work collectively and frame intellectual issues. Sadly, I was the only member with enough money to attend the ASA meeting and meet Goffman, which taught our collective how capitalism informs the learning process. And so I was dispatched to press our findings, hear Goffman's response, and communicate it to our collective.


As a run-up to my encounter with Erving Goffman, I experienced a typical Goffman test, a norm-breaking exercise. We had arranged to meet in the convention hotel's lobby, but Goffman failed to appear. After waiting for twenty minutes, I went to the hotel desk and left a message that our signals must have crossed and that I would return to the lobby in one hour. As I walked through the lobby an hour later, someone grabbed my arm, and steered me to an elevator. I quickly recognized that this was Goffman because I had heard him speak at another convention.5 He told me he assumed I would not mind talking in his room. He seemed unhappy with the delay of our meeting. I released my arm from his grip and agreed to follow him to his room.

Only in retrospect did I realize that Goffman was possibly testing me and that my reaction might have surprised him. We had never met, yet somehow he knew who I was, perhaps by observing me unobtrusively while I was waiting for him. He may have seen my name-tag when I earlier waited for him in the lobby—I had removed it when I left the hotel for the intervening hour and had not replaced it.

Goffman brought me to his room, the only private space where we could converse. I think he wondered if I thought he was going to make a pass, but both of us went straight to the business of discussing sexism in his writings—he with his notes in hand, I with a copy of our paper while we sat side-by-side at a desk. He went through each passage and had written long comments on them. These extensive comments and his sometimes indignant attitude clearly showed that he was upset with the feminist attack on his writings.

Goffman accepted our critique of a particular passage (which one I cannot remember now), but while conceding that his point was overstated, he stressed that he had intentionally set up a “straw man.” He bristled at the fact that we failed to appreciate the ironic nature of his statements. In his view, an intelligent reader could not possibly miss the irony, which is more effective than a direct attack. Asylums (1961b), Goffman stressed, did more to discredit and change the mental health institutions than serious treatises did. He feared, also, that squelching irony would risk censorship and that being earnest would achieve the opposite effect.

Early in the conversation, Goffman told me he did not mind being criticized (but he clearly did). He spoke with great intensity, his sustained focus and engagement helping me to speak my mind. I assured Goffman that I keenly followed his reasoning and understood his concern with being misunderstood, but I remained skeptical. When I pointed to a passage that my colleagues and I considered offensive, he judged it to be merely ironic. After we stated our different positions, he retorted, “What you think of me!” To which I replied, “Exactly.”

The conversation then turned to his personal experience and politics. Goffman mentioned being Jewish, growing up above a business his parents owned. One of the things that most alienated him from his Jewish heritage, he said, was lack of resistance among Jews during WWII. “Why didn't they fight back? . . . The courtesy or pleas for mercy from someone harming you is the most vulnerable position of all—and the most nonsensical.”

I discussed his tendency to lump women together regardless of their ethnic and class differences and impute the same experiences to them. He retorted that the family was the basis for ethnicity. I pressed the issue of sex (today we would call it “gender”) which pitted black women against black men in the market place and assigned a different place in the family hierarchy to Indian men and women. Goffman said he saw no problem with the young “fulsome” Indian woman appearing in ads, and I told him I considered such views sexist.

When courtesy rituals became a topic, Goffman insisted that many older and ugly women thrive on such rituals, that they give meaning to life and make it fun. Men would stop calling women “Honey” or “Baby,” if women would consistently tell them not to do this. We talked of women trying to look younger and prettier than they are. Goffman made a point of the genuine pleasure accompanying being polite and gracious, and how much more bearable life is because of such little graces. He stated that these small encounters are important, but I replied, “Not if they reinforce an oppressive system.” When he persisted that such courtesies gave women an advantage, I countered that they were also a disadvantage when they disappear as a woman grows old or is judged as homely. He said he knew some things about courtesy rituals.

At some point, Gillian Sankoff, whom Goffman introduced as his “lifemate,” entered the room. Goffman indicated he was concerned about our meeting running late, and he invited Gillian to join the conversation. In spite of his desire to have a three-way talk, Gillian excused herself and left the room, returning about an hour later.

More personal narrative followed, with Goffman conceding that he had undergone a major historical change. In 1949 to 1951, when he was writing some of these books he was an “MCP”—male chauvinist pig (Goffman's term) who took for granted that women should have children to achieve fulfillment in life. He accepted this without question. Now he would disown many things he wrote 10 or 15 years earlier. He said he could not understand the series of criticisms in our paper or the article by Janet Wedel published by Theory and Society in 1978. I told him, like Wedel, I found his article, “The Arrangement between the Sexes” (Goffman 1977), to be contradictory but he found it consistent. I gave him an example of a phrase that I found insulting when he talked of a woman who was being raped who was being polite to her rapist. He said this was “a pretty example of rape.” I found the word “pretty” offensive in this context, but he insisted that he used the term “in a mathematical sense,” as elegantly illustrating a phenomenon or a mathematical proof. I did not accept his explanation because women do not think of rape mathematically but as an invasive act of violence.

More than once Goffman lamented, “Why do feminists pick on me?” After all, he was no guiltier than any other man. I told him some of my colleagues saw him as a feminist but after closely reading his texts, they changed their view.6 He volunteered that he makes disclaimers about using the pronoun “he” but can find no good substitute. I suggested “he/she” as an alternative, along with gender neutral words like “congressperson.”7

We went on to discuss the issue of deference, using the differential manner in which the two of us address each other as an example. Goffman suggested that many students like being called by their first names while they have no problem addressing him as “Mr. Goffman.” Once a more equal status is achieved, both interactants can use the first person appellation. I suggested one should not presume that all students endorse such inequality, that the professor needs to probe the students' preferences and try to alleviate the alienation that marks the faculty-student relation. Just because people say they do not mind being addressed by their first names, it does not mean they prefer it. Goffman agreed with me on that point, volunteering that he did not mean “to put me on the spot” by calling me by my first name.

Next, we touched upon his research on gambling and his article “Where the Action Is.” I pointed out that he did not study women in the casino setting and that this was a serious omission. I also shared with him my concern that the expression “Where the action is” was alienating insofar as it reflected patriarchal experience. He agreed with my point, noting that the focus of his study was elsewhere and that he did not have to dwell on this issue.

After we talked about the importance that feminists assign to differentiating between personal views and those representing society's conventions, Goffman urged me “to dig deep” and follow in the pathway of such analysts as Kate Millett who studied Norman Mailer. He repeated his advice several times.

The topic of rape and irony arose again, with Goffman expressing his view that rape was not so much an indignity as part of the oppressive culture of virginity. Goffman acknowledged that he and feminists did not see eye to eye on this matter, and since we could not find any common ground, we dropped the subject. Eschewing direct political statements and preference for an ironic mode is one more area where he and feminists disagreed, stressed Goffman (this was subsequently true for our collective, as noted earlier). While sociologists can express their personal views in the opening and closing sections of their books, they must strive for objectivity and describe the social scene as seen by its participants. His own practice, Goffman said, was to place himself in the shoes of all the participants, whether or not he agreed with them. To do otherwise is to perpetuate oppression by coercing the readers to agree with the writer rather than perceiving the world as it is and letting the readers decide for themselves. When I pointed out that he himself stressed that irony implicates the writer and shows “a writer's license,” he replied that he was full of contradictions. Still, one must strive to present the events from the vantage point of the participants.

Gillian, who had planned to be back in twenty minutes, returned instead an hour later. Goffman was visibly concerned about her reaction, but she told him not to worry. A brief exchange between Gillian and myself ensued, and this signaled the end of the conversation. After I left the room, I realized that I forgot to ask Goffman whether he would write a letter of recommendation for my upcoming tenure and promotion. I came back, knocked on the door, and stated my request. He looked at me with some impatience and said, “Yes, I will do that.” I thanked him and, feeling relieved, went away.

Soon after this encounter, I reviewed my demeanor during the whole exchange. I thought I displayed considerable deference at the start and at the end of the interview, which reflected my high regard for his work, but not in the middle of our exchange when we were engaged in sometimes heated debate. What surprised me the most was that Goffman did not hesitate to express his political views. At times he sounded to me almost like a Marxist. He also was less contentious and confrontational than I had expected.

My unpublished essay (Deegan 1980a, 1980b) that resulted directly from this exchange (and which is reproduced below) exemplified my then evolving perspective—“critical dramaturgy”—which I articulated during the subsequent years and summed up in my books on American ritual (Deegan 1989, 1998). The perspective presented in the text below is my own; it does not reflect the position(s) taken by the above-mentioned collective.


Inserting Goffman's voice into the dramaturgy of sexism involved several issues: the role of sexist dramas and language in constructing everyday life, the chronological shift in Goffman's writings after 1976, the role of the sociologist as an observer or change agent, our different perspectives on his feminism after 1976, and the role of irony in knowledge.

The Role of Sexist Dramas in Everyday Life

The world described by Goffman mirrors the world of everyday life, his sexist language reflecting the realities of the society in which he lived and worked. We may say with Alfred Schutz (1962) that Goffman embodies the natural attitude of a sexist society. Moreover, his texts, especially the early ones, reinforced institutionalized sexism through their language, examples, metaphors, and stereotypes. Thus there is a twofold effect in his writings that perpetuates a sexist reality: the original validation or “mirroring” of this reality is followed by the application of principles which reproduce the gender inequality through the very process of writing. Goffman agreed with the members of our collective that such a bias was found in his writings prior to 1976. However, not all of us at the time were on the same page regarding the pervasiveness and structural rootedness of this bias.

The Chronological Shift in Theoretical Interpretation

Goffman's perception of women's role in everyday life underwent transformation in the mid-1970s when the systemic impediments to women's participation in society were questioned increasingly. The traditional perception of women's roles, images, and behavior, however, was still evident in dominant scripts and contextual sexist dramas. The following anomaly emerged: the explicit knowledge of the sexist dramas exposed the mechanisms of social control over women while the tacit knowledge of domination and the linguistic codes continued to perpetuate gender inequality. This paradox runs throughout all of Goffman's writings, and becomes especially glaring after 1976 when he experienced a feminist shift in his thought and writings. Thus all of his texts reveal the process of control that operates at the level of self-identity and self-construction while engaging in such control through his texts. Despite his self-perceived feminist change, his continuing sexist language, and analysis legitimate the gender-biased status quo.

The Sociological Observer versus the Sociological Critic versus the Feminist Sociological Critic

Two paradoxes underlie the sociologist's role as revealed in Goffman's texts and a third conflicting stance is adopted by feminists other than Goffman. Goffman's stance is predominantly that of an observer. Sociologists are expected to “see” the world and record it as it is rather than try to change it. Direct advocacy and political action are to be avoided so far as sociology is concerned. From my feminist perspective, on the other hand, knowledge generated by “objective” description is biased and incomplete. “Objective knowledge” presents the world framed by patriarchs controlling the social construction of reality and the languages of domination. An ahistorical description of patriarchal society “as given” shores up the reality it purports to describe. This “scientistic” stance is somewhat tempered by the ironic attitude, which nonetheless leaves the world intact. Goffman expressed social criticism through his style of observation and irony. To be a systematic observer of everyday life and not merely a participant is a form of detachment from everyday life, what Peter Berger (1967) calls a “detached/voyeur” mode of looking at the world. Goffman (1963a) augments this method of looking at the world by deploying irony to describe reality.

The Ironic Mode

“Irony” is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used, and it usually takes the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt (Oxford English Dictionary).When Goffman brackets the sexist world with irony, he is inviting the reader to share his perspective and values (Schutz [1932]1967). Such an attitude is problematic for feminists because irony is embedded here in a patriarchal world and does little to challenge outlandish and repressive behavior toward women, which is certified as “normal” along with the “objective” gaze of the patriarchal world. Ironically, contemptuous attitudes and actions legitimize gender inequality when the narrator relies on a language and metaphors rooted in the patriarchal knowledge.

Humor directed at women can be repressive, and as such, it has been a subject of controversy. Men who advise women to use their “sense of humor” when dealing with insults (e.g., when they call a woman a “chick” or “fox”) actually exercising their control and perpetuating oppression. Irony and humor, in this context, serve as tools of oppression. Such humor is meant to make the target of the “joke” laugh with the person denigrating them. Women are doubly victimized here as butts of men's jokes and as endorsers of unwanted irony. Rather than “laughing with” his target, the sexist ironist “laughs at” his target. Written irony is especially harmful in this respect, since the printed word has more legitimacy and visibility than an orally delivered, ambiguous insult. Irony in speech is capable of conveying subtle meanings through the use of tone, voice, and body language which can override the words' common meaning.

Goffman's “ironic” and “objective observer” stances are in opposition. This contradiction in his writings is difficult to critique methodologically because the source of “objective” information versus the author's “ironic” voice is unclear. Goffman, moreover, did not systematically write about his methods of data collection, social criticism, and feminism.

When no clear line separates authorial comments from allegedly objective observations, the readers are pressed to feel like they are “in on the joke” whether or not they find the point funny. In the absence of a clear authorial voice, the reader can be easily confused as to where the straightforward observations of a sexist world turn into its apology and where the observations reveal a critical attitude toward the status quo.

From the feminist standpoint, the everyday world is comprised by social constructions that limit women's full participation, and it is the task of sociologists to unmask the oppressive structures and check the power of knowledge to perpetuate inequality in all its forms. The knowledge about the world is always contextual and therefore never “objective.” Irony embedded in liberating knowledge enhances the style of reading and writing that challenges the world of domination. Feminist irony acknowledges that the role of the “author” is not identical with the role of the “scientist,” that any observer belongs to the world it describes. Irony is part of the authored world, not a neutral insider/outsider game within the system of patriarchy.


In the essay I wrote in 1980 and summarized above, I argued that Goffman's dramas and dramaturgy are dialectically related to feminist analysis. Goffman allows us to see the oppressions endemic to the social world by exposing the natural attitude toward the stigmatized (1963a), the mental patient (1961b), and outsiders (e.g., 1977). The concepts he developed in those texts mixed his observations of everyday life with ironic commentary and sexist views on women. He explicitly stated that he would disown much of his early work because of his everyday attitude to women at that time. Using Goffman's brilliant observations without re-creating his biases presents a definite challenge. For example, as a collection of discrediting attributes (Goffman 1963a, 1967), the concept of “stigma” illuminates the degradation ceremonies (Garfinkel 1956) which women experience throughout everyday life (pressuring to accept insulting irony is a good example of this process). Similarly, Goffman's perspective on “mortification of self” (1959, 1961a), “gender advertisements” (1976/1979, 1977), “aligning actions” (1967), and “impression management” (1959, 1967) reveal the ways in which women's lives are circumscribed and limited by conventions. It is noteworthy that these concepts permeate the entire corpus of Goffman's work and not just those published after 1976.

Although there is a more direct application of dramaturgy in his later publications, there is a continuity of patriarchal views underlying his work before and after 1976. To make these works useful for the feminist analysis, it is important to render explicit how these concepts perpetuate the natural patriarchal attitudes in America. For Goffman's explicit theory has become part of the natural attitude within both the profession and everyday life. Goffman did not explore the sociology of knowledge in his writings, write reflexive analyses of his methodology, state his feminist assumptions, nor reveal his use of irony as social criticism. In addition, although he did not adopt the phenomenological perspective in his work, there is a clear potential for using his writings for such purposes.

Sociological dramaturgy adds an important dimension to feminist sociology by revealing the natural attitude inherent in patriarchal society. As I showed above, Goffman's texts have performed a dual function of replicating the patriarchal world and exposing its power structures through the ironic use of language. But the ironic attitude is not enough and it is ambiguous in the context of implicit sexism. Feminist praxis calls for liberating knowledge from its patriarchal language, metaphor, and theory that takes for granted, and thus helps perpetuate, women's unequal role in everyday life (Deegan 1989, 1998; Feagin and Vera 2008). The feminist dramaturgy outlined here lays the groundwork for releasing the liberating potential of Goffman's texts.

The dramaturgy of everyday life is built upon patriarchal attitudes and objective power. The “objective” depiction of this world through explicit knowledge replicates, legitimates, and maintains such a world. Overtly, covertly, and contextually, women make appearance on the stage of Goffman's texts in subordinate roles. Intermittent and author-disguised irony subtly undermines the belief in such a world, but it also reinforces and obscures its repressive practices. Feminist knowledge openly confronts the patriarchal world and calls for its social re-construction. Feminist analysis foregrounds cooperative processes that offer an alternative to the world of a patriarchal profession which feminist sociologists continue to inhabit.

Goffman and I had a conversation of gestures that linked personal, professional, intellectual, and now public facets (Deegan 2008, Mead 1934). I have reflected on these multi-dimensional aspects of our exchanges at various times over the intervening years, and this paper is an intentional effort to revisit these original events. In many ways our correspondence and conversation can be understood, too, as a process of framing, keying, and re-keying, and writing this paper now involves new actors and audiences (Goffman 1959, 1974). Without getting involved in too many permutations of the original strip, I have relied on written notes and an essay that isolated the events and documented them in a manner that does not rely on only my memory and contemporary reflections.

This paper should be read as an attempt to upend the patriarchal professional world by a systematic reading of Goffman's texts from the vantage point of the sociology of knowledge. Both the writing of the hermeneutical critique and the reading of it are intended as political acts (see Shalin 2008a, 2008b, 2011). Feminists writing theory must look for ways to challenge the social construction of reality sustaining a sexist society. They can do so by understanding the social construction of their own specialized knowledge that anchors them in a patriarchal natural attitude. Feminist sociological theory, while informed by lessons learned via previous “working hypotheses” (Mead 1899), must also move beyond its locations in the past and the present into the liberating knowledge of the future (Deegan 1987).


When I compiled my field notes over 30 years ago, I did not expect to use them again. After exploring the EGA materials, however, I discovered that my impressions of Erving Goffman were not unique, that his students and colleagues spotted the contradictions similar to the ones described in my notes—hence the decision to revisit the old terrain and share the story of my encounter with Goffman. The immediate stimuli to writing this account was Dmitri Shalin's (2008a, 2008b, 2011) work on Goffman's biography and biocritical hermeneutics, as well as the two Goffman panels at the 2010 the Couch-Stone Symposium. My experience supports Shalin's argument about the need to explore systematically how sociological theory is formed, transmitted, and embedded in history.

Among the biographical materials collected in the Goffman Archives is a memoir written by Victor Lidz (EGA 2012) in which he recounts how Goffman torpedoed his bid for tenure. As someone who was mentored by Lidz and who holds this scholar in the highest esteem, I find Goffman's underhanded tactics reprehensible. I was also appalled by the bad faith Goffman showed in dealing with his former student, Eviatar Zerubavel (EGA 2012), whose doctoral project Goffman sought to undermine. However, in the same archives one finds a memoir by Carole Brooks Gardner (EGA 2008) who worked with Goffman on her dissertation about the time of my conversation and who reports her mentor to be unfailingly civil and helpful to her. Gardner's experience mirrors mine and reinforces the notion that Goffman supported the careers of women sociologists.

Reading EGA interviews made me realize how special my encounter with Goffman was, how unusual his willingness to openly discuss his upbringing, politics, and research. To be sure, I was not Goffman's student or a colleague serving in the same department, which may help explain the distinctive features of my interactions with Goffman. The support Goffman offered to me as a nontenured assistant professor is all the more remarkable because our contact began with my confronting him with a resolute critique of his work. The kindness and generosity with which Goffman treated me during our four-year exchange underscore the paradoxical nature of his scholarship and self-presentation.

Although I exchanged only a few letters with Goffman and met with him just once, I found our interactions transformative. He encouraged me to continue my dramaturgical work on Victor Turner, gender, and feminism. Our conversation revealed Goffman to be committed to the study of gender and open to feminist ideas after 1976, but he retained contradictory patriarchal biases that he found difficult to acknowledge. He clearly expressed how traditional and limiting his ideas on women were prior to 1976, and he was confident that his new approach eliminated his earlier biases.

Goffman always adhered to the objective standards for data collection, a point on which he and I disagreed. I did not think he would be able to follow through on his new commitments while using a natural science model and unreflexive use of the language blinded by patriarchal preconceptions. We differed, also, on the role that irony and explicit value statements play in challenging the oppressive institutions. He alluded to his experience of growing up as a Jew boy and the devastating experience of the Holocaust. Throughout the conversation Goffman remained civil and open to my feminist ideas, although I tested his temper at several points in our interaction. Our conversation shed light on his thoughts and methodological commitments, especially on sexism, feminism, and politics concerning gender issues that occupied him from 1978 to 1980. Further research and analysis on this remarkable man and his work will undoubtedly help us better understand the interplay between biography, theory, and history.


My thanks to the members of the collective who worked on this project from 1978 to 1980—Barbara Keating, Sandy Kuenhold, Jane C. Ollenburger, and Sheryl Peterson Tillson; Rebecca Fahrlander was part of the collective during 1978.


  1. 1

    I took two quarters of Turner's course on “American Ritual” in the winter of 1972 and spring of 1973. My paper for that course was published in 1975. I have learned that this was considered one of his most important seminars, and it was a very exciting course in terms of Turner, his many guest faculty, and the students.

  2. 2

    I wrote to Goffman sometime in 1976, before this project began, but I was unable to locate that first letter. I told him about my respect for his work and the need to add a historical and cultural dimension to his theories. My emphasis on these factors had resulted in a disagreement with my professor, a former doctoral student of Goffman, so I was unsure if this approach would be rejected by Goffman. To my delight, Goffman encouraged me to continue this line of inquiry. He wrote that he did not do this type of analysis himself but thought it was important for someone to do so. This marked the beginning of our professional exchanges. Specifically, the unpublished correspondence in my possession includes: Mary Jo Deegan to Erving Goffman (16 October 1978, 24 October 1979, 12 December 1979, and 5 August 1980) and Erving Goffman to Mary Jo Deegan (26 October 1978, 16 November 1979, and 5 August 1980).

  3. 3

    Our group changed its name, the Nebraska Feminist Collective, to the Nebraska Sociological Feminist Collective in 1980 and published several pieces after that (1983, 1984, 1988). We recruited several new members after 1980 and some members left the group over time. I documented this group process in an unpublished paper.

  4. 4

    In this section, I draw heavily on my unpublished field notes (Deegan 1980a) documenting my meeting with Goffman. Passages in quotation marks indicate verbatim quotes written immediately or within two days after we met.

  5. 5

    At that event, I sat in the front row directly below the dais. He addressed an audience in a large ballroom but deliberately he did not turn on his microphone. After a few minutes he stopped his analysis: He knew the majority of the audience could not hear him, but were too afraid to speak up. He then berated the audience for being “sheep” (a word he repeated several times). He continued his speech from where he had stopped.

  6. 6

    Shortly before this conversation with Goffman, I had had a heated exchange with an eminent feminist about the collective's project on Goffman's sexism. She told me I was the type of feminist who gave feminists a bad name because Goffman was a true feminist. I was recalling that conversation here.

  7. 7

    “Congressional representative” has become the accepted term today.


  • Mary Jo Deegan is professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has published over 200 articles, essays, and reviews, and written or edited 22 books including Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892 to 1918; The American Ritual Tapestry; Self, War, and Society: The Macrosociology of George Herbert Mead, and Race, Hull-House, and the University of Chicago. She co-edited and introduced 3 books by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and edited and introduced Fannie Barrier Williams' The New Woman of Color; George Herbert Mead's Play, School, and Society, and Essays in Social Psychology.