Goffman at Penn: Star Presence, Teacher-Mentor, Profaning Jester



This essay is based on my encounters with Erving Goffman as his student at Penn in the 1970s. It concerns Goffman's largely self-orchestrated “place” at Penn in various respects: his uneasy relationship with the Penn sociology department despite his academic fame; his disenchantment with “mainstream” sociology; his calibrated interactional style as a “profane jester,” offset by his thoughtful seriousness as a mentor; his classroom deportment and no-nonsense teaching style. Goffman's casual classroom use of unseemly epithets is discussed as a pedagogical device for demonstrating the stigmatizing power of language. Goffman's suggestions for possible field-site studies contrast with his commentary on the current state of sociology and, by implication, his place in it.


When I first encountered Erving Goffman's work in the early 1960s, I was greatly impressed intellectually, if also existentially disquieted. At the time, I was as an undergraduate major in philosophy, but with a strong side interest in social science, and Goffman struck me as a remarkable sociological mind to reckon with. Having spent some four years in Asia after graduating from college, I decided to pursue a doctorate in sociology, partly because of the lingering impact that Goffman had made on me (Asian societies, it turned out, are pervaded by “dramaturgical” features, underscoring the force, generality, and salience of his insights). Indeed, Goffman's presence at Penn was a primary factor in my choice of studying there, and I was privileged to take two courses with him, one on frame analysis (1970) and other on methods of studying face-to-face interaction (1972). In 1973, partly owing to my continued fascination with frame analysis, Goffman invited me to provide a critical reading of the draft of the resulting book (Delaney 1973; Goffman 1974).

I was granted a Ph.D. in sociology at Penn in 1979, but never had an academic career. Nonetheless, in 1993 I began researching Goffman's complete works as an independent scholar, eventually settling on something of a propaedeutic to a more comprehensive study: a reconstruction of my highly detailed class notes from the two courses. The result is a nearly-completed book Two Goffman Seminars (Delaney 2013a), from which Goffman's classroom comments cited herein are drawn, and a more “backstage” or biographically-themed work-in-progress that grew out of it, Encountering Goffman: An Intellectual Remembrance (Delaney 2013b). What follows is an account based on my research, notes, and memories, interspersed with recollections of friends, colleagues, and students of Goffman, many of them posted at the invaluable Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) website (see Shalin 2008–2012).


From 1968 to 1982, the year of his death, Goffman occupied the prestigious and sonorously titled position of Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. As Goffman divulged to me at our first meeting, his appointment to the position had been orchestrated by his former schoolmate at Chicago, the renowned Freud scholar Philip Rieff, who held the Benjamin Franklin chair in sociology. It was an enviable post that came with maximal time for research and minimal obligations to teach. Goffman taught a single small class of his own choosing every other year or so—a far cry from his days at Berkeley when he and Herbert Blumer had field-marshaled a horde of some 700 enrolled students at a time in an introductory sociology course (MacCannell 1992:175).

Despite this prime position, Goffman remained by choice an outsider to the sociology department at Penn, though he was not without awed, if sometimes discomfited, admirers there, including the Protestant Establishmentarian E. Digby Baltzell (1972), who considered him a “poetic doer par excellence.” Apparently, some estrangement was in place from the start between Goffman and certain other faculty members, complicating his acceptance as a full-fledged collegial member of the department, supposing he had any desire to become one (Hymes 1984:266). On the part of some of more rigorist bent, this could be attributed to Goffman's contested standing as a social scientist worthy of the name, an issue that had dogged him since his graduate-school days at the University of Chicago. Others jealously sought to preserve their own undimmed standing in the field, however remote their own areas of research from his.

No doubt much of this had to do with the irreverent piquancy of Goffman's inimitable, if unconventionally derived, brand of microsociology, with all the methodological perplexities it left in its wake. It did not help that Penn's sociology department at the time had a major criminology component with a strong scientistic bent and that Goffman's approach to the subject of crime and its practitioners was a good deal more raffish—and statistics-free—than the accustomed standards of that earnestly corrective field (Galliher 1995:164–87).1 Even so, Goffman's studied remoteness from the department in no way lessened the general fascination his presence evoked among the sociology crowd; nor did it dampen the rumors, speculations, and fanciful stories swirling about him, of which we graduate students, needless to say, were eager consumers and purveyors.2

Ironically, if unsurprisingly, the insecurity of Goffman's received professional reputation in some sociology circles was coupled with his early and fast-growing fame in the field and well beyond, no doubt adding an element of envy to straitlaced disciplinary disfavor. The end-result of Goffman's equivocal standing made him at once a sociological star to the outside world and an outsider to many of his nominal colleagues at Penn. Gary Alan Fine (2009) contends that some members of the Penn sociology department resented the comparatively high salary Goffman was paid as a Benjamin Franklin professor, an animosity only exacerbated by the light teaching load afforded by that position along with the freedom to teach whatever he wished to. Of course, such advantageous conditions were among the prime attractions that led Goffman to leave Berkeley for Penn in the first place. Another factor was his dissatisfaction with the precipitous political radicalization of the Berkeley sociology department, in contrast with Goffman's own studiously a-political stance. Berkeley had become a center of the growing “counter-culture” revolts and protests over civil rights, the Vietnam war, and assorted student issues that marked the 1960s and early 1970s at major American campuses. As a single parent (as of 1964), Goffman was especially worried about the influence of the surrounding Berkeley milieu on his then-teenaged son, Tom, given the rampant drug use, freewheeling sexuality, and tumultuous atmosphere of that time and place (Cavan 2008; Glock 2008; Smelser 2009).

Rieff's campaign to bring Goffman to Penn, reaffirmed by Rieff himself, was met by adamant objections by several colleagues of senior rank in the sociology department. Among them was a certain tenured professor of quantitative bent who apparently suffered no little status-anxiety over his own place in the departmental scheme of things. Why on earth, this professor querulously asked Rieff, would you want to bring in a rising academic star whose incandescence might well outshine your own? To which Rieff munificently responded, “The more stars in the heavens, the brighter for us all” (Jonathan B. Imber, personal communication).

A further irony of sorts was that Goffman also earned considerable ill-repute on account of the almost inhuman intensity of his unrelenting sociologism, his seeming inability to turn off the scrutinizing switch, even when prudence, fellow-feeling, and simple good taste might have recommended that course. For even sociologists draw limits as to how far they will go in “over-sociologizing” painfully sensitive matters, not to mention their own social lives and interactions, and Goffman had a jaunty, heedlessly flippant way of stepping on and over those lines. Goffman was also known to behave in an off-putting, hyperconscious, showboating fashion, as though irrepressibly engaged in a “topping” or jousting contest when in the company of his professional peers.

Underscoring his independence of affiliation, Goffman had his office in Penn's Anthropology Museum building, and his courses were offered under the auspices of the anthropology department. He mostly consorted with a select, ethnographically oriented circle at Penn, including those associated with urban anthropology and ethnography, folklore, communication studies, and sociolinguistics—Dell Hymes, John Szwed, Ray Birdwhistell, among others. Goffman, a seminal inspiration for sociolinguistics, contributed significant editorial help to the journal Hymes founded and edited for many years, Language and Society.

Birdwhistell's longstanding association with Goffman is especially noteworthy. He had taught Goffman as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and made a lasting impression on him (Smith 2006:15; citing Yves Winkin 1984: 85–87). Quite the ham, Birdwhistell liked to impress his students at Toronto by displaying a prowess for on-the-spot feats of pigeonholing people in public places, reading subtle indicia of status and states of mind from the slightest cues of dress and deportment (Bott Spillius 2010)—a knack that might be called “Sherlocking.” As reiterated in classroom remarks, Goffman expressly modeled certain of his analytical procedures on Birdwhistell's subtle attempts to chart the arc of gesticular behaviors in pinpointed detail along the lines of descriptive linguistics, often using frame-by-frame film analysis as an observational adjunct. Goffman used similar procedures in his pictorial analyses in Gender Advertisements and in his close scrutiny of tape recordings in his analyses of radio talk in Forms of Talk (see Heilman 1979).

Birdwhistell affected a folksy, shambling, anecdotal style in getting across his deliberately “shrewd” pedagogic points, rather like a hayseed version of Gregory Bateson, a brilliantly quirky thinker who was another early influence on Goffman. Here, as with Rieff in relation to Goffman, was another odd-fellow difference in personality, discursive manner, and characteristic mode of self-presentation. Nonetheless, Birdwhistell and Goffman seemed to get on famously, demonstrating that Goffman was eminently capable of generous collegial solidarity with intellectually like-minded others, even as his own fame came to eclipse that of his onetime mentors.

As time went on, Goffman's distance from the sociology faculty at Penn seemed if anything to widen. For one thing, it allowed him to avoid the intra-departmental political struggles and squabbles that roiled the waters during much of the 1970s. By then Goffman seemed alienated from “mainstream” sociology altogether. Gary Alan Fine (2009) maintains that Goffman had so soured on sociology in general, as well as on the Penn department in particular, that he weeded out all sociology majors from his courses, a notable exception being the undergraduate Fine on the basis of a paper he had written. (Fine returned the favor: as one offshoot of a successful and prolific career in sociology, he co-edited a four-volume collection of essays on Goffman (2000) with Gregory W. H. Smith.) Samuel C. Heilman (2008) confirms that Goffman denigrated getting a degree in sociology from Penn, which he invidiously compared to Berkeley.

In class he openly derided the more conventional varieties of the “old, tired” sociology, for all that he remonstrated against others who took the same dismissive tack toward the tradition, usually without taking the trouble, as he had, to absorb it. In the early 1980s, indicatively, he roused himself to team up with Rieff, along with a more scientistic departmental faction, to derail the tenure bid of a gifted theorist, Victor Lidz, who had the ill-starred temerity, and the consequent stigma, of being a staunch “Parsonian” (Lidz 2008; Fox 2008, 2011:243–72).

Arguably, this soured disposition reflected a quarter-turn of sorts in Goffman's intellectual career, a shift in primary reference group toward the emergent band of microempirically inclined sociolinguists and away from the mainstream sociological establishment whose norms he may have flouted, but whose recognition he assiduously sought. Having already made his indelible mark on sociology proper, Goffman increasingly redirected his energies to a quite circumscribed and highly technical domain of the microsocial (in some cases, almost para-social) features embedded in language-based messaging and conversational practices. His last works in that vein (Goffman 1981, 1983) do little more than nod in the direction of more macro sociological concerns, with the major exception of gender issues (Goffman 1977, 1979). There was thus appreciable irony in Goffman's increasing disinclination to pursue the broadly defining themes of the field that had long engaged his interest, however much recalibrated to a minor scale, at the very time he was elected as president of the American Sociological Association in 1981.

One can detect a certain creeping impertinence, even haughtiness, at work in this regard. In most of his writings, even after his reputation had been firmly established, Goffman took pains to locate his circumscribed sub-world of specialization, the study of face-to-face interaction, within the “grander” universe of sociological discourse, regularly drawing from its major figures, both classical and contemporary, and encompassing all manner of institutions, occupations, socioeconomic structures, cultural creeds, legal codes, social psychology, and the like. By the 1970s, however, he seemed dismissively scornful of all that, as though his own microcosmic sociology was sufficient for holding up the whole social world.

In keeping with the “disestablishmentarian” temper of the times, his attitude toward Parsonian theory, in particular, took on a venomous tone of disdain, for all that Goffman had long put to good use certain of Talcott Parsons' theoretically astute insights into such subjects as social order, expressive (ritual) symbolism, and the “sick role” (a small scholarly fact that the more virulent detractors of Parsons among Goffman enthusiasts somehow manage to overlook). Nor did Goffman make much of an attempt to conceal this derision, notwithstanding that a handful of Penn sociologists, including its Chair from 1972 to 1979, Renée C. Fox, were either part of the inner Parsonian circle or serious scholars of Parsons's work, and by no means inherently antagonistic to Goffman on account of that. Thanks to the Erving Goffman Archives and its curator, Dmitri N. Shalin, several of these professors have had the opportunity to present their own side of various struggles and controversies affecting them. (See Bershady 2009; Lidz 2008; Fox 2008; also Fox 2011:243–72.)

It may be that this invidious denigration of Parsons was meant to convey a certain ritualistic element of “totemic” supersession, a generational superannuation, inasmuch as Parsons (himself a former ASA president) had attained the stature of being America's preeminent sociological theorist in the 1950s when Goffman's then-precarious career was just getting underway. Whatever the case, this dismissive attitude toward Parsons and other contemporary social theorists was of a piece with the almost total eclipse of Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and other early masters of sociology as acknowledged presences in Goffman's later works. In this I find good reason, on both pedagogical and patrimonial grounds, for cheerless reproach.


The first impression of Goffman that many a would-be student of his obtained seemed purposefully designed to counteract the more wayward expectations that likely were entertained of an academic celebrity not known to shy away from engendering his own “star turns,” in life no less than in print. In particular, those aspiring Goffmanites who signed up for his classes expecting a jolly time of indulging in a semester's worth of free-form hip iconoclasm were in for a rude awakening. Right off the bat, and rather truer to form, they were exposed to a disabusal ceremony that was short and swift, akin to what is known in less sedate environs as a bum's rush. For, as first order of business on the first day of class, Goffman went through a brusque de-selection ritual to cull out the merely curious or titillated, the eager onlookers and star-chasers, all such would-be cognoscenti winnowed out as so much unserious chaff.

The first to go were those not majoring in social science at all, particularly the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Lit Crit adepts of the sort who nowadays would flock to Cultural Studies. With an unrelenting logic, Goffman went on to eliminate anyone else who did not fit within the increasingly restrictive criterial funnel that he employed to “downsize” the class to manageable proportions, including those with only peripheral academic interests in his special sort of social study. I was one of the few graduate majors in sociology who made the cut or were otherwise allowed to be tutored and supervised by him. Eviatar Zerubavel maintains (2008) that he and other sociology graduate students had to submit a written petition to attend Goffman's classes, making him feel, once accepted, like one of “the elect.” However, I was accepted for two of Goffman's courses without being interviewed or made to jump through any other hoops, other than raising my hand a few times on the first day of class to answer his winnowing-down queries.

I should underscore that this strict selectivity was not simply a matter of “elitism” or “pulling rank.” (Recall the class of 700 Goffman co-taught at Berkeley.) Goffman made clear that he only wanted students in his class who were going to be professionally dedicated to his areas of specialized interest, with preference given to those majoring in fields such as sociolinguistics, anthropology, or folklore that encouraged empirical field research and the kind of finely grained microanalysis that his increasingly technical subject matter demanded.

As a result, after weeding out the dilettantes, the mere fans and fanciers, from the ranks, what was left was for the most part a pretty intense, rather pasty lot, hardly the sort of fun-and-gamestering sports the uninitiated might expect to go in for Goffman-style analysis. The fact is that Goffman demanded a bona fide commitment and hard work from his students, no matter how seemingly inconsequential or tangential the nature of much that was encompassed in his microcosmic line of sociology. He, for one, certainly took the business at hand with complete seriousness, despite sporadic token disclaimers to the contrary. Which is not to say that his classes were not eminently enjoyable, even scintillating at times, for Goffman was too much of an impresario to pass up such an opportunity to strut his stuff before a handpicked audience, primed to be receptive to his cascading ruffles and flourishes.

But, as he also made clear, if anyone was to hold court in his classroom it would be him and him alone: whatever “fun and games” went on in class were to be strictly doled out and controlled by him. This, after all, was a time of cultural loosening in the United States that lent itself to the “put-on,” a form of pseudo-earnest spoofing that extended even into social research by way of the “breaching experiments” of ethnomethodology, a rival school Goffman accommodated with considerable ambivalence. For all that he was an adroit put-on/put-down artist in his own right, Goffman was not one to be so put-on-upon himself. In his no-nonsense way, he was not the sort of professor who would have allowed political protests or other forms of rowdiness to disrupt his classes. (At a highly charged time of political activism on campus, Goffman flatly declared in his 1972 class on methods, “I'm not into politics”—this despite making occasional cutting observations about political figures such as then-president Nixon. As if that were not enough, he reiterated later on in the same class, “I'm not interested in serving any population or making anyone live better.” Not really true, but indicative of his deflective tactics all the same.)

Goffman did not make the same pledge as he had to his students at Berkeley—that “we will try to keep you entertained” (Marx 1984:652)—but he did promise a “mysterious process of immersion” in the class, a promise that by and large he kept. As entertaining as the classes could be—and at times they were downright hilarious—the other sign of the coin was that being allowed to take his course amounted to a tacit contractual willingness to submerge oneself in it, including mastery of an extensive and taxing reading list, which included a large number of rigorously descriptive, if tediously drawn-out, ethological studies of animal behavior (Goffman 1969, 1970, 1972). (Inspired by Gregory Bateson and Ray Birdwhistell, Goffman had become a serious student of ethology by the mid-1950s, an enduring influence most pronounced in Relations in Public of 1971, though often overlooked by his more modish devotees.).

As the class progressed, students took on the aspect of those sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, or at least far too much reading crammed into far too little time, exacerbated by the additional strain of doing research and writing a quality paper by the end of the semester. Naturally, this was quite apart from any competing obligations one might have to other classes or professors; for Goffman was one of those effort-monopolizing teachers who expected his students to give their all for his class, being perfectly content to let any pedagogic competitors take the hindmost.

Goffman's lectures and more open-ended classroom presentations were well-prepared, often using illustrative materials and textual passages that he had been puzzling over long before the present discussion. What was remarkable about his use of collections of newspaper clippings, fashion advertisements, slips of speech on radio (“bloopers”), and other popular material was less their liminal character as sources of data than the inexhaustible analytical energy he devoted to them, in some cases stretching over decades. As Sherri Cavan (2008) recounts, many of the advertising pictures Goffman scrutinized in Gender Advertisements (1979) were from a large batch he had picked up at a flea market in the 1960s. Such was one dimension of his remarkable folkloric knowledgeability, even when devoted to some of the less reputable popular arts, such as the outlandish theatrics of “professional” TV wrestling and other rousing public spectacles, extending even into the lurid lore of the public executions of yore. Backstage accounts of such intrinsically dramatic, diverting, or seductive subjects are all the more enticing for providing the “inside story,” thereby appealing to the cachet of being “in the know,” and this only added to the allure of Goffman's zesty recountings, frequently given a superadded ironic topspin all his own.

Even so, Goffman's manner of teaching was nothing if not business-like in its bare-bones straightforwardness, hence hardly “dramaturgical” in the way that conspicuously showy professors affect. At the beginning of the class on frame analysis, for example, he would strut in at a clip, sit himself down at a small table in front of the class, then often do little more than read textual passages that had caught his eye, and that in a let's-get-on-with-it fashion. His ever-so-brisk, even brusque, classroom style was accordingly characterized by relative indifference to individual or collective student concerns in class.

Certainly, the seminars were not designed to encourage any burgeoning form of communal we-feeling among classmates, even in the 1970s era of “participatory democracy” and the supposed rejuvenation or “greening” of the United States. If anything, his manner encouraged each student to stand out from the crowd by virtue of his or her own isolated exertions. This imparted a tenor of many-to-one atomism to his classes, each of the “many” taking up a one-to-one posture to the teacher, like so many metal filings arrayed around his magnetic presence. Goffman, moreover, not only unmistakably occupied front-and-center stage but discouraged any overly bright student commentator from seizing the spotlight or dallying in it for long. As a result, his classes did not revolve around much give-and-take; instead, there was a very great deal of “give” (on his part) and very little except “take” on the part of his auditors—which, I daresay, is precisely how most of us would have wished it. (Think of a clutch of bemused Dr. Watsons held in thrall by the magisterial expository command of a Sherlock Holmes.)

For all that, I found the frame analysis course to be one of the most exhilarating classes I have ever attended, if only to be on the receiving end of the outpour of sheer prodigious ingenuity issuing from the man in person. As he pushed along at an all-due-speed pace, Goffman would briefly entertain questions or comments or requests for clarifications, keeping an eyebrow cocked at the ready, but he would not suffer elaborate disquisitions on any of these points. Any attempt to produce a teacher-pleasing turn was swiftly pinched off and left to wilt on the vine. Many such interruptions he simply shooed away like a pesky fly; others he sloughed off with an askance look of bland, incipient impatience, as though to pooh-pooh any overtures at splashy impression-making on the part of some ambitious point-maker who had been carefully rehearsing his improvisational gem of insight all week. Even then, this would only have set up the hapless would-be standout for a decisive squelch in the offing, Goffman being preternaturally quick-witted on his feet.

On occasion, when a student managed to come up with an angle that had not occurred to Goffman before, his face would light up for a moment as he briefly marveled at the thought, like a jaded wine connoisseur suddenly brought to life by the finer points of some intriguing new “nose.” More often, though, he was apt to mumble a mild “interesting” at some student-made suggestion, only to hastily take up the slack, rushing on to the next point that he wished to make without getting derailed from the thought-train in progress. His markings on papers were similarly very much on the “laconic” side, his approvals and objections on any given point equally curt (see Delaney 1970 for an example).

Now and again, in passing, Goffman himself popped up with some new slant on matters under consideration, as though stumbling onto a nonce-flash of intuition on the wing that seemed to surprise even him. In this, he evidenced putting into practice the contradictory admonition he pressed on his students, in so many words: to be at once expectantly virginal, as innocently receptive as possible, yet all the while whorishly versed in all the dirty little tricks of the trade. At times it could even seem that Goffman was carrying on less a conversational dialog with student interlocutors than an inner monological debate with himself.

Dean MacCannell (1992:175) provides an amusing example of a mostly monological encounter he had with Goffman one day after class at Berkeley after having challenged Goffman's assertion that interactants never have completely symmetrical standing within a given interactional frame. Pondering MacCannell's counterexample of an introductory handshake between status equals, Goffman serially switched from assent to negation several times before triumphantly pronouncing MacCannell wrong and abruptly stalking away. It is indicative of his analytical tenacity that Goffman brought up the selfsame asymmetry issue regarding handshakes in the methods seminar some years later. These were the sorts of niggling matters that he brooded on no end. Even when Goffman was at his most befuddling to his students, his droll wit still won out. Yves Winkin (1999:29) recounts a companion vignette from Goffman's time at Berkeley in 1962:

One day, he develops an idea and—a few minutes later—develops the opposite. One of the two older students raises her hand and tells him that there is a contradiction there. He pauses. For a long time (he is very good at holding pauses). Then: ‘Mrs. Frederickson, don't be so nostalgic’.

Goffman's soliloquizing tendency was on view even in the seminar on methods, which was designed in part to instill his singular ways of seeing into his students. As with many attempts to teach “creativity,” about the most Goffman could do in that respect was to show his students choice examples of things that had engaged his own interest and explain what he was provisionally able to draw or distil out of them, relying on a store of heuristic distinctions, serviceable theoretical dicta, cross-disciplinary analytical techniques, and expedient rules of thumb, while adding whatever general precepts of method he could muster along the way. To him, the kind of lively or curious examples that provoked his own inquisitiveness functioned on the order of “discovery devices,” much as he had first capitalized on a pivotal reframing of the results of Thematic Apperception Tests in his M.A. thesis (1949) in pursuing his off-angled case-study approach to “theory building.”

Which brings up a noteworthy methodological point, and pointer: Anecdotes and examples, to Goffman, were never “merely” that, but rather to be considered as prospective case-studies in miniature, to be exhaustively analyzed for all they were worth. Like most theorists, Goffman used illustrative examples to vivify conceptual points succinctly and concretely. But beyond that, examples had for him at once their own integral validity as data unto themselves in addition to a wider, representational, logico-formal force as illuminating indicia of more general features of social life. Once formulated as a discrete data-unit—and Goffman was most emphatic on the crucial importance of devising good units—they can serve as generative models or microcosmic epitomes of abstractable conceptual complexes to be compared and correlated with other data-sets (both like and unlike), systematically played with in an elastically topological manner, then eventually put together like a jigsaw puzzle, as he was fond of saying.

In these respects such data-complexes resemble the “paradigm cases” of British analytical philosophy, a notion comparable to what Goffman called “best-run frames.” The confidence game served this function for Goffman (1952) in his account of strategies of consolation and accommodation for losses and failures in life, and in his later extended accounts of such things as “fabrications” and “containments” in Frame Analysis of 1974. Of course, drama represents a best-run framing of action and interaction, albeit in “perfected” fictive form; indeed, its conceptual value for him was precisely because of being so engineered as to be just that. There is also a connection to Wittgenstein's graphically schematic “forms of life,” originally connected to his “picture theory of meaning” where words and their referents were deemed analogous to a map or the police diagram of a crime scene. Goffman, like Wittgenstein, was a master at ekphrasis, that is, vividly graphic verbal representations that seem to capture the quiddity of whatever is being described in a compelling synthesis of form and content. Like Hegel's idea of the “concrete universal,” such “representative anecdotes,” as Kenneth Burke called them, can be traced all the way back to Plato's Forms (akin to “monads” in the original pluralist version).

One of the didactic points Goffman kept raising in class is the extent to which thought-provoking data are lying all around one for the taking, if only one had wit enough, and the attention span, to look. In this he was like Holmes chastising blinkered Watson: that he could see, but not observe. He further pointed out that a great deal of such vernacular data comes complete with its built-in frame-structure sticking out, virtually begging to be explicated, then formally correlated with other data-sets, or otherwise put to good use. (In truth, there was almost nothing that escaped his attentive eye.) As with magazine cartoons, jokes, and tightly formatted situation comedies on TV, this was certainly true of the more comical samples of the radio “bloopers” he regaled us with in class, even as he transformed these strips of hilarity into so many data-arrays to be mirthlessly scoured, rinsed off, and hung out to dry.

Although Goffman, curiously enough, was said to be incapable of pulling off a bluff in friendly games of poker (Piliavin 2009; Smelser 2009), he took an especially fiendish delight in maintaining a steadfastly poker-faced composure when playing specimens of radio bloopers to the class. The sadly undisciplined truth of the matter is that I spent far more time in class “cracking up” at these wickedly embarrassing instances of polished professional speech gone direly awry than I did in managing to jot down the occasioning particulars. In one instance, I had to dash out of class to the men's room to splash cold water on a face literally “flooded out” in tears by an unbecoming laughing jag provoked by one particularly delirious example of radio speech gone profoundly, profanely haywire. (It had to do with an item of male anatomy.)

The material Goffman presented in his seminars was intended not only to be included in his works in progress, but also to be potentially augmented by class papers produced by his students. This was in keeping with Goffman's standard pedagogical procedures, which had the effect of nicely dovetailing (for him) pedagogic and pragmatic considerations. Goffman typically used his classes as prospective resource pools for the generation of papers that might prove relevant to his current undertakings, a form of harvesting that was part of the unspoken contract for being allowed to study with him in the first place. The operative principle seemed to be: whereof one sows, thereof he shall (potentially) reap. Or as Goffman more tartly put it in a letter to Dell Hymes: “As you sow, so shall you weep” (Hymes 1984:266).

Part of the cachet of taking his courses was an implicit invitation to contribute to his work-in-progress, with the heady prospect of garnering at least a mention in one of his celebrated footnotes, thereby being elevated to the status of a foot-notability. A rare few had virtually their entire papers conscripted into sections of the published texts. Even so, I would wager that the willingness of his students to be thus “appropriated” had less to do than with an overpowering careerist urge to citation-mongering than with the satisfaction of having found a niche in the charmed circle of those to whom Goffman openly expressed appreciation for doing original and thought-provoking work.

Goffman forewarned participants in the frame analysis class that he would “engage, reluctantly as it were,” in occasional reflexive use of the ongoing classroom process as illustrative pedagogic material, in the manner of many experimental psychology courses and other precious “meta-discursive” exercises in data-elicitation. Yet he also expressed grave suspicions about small-group research premised on creating the very data it would study, with a corresponding tendency to lapse into circular reasoning, a caution reflecting his own disenchanting experience administering the Thematic Apperception Test (Goffman 1949). Thankfully, though, he mostly refrained from turning the class interaction process into a manipulative data-generation game, as he was all too prone to do in his own gamey interpersonal conduct. In brief, there was blessedly little of the overripe chicanery and sneaky frame-gaming he dubbed “horseassery.” What there was of these bending-back, second-order reframings was generally bracketed off from current proceedings in being derived from sources removed from the immediate class context.

In fact, a great deal of classroom time was devoted to Goffman simply reading aloud lengthy passages from either his own draft formulations on frame themes or from published works by other authors. This was by no means as dull as it may sound, in that Goffman had an unerring eye for the unnerving or eye-opening “epiphany,” those behavioral capers or spurts of narrative caprice almost sure to engender a mild “startle response,” a shock of sudden recognition—or a knowing laugh.


Even in this uninhibited age, it is possible that persons of decorous inclination might be taken aback by some of the more profane, untoward, and knowingly offensive uses of language freely exhibited by Goffman in class. Such usages, in such a setting, may seem like bald affronts to expected standards of professorial propriety, not to mention good taste. In a few cases, I admit, his choice of language made me inwardly blanch as well, particularly when I took him to be unduly straining to be “with it” on a student-peer level, as more than a few youth-ingratiating professors sought to do at the time. Along with choice Britishisms (e.g., “toad speech”) and current “youth” expressions of the day, Goffman's speech was regularly larded with lingo from the undersides of life: hipsterisms, cool-guy slang, select bits of argot, studiously inflected vulgarisms, and what might be called noirisms. True, he might use the more offense-giving terms advisedly or pedagogically “in quotes” for his own special purposes, not merely for the sake of being brassy or boorish or outré, although he was by no means averse to bad-impression-making on occasion, when you get right down to it.

In class, Goffman used the example of putatively obscene speech acts to set up a discussion of the protections offered by the de-literalizing “documentary” mode of discourse, intrigued as he was by the power of framing and keying devices to magnify or diminish the salience of words and expressions, much like the timbre-modulating pedals of a piano. As one who had a pattern of begrudgingly acceding to appeals to clean up “indecorous” language in writings drawn from his site studies, Goffman also intended to have his students appreciate “bad” language as a subject to be naturalistically examined in its own right, thereby providing an object lesson in the powers and limits of sociolinguistic framing as a social control or affinity-invoking mechanism.

Goffman also had a penchant for employing complacency-jarring devices of speech as an instructive shock tactic, achieved by essaying a form of conspicuous anti-tact. He was, after all, an aficionado of the unrestrained épater les bourgeois school of scandalous soapboxing epitomized by the in-your-face spritzkreig strategies of the nightclub comic Lenny Bruce. This deliberately profaning askanceness was an aspect of the strut of Goffman's hipsterish persona as an adept of edgy brinksmanship, much like the court jesters of old, whose remissive truth-telling sallies were protectively sheathed in the prophylactic membrane of wit.

There were even times, I suspect, when Goffman used the “documentary” frame as a cover for his attention-drawing sallies into brazen crudity of expression, cannily discounting his gaucheries in the very act of enunciating them. (Double-binding the frame was one of his habitual gambits.) Beyond such frame-gaming, however, his classroom discussion of rank epithets used as address and reference terms seemed designed mostly to add a gratuitous, spuriously charged “alienation effect” to the proceedings. This might be thought of as a consciously “anti-Parsonian” act of fostering disequilibration of the interactional field, along the didactically assaultive lines of Pierre Bourdieu's “epistemology of rupture.” Such tactics are in keeping with myriad other invasive and transgressive devices deployed not only in the arts but also in many other areas of agitation-prone contemporary life where attention-drawing is a prime desideratum.

It is true that Goffman could be heedlessly, even heartlessly, callous. At Berkeley, Gary T. Marx relates (1984:657), Goffman on occasion was repellantly ungallant to some of his students, once using the word “gimp” in front a woman with a severe physical handicap, once jocularly discussing stigma-managing strategies of stutterers in front of a student of his who spoke with a pronounced stutter. Marx adds that this blasé callousness offset the otherwise warm, inclusively good-humored sense of “we fellow students” that Goffman also cultivated as an aspect of his persistently expressed sympathies for underdogs and unfortunates of many stripes. All this rings true of the Goffman(s) I experienced.

In thus being intentionally tactless, Goffman in effect was playing off against his own account of stigmatization, conceived as a gratuitously reinforcing source of undue suffering (or even “surplus repression,” if you will), the very blight he single-mindedly did so much to dispel. I suspect that Goffman put a damper on his penchant for cruelly flippant gaucherie once away from the hipper-than-thou proclivities of the more hothouse environs of the California scene, allowing more free play for his considerable capacity for fellow-feeling. For instance, see the account of Goffman's sensitive and generous mentoring of Gardner (2008), a Penn student who had a severe neurological condition that affected all aspects of her everyday life, making Goffman's work a revelation to her.

Most of the time in class, though, Goffman could proceed on the assumption that his audience would recognize, even appreciate, his untactfully tactical use of otherwise offense-giving terms as an implied solidarity marker, even with such gauche or mean or malicious tags as “nuthouse,” “cripple,” or “faggot.” To be sure, while impassively expressed, such terms were usually used in a bracketed, sardonically knowing way to signal a shared folkloric sophistication about labeling among the social science cognoscenti, a way of extending a gesture of inclusion to mere students as privileged “own” members of the “wise.” This Gestalt-like teetering between etic-emic understandings was also very much in keeping with the urban-ethnographical ethos of Chicago-style “inside-dopesterism,” with its tropism toward the alluring undersides of disreputable subworlds beyond the ken of conventional middle-class life.

Taken in that spirit, Goffman's students realized that his use of lowdown vernacular was meant to convey an ironic distancing from their literal use, even as they signaled an up-front closeness of inspection of the phenomena thus referenced. For we were all well aware that Goffman had courageously exposed himself to the sociological bedlam of the mental hospital, an ethnographic site far removed from the settled folkways of the Shetland Islands, not to mention the exotic charms of Bali or some other cushy anthropological spot. We knew, too, that he had knowingly risked the contamination of his own reputation by his early sympathetic treatment of homosexuals, among other social pariahs, at a time when it was by no means an easy thing to do so openly in the academic world, let alone in print. That was largely true even in the 1970s, a situation that has since become almost totally reversed, quite in keeping with the “normifying” agenda of Stigma (Goffman 1963).

As a moralist operating behind a cooly amoral front, he frequently relied on antiphrasis, the rhetorical device of saying the opposite of what one evidently means; in translation, his stigmatizing talk (including self-referential Jewish jokes) conveyed an irony-laced message of contra-stigmatizing. Such overt stigma-marking, a form of inverted execration, is the converse of what was to become a whole set of restrictive, sometimes Grundyish, speech codes known as “political correctness.” So, once again, much in keeping with the “two selves” theme propounded by Philip Manning (1992:44–46, 57), Goffman contrived to have things oxymoronically, in two contrarily pointed directions at once.

Taking all this into account, no one in class called Goffman on his use of his insultingly deprecatory, callow, or unseemly expressions, if only because we all seemed to appreciate the predominantly “figurative” spirit in which they were made. This was all part of Goffman's penchant for “cutting a figure,” a common locution that, like many others, he made into a term of art. Even so, Goffman was careful not to demean certain categories of persons deemed to be categorically deprivileged or prone at the time to taking offense at the merest hint of a slight, notably women and blacks. Here, too, Goffman showed an alert appreciation for the sensitivities of his graduate-school audience, gaging how much calculated, if “metaphorically” meant, offense they could take without “flooding out” into downkeyed responses of undue literalness. Moreover, for all his sometimes boorish manners and mannerisms, it is worth mentioning that Goffman also tacitly apologized in print for gaucheries he had perpetrated in prior writings, and presumably elsewhere as well. Making up for past sins of oblivious “sexism” may account, in part, for the uncharacteristically committed, pro-feminist stance of Goffman's later years, whereas in earlier days he had blandly sanctioned such male abominations as the overtly lusty, looks-appreciative “wolf-whistle.”

So if there were “at least two Goffmans,” as Gary Marx maintains (1984:657), they seem to have something of the chiaroscuro double-character of Dr. Jekyll and his self-induced alter-ego or doppelgänger, Mr. Hyde, at least from the everyday-life standpoint of good manners, common decency, and simple tact. Here lies something of an existential-sociological contradiction or enigma, given that civility—Harold Nicholson's “good behaviour”—was one of Goffman's enduring preoccupations, aware though he was of its many manipulations and deformations. Yet if Goffman himself, like Dr. Freud before him, was his first and most persistently interrogated analysand, one whose all-too-human traces are stippled throughout his works, then we should appreciate the extent to which his savaging of the pretensions, hypocrisies, cruelties, and Bad Faith of the fragmented, compartmentalized, scission-prone modern self was determinedly self-savaging (and self-reproving) quite as much.

We need to see, in short, that Goffman was not merely a bystanding spectator of the gaudy human procession, impassively looking on from the sidelines of life, but also at once a pained participant and an adroit orchestrator in his favored role as profaning jester. With his calibrated interactional style, Goffman cast himself as a kind of agent-provocateur of the mannerly “self-presentation” his work both lionized and mocked in his mercurial presentation of the secular self as etiolated remnant of the sacred godheads of old. In such ways, Goffman's sociology reveals him to be observantly, keeningly caught up in a carnivalesque parade of interactional dramatis personae in no small part of his own making.


Students taking Goffman's courses were munificently granted a “ritual license” to visit him at his “pad” to talk over proposed course papers. Taking advantage of this open invitation to impose on him, I conferred with Goffman in occasional private meetings over the next few years, at first with considerable trepidation. But while Goffman could be abrupt and off-putting in class, and edgy or feisty in other public settings, I found him to be considerably more sober and low-key in private, one-on-one encounters, especially in his home setting. Not once did Goffman play any of his notorious mind-games on me, perhaps sensing that I was not the type of person who was equipped to handle them well or respond to them in kind. In truth, I would have found being subject to such trifling intensely alienating, especially coming from a professor of mine.

In particular, Goffman was kind and patient enough to suffer through several intellectual-career consultations I foisted on him, generally of the regrettable whither-goest-I sort. Feeling torn at the time between equally appealing but seemingly incompatible ways of going about sociology, I appreciated his forbearance in treating my flounderings toward some coherent sociological standpoint, my continuing “agonizing reappraisals” over choosing between disparate emphases in the field. From this I surmised that he may have greatly benefitted from open-minded mentorship in his own wayward-leaning graduate-student days.

I first visited Goffman at his home in November 1971, a memorable occasion for one still spellbound by the example of his works and teaching. I was quite taken aback by his appearance, though, when he opened the front door to his “pad,” a stately townhouse located in a tony West Philadelphia neighborhood. Unshaven, pasty-faced, and a bit bleary-eyed (no doubt from all that reading), Goffman looked like nothing so much as a beach bum or street wino. The rumpled sweatshirt and thonged rubber “shower shoes” he wore only added to the derelict effect. (His classroom appearance and attire were habitually casual but much nattier.) As might be expected, I came to this first private meeting with Goffman with an eye to being attentively Goffmanian as a percipient observer of his domicile and surroundings, much as he had done on the sly in his Hyde Park excursions for his M.A. thesis of 1949. But I quickly got so engrossed in our conversation as to forget to notice all that much in detail.

At this point in my graduate school training, I was immersed in studying theory more than anything else. I had already taken the first of two classes with Rieff and would eventually take two courses with Talcott Parsons, a visiting professor at Penn. (A sustained comparison of Parsons and Kenneth Burke would become the subject of my doctoral dissertation.) Yet I was also inclined to pursue some sort of ethnographically-oriented course of study in keeping with the four years I had spent in Asia, mostly in Vietnam. For all my overseas experience, however, Goffman was quick to point out that I lacked the requisite academic grounding for doing empirical work in the field. He counseled that combining ethnographic fieldwork with serious textual scholarship was a big problem—it was hard to build links between the two concentrations, he said, although it could sometimes be pulled off. Even he was relatively lax in the book department, he allowed, too modestly by half.

Thinking out loud, he mused that he could see doing productive research with unmodern peoples, dealing with such things as their notions of chance. But the other “Third World” concerns I brought up, pertaining to issues of post-colonial identity and ambivalence toward modernization, really belonged to political sociology, he thought. Moreover, to truly get into another culture requires mastering its language and lifeways, entailing a major commitment of time and intellectual resources. For example, to study surrealism in any depth, the subject of my first, overly hurried, scattershot paper for him, one would have to go to France, learn French well, and come to know quite intimately the culture and sociohistorical milieu from which that highly influential avant-garde movement sprang. (My paper argued that surrealism, as a signal precursor of esthetic modernism, served as a template for the acting-out of diverse “countercultural” protest maneuvers; I also hinted at the oblique surrealist prefigurations of some of Goffman's own theoretical stratagems as conveyed through the conduit of Kenneth Burke.)

On the plus side, Goffman opined that I had shown competence for the kind of “literary sociology” (presumably text-interpretive theory) for which the department at Penn was particularly well-suited. He patiently heard me out as I went on at length as to how I was trying to work out my own sociological bearings, including the wrenching sensation of trying to pull in several different intellectual directions at once, including the antipodal gravitational forces of Goffman-versus-Rieff. His advice on that score was simple, if point-blank: you've got to choose one or the other approach, although either one has its own quite legitimate rationale. He did allow that Rieff was someone to be learned from. (Rieff said the same about Goffman.)

Assuming that I would eventually take the “literary” route, he recommended that now, in my second year of graduate school, was the time to chart a career-building pathway, meaning to start thinking less like a grad student and more like a professional-level writer. Literary people have to publish and I should try to shape up my course papers and send them off to a suitable journal “for your first rejection slip.” Overall, his advice to me was to keep on writing, to work at polishing it, and to continue struggling with solidifying my own emerging trend of thought. He “gladly” offered to read whatever “short” pieces I managed to come up with, nicely hedging his willingness with implicit limits on his tolerance for being unduly distracted. He had no objections were I to criticize his work, if I so felt the need, nor would he begrudge me if I eventually decided to cast my lot with the Readers and the Culturalists instead of pursuing something more akin to his own brand of microsociological investigation. (A couple years later he agreed to serve on my dissertation committee, although that arrangement was dissolved by mutual agreement when the topic changed.)

As to the current state of sociology (as of late 1971), Goffman was not sure whether Symbolic Interactionism, as a distinct subspecialty, had dried up or not. He gathered that Herbert Blumer remained in the forefront of this slice of the field at present, but doubted that Blumer had added much of substantive import to it as of late. In this, Goffman evinced his disinclination to be typed or bundled with any one particular “school,” even though he recurrently acknowledged his debt to the social psychology of Mead, Cooley, and their direct descendants. The phenomenological school was “very tricky,” he said, its methods “rather weird and hard to handle.” Still, a dissertation on Alfred Schutz (then coming into prominence in the United States) would be good. By contrast, a watered-down phenomenologist “perspective” like that of Jack D. Douglas deserved only scorn when it roundly derided the sociological tradition that it claimed to have displaced, well short of giving any serious indication of having done so.

If anything, Goffman foresaw an upcoming conventionalization of the field, inasmuch as the self-proclaimed heralds of groundbreaking innovation were not really coming up with substantive studies to match their self-promoting spiels as champions of the Coming New Thing. I took that to be, in part, a rebuke of Alvin Gouldner, who was much in vogue at the time, along with a swipe at Harold Garfinkel and his cliquish followership. Although Goffman did not seem particularly judgmental about his prediction one way or another, perhaps the prospect of retrogression he anticipated also accounted for some of his own dismissive negativity toward Parsonian theory, which I was then in the process of absorbing.

As it happened, I was also very much in a Wittgenstein period at this point (yet another centrifugal pull!) and mentioned this interest to Goffman, partly because of his sociological improvisations on game theory and his glancing references to Wittgenstein in connection with frame analysis. He thought that Wittgenstein's relevance for social science might be a good topic for a dissertation, notwithstanding the opinion he was later to express elsewhere that Wittgenstein's resolutely anti-structural, a-theoretical bent was inimical to the field on balance.

Goffman's own seat-of-the-pants ideas for dissertation topics were geared toward doing an ethnographical site study: go join a puppet troupe, he suggested, get a job with a theater—in so many words, run off and join the circus. His penchant for projects of that (faintly juvenile) sort, I suspect, reflected a certain self-referential wistfulness at youthful fancies long forgone. But basically, he pronounced, when all is said and done each person has to follow his own consuming passions in order to create social science of any lasting quality. In doing a dissertation, moreover, one is tethered full-time to a subject for two years or so, and without an intrinsic interest in it things can get awfully grueling. Parenthetically, Goffman candidly stated that he could not offer help in getting jobs, but then wondered if anyone else in the sociology department was in any position to do so either (neither, as it happened). Career-wise, things were drying up in the field, he said. To his way of thinking, the institutional structures of Academe are primarily there for the support of research and to provide jobs, the implication being, as I read him, that beyond that baseline point of earning a livelihood one is cast on his own to follow his muse wherever it will take him. That, at any rate, was the course that Goffman contrived for himself in blazing the trail that his own career resplendently took.

Having reflected on Goffman down through the years since I studied with him, then subsequently learning much more about his background, personality, and customary modes of behavior (both conventional and unconventional), I am left, like many of his readers, with a sense of him as one complex, highly torsioned, nonpareil individual. The Great Enigma of Goffman, one that is inscribed in his thought almost from the start, hinges on why this lifelong refractory iconoclast and individualist was also one of our foremost theorists of the profound significance of civility and mannerliness in social life. In this, Goffman was as much a theoretical upholder of the microsocial Interaction Order as Parsons was of social order writ large, although neither of them, contrary to much received opinion, was noticeably “conservative” on that account. The many-sided Goffman Paradox played out in both his work and his life, as many knowledgeable accounts of him gathered at the Erving Goffman Archives attest. One probative, if simplified, way to go about appraising the conundrum he self-presented us with can be found in Gary T. Marx's “two Goffmans” perception (Marx 1984), as convergent with the “two selves” motif discerned in Goffman's work by Philip Manning (1992:44–47, 57). Or as Samuel C. Heilman alternatively put it (2008), Goffman had a “dark side” and a “vivid side.” Such dualism, while apposite enough, is one aspect of an even more pervasive theme of the “split self” in Goffman's writings, including his fundamental posit that the inner “preserve” of individual personhood is never exhausted by one's social self (encompassing ascribed and achieved status, roles, and interactional functions), and vice versa—a singular amalgamation of existentialist and Durkheimian credos, making for an exceptionally tensile, dialectical compound of the sacred and the playful-to-mordant profaning of it, as showcased most incisively in his ever-ready pearlescent wit.


Special thanks to Dmitri N. Shalin for his prodigious and laudable labors in creating and curating the Erving Goffman Archives, an unparalleled resource for all students of Goffman.


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    John F. Galliher notes that criminology as such was not a strong suit of Chicago sociology, nor even considered a distinct subfield, as it certainly was at Penn during Goffman's time there. The Chicagoans tended to approach crime from a descriptivist or ethnographical standpoint rather than a remedial one, treating crime in nonjudgmental, “occupational” terms by analyzing criminal designs and exploits like any other job-related activity. The sustained irony that results is very much a part of the legacy of Everett C. Hughes's juxtapositional mode of theorizing, in keeping with Kenneth Burke's (1984) “perspective by incongruity.”

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    Among the persistent rumors swirling around Goffman: that he had been raised in an orphanage in Canada; that he had been committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital as a mental patient; that he was gay. Not one of these canards holds water, by the way, although Goffman no doubt would have had a few choice words to say about the imposition of such ready-made deviance-ascriptions, used as sullying frame devices that serve to “normalize” the ascriber by comparison. Unsurprisingly, his own autobiographical reticence, bordering on unyielding secrecy, coupled with the pawky attitudinizing he brought to his work, his prankish personal conduct, and the mystique that grew up about him as a “legendary” figure, only served to churn the rumor mill all the more in a congenitally gossipy profession.


  • Michael Delaney is an independent scholar and writer in Seattle, WA. He has a B.S. degree in philosophy (University of Utah, 1966), and an M.A. (1972) and Ph.D. (1979) in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. His doctoral dissertation argued for the convergence of the social-symbolic action theories of Talcott Parsons and Kenneth Burke. Delaney's sociological interests include theory, symbolic interactionism, and the intersections of philosophy and sociology. He has written two books on his teacher Erving Goffman and has published “David Riesman: A Personal Appreciation,” in Society, 45(1):53–61, January/February 2008.