Erving Goffman began his graduate work in Chicago in 1945

I’ve enjoyed Erving Goffman’s work since reading The presentation of self in everyday life (1959). His work regarding frames of reference is of interest. References to his work in recent studies – such as by Harald Welzer (2012) and Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (2012) regarding wars and warfare – demonstrate that Goffman’s observations regarding “the ‘interaction order’ and its implications for the self” (Gregory W.H. Smith, 2006, p. 1) remain relevant.

Thomas J. Scheff (2006) has remarked (p. ix): “Goffman’s work is a wholesale attack on this problem: how can we make the invisible, the backstage he sometimes called it, visible? Not that he had all the answers.”

According to Scheff, the final chapter entitled Where the action is in Goffman’s Interaction ritual (2005), first published 1967, offers clues concerning his singular view of the world – which in turn was reportedly manifested in Goffman’s own characteristic modes of behaviour with friends and colleagues. Goffman speaks, in the latter essay, of what he calls “the cult of masculinity.”

His influence on sociology – and outside of his home discipline as Gregory Smith (2006) has noted – has been profound.

A blog post about Goffman’s doctoral research can be found here. Another blog post addresses his research about asylums.

Gregory Smith’s introduction

Gregory W. H. Smith’s introduction to Goffman’s life and contribution to sociology is comprehensive and critical. He notes (p. 130): “There is no substitute for reading Goffman in the original.”

He adds: “Goffman’s discouragement of critical interest in his ideas did not stop the development of a small industry devoted to the examination of his ideas.”

Goffman was a Canadian sociologist given that he was a Canadian citizen. I was intrigued to note, however, that Peter Burke (2005) refers to him as an American sociologist. He’s also referred to as a Canadian-American sociologist or a Canadian-born American sociologist. Sherri Cavan (see next paragraph) speaks of him as an internationally recognized Canadian/American/North American writer.

Sherri Cavan discusses Goffman’s childhood and adolescence. Although he did not, according to Smith (p. 131), leave behind a personal archive, Goffman’s extended family produced extensive archives and has shared stories and photos of his early years.

An online account of those years, accessible at the link in the previous paragraph, warrants study: “His sister says, ‘[He] was a real prankster as a kid. They never thought he’d amount to anything.’ [Posner].” Some people said he’d grow up to be either a genius or a gangster. Stories about his life are available at the Erving Goffman Archives (EGA).

National Film Board

Goffman was born in 1922 in Mannville, Alberta, the son of Jewish immigrants. In high school he majored in science and mathematics. In 1939 he enrolled at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg where he studied chemistry. During his three years as an undergraduate in Winnipeg, Smith notes (p. 8), “his academic interests gradually shifted towards the social sciences.”

He then moved to Toronto and subsequently worked at the National Film Board in Ottawa where he met Dennis Wrong, a recent University of Toronto sociology graduate. Wrong, who encouraged Goffman to complete a BA degree in sociology at the University of Toronto in 1945, discusses this stage in Goffman’s life in Authors of their own lives: Intellectual autobiographies,(1990). Other authors in the latter study also share recollections about his early career.

Wrong notes in the latter account (pp. 9-10; see link in previous paragraph) that as an undergraduate, “Goffman had studied philosophy and had actually read in full Whitehead’s Process and Reality. He argued in Whiteheadian language that reality should be conceived ‘along the lines on which it is naturally articulated,’ a rule he obviously followed in his later work.”

Smith notes (pp. 14-15) that “Goffman’s contribution to the war effort was to work for an agency [that is, the NFB] then heavily involved in the production of propaganda films. At that time the noted Scottish documentary filmmaker, John Grierson (1898-1972) directed the Board.

“While Goffman’s duties were mostly low-level and routine (boxing films for dispatch and preparing cuttings files from magazines), he could not have avoided exposure to discussions about filmic practices for decomposing ordinary life into elements that could then be reconstructed as a representation of reality [Y. Winkin, ed., Erving Goffman: Les moments et leurs hommes (1988), pp. 20-21].”

Sherri Cavan has noted that since childhood, Goffman had been acquainted with the theatre, card games and confidence games, and carnival life.

University of Toronto

Of his undergraduate days at the University of Toronto between early 1944 and November 1945, Smith (p. 15) remarks, “According to Elizabeth Bott Spillius (personal communication), even as an undergraduate Goffman was ‘formidably observant’ and a voracious reader who just needed some stimuli and guidance to shape his idiosyncratic way of viewing the world. Graduate school in postwar Chicago was to provide that development.”

Smith adds (p. 32) that “The University of Chicago proved to be the crucible in which a number of critical influences were condensed into the distinctive approach now instantly recognizable as ‘Goffman’s sociology.'”

University of Chicago

I began to read about Goffman’s graduate student days in Chicago after reading an overview by Adrian Parr (2013) of postwar urban development in that city.

As a graduate student in Chicago, Goffman proposed to study the relationship between social class and personality. W. Lloyd Warner, an expert in American class structure, and William E. Henry, an expert in cultural applications of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), directed his research.

Goffman devised a research plan where he would interview, using the TAT, fifty wives of professional and managerial workers from Chicago’s Hyde Park district. His plan did not work out as anticipated. His 1949 graduate thesis explains why the original objectives could not be met, and offers an analysis of the research interview. His thesis was entitled “Some characteristics of response to depicted experience.”

Response to depicted experience

“Goffman’s first substantial work,” notes Smith (p. 16), “gives clues about why he came to adopt an exploratory, essayist and classificatory sociological approach. Goffman discovered a number of problems in executing the original research design in accordance with the principles of scientific research.”

The chief problem, according to Smith – who refers in this context to Gregory W.H. Smith, 2003, Chrysalid [preparatory or transitional stage] Goffman: a note on ‘Some characteristics of response to depicted experience,’ Symbolic Interaction, 26: 645-58 – was how to ensure reliable interpretation of TAT responses.

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a projective test in which subjects view ambiguous pictures. The subject is prompted to make up a story around each picture. The people who developed the test believed that these stories – the responses to depicted experiences that Goffman refers to in his thesis title – were, in Smith’s words (p. 16), “projections of the subject’s inner person, an X-ray of the inner self.

“Goffman argued that there was no methodical, consistent way of making these deductions from subjects’ actual test responses. Goffman concluded that the TAT was inadequate as a systematic instrument to measure the personality variable. Then Goffman discovered that his collection of interviews was less a sample and more a loose-knit social network. The original plan to examine the class-personality relationship fell through.”

Goffman salvaged the analysis by approaching the TAT interview as an illustration of what he would later call an encounter. He distinguished between direct responses – in which the subject responds to the picture as if it were a real event – and indirect responses. The latter include all statements which desist from assuming the momentary ‘reality’ of the representation. These methods of refusing to fully engage the test situation anticipate conduct that Goffman would later describe as ‘role distance.’

Data on living room furnishings

While interviewing his subjects Goffman also surreptitiously gathered data on living room furnishings. He observed that departures from conventional definitions of living room furnishings paralleled departures from standard conventions of interpersonal conduct.

Smith (2006) refers, in this context (p. 17) to the appearance as early as 1949 of “recognizably ‘Goffmanesque’ locutions and ironies” in Goffman’s writing:

  • In many living rooms the ritual of order and cleanliness was nicely violated by the permitted presence of a dog, a child, a huge toy, or a fireplace-basket of coal or wood … subjects frequently admitted that they knew nothing about furniture, and in some cases this seemed to be an honest statement of fact. [Goffman, 1949, Some characteristics of response to depicted experience. MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, p. 69.]

Fantasy realms implicated in ‘reality’

Concerning this early stage of Goffman’s career, Smith observes (p. 18) that his graduate thesis indicates Goffman’s developing approach to sociology:

  • The TAT conception of projection is inverted and transformed into social form to resurface in his PhD dissertation as the idea of the self that is ‘projected’ in ordinary interaction, one short step from the famous notion of self-presentation. The TAT’s dependence on ‘the act of make believe’ (1949: 18) speaks to a longer-range general theme of his sociology, how fantasy realms are implicated in ‘reality.’
  • Goffman’s scepticism towards quantifiable variable analysis in sociological inquiry may have originated in his Toronto days (Spillius 1993 [personal communication]). However, these misgivings are given substance through his engagement with empirical research. Goffman’s later [Goffman, 1971, Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order, p. xviii] sarcastic and peremptory [admitting no denial or refusal] dismissal of traditional research designs, may well be grounded in his 1940s research experiences in Hyde Park, Chicago as he worked toward his first graduate degree.


An Oct. 5, 2013 New York Times article regarding social power differentials brings to mind Erving Goffman’s analysis of everyday social interactions.

With regard to the above-noted article, a search regarding how social power affects how people view other people turns up a series of interesting studies.

An April 15, 2014 Harvard Business Review article notes that “Vonnegut devoted his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago to studying the shapes of stories.”

An April 29, 2014 New York Times article about Erving Goffman’s daughter, Alice Goffman, is entitled: “Fieldwork of Total Immersion: Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood.”

An excerpt from Albert Maysles (2009) notes that Maysles focused upon what Erving Goffman’s called “the presentation of self in everyday life.” Albert and David Maysles approached documentary making from a perspective that differed from that of the National Film Board. Albert and David Maysles: Interviews (2010) shares an overview of the work of the Maysles brothers.

A May 31, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Spike Lee Comes to Film ‘Chiraq,’ Unsettling Some Chicagoans.”

A July 30, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans? How a rich entrepreneur persuaded the city to let him create his own high-tech police force.”

The article notes:

“One of the largest private security forces in the nation today is the University of Chicago Police, which has full jurisdiction over 65,000 residents, only 15,000 of whom are students.”

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    The following article about Erving Goffman is a good read:

    Erving Goffman, fateful action, and the Las Vegas gambling scene

    Citation metadata
    Author: Dmitri N. Shalin
    Date: Spring 2016
    From: UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] Gaming Research & Review Journal (Vol. 20, Issue 1)
    Publisher: UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal
    Document Type: Article
    Length: 22,369 words

    Click here to access Erving Goffman Archives >

    Click here for previous posts about Erving Goffman >


    This paper explores Erving Goffman’s research on gambling, the historical context within which he articulated his views on risk taking, and the contribution he made to our understanding of gambling as a stigmatized social activity. Drawing on the large database assembled in the Erving Goffman Archives, the article traces Goffman’s footprint in Las Vegas and shows the personal as well as scholarly dimensions of his interest in betting practices in entertainment venues and risk taking in society at large. The argument is made that the theory of fateful action presented in the seminal study “Where the Action Is” remains a potent if underutilized theoretical, methodological, and political resource. The paper concludes with reflections on the commodification of risk and the role of chance in distribution of rewards in our society.


    An excerpt reads:

    In 1967, Goffman published his ground-breaking essay “Where the Action Is” (WAI) in which he theorized “gambling [a]s a prototype of action” – a willful rendezvous with destiny for which modern society provides a shrinking number of outlets but which remains central to the functioning of a dynamic, morally astute society (Goffman 1967:186). To understand the origins of his theory, we need to examine its historical roots, contemporary sources on which Goffman built his analysis, and the creative way in which he transformed the current ideas into a conceptual system of his own.

    Goffman’s investigation is also notable for its methodology, for its imaginative use of participant observation. While ethnographic studies are common in gambling research (Hayano 1982; Browne 1989; Sallaz 2009; Li 2008; Parke and Griffiths 2008; Marksbury 2010), projects where a trained social scientist assumes the role of a dealer are rare. Two inquiries stand out in this respect: Erving Goffman’s “Where the Action Is” (1967) and Jeffrey Sallaz’s The Labor of Luck (2009). Scholars assuming the role of a croupier face methodological challenges and ethical conundrums that invite scrutiny.

    The article refers to a Time article, Sociology: Exploring a Shadow World, Jan. 10, 1969.

    The article notes Erving Goffman was born in Mannville, Alberta.

    Charity casinos in Ontario

    In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Stuttering Association of Toronto (SAT) and other nonprofit organizations raised substantial funds by supplying volunteer labour at late-night charity casinos in the Greater Toronto Area in exchange for a share, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (as determined by the event organizers) of the proceeds. The funds that we raised in those years helped us tremendously during a key stage of community self-organizing on behalf of people who stutter in Canada.

    As a volunteer, I learned about how money flows on occasion in ways that are not clear (in ways mysterious), in connection with such events. In time, the Ontario Trillium Foundation was set up by the Ontario government in order, perhaps, to sidestep some of the issues that participants could readily observe in operation of charity casinos. I view my volunteer work in these kinds of settings as among my key formative experiences in those years. I learned many things as a participant observer. As well, the money we raised helped us tremendously in our work.

    As Erving Goffman has noted – in Goffman’s case with exceedingly close view of the action – what goes on in gambling establishments and risk-taking situations in general is worth close study, in the event a person wants to learn a few things about how situations where risk taking is at play get resolved, one way or another.

    Things one learns as a participant observer

    Goffman in his writings observes (and draws conclusions from the fact) that there’s a foreground and a background – a frontstage and a backstage – where events in everyday life occur. He also observes that how things are framed determines what you see.

    From my perspective as a participant observer, by which I refer primarily to my work over several decades as a volunteer, I can say that what occurs in charity casinos as described above serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the wider society.

    One observation is that what accounts for news and newsworthiness its a matter of how news is constructed.

    A second observation is that sometimes power speaks its own language whereby up is down, in is out, and now you see it, now you don’t.

    A third observation is that frame analysis can apply to many things including the study of stage magic, public relations, blurbs, history, and historiography.

    I note these things as a general observer. I also note I’m not an investigative journalist given in particular that a range of resources is required, in order to sustain work in such a realm of reporting. That said, I see tremendous value in this and other forms of journalism.


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