Starting in 1949, Goffman adopted the role of an American college student studying the economics of island farming

Doctoral research

As Gregory W.H. Smith (2006) notes, Erving Goffman’s doctoral dissertation, submitted to the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, was the product of twelve months of field work on the Shetland Islands between December 1949 and May 1951.

Goffman describes his field work role thus (the quote is from Smith, 2006, p. 24):

  • I settled down in the community as an American college student interested in gaining firsthand experience in the economics of island farming. Within these limits I tried to play an unexceptional and acceptable role in community life. My real aim was to be an observant participant, rather than a participating observer. [Communication conduct in an island community, PhD dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, p. 2.]

The story of how Goffman launched his career can be found at this blog post.


A Jan. 17, 2014 Guardian article refers to Viking genes and traditions among Shetland residents.

A Nov. 5, 2014 Guardian article is entitled: “The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us What We Are by Michael Pye – review.”

An excerpt reads:

“A thousand years on, though, and Shetland had come to serve navigators, not as a frontier, but as a crossroads. Climb the stairs of Lerwick Town Hall to the magnificent chamber hall on the first floor, and you will find, illustrated in best Victorian stained glass, a pantheon of Viking heroes. There bristles Olaf Tryggvasson, the pirate who brought Christianity to Norway, and Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian who perished in 1066 making a land grab on England, and a whole host of other pirates, explorers and sea kings. They serve as a reminder of Shetland’s role as a service station for Vikings travelling the sea lanes between Scandinavia and Iceland, and of how, throughout the middle ages, the island was ruled, not from Scotland, but from Norway. The North Sea, no longer the final frontier, had become a thoroughfare.”


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