The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address
Author: Erving Goffman
Source: American Sociological Review, Feb., 1983, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 1-17
Published by: American Sociological Association
If you have a Toronto Public Library (TPL) membership, you can access the above-noted presentation.
As a non-resident of Toronto I pay $10 a month for membership at the TPL which delivers great value for money. As well as access to documents such as Goffman’s talk at the American Sociological Association, I also have access to news outlets such as the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and the New York Times.
Goffman was a student and practitioner of acute embarrassments and disruptions.
He was a person of his time and place with predictable views about sundry matters. Over the years, however, as a result of the influence of feminist academics who made a point of expressing concerns, he did strongly revise his previous views about gender roles. That is to his credit.
One of his relatives, if I remember the story correctly, is quoted as saying that Goffman in his youth in Manitoba (he was born in Mannville, Alberta) appeared to his relatives to be destined to become either a gangster or a genius.
Although he would have preferred that his personal life and thoughts would be ignored, as it has turned out many details about his personal story have ended up in the historical record because many people who knew him have been interviewed. You can track down many such stories at the Erving Goffman Archives which I’ve previously referred to.
One memorable story about Goffman concerns the time that he and a gambler friend were busy gambling at a table in Las Vegas when two of the “biggest men you’d ever seen” (I’m paraphrasing here) walked up to them, stood right behind them, and said (again I paraphrase from the account that I read), “Move on. We don’t want your business here.”
Goffman avoided quantitative studies and experiments and as I understand never hired graduate students to assist him in his research. His work took place within a solid scholarly framework of previous sociological investigations and theoretical formulations. He was a voracious reader – of sociology, fiction, philosophy, and the hard sciences. Before switching to sociology he was a student of chemistry.
Goffman, whose books have had a powerful impact on the social sciences and have also found an immense readership among non-academic audiences, made a point of working at Canada’s National Film Board during the Second World War. He’s on record as explaining that, because he was short in stature, he was bound to be endlessly hazed if he were to join the Canadian army. He had as I understand an understandable concern in those early years about being bullied.
When he was doing research about gambling, Goffman got qualifications to serve as a dealer at a gambling establishment in Las Vegas. He was so adept at counting cards that he was eventually banned from Las Vegas casinos. His wife, also adept at card counting, was not banned (I’m assuming, here, that I’m recalling the story more or less correctly) and for that reason continued with the counting strategy on her own casino visits. I’ve written about Goffman’s first-person ethnographic research about risk-taking and gambling at a previous post.
Along with refusing to be photographed except on rare occasions, Goffman made it a point to forbid graduate students from tape recording his lectures and rarely gave interviews. Among other things, he felt that interviewers would do an abysmal job of providing a picture of his research – a decidedly more limited view, as compared to what a person can get by actually reading his published works. To the extent possible, he maintained ownership of the picture.
He was known as a person of intellectual stature. Some sociologists have made astute observations about his work; others appear to have demonstrated a more limited understanding from what I can gather. The best way to understand Goffman is to read his books and articles; such a reading establishes a foundation by which a person can determine whether commentaries about Goffman are helpful or, alternatively, serve as a waste of time.
One interview that Goffman did agreed to was with a sociologist in Europe. The latter interview has enabled me to understand many things about his career that otherwise would have escaped me. From the interview I’ve learned many things about which professors were teaching (and in some cases influencing him) at the University of Chicago when Goffman began graduate studies in 1945 as described at a widely read post at this website.
From the above-noted interview I’ve also learned many things about the scholarly influences that were at play, and that Goffman was acutely aware of, in American and European sociology in the 1940s and subsequent years.
I can appreciate Goffman’s thinking about being interviewed. I’ve been interviewing people for over a half-century and I can attest that reporters (such as myself) are not necessarily the smartest or most perceptive people in the room. Over the years I’ve learned that my own views are but one perspective among many others. I’ve also had the good fortune to interview many impressive people whose capabilities vastly outshine my own.
When I do in-depth interviews with people these days I make it a point to show a draft, before the final text is published, to the person that I’ve interviewed. In that way I ensure the interviewee says exactly what she or he means to say. I’ve picked up this practice as a result of being interviewed over the years by Globe and Mail reporters in the context of volunteer work that I used to be involved with.
There’s one opinion writer who used to write for the Globe who has turned me off forever from being a Globe subscriber. That said, I think the policy of reporters checking back with interview subjects under particular circumstances such as having sufficient time (which appears to be pretty much the norm among Globe reporters that I’ve encountered) before a deadline, makes good sense. It’s a commendable practice.
The Globe and Mail serves a valuable purpose in reporting on newsworthy topics.
It’s also the case that what is newsworthy is what media constructs as being newsworthy.
As well, the recently deceased writer Janet Malcolm has shared valuable observations about the relationship between writers such as biographers and the people that they write about. I highly recommend her books and articles.
JSTOR stands for Journal Storage; here’s a JSTOR excerpt from Goffman’s 1982 ASA presentation
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Here’s Goffman’s preamble (in this case I’ve added no paragraph breaks) to his 1982 American Sociological Association (ASA) presidential address. He did not deliver the text in person as he was seriously ill (he died in 1982 of stomach cancer) at the time:
A presidential address faces one set of requirements, an article in a scholarly journal quite another. It turns out, then, that ASR’s [ASR is the American Sociological Review] policy of publishing each year’s ASA address provides the editor with an annual breather. Once a year the lead space can be allocated to a known name and the editor is quit of responsibility for standards that submissions rarely sustain: originality, logical development, readability, reasonable length. For in theory, a presidential address, whatever its character, must have some significance for the profession, even if only a sad one. More important, readers who were unable or unwilling to make the trip have an opportunity to participate vicariously in what can be read as the culmination of the meeting they missed.
Not the best of warrants. My expectation, then, was not to publish this talk but to limit it to the precincts in which it was delivered.
But in fact, I wasn’t there either. What I offer the reader then is vicarious participation in something that did not itself take place. A podium performance, but only readers in the seats. A dubious offering.
But something would have been dubious anyway. After all, like almost all other presidential addresses, this one was drafted and typed well before it was to be delivered (and before I knew it wasn’t to be), and the delivery was to be made by reading from typescript not by extemporizing. So although the text was written as if in response to a particular social occasion, little of it could have been generated by what transpired there. And later, any publication that resulted would have employed a text modified in various ways after the actual delivery.
THE INTERACTION ORDER
For an evening’s hour, it is given to each current president of the Association to hold captive the largest audience of colleagues that sociology can provide. For an hour then, within the girdle of these walls, a wordy pageantry is reenacted. A sociologist you have selected from a very short list takes to the center of this vasty Hilton field on a hobby horse of his own choosing. (One is reminded that the sociologically interesting thing about Hamlet is that every year no high school in the English-speaking world has trouble finding some clown to play him.) In any case, it seems that presidents of learned societies are well enough known about something to be elected because of it. Taking office, they find a podium attached, along with encouragement to demonstrate that they are indeed obsessed by what their election proved they were already known to be obsessed by. Election winds them up and sets them loose to set their record straight; they rise above restraint and replay it. For Association presidents are led to feel that they are representative of something, and that this something is just what their intellectual community wants represented and needs representing. Preparing and then presenting their addresses, presidents come to feel that they are temporarily guardians of their discipline. However large or oddly shaped the hall, their self swells out to fill it. Nor do narrow disciplinary concerns set limits. Whatever the public issues of the day, the speaker’s discipline is shown to have incisive bearing on them. Moreover, the very occasion seems to make presidential speakers dangerously at one with themselves; warmed by the celebration they give without stint, sidetracking their prepared address with parenthetical admissions, obiter dicta, ethical and political asides and other medallions of belief. And once again there occurs that special flagrancy of high office: the indulgence of self congratulation in public. What this dramaturgy is supposed to bring is flesh to bones, confronting the reader’s image of a person with the lively impression created when the words come from a body not a page. What this dramaturgy puts at risk is the remaining illusions listeners have concerning their profession. Take comfort, my friends, that although you are once again to witness the passion of the podium, ours is the discipline, the model of analysis, for which ceremonies are data as well as duty, for which talk provides conduct to observe as well as opinion to consider. Indeed, one might want to argue that the interesting matter for all of us here (as all of us know) is not what I will come to say, but what you are doing here listening to me saying it.
But I suppose you and I shouldn’t knock ritual enterprises too much. Some goy might be listening and leave here to spread irreverence and disenchantment in the land. Too much of that and even such jobs as we sociologists get will become empty of traditional employment.
You might gather from this preamble that I find presidential addresses embarrassing. True. But surely that fact does not give me the right to comment at length on my uneasiness. It is a disease of the self, specific to speakers, to feel that misuse of other people’s time can be expunged through confessings which themselves waste some more of it. So I am uneasy about dwelling on my embarrassment. But apparently I am not uneasy about my unease about dwelling on my embarrassment. Even though you are likely to be.