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The Passing of Intellectual Generations: Reflections on the Death of Erving Goffman

Author(s): Randall Collins


Source: Sociological Theory, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 106-113
Published by: American Sociological Association
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THE PASSING OF INTELLECTUAL GENERATIONS:


REFLECTIONS ON THE DEATH OF ERVING GOFFMAN
RANDALL COLLINS

University
of California,Riverside
Death makes us think of generations and their
passing away. Erving Goffman's death in 1982
happenednot long afterthat of his friend Alvin W.
Gouldnerlate in 1980. A few months before, the
American Sociological Association held a memorial meeting to commemoratethe death of Talcott
Parsons, while another group of sociologists met
unofficially, outside of A.S.A. auspices, to note
the passing of Herbert Marcuse. And still the
deathscame on. Goffman's death was followed by
thatof his teacher, EverettHughes, markingnearly
the end of the old Chicago School. Recently I was
shocked (as one often is by the death of someone
intellectuallyconsequential, even if not a personal
acquaintance)by the deathof Derek de Solla Price,
who perhaps more than anyone (and despite the
greaterfame of Thomas Kuhn) was responsiblefor
creating the modern sociology of science just 20
years ago. And outside the strict ranks of
sociologists we have seen the passing of Martin
Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, of Jean Piaget,
and more melodramatically Nicos Poulantzas'
suicide, and the bizarrearrestand incarcerationof
Louis Althusser for homicide. One has the feeling
not only of mortality but of the passing of
historical time, and the disappearance of an
intellectual generation. More than ever, it seems
now that we are left without giants among us, and
must make do for ourselves.
To some extent this feeling is an illusion. It is
our intellectualfield itself that makes some people
giants, and very often their death is instrumentalin
establishing their most elevated status. One sees
this now with the revival of Talcott Parsons,
especially in Germany but also to some extent in
the U.S. and elsewhere. Parsonswas above all the
sociological theorist of the 1950s, although his
most importantbooks date from the 1930s and the
1940s, culminating in The Social System and
Towarda General Theoryof Action in 1951. Much
of his fame was already retrospective; The
Structureof Social Action had little impactwhen it
came out in 1937, and was much more commented
upon 25 years later. During the late 1960s and the
1970s, a period when sociology was swept by the
Left, Parsons' functionalism was almost completely eclipsed, and kept alive mainly by his
opponentswho used him as an object of criticism.
Now, after the man himself is safely dead, a
struggle goes on to appropriateparts of his ideas
and to redefine them for purposes that could
perhaps not have been so profitable while the
originator was still capable of speaking for
106

himself. Death is sometimes a necessary step


towards immortality.
Goffman, though, died not in eclipse, but at the
height of his fame. Whetherthis will have an effect
upon the post-mortumstruggle to appropriatehis
ideas remainsto be seen. Partlythis is a matterof
when people die. Parsonswas almost 80 years old
at the time of his death, Goffman barely 60. In
some sense they were differentintellectualgenerations. Goffman is more nearly the archetypal
sociologist of the 1960s and 70s; his starwas rising
while Parsons' went down. Yet Goffman, too, had
his roots in the 1950s. Goffman's fame, coming
upon the publicationof The Presentationof Self in
EverydayLife in 1959 and Asylumsin 1961, came
to a man in his mid-30s; Parsons was already 50
years old in the decade he dominated. Such
differences in age often occur. Emile Durkheim
and Max Weber were born and died within 5 years
of each other. But Durkheim was above all the
sociologist of the 1890s, a man who published
almost everything while he was young; while
Weber was a slow starter, who did his greatest
work well past the age of 40 and hence came on
the intellectual scene most forcefully during the
war decade of 1910-20.
The timing of differentdeaths at about the same
time, then, can give us some sense of illusion
about the passing of generations. More than one
generation can pass away at once, some at the
height of their influence, while others have lived
into a kind of intellectual retirement, whether or
not at their own volition. In the Bible and in the
Latin texts of antiquity, old age is described as a
time of ripenessand fulfillment, a time when honor
is given to wisdom accumulatedover the years. In
the intellectualworld, unfortunately,this is not so.
The intellectualworld is competitive and cruel. It
is no respecterof persons, whatevertheir previous
accomplishments.If the intellectualworld makes a
hero out of someone, living or dead, it is not out of
admirationfor a lifetime of personal efforts, but
only because their ideas or even just their name are
a convenient symbol for factions pursuingcurrent
aims. Intellectual leaders, like politicians, have
only a brief claim upon the attention of their
publics;for both, the fall from the top into statusof
an outcaste can happenrapidlyand without grace.
For this reason, intellectuals rarely retire from
active writing. They are more likely to die with the
pen in their hand (or these days, a typewriter,or
better yet a computer-word-processor).But since
the intellectualworld always moves on, takingup a

Sociological Theory, 1986, Vol. 4 (Spring:106-113)

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THE PASSING OF INTELLECTUALGENERATIONS


new position every ten or twenty years, the
once-famous writer must keep on changing his or
her position, or else find themselves outdatedeven
as they continue to work. Parsonskept on writing
to the end, althoughfew people read his books of
the last 15 years. So did Sartre, or Marcuse, or
Piaget, although one would say that their fame
rested mainly on their work from much earlier in
their careers. And some in fact do retire, like
Heidegger, whom most intellectualswould already
have thought of an historical figure of the past,
long before his actual death. Perhaps this could
only be done by a man whose life was more than
what was containedin his writtenphilosophy. Still
anotherroute was that like BertrandRussell, who
lived almost to 100 by adding a political career
onto the end of his life, after almost ceasing
writingat the age of about75. (To some extent this
was Jean-PaulSartre's choice too, though he did
not live nearly so long as Russell: perhaps it is
harder to live through the pressures of French
politics?)
Erving Goffman lived across several intellectual
generations, and was adept at creating a leading
position for himself in each one. Like some other
greatintellectuals,he had severaldifferentintellectual careers. This in itself I think is a sign of
greatness. For intellectuals always achieve some
vested interestin theirown ideas, especially if they
have proven successful in the public view.
Goffman had that special wisdom which sees that
things are changing, as well as the ambition to
keep himself continuallyon the forefrontin a field
that does not necessarily honor the generation
behind. Gouldner, too, did this, jumping from the
apolitical organization studies and functionalist
debates of the 1950s, to the Frankfurt-style
reflexive neo-Marxism of the 1960s and 70s.
Earlierin our century, therewas one of the greatest
switches of all time, as Ludwig Wittgensteinboth
createdthe ultra-positivismof the Vienna Circle in
his Tractatusand then quickly went on to demolish
it with his later linguistic philosophy. And one can
think of Vilfredo Pareto, who retiredafter a great
career as an economist to reemerge in his old age
as a pioneering sociologist.
Goffmanachieved his first fame at the end of the
1950s. Because he wrote on "the presentationof
self", on "facework", "deference and demeanor", embarassment and alienation from
interaction,he was usually tabbed as an symbolic
interactionistin the tradition of George Herbert
Mead. But even though Goffman came from the
University of Chicago, the stronghold of the
Symbolic Interactionist school (at that time,
although Chicago was just then being taken over
by the ultra-positivists),the label was incorrect.It
was, one might say, a typically Goffmanianmask.
For Goffman never referred to Mead, W.I
Thomas, Cooley, Blumer, or the other leaders of
Symbolic Interactionism, except occasionally in

107

critical footnotes. A careful reading of Goffman's


early writings shows that his intellectual loyalties
were elsewhere. He was, in fact, essentially a
follower of British social anthropology of the
Radcliffe-Brown style. The key concept for
Goffman was the way in which individualsenact
social ritual in the interests of maintaining the
normativeorderof society. Goffman left plenty of
clues. When he collected his papersof the 1950s,
he called the volume InteractionalRitual. The title
is very apt, for that is exactly what he was always
concernedwith. In his famous paper "The Nature
of Deference and Demeanor" (1956), Goffman
explicitly began by citing Durkheimand RadcliffeBrown, and went on to argue that their theory of
ritualscould be appliedto the expressive aspects of
everyday modern life. Goffman spent much time
following up Durkheim'sremarkthat the individual had become the principal "sacred object" in
modern secular society. Thus, unlike Mead,
Thomas, and Blumer, the self in Goffman is not
something that individuals negotiate out of social
interactions:it is, rather, the archetypal moder
myth. We are compelledto have an individualself,
not because we actually have one but because
social interactionrequiresus to act as if we do.
Fromthis follows Goffman's distinctiveconcern
with the deception involved in everyday life.
Goffman is justly famous for his analysis of
"frontstage" and "backstage", for his picture of
how the confidence man is not merely a picturesque criminal, but is an aspect of all of us. But
althoughthis has given Goffman the reputationof
being a Machiavellian, an ultra-sophisticated
analyst of the arts by which people negotiate their
social identities, Goffman's own theoreticalclaim
was always the opposite kind. It is society that
forces people to present a certain image of
themselves, to appear to be truthful, selfconsistent, and honorable, when in fact the same
social system, because it forces us to switch back
and forth between many complicatedroles, is also
making us always somewhat untruthful,inconsistent, and dishonorable-in shortto be actorsrather
thanspontaneouslythe roles thatwe appearto be at
any single moment.
Goffman was always much more conservative
than most of his public thought him. Because he
exposed the backstageof the self and wrote about
alienationand embarassment,everyone thoughthe
was sympatheticto the plight of the individualand
a critic of the falseness of frontstagesociety. Far
from it: Goffman started from a Durkheimian
viewpoint which made society primary, and the
individual nothing more than a modern myth.
Because Goffman wrote of the way that insane
asylums and other "total institutions" stripped
away the individual's identity and labelled the
personas "deviant" or "mentally ill", we thought
Goffman was uttering a cry of protest. But
although Goffman created the "labelling theory"

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108

SOCIOLOGICALTHEORY

of deviance, his purpose was not to expose and


reform the mental health profession. Asylums
itself, like Goffman's other writings on mental
illness, explicitly says that the mental hospital and
the social pressures towards conformity are
functionallynecessaryfor the protectionof society's
roles as a whole. Because Goffmanwrote aboutthe
artificialityof the "stage" of public life and about
the multiply-embeddedframes of experience, it
was easy to take him for a predecessor of the
hippies and their consciousness-expandingdrugs.
On the contrary:Goffman was scornful of those
who thoughtthat life was only a stage of the mind
that could be easily blown away in a moment of
enlightenment or the shock of a guerilla theatre
"happening." Even if the world is a stage,
Goffman reiterated,it is a stage made out of real
boards and real curtains; to recognize the way
multiple realities are constructed does not mean
that they are any less real or necessary.
I am making Goffman seem as if he were a
defender of the status quo; if not perhaps a
reactionary,at least a believer in the externalsocial
order of the center. And so he was. But it must
have been no accidentthat so many people thought
he was a radical, a defender of individualism, a
kind of existentialist rebel, a protesterand even a
mind-blowinghippie. For Goffmanwas a genius at
the artsof self-presentation.He knew how to write
so thathe could have it both ways. And personally,
in fact, Goffman was an extreme individualistand
iconoclast. There are hundreds of stories from
those who knew him about his idiosyncracies, his
pranksand exploits. Goffman was an individualist
in an era when individualismwas the ideal, when
the avant-gardewent to all sorts of extremes to set
themselves off from others. (I am thinking of the
1950s, when existentialism and the "beat-niks"
were in vogue, as well as the hippies of the 1960s.)
Goffman was never content to be a "conventional" individualist like everyone else. When
everyone else was being a critic and a radical, he
set himself up intellectually as a Durkheimian
conservative--andyet managedto appearnevertheless as a more radical expose-artist than almost
anyone else.
Goffman's talent was that he could write in
layers. The outer layer of each book gave one
message; the inner content told another. Goffman
was good at titles: Asylums, Stigma, Gender
Advertisements, The Presentation of Self in
EverydayLife. On the surface, if one did not read
his books carefully, but only picked them up and
looked at the cover, it appearedthathe was making
one expose after another. The inner content, of
course, was something else. Not only did he
defend society againstwhat he consideredto be the
romanticizedclaim of the self; in Gender Advertisements, a book which feminists thought was a
feminist book, he actually wrote a defense of the
traditional, functionally-justified, male-dominant

sex roles. In Frame Analysis, Goffman appearsto


be taking up the multiple-realitythemes of the
hippies, and extending the cognitive radicalismof
Garfinkel'sethnomethodologists.On the contrary:
Frame Analysis is really an attack on Schutz and
Garfinkel, and a claim that although there are
multiple reflexive frames in social life, nevertheless there is no infinite regress but only a limited
numberof such frames. Social life is complicated,
Goffman asserts, but it neverthelessis functionally
manageable;it does not recede into infinity, and
though it can be changed it is highly resistant to
being overthrown.
Goffman's style was well adapted to giving
these multiplemessages. Did he attemptto hide his
true intentions?I thinkhe ratherenjoyed writingin
a kind of code, fooling most of his readersmost of
the time one way or another.Goffman was a very
smooth prose stylist, but his writing was certainly
idiosyncratic. He always buried his theoretical
message. Though what he wrote was never bare
empiricism, never simply a report of research
results, he always kept his theoreticalpoints in the
form of elegantly phrased comments. He did not
announce his subject in the conventional way by
locating it in the lineage of certain intellectual
questions. Nor did he ever sum up the theoretical
significanceof his argumentsat the conclusion. He
did not of course leave his articles or books
dangling at the end, but he always finished them
off with a literaryflourish ratherthan by driving
home a theoreticalpoint. Goffman always denied
he was a theorist, and claimed to be merely a
humble practitionerof empirical studies in some
minoraspectsof social life. This was of coursejust
another facade. Goffman was certainly not humble, and the inner theoreticalstructureof what he
was doing was always importantwhen one could
ferret it out. He did not become perhapsthe most
famous of Americansociologists at the time of his
death merely by makingempiricalstudies of minor
phenomena.
But it is true that the mood in currentsociology,
at least in the U.S., was not very favorable to
theorists. "Theory" called to mind someone like
Talcott Parsons, with grand abstractionsand little
reference to the real world of human social life.
Goffman never attacked Parsons, and in fact
sharedhis functionalistbias, but he never referred
to Parsons either. Indeed, Goffman almost never
referred to any major sociologist. His footnotes
seemed to be carefullydesigned to lead one astray
from whomever he was actually arguing with.
Frame Analysis, in many importantrespects, is a
critique of Garfinkeland his school, but they are
scarcely ever mentionedby name. Forms of Talk,
which in my opinion is one of his greatest works,
involves a powerful critique of Chomsky, Labov,
Schegloff, and the rest of the schools of linguists
and sociolinguisticsof today, but again one can see
this only by readingbetween the lines. Goffman is

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THE PASSING OF INTELLECTUALGENERATIONS


very much an esoteric in-group writer; one must
already know the intellectual milieu he is talking
about in order to recognize what he is saying and
whom he is saying it against. This is one reason
why Goffman's early works, which I have
described as Durkheimian social anthropology,
have rarely been recognized as such. Although
there was an occasional reference to Durkheimor
to British anthropology, it was always brief and
buried amidst much other matter. Goffman was
certainly an original thinker, but he managed to
appeareven more original than he was because he
was adept at buryinghis tracks.
Let us return to the question of Goffman's
intellectual genealogy. We know that he was
regarded as a member of the Chicago school of
Symbolic Interactionists.I have arguedthat this is
erroneous. Goffman was at Chicago in the early
1950s, and received his Ph.D. from there, but his
roots in British social anthropology are clear
enough. Goffman was a Canadian, and his B.A.
degree was from the University of Toronto, where
he studiedwith the anthropologistC.W.M. Hart, a
follower of the Radcliffe-Brownschool. When he
went to Chicago, his main contacts were not with
the Symbolic Interactionists,but with W. Lloyd
Warner.Warneroccupies an importantplace in the
history of sociology, althoughhe was never given
quite the recognitionhe deserved. For Warnerwas
originally not a sociologist but an anthropologist,
An Australianwho also followed Radcliffe-Brown,
and whose first book was a tribal study of
Australian aborigines. Warner then decided to
migrateback to the mainland.Like Alfred Kinsey,
a biologist who realized that his field knew more
about the sex life of insects than of humans,
Warnerrealized that the ceremonial social life of
aborigines was better understood than that of
moderncivilizations. Warnerthus went to Massachusetts to carry out his famous "Yankee City"
study, which analyzed the social organizationand
cultural beliefs of New England Americans as if
they were a complex version of a tribal society.
When one approachesa modem society empirically, the first thing that one always strikes is the
phenomenonof stratification.This was the case in
all community studies, and Warnerthus became a
student of the modern class system. But since he
approached it from the point of view of tribal
connections and rituals, he did not start from the
economic base or occupational structure, but by
looking at what networks of social relationships
existed and what rituals held them together.
Warneremerged with a picture of modern society
as a kind of Indiantotem-poleof tribes, sitting one
upon the other: i.e. he saw the class system as a
form of multi-culturalsystem. Warner was criticized by more left-wing students of stratification
for failing to see the economic base and for
accepting the conservative bias in the accounts
given by his informants. But the critics missed

109

Warner's strength: he showed what we (not he


himself) might call the ideological structure of
class society, and above all the mechanisms that
producedit. It is with this topic that Goffman first
began his sociology. Goffman was at one time
Lloyd Warner'sresearch assistant-long after the
actualfield researchhad been done, but duringthe
time when the data were being prepared for
publication.
Goffman's first paper, published in the British
Journal of Sociology in 1951, was on the topic
"Symbols of Class Status". At this time Goffman
had not yet arrivedat his unique way of analyzing
the ritualinteractionsof everydaylife. That was to
come with his recognition of the deference and
demeanour process and the presentation of a
frontstageself. Once Goffmanformulatedthis, the
overt references to stratificationwere gone. One
had to do one's own analysis to realize that the
empiricalmaterialshe used for ThePresentationof
Self always referred to social classes. One part
consisted of occupationalstudies (mainly ChicagofromGoffman's
style dissertations,butreinterpreted
viewpoint). Here one saw the fact that solidarity
within a social class was enacted in everyday life
because that class shared the same backstage:the
workers'informalgroupkept a backstagesolidarity
against their bosses, though they deferredto them
in public encounters; the bosses made only
dignified appearancesbefore the workers, while
they socialized among themselves in privateclubs,
executive dining rooms, and other places where
admission has a high symbolic status value.
Goffman illustratedthe same thing in professions
like medicine, where doctors derive prestige from
theirawesome frontstagemanner,and intermediate
commercial classes like salesmen, who use their
frontstage as a weapon to try to manipulate
customers.Goffmanthus succeededat carryingout
what Lloyd Warnerhad begun: to show the ritual
interactions that produced the cultural barriers
among social classes. On this basis, as I have
argued in my Conflict Sociology one may show
how the major dimensions of difference between
class culturesemerge from the way that theirplace
in the economic organizationof work gives them
different patternsof frontstage/backstagerelationships. The higher social classes are experts in
frontstage formalities and acquire the "official"
culturalattitudesthat are the ideological contentof
those public performances,while the lower classes
are alienated by frontstages-which are always
used against them-and hence identify with
localized culture of the informalbackstage group.
A great deal of evidence can be synthesized into
this conception, includingBasil Bernstein'sspeech
codes of the differentsocial classes (which is also a
modern applicationof Durkheimiantheory to the
differentritual milieux of social classes).
Lloyd Warnerthus was extremely importantfor
what Goffman achieved in his early works. It is

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SOCIOLOGICALTHEORY

110

true that Goffman moved away from overtly


consideringWarner'stopic of stratification."Symbols of Class Status," in fact, was probably the
last paper Goffman wrote on any topic which
explicitly attempted to contribute to an existing
tradition of theory and research. After that,
Goffman was off on his career of creating unique
fields of his own, seeming to raise questions that
no one had ever asked and to look at data that no
one had ever examinedbefore. The rest of the field
was left in a position of trying to make what sense
they could out of Goffman's work from the point
of view of their own concerns. I have emphasized
the implications for stratificationtheory, because
this is an area that I think is central to all
systematic sociological theory; Goffman certainly
carried forward this theme from Warner, but he
also buried its implications under his own unique
style.
One other aspect of Goffman's early intellectual
stance is worth mentioning. At Toronto he was
quite interestedin Freud. The 1930s and 40s were
the period when Freudwas in his greatestvogue in
North Ameica. Goffman never pursued these
themes in his sociology, but nevertheless it may
have left some effect. EverettHughes mentionedto
me, late in his life, that when Goffman first came
to Chicago Hughes felt he was a young know-itall, a Freudian with a superior insight into the
motivations of everyone. Hughes at the time was
the empiricalresearchleaderof the Chicago school
symbolic interactionists;characteristicallyfor the
intellectualrelationshipsinvolved, he tended to be
rather hostile to Goffman's work. Hughes reviewed one of Goffman's books (Interaction
Ritual, which is certainly one of Goffman's most
centralbooks) in quite a hostile vein, commenting
that Goffman was impolitely intruding into the
privacy of other people's lives. Goffman, on the
other hand, always spoke warmly of Hughes and
gave him credit for great intellectual influence on
his own development. When I mentioned this to
Hughes, he replied in a way that indicated that
Hughes had always found this tribute from
Goffman to be annoying and insincere. Such were
the complexities of Erving Goffman's intellectual
persona.
There were other early intellectual influences.
Goffman's old classmates tell me that he was very
much impressed with the literary critic Kenneth
Burke, who wrote about the social stances of
rhetoricand espoused the notion of everydaylife as
a kind of theatre.One can see these themes clearly
enough in Goffman, althoughonce again he buries
the intellectualgenealogy. In this case, perhapshis
lack of tribute was appropriate,for if one reads
Kenneth Burke and then Erving Goffman, the
superiorityof the latter in sociological lucidity (as
well as in his Durkheimiantheoretical base) is
clear. But Goffman always retaineda sharpeye for
literaryelements. Whathe does in Frame Analysis,

in Gender Advertisements(which is really a book


about the visual organizationof social expression
ratherthan about sex), and in Forms of Talk show
that Goffman could have been a literary and art
critic of the first rank.In fact, I believe thatthere is
a major theory of literary form contained in
Goffman's works, waiting for exegesis. In this day
when literature professors have turned towards
theoriesof structureand representation,Goffman's
literarytheory is yet anotherburied treasureto be
discovered.
To sum up Goffman's intellectual career is
necessarily an oversimplification. Roughly, one
may say it went through 3 phases. In the first
phase, Goffman took the social anthropologyof
Lloyd Warner,togetherwith the empirical studies
of the Chicago school, and producedhis studies of
the ritualsof everydaylife. This is the periodof the
self as a sacred object, worshipped by the
interaction rituals of everyday life. This period
lasts through the 1950s into the middle of the
1960s. It also includes Goffman's special concerns
with mental illness, stigma, and mental hospitals.
It was this work that brought Goffman his first
fame: the labelling theory of deviance, and what
was thought to be the critique of the total
institution. Here Goffman might be seen as
continuing the themes of Freud, but now with
sociological ratherthan psychological tools. Goffman had recanted Freud's form of analysis, and
had instead created what one might call "social
psychiatry." But some deep parallel with Freud
remained. Both thinkers regarded the conscious
self as something of an epiphenomenon, resting
upon deeper processes. Goffman was more radical
than Freud in this respect. Freud recognized the
power of the Id and other components of the
unconscious, but his slogan was always to increase
the power of the Ego: "Where Id is, there Ego
shall be." Goffman however believed that the
conscious Ego was merely a social self, and
therefore a myth. For Goffman, the unconscious
cannot be exorcised, even in principle, because it
is not an individualsubstratumat all, but consists
of the structuralunderpinningsof society itself.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Goffman
seemed to move closer to the mood of conflict of
that time. Strategic Interaction (1969) deals with
the bargainingmanueversof business negotiations,
internationaldiplomacy, military strategists and
spies. Relations in Public, although it continued
themes from Goffman's earlierperiod, also has the
overtones of threatened violence in the streets.
Although Goffman did not producevery extensive
treatmentof self-interestedMachiavellianmanuevers, nevertheless what he did do was quite
consequential. In economics and in the organization theorytaughtin business schools in the 1970s,
one of the major themes was stated by Oliver
Williamson's Markets and Hierarchies (1975),
which directly followed up Goffman's analysis.

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Williamson attemptedto show theoretically (and
without Goffman's elegance) that markets cannot
be efficient form of interaction, and hence are
always limited and replaced by hierarchicorganizations. The reason markets are not efficient is
what the economists now call "transactioncosts,"
which consist of exactly the kinds of potential for
multiple levels of distrustwhich Goffman showed
must be resolved in any negotiation among
self-interested parties. Goffman thus set off a
fundamentalshift in economic theory, that is still
under way today.
Characteristically,Goffman paid no attentionto
these offshoots of his ideas. He had alreadymoved
on to a thirdphase. This is the concernwith human
thoughtand languagefound in his last works, from
Frame Analysis (1974) to Forms of Talk (1981).
One might say that this is the concern with social
epistemology that was so characteristic of the
1970s. The theme was stated in many quarters:in
the reflexive intellectual self-criticism of the
Frankfurtschool, the vogue of Parisianstructuralism and then of destructuration, the growing
interest in the sociology of science (after Thomas
Kuhn and many others), the symbiosis between
literary theory, Chomskyian linguistics, and
sociolinguistics.Insidesociology, ethnomethodology
expressed all of these concerns. It began with the
cognitive radicalism of Garfinkel (which may be
seen as an empiricalinvestigationof the philosophical themes of Husserl and Heidegger), and then
developed yet another empirical wing, led by
Harvey Sacks and Emmanuel Schegloff, which
used audio and video tape recordingsto develop a
formal analysis of everyday conversation. One
might say that there were the dual themes of social
epistemology-a critique of all conventional beliefs (includingthose of positive science) regarding
the source of knowledge-and of social cognition-a search for the fundamental"code" of the
human mind. Such post-ethnomethodologistsas
Aaron Cicourel have developed this theme into an
explicit"cognitivesociology;"contraryto Chomsky,
French structuralists,and almost everyone else,
cognitive sociology claims that the basic cognitive
codes are not to be found inside the mind nor in a
disembodied culture, but are essentially a part of
social interaction.
Goffman could not help but be interested in
these developments.For one thing, he was a father
of this entire field. It was Goffman who pioneered
the close empiricalstudy of everydaylife, although
he had done it with his bare eyes, before the days
of tape recordersand video cameras. And the most
of the "secondgeneration"ethnomethodoloimportant
gists were actuallyGoffman's own students:Sacks
andSchegloffwereBerkeleyPh.D's underGoffman's
sponsorship (although there are some convoluted
stories here), ratherthan Garfinkel's proteges. In
the late 1960s Goffman had the experience of
seeing his own field grow up and move beyond

111

him, away from the concern with interactionritual


and the nature of the social self, and into more
"philosophical" questions of epistemology and
cognition. Thus Goffman'sthirdperiodis a kind of
reentry back onto his own home territory, an
attempt to reconquer his turf from his own
intellectual descendants who had gone beyond
him.
In my opinion, he succeeded brilliantly. This
conclusion would not be generally acknowledged.
As of today, Goffman is mostly regarded as a
classic writer mainly because of his works of his
first period; the second period, outside of the
enclave of economists (who for the most partdon't
know much aboutGoffmanin general)is relatively
little known, and his third period works, although
certainreceiving much public attention,are largely
a mystery for those who would like to label his
intellectual identity. These days one sees papers
trying to explain that Goffman was really a
structuralistor some other identity, while other
writers still struggle to see him as some form of
symbolic interactionist.In my view, this implies
that there will be a considerable industry of
Goffman scholarshipfor many years to come. Our
age favors specialization and secondary scholarship more than originality and theory, and
Goffman offers a rich corpus that has yet been
barely understood. In particular, not only his
second period of Machiavellian strategy studies,
but also his third period remain to be appreciated.
As I have stated, Goffman takes up the
ethnomethodologists'challenge but places a clear
structural limit upon its relativism. He was
elaboratinga theoryof social symbolism and social
consciousness that he never formalized. Nevertheless, especially in Forms of Talk, there is a theory
of the fundamentally social nature of talk and
hence of human mind that is perhaps decades
ahead of rival theories in this area.
Did Goffman have any more books left in him
when he died? It is a hardquestion. I can think of
works that he would have been ideally equippedto
write. But I don't think he would have done them.
Perhaps there is some truth in the old belief that
people die when their work is done. Goffman
might have felt he had gone as far as he would go.
He always tried to stay one jump ahead of
everyone-not only ahead of other people, but
even ahead of himself. We see this in the way that
he never situated himself directly in terms of his
own intellectualancestors, or in the context of the
contemporarieshe was arguing against. Goffman
never wanted to appear derivative, even of
himself. In most of his books, he invented an
entirely new terminology. In the process, he
abandoned a great many excellent concepts: the
frontstage/backstagemodel, the idea of "interaction ritual," the conception of "frames" and
"keyings," and many others. In his last books,
however, Goffman began explicitly to refer to

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112

SOCIOLOGICALTHEORY

some of his earlier conceptions. For anyone else,


this would have been a triumph.Goffman seemed
to be moving closer to a synthesis, where his early
theatrical model, his concerns with rituals, were
beginning to tie into his late analysis of multiple
frames (in Forms of Talk, though, he had changed
the terminologyto what he called "footings") and
of the way the layers of language are related to
each other.
Goffman was at the height of his fame when he
died. He had emerged from the undergroundto
become President of the American Sociological
Association. Everyone wondered what he would
do for his Presidential address: a straight, traditional presentation seemed unthinkablefor Goffman with his reputationas an iconoclast, yet to be
merely iconoclastic in a public forumwas too easy,
passe, a mere imitationof earlierculturalforms. I
would have predicted yet another multi-levelled
public address, polite and conventional on the
surface but filled with esoteric claims for the
cognoscenti and veiled put-downs of everyone
else. Instead we got a far more dramaticmessage:
Presidentialaddress cancelled, Goffman dying. It
was an appropriatelyGoffmanian way to go out.
His presidentialaddress, printedafterhe was dead,
makes reference to the fact that he was speaking
from beyond the grave, as if with a little pride he
had created yet anotherform of discourse.
In my opinion, Goffman was not finished
intellectually, yet it may have seemed like it to
himself. Goffman was truly ambivalent about
appearingin the public stance of a theorist. For the
theorist must take the frontstage and make the
official statement.Ironies are left behind, and one
attempts to attain that privileged position that we
regard as a general truth. Goffman was moving
towards taking on just that role. The logic of his
own intellectualdevelopment was bringing him to
synthesize his overall position, just at the time that
his externalfame was focussing eyes upon him and
even ceremonially calling him into the role of
theoretical summarizer. This happens inevitably,
whenever someone's intellectualwork is accorded
sufficient attention.R. StephenWarnerhas pointed
out that "theory" is not really a distinctive
category of writings; rather, any intellectualwork
that is sufficiently important draws attention to
itself as the source of ideas of general importance,
and hence becomes transformed into "theory."
Goffman seemed to fight all his life a battle to
remain rooted in the underground,to keep from
becoming any kind of Establishment-even a
rebellious counter-Establishment.I think that in
that sense Goffman's death did come at a time
when, in his own conception, he had finished what
he set out to do.
Not all intellectuals die having completed their
work, of course. Both Karl Marx and Max Weber
are examples to the contrary: both died having
finished only parts of the enormous studies they

intended to complete. But in this case, one might


say that these thinkers had taken on impossible
tasks: Marx in his own life had published only the
first third of Das Kapital, which itself was merely
the first of 6 parts of his overall economic system
(the othersto treatlandedproperty,wage labor, the
state, international trade, and world market).
Weber left at least half of his comparativestudies
of the world religions still to be done (in addition
to China, India, and Ancient Judaism, there were
to be works on Islam, ancient and medieval
Christianity), and these were only preliminary
studies of certainaspects for a still largersynthesis
on the comparative history of the origins of
capitalism, and more generally the shape and
significance of world culture. One might say Marx
and Weber died having done what they could of an
impossibly large task, worn out from the effort to
do this and to be political leaders as well.
But it is more typical for intellectuals to have
finished their major works: Durkheim, Parsons,
Piaget, and most of the others I have mentionedat
the outset fit this category. (Durkheim, though,
planned to write a capstone work, a scientific
system of ethics: this I would interpret as an
impossible task.) Alvin Gouldner died not long
after finishing the final volume of the major work
that occupied the last 15 years of his life, the
multi-volumed treatmentof the social origins of
social theory, which culminated in a "policy"
statementon the place of intellectualsin Marxism
and modern politics. Poulantzas' suicide in 1979
and Althusser's frenzied self-removal via the
murderof his wife in 1980 can be interpretedas
acts of intellectuals who were finished. The
precipitatingfactors seem to have been their break
with the official Communisthierarchywhich they
had attemptedto serve for so long, and the turnof
French intellectuals (including Althusser's own
ex-students) against Marxism at the end of the
1970s. Generallyspeaking, intellectualsseem to be
able to finish what they have to do. And when they
have nothing more to do, perhaps, they die.
Personally, I think that Goffman had two more
books in him at least, though he would never have
written them. I once tried to challenge him
personally on this point, and he rejected the
suggestion. One book would have been a treatment
of the intellectual world, a broadened version of
the sociology of science. This is a field that was
virtually created out of nothing 20 years ago by
Thomas Kuhn and Derek Price; in recent years it
has mergedat one borderwith the ethnomethodological study of everyday cognition and discourse, as
they are practicedin the scientific laboratoryand in
the rhetorical manueveringsof scientific publications. Goffman would have been brilliant at this
analysis. Not only is it the type of subject that he
excelled at in his later works, but Goffman could
once again have broughthis own unique perspective to it and gone beyond what anyone else had

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THE PASSING OF INTELLECTUALGENERATIONS


done. For the social epistemology of the modern
sociologists of science, for all their cognitive
radicalismand their "demarcationism,"is too flat
and one-dimensional.It stays on a plane in which
scientific ideas and discourse are either reducedto
the same level as the epistemological beliefs of
non-scientists, or else given some traditional
privileged status. Goffman's multiple frames, and
his social frontstages and backstages, would fit
quite naturallyinto a more full-bodied view of the
social enterprise of science: an activity that is
distinctly esoteric, stratified, and also claiming
universal validity. Goffman would have been a
naturalfor this, and for its larger extension into a
treatmentof the intellectual world generally. For
no one is more status conscious than intellectuals,
nor more concerned with creating their own
statuses and elaborating their own frontstage
claims and backstagecliques. But Goffman I think
was too close to this reality to be able to analyze it
in print. He was a master practitioner of the
manueversof the intellectualworld. To write about
it, I think, would have been too much a case of the
magician giving away his tricks.

113

The other book I wish Goffman had written


would have been about sex. More generally, it is a
wish that Goffman could have returnedonly more
to the old Freudian interests of his youth. For
Freud's Ego, Superego, and Id take on an entirely
new light when seen from the perspective of
Goffman's theories. There are frontstages and
backstages within one's own mind, and sexual
lusts and repressions are clearly among the most
"Goffmanian" of human interactionrituals. The
mysteries of the conscious and the unconscious
seem ready-made material to be unravelled with
the aid of Goffman's frames and footings. I don't
know why Goffman never tried anythinglike this.
Maybe he had just gotten too far away from what
he had been interested in 40 years before.
Nevertheless, one can hope that Goffman's ghost
is still floating among us, and that someone in our
own ranks will someday become filled with that
spirit. Goffman covered a great deal of the
intellectualterritoriesof the last half century, and
his ideas have implicationsthat can illuminatestill
more of it, and more deeply thanwe have yet seen.

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