Think of Mrs Darling
- Goffman's Legacy edited by Javier Treviño
Rowman and Littlefield, 294 pp, £22.95, August 2003, ISBN 0 7425 1978 3
There must be certain texts which become available to each generation in their youth and then remain with them: a background, forgotten bass rhythm throughout their lives. Certainly, I had forgotten about reading Erving Goffman in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Asylums, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and, I think, Stigma. They were required reading, part of the unofficial University of Pelican Books course on gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, J.K. Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased. If you weren’t at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were), Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves – it all poured in and slopped around, bits and pieces sticking together and coming apart to make some other combination. Like dialectic but a lot messier. I imagined that if you went to university you ended up with an immaculately catalogued library in your mind; and that if you didn’t, and just picked the latest Pelicans off the shelves (along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Soledad Brother, Catch 22, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and whatever else flew into your consciousness) you got something more like a second-hand bookshop – a place where you could rummage pleasurably for hours and come away with a quite different idea from what you thought you might have been looking for.
Vol. 26 No. 6 · 18 March 2004
Jenny Diski’s account of Goffman’s methods is slightly mistaken (LRB, 4 March). She says that Goffman advocated the use of participant observation for social research, though he ‘didn’t exactly do that himself’. The term ‘participant observation’ describes a range of ethnographic methods, including that of the covert researcher. Goffman worked in the hospital described in Asylums as an ‘assistant to the athletic director’, i.e. as a sports coach, and only the most senior members of the hospital knew what his aims were. Indeed, the whole point of Goffman’s data collection for Asylums was that neither inmates nor staff at the hospital knew that he was a social researcher.
University of Brighton
Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004
Jenny Diski’s portrait of Erving Goffman and her characterisation of the period from the late 1950s to the 1970s precisely captures the flavour of those fermentative days (LRB, 4 March). I came to know Goffman in the late 1950s when he and I were ‘shaking the foundations’ of, respectively, sociology and psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. We became competitive ‘friends’, if such were possible with this Cheshire-Cat-smiling porcupine.
Many of my experiences with Goffman revolved around Saturday night dinner parties. Always tinkering with the elements of personal interchange, Goffman frequently toyed with me regarding invitations to these parties. He would invite a young sociological student, Stewart Perry, with whom I shared an office, and his wife, a sociologist, to dinner proper. I would be invited, not to dinner, but as a post-prandial guest. Naturally, being as prickly as Goffman, but refusing to succumb to his baiting, I would politely decline. The slight must surely have delighted him.
Goffman was then ‘outsourcing’ himself at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, beginning the research that eventually led to Asylums. At the same time, I was directing a ward of chronic schizophrenics at NIMH, developing treatment based on a structured programme of habilitation and rehabilitation. My maverick efforts provoked great controversy in the face of the prevailing psychoanalytic and ‘permissive’ orientation of the NIMH. I felt that Goffman and I shared a sort of intellectual kinship. Both of us viewed human behaviour as the ludic, or play-acting, presentation of self.
My last encounter with Goffman must have been during the final year of his life. We bumped into each other at a professional meeting, where he greeted me with a typical smiling riposte: ‘I always thought I was going to hear much more of you! What happened?’ ‘How is your wife?’ I asked. ‘She killed herself,’ he replied matter-of-factly. ‘Finally escaped you,’ I rejoined. (She had made several suicide attempts while we were at NIMH.)