Erving Goffman on Alice Goffman

“The expressiveness of the individual (and therefore his capacity to give impressions) appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off. The first involves verbal symbols or their substitutes which he uses admittedly and solely to convey the information that he and the others are known to attach to these symbols. This is communication in the traditional and narrow sense. The second involves a wide range of action that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor, the expectation being that the action was performed for reasons other than the information conveyed in this way.”

-Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Once, when I asked her what she made of a sustained series of attacks by one critic, a respected quantitative sociologist, she said it was hard to pay proper attention to him when other people were accusing her of felonies. Besides, she said, in a world in which a majority of black men without high-school degrees have been in prison, she had little patience for internecine quarrels. ‘I can’t even muster that much interest,’ she wrote by way of conclusion. ‘Because there’s a big, mysterious world out there, and I want to understand a little more of it before I die. That and tear down the prisons.’

-Gideon Lewis-Krauss, “The Trials of Alice Goffman,” NY Times

“And to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.”

― Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

It says something about Goffman’s personality that even when her very career and reputation were on the line, she only fought back hardest in a document she had no plans of making public. Imagine an anonymous attacker arguing that you had simply made up vast swaths of the most important professional work you had done to date. Wouldn’t you want to vigorously defend yourself in public?

In my brief time with her, Goffman never really came across as having that impulse — her preference seemed to be to keep her head down and keep working. On the one hand, there’s a case to be made that if she had been able to explain herself clearly, the controversy wouldn’t have ballooned the way it did. On the other hand, for the people convinced she was a fabricator or exploiting her subjects or whatever else, the rebuttal document may have just given her more material to work with.

Jesse Singal, “3 Lingering Questions about Alice Goffman,” NY Magazine

“The individual tends to treat the others present on the basis of the impression they give now about the past and the future. It is here that communicative acts are translated into moral ones. The impressions that the others give tend to have a moral character. In his mind the individual says : ‘I am using th e s e impressions o f you a s a way of checking up on you and your activity, and you ought not to lead me astray.’”

–Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into Donna’s room to place Alex in handcuffs . . . . The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor.

— Alice Goffman, On the Run



Knowing that the individual is likely to present himself in a light that is favorable to him, the others may divide what they witness into two parts; a part that is relatively easy for the individual to manipulate at will, being chiefly his verbal assertions, and a part in regard to which he seems to have little concern or control, being chiefly derived from the expressions he gives off. The others may then use what are considered to be the ungovernable aspects of his expressive behavior as a check upon the validity of what is conveyed by the governable aspects. …[O]ne can expect that sometimes the individual will try to exploit…the impression he makes through behavior felt to be reliably informing.This kind of control upon the part of the individual reinstates the symmetry of the communication process, and sets the stage for a kind of information game—a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery.

-Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The hardest elements of her story to confirm are the ones that feel like cinematic exaggerations, especially with respect to police practices; several officers challenged as outlandish her claim that she was personally interrogated with guns on the table. To Goffman, however, the fact that a journalist or a legal scholar would turn to the police to confirm accusations against them is representative of the broader failure of American society to take seriously the complaints of disempowered minority communities. It’s the definition of institutional racism. When I reminded her that it was my job to try to find independent confirmation of some of her claims, she understood my own disciplinary needs and was forthcoming, if slightly begrudging, in helping me out. But at one point, when I pressed her on one of these issues, she wrote back that I seemed to be saying, ‘‘The way to validate the claims in the book is by getting officials who are white men in power to corroborate them.’’ She went on: ‘‘The point of the book is for people who are written off and delegitimated to describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face, and this is a reality that goes absolutely against the narratives of officials or middle-­class people. So finding ‘legitimate’ people to validate the claims — it feels wrong to me on just about every level.’’

-Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “The Trials of Alice Goffman,” NY Times

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