Friday, March 20, 2009

Goffman's Sentences (2)

Sometime next month I'm going to do a comparison of Bernie Madoff's confession and Ervin Goffman's preface to Asylums. Both are statements of method that understand the basic idea that you have to explain what you did and why you did it. (I'm grateful to Rob Austin for a number of conversations that have helped to focus this idea for me.)

Let's have a look at a sentence that is in fact unnecessarily long, but which does not suffer in the least because of it.

It was then and still is my belief that any group of persons — prisoners, primitives, pilots, or patients — develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable, and normal once you get close to it, and that a good way to learn about any of these worlds is to submit oneself in the company of the members to the daily round of petty contingencies to which they are subject. (7)

First, notice the sign that we here have a writer who enjoys writing and cares about language. He wants to insert a list to exemplify "any group of persons", which is to say, an arbitrary list that nonetheless evokes a particular likeness with the "inmates" of his study. So he chooses to alliterate: all the groups start with with the letter p. Not only does it read well, the obvious poetic rationale for list underscores its generality (he could have chosen any other list of groups and his point would hold too). It would have been too cute to say "puppets, paupers, pirates, poets, or pawns", but it's the sensibility that would consider this association (and risk it) that I admire here.

Notice also that the second "and" naturally opens onto a new point (he could have put a period there) in a way that the first "and" does not (which simply completes a list). Notice the clear personal statement of belief that is also a methodological principle. And notice that this "personality" gives a particular meaning to the idea of "submitting oneself" to "petty contingencies" in the "company" of the people one is studying.

Here, in one sentence that is in fact a separate paragraph, Goffman grounds his writing convincingly in the experience of the writer. It is an experience the writer has sought out with the explicit aim of producing the text (the research report) and that is what makes it the methodological reflection of an empirical scientist. The very next paragraph, of course, goes on to acknowledge "the limits of both [his] method and [his] application of it". That is, he addresses the question of validity.

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