Revisiting Erving Goffman’s Asylums and “The Insanity of Place”

A recent article in Symbolic Interaction provides insight into sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on mental illness. As part of a freely available special issue dedicated to Goffman, Dmitri N. Shalin explores the role of Goffman’s personal biography on his work. In addition to a more general piece on this subject, “Interfacing Biography, Theory and History: The Case of Erving Goffman,” Shalin details how Goffman’s Asylums, as well as a briefer piece “The Insanity of Place” were informed by his personal experiences. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Interfacing Biography, Theory and History: The Case of Erving Goffman,” Dmitri N. Shalin. The abstract reads,

This study aims to show that much of Erving Goffman’s writing is crypto-biographical and that key turns in his intellectual career reflected his life’s trajectory and attempts at self-renewal. The case is made that Goffman’s theoretical corpus reflects his personal experience as a son of Russian–Jewish immigrants who struggled to raise himself from the obscurity of Canadian Manitoba to international stardom. The concluding section describes the Erving Goffman Archives and the contribution that the large database of documents and biographical materials assembled therein can make to biocritical hermeneutics, a research program focused on the relationship between biography, theory, and history.

“Goffman on Mental Illness: Asylums and “The Insanity of Place” Revisited,” Dmitri N. Shalin. The abstract reads,

This case study is designed to demonstrate that sociological imagination can feed on personal experience, that research practice interpolates our biographical circumstances, and that a systematic inquiry into the interplay between our professional and everyday life offers a fruitful avenue for sociological analysis. The discussion focuses on Erving Goffman’s treatment of mental illness. The argument is made that the evolution of Goffman’s constructionist views on mental disorder had been influenced by his family situation and personal experience.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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