Sociologist Discusses Ripple Effects of Social Gatherings

On Monday, March 27, writer, sociologist, and ethnographer Alice Goffman, best known for her controversial book “On the Run,” delivered a lecture at Pomona College’s Hahn Hall about her current project, 'Mapping the Fatefulness of Everyday Life.'

Goffman opened the lecture with an anecdote about her own personal experience at her best friend’s wedding, aiming to validate her theory of fate and the impact of small events in daily life. It was at this event that she encountered an old acquaintance, whom she ended up dating a few weeks later.

“The wedding became a pivotal event, an event that changed two acquaintances into a couple,” Goffman said. If her friend had chosen to have a private wedding, or she had not attended the event, her life would have remained the same.

Goffman then moved on to talk about her sister’s wedding in Detroit.

“My sister is from Philadelphia, so for her wedding, a lot of people came and stayed in Detroit for a few days.” Among those people was a childhood friend of her sister’s, who ultimately fell in love with the city and decided to move there within a year.

“My sister’s wedding prompted her friend to relocate to Detroit. A social gathering had a big change in her everyday life,” Goffman said. It is these kinds of social gatherings that Goffman is interested in.

“Weddings are stereotypical locations for fateful encounters, fights, etc,” she added. “If Hollywood has paid a lot of attention to the magic of weddings, sociology has not. In fact, for a long time, we paid relatively little attention to social gatherings. There’s a sociology of marriage but not of weddings. A sociology of death, but not of funerals. Yet these occasions are important. They break the continuity of our mundane lives and offer people a chance for transformation.”

For the past few years, Goffman has been trying to systematically study the experiences that change the character and trajectory of people’s everyday lives. Her new project focuses specifically on three communities in Philadelphia: Italian, Jewish and African American communities of mixed income, trying to understand the importance of social gatherings and their rippling effects across different backgrounds.

“Throughout our lives, we experience historical events which are studied and analyzed, but we also experience smaller experiences which can have similar effects in changing the course of our lives. These are the events I am most interested in,” she said.

Evie Bleach-Lawrence, a British exchange student at Pitzer College, was very excited to hear Goffman speak at Pomona.

“To me, she is part of the royalty of the sociology field. Her work is very interesting, and her lecture made me reflect about a lot of aspects of my life,” she said.

However, according to Goffman, social occasions can not only form bonds but break them. They can elicit moments of disrespect, strain, or stress. This usually affects minorities even more, as they are constantly exposed to micro-aggressions.

“Sadly, these moments can stay with us for the rest of our lives,” she said. “Ultimately, social occasions are times that hold potential for consequentiality far more than others times in our daily lives.”

Goffman finished her lecture with another anecdote, this time about a friend of hers who went on a road trip and met somebody training to become a teacher. A little while later, this friend decided to do the same. “Had it not been for the road trip, perhaps my friend would not be going into teaching at all,” Goffman said.

In an interview with TSL, Goffman spoke about her drive to deliver the talk at Pomona, as she was hoping to encounter ideas that would help her with her next book.

“The questions people asked were amazing, and I am very glad I was able to come here,” she said.

“I am glad so many students showed up. I really wanted them to think about the potential for consequentiality that is embedded in everyday life, and the pattern of fatefulness of our existence. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but if you’re sitting at home on a Friday night wondering whether you should go out or not, you should keep in mind that if you do nothing you will be exactly the same person you were the day before, and nothing will change,” Goffman added.

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