Erving Goffman was born in Alberta, Canada, on June 11, 1922 and died on 1982. He was the most influential twentieth century American sociologist. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Goffman published a series of books and essays that gave birth to dramaturgical analysis as a variant of symbolic interactionism. Goffman was best known for his dramaturgical that was Presentation of Selfin Everyday Life, which was published in 1959. Goffman was another sociologist who analyzed social interaction, explaining that people live their lives much like actors performing on a stage. To put it simply, Goffman saw much in common between theatrical performances and the kinds of acts individual put on in their day-to-day actions and interactions.
The self and the Work of Erving Goffman
The self is a concept of enormous importance to symbolic interactionists (Bruder,1998). In fact, Rock (1979) argues that the self “constitutes the very hub of the interactionist’ intellectual scheme. All other sociological processes and events revolve around that hub, taking from it their analytic meaning and organization”. In attempting to understand the concept of self, it is important to understand the idea of the looking glassself, which was developed by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (Franks and Gecas, 1992).
Cooley defined this concept, “the self is product of social interactions with other people”. The idea of a looking glass self can be broken down into three components. First,the imagination of our appearance to the other person. Second,the imagination of his judgement of that appearance. Three, some self-feeling, such as pride or mortification, as a result of our imagining others’ judgments. Cooley’s concept of the looking glass self and Mead’s concept of the self were important in the development of the modern symbolic-interactionist conception of self (Wallace and Wolf, 1995). Goffman’s conception of the self is deeply indebted to Mead’s ideas, in particular his discussion of the tension between the “I,” the spontaneous self, and the “me,” social constraints within the self. This tension is reflected in Goffman’s work on what he called the ‘crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human selves and our socialized selves (Rock, 1979). The tension results from the difference between what people expect us to do and what we may want to do spontaneously.
The self is a process, not a thing (Perinbanayagam, 1985). The self helps allow human beings to act rather than simply respond to external motivations. The process has two distinct steps. First, the actor indicates to himself the things toward which he is acting; he has to point out in himself the things that have meaning. This interaction with him is something other than interplay of psychological elements; it is an instance of the person engaging in a process of communicating with himself.
Second, by virtue of this process of communicating with himself, interpretation becomes a matter of handling meanings. The actor selects, checks, suspends, regroups, and transforms the meanings in the light of the situation in which he is placed and the direction of his action (Blumer, 1969). Although this description of interpretation underscores the part played by the self in the process of choosing how to act. In order to maintain a stable self-image, people perform for their social audiences. As a result of this interest in performance, Goffman focused on dramaturgy,or a view of social life as a series of dramatic performances akin to those performed on the stage.
Goffman’s sense of the self was shaped by his dramaturgical approach. To Goffman, the self is not an organic thing that has a specific location. Goffman perceived the self not as a possession of the actor but rather as the product of the dramatic interaction between actor and audience. The self “is a dramatic effect arising from a scene that is presented” (Goffman, 1959). Because the self is a product of dramatic interaction, it is vulnerable to disruption during the performance (Misztal, 2001).
Goffman’s dramaturgy is concerned with the processes by which such disturbances are prevented or dealt with. Although the bulk of his discussion focuses on these dramaturgical eventualities, Goffman pointed out that most performances are successful. The result is that in ordinary circumstances a firm self is accorded to performers, and it appears to emanate from the performer. Goffman assumed that when individuals interact, they want to present a certain sense of self that will be accepted by others. However, even as they present that self, actors are aware that members of the audience can disturb their performance. For that reason actors are in concurrence to the need to control the audience, especially those elements of it that might be disruptive.
The actors hope that the sense of self that they present to the audience will be strong enough for the audience to define the actors, as the actors want them to. Goffman characterized this central interest as impression management. Goffman described each individual’s performance as the presentation of self, a person’s efforts to create specific impressions in the minds of others. This process, sometimes called impression management,begins with the idea of personal performance, the way individual present themselves in everyday situations. Goffman went quite far in his analogy between the stage and social interaction. There are three regions in dramaturgical theory. The front and back stage is the main domain and the third domain, outside, the residual region (Ritzer, 2011).
In all social interaction there is a front region, which is the parallel of the stage front in a theatrical performance. Actors both on the stage and in social life are seen as being interested in appearances, wearing costumes, and using props. The frontis that part of the performance that generally functions in rather fixed and general ways to define the situation for those who observe the performance.
Within the front stage, Goffman further differentiated between the setting and the personal front. The setting refers to the physical scene that ordinarily must be there if the actors are to perform. Without it, the actors usually cannot perform. For example, a surgeon generally requires an operating room, student a classroom and a footballer a football. The personal frontconsists of those items of expressive equipment that the audience identifies with the performers and expects them to carry with them into the setting. For example, a surgeon is expected to dress in a medical gown and have certain things. Another aspect of dramaturgy in the front stage is that actors often try to convey the impression that they are closer to the audience than they actually are.
Actors try to make sure that all the parts of any performance blend together. “Actors often tend to mystify their performances by restricting the contact between themselves and the audience. By generating ‘social distance’ between themselves and the audience, they try to create a sense of amazement in the audience” (Gabler, 2010). This, in turn, keeps the audience from questioning the performance. Goffman pointed out that the audience is involved in this process and often it seeks to maintain the credibility of the performance by keeping its distance from the performer. This leads to Goffman’s interest in teams.
To Goffman, as a symbolic interactionist, a focus on individual actors obscured important facts about interaction.Goffman’s basic unit of analysis was thus not the individual but the team. A team is any set of individuals who cooperate in staging a single routine. Thus, the preceding discussion of the relationship between the performer and audience is really about teams. Each member is dependent on the others, because all can disrupt the performance and all are aware that they are putting on an act. Goffman concluded that a team is a kind of ‘secret society.’
Back region,a place to which the actors can retire to prepare themselves for their performance. Backstage, in theater terms, the actors can shed their roles and be themselves.
Goffman (1959) also discussed that back stage is where facts suppressed in the front or various kinds of informal actions may appear. A back stage is usually head-to-head to the front stage, but it is also cut off from it. Performers can reliably expect no members of their front audience to appear in the back. Furthermore, they engage in various types of impression management to make sure of this. A performance is likely to become difficult when actors are unable to prevent the audience from entering the back stage. For example, the back stage is when there is no patient in the surgeon room.
The outside is a residual region,which is neither front nor back. Social interactions that are not covered by the front or back stages make up the outside region. The outside region can also occur when performance of either someone who is meant to see it is observing the front or back stages. For example, the awkward moment when you are at your friend’s house and they get into a fight with their parents.
Dramaturgy is not an adequate theory of human behavior. It does not possess the properties of a formal theory. It is not linked propositionally to other theories. It does not produce testable hypotheses. (Stryker, 1987:603). It has been argued that dramaturgy should only be applied in instances that involve people associated with a total institution. The theory was designed for total institutions and some believe that theories should not be applied where they have not been tested. In addition to this, it also has been said that dramaturgy does not contribute to sociology’s goal of understanding the legitimacy of society. It is claimed to be drafting on positivism, which does not offer an interest in both reason and rationality.
An important specific criticism of dramaturgy is the absence of any coherent theoretical context with which to give dramaturgical analysis a meaning context. The critical uses of dramaturgy accept that a valid distinction can be made between real and fake social formations and presentations of self. Pre-critical dramaturgy either complicates this distinction or collapses the two into the latter so that it cannot demarcate the boundaries of where it can and cannot be applied legitimately.
While the dramaturgy described by structuralism and hermeneutic analysts is a social device that is probably always utilized in fake social formations, it is not true that it is always utilized in real social formations. In not understanding this distinction, pre-critical dramaturgy has not only mystified the variability of social relations, it has overlooked some very exciting uses of dramaturgy, for example, the dramaturgy of undistorted communications or of authentic social performances. A final specific criticism of dramaturgical analysis is its unconcern with a systematic explanation of how dramaturgy could amplify the human condition.
Life without dramaturgy would be one without joy, pride, delight, surprise and enchantment. Dramaturgical sociology must be pointed to the processes by which human beings set themselves apart from the natural world. The use of drama to distinguish the profane world of nature from the scarred world of humanity and community, of status and solidarity is abused when dramaturgy is used for commercial or managerial purposes, or simply as another commodity.
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Bruder, Kurt A. (1998). Monastic Blessings: Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Self. Symbolic Interaction.
Franks, D. D. & Gecas, V. (1992). Autonomy and Conformity in Cooley’s Self-Theory: The Looking-Glass Self and Beyond. Symbolic Interaction (15), 49–68.
Gabler, J. (2010). Sociology for Dummies. United States of America: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor.
Misztal, B. (2001). Normality and Trust in Goffman’s Theory of Interaction Order. Sociological Theory (19), 312–324.
Perinbanayagam, R. S. (1985). Signifying Acts: Structure and Meaning in Everyday Life. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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