Erving Goffman- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Goffman uses the imagery of theater in order to explain the nuances and significance of face-to-face social interaction. Goffman puts forth a theory of social interaction he refers to as the dramaturgical model of social life.

According to Goffman, social interaction can be compared to theater; people in everyday life are like actors on a stage, playing a variety of roles. The audience is really just other people who observe the role you play and react to your performance. In social interaction, like in theatrical performances, there is a front stage (front), back stage and off stage. “Front stage” behavior is what we do when we know that others are watching or aware of us. It’s how we behave and interact when we have an “audience”. One’s front reflects the internalization of cultural norms and expectations for our behavior that have been shaped by the setting, the particular role we play within it, and our physical appearance (all of which has been shaped by culture). How we participate in a front stage performance can be intentional or habitual/subconscious. For example, the weird 10 minutes before class where students play on their phones is a learned front stage behavior. Front stage behavior hinges on the awareness of an audience and the audience’s expectations for the role you should play which in turn influences the actor’s behavior. There is also a back region, or ‘back stage,‘ where individuals can relax, be themselves, and when we think no one is looking. How we behave back stage is freed from the expectations and norms that shape our behavior when we are front stage. We take off or change elements of our appearance required for a front stage performance (maybe even change the way we speak or move our bodies). When we are back stage, we may even rehearse certain behaviors or interactions in preparation for upcoming front stage performances. Finally, the off-stage region is where individual actors meet the audience members independently of the team performance on the front stage. Specific performances may be given when the audience is segmented as such.

Central to Goffman’s theory is the idea that people are constantly engaged in the process of “impression management,” where each person tries to present themselves and behave in a way that will prevent the embarrassment of themselves or others. This is primarily done by each person that is part of the interaction working to ensure that all parties have the same “definition of the situation,” meaning that all understand what is meant to happen in that situation, what to expect from the others involved, and thus how they themselves should behave. (Mutual understanding of the frame).

The Elements of the Dramaturgical Framework

Performance. Goffman uses the term ‘performance’ to refer to all the activity of an individual in front of a particular set of observers, or audience. Through this performance, the individual, or actor, gives meaning to themselves, to others, and to their situation. These performances deliver impressions to others, which communicates information that confirms the identity of the actor in that situation. The actor may or may not be aware of their performance or have an objective for their performance, however, the audience is constantly attributing meaning to it and to the actor.

Setting. The setting for the performance includes the scenery, props, and location in which the interaction takes place. Different settings will have different audiences and will require the actor to alter their performances for each setting.

Appearance. Appearance functions to portray to the audience the performer’s social statuses. Appearance also tells us of the individual’s temporary social state or role, for example, whether he is engaging in work (by wearing a uniform), informal recreation, or a formal social activity. Here, dress and props serve to communicate things that have socially ascribed meaning, like gender, status, occupation, age, and personal commitments.

Manner. Manner refers to how the individual plays the role and functions to warn the audience of how the performer will act or seek to act in a role (for example, dominant, aggressive, receptive, etc.). Inconsistency and contradiction between appearance and manner may occur and will confuse and upset an audience. This can happen when one does not present their self or behave in accordance with the perceived social status or position.

Front. The actor’s front, as labeled by Goffman, is the part of the individual’s performance which functions to define the situation for the audience. It is the image or impression he or she gives off to the audience. Certain situations or scenarios have social scripts that suggest how the actor should behave or interact in that situation. According to Goffman, when a task is given a new front, or script, we rarely find that the script itself is completely new. Individuals commonly use pre-established scripts to follow for new situations, even if it is not completely appropriate or desired for that situation.

Front Stage, Back Stage, and Off Stage. In stage drama, there are three regions, each with different effects on an individual’s performance: front stage, back stage, and off-stage.

TEAMS: Goffman describes, “The concept of team allows us to think of performances that are given by one or more than one performer…” (1959: 80). Some examples of team would be family, close friends, civic groups, etc. Obviously routine interactions carried out by these “teams” depend on the setting. Further more, each group of interactions have front and back stage etiquette carried out through expectations and scenario dependent manners.

THE POINT: Goffman states, “In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged” (1959: 251). The value of a dramaturgical approach gives researchers a structure of interaction through which to make and draw observations for a more complete continuum of social interactions.


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