Discuss Goffman’s theories and research, and highlight their significance for understanding popular social settings of cultural experience and expression.

Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis took seemingly prosaic patterns of face- to-face interaction and elevated them to the level of serious sociological study, and in so doing, challenged common assumptions about the nature of identity. By conceptualising the most mundane social interactions in terms of theatrical performances, Goffman shows how even the most sincere presentations of the self are marked by affectation and posturing, which are both habitual and quite deliberate at the same time. In daily interaction, actors skilfully craft their performances in ways that conceal undesirable aspects, while accentuating favourable ones, tailored to the particular audience and context. As such, Goffman perceives some ‘role distance’ between the actor and the part that she is playing, which he conceptualises spatially in terms of the ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’. Identity, then, emerges from the contrasts between the many roles that are acted out and the self that experiences them: the self is ‘situationally defined’ (Elliott, 2014: 44). In this way, Goffman’s theory of identity challenges what is still a dominant view, which is that identity is somehow innate, formed prior to social experiences, and that individuals are guided by their ‘true’ identity throughout social life. For Goffman, the reverse is true, with identity being the effect of particular social interactions rather than their cause. This discussion will look briefly at the influences of phenomenology and symbolic interactionism on Goffman’s theory, before outlining the dramaturgical model with reference to identity. It will then turn to criticism of Goffman, which has largely been concerned with the normalisation of amoral social behaviour, and the avoidance of social stratification and power relations as sociological issues. It will be contended that the value of Goffman’s theories and research lies mostly in its ability to combine with other sociological perspectives to allow analysis at a deeper, micro-level. While Goffman made a number of contributions to sociology (Burns, 1992), this discussion will be limited to the dramaturgical approach articulated in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman, 1959), hereafter referred to as ‘Presentation’.

In order to establish face-to-face interaction as a meaningful and useful level of sociological analysis, Goffman drew selectively upon both phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. Goffman himself resisted categorisation into any particular ‘school’ of sociological thought (Burns, 1992: 6), but there is evidence that he selectively drew upon the phenomenology of Husserl, Ichheiser, Sartre and Schutz (Burns, 1992: 241; Smith, 2005), all of which emphasised a consistent focus on the conscious experiences of the individual, as a means of avoiding conceptual simplifications or reductions. Similarly, Goffman’s work revolves around the constraints and cues brought about through the actor’s imagining of her appearance to the other, and the adjustments of her face-to-face conduct in accordance with the other’s responses, whether positive or negative, imagined or real. In contrast to the phenomenologists, Goffman’s approach did not require a deep analysis of the individual, instead treating participants rather generically, and also lacked a consistent focus on the other (Smith, 2005). As such, Goffman used a loosely phenomenological framework to ‘penetrate habitual patterns of thought’ (Burns, 1992: 242), and to analyse the ways in which social interaction is guided and constrained by the experience of physically and consciously co-present participants. In addition, Goffman drew on symbolic interactionism in the vein of Herbert Blumer, in which:

“… Human beings interpret or “define” each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Their “response” is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions” (Blumer, 2002: 69).

This is a foundational element in Goffman’s analysis, as explained in the opening lines of Presentation:

“Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him… For those present, many sources of information become accessible and many carriers (or ‘sign-vehicles’) become available for conveying this information” (Goffman, 1959: 13).

This theme is carried throughout the text, in which face-to-face interaction is analysed in terms of the exchanges of meaning between participants. While he consistently applied his analysis at the level of face-to-face interaction, rather than the deeper level that was typical of social psychologists and symbolic interactionists (Burns, 1992: 12), Goffman evidently drew on both phenomenology and symbolic interactionism as the basis of his dramaturgical approach. As will be shown, these carefully chosen theoretical tools allowed Goffman to draw distinct patterns out of what were previously considered as muddled, insignificant details, and to show how these patterns are central to identity.

Evidently, Goffman saw social interaction at the face-to-face level as more than simple reactions to prompts. In every case, a certain level of tact is necessary on the part of the participants to ensure that the interaction takes place smoothly and successfully, and individuals do this by stepping into roles that are, at least to some extent, pre-defined. In Presentation (1959), Goffman conceptualises this process in terms of the theatre: the actor on stage, with the use of visual props and often a carefully designed set, attempts to convey meaning to an audience (Elliott, 2014: 38). Between these elements, Goffman is able to show a range of phenomena taking place that impact upon identity. Actors are compelled to play ‘idealized’ versions of themselves; they adjust their physical appearances and settings to a particular ‘front’ that accentuates their role; they are demonstrably aware of the ‘sign-accepting’ tendency of their audience and attempt to hide or control contradictory or unfavourable signs (Goffman, 1959: 28, 32, 44, 59). A key element of this model is ‘role distance’, that is, the degree of the actor’s belief or personal investment in the role they are playing. Through these phenomena, Goffman shows, somewhat paradoxically, that individuals must pretend in order to be authentic. “Because of these shared dramatic contingencies,” Goffman says (ibid: 73), “we can profitably study performances that are quite false in order to learn about ones that are quite honest.” In this way, Goffman not only established face-to-face interaction as a serious and insightful field of study for sociology, but also presented a major challenge to conventional ideas about identity.

Commonly, identity is considered as a private set of attributes, either chosen or designed by the individual, or simply inborn and fixed (Elliott, 2014: 4). Like many sociologists, Goffman instead sought to discover how identity is socially constructed. But uniquely, his dramaturgical model showed how identity is formed, somewhat counterintuitively, through the acting out of a multitude of roles. This process is an active one, involving the performance itself on the one hand, and careful deliberation and reflection on the other. These elements are given physical expression by Goffman’s notions of ‘front region’ and ‘back region’ respectively, which are defined as places, in space, time, or both, that are “bounded to some degree by barriers to perception” (Goffman, 1959: 109). Roles are performed for the audience in the front region, which may be expressed in a physical layout, as in the example of a restaurant’s front room, where politeness, tidiness and cleanliness are paramount. In the back region, the actor is free to reflect upon her performance, to adjust her ‘front’ accordingly, and to contradict her role ‘as a matter of course’. In the example of the restaurant, the kitchen becomes the back region, where all those actions, necessary yet detrimental to the performance, are concealed. This careful partitioning of social life is central to what Goffman calls ‘impression management’, that is, the active and reflective effort to present convincing impressions:

“The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited” (Goffman, 1959: 245).

Identity emerges from these processes cumulatively, between front regions and back regions, successful performances and failures, close role distances and far. Clearly, this transient view of identity presents a challenge to conventional perspectives, which often treat identity as innate or fixed.

However, it is precisely this transient view of identity that has attracted criticism of Goffman. Gouldner (1970) identified two major shortcomings of Goffman’s theory: its amorality, and its conformance to, or at least ignorance of, prevailing power structures. Gouldner saw Goffman’s amorality as a product of the experience of the new, educated, post-war American middle class, in which real talents, achievements and merit counted for little, and image was everything. Consequently, Goffman’s dramaturgical universe valorises bare self-interest, and naturalises the selfish manipulation of appearances. Indeed, Goffman recognises that in his view, “individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realising [moral] standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realized” (Goffman, 1959: 243). In opposition to Gouldner, however, Burns contended (1991: 26) that Goffman’s moral order was comparable to that of Durkheim: morality is implicit, substructural, and pervasive, acting as a repository for the norms and rituals that guide interaction. Burns claims that dramaturgy, in contrast, recognises that morality only exists within interaction, and so is impermanent and fragile. It may be conceded that problematic amorality in the form of narcissistic or manipulative behaviour would appear normal in Goffman’s world, but there is a fundamental kind of morality embedded in it. Jenkins (2008: 160) recognises that the need for the actor to make a good impression, and for the audience to co-operate in the performance, entail a degree of mutuality, and as such, “do as you would be done by” becomes a foundational morality in the Goffmanian world.

Gouldner’s second criticism was that dramaturgy avoids dealing with social stratification, having “no metaphysics of hierarchy” (Gouldner, 1970: 379), and therefore conforms to prevailing power relations. However, this criticism has also been contested. Jenkins (2008) claims that Goffman ought to be considered a major theoretician of power, because his micro-level analysis allows power to be situated “in the practicalities of what people do”. Likewise, Burns (1992: 163) compares Goffman to Foucault, in that both are able to conceive of power from the bottom up, rather than the top down. While these arguments are valid, they only refer to the potential for dramaturgy to analyse power, rather than its realisation. It is therefore more reasonable to consider how Goffman’s approach can combine with other sociological perspectives to yield insights into power. An example of this is given by Williams (1986), who cites a number of commentaries that all highlight Goffman’s preoccupation with class and status symbols. By combining dramaturgy with the structural perspectives on class and status, Goffman links “ritual to the exercise of power”, and in so doing produces significant insight into “the conditions that divide up society into multiple realities” (Williams, 1986: 360). In a similar vein, West (1996) responded to feminist criticism of Goffman by outlining how dramaturgy can combine with political perspectives, to give insight into the operation of power in spoken interactions between men and women, as well as the social construction of ‘gender displays’ and their naturalisation. West contends that Goffman’s greatest contribution was to problematise “the “personal” – even as we find it on the streets, in talk, in public and private places – as a sociological topic” (West, 1996: 364). While there is some truth to Gouldner’s criticisms, it should be noted that dramaturgy was not intended by Goffman to account for morality or power on its own, but in combination with existing sociological perspectives, opened up a new, micro-level for analysis of power.

It can therefore be concluded that Goffman’s dramaturgical model succeeded in at least two aspects. Firstly, dramaturgy has been shown to be a valuable perspective for sociological analysis, alongside the more established structural or political perspectives. By combining dramaturgy with other perspectives, seemingly prosaic face-to-face interactions become lucid and productive fields for sociological study. Secondly, Goffman has presented a fundamental challenge to common notions of identity as something static or essential, enduring throughout life trajectories and guiding the individual’s experiences. For Goffman, this is reversed, and identity is shown to be the effect of life experiences, rather than their cause. Criticism of dramaturgy, centred on its naturalisation of amoral behaviour and its limited treatment of power relations, may be the result of undue expectations. As we have seen, the value of dramaturgy lies in its combination with other perspectives, where it is able to elevate seemingly minor details of face-to-face interaction to the level of serious and insightful sociological study.


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