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The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

An Overview of the Famous Book by Erving Goffman

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The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
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The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a book that was published in 1959, written by sociologist Erving Goffman. In it, he uses the imagery of theater in order to portray the importance of human and social action and interaction. He refers to this as the dramaturgical model of social life.

According to Goffman, social interaction may be likened to a theater, and people in everyday life to actors on a stage, each playing a variety of roles. The audience consists of other individuals who observe the role-playing and react to the performances. In social interaction, like in theatrical performances, there is a front region where the actors are on stage in from of an audience. There is also a back region, or back stage, where individuals can be themselves and get rid of their role or identity that they play when they are in front of others.

Main Concepts in 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 and information is exchanged to confirm identity. The actor may or may not be aware of their performance or have an objective of their performance, however the audience is always attributing meaning 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 thus require the actor to alter his 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 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 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, for example, when one does not present himself or behave in accordance to his social status or position. A military man, for example, by appearance is supposed to behave tough and emotionless, as defined by society. However, when a veteran is diagnosed with a chronic disease, their manner may be full of emotion and feelings of helplessness. His appearance and manner are inconsistent and contradictory.

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 observers, or audience. It is the image or impression he or she gives off to the audience. A social front can also be thought of as a script. Certain social scripts tend to become institutionalized in terms of the abstract stereotyped expectations it contains. Certain situations or scenarios have social scripts that suggest how the actor should behave or interact in that situation. If the individual takes on a task or role that is new to him, he or she may find that there are already several well-established fronts among which he must choose. 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, Off Stage. In stage drama, as in everyday interactions, according to Goffman, there are three regions, each with different affects on an individual’s performance: front stage, back stage, and off-stage. The front stage is where the actor formally performs and adheres to conventions that have meaning to the audience. The actor knows he or she is being watched and acts accordingly.

When in the back stage, the actor may behave differently than when in front of the audience on the front stage. This is where the individual truly gets to be himself or herself and get rid of the roles that he or she play when they are in front of other people.

Finally, the off-stage 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.

References

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

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