Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (2023)

AdamD. Barnhart

Erving Goffman's ThePresentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959, provides a detailed descriptionand analysis of process and meaning in mundane interaction. Goffman, as a product of theChicago School, writes from a symbolic interactionist perspective, emphasizing aqualitative analysis of the component parts of the interactive process. Through amicro-sociological analysis and focus on unconventional subject matter, Goffman exploresthe details of individual identity, group relations, the impact of environment, and themovement and interactive meaning of information. His perspective, though limited in scope,provides new insight into the nature of social interaction and the psychology of theindividual.

Goffman employs a"dramaturgical approach" in his study, concerning himself with the mode ofpresentation employed by the actor and its meaning in the broader social context (1959,240). Interaction is viewed as a "performance," shaped by environment andaudience, constructed to provide others with "impressions" that are consonantwith the desired goals of the actor (17). The performance exists regardless of the mentalstate of the individual, as persona is often imputed to the individual in spite of his orher lack of faith in -- or even ignorance of -- the performance. Goffman uses the exampleof the doctor who is forced to give a placebo to a patient, fully aware of its impotence,as a result of the desire of the patient for more extensive treatment (18). In this way,the individual develops identity or persona as a function of interaction with others,through an exchange of information that allows for more specific definitions of identityand behavior.

The process ofestablishing social identity, then, becomes closely allied to the concept of the"front," which is described as "that part of the individual's performancewhich regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for thosewho observe the performance" (22). The front acts as the a vehicle ofstandardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis ofprojected character traits that have normative meanings. As a "collectiverepresentation," the front establishes proper "setting,""appearance," and "manner" for the social role assumed by the actor,uniting interactive behavior with the personal front (27). The actor, in order to presenta compelling front, is forced to both fill the duties of the social role and communicatethe activities and characteristics of the role to other people in a consistent manner.

This process, knownas "dramatic realization" (30), is predicated upon the activities of"impression management," the control (or lack of control) and communication ofinformation through the performance (208). In constructing a front, information about theactor is given off through a variety of communicative sources, all of which must becontrolled to effectively convince the audience of the appropriateness of behavior andconsonance with the role assumed. Believability, as a result, is constructed in terms ofverbal signification, which is used by the actor to establish intent, and non-verbalsignification, which is used by the audience to verify the honesty of statements made bythe individual. Attempts are made to present an "idealized" version of thefront, more consistent with the norms, mores, and laws of society than the behavior of theactor when not before an audience (35). Information dealing with aberrant behavior andbelief is concealed from the audience in a process of "mystification," makingprominent those characteristics that are socially sanctioned, legitimating both the socialrole of the individual and the framework to which the role belongs (67).

(Video) Erving Goffman and the Performed Self

Goffman exploresnature of group dynamics through a discussion of "teams" and the relationshipbetween performance and audience. He uses the concept of the team to illustrate the workof a group of individuals who "co-operate" in performance, attempting to achievegoals sanctioned by the group (79). Co-operation may manifest itself as unanimity indemeanor and behavior or in the assumption of differing roles for each individual,determined by the desired intent in performance. Goffman refers to the "shill,"a member of the team who "provides a visible model for the audience of the kind ofresponse the performers are seeking," promoting psychological excitement for therealization of a (generally monetary) goal, as an example of a "discrepant role"in the team (146). In each circumstance, the individual assumes a front that is perceivedto enhance the group's performance.

The necessity ofeach individual to maintain his or her front in order to promote the team performancereduces the possibility of dissent. While the unifying elements of the team are oftenshallower and less complete than the requirements of performance, the individual actorfeels a strong pressure to conform to the desired front in the presence of an audience, asdeviance destroys the credibility of the entire performance. As a result, disagreement iscarried out in the absence of an audience, where ideological and performance changes maybe made without the threat of damage to the goals of the team, as well as the character ofthe individual. In this way, a clear division is made between team and audience.

Goffman describesthe division between team performance and audience in terms of "region,"describing the role of setting in the differentiation of actions taken by individuals(107). Extending the dramaturgical analysis, he divides region into "front,""back," and "outside" the stage, contingent upon the relationship ofthe audience to the performance. While the "official stance" of the team isvisible in their frontstage presentation, in the backstage, "the impression fosteredby the presentation is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course," indicating amore "truthful" type of performance (112). In the backstage, the conflict anddifference inherent to familiarity is more fully explored, often evolving into a secondarytype of presentation, contingent upon the absence of the responsibilities of the teampresentation. To be outside the stage involves the inability to gain access to theperformance of the team, described as an "audience segregation" in whichspecific performances are given to specific audiences, allowing the team to contrive theproper front for the demands of each audience (137). This allows the team, individualactor, and audience to preserve proper relationships in interaction and the establishmentsto which the interactions belong.

ThePresentation of Self in Everyday Life, though detailed, does not provide acomprehensive description of interactive processes. In exploring the construction ofpresentation among individual and teams, Goffman does not fully explore the nature ofmarginalized individuals, the importance of ritual or ceremony in the dramaturgy, or theconstruction of character. A reading of these complementary notions from Goffman's laterwork, including Stigma and Interaction Ritual,provides a vehicle for expanding the analysis of the interaction of everyday life into thebroader experiences of human interaction.

The pressure ofidealized conduct is most clearly seen in marginalized people, whose deviance forces theminto "discredited" or "discreditable" groups, based on the nature oftheir stigma (Goffman 1963, 42). The importance of impression management is most visiblewith these individuals, as those who are discredited must assuage the tension their stigmacauses in order to successfully interact with others, while those suffering from adiscrediting stigma are forced to limit the access of others to information about thestigma or assume the character of a discredited individual. The emphasis on idealized,normative identity and conduct limits the ability of the discredited individual to achievefull acceptance by the population that he or she is forced to assimilate into. For thediscreditable individual who attempts to "pass" and employ"disidentifiers" to establish him/herself as "normal" (44), feelingsof ambivalence and alienation emerge as a result of limited social intercourse.Ultimately, the existence of a stigma of any type, a part of the existence of a largesegment of the population, changes the nature of impression management and, hence,interaction.

(Video) 🔥🔥The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman (Summary) -- About Social Performance

In his essay"Face Work," from Interaction Ritual, Goffman expands onthe concept of the "line," originally employed in The Presentation ofSelf in Everyday Life, dealing with the definition of line in terms ofritualized, symbolic action (Goffman 1967, 4). Symbol, as with the three types of symbolicimagery described in Stigma, stigma symbols, prestige symbols, anddisidentifiers (Goffman 1963, 43-44), assume a more abstract location in the communicativeprocess, a reification of verbal cues. The face reflects the line imputed by others,regardless of cognizance of its existence, to the actor, based on the use of verbal andnon-verbal symbols, either affirming or denying a social construct. In this way a means oflocating the actor in the interactive process and the broader society, allowing Goffman toaffirm George Herbert Mead's argument that identity is constructed through anunderstanding of the projection of the self to others.

The vehicle for theconstruction of the character and identity can be seen in Goffman's article "WhereThe Action Is." The emphasis on the movement between social spaces, similar to hisdiscussion of audience segregation and the "presence of third parties" (42),underscores the importance of the recreation of the self in different environments. Tofully define the self, Goffman argues, involves performance in voluntary, consequentialaction, which is not fully available in everyday life. As a result, individuals are drawnto activities that involve risk-taking, such as gambling and bullfighting. Ultimately, theexperience of action may become more important than social perception in definingcharacter. As Goffman states:

Although fateful enterprises are often respectable, there are many character contests and scenes of serious action that are not. Yet these are the occasions and places that show respect for the moral character. Not only in mountain ranges that invite the climber, but also in casinos, pool halls, and racetracks do we find worship; it may be in churches, where the guarantee is high that nothing will occur, that the moral sensibility is weak (268).

In this sense,Goffman depicts extraordinary circumstances as a means of developing the character centralto the experience of everyday life. Through an investigation of his work in a broadercontext, the relationship between the forces that shape society and the individual becomesmore clear.

While Goffman'ssymbolic interactionist orientation situates him well in developing an understanding ofmicro-sociological function, it provides only a cursory exploration of the largerinstitutions and processes of society. Despite this emphasis, The Presentationof Self in Everyday Life, is a work that lends itself well to amacro-sociological reading. By placing Goffman's work in the context of the writings ofother thinkers, a beneficial link between the micro- and macro-structures of societybecomes visible.

(Video) Sociological Theory: Skeleton Key 1 to Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, © Dan Krier

An important linkmay be made between Goffman and Durkheim may be made in an inquiry into the concept of"spontaneity." In The Presentation of Self, theimportance of spontaneity emerges as an aspect of the performance, as the actor seeks tocreate a front that does not appear to be contrived. Spontaneity allows for therealization of the "true" self, an idealized type of interaction that allows theindividual to realize a desired face. In The Division of Labor in Society,Durkheim describes a macro-sociological model of spontaneity, a "finely articulatedorganisation in which each social appreciated at its true worth" (313).Durkheim, though primarily concerned with labor, describes a type of social interactionthat, like Goffman's model, reaffirms the existing social environment through the notionof "truth." Each individual is bound to the contemporary social organization,while attempting to realize a sense of freedom in expressing truth.

Antonio Gramsci'sconcept of hegemony extends this relationship further, establishing an ephemeralunconscious acceptance of existing social institutions. Change in this state, for Gramsci,takes place via change in human consciousness:

Since present control is internalized in the minds and hearts of workers and peasants, a counter form of socialization, a counter form of self-identity, is required to overthrow that control (Gramsci).

Through changes inconsciousness, hegemony forms an "moving equilibrium" (Hebdige 1979, 15) throughan assimilation of the doctrinal bases of the culture through "common sense"(9). In light of Goffman's work, hegemony provides the definition of "idealized"performance and the pressure to correspond to established definition. As a representationof what Marx termed "the ideas of the ruling class" (Marx 1848, 172) hegemonyprovides the norms, mores, and laws to which stigma, line, face, and Durkheim's anomie canbe applied. In this sense, hegemony provides a vital link between the macrostructure ofsocial institutions and the micro-sociological phenomena of face-to-face interaction.

ThePresentation of Self in Everyday Life provides penetrating insight into thenature of interpersonal interaction and the institutions to which interaction morestrongly applies. Despite an unusual, anecdotal methodology, Goffman's work displays anuncommon analytical rigor in dealing with a comparatively unexplored area of socialthought. Through an inquiry into the everyday life of humanity, the book provides a strongfoundation for the understanding of microsociological phenomena, an understandingbolstered by an investigation of his other writings. By limiting his work to adramaturgical study, however, Goffman eliminates the possibility of applying theactivities of the mundane world to the larger social world, a problem that may bereconciled by examining concepts employed in the book through the work of macrotheorists.

(Video) SOCY1004 - The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman)

Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. TheDivision of Labor in Society. Macmillan: New York, New York, 1984 (1893).

Goffman, Erving. InteractionRitual. Pantheon: New York, 1967.

Goffman, Erving. ThePresentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday: Garden City, New York, 1959.

Goffman, Erving. Stigma. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1963.

Gottlieb, Roger. Marxism:1844-1990. Routledge: New York, 1992.

(Video) Presentation of Self and Impression Management: Erving Goffman's Sociology

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture:The Meaning of Style. Methuen: New York, 1979.

Tucker, Robert. TheMarx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton: New York, 1978.


What is Goffman's presentation of the Self in everyday life theory about? ›

The book proposes a theory of self that has become known as self-presentation theory, which suggests that people have the desire to control the impressions that other people form about them.

What is the focus of Goffman in his discussion of the presentation of self? ›

In his landmark work, sociologist Erving Goffman discussion human behavior and the way in which we appear to others in social situations. Like an actor on a stage, each person presents a character to his audience that allows him or her to control the impressions of others.

What does that say about the presentation of the self? ›

Self presentation is any behavior or action made with the intention to influence or change how other people see you. Anytime we're trying to get people to think of us a certain way, it's an act of self presentation.

What is an example of presentation of self? ›

For example, a woman may interact with many people during the day and may make different impressions on each person. When she starts her day at her apartment, she chats with her roommates and cleans up after breakfast, thereby presenting the image of being a good friend and responsible roommate.

What is Goffman's idea of the self? ›

To Goffman, the self was not a fixed thing which resides within individuals, but a social process. For social interactions to go smoothly, every interactant needs to project a public identity that guides others' behaviors (Goffman, 1959, 1963; Leary, 2001; Tseelon, 1992).

What is the main point Goffman is trying to convey about the nature of society and human interaction? ›

Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present. This led to Goffman's focus on the ritualized nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious.

What is one reason we accept the presentation of self that others perform? ›

The process by which social standards of normal behavior are used to judge people and to reform those who are determined not to be normal is called. normalization. What is one reason we accept the presentation of self that others perform? We don't want to cause them embarrassment.

Does Goffman believe in true self? ›

Goffman asserts all the masks we wear are "our truer self"; ergo, if we can't shed the mask and all reflects our true self, there is no false self!

How does Goffman explain the expression all the world's a stage? ›

All the World's A Stage: Multiplicity in Performance of Self in Fandom Role-Playing Games. In 1959, Erving Goffman theorized that rather than operating from a cohesive self-identity, people involved in social encounters instead give performances which are intended to produce a certain impression in the audience.

Why is presentation of self important? ›

Personal presentation is about conveying appropriate signals for the situation and for the other individuals involved. People who lack self-esteem and confidence may fail to convey their message effectively or fully utilise their skills and abilities because of the way they present themselves.

What is the main goal of self presentation? ›

Self-presentation refers to how people attempt to present themselves to control or shape how others (called the audience) view them. It involves expressing oneself and behaving in ways that create a desired impression. Self-presentation is part of a broader set of behaviors called impression management.

What is Goffman's contribution to the idea of the social self? ›

Goffman was the 73rd president of the American Sociological Association. His best-known contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction. This took the form of dramaturgical analysis, beginning with his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

How does Goffman explain the expression all the world's a stage? ›

All the World's A Stage: Multiplicity in Performance of Self in Fandom Role-Playing Games. In 1959, Erving Goffman theorized that rather than operating from a cohesive self-identity, people involved in social encounters instead give performances which are intended to produce a certain impression in the audience.

What is Goffman's dramaturgical theory? ›

Developed by American sociologist Erving Goffman in his seminal 1959 text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, dramaturgy uses the metaphor of theater to explain human behavior. According to this perspective, individuals perform actions in everyday life as if they were performers on a stage.

What is one reason we accept the presentation of self that others perform? ›

The process by which social standards of normal behavior are used to judge people and to reform those who are determined not to be normal is called. normalization. What is one reason we accept the presentation of self that others perform? We don't want to cause them embarrassment.

Does Goffman believe in true self? ›

Goffman asserts all the masks we wear are "our truer self"; ergo, if we can't shed the mask and all reflects our true self, there is no false self!

What are the two main types of self presentation? ›

Two types of self-presentational motivations can be distinguished (Baumeister, 1982a). One (pleasing the audience) is to match one's self- presentation to the audience's expectations and preferences. The other (self- construction) is to match one's self-presentation to one's own ideal self.

How is dramaturgy used in everyday life? ›

Production dramaturgy can help the screenwriting, playwriting, directing, and acting process for new play development. The dramaturgical perspective also comes into play in the social sciences (like history, philosophy, and sociology) to unpack how human beings behave in social situations.

What are social situations according to Goffman? ›

The Definition of the Situation

Central to Goffman's concern is his notion of impression management. In this, he argues that all social situations or two or more people involve attempting to persuade others of your definition of the situation.

What is an example of front stage behavior? ›

The routines of people's daily lives—traveling to and from work, shopping, dining out, or going to a cultural exhibit or performance—all fall into the category of front stage behavior.


1. Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self
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2. Goffman : Presentation of the Self
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