Erving Goffman was one of the most important Sociologists in the 20th century who focussed his study on aspects of social life. It is often argued that Goffman was “one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable practitioners of social science” (Smith, 2006:1). He was born on the 11th June 1922 in Alberta, Canada. His parents were Jewish and part of the group of Ukrainians who moved to Canada before the beginning of the First World War.
Initially Goffman studied Chemistry before moving to the University of Toronto to study Anthropology and Sociology where he gained an understanding in Durkheim, Warner, Freud and Parsons. Goffman’s wife killed herself after battling with mental illness which provokes him to research into these areas and criticise many medical and scientific claims. Between 1959 and 1969 Goffman published seven significant one of those being the presentation of self in everyday life which will be assessed throughout this review.
In the discipline of Sociology Goffman was looked upon highly and today his work is widely cited. He referred to his work as dramaturgical analysis “Dramaturgical social psychology is the study of meaningful behaviour” (Brissett and Edgley, 1975) which was the study of social interaction on a micro scale looking at the meanings behind everyday events. Nowadays his work can be looked at as symbolic interactionism; the presentation of self in everyday life was and is regarded as one of his greatest contributions to the discipline. It looked at everyday behaviour grasping the elements of social interaction.
This was a key contribution and sparked debates amongst sociology in years to come as he was the first to highlight social interaction as something to be studied within Sociology. It was a subject relatively untouched and in Goffman’s world everything is not quite what it seems. Goffman believed social life was based on theatrics and any face to face interactions in society could be interpreted as a theatrical performance. He provides a qualitative analysis of this process looking at the components of interaction. Within social interaction he identifies an individual as playing a part and uses the term “performance” “the impression the actor is making on others” (Messinger et al, 1975) to refer to someone performing an activity in front of a set of observers. Then he talks about a “front” which can be seen as part of the “performance” to define the situation to those who are observing. One of the main aspects of this idea is the “setting” which provides the background/scenery to the theatrics. Goffman states performance of some cannot take place without the correct setting, the “actors” must bring themselves to a correct place but “must terminate their performance when they leave it”.
If we apply this to a modern day scenario with a student playing the role of “actors”, how they behave in social interactions will vary dependant on those involved. The “actor” would act differently in a social interaction with their personal tutor in comparison to their peers. Vitally important is Goffman referral to the existence of a “front” and “back” stage with the “front” being the stage where the performance takes place (they play the role what they assume is expected of them) with the individual “acting” throughout the social interaction.
But the “back” stage is behind the scenes a less formal area which allows them to be “out of character” and converse with other “actors” in places like smoking areas, the bathroom and basically somewhere away from the “observers”. As Goffman exaggerates the “setting” is vital for the “performance” indicating “actors” behaviour is dependent on their social situation. Within this section and throughout the book Goffman offers several examples around each theory to enable the reader to grasp a true understanding.
Essentially he indicates our social actions within society are shaped by invisible forces and the way we behave is not instinctive but our actions our shaped by the society we live in dependant on the scenario of the social interaction. He also implies how an individual will be focussed on making a favourable show of him (a good impression) which gives another explanation to why humans can be seen as actors in situations of social interaction, they act how they think the audience (observers) want them to act.
To summarise his chapter on presentation Goffman’s primary assumption is that individuals differ not by their specific qualities, but by the situations they find themselves in to which they adopt different ‘roles’ to perform for the “observer”. For this work Goffman gained inspiration from his own personal experiences, as his wife struggled with mental illness and he chose to travel to the Shetland Islands to study the interaction in their society. His wife’s illness may have shaped his argument as another key piece of his work was Asylums where he carried out fieldwork in a hospital where he wished to look at the social world of an inmate.
In his findings he was very critical and stated how behaviour that was deemed out of the ordinary was simply someone not conforming to the rules and expectations of society. If those rules or norms/values are broken that person would be viewed as an outsider and therefore displays an inability to play the role of an “actor”. A key theorist behind his work is Herbert Mead who published a book Mind, Self and Society and he looked at the experiences of human beings and focussed on the development of self.
“The individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings” (Mead 1934) which shows Mead was one of the early sociologists to focus on the self like Goffman. Also Talcott Parsons whose work on stratification may have inspired him to focus on social interaction. Parsons was a structural functionalist and part of his worked looked at how a system adapted to its environment. As we know Presentation of self in everyday life looks at how individuals adapt in different scenarios of social interaction so he may have gained some inspiration from Parsons in that aspect.
Emile Durkheim is one of the founders of Sociology and someone Goffman would have looked up to. Goffman makes it clear there are a set of standards which individuals are expected to follow which he describes similarly to how Durkheim did to religion; “as an expressive rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the moral values of the community”. There are links in their work particular around the concept of “spontaneity” which is to be spontaneous but to come from natural feelings. Within The presentation of self “spontaneity” is brought up by Goffman as an element of the “performance” to make it seem life-life and real, not entirely artificial.
In Durkheim’s The division of labour in society he looks at a model of spontaneity although it is about labour it looks at a type of social interaction “finely articulated organisation in which each social value… is appreciated at its true worth” (Durkheim) implying each individual has to conform within the social organisation they find themselves. Some aspects that are weaknesses of the book; what Goffman did not do is complicate his theory of social interaction with is by looking further into these situations and applying class, gender, social status etc.
If he had of done this it could have taken his theory to another level as it is not something accounted for. In a sense he presumes all individuals would react similarly and does not take into account. For example if we looked at Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital, how some have greater access to aspects of society because of social aspects like education, certain knowledge which gives individuals advantage. The differentiation in these people would not be taken into account in Goffman’s work therefore would assume everyone would play the role of the “actor” the same in a social interaction.
Nowadays in modern society it could be argued there is a reduced amount of social interaction due to globalisation and the mass advancements in technology. Therefore the book is not as relevant to modern day society although the key theories are still very much applicable. The issue with applying the theories in this book to society today is that an awful lot of interaction is no longer made face to face. With the advancements in technology since a lot of interactions are made via emails, over the phone, on Facebook obviously making Goffman’s theory deemed useless.
It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on those and whether we are still acting whilst communicating through these means or is it the back room and somewhere we are preparing for our next performance. Goffman does come under criticism from other sociologists who claim that work like this makes him unpopular in the discipline. This is because he criticises and highlights what is wrong with society but does not provide an alternative or a solution to what he deems a problem.
Of course this book was written in the 1960’s by Goffman but despite this many of his work is still relevant today particular the aspect of using “fixed crops” like houses, cars, clothes and employment. They still represent aspects of self and are in important aspect of the appearance of the actor. It provides a different view and perspective for members of society to look upon, seeing the self as a cause of cultural and social arrangements. Putting the question into people’s mind when are we truly ourselves and are our actions actually shaped by the society we live in.
Although Goffman came under some criticism for highlighting the issues but offering no explanation to overcome them; Manning makes the argument that “unlike the traditional anthropologist whom broadens our horizons by expanding our knowledge of other societies, Goffman shows us the complexity of our own” (1992). This demonstrates the idea that Goffman with The presentation of self, did broaden people’s perspectives and offered a different explanation about our social conduct.
Potentially he may have come under a lot of criticism as people were afraid to accept that he could be correct which would cause a lot of people to re-evaluate their situation. His theory of Presentation of self, talks of how individuals and groups put on a performance in society. Initially the performances are constructed and then maintained and those involved may be unaware of their own performances. A final interesting point raised is whether social arrangements have affected the self which is an example of interesting discussions within the discipline derived from Goffman’s work.
To conclude the appreciation of Goffman’s book it is thought provoking not only to the reader but to the theorists in the discipline. His theory on social interaction provided a different perspective to those before him and he raised the question of social circumstances affecting people’s behaviour in social situations. Also the way his work is set out, each theory he lays out is alongside several example which allows everyone to be clear of what he is portraying and he manages to make his theory concise, therefore memorable.
Although this piece of work was significant in Sociology and Goffman is now one of the most cited theorists in the subject, his work on the presentation of self; in everyday life has come under considerable amount of criticism. As mentioned this is because of him not offering solutions to the problems and today because of people interacting without being face to face his theory is not entirely applicable. But his work was essentially a metaphor and a lot of modern day theorists have taken his theory too literally.