The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts".
(William Shakespeare. As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7, 1.36)

What does the book look like?

Let’s start by considering the shape of the book. Here’s the outline of the chapters.

  1. Performances — belief in part one plays, fronts, dramatic realization, idealization, expressive control, misrepresentation, mystification
  2. Teams — performer and audience, collusion, presentation as joint accomplishment
  3. Regions and Region Behavior — front stage and back stage
  4. Discrepant Roles — my roles can contradict one another, flexibility and rigidity
  5. Communication Out of Character — role leakage, cracks in armor, “honesty”
  6. The Arts of Impression Management — pulling it all together in a theory of everyday interaction

Overall, this approach is often called the “dramaturgical approach” because it uses the metaphor of the stage and drama as a way to analyze everyday interaction.

This “theory” has been used in research on areas other than “mere” everyday life. Thomas Schelling, an economist, uses similar ideas in A Strategy of Conflict about, among other things, nuclear arms races, and A. Michael Spence’s Market Signaling (on the economics of information transfer in hiring and related screening processes) deals with similar questions.

Chapter 1 : Performances
  1. Belief in the part one is playing
    1. Two moral a prioris of social interaction:
      1. 1. individual who possesses certain social characteristics has the moral right to expect that others will treat him in an appropriate manner (17)
      2. 2. individual who signals that he has certain social characteristics ought in fact to be who he claims to be. (17)
    2. Two poles
      1. Sincere to Cynical.
        1. Typically a “moral career” from sincere to cynical and perhaps back again (20-21).
  2. Front = "that part of the individual's performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance" (22)
    1. Setting, sign equipment, props, “scenic parts of expressive equipment”
    2. Personal front = all the rest of the stuff (insignia of rank/office, size/looks, posture, speech, gestures, etc.)
      1. Appearance = tells us of performer’s statuses
        • e.g.s: clothes & dress (I’m wealthy, serious, silly, crunchy granola – “power tie”)
      2. Manner = tells us of the “interaction role the performer expects to play in the oncoming situation” (24)
        • e.g.s: haughty and aggressive or meek and apologetic
    3. Coherence is expected (25). This points to ideal types as part of cultural vocabulary.
      • Examples of incoherent = big shot with small car, big intellectual willing to talk about TV, guy with a cat or the selected shorts guy with the poodle.
    4. Thus, fronts as Collective Representations
      • Society has a limited vocabulary of fronts that are used and exploited in a wide variety of situations (example in Goffman is the chimney sweep and the doctor both wearing clinical white coats). Compares this to Radcliffe-Browns “descriptive kinship system.”
      • Example: getting out the good silver or good wine for one’s “good” guests
    5. Interchangeability of routines and fronts and sign equipment (30)
      • "…items in the social front of a particular routine are not only found in the social fronts of a whole range of routines but also that the whole range of routines in which one item of sign equipment is found will differ from the range of routines in which another item in the same social front will be found" (30).
    6. IOW: Fronts tend to become institutionalized and take on an existence of their own. Goffman here uses Durkheim's term "collective representation".
  3. Dramatic realization (30): infusing performance with signs that dramatically highlight confirmatory facts
    • …if a baseball umpire is to give the impression that he is sure of his judgment, he must forego the moment of thought which might make him sure of his judgment; he must give an instantaneous decision so that the audience will be sure that he is sure of his judgment (30).
    • Dramatic Realization -putting on a show so that confirmatory facts are highlighted.
    • How does this concept help us to define how to act aristocratically? (34-5)
    • problem of expression vs. action (Sartre's attentive student)
    • show off intellectuals who can never get a paper done
    • work two jobs so you have money with which to relax
    • professors who put all their energy into teaching and advising have no time left over with which to look busy for colleagues
    • We might capture some of this with the expression "the euphemistic character of social interaction."
  4. Idealization (34)
    • Playing to stereotype, "society's official version," and eliminating inconsistent reality.
    • Hiding secret pleasures and economies.
    • Hiding what one is really doing behind front (I like my job because of the travel)
    • Foster sense of infallibility by burying your mistakes
    • Show only the end product – act like it was a neat and orderly process
    • Conceal “dirty work” from audience.
    • Violating some standards in private so that others may be observed in public.
    • Foster impression that one was born to the role – rhetoric of training – “comes here by way of Harvard University” (so he must be good). Hiding one’s humble origins. Hide fact that one’s made many mistakes along the way.
    • I have suggested that a performer tends to conceal or underplay those activities, facts, and motives which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself and his products. In addition, a performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case. [4. 48]
    • Individual fosters impression that this role is his only or essential one
    • audience segregation —- why it’s embarrassing to have your parents at orientation
    • audience may prefer such
    • role engulfment – sometimes it is easier to forget that your teacher has a family
    • necessary for “urban life” suggests Goffman
    • important to obscure the routine character of interaction
    • especially important in cross-status interactions where my unique experience is absolutely important to me but for you it is just another case — cf. your paper for you and your paper for the teacher
    • Note the moral overtones in all this. Tied up with sense of politeness and respect. To honor another person we often engage in all forms of deception.
    • Assumptions of consistency abound and threats to consistency are always a potential source of trouble.
  5. Maintenance of expressive control (51)
    • DEF. The virtue of signalling successful performance with minor cues and hints gives rise to problem of small slips being able to destroy a performance.
      • bad breath, food on the shirt, mispronunciation
        1. accidental display of incapacity, impropriety (52.6)
        2. impression of too much or too little concern (52.7)
        3. inadequate dramaturgical direction (52.8)
    • Communication contingencies – what are they?
    • trips and slips
    • (letting one's "humanness" show through, unplanned reminders that one is more than one's role (over- or under-involvement — situations seem to carry a normative (sense of proper level of involvement
    • inept or inadequate staging
    • …aptness, fitness, propriety and decorum in everyday mundane affairs…
    • In other words, we must be prepared to see that the impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by very minor mishaps. [56]
  6. Misrepresentation (58) - audiences can be duped
    • Misreprentation and the ethics of impersonation
    • Is it unethical to impersonate a doctor but ok for a sociologist to impersonate a bum? Different flavors of lies — what do you make of them?
    • "…strategically located points of reticence…"
    • Types of lies (61.7ff)
    • Overall, it is not a question of which impression is more real, but of the fact that everyday performances are always subject to disruption. "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?"
    • Socialization not as learning of roles but of learning to act and to read situations so as to be able to gather the pieces from which to assemble performances.
    • …gaining command of an idiom…
    • To be a particular kind of person is to perform as such….
    • "A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing,…." [75]
    • …there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. — J. P. Sartre
  7. Mystification (67)
  8. Reality and Contrivance (70)

Other References

Turner, Jonathan: Goffman in Propositions