The Meaning and Purpose of the Dramaturgical Perspective

Is the World Really A Stage?

Rear View Of Woman Standing On Illuminated Stage In Auditorium
Manuela Matos Monteiro / EyeEm / Getty Images

When William Shakespear declared "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" he may have been on to something. The dramaturgical perspective was developed primarily by Erving Goffman, who used a theatrical metaphor of stage, actors, and audience to observe and analyze intricacies of social interaction. From this perspective, the self is made up of the various parts that people play, and a key goal of social actors is to present their various selves in ways that create and sustain particular impressions to their different audiences.

This perspective isn't meant to analyze the cause of behavior just its context. 

Impression Management

Dramaturgical perspective is sometimes called impression management because part of playing a role for others is to control the impression they have of you. Each person's performance has a specific goal in mind. This is true no matter what "stage" the person or actor is on at any given time. Each actor prepares for their roles.  

Stages 

The dramaturgical perspective assumes that our personalities are not static but change to suit the situation we are in. Goffman applied the language of the theater to this sociological perspective in order for it to be more easily understood. An important example of this is the concept of "front" and "back" stage when it comes to personality. Front stage refers to actions that are observed by others. An actor on a stage is playing a certain role and expected to act in a certain way but backstage the actor becomes someone else.

An example of front stage would be the difference between how one would behave in a business meeting versus how one behaves at home with family. When Goffman refers to backstage means is how people act when they are relaxed or unobserved. 

Goffman uses the term off stage or outside to mean situations where the actor is, or assume their actions are, unobserved.

A moment alone would be considered outside. 

Applying the Perspective

The study of social justice movements is a good place to apply the dramaturgical perspective. People generally have somewhat defined roles and there is a central goal. There are clear "protagonist" and "antagonist" roles in all social justice movements. Characters further their plot. There is a clear difference between front and backstage.

Many customer service roles share similarities to social justice moments. People are all working within defined roles to complete a task. The perspective can be applied to how groups like activists and hospitality employees.

Criticism of Dramaturgical Perspective 

Some have argued that the Dramaturgical perspective should only be applied to institutions rather than individuals. The perspective wasn't tested on individuals and some feel that testing must be done before the perspective can be applied. 

Other's feel the perspective lacks merit because it doesn't further sociologies goal of understanding behavior. It's seen as more of a description of interaction than an explanation of it.