The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

An Overview of the Famous Book by Erving Goffman

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Actor Leslie Odom, Jr. (L) and actor, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (R) perform on stage during 'Hamilton' GRAMMY performance for The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Richard Rodgers Theater on February 15, 2016 in New York City. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a book that was published in the U.S. in 1959, written by sociologist Erving Goffman. In it, Goffman uses the imagery of theater in order to portray the nuances and significance of face-to-face social interaction. Goffman puts forth a theory of social interaction that he refers to 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 stage' region where the actors are on stage before an audience, and their consciousness of that audience and the audience's expectations for the role they should play influence the actor's behavior. There is also a back region, or 'back stage,' where individuals can relax, be themselves, and the role or identity that they play when they are in front of others.

Central to the book and Goffman's theory is the idea that people, as they interact together in social settings, are constantly engaged in the process of "impression management," wherein each tries to present themselves and behave in a way that will prevent the embarrassment of themselves or others. This is primarily done by each person that is part of the interaction working to ensure that all parties have the same "definition of the situation," meaning that all understand what is meant to happen in that situation, what to expect from the others involved, and thus how they themselves should behave.

Though written over half a century ago, The Presentation of Self in Everday Life remains one of the most famous and widely taught sociology books, which was listed as the 10th most important sociology book of the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association in 1998.

The Elements of 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, which communicates information that confirms the identity of the actor in that situation. The actor may or may not be aware of their performance or have an objective for their performance, however, the audience is constantly attributing meaning to 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 things that have socially ascribed meaning, like 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 a 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 with his perceived social status or position.

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 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 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, and Off Stage. In stage drama, as in everyday interactions, according to Goffman, there are three regions, each with different effects 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 particular meaning for the audience. The actor knows he or she is being watched and acts accordingly.

When in the back stage region, 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 herself and get rid of the roles that she plays when she is in front of other people.

Finally, the off-stage region 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.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.