Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life provides a detailed description and analysis of process and meaning in everyday interaction. Goffman writes from a symbolic interactionist perspective, emphasizing a qualitative analysis of the components of the interactive process. Through a sociological analysis he explores the details of individual identity, group relations, and the movement and interactive meaning of information. Goffman’s perspective provides insight into the nature of social interaction and the psychology of the individual.
Goffman employs a “dramaturgical approach” in his study, concerning himself with the mode of presentation employed by the actor and its meaning in the broader social context (Goffman, 240).
Interaction is viewed as a “performance,” shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with “impressions” that are consonant with the desired goals of the actor (17). The performance exists regardless of the mental state of the individual, as persona is often imputed to the individual in spite of his or her lack of faith in the performance.
Goffman uses the example of the doctor who is forced to give a placebo to a patient, 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 identity and behavior.
The process of establishing social identity becomes closely allied to the concept of the “front,” which is described as “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). The front acts as a vehicle of standardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings. As a “collective representation,” 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 present a realistic front, is forced to fill the duties of the social role to communicate activities and the characteristics of the role to other people in a consistent manner. In constructing a front, information about the actor is given off through a variety of communicative sources, all of which must be controlled to convince the audience of the appropriateness of behavior. Believability, as a result, is constructed in terms of verbal signification, which is used by the actor to establish intent, is used by the audience to verify the honesty of statements made by the individual.
Attempts are made to present an “idealized” version of the front, more consistent with the norms and laws of society than the behavior of the actor when not before an audience (35). Information dealing with aberrant behavior and belief is concealed from the audience in a process of “mystification,” making prominent those characteristics that are socially approved. This legitimatizes both the social role of the individual and the framework to which the role belongs (67). Goffman also explores nature of group dynamics through a discussion of “teams” and the relationship between performance and audience. He uses the concept of the team to illustrate the work of a group of individuals who “co-operate” in performance, attempting to achieve goals sanctioned by the group (79). Co-operation may manifest in the assumption of differing roles for each individual, determined by the intent of the performance. Goffman refers to the “shill,” a member of the team who “provides a visible model for the audience of the kind of response the performers are seeking,” promoting excitement for the realization of a goal, as an example of a “discrepant role” in the team (146). In each circumstance, the individual assumes a front that is perceived to enhance the group’s performance.
As a result, disagreement can be carried out in the absence of an audience, where the performance changes and may be made without the threat of damaging the goals of the team or individual. This creates a division between the team and audience. Goffman describes the division between team performance and audience in terms of “region,” describing the role of setting in the differentiation of actions taken by individuals (107). Goffman divides region into “front,” “back,” and “outside” the stage, based upon the relationship of the audience to the performance. While the “official stance” of the team is visible in their front stage presentation, in the backstage, “the impression fostered by the presentation is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course,” indicating a more “truthful” type of performance (112). To be outside the stage involves the inability to gain access to the performance of the team, described as an “audience segregation” in which specific performances are given to specific audiences. Thus allows the team to create the appropriate front for the demands of each audience (137).
This routine allows the team, individual actor, and audience to preserve proper relationships in interaction and the establishments to which the interactions belong. Though detailed and very well portrayed, Goffman’s study does not provide a complete description of interactive processes. In exploring the construction of presentation among individual and teams, Goffman does not fully explore the nature of marginalized individuals. This is significant due to the notion that these individuals and the groups could assume somewhat different roles of interaction among members due to their placement outside of major groups. The methodological approach used by Goffman was also somewhat inconsistent and the approaches to testing to gather data seemed random at times.
By limiting his work Goffman also eliminates the possibility of applying the activities of the everyday to the larger social world.Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life overall provides insight into the nature of interpersonal interaction and the institutions to which interaction applies. Despite methodology, Goffman’s work displays an analytical thoroughness in dealing with an interesting area of social thought. Through an inquiry into the everyday life of humanity, Goffman’s work provides an effective foundation for understanding the nature of social interaction and the development of the individual.