Erving Goffman: Role Distance, and the Construction of Identity

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ROLE, ROLE DISTANCE, AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY

The creation of distance, of space, between the performer and performance, what Goffman calls Role Distance is one of the most important aspects of his conceptual framework. By noticing the importance of Role Distance Goffman is able to situate the concept of Identity within a single coherent structure. In this structure identity is not preconceived or presupposed but constructed. Identity becomes a product of the performance. Identity here is not defined by the role alone, allowing in this way for manipulation and detachment to be part of the field of analysis. In doing so he uses the concept of role distance which enables him to account for behavior that may, at first sight, seem contrary to the role perspective. In Goffman’s words: “role distance is almost as much subject to role analysis as are the core tasks of the role themselves” (TGR; p 41)[1].

In order to understand properly the place of role distance within Goffman’s framework I will make a brief diagram of what he calls the self and social roles[2]. Two referential concepts must be kept in mind: role and role distance. Role, of course, is for Goffman the “basic unit of socialization” (TGR; p 35). Tasks in society are allocated through roles and arrangements made to enforce their performance (Ibidem). Roles are understood as the way in which individuals fit into a particular situation, in each particular interaction.

When individuals face interaction, they do so while a “particular definition is in charge of the situation” (TGR; 39). For Goffman a situation is an already defined one. All interaction is interaction within a framework of reference, of reference with respect to some kind of idealization. What we have then is that roles are fundamentally idealizations, stereotypes. Roles are judged always with respect to how well they correspond with their archetype. Hence, whenever an individual interacts he does so by playing the expected role for the specific situation. He does so by convention, or better, by adhering to the conventional behavior that belongs to that particular situation. As each situation may be defined differently, or as individuals may find themselves in various situations, they will play different roles, depending on every situation’s demands. This implies that individuals, as they play different roles, will convey different, sometimes even contradicting, impressions on the changeable audience they face. The conclusion of this being that “each individual will, therefore, have several selves, providing us with the interesting problem of how these selves are related” (TGR; 36).

This conclusion relates very closely with his concepts about the distinction between backstage and front stage as well as that of the segregation of the audiences and places that takes place. This segregation of audiences and places runs parallel to the separation of roles according to different situations. As different roles convey different impressions, and as those impressions may vary to the point of being contradictory even, it is understood then that the individual finds himself in the need to maintain some of his performances apart form each other. Giving different performances, playing different roles convincingly, can only be done if the audience varies from one performance to another. Particularly when referring to those performances that carry differing values, and commitments.

The reader must also bear in mind the conflicting aspect of “having several selves”. Conflict may arise when segregation is interrupted or made impossible. Part of this conflict relates to the information displayed in each situation, and refers as well to Goffman’s analysis concerning information control (PS 141)[3]. The conflict’s core lies on the moral character that is implied with the impressions (PS 242).

The individual’s relation to each role played may vary as well. Goffman’s...
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