Critical appreciation: Erving Goffman; The presentation of self in everyday life.
Erving Goffman was one of the most important Sociologists in the 20th century who focussed his study on aspects of social life. It is often argued that Goffman was “one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable practitioners of social science” (Smith, 2006:1). He was born on the 11th June 1922 in Alberta, Canada. His parents were Jewish and part of the group of Ukrainians who moved to Canada before the beginning of the First World War. Initially Goffman studied Chemistry before moving to the University of Toronto to study Anthropology and Sociology where he gained an understanding in Durkheim, Warner, Freud and Parsons. Goffman’s wife killed herself after battling with mental illness which provokes him to research into these areas and criticise many medical and scientific claims. Between 1959 and 1969 Goffman published seven significant one of those being the presentation of self in everyday life which will be assessed throughout this review.
In the discipline of Sociology Goffman was looked upon highly and today his work is widely cited. He referred to his work as dramaturgical analysis “Dramaturgical social psychology is the study of meaningful behaviour” (Brissett and Edgley, 1975) which was the study of social interaction on a micro scale looking at the meanings behind everyday events. Nowadays his work can be looked at as symbolic interactionism; the presentation of self in everyday life was and is regarded as one of his greatest contributions to the discipline. It looked at everyday behaviour grasping the elements of social interaction. This was a key contribution and sparked debates amongst sociology in years to come as he was the first to highlight social interaction as something to be studied within Sociology. It was a subject relatively untouched and in Goffman’s world everything is not quite what it seems.
Goffman believed social life was based on theatrics and any face to face interactions in society could be interpreted as a theatrical performance. He provides a qualitative analysis of this process looking at the components of interaction. Within social interaction he identifies an individual as playing a part and uses the term “performance” “the impression the actor is making on others” (Messinger et al, 1975) to refer to someone performing an activity in front of a set of observers. Then he talks about a “front” which can be seen as part of the “performance” to define the situation to those who are observing. One of the main aspects of this idea is the “setting” which provides the background/scenery to the theatrics. Goffman states performance of some cannot take place without the correct setting, the “actors” must bring themselves to a correct place but “must terminate their performance when they leave it”. If we apply this to a modern day scenario with a student playing the role of “actors”, how they behave in social interactions will vary dependant on those involved. The “actor” would act differently in a social interaction with their personal tutor in comparison to their peers. Vitally important is Goffman referral to the existence of a “front” and “back” stage with the “front” being the stage where the performance takes place (they play the role what they assume is expected of them) with the individual “acting” throughout the social interaction. But the “back” stage is behind the scenes a less formal area which allows them to be “out of character” and converse with other “actors” in places like smoking areas, the bathroom and basically somewhere away from the “observers”.
As Goffman exaggerates the “setting” is vital for the “performance” indicating “actors” behaviour is dependent on their social situation. Within this section and throughout the book Goffman offers several examples around each theory to enable the reader to grasp a true understanding. Essentially he indicates our social actions...
Bibliography: Brissett, D and Edgley, C. (1974) Life as a theatre, a dramaturgical sourcebook, Chicago.
Durkheim, E. (1984) The division of labour in Society, Macmillan: New York.
Goffman, E. (1963) The presentation of self in everyday life: Hardmonsworth, Penguin.
Manning, P. (1992) Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology, UK: Polity Press
Mead, A. (1973) Self, language and the world, Texas University Press.
Smith, G. (2006) Erving Goffman, London: Routledge.
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