Goffman’s Ghost: The Art of Acting 101—Articulated

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‘There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition” (Goffman quotes Sartre, 1959: 76).

Erving Goffman was a rebel. He imagined himself outside of traditional schools of thought academically. As Randall Collins infers, his course was to “raise questions that no one else had ever asked and to look at data that no one had ever examined before” (1986, p. 110; Appelrouth & Edles, 2011: 194). Goffman was born in Alberta, Canada. He earned an undergraduate degree from University of Toronto and then went on to earn his master’s and terminal degree at the University of Chicago. Goffman did not live a particularly long life. He died at sixty. Yet, he produced some work that made quite an impression on the discipline. One particular book that he produced relatively early in his career was The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). This work will be the focus of this short essay. While Goffman eventually became mainstream, appealing to a dramaturgical metaphor was not initially the most popular notion for an academic theoretical paradigm (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011: 194). By the end of his career Goffman was set to serve the American Sociological Association as president before his untimely death at sixty.

Goffman gave little direct acknowledgement to interactionism as a primary influence, but would eventually be canonized into this paradigm nonetheless by his predecessors. In fact, Appelrouth and Edles suggest, “it is interaction and the context within which it takes place that determines who we are, the ‘sort’ of the self that appears, just as assuming the attitudes of a particular other shapes our behavior” (2011: 196). It is within this theoretical niche that Presentation of Self establishes Goffman as a Rosetta stone of social theory.

Goffman builds a perspective from metaphor that quells many mysteries of the self and its place in society. One particular passage that resonates is, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify” (Goffman, 1959: 72). This statement establishes a particular lens to peer through and reinterpret what we as social actors have gathered in our “real” lives. Below is Goffman’s thesis statement concerning Presentation of Self:

This report is concerned with some for the common techniques that persons employ to sustain such impressions and with some of the common contingencies associated with the employment of these techniques.” The author continues on stating, “I shall be concerned only with the participant’s dramaturgical problems of presenting the activity before others. The issues dealt with by stagecraft and stage management are sometimes trivial but they are quite general; they seem to occur everywhere in social life, providing a clear-cut dimension for formal sociological analysis. (Goffman, 1959: 15).

It is through this dramaturgical lens that Goffman establishes what becomes his primary contribution. More specifically Appelrouth and Edles state, “Goffman’s genius lies in exploring how social arrangements themselves and the actual, physical copresence of individuals—the ‘interaction order’—shapes the organization of the self” (2011: 196). It is within this definition of the situation that a clear contribution to the complexities of social arrangements are made.

This review of Presentation of Self will be primarily concerned with concepts that Goffman lays out in chapter one. The rest of the book furthers these initial concepts and applies them to various scenarios. One of the first sections, but crucial to the overall thesis of the book, is “performances.” Whether or not an individual is sincere (or taken as such) determines much of the expected responses. But more crucially whether the actor is taken seriously. The opposite of sincerity concerns cynicism. Goffman illustrates, “A cynical individual may delude his audience for what he considers to be their own good, or for the good of the community, etc. For illustrations of this we need not appeal to sadly enlightened showmen such as Marcus Aurelius or Hsun Tzu” (Goffman, 1959: 18). Goffman hints at what I interpret as that of ‘duty.’ The argument for duty being constituted by a blindly negative belief that one’s own sacrifice is key to maintain the social order conceptualized and/or understood. The important point here is the individual’s belief in the part that she is playing socially.

In continuing with the stagecraft euphemism and analogy of society as drama Goffman introduces the idea of front and back stage settings. “First, there is the ‘setting,’ involving furniture, décor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within, or upon it” (Goffman, 1959: 22). This is a particularly powerful analogy due to its seemingly universal appeal. What drives the utility of settings is that we have all experienced particular events or scenes where we are embarrassed. Often this may be due to an inappropriate fit between behaviors and settings. For example, what one may do around friends would not be exactly how one would act around immediate family.

Goffman also elucidates the idea of “Appearance and Manner.” He goes on to define the concept as, “Appearance’ may be taken to refer to those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer’s social statuses” (1959: 24). Furthermore he suggests, “Manner’ may be taken to refer to those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the oncoming situation” (1959: 24). Appearance and Manner is further revisited throughout the book, but most notably in the section concerning team dynamics. Goffman describes, “The concept of team allows us to think of performances that are given by one or more than one performer…” (1959: 80). Some examples of team would be family, close friends, civic groups, etc. Obviously routine interactions carried out by these “teams” depend on the setting. Further more, each group of interactions have front and back stage etiquette carried out through expectations and scenario dependent manners.

These dynamics are dependent on additional mechanisms that Goffman articulates eloquently. One such dynamic is labeled “Dramatic Realizations.” The scholar expounds, “While in the presence of others, the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure” (Goffman, 1959: 30). This idea leads to another of the book’s primary contributions, impression management.

For Goffman, often, this is the explicit rather than the tacit mechanism for social presentation. He argues, “First, individuals often foster the impression that the routine they are presently performing is their only routine or at least their most essential one” (1959: 48). This resonates of the painful process that interviewing for a job can be. The questions that arise are generally centered around what do they want to know about me? In other words, what is essential to me getting this job? Often the setting invites intuitive suggestions and/or regions where you are located. For example, in Eastern Kentucky, it would be risky to speak out against coal consumption. Yet in the Midwest, being critical of commercial beef production would be a topic wise to avoid. Goffman adds to this impression management in chapters 3 and 4 respectively titled, “Regions and Region Behavior” and “Discrepant Roles.” Although it is important to note that regions can be those of defined by barriers of perceptions, not just geographic ones. Often times, as the previous examples suggests, these barriers of perception depend on cultural, geographical and interpreted formal or informal settings.

Another interesting component of impression maintenance relies on body language, another on groups of perceptions. The expression of maintenance of expressive control can be understood by the following passage:

…the performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance. This convenient fact has an inconvenient implication. By virtue of the same sign-accepting tendency, the audience may misunderstand the meaning that a cue was designed to convey, or may read accidental, inadvertent, or incidental and not meant by the performer to carry any meaning whatsoever. (Goffman, 1959: 51)

One could assign a certain type of culture to emerge when inexplicit languages of interpretation become enshrined through in-group expressions. Goffman asserts this by suggesting, “A certain bureaucratization of the spirit is expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogeneous performance at every appointed time” (Goffman, 1959: 56). Again the scholar contributes to an aspect of sociology that is often argued; that of how collective behaviors emerge out of individual interactions.

Goffman deals with further concepts such as misrepresentation and mystification inside ordered interactions. These types of strategies emerge depending on front and back stage settings and are determined by the anticipated mannerisms expected. Complications arise but are captured by the following quote, “Through social discipline, then, a mask of manner can be held in place from within” (Goffman, 1959: 57). The mask represents a skill set of “manners.” These social skill sets allow us to more vividly explore the intersections of structural tendencies often grouped into race, class and gender dynamics.

Once Goffman approaches a section entitled “Reality and Contrivance” there is an effective reference to a social binary. The author quotes, “As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other” (Goffman, 1959: 70). Yet Goffman has woven this wonderful narrative through a dramaturgical metaphor encapsulating many facets of social interactions. Furthermore elaborated how the presentation of self fits into a seemingly consistent and generalizable structure metaphorically.

The book concludes with a statement that encompasses the reading in its entirety revealing a basic dialectic. Goffman states, “In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged” (1959: 251). Again the central thesis is expressed by ordering, navigating and maintaining the impression management of micro, meso and macro level interactions. Herein, the value of a dramaturgical approach gives the researcher a format of interaction through which to make and draw observations for a more complete continuum of social interactions. In other words, we should endeavor to being phenomenologically sensitive and structurally informed. Goffman’s ghostly presence, through his contribution, demands a more sophisticated approach to unraveling why people do the things they do. But possibly more importantly under what structural constraints those actions exist within.

Eddy Green

Kansas State University


Appelrouth, Scott & Laura Desfor Edles. (2011). Sociological Theory in the
Contemporary Era: Text and Readings. Sage: Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/ Singapore/ Washington DC.

Collins, Randall. 1985. Three Sociological Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, Erving. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: Anchor Books New York, NY.


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