The World’s a Stage

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Erving Goffman

I seem, unwittingly, to have taken the summer off. But the reading never stops and so it’s time to turn to the backlog.

Goffman_selfThe reading lists of my undergraduate years were filled with primary sources. That meant no textbooks but lots of things with famous and no-so-famous titles such as Suicide, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Obedience to Authority. Essentially these were the founding works of social science and their 20th century acolytes.

Among this august group of scholars is Erving Goffman, a gent with a well-deserved reputation for breaking all sorts of ground. I’d previously read Stigma.  This summer I turned to his best known work, a masterpiece of small group sociology.

Published in 1959, The Presentation of Self… set forth what has come to be known as the dramaturgical model. In its simplest form the model works like this: social interactions require the participants to take on certain roles. There are the elements that can be observed in the primary interaction and those that happen before and after the primary interaction. Goffman refers to these as the front stage and the back stage.

Consider two examples. In a restaurant or hotel dining room the patrons come to eat a meal. They encounter a host or maitre d’ and are assigned a waiter. Everything the patron experiences–the room, the menus, the presentation of the food, the background music–is front stage. As a patron you enter on and sit  in a set, interact with props and characters who hasten along the ritual of the commercial meal.

But what goes on behind the swinging doors? Do the staff, between themselves, display the same obsequiousness when speaking of the patrons? Is everything just so or is there controlled chaos? Are decisions made that are in the best interest of the house but not the diners? It should surprise no one that there is such a stark dichotomy and yet it’s a fiction we willingly engage in every time we dine out.

You can similarly consider a visit to the doctor. There’s the wall full of diplomas. The cabinets full of mysterious medical stuff (most of which is on open display in your local CVS or Walgreens). The odd table in the center of things with chairs jammed wherever they fit. And there is the star, the man or woman in the white coat with the ‘professional’ mien.  You’re immersed in a reality show called Real Doctors of Your City Here and it’s all about reinforcing the relationship between patient and doctor and not one whit about healing the afflicted.

Much of what appears in The Presentation of Self… was drawn from Goffman’s own fieldwork in a remote island community in Scotland. This is a good place to note what always trips up folks–even educated folks–who haven’t read a lot of social science. Specifically I’m talking about dismissing the author’s finding because you don’t see the connection between one’s own situation and a unit of study one perceives as completely different from yours.

Goffman provides plenty of examples from other studies to demonstrate  that what he’s proposed occurs more or less universally.That’s the science part of social science and even if the current vogue is to dismiss that it’s the part that I am drawn to.

One last important note: it’s quite easy to misremember Goffman’s title. This isn’t a work of psychology and ‘the’ self as you might think of it isn’t implicated. This particular book falls into a category known as symbolic interactionism and the focus is on the interactions and the things that facilitate them. The gist of Goffman’s model is that social interactions are about agents or actors in roles. And if you think about it that’s true even of the most egomaniacal people you know.

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One thought on “The World’s a Stage

  1. Pingback: Cos’ it Runs in the Family | An Honest Con

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