Book Review; Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

By Richard Devine (22.05.2020)

Introduction 

Erving Goffman’s 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is considered one of the most important sociological texts of the twentieth century. His work is often a staple part of the social work curriculum. Goffman invokes language and imagery derived from theatre. This functions as an effective analogy to illustrate the different roles different individuals play in different settings and the use of props and setting to facilitate the expression of those roles. This terminology whilst highly effective on an analogical level can perhaps create the impression that his ideas are somewhat superficial. However, his ideas have considerable depth, both sociological and psychological and deserve serious consideration.

Performances, Idealization and Teams 

Perhaps the most succinct summary of his ideas comes from a quote he offers from Robert Ezra Park;

‘It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first person, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role…It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves’ (page 30).

Goffman’s contention is that we, unconsciously and consciously, enact out performances of different kinds throughout each day, and that the ‘audience’, whoever is interacting with us in any given moment, is implicitly invited to participate and respond to the impression being fostered by the performance. We expect, at least implicitly, others to respond to the impression we create as if it is an accurate representation. Indeed, we often prefer to respond simply to the impression others create, that is, we take the performance at face value, as it reduces the complexity of the individual, saving us time and energy.  He proposes performance being of one or two types – the sincere and the cynical. Some people sincerely believe the role they are playing whilst others act out roles cynically, that is, they recognize the false veneer of the role being played and play their part as a means to end.  However, this is not a dichtomy; most performances fall somewhere in between these polarities. 

Goffman identifies two aspects of a performance; idealization and negative idealization. When an individual presents her/himself before others she/he will emphasize through any means available the socially acceptable and desirable aspects of her/his self. Implicit in this approach is the concealing of facts, motivation or any other cues that may undermine the idealized image being portrayed. The idealized presentation portrayed is contingent on the audience; that is, the performer must consider the values or cues that may be viewed favorably by the audience so that they can be incorporated into the presentation. Negative idealization is the inverse process and refers to the downplaying of attributes of the performer, in order to please the audience (For example concealing wealth or intelligence). In both cases, the performer is inviting the audience to believe that the presented self is the real and authentic self.

Goffman’s extends his analysis into teams. A team is a group of people who are involved with one another to maintain a certain representation of the situation. When a team performance is underway any team member has the potential to undermine or expose the show being displayed. The team often have some awareness of a presentation being displayed and therefore don’t necessarily need to maintain an impression before one another in the absence of an audience. To facilitate the performance, either as an individual or as a team, a ‘front region’ and a ‘back region’ are utilized. The ‘front region’ is the place in which the performance takes place and is often has the parameter of time and restricted to a setting. The ‘back region’ is place, relative to the ‘front region’, in which the performance is not required and, in fact, often openly contradicted. For example when a performer has chance to temporarily leave the ‘front region’ and enter in the ‘back region’, derogation of the audience is common. The opposite also occurs; praise of the audience or audience member that would be impermissible in their presence. The ‘back region’ is also a place in which preparation can be made for the performance in the ‘front region’, with the advantage of being hidden from the view of the audience. Sometimes, different members of the team will work in the ‘back region’ whilst certain members in the ‘front region’. The division can reflect the traits of the individual with those working in the ‘back region’ possessing technical skills and those working in ‘front region’ tending to have expressive capabilities. 

There are a number of forms of communication that are regularly utilized that either provide a glimpse into the performative function of many interactions or which directly undermine it.  Individuals within a team may signal verbally or non-verbally dissatisfaction towards one member albeit in a manner that is concealed to the audience. There are also more explicit ways in which an individual may derogate or undermine another team member or the opposing team, for example using innuendo, well placed jokes, veiled hints and expressive overtones. Such gestures threaten the fallacious conciliatory atmosphere but are often presented in such a way that a blatant disregard or disruption is avoided.  

Application to Real Life

Goffman provides a comprehensive and compelling range of examples from a diverse range of sources to support his ideas outlined above that would leave the reader in no doubt about the validity and veracity of his claims. Instead of detailing them here, I will reflect on a personal example as a way of illustrating some of his concepts. Often I find it helpful to understand theory and knowledge from the inside out. Otherwise, I inhabit a set of ideas that exist in the abstract and only apply to others (and not me!) This runs the risk of psychological and sociological concepts being used as a means for ‘othering’, that is, to create an artificial illusion of difference and separateness.

When I was around 12,13 years old we had a Social Worker come to visit my family. I cannot recollect being told what the purpose of the visit was at the time but retrospectively I suspect it was linked to my dad’s drug and alcohol use. The Social Worker was invited into the living room which in contrast to the rest of the home had been tidied and cleaned. In Goffman’s terms she was invited into the ‘front region’ which had been intentionally prepared to foster a certain impression upon her and the ‘back region’ was concealed from view (p.32).  If the Social Worker did have access to the rest of the house she would have observed a discrepancy in the impression being fostered. As pointed out by Goffman ‘…front regions [is] where a particular performance is or may be in progress, and back regions where action occurs that is related to the performance but inconsistent with the reality fostered by the performance’ (page 135).  In addition to the state of the home, my mother, my siblings and I, were more polite, decorous and affable than typical (i.e. idealization of ourselves) – in this respect, the ‘front region’ was both physical (the ‘setting’; p. 35) and interpersonal (the ‘personal front’; p.35). I can’t remember much of the content of the discussion, but I remember at one point the Social Worker asking me a question. As she came to the end of her question, and without the Social Worker knowing, my mum looked at me in a subtle but unambiguous way that clearly signaled I was not to answer the question truthfully. Essentially, we were engaged in a ‘team performance’ in front of the social worker; ‘any member of the team has the power to give the show away or to disrupt it through inappropriate conduct’ (p.88). My mum was worried that I was about to undermine the performance. She was concerned that I may unintentionally and perhaps in my naivety reveal a ‘dark secret’ which is defined by Goffman as ‘facts about a team which it knows and conceals and which are incompatible with the image of self that the team attempts to establish before its audience’ (page 141). My mum was utilizing ‘team collusion’ (p.175). As pointed out by Goffman ‘…team mates everywhere employ an informally and often unconsciously learned vocabulary of gestures and looks by which collusive staging cues can be conveyed’ (p. 178). I received the non-verbal signal and adjusted my response accordingly. 

I offer this example because it is a helpful illustration of Goffman’s concepts. It also provides insight into the experience of a social worker visiting from the services user’s perspective. I am not however making any claim about our family’s response being representative of how other families in a similar situation may response.

Conclusion 

In his conclusion Goffman writes;

‘The general notion that we make a presentation of ourselves to others is hardly novel; what ought to be stressed in conclusion is the very structure of the self can be seen in terms of how we arrange for such performances’ (page 244).  

In The Blank Slate (2002), Steven Pinker notes that Goffman; 

disputed the romantic notion that behind the masks we show other people is the true self. No, said Goffman; its masks all the way down’ (page 264). 

There is certainly a profundity in the idea’s Goffman presents in his seminal text, in part, because his ideas reflect universal, and widespread psychological and social phenomena. No aspect of life escapes his dramaturgical analysis. 

As a result, it is challenging when reading this text not to be existentially challenged about the nature of the self. Are we nothing but various role in which we act out? If so, what are the implications? Perhaps we can be assigned a role which will bring about a change in our personality? As pointed out by Bronfenbrenner in The Ecology of Human Development (1979: 92) ‘the placement of a person in a role tends to evoke perceptions, activities, and patterns of interpersonal relation consistent with expectations associated with that role’. He also notes that ‘the placement of persons in social roles in which they are expected to act competitively or cooperatively tends to elicit and intensify activities and interpersonal relations that are compatible with the given expectations (p.101). This raises the question as to whether we can seek out roles that may improve our functioning and wellbeing.

By Richard Devine (22.05.20)

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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