Erving Goffman

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life


The Main Argument, and the Starting Assumption


As in Berger & Luckmann's Social Construction of Reality, this work is an attempt at analyzing our daily life world from the perspective that all of our actions we perform - and the interpretations and meanings we give to these actions - are fundamentally social in nature. In carrying out this analysis, therefore, the perspective Goffman adopts is that of the analogy of the everyday life to the theatrical, or the dramaturgical, performances. So, in this perspective, we cannot merely act for the sake of that action. Rather, all actions are social performances - with the aim of not only achieving whatever the "inherent" purposes the action may have had, but also that of giving off and maintaining certain desired impressions of t he self to others. So, human actions are seen as inherently involving this social and relational aspects with the desire to give off the impression that people want others to have of themselves. This is a starting assumption, not a deductively arrived conclusion. With this assumption kept in mind, then, Goffman's task in these pages is to outline several techniques people employ in order to manage these social performances to give off the kind of impressions they desire others to have.




Several interesting key concepts are introduced here.


1. The distinction of two modes of communication - expressions we give and expressions we give e off.

The former is the concretely intended and conscious form of expression, as epitomized by verbal communications using language. The latter is the non-verbal, presumably unintentional, form of communication that is not concretely expressed in speech but nevertheless have efficacy in communicating, consciously or unconsciously, some things about the person expressing it. It is important to keep in mind that, while the former is always intentional, the latter does not necessarily have to be unintentional in turn and, in fact, people are capable of manipulating them as well, which is the subject of the next introductory distinction Goffman makes.


2. The symmetry vs. the asymmetry of these two modes of expression.

Symmetry occurs whenever there is a congruence between what these two modes of expressions communicate, asymmetry is whenever these two do not express same things. Thus, say, when a student who had been yawning all along a lecture, nevertheless says he had enjoyed the talk greatly, then there is an asymmetry in what these two modes of expressions communicate. Because people are capable of manipulating the latter, non-verbal mode of expression to a considerable degree, then there is a possibility for the type of information games to set in, Goffman notes. This may take the form of a cycle of "concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery", all of course geared to the goal of giving off as advantageous a set of impressions as possible.


3. "Working consensus"

People express different definitions of the social situations they are in, and they may conflict. "Working consensus" is a type of consensus, which is not an agreement in any absolute sense, but a tentative agreement as to whose claims and definitions would be honored according to the different situation. Also, in accepting other's definitions of social situations, Goffman notes of the crucial importance of information people possess initially concerning fellow participants, for all subsequent actions and responses would be based upon these initial knowledges. Following this, it now follows that these initial definitions of situations by someone eventually set a plan for the co-operative social activity that ensues. Goffman here notes that these accepted definitions then come to have the moral, imperative character, in that they now tell people what they ought to be and what they should do. When people violate these definitions and do not act according to them, however, then there is a problem. People then engage in defensive practices to protect the validity of these definitions and liquidate the violating actions that have taken place, Goffman notes. So, in effect we can see Goffman is here tacitly paving way for his more grand task - an exposition on the methods people employ to reconcile the discrepancy between their own actions as they are and the social meanings and impressions they desire to give off.




1. Belief in the Part One is Playing

There is a different degree as to how much an individual believes that the expression one is putting up as social performance represents the true reality. At one extreme, a performer sincerely feels that whatever he/she is doing represents the true reality, at the other extreme the performer has no belief at all that his/her action stands for anything sincerely real. Say, if one finds no real meanings at all about the religious doctrines one nevertheless comports accordingly, then that situation is of the latter. This attitude often takes form in certain type of cynicism. Between these two extremes there are all kinds of different degrees as to how much actions are believed to be "real".


2. Front

The first central concept in Goffman's dramaturgical analogy is the concept of front. Front stands for the standardized expressive equipment that people use to define situations in a general and fixed way. Notice that this definition is somewhat reminiscent of Berger & Luckmann's concept of objectivation, in the sense that they both stand for generalized representations people can understand intersubjectively. Front is in turn divided into several components. First is the setting. This is the scenic, physical parts of expressive equipment, associated with certain spatial location. Next is the personal front, the other items of expressive equipment that their endowment to individuals are perceived to be very natural - such as size and looks, race, sex, speech patterns, etc. Further, Goffman makes the distinction between appearance and manner. Appearance is those aspects of individuals that tell of his/her social statuses. Manner is those aspects of communication that tell of others the type of interaction roles performers expect to play in a certain situation. In short, while the appearance is fairly changeless condition that signifies who we are, manner is how we want to be perceived of in a particular situation. This distinction is interesting, for while there is a tendency for the setting, appearance and manner to coincide, they do not necessarily have to. Sometimes there are discrepancies among those three - how we want to interact with others do not match with our appearances, or the settings we are in, and vice versa. Further, as remarked earlier this concept of front is somewhat similar to Berger & Luckmann's "objectivation". Consequently, the similarity is such that Goffman also perceives of front as the embodiment of generalized reality that can be applied to number of different situations (Although there is some difference between the two in that Goffman gives more attention to the conscious action of individuals to make use of these fronts). Thus, he notes that there is a tendency for a large number of different acts to employ same fronts.


3. Dramatic Realization

Once again, human actions are not done only for their own intrinsic sake in the presence of others, they are fundamentally social in nature. People typically, in the presence of others, "dramatize" what they are doing - highlighting and emphasizing those aspects of what they are doing they want to convey most. Some professions face no problem of this dramatization, as policemen, musicians, surgeons, etc. Other professions face a little more difficulty. This often leads to the dilemma of whether one should focus on doing whatever they are doing "for their own sake", or should one be concerned more about expressing what they are doing to others.


4. Idealization

We saw that through "front" people tend to present objectified version of meanings. Meanwhile, idealization is another important socialization mechanism people commonly employ - that is, performers have tendency to offer observers impressions idealized in several different ways in social interaction. One aspect of this idealization that Goffman delves into with some details is the concealment of aspects of their lives performers do not want observers to see and, therefore systematically attempt to hide. Goffman specifically thinks up and lists five different ways people conceal their "secrets" in pp. 43 to 48. In opposite fashion, performers may also exaggerate that their actions, or relationships they have to others, are "special" and worthy of preferential attention. Thus, many of the social interactions rely on the feelings on the parts of participants that they are of special significance to each other - and people try to give impression to others that their relationship is specially important.


5. Maintenance of Expressive Control

The management of impressions observers receive through the maintenance of expressions is such that it can be compared to a piece of art - in the sense even small mishap can disrupt the whole scheme and destroy the credibility of whole performance. The art of impression management is by its nature rather fragile. Goffman attributes this fragility to the fundamental discrepancy existing between "all-too-human selves" which are supposed to be volatile and impulsive, and our "socialized" selves (This somewhat naive assumption regarding human nature, though seems to be resting on a crude version of Freudian psychology, is one of the weaker argument in the work to me).


6. Misrepresentation

Whether outright lying or more subtle form of misrepresentation, it can be said that since in a social setting people do not act for the sake of actions only but are concerned about their impression management, some form of misrepresentation is always likely to occur. However, what is "true", or what is "false", or what is "honest" and what is a "lie", are socially defined and cannot be defined in absolute terms. Therefore, the important point in this section is that it is not a sociologists' task to be concerned with the question of what is a misrepresentation in any absolute sense and what is not. Rather, a sociologist must focus on the question of, in what ways can the process of creating certain impressions be disrupted through the misrepresentation.


7. Mystification

Mystification is a particular technique that may be employed to keep the observers at a sense of awe. Thus, the observers may be held in the state of mystified in regard to the performers. Maintenance of social distance, and regulation of contacts, are usually crucial if this process is to work successfully.


8. Reality and Contrivance

Lastly, in this section Goffman argues against the tendency of the Western culture to characterize two types of actions in their relationship to "reality" in a dichotomous concept. One is the real performance, not contrived at all, naturally occurring as it is the unintentional and unconscious response to the conditions surrounding him/her. The other is the false, contrived performance, calculated, and is in no way a response to any specific conditions around him/her. Goffman argues that this dichotomous categorization obscures the scientific reality, and argues that there is no intrinsic or necessary relationship between appearance and reality. One can equally well manage their own impressions and thus, their own version of reality, by acting completely dishonestly or lying everything about oneself. So tacitly, Goffman takes us back to the starting point he shares with Berger and Luckmann, as well as symbolic interactionist tradition in general - that all reality is socially constructed. He ends this chapter by talking a bit about the nature of the socialization process of people - that people do not learn every single details of what they are supposed to do and comport in every specific situations, but learn just enough pieces of information to "fill in" the roles he/she may encounter. "We all act better than we know how" (p. 74), Goffman comments, yet he does not mention how this is made possible exactly - and in general this last argument is actually the most vague among all arguments in our assigned section.


Critique and Relevance


Like many of the works in our reading list, as Berger and Luckmann, Geertz and Comaroffs, this work shares the notion that there is no objectively valid universal reality independent of people's social actions. Other than that, it can be seen that this work contains lots of notions comparable to ones developed in Berger and Luckmann piece, albeit perhaps at less sophisticated level as Goffman's analysis is largely limited to the individual level and does not pay much attention to the construction of social structure and institutions (That does not mean Goffman's concepts cannot be used in the analysis of social structure, on the contrary the concepts as mystification seen to be quite useful for the analysis of social structure). So, front is broadly analogous to "objectivation", while "mystification" and "idealization" may be considered part of "legitimation", etc. Obviously, whose concepts should prove more useful depends on the concern of researches one wants to conduct; all we can do right now is know exactly what these concepts are trying to say.