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Erving Goffman Theory Essay


Erving Goffman was an important sociologist during the last century. His work mainly focused on the evident routine behavior within the social organizations. Putting different kinds of qualitative methods into use, Erving Goffman came up with categorizations of the various factors of social interaction.

His approach’s hallmark was the supposition that these categorizations were heuristic, instruments of simplification for sociological investigations that did not succeed in expressing intricate past life experiences. Additionally, Goffman also held a firm pursuit in the psychology of sociopaths. This started in 1950s while he carried out a research on ethnography at a prominent hospital situated in Washington. This was the period when television media had emerged.

Earlier in time, newspapers, books and radio were used to relay messages in which, with the emergence of videos and films, strengthened how information was understood by people. His rational setting was the limited psychological interests of that time as well as the wide scholarly interests of today’s epoch (Goffman, 1996). This essay aims to discuss the current contemporary issues, and in particular gender identity, and how it relates to Goffman’s concepts and theory.

To begin with, Goffman’s work can be interpreted as close scrutiny of a person’s behavior within a social context. He idealistically employs this social behaviorist approach to the field of interaction order. Moreover, he describes the social rules that border action, that is, the expected values and norms by which other individuals construe and pass judgment upon the person’s behavior (Goffman, 1996, p. Preface). In his Gender Advertisements, the concept of interaction order has been well exemplified by the Codes of Gender film.

In a spectacular visual detail, the film digs deep into Goffman’s key claim that gender conceptions are the outcomes of practiced ethnical performances, bringing out a singular rule of feminine and masculine behaviors. It looks outside advertisement as a form of selling products and outside studies of gender that centers on biological variances, to give a clear-sighted perspective of powerfulness and identity relations (Jhally, 2008).

Jhally, in his Codes of Gender, explains that dissimilar to the ordinary expectations of sex as biologically determined, gender’s determination is not in nature- it is culturally constructed within the various societies in which one is born. Such traits as walking style, body attitude, aspects of emotions and way of talking, are all regulated by codes, norms and patterns that are somewhat permanently implemented into the culture.

Since the codes are completely renormalized and unperceivable, they end up becoming normal as they are inconspicuous to one. Both Goffman and Jhally argue that one efficient means of making the codes seeable and to analyze the role in the society is to closely consider advertisement and some other cultural artifacts which have a tendency of distilling, overdoing or strengthening existent gender rules and beliefs.

The bulk of Jhally’s discussions concentrate on a much stupefying series of advertisings which instance Goffman’s classifications of gender presentations and the manner in which advertisings apply the body as message. The coded exhibits are in many cases more elusive than the sheer uncovering of skin or evidently implicative airs.

Jhally discloses a catalogue of body images from the recognized posture of a model with bent knee and contorted body, to an impressive display of other physical reminds, all purposed to relay passiveness, availableness and hyponymy (Jhally)- what Goffman calls “ritualization of subordination” (Goffman, 1996, p. 38).

In Goffman’s book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he explains that, the manifestation of a particular self is made by a person and interpreted by others. Not a thing in his dramaturgical existence is rather what they appear; instead, each one is presented as a performer, acting out practiced lines and characters.

His unrelenting investigations on social constructionism prognosticate significant themes and emphases in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). Both claim that “there is no gender identity”, as evidenced by the following excerpts:

Gender is performative, gender is always doing, “though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed… there is no being behind the doing… the deed is everything… there is no gender identity behind the expression of identity… identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its result (Butler, 1990, p. 25).

What the human nature of males and females really consists of, then, is a capacity to learn to provide and to read depictions of masculinity and femininity and a willingness to adhere to a schedule for presenting these pictures, and this capacity they have by virtue of being persons, not females or males.

One might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender. There is no relationship between the sexes that can so far be characterized in any satisfactory fashion. There is only evidence of the practice between the sexes of choreographing behaviorally a portrait of relationship (Goffman, 1996, p. 8).

The main ideas that were to be later popularized by Butler were foretokened by Goffman in his authorships of gender in the 1950s.

According to Butler, human sexual identity is merely a display that is constantly acted out. Such performativity includes a broad range of human behaviors from the way they walk, talk, and perform certain practices and so forth. Otherwise stated, gender is a performance; it is what one does at certain times instead of a universal being of oneself.

These are acts that individuals keep performing throughout the course of one’s life, and these performances are what consolidate the impression or the meaning of masculine and feminine identities (Butler, 1990).

She suggests that some gender cultural configurations have come to appear natural in today’s societies, though it does not have to be that way. Instead of suggesting utopian imagination without any thought of how one might get to this stage, Butler necessitates revolutionary actions in Gender Trouble such as revolutionary confusion, readiness and gender ontogeny which thereafter leads to identity.

Butler’s argument is based on the fact that every individual performs gender at one point and the question remains, what frame the doing will assume. By opting to be distinct concerning it, one may figure out how to alter gender patterns as well as the double apprehension of femininity and masculinity. Identities are thus defined by the dramatic effects of one’s performances (Butler, 1990).

Following Goffman, Judith Butler developed the notion of gender performativity where “…gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (416). The construction of gendered identities for Butler is achieved through conventionalized actualization of series of acts over time (Butler, 1990). Neither psychic life nor gender are wholly states, but rather they are clear marches that gestalt in manners that remain uniform overtime without getting closed or totally insular.

Therefore, gender operates at many exquisitely differentiated levels and should not be thought of as one firm kernel. To add to the performativity dimension of what seems necessary or comparatively stable and durable, namely, the outside enfolding that gets embodied as they turn psyche, there also exists unconscious gender performativity aspects of humane resistances and defenses and their pleasures as well (Butler, 1990).

This assertions by Butler clearly echo those of goffman who maintains that identity is created by interacting with others. These mutual actions, he indicates, are naturally dramatized betwixt actors and their audiences. He further states that, each person is basically an actor who creates various identity performances basing on who the spectators are and what the objectives of the actor are. Therefore, for Goffman, living is a dramartugy and humans, as performers, act in different manners when in the ‘frontstage’ and when in ‘backstage’.

Frontstage conducts are deliberately arranged; it is a populace character intended to make the audience believe that the performer is credible. It is qualified by adhesion to social rules and moral principals (Goffman, 1996, p. 35). Backstage on the other hand is where frontstage doings are prepared, where info about a particular self is managed in order to gain acceptance when stepping on the stage (Goffman, 1996, p. 112).

Any info pertaining to oneself that runs antagoistic to social requirements are hidden from the audiences through a procedure of ‘mystification’ which includes putting vehemency on those facets of a person that are socially approved, and by that means legitimatising public acting as well as personal self (Goffman, 1996, p. 67).

An important yet sometimes missed part of Goffman’s argument pertains to “stigmatized selves” which brings about the role of sex in construction of coherent sexuality and gender. Stigma, as defined by Goffman is an attribute that relates a person to unsuitable features, otherwise known as stereotypes.

He talks about the categorizations of people’s identities within the society into three aspects; social, ego and personal. Stigmatization has many consequences; it brings out distinguished differences, and brings separation and loss of status (Goffman, 1996, p. 176). Society decides on what should be stigmatized against one. Goffman says;

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought.

When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his ‘social identity’ — to use a term that is better than ‘social status’ because personal attributes such as ‘honesty’ are involved, as well as structural ones, like ‘occupation’ (2).

The ground that stigma can exist and is an issue, is that identity belongs to and represents the values and beliefs of a society. In every society, the evident biologic distinction between women and men is used as vindication for placing them into the different social functions which determine their doings and attitudes.

This means that, none of the societies is contended with the natural dissimilarities of sex, rather each importunes on making gender cultural dissimilarities an addition to it (Goffman, 1996). Thence, the mere physical reality often becomes related with composite psychological characters. It is never satisfactory that a man is male; he is to display masculinity as well. A woman, on top of being female, has also to be feminine.

Sex differences are thus used to create gender differences which in turn bring gender differences in roles within the patriarchic societies. From the very beginning males enjoy a dominant social position. Male children, from their earlier years are hence assisted to develop masculine traits that will enable them take over and keep that status.

Similarly, young female children are learned to naturalize a subservient femininity. The ensuing differences in the female and male characters are then used to support the existent power arrangements and are explained as inbred. In social settings, showing a lot of emotions or crying is not expected of a man, while for women it is natural.

Some other times, it is regarded contemptuous if a woman does no display emotions at important events such as weddings or funerals. A man has to go out to seek a woman; it is not appropriate that a woman selects a man that she likes and pursues him with relationship intentions. Generally, gender roles and perceptions vary greatly from culture to culture (Goffman, 1996).

Gender identities often seem to define or organize the very procedures by which it takes form itself, thus constituting a ground. After all, cultures tend to virtually arrange every dimension of psychic and social life across sexual differences, as though sex were the cause and core.

To contend that sex construction as cause and core should not contradict the coherence or integration that a particular form of sexual dissimilarity, in its articulation with some other aspects of psychic and social life, attains and maintains in individuals over a period of time.

Organism and environment interaction produce articulations of which human relations to sexual difference is an important piece, but not a sole cause. Social scholar ideologists maintain that a vast arrangement of varying determines socializes humans as men and women. With this being the case, it is so difficult to rejoinder gender socialization (Butler, 1990).

Goffman continues to discuss how actors both wittingly and unknowingly give off notions. Since almost every human is practiced in the art of impression management, every aspect of an individual’s doings is monitored by the people they meet. Goffman’s performers attempt to lead on others whilst perceiving the true nature of other’s delusory practices.

Offstage performances do not inevitably conform to the facts and therefore worthy of belief, even though the doings of the frontstage are often wittingly contradicted while there. Butler affirms his lines of reasoning by stating that gender is performed unconsciously by one, but goes on to mention that the performativity is neither automatic nor mechanical (Butler, 1990).

An example is when parents, without awareness, handle their daughters and sons children in different ways. Parents give a description their babies using words that depict gender stereotypes: boys are presumed to be brisk and energetic while girls are gentle, petite, and fragile.

These descriptions are further reflected in the treatment of the infants by their parents. Kids are clothed in gender stereotypic garments and colors. Even today, girls are still discouraged from playing certain rough sports like football and are given cooking toys or dolls to play with to a greater extent than boys. On the other hand boys are given masculine toys like guns and trucks (Jhally, 2008).

More practical news stories from current events that represent gender identity include that of Reema Abdallah, a saudi arabian female athlete who has shown bravery in a country that condemns physical exercises in women. In fact, even the ministry forbids female students from having physical exercises on the basis that the exercises are musculine and in some ways may result into the losing of virginity by girls in a manner that is against the physiological nature of a woman.

The saudi arabia community has a rigid culture that is difficult to change. Reema abdalah is ready to act as a role model for saudi arabia women by participating in athletic activities (theguardian, 2012). This portrays gender steriotyping in that they believe that women cannot do what men can.

Another example yet, is the recent case of United Kingdom’s political parties who showed open hostility toward the requirements for increased female representation in the parliaments of Scotland and Wales.

The report by the Electron Reform Society has accused the big parties of “allowing the issue of equal representation for women to “fester”, undermining the ethos which underpinned their foundation in 1999 to improve equality, accountability and wider democracy” (theguardian, 2012).

This indicates that the women are still discriminated against even in the leadership positions. Womenshould be given equal cahnces as men as they can equaly perform.

In Butler’s view, human beings have got desires that do not stem from their personhood, but mostly, from social norms. She as well argues on societal norms of superior and inferior humans and however these thoughts that are culturally enforced can prevent an individual from living a normal life since the fears are normally about whether an individual will be recognized whenever their needs sway from normalcy.

She asserts that one might feel the desire to be accepted so as to continue living, but that simultaneously, the terms for recognition creates an unworthy life. Butler precisely disputes the biologic explanations of bilingual sex, preconceiving the excited body as culturally made by regulatory discourses (Butler, 1990). There is the most literal form of performativity expression of gender, a willing dramatization in action, say of conquest; and there exists the Real of sex difference that also an illusions of command, mastery and knowledge.

It exerts its force constantly on some relation to what the psychic is in the process of incorporating. Unmasking of gender performativity on whichever level does not erase gender or gender identity; however, it has the potential to make gender less commanding, but only if simplistic supposition that it has a totally imperial grasp on the mind in the first place is abandoned.

In other words, queer deconstructionism of gender cannot perform all the earth-damaging work they appear to promise, since gender identity is just part of psychic life and not the whole. Nevertheless, this does not mean that that deconstructionism is insignificant (Butler, 1990).

The notions and ideas concerning who one really is are made in the manifestations of a social context. Most sociologists of whom Erving Goffman is a representation, view identity as linked to the society in which one belongs. An individual is in one way socialized into their identity. There exists various ways that constructs pertaining to individual or group identities are built socially.

Identities are formed against a person’s social heritage that attempts to establish a significant societal interaction order, apprehensible and well coordinated by classifying people in different ways. Conclusively, the dramaturgic world of Goffman is one of mismanagement in which general suspiciousness is a necessity. As a matter of fact, he acquired a pursuit in espionage patterns just because he realized these as differences of routine behavior.

These considerations were possibly a function of a wider ethnical change within the United States. The presumptions of a conventional America during the 1950s became challenged by the more radical contemporaries of the 1960s. To some extent, Goffman provided a verbalism to this emergent persuasion. Therefore, there is evidently a literary tone in every of his published works, and this partly serves as a reason to his achievements.

The liberal interests of his investigations into everyday behavior occurred at the prime of America’s involvement in depth psychology. In this gumption, the works of Goffman includes the elaborateness of pertinent metaphors. All the same, theatric and game metaphors are given a position.


Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routlege.

Goffman, E. (1996). Identities, Groups and Social Issues. (M. Wetherell, Trans.) New York: SAGE.

Jhally, S. (Director). (2008). Codes of Gender [Motion Picture]. Media Education Foundation.

theguardian. (2012). Gender. Retrieved from Guardian News and Media Limited:

Definition of Terms

Dramaturgy: A theory by Goffman that people are actors in their everyday behavior that leads to an individual being classified in the society.

Social identity: One’s classification as belonging to a particular social group basing on the identity and behavior variances in different situations

Ego identity: It is the self-representation based upon certain structuring of the entire realms of life into a rigid organization

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