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Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self Theory Essay

The dynamics of interpersonal interactions are rather complex and have multiple layers. Many scholars all around the world are focused on the exploration of human communication and its various characters and forms. Interactions are the basis of everything that happens in a society, and that is why the power and importance of communication are impossible to underestimate. The complexity of human interactions is dictated by the fact of extreme diversity of people’s personalities, traits, and styles that affect and direct the process of communication. A society is an ever changing body that is in constant motion and each of its individual impacts those around, and it influences by them at the same time.

The incredible flexibility and changeability of the society force the social scientists to search for various ways to approach the internal dynamics of groups and individuals in order to study the multiple ways they connect to one another. The sociologist Erving Goffman proposed viewing one’s communication with the individuals around as performance using a symbolic analogy of a theater (Barnhart N. d.). Goffman’s theory covers group dynamics, interactions within various environments, unconventional scenarios, and the influence of individual and environmental factors on the communication (Barnhart N. d.). This research will focus on Erving Goffman, and his vision of the self within the communication with the outer world; the theory will be demonstrated using the example of a teacher and their interactions with the class under various circumstances.

Erving Goffman: Background

Erving Goffman was born at the beginning of the 1920s; and even though he was Canadian originally, for the major part of his life he studied and practiced in the United States (Teuber N. d.). Goffman is widely recognized as one of the most outstanding sociologists in the world, and his impact on the understanding of social interactions and face-to-face communication is massive. Through the course of his career, Goffman has written several books where he explained his theories and explorations. His most well-known books are “Stigma” (written in 1964), “Asylums” (written in 1961), and “The Presentation of Self” (written in 1959) – all of these works study interpersonal interactions from the dramaturgical perspective relying on the concepts of social roles. His works that were published later, such as “Forms of Talk” and “Frame Analysis” (written at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s), focus on the perception of reality by the individual within their interactions with other people (Erving Goffman 2015).

Goffman obtained his Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology in 1945 studying in Toronto (Manning 2013:3). Working on his Ph.D., Goffman began to travel around Europe (namely, he visited the United Kingdom and France) and was lucky to meet with some of the most outstanding philosophers and sociologists. As a result, his ideas concerning social interactions, communication, and social satisfaction were influenced by a rather popular doctrine practiced in Europe at that time – existentialism. Goffman’s interest in existentialism and the works of Sartre particularly helped him shape his individual style as a scholar and form most of his views and perspectives. That way, in the field of sociology, Goffman stands out due to his unconventional views on rather common concepts such as social roles.

Goffman’s idea on his own works was based on a belief that he did not belong to any of the existing schools of sociology, and his thought was non-traditional (Green 2014). This scholar specifically focused on widely discussed subjects such as communication and social interactions attempting to view them from the standpoint no one has explored before and ask questions no one has asked prior to him.

Goffman died at the age of 60, and the cause of his death was cancer. He never stopped to develop professionally, and the very last achievement he made was the acquisition of the position of president at the American Sociological Association that he continued to keep up until his death.

Roles in Sociology

In sociology, the concept of social roles refers to the role theory that views the society from the perspective of various behaviors and functions presented by the individuals both separately and collectively (Turner 2002:233). In that way, the behavioral patterns of individuals are seen as specifically organized and constructed under the influence of various processes and effects. As a result, the shift in behaviors may happen due to a deliberate alteration or an unconscious adjustment. When a certain behavior is reviewed using a group as a unit, the concept of role refers to a set of actions and reactions practiced by individuals within groups and teams.

In other words, the behavior of an organization or community is based on very complex dynamics that are shaped due to the collective performance of all the individuals comprising the community on both external and internal levels (Turner 2002:233). The role theories that focus on reviewing the group behaviors and roles are recognized and structural theories. Apart from these theories, there are the ones that review the concept of role at the individual level. In this case, the actions of individuals are studied within the situations they face; in this reference two similar people may obtain very different roles in different situations, and two people who are not alike may act similarly when encountering the same conditions (Turner 2002:233).

Studying an individual within their environments comprised of people and situations, the social scientists employ what is called stage analogy – a rather common approach where the world is likened to a stage of a theater, and the people – to actors. Stage analogy is referred to as mainstream in sociology and is embraced by the majority of scholars. Goffman was not an exception as his dramaturgical model is aligned with the stage analogy.

Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model

The theory exploring the interactions between one’s self and the other individuals based on the analogy with the theater built and developed by Goffman is called dramaturgical model in which the self functions as the main performer (Barnhart N. d.). Goffman’s dramaturgical theory is based on the performances that require the presence of several main components – the actor (one’s self), the situation (the stage), and the audience (other individuals).

According to Goffman’s theory of self, a life of any human being can be studied as a series of performances dictated by the roles one takes over at different periods of life (The Presentation of Self (Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model) N. d.). In other words, at any moment of one’s life they are engaged in playing a particular role. In this case, the concept of role covers a variety of behaviors. For instance, the roles may be professional (such as a waitress, a welder, a manager, or a doctor), or social that reflect different positions of the individuals in society in reference to versatile aspects such as age, gender, cultural and ethnic background, identity, health status, biometric characteristics, to name a few. That way, at any time of one’s life the features they identify with outline their roles in society. Several characteristics may be responsible for just one role.

For instance, in different societies the age and profession of an individual may reflect the way they are perceived by the others – an older employee may be associated with a higher level of professionalism while the younger one may not be taken seriously. However, these perceptions vary depending on different scenarios. That way, the dynamics described above may dominate the field of medicine where young doctors may be perceived as untrustworthy, but the ideas are reversed in such fields as the IT or sports, where the young professionals are associated with better skills and performances. These examples demonstrate that the roles may be shaped based on two influences – that of an individual, and those of the people around.

In Goffman’s dramaturgical model, the performances expressed by means of fulfilling various roles are the sources of a person’s meanings and information concerning themselves, the situations, and the observers. The main purpose of performances is the production of an impression on the surrounding individuals or oneself. Impression management is the most important concept of Goffman’s dramaturgical model (The Presentation of Self (Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model) N. d.). According to Goffman’s perspective, each individual has their own interpretation of the situation or a scenario and all of them are projecting their interpretations through their actions (Goffman 1959:3).

Depending on the scenarios, roles may be active or passive, and regardless of the role of an individual they still have a projection. While active actors express their interpretations through the performances, the passive ones do it “by virtue of their response to the individual and by virtue of any lines of action they initiate to him” (Goffman 1959:3). Besides, Goffman also maintains that each individual has one primary objective that is to persuade the others that their interpretation of the situation is the most realistic (The Presentation of Self (Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model) N. d.). As a result, the interactions often turn into rivalries, competitions, and even battles of interests and goals.

“The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by Goffman

The book called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” was published in 1959. This book introduces Goffman’s theory of interactions between one’s self and the other individuals based on the analogy with the theater. The metaphor employed by the author serves as the universal bond between all of the concepts and perspectives he expresses in the book. In his work, Goffman does not focus on interactions as the main impact, but it is clear that the communication between the individuals serves as the force behind all the performances, impressions, and roles (Green 2014). The author begins with the outline of his objectives for the book and says, “I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary

work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do

while sustaining his performance before them” (Goffman 1959:1). Discussing performances in his book, Goffman (1959:10) writes, “there is the popular view that the individual offers his performance and puts on his show ‘for the benefit of other people’”. However, in his theory the author explores a different perspective and studies “the individual’s own belief in the impression of reality that he attempts to engender in those among whom he finds himself” (Goffman 1959:10). In that way, the actor’s performance is seen not only from the point of view of the audience but from the perspective of the self. The mutual influence of all the factors and participants of the performance is the focus of Goffman’s interest.

As mentioned by the author, the lens through which he approaches the social interactions and behaviors serves as the source of his insights concerning the organization of one’s individual personality. The initial sections of “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” describe the perspective Goffman intends to employ, and the rest of the work provides a variety of demonstrations using versatile scenarios from the everyday life and interactions serving as the illustrations of concepts and perspectives the author relies on in his theory. Goffman’s examples are very clear, and any reader can relate to them and comprehend them. The diversity of the illustrations allows the author to demonstrate the ways an individual uses to create an impression, the means a group or a team would employ to manage the impression, the impacts on the audience and its responses and even the influence these responses make.

The dramaturgical model developed by Goffman was criticized by some scholars for its limitations and disadvantages (Wilshire 1982). According to the point of view of Bruce Wilshire (1982), “the chief limitations of the dramaturgical model are that it excites the invalid inferences that offstage “roles” are more like stage actors’ roles than they really are, and that the person is nothing but these “roles””. This quote signifies the major disagreement of Goffman’s critics to perceive an individual as a set of masks they change depending on the situations and surroundings as it seems like the individuals have no fixed qualities or behaviors, and their on- and off-stage actions are equally dramaturgical. In this way, Wilshire (1982) notes that unlike the actors who put on the masks, we are our masks, but, at the same time, our masks are not all we are.

Dramaturgical Model in the Work of a Teacher

Overall, the concept of social roles is rather common in sociology. However, Goffman’s idea is to show that the performance does not have just one direction (from the actor to the viewers), but is a multidimensional action with a variety of impacts and outcomes that can be changed (consciously or unconsciously) by the actor, the audience, and the situations. The work of a teacher is a good illustration of dramaturgical approach.

First of all, a teacher performs in front of a class that serves as an audience the teacher adjusts their performance to build authority in the classroom, to connect with the learners, to establish discipline. The composition of the class impacts the teacher’s actions and strategies. For instance, the contemporary teachers are trained to demonstrate culturally sensitive performances for the diverse classrooms.

Secondly, a classroom is a minimized model of a society and can be used as an example of all types of social processes and perspectives. During a lesson, the teacher represents the active actor, while the students are the passive audience. Both sides have their own interpretation of the situation. For instance, if the subject is difficult to comprehend, the class may develop an idea that the topic is irrelevant to their life and thus useless. Projecting this impression and acting disinterested in the subject in a passive manner, the students influence the teacher’s interpretation of the situation. As a result, the educator begins to think that the children are arrogant, lazy, and unwilling to learn something they might need further in life. This is a typical example of a battle of interests between the teacher and the learners. Often, the former is in a more powerful position. That way, to change the attitude of the classroom, a teacher is to replace their annoyed mask with a patient one to make the learners interested in the subject. Various teaching techniques, basically, are the ways for the teachers to influence different kinds of audiences based on their interpretations of what is being taught.

Thirdly, in many classrooms the situations get “out of control”. This happens when the roles of the sides shift and the teacher are replaced as an active performer by the students. The learners begin to take over as soon as the teacher loses the battle of interests and lets the children realize that their actions may have a rather powerful effect. In such cases, the students’ interpretation wins and the lessons truly become irrelevant to their lives. In addition, there is a passive way for the class to impact the performance of a teacher by learning the teacher’s weaknesses. For instance, if a teacher is talkative and likes to share personal stories, the class may exploit this feature to encourage the educator to tell stories for a time long enough to avoid writing a test paper.

As seen from the example of a teacher’s work, even a situation that includes one active performer and multiple members of the audience is not one-sided. On the contrary, it is an interaction where the individuals’ perceptions of their selves, as well as their interpretation of the scenarios, influence both sides mutually. The example also illustrates that even though every participant of the classroom scenario has a role and wears a mask, only those who perceive their roles as powerful and capable of altering the scenario will manage their performances to produce particular impressions and achieve desired results.


To sum up, Goffman’s theory of presentation of self is deep and meaningful. It concerns a variety of aspects and behaviors, includes the individuals and environmental impacts and provides knowledge of multiple factors that are responsible for the way each individual participates in the interactions with the outer world. Goffman’s book called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” demonstrates his dramaturgical approach using the stage of a theater as an analogy. This metaphor is extremely suitable as it helps the author to explain all of the concepts of his theory clearly. One scenario that allows to illustrate the dramaturgical approach to self and social roles is the work of a teacher in the classroom as it includes mutual interactions between the audience and the actor, adjustments of performances, impression management, passive and active roles, interpretation, the clash of interests, and persuasion.


Barnhart, Adam D. N. d. 2015. Web.

2015. Web.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh, UK:University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

Green, Edward. 2014. “Goffman’s Ghost: The Art of Acting 101—Articulated.” Web.

Manning, Philip. 2013. Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Teuber, Andreas. N. d. Web.

2015. Web.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2002. Handbook of Sociological Theory. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Wilshire, Bruce. 1982. “Symbolic Interaction.” Rutgers 5(2).

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