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Goffman's Dramaturgical Analysis

Goffman's Dramaturgical Analysis

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will detail Goffman's dramaturgical analysis and explain the key idea of presentation of self including the concepts of front stage and back stage.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Today we're going to talk about dramaturgical analysis and this idea of society as a stage. Society is a theater upon which we, social actors, act out ourselves.

So Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote this book, The Presentation of Self, in 1959, hugely influential book. One of the most important sociological texts ever written to this day. To say that we present ourselves, well what does this imply to you? What do you think about when you hear the word presentation? What does it mean? What in life do we present?

Plays are presented to an audience. Speakers give presentations at conferences. I'm giving a presentation right now. Musicians present concerts to their audiences, and movies are even called feature presentations. Well as I said, Goffman theorized that social life is like a presentation, like a play. And he viewed society as a theater upon which we performers enact ourselves, present ourselves.

Well what do you find in a theater? Think about this metaphor. You find the stage and there's a dressing room or a backstage. You have an audience. You have props, and all of these things combine to contribute to the presentation. To call society then a theater and a social stage upon which we enact our performances, Goffman called this dramaturgical analysis, after a dramatic production.

This is an interesting way to look at society and social interaction. If you conceive of yourself as a performer, out there putting on a performance for an audience, it brings in a degree of contrivance, of artificiality, you might think. And while we're presenting ourselves, were concerned with impression management, which is we're trying to control the way others perceive us, and we might slant or alter slightly our presentation of self in different contexts so that we are seen positively in the eyes of others. We learn to do this at a very young age. You say, I can act this way around mom and dad, or I can act this way around my friends. I have to act still a third way when I'm at school around my teachers and in a classroom and around the principal. Overall, this process is called the presentation of self, which is a person's efforts to control their impressions in the eyes of others.

Our impressions are given off mostly on the front stage. A front stage is where a performance takes place, any time an audience is present, whereas a back stage is when there are performers present but the audience is not. And when two or more people are present, there can really be no true back stage. And Goffman theorized that we seamlessly move in and out of front stage and back stage in our social interactions.

For instance, this morning when I'm sitting there preparing this lecture, I was at home on my computer sitting at a desk with a cup of coffee in my pajamas. But then I come here, and I have to put out a little nicer clothes, and I have to think about how I want to present this material. I mean it was already there in the back stage. But I had to think about a way to present it positively.

Another example, think about the physical space of a restaurant. When you walk into a restaurant, you're walking into the front stage. You see a bunch of tables. You see waiters and waitresses and hostesses in nice clothing or uniform clothing, their costume. They're using all kinds of props. You're seated in your table that is set up just so. But then there's a chaotic back stage. If any of you have ever worked in a restaurant or have had friends who have worked in the service industry in a restaurant, they can tell you just how chaotic this kitchen is. But we don't get to go backstage and see that. But for the cooks that are backstage, well they are at the same time then front stage because they're interacting with each other and developing their personalities and putting on performances in the kitchen, which is our backstage, but it's their front stage. So there's not clear cut definitions between front stage and back stage.

Goffman maintained that then we move in and out of front and back stage and then the prospective taken, such as if you're a cook in the back stage or if you're a diner in the restaurant. And we always want to get back stage if we can. It's an intriguing part of social life.

When I did my research on couch surfing, I theorized exactly this. That these people who are staying with their strangers, want to get backstage. They want to see authentic backstage and people are just hanging out, when they're not putting on a performance, when they're not contriving and putting on this display. And people will tour for this reason.

And in dating and relationships, if you say you value your partner because you feel like you can really be yourself and be who you are, it's uncomfortable to have to try to put on some presentation of self all of the time. So a partner that lets you just feel back stage all of the time is valued.

Another example still, I recently was able to go back stage at a concert through a friend of mine who knew somebody to go back stage at a Jason Mraz concert, and so me going backstage, I felt like wow, I'm really getting back stage, but for all the performers back there that I met, it wasn't backstage for them. This was just a normal part of their social life, and so they were engaged in front stage presentations of self as was I when I met them in the interaction, but it was taking place in back stage. So there are degrees of back stage and front stage, and we move through successive getting further back or getting further out front.

I hope you enjoyed this presentation of Goffman and front stage, back stage dramaturgical analysis and the presentation of self in everyday life. This is a great book. You all should read it. Like I said, it's one of the most famous classic sociological texts, and it helped found this idea of symbolic interaction and symbolic interactions perspective.

Have a great rest of your day.

  • Dramaturgical Analysis (Erving Goffman)

    The idea that people's day-to-day lives can be understood as resembling performers in action on a theater stage.

  • Presentation of Self (Erving Goffman)

    Phrase used to describe a person's efforts to create a specific impression in the minds of others.

  • Front Stage

    In dramaturgical analysis, this is where a performance takes place in front of an audience.

  • Back Stage

    In dramaturgical analysis, this is the social space where performers are present, but an audience is not.