Dramaturgy

Erving Goffman’s Theory (Dramaturgy) Best Explanation

Introduction

Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy is a specialized branch of sociology which makes it unique as compared to related fields. This theory is completely different from other theories because it does not aim for exclusion or choosing one side of the spectrum over the other, but rather focuses on reconciliation.

This theory was developed by an American sociologist Erving Goffman, famous for his facework and social interaction theory ideas. Goffman’s dramaturgy theory explains the three interaction classifications: front stage, backstage, and off stage.

Front Stage

A person is said to be in the front stage when they are conscious of the act. In front stage communication, a person is aware of their behavior while on stage.  Also, others are conscious of the person’s behavior.

Complex performances such as playing a role in a play that involves character portrayal exemplify the front stage performance. This type of situation takes place when a person is playing a part for the public. The situation which occurs otherwise is called “off-stage”.

Back Stage

A person is backstage when they are not in the condition of the front stage. A situation that occurs behind the screen is called backstage. This condition acts in a way so that an individual can get relief from being observed.

An example of a backstage performance is a person taking off their makeup and costume after finishing the act in front of an audience. In real life, this takes place when a person is in their private life.

Off Stage

Being off stage means that a person is not in the state of front or backstage. This type of situation means that individuals are unaware of others observing them and are not conscious of being watched. In this case, a person is unaware of their facial expression, tone and words used.

An example is that of a person playing with their cousin who is unaware of the presence of others while conversing.

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Details of the Dramaturgy Theory

This theory by Erving is also termed dramaturgical analysis. It is important to note that it was considered a radical and extreme theory when it started appearing because it was very different from previous assumptions.

Most of the other theories focused on choosing one side over the other, but this is different. It aims at emphasizing a balance between both sides and helps in getting the best out of each side.

This theory contributed to the understanding of social interaction that takes place in society. Collaborative work with other theories also helps develop dramaturgy theory which can help predict the behaviors of an individual or group.

The theory was advanced and refined by sociologists to understand the intricacies of social interactions. This theory explains the presentation of self in everyday life. The theory explains that human beings are social creatures, and they use facework to present themselves to others.

Goffman stresses that society can be understood better by studying face work and how people present themselves. He explains elaborately the interactions of individuals and how they take place through the use of dramaturgical analysis.

It is important to note that front stage, backstage, and off stage of the dramaturgy theory explain the various faces of human beings.

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Elements of the Dramaturgical Theory

Five elements make Ervin’s theory, namely manner, setting, performance, appearance, and front.

Manner

Manner is how one presents themselves to others. According to Erving, manner includes all those aspects visible to others, such as voice, firmness, speed of walking, gesture, etc.

The term “manner” refers to how we affect and are effective, not only on others but also on ourselves. But this is not easily accomplished, for we have to subject our conduct to intense continuous scrutiny to control its effects on others.

We also control it for our own sake when we do this because it now counts how we appear to ourselves. The very fact of this dual control means that others can easily take over our conduct; for they know how to make themselves appealing to us and we know in all our private moments how to make ourselves appealing to them.” – Erving

Setting

The setting of an act includes the location where a person is performing and the surrounding people at that time. The purpose of the setting is to provide a receptive audience to the performance. The setting can either be naturalistic or non-naturalistic.

Performance

A person’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and gestures (physical appearance) comprise a person’s performance. Appearance is another element that makes up a human being’s dramaturgy. It is the image that a person wants to project.

Goffman believes in presenting oneself, not as one is but as one would like to be. The process of adjustment in the environment is what turns out a good performance.

Appearance

Appearance is that which we present to the audience of ready impressions. It refers to the self-image of an individual. Ervin states:

“Appearance is that which accounts for how others see us. It explains what the other sees and at the same time shapes his vision”.

According to Ervin, there are two different sets of people; those who know the backstage reality and those who do not know it. The set of people who know the backstage are called primary participants. Goffman calls those who do not know it, secondary participants.

These two sets of people have different viewpoints. First of all, the primary participants are aware of each other’s backstage reality. Ervin calls it a dual-level interaction. On the other hand, secondary participants are not aware of this dual relationship. As Goffman says, they are oblivious of the backstage reality in preference to the front stage performance.

Secondly, primary participants are aware of their backstage reality and that of the secondary participants. On the contrary, secondary participants are unaware of their backstage reality and that of the primary participants.

Ervin also believes that front stage and backstage reality are interactive. It is a mutual relationship between primary and secondary participants. Both sets of people influence each other’s front-stage performance as well as backstage reality.

Front

Ervin defines “front” as that biased view of social life which we deliberately project and maintain. The term “front” refers to that which people deliberately present to the audience.

The front is what one wants others to see, but they also want to be seen. In some cases, the front and backstage reality can be the same, while there is a discrepancy in others.

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Dramatic Realization

Ervin says that we can perform only one role in our society at a given point in time. It is important to note that a person has many roles in their life, but they can perform only one role at any given time. He calls this experience a dramatic realization.

For example, an actor cannot be a policeman even though he plays the role of a policeman on stage. At the same time, a policeman cannot behave like an actor even though he wears a costume and shield on the stage.

We can never play all the roles at the same time and in different social settings. As a result, we are forced to be true to ourselves on the stage or in the context of other people. Dramatic realization helps us to understand the complexities of different situations.

Symbolic Interactionism

Goffman states that we can understand society better if we take a closer look at its composition. He describes society as an action-oriented place where human beings interact through symbols and signs.

Symbolic interactionism is a concept that explains this theory well. In simple words, it states that human beings are composed of two elements- the body and the mind. Body refers to outward signs that people use to communicate with others.

Ervin believes that we are capable of carrying out various interactions with other people. These interactions can take place on the stage, backstage, or in private settings. He also believes that we use various signs and symbols while performing these acts to make them effective. This theory is also termed dramaturgical analysis.

Thus, these two theories, symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical analysis, help us better understand human beings.

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Conventionality in Erving Goffman Theory

Goffman also discusses the importance of conventionality in his dramaturgical analysis. He believes that human beings are conventional creatures who need to follow certain norms to survive in society.

Conventionality is one of the most important components of human life. It describes the relationship between human beings and society. According to this theory, humans go through a lot of pain to be accepted in society. They have to follow norms such as respecting their elders and other rules that the government sets.

In simpler words, conventionality is a way to portray and show our respect for society. Those who fail to follow these rules are considered deviants or out of society. Goffman states that it is important to be a good person to survive.

This theory includes the various aspects of social interaction as well as human behavior. It states that people tend to portray themselves in a manner that makes them seem good and respectable in the eyes of society.

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Erving’s Dramaturgy Theory Examples

The performance of self at a job interview.

A person who has multiple interviews may begin to feel nervous that they are on trial with every interviewer. This would cause the person to put more effort into presenting their best self in front of each interview. Through this behavior, the person will create a “good image” for themselves in front of each potential employer.

Social behavior in the classroom.

In a sociology class, there is always some social activity going on. Some students are trying to get good grades, while others want to discuss their opinions about the class with the professor. The students’ behavior in this situation is also a form of performance.

The professor will probably begin the class by explaining what he wants to be done in class. He will help students know what their performance will be like by explaining the game’s rules he has chosen.

National identity at the Olympics.

The way an athlete decides to represent their country at the Olympic Games is another example of the performance of self. This representation may be a way of gaining approval from others for the identity they have chosen to perform.

After the Olympics, as people continue to talk about the Olympic Games, each athlete will remember the games differently. When they think back on their performance during the Olympics, they will create multiple images for themselves.

Cultural factors such as the media influence how people remember their performance at the Olympic Games. Everyone has the power to create their performance of self.

Goffman’s Insights on Privacy and Self-consciousness

Goffman thinks that human beings tend to portray themselves in front of others. He argues this point by stating that people try to find out what is acceptable in society.

People are conscious about themselves and want to improve. To improve their self-consciousness, they try to perform various tasks to make them feel confident.

Erving on Social Ordering of Self and the Dramaturgical Approach

According to Ervin, dramaturgical analysis helps us to understand human behavior better. He uses various concepts and theories to reach his claims. Goffman indicates that every human being has a hidden self, not visible to everyone in society. However, they state it in a way that is acceptable in the eyes of others.

For example, if a person is going through difficulties at work, they would try to discuss it with someone more discreetly. Human beings tend to build relationships with other people.

Goffman mentions that these social relationships are developed in a particular manner. For example, if a person is going through difficulties at home, they would discuss this issue with their spouse or close friends. If the same person goes to work, they will try to portray themselves as being perfectly fine.

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Impression Management

Impression-management

Impression management is a concept that Goffman developed. Impression management means creating an impression of something in society. People try to portray their selves in a manner that is acceptable according to their social status.

Erving uniquely explained impression management. He used dramaturgy theory to explain impression management. Goffman mentioned various concepts, such as off stage, front and backstage, to explain impression management.

Goffman on the Dramaturgical Approach to Understanding Other People

Goffman believes that human beings don’t reveal their true selves in front of other people. They try to understand themselves better through various concepts, such as dramaturgy theory and impression management.

The dramaturgical theory explains that every human being has two lives, which are connected. The front stage of life is where people try to express themselves. Backstage life is where people go through pain by portraying a particular image to match their social status.

The Self-presentation Motives

Theory by James M. Jones and Donelson R. Forsyth expanded on dramaturgical theory by introducing seven dimensions for understanding interpersonal behavior.

These seven dimensions are:

  1. Positive self-presentation shows how every individual attempts to show themselves as more socially desirable than they are.
  2. Negative self-presentation is concerned with how everyone strives to hide their undesirable characteristics from others in social interaction.
  3. Affiliation motives show the struggle to develop and maintain relationships with others in social interaction.
  4. Ingroup-outgroup motives focus on how people create in-groups based on the appreciation of similarities and differences between individuals.
  5. Interpersonal control motives are about individual attempts to achieve influence over others in social interaction.
  6. Relational control motives demonstrate people’s efforts to protect their self-image by controlling others’ impressions of the relationship.
  7. Self-protection expresses how an individual attempts to protect their self-image by controlling others’ impressions of them.

How to Reduce Self-presentation Anxiety

  • Taking part in social activities and getting rid of the anxieties about being watched brings relaxation to a person. The dramaturgy theory explains that factors such as time, responsibility, and visibility influence a person’s behaviour.
  • Not offering any observation or comment on others while observing them is a nice gesture that makes a person pleasant in the eyes of others.
  • Good communication skills are essential if one has to develop credibility, and this can be achieved with the help of dramaturgy theory.
  • Erving’s theory makes it possible for a person to build self-confidence and express their true self.
  • In our daily lives, we are always observing people, and therefore it is important to know that Erving Goffman dramaturgy theory is a way to understand the behavior of others.
  • Lastly, by practising good etiquette, we can turn into good actors and extend our social circle.

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Limitations of the Goffman Dramaturgical Theory

  • The theory is based on the idea that everyone’s role in social interaction is almost always “theatrical.” Even when people appear to be completely natural and flow unforcedly through, the interaction is still performing.

This can lead Goffman and others to conclude a double standard: men are always performing, and women are judged. While the theory does not invalidate this, it can be seen as an over-simplification.

  • Secondly, dramaturgical theory in sociology can be said to neglect that people are not always performing for others. The point is that people are not always aware they are being watched and do not realize that they are playing a part.
  • The theory is also limited to the idea that human beings are most often acting instead of being and thinking individually. It seems as though socially constructed beliefs limit their idea of what a person is to do or look for some people.

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Summary

According to Goffman, human beings live two lives, which are connected. The front stage of life is where people try to portray themselves acceptably. Backstage life is where people feel ashamed of their behavior in front of other people.

Our everyday life is mainly based on dramaturgical analysis. This theory helps us to understand people’s behavior in a better way. Goffman uses various concepts to reach his point. He mentioned dramaturgy theory, impression management, and social ordering of self to explain human behaviour better.

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